The British Riots and Historical Amnesia

by Rich Rubenstein on August 13, 2011 · 6 comments

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Here is British Prime Minister David Cameron describing the recent series of riots in London and other cities: “sheer criminality, pure and simple.” The riots, says the Conservative PM, have nothing to do with poverty, inequality, or social exclusion. Their cause is a culture of permissiveness, of “rights, not responsibilities.” Such wanton lawlessness deserves one and only one response: severe punishment.  Anyone who suggests that the misbehavior has other causes is a lily-livered apologist for crime.

Now flash back to 1965, when the Watts ghetto of Los Angeles went up in flames and rioters there battled police for five days and nights.  President Lyndon Johnson described the riots as “the acts of a few mean and willful men.”  Other American leaders agreed that disorders over the next four years in New York, Newark, Detroit, Chicago, Washington D.C., and other cities represented “sheer criminality, pure and simple,” for which the only feasible remedy was punishment.

This is how politicians in power and shocked citizens normally describe unexpected civil disorders — as reflections of the rioters’ barbaric indiscipline, greed, and lust for destruction.  But in 1967, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders (Kerner Commission) reported that the primary causes of the American riots were institutionalized racism and social inequality.  One year later, the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence (Eisenhower Commission) produced a multi-volume study describing the structural causes of violence in America in detail, and concluding that major social reforms were needed.

All of this is pretty much forgotten in the wake of the British riots.  Under the pressure of untoward, politically embarrassing events, historical amnesia replaces memory in the same way that denunciations and furious calls for official violence replace thoughtful social analysis.

Cameron’s basic move is the “either/or” fallacy: either we must hold rioters responsible for their actions (yay!) or explain their behavior as the result of social conditions (boo!).  But this is a fallacy, as well as an oversimplification of the most primitive kind. We know very well that human behavior is the result of both moral choices AND social conditions.  People are responsible agents, and wanton violence, especially against innocent civilians, clearly deserves condemnation.  But, equally clearly, those excluded, brutalized, and excluded by a failing social system are also victims whose acts represent a form of protest and revenge.

The British riots, of course, are not identical the race-based uprisings of the sixties.  They are more akin to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which expressed outrage over poverty and inequality as well as racial and ethnic discrimination.  Another relevant comparison is with the French youth who set fifteen cities ablaze in 2005 in response to police brutality, unemployment, neglect, and discrimination.

The tendency of powerful politicians to treat each outbreak of civil disorder as entirely new and unique reflects a profound unwillingness to recognize that the SYSTEM they represent is in crisis and needs radical change if genuine peace is to be restored.  As the Riot Commissions recognized, punishment alone will not end these explosions.  Nothing will do but to satisfy people’s legitimate needs for social inclusion, decent jobs, and human dignity.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Sarah Rose-Jensen August 13, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Rich, thank you for this piece. I was discussing this last night with friends, one of whom brought up an article she had read that asserted that people riot just because it’s fun. It rang false to me, and I wish I had read your take on it before I rebutted with an oh so intelligent version of “Nuh-uh!”


Dean Pruitt August 14, 2011 at 1:47 am

Hi Rich–I’m on vacation at Lewes Delaware. I believe your comments are right with regard to how the riots got started. I’ve studied a lot of riots like these that start with disaffected people for whom the precipitating incident (often police brutality or a new rule that further hurts their interests) is the straw that breaks the camel’s back, so to speak. However, I believe there is also a later phenomenon in many of these riots where other people steal things because they can get away with it. The rioters are so numerous and the police so preoccupied that the looters think they won’t be detected.

So Cameron is partly right but his analysis will not prevent the next riot because he doesn’t understand the root of the problem.



Rich Rubenstein August 14, 2011 at 8:13 pm

Thanks, Dean. I agree — but I’m not sure that opportunistic thefts during riots are a “later phenomenon.”
This was common enough in the earlier disorders that Morris Janowitz at the U. of Chicago wrote a (terrible)
paper terming them “commodity riots.” Maybe there’s more of this sort of behavior when the riot is class-
based to begin with. But let’s remember that Jerry Rubin entitled his Yippie manifesto of the sixties, “Steal
This Book”!


Rich Rubenstein September 15, 2011 at 5:30 pm

Dean, I agree that people sometimes steal things in riots because they can get away with it
(and sometimes because they need what they steal). But I don’t believe that this is a new
phenomenon — it’s been part of riot behavior for a long time. Morris Janowitz at the U. of
Chicago famously (or infamously) called the racial uprisings of the 60’s “commodity riots”
on the theory that they mainly about stealing things rather than protesting against racial
oppression. Lots of things happen in civil disorders! Thanks for commenting — I saw
this only recently or would have written back sooner.


padma Venkataraman August 16, 2011 at 11:50 am

Dear Richard
Lovely to hear a voice that can trace the historical amnesia and the repetition of unrest.
Padma V


Peter March 3, 2012 at 1:55 pm

Steal this book was by Abbie Hoffman.


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