I heard someone comment on a talk radio show that the recent rioting and looting in London could happen here in the states if the economy gets bad enough. It occurred to me right away that not only could it happen here, it already has.
As a journalism student for the campus newspaper of Los Angeles City College, I found myself smack in the middle of the Los Angeles insurrection in 1992. So I followed the news coming out of London with particular interest and didn’t miss the obvious parallels between then and now.
First there’s the word ‘riot’ in this context.
I reject that word because it implies that it’s all about mindless thugs and vandals running amok, instead of about long-simmering social, economic, racial and political tensions finally coming to a boil and spilling out onto the streets.
I think the term ‘insurrection’ is a much better description of both events.
Just like in 1992, this uprising in London is about a much deeper frustration and anger coming from those who didn’t reap the benefits when the economy was better; yet now that the economy has turned sour they’re being asked to sacrifice for the mistakes and greed of the wealthy and powerful.
Looking further into these insurrections only increases the sense of déjà vu and the impression of history repeating itself.
The catalyst for both involved a man with a criminal record and dark skin either getting killed or beat near to death by police. Obviously both incidents were sparked by long-standing racial tensions between police and certain non-white communities.
And of course, they were about much more than these catalysts.
The foundations for both were about the disparity between the rich and the poor, plus racial issues.
They both happened during hard economic times: The US and particularly California were in a recession during the early 1990s and today there’s a global recession.
LA County’s 1990 Census data shows an average of 28.6 percent of all males 16 years old and over were unemployed, according to a University of Southern California study. In five of the areas hardest hit by that insurrection, over 40 percent of working-age males were without a job. In the 12 months before the uprising the county had lost over 100,000 jobs.
The website fullfact.org gives today’s overall unemployment rate for London as 8.8 percent. In Tottenham, the area of London where most of the current troubles started, the unemployment rate is around 10.9 percent.
Housing and welfare benefits for London’s poor also took significant cuts last year.
Another similarity is the example of a leadership (public and private) that, prior to the uprisings, appeared to be only looking out for their own interests, apparently not concerned with the consequences of their market manipulations for the middle, working or impoverished classes.
In the 1980s the excesses of Wall St. not only inspired a movie, they provided an example of a society celebrating greed and self-interest above the social contract between classes and more noble pursuits.
Deregulation of the Savings & Loan industry led to white-collar scammers feasting on the spoils of bogus construction projects and bad investments.
In 2008, the deregulation of the mortgage industry resulted in a plague of bad loans and toxic assets, eventually pushing the financial institutions most involved to the brink of financial ruin.
Once again, all in the name of greed and blatant self-interest.
As the leaders lead, so follow the people.
This time, just like in 1992, opportunists on the streets took advantage of the situation to vandalize, loot and burn.
Particularly ironic is that both then and now the authorities seem to have reacted slowly and through negligence, allowed the insurrection and looting to spread.
London’s mayor, Boris Johnson and Prime Minister David Cameron were both on vacation when Tottenham exploded and the police have come under heavy criticism for their slow response.
In 1992, LAPD Chief Daryl F. Gates was attending a fund raising event as the burning and looting started. He stayed for an hour and a half. When guests asked about the beatings and violence that they’d just seen on television, he calmly explained that there are going to be situations where people are going to go without assistance, so that’s just the facts of life.
There’s yet another historical parallel: For both insurrections there had been a previous uprising of a similar nature and for pretty much the same reasons about three decades prior.
LA had Watts in 1965 and London had rioting, burning and looting in 1981. The root causes of the Watts uprising were pretty much the same as the LA insurrection of 1992.
Ditto for London in 1981 compared to today.
So perhaps the lessons of the previous insurrections had not been learned or taken to heart by the time round two came around, in either Los Angeles or London.
When a sports team loses a championship and their fans tear up the downtown area or movie theatres show a film that inspires people to vandalize, loot and make trouble, these can be fairly described as riots.
What’s been happening in London, just like in Los Angeles, is about much more than thugs, looters, vandals and hooligans.
So please, think what you like about the finer points and deeper implications, just don’t call them riots.