London’s race riots: Unemployment and disrespect to blame; could it happen here in the U.S.?

by Cheryl Contee

I just watched Good Morning America, where the anchors denied that there were any social or economic justice concerns driving the London rioters. They were all just criminals and copycats apparently. Shame on you, Robin and Christiane; you’re both a lot smarter than that.

The riots began after a peaceful protest of the police shooting of a young Black man named Mark Duggan. Hmmm, sound familiar? Oscar Grant? Police brutality much? No? Really?

Given the absurdity of this appallingly anemic coverage, which simply doesn’t explain the ferocity, scope and persistence of the riots, I turned to the U.K. press to see what they thought about what’s happening in their country. We can do that now – it’s called the internet.

I mean, the jails are full in London, parliament is being called back into session and 16,000 cops – a veritable army – were sent onto the streets on Aug. 9. That’s a lot of po-po. They said that calling in the army would be a last resort, but clearly it was under consideration. Police were empowered to shoot non-lethal bullets, called baton rounds, at protestors. Shops and train stations were closed as fires were rampant. London is in a crisis fueled by the nexus of youth, rage and social media.

In London, they actually seem pretty convinced that community anguish over racism and the recession are a big part of what’s happening there. A lack of faith in institutions that have failed to serve the people also seems like a theme. From the BBC:

“Mayor of London Boris Johnson, who also cut short a holiday to return, was heckled by the members of the public while viewing damage in Clapham Junction on Tuesday.

“Some people have complained there have been too few police to deal with the violence.

“Mr Johnson told those gathered that those responsible for the violence ‘face punishment they will bitterly, bitterly regret.’

“However, when challenged to do more for communities, Mr. Johnson rejected ‘economic or social justifications’ for the violence.”

16,000 cops – a veritable army – were sent onto the streets on Aug. 9. That’s a lot of po-po.

Mmm hmm. From the Guardian, who spoke to young men who have seen the protests:

“With the highest rate of unemployment in London and a population feeling the squeeze from the downturn and cuts, some locals appealed for understanding. Duggan’s death, they said, had unleashed a tidal wave of anger.

“‘This has been building up for a long time,’ said Leon, who refused to give his surname and said he “saw” a lot of what happened on Saturday night.

“Yes, he said, there had been a large element of opportunism behind the looting, ‘This is an area with no opportunity for employment so do you expect people not to see an opportunity?’ But, more than anything, it was about the police and politics.

“Young Black people felt they were treated differently by the police, being stopped and searched on a ‘constant’ basis. And, he added, he couldn’t find a job, ‘Even if you do, it’s on the minimum wage.’

“A friend of his, who gave his name as Rozay – the name emblazoned into the side of his neck – agreed. He was from Tottenham, he said, and had been part of a gang but had left to start a new life for himself and his family.

“He was not surprised by what had happened. ‘Tottenham is poverty. I’m surprised we ever got a football stadium,’ he said. ‘The streets of London are not happy. We don’t agree with burning buildings but the police do treat young Black people with shocking disrespect … labeling us like we’re nothing.’”

Young Black people feel they aretreated differently by the police, being stopped and searched on a constant basis.

In the U.K., unemployment has hit Black communities much harder than white ones. That should sound familiar to you. Again, from the BBC:

“Almost half of Black people aged between 16 and 24 are unemployed, compared with 20 percent of white people of the same age.”

The streets of London are not happy. We don’t agree with burning buildings but the police do treat young Black people with shocking disrespect … labeling us like we’re nothing.

Here in the U.S., the statistics are also bleak. From TheGrio:

“We know the statistics by now: 14 million Americans are currently out of work, 6 million of those have been out of work for longer than six months and 4.4 million for longer than a year.

“Black unemployment is nearly twice the national average at 15.9 percent, and for Black men, 17 percent [statistics from July 2011].”

The Black Institute found that just a couple of months ago in New York City, 25 percent of Black men aged 16-24 are unemployed. Here’s the question we should be asking: Could this happen in the United States? Around the time of the Egyptian uprising which toppled a dictator, the Economist had this to say in February:

“Egypt’s youth-unemployment rate is currently about 25 percent. That is clearly a depressing number, but even more depressing is that it is not out of line with rates across the region and beyond. Lebanon’s youth unemployment rate is 21 percent, Tunisia’s is 30 percent and, outside the Arab world, Britain’s is 20 percent and Spain’s is 40 percent.

Could this happen in the United States?

“Policymakers would be well advised to think about how we’re going to promote job-intensive growth, even as they try to calculate the gigantic geopolitical consequences of the Egyptian earthquake.”

Personally, I’m convinced the U.S. is sitting on a powder keg of violence. We have desperate young people without hope who have seen their parents’ homes foreclosed fraudulently, watched libraries close and teachers become laid off, seen tuition rates spike and watched a corrosive political process in their states and in D.C. implode on itself without alleviating the recession’s toll on communities.

The U.S. is sitting on a powder keg of violence.

The suffering of ordinary Americans is taxing their patience and forbearance. Like the Economist, I’d urge both the Obama administration and members of Congress, especially the hardline Tea Partiers, to pay close attention to the mood on Main Street. It’s getting tight and the recipe for violent reaction that Egypt and Britain have seen is not far from being cooked up here in the States.

Cheryl Contee writes as Jill Tubman for the award-winning Black political blog, which she co-founded in 2006. She is also the co-founder of Fission Strategy, which provides innovative social media and mobile services to nonprofits and foundations. Cheryl specializes in online advocacy, engagement and communications. She can be reached at This story first appeared on Jack and Jill Politics.