The London Riots are Neither Political Protest Nor “Mere” Hooliganism

8/09/2011 @ 06:09PM 
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Over at the National Review, Stanley Kurtz (mis)frames the London Riot political question as “whether such events should be seen primarily as political protests by the powerless, or as out-and-out lawbreaking and vandalism.” ThinkProgress then (mis)frames Kurtz’ article as an accusation that Obama secretly supports the mob.

We’re never going to get the country on the same economic recovery page, friends, if we keep on misconstruing one another’s intentions as Satanic.

Negotiators, journalists, and, politicians well understand the power of framing. As an early draft of my Dummies Guide to Success as a Mediator (due out February ’12) explains,

A frame focuses the viewer’s attention on what’s inside the frame and excludes anything outside of it. If a photographer snaps a shot of all the medium height students in a fifth grade class, you’re unlikely to think about how tall or short they are. If he includes the shortest or the tallest, your attention focuses on height. If he includes one girl, you focus on gender.

The Question Raised by the London Riots is Not Whether It’s a Political Protest or Mere Hooliganism

Framing a question in an either/or fashion is a way of controlling the debate. The question does not permit the answer “neither” or “all of the above.” It does not allow for ambiguity and discourages discussion of anything outside the frame.

The London Riots are not a political protest. A political protest requires something to protest about. It requires forethought and planning. It requires a point of view. A mob does not have a point of view. Mob violence is an outbreak of lawlessness.  Government officials who attempt to place it in a social and cultural context are doing their job. In our present political climate, however, doing that job gets you vilified. Going back to see what Obama said about the ’92 Los Angeles riots, Kurtz finds this quote:

The Los Angeles riots reflect a deep distrust and disaffection with the existing power pattern in our society.

Fair enough. The Los Angeles rioters were not making a political statement other than the mobs’ angry scream. There was, however, something to be angry about –  the acquittal of white police officers who were videotaped whilenight-sticking an African American motorist, Rodney King, right.

But people get angry every day over injustices large and small. They do not normally burn down their own neighborhoods or loot their local stores as a result. Most urban riots reflect “disaffection with the existing power pattern” and the particular riots in Los Angeles also happened to reflect a justifiably “deep distrust” of  L.A.’s then-corrupt and violent police force.

Obama’s pretty neutral academic sizing up of the Rodney King riots becomes, from the perspective of Kurtz at the National Review Alinsky-speak for “We’ve got to use the power of the angry underclass to put capitalism in check.” ThinkProgress then construes Alinksy-speak as code for Kurtz’ supposed opinion that  Obama privately “supports” the violence in London today.

If It’s Not Protest and Not “Mere” Holliganism, What Is It?

When violent riots break out in a society known for the quiet queue and adherence to still quite fixed economic and social class boundaries, something has gone awry. As a student of conflict resolution, I know that active disputes – from angry shouting to keying your neighbor’s car to throwing bricks through store windows – arise primarily in two contexts – one having to do with identity and the other having to do with “relative deprivation.”

Because London’s present troubles do not appear to be identity (race or nationality or religious) based, they are more likely to have their origin in power and income inequity. We can think about eruptions of mob violence in the same way seismologists think about earthquakes. The world’s tectonic plates are constantly pushing up against one another. We do not experience continual earthquakes because they occur only when the pressure of one plate against another has accumulated enough frustrated momentum that something has to give and give it does, wreaking havoc on far larger scales than our human eruptions do.

People (civilized primates) are also constantly pushing up against one another, vying for physical space, for scarce resources and for the power to conduct their own affairs in their own fashion without undue interference from others. We live all of the time in competition for resources and space and power.

The Eruption of Perceived Inequities into Active Violence

Grievances are born and suppressed. Those grievances often become bitter resentments.  Your boss wrongly fired you or your unemployment benefits ran out. Unless you’re seriously sociopathic, you’re not likely to retaliate with violence. You do, however, owe less allegiance to the “system” than you did yesterday. If you feel the “system” is rigged against you, you begin to push back against it. And then it pushes back against you, further marginalizing and alienating the people increasingly on the edges of the law-abiding society.  The more marginalized you become, the more resentful you feel and and the less likely you are to obey the “rules” which appear to persistently benefit others and to exclude you.

A mob, unlike an earthquake, will generally not make the earth move under its feet absent an event that represents and expresses a common community injury. In the case of the L.A. riots, that event was the acquittal of white police officers by a white jury even though the officers were captured on videotape beating up an African American man well after he was “down” and “under control.” In London, it was the shooting and death of a Tottenham man who may have been armed but who had not himself opened fire on the police. The riot itself “grew out of a peaceful vigil . .  . for the death of Mark Duggan that quickly spiraled out of control.”

The riots that erupt after the pressure has grown too large for testosterone- and alcohol-fueled young men in the doldrums of summer  are not intentional protests against life’s inequities any more than the violence that follows British “football” games. They are, however, a sign of illness, of something out of whack in the society that gives rise to so many people expressing so much anger so self-destructively at the same time.

Just as a physician does not ask the disease what reforms it seeks from the body it is attacking or what bodily sectors it wants to overtake, the government and law-abiding citizens do not ask the mob just what it thinks its doing. The mob is the symptom. And the physician attends to the entire body to find the cause of the symptom. It is the physician’s job to  effectively bring the entire organism back into harmonious relationship. Get it on its feet and working again.

If we make talking points of the London Riots instead of listening to the disease threatening the life of our patient, we will continue on our present course until the value of even our Google and Microsoft shares burn into cinders on the ground.

Jezebel has an excellent piece on the same topic today here. A taste of what British writer Laurie Penny is thinking about there below. Well worth clicking on the link and reading the entire post.

The people running Britain had absolutely no clue how desperate things had become. They thought that after thirty years of soaring inequality, in the middle of a recession, they could take away the last little things that gave people hope, the benefits, the jobs, the possibility of higher education, the support structures, and nothing would happen. They were wrong. And now my city is burning, and it will continue to burn until we stop the blanket condemnations and blind conjecture and try to understand just what has brought viral civil unrest to Britain. Let me give you a hint: it ain’t Twitter.

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