Mass rioting has been on the increase in recent years, Athens, Paris, China, Cairo and London have all played host to scenes of mass violence, civil unrest and insurgency to name but a few. The global economic depression, feelings of alienation from the poverty stricken and disenfranchised, unemployment and distrust of police and governments are factors that has spurred this dramatic spike.
Being a Londoner, I only have to think back to last summer, where the rioting that broke out across the capital left me shocked, afraid and confused. I am too young to fully remember the Broadwater Farm riots in the early 80s, so the 2011 riots were the first time I had been witness to anything like this level of mass violence and civil unrest. I remember looking out of the window of the pub I used to work in, and counting the police vans driving past, sirens blazing, the sense of foreboding rising in my heart with each one that I counted. Never had I been so afraid for the beautiful city I was born and raised in.
But unlike the rest of the world, rioting in North America has decreased in recent years, and the reasons why are explored by University of Pennsylvania historian Michael Katz in his recent book, ‘Why Don’t American Cities Burn’. If anything, the reasons causing people in other major cities across the globe are as widespread in America as they are anywhere else!
As I scan back through my memories of major riots in America and the last one that comes to mind was the Los Angeles riots which started after a black motorist Rodney King was pulled from his vehicle and brutally beaten by police in 1991. The assault was caught on video by someone who lived in a nearby apartment and the footage went around the world and back again. I’m sure there have been other riots in America since then, but that is probably the most infamous one of the last few decades.
In ‘Why Don’t American Cities Burn’ Katz discusses the reasons why collective violence has pretty much vanished from America’s streets, and though you might think a decrease in rioting can only be a good thing, some of the theories and trends he discusses suggest otherwise.
Some of the reasons he cites are the increased surveillance and control tactics employed by the authorities, and a general de-politicization of American life in general. He also suggests that many of the people who may have been moved to riot are now joining the ‘consumer republic’. In that, they are able to buy symbols of the life they aspire to have, and have settled for this, rather than fighting to change their actual situations like they would have before.
There is good news however; formerly sidelined groups now have more of a voice in the political process and there are more people from minority groups with university educations ending up with high-end, better paid jobs.
In a review of ‘Why Don’t American Cities Burn’, Peter Hendee Brown from the University of Minnesota said:
“Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, ‘Why Don’t American Cities Burn?’ is a terrific read that is difficult to put down. Katz considers changes over the past half-century through the lenses of urban geography and population demographics, institutional structures, the public’s ossified view of the deserving and undeserving urban poor, and how the zeal for market-based solutions has led towards new poverty technologies that recast the poor as entrepreneurial actors. Most important, Katz introduces his book with a story that humanizes the field of social sciences that—paradoxically—appears at times to have forgotten the people in the sea of quantitative analyses.”