Sunday, August 14, 2011

Just a matter of time


An easy prediction following urban riots: authorities will blame anarchists and ne'er-do-wells for criminal behavior. Normal citizens, so goes the myth, would never do such a thing. (Sometimes they may be right. The Battle of Seattle in 2000 comes to mind.)

In truth, riots emerge from many causes, like middle-class blowouts following sporting championships. Vancouver's recent hockey riot comes to mind. One Vancouverite deludes herself, "this isn't the real Vancouver!"

Of course it is! Two championship losses, two Vancouver riots! Says one normal person caught rioting in Vancouver, "the riot would continue happening with or without me, so I might as well get my adrenaline fix." That's no criminal or anarchist talking.

In criminology I was once told it is too simple to blame poverty as a cause of crime because the eradication of poverty would eradicate crime. I have since learned ignoring poverty and deprivation is misguided for both crime and riots. Recent riots didn't break out in Beverly Hills, Greenwich, or Hampstead. They broke out in the poorest, most deprived, neighborhoods with the highest crime: Tottenham (UK), Villiers-le-Bel (France), Cairo, and Tripoli.

True, some criminals may seize on urban mayhem to loot and pillage. We must not let their opportunism distract us. Also, some short-term tactics might work, like tampering with rioters cell-phone planning. We must not let tactics for secondary factors distract us.


Neighborhood capacity-building in communities must be the goal of economic policy. Political power that concentrates at the top and ignores local capacity-building cannot last. That is one message of recent riots.

Here's another: Festering poverty and neighborhood deprivation dries up community branches of goodwill, what Hobbes and Rousseau called the social contract. Silencing people through unfair economic conditions or political repression splays those branches into a tinderbox. A recent NY Times article describes that tinderbox - people in "an uprising fighting for an accessible future."

Igniting that tinderbox is not a matter of youth acting like a jackass on speed. It is not a matter of crime. It is a matter of time. We should not be surprised.

5 comments:

  1. One would think that after one of these ‘unexpected’ events the police might actually get serious about linking ourselves to neighborhoods in a meaningful way through neighborhood police stations. Police is only one piece of the puzzle obviously but I’ll venture to bet London would look a tad better today if we realized that community capacity-building could be energized by real and sustained progressive police presence. Of all places London would provide a fascinating and historically appropriate venue to test the premise.

    Jim B

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  2. Great point, Jim. I couldn't agree more.

    Many police often tell me they now regularly do community policing and problem solving and don't call it by that name, but evidence suggests otherwise. In fact, most have retreated from the COPS movement in recent years toward the "combat cop" approach.

    We are now seeing the consequences of that.

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  3. I agree completely. What is troubling particularly in the western part of the world is the rate at which the middle class is shrinking. This sets up for a society that is divided by those that have and those that have not. Those that have little to lose are much more likely to partake in activities that undermine core values that the society is built on.

    It is interesting that most of these antisocial activities take place in larger urban areas. It may be a good idea to spend one’s retirement years in a smaller community well removed from the influence of the larger urban areas – perhaps.

    Greg Mills

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  4. As usual, very insightful Greg. Economic polarization is leaving the middle class behind. It's no coincidence these riots coincide with a time when economic injustice is worse than ever - corporate bailouts, executive salary buyouts, Wall St corruption!

    Small cities are looking more and more attractive every day, like Victoria BC and Madison WI. Hang on, didn't Victoria and Madison recently have civil disturbances? Damn. There's always the lake cottage :-)

    Thanks for the comment.

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  5. I think many agencies claimed to do "community policing" when the federal grant money was directed there. In truth I doubt that fewer than 1000 agencies truly tried to conduct a department wide philosophy of community policing.

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