By Robert C. Koehler
As crashing economies and austerity measures slap ever more ferociously at the lives of the vulnerable and disenfranchised, the Western world, with all its hidden poverty and institutional racism, may continue to convulse.
The riots that broke out in London over the weekend and spread throughout Great Britain, triggered by the controversial police killing of a 29-year-old man, have sent shockwaves in all directions. Who knew things were so unstable, that Britain’s struggling neighborhoods were just one incident away from such destructive lunacy?
“On Twitter late last night, following the main bulk of the riots, I was astonished at the incomprehension generally expressed as to why they had occurred. There seemed to be an extraordinary lack of awareness that working class youth in Britain are being punished for the financial excesses of the banking collapse,” freelance British journalist Pennie Quinton wrote on Al-Jazeera.
“The public spending cuts this year meant many of the youth summer schemes in London did not run. These riots suggest boredom — and inarticulate rage. The youth are smashing and grabbing the things society tells them to want.”
Good God, the wealth gap is widening everywhere, and this is its cost: occasional public spasms of inhumanity and nihilism, perpetrated by those who have nothing much left to lose. But who cares about root causes? The riots are so compellingly photogenic, and the need for a return to order at all costs is suddenly so desperate.
“In central London,” the New York Times reported, “owners of electrical goods stores along busy Tottenham Court Road shuttered their premises as convoys of riot police vans with sirens wailing crisscrossed the city, a show of force that seemed designed to cow potential looters and reassure their potential targets.”
Prime Minister David Cameron, announcing the addition of 10,000 police to the streets, declared: “People should be in no doubt that we will do everything necessary to restore order to Britain’s streets and to make them safe for the law-abiding.”
This is the world I fear most: a world in which “us vs. them” is de rigueur, co-opting common sense, creating a schism in public discourse. Good guys and bad guys. It is, of course, the world we live in already, but its pervasiveness could spread. And there are so many who would prefer that, and know how to profit from it.
The British riots are a harbinger of what could happen in the U.S., where, of course, the same governmental “austerity” measures — the same cuts in services to the poor and middle class, the same jettisoning of vast segments of the populace to a forgotten hopelessness — are shattering the social structure. And the phenomenon of “flash mobs,” in which hordes of young men, self-organizing through the social media, converge to commit random mayhem, have already sent jolts of panic through many urban centers.
And then there’s the fact that big, full-scale riots are, well, as American as apple pie, what with our long history of racism and all. This is a looming disaster of immense proportions. Among other things, hard-core Republicans will, in their equal and opposite lunacy, see rioting as an excuse to justify further austerity measures (as punishment) and, ultimately, plunge the nation into all-out domestic war.
This is a peace alert! Peace consciousness is our only hope and it must spread. I believe that there is an extraordinary underground of such consciousness in the United States and around the world — an awareness that “us vs. them” is a single, devalued coin, that one side may succeed at doing great harm to and temporarily suppressing the other but will never “win” in the sense of freeing itself finally and forever of its enemy.
Last week, writing about the aftermath of the mass murders in Norway, and quoting columnist Colman McCarthy, I asked, “Why are we violent, but not illiterate?” There’s a more concrete way to put the same question: Why was the Egyptian uprising at the beginning of the year a peaceful one while London’s riot has caused the worst damage to the city since the Nazi blitz? Both were responses to police brutality, and occurred in a context of expanding social inequality, but the differences couldn’t have been starker.
“When media analysts talk about an uprising like the one in Egypt as spontaneous,” Cynthia Boaz wrote last month in an excellent analysis on TruthOut, “they are revealing their lack of understanding of the dynamics of nonviolent action and, simultaneously, are taking credit away from activists, who in many cases, have worked hard for years — often at great personal risk and sacrifice — to make this kind of victory possible. Regimes like Mubarak’s don’t fall when people just spontaneously show up in the city square. They only fall when movements are capable of exerting sustained pressure on them over a length of time.”
The only way out of equal and opposite lunacy is to recognize that action and principle cannot be torn apart. “In Gandhian language, means and ends are inseparable,” Boaz wrote.
What would it take to institute nonviolence training and planning on a national scale? I believe the resources to do so exist, if everyone who believes in it understands the urgency of beginning such a process now.
Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist, contributor to One World, Many Peaces and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at commonwonders.com.
© 2011 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.