Riots: Violent unrest has swept Europe and the Middle East. Is America next?

Murder, theft, and other wickedness.
Sept. 22 2011 6:13 PM

Could Riots Happen Here?

Violent unrest has swept Europe and the Middle East. Is America next?

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Well-behaved crowds don't indicate an absence of threat on the horizon. In fact, let me go out on a limb by pointing out a few places to watch:

1. Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas. From Mobile, to Charlotte and Sumter, to Atlanta and Dalton, a flailing economy is hitting communities hard, with steady double-digit joblessness. This region doesn't receive a lot of media attention, but it merits a second look. More households are leaving the Northeast and the Rust Belt for the American urban south. Young people in particular are leading the exodus, and they are not finding what they came for. In addition, these states cannot keep warehousing their disenfranchised in jails and prisons forever. Budgetary constraints alone will force the region to find alternative and cheaper solutions. A report by the Institute for Economics and Peace cited this region as not only the "least peaceful," but the place to watch as violence and unrest outpaces government response.

2. Chicago. Even when the crime rates fall overall, Chicago manages to keep up its reputation as a hotbed for organized youth violence. Across the city's poorest, ethnic-minority tracts, youth homicides, gang wars, and gun-related violence have risen to levels that have not been seen since the late 1980s. There is particular cause for alarm because the areas experiencing high violence have low levels of social services, government support, and philanthropic attention. In these "edge" communities, on the far South and West sides of the city, locals have little experience combating entrenched poverty and warring gangs. And just across the city border, suburban poverty tracts are equally plagued. If ever there was an urban cauldron waiting to ignite, Chicago is it.

The bright spot is newly elected Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has shown a willingness to tackle a problem that has been largely ignored by his predecessor, Richard M. Daley. His administration will have to bring citizens, activists who distrust the police, and police who rarely work with the activists all together. The harsh realities of the city's budget alone will necessitate cooperation. A report by the Chicago Crime Lab estimates that the social costs of the city's gun violence to be $2.5 billion per year, or $2,500 per Chicago household.

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3. Oakland. The Bay Area has a love for protests. In this year alone, demonstrations have been held against public transport policies, restrictive immigration laws, radio station closure, educational cuts, and foreign wars. As the proud birthplace of the Black Panther Party, Oakland appears to specialize in the youth unrest variant. The shooting of an unarmed man, Oscar Grant, by an Oakland police officer prompted immediate rioting in 2009, and then looters hit the streets again after the two-year minimum sentence was imposed in 2010. The city always seems on high alert, which is not surprising given that the overall unemployment is 16.3 percent, and 25 percent of black youth under 24 years of age are unemployed. (This figure would be even higher if it included those who have given up looking for work altogether.) Alameda County has the second highest rate of youth violence in the state, most of it concentrated within Oakland.

The rash of killings has brought out local organizations, like the Center for Third World Organizing and the Ella Baker Center, who are hitting the streets to calm tensions, but everyone worries about youth with free time on their hands.

4. Immigrant California. We tend not to link together immigrant disenfranchisement, foreclosures, and organized youth violence. But we should. Across the state of California, immigrant communities are facing severe hardships that stem from the recessionary economic conditions. Government services are harder to come by, the job market is depressed, there are vast pockets of blighted neighborhoods, and youth are joining gangs that have deep ties to Mexico, El Salvador, and Guatemala. A populist, anti-immigrant sentiment seems to support measures to restrict immigrant rights, which is only turning up the heat inside the ethnic enclaves.

Different forms of organized, collective action have surfaced. Beginning in 2006, public demonstrations by pro-immigrant groups became commonplace. But youth can always move in other directions; it's not a great leap to assess the rise in gang membership and youth violence as a partial response to these conditions. Cities like San Jose, Bakersfield, and Fresno, where immigrant gangs are prevalent, have neither the manpower or expertise to handle youth unrest, and so they are calling in the feds.

Rioting is a highly specific and relatively rare form of collective unrest. It would be hard to convince most Americans that the country is anywhere near mass mayhem. And I share this view. But I also would have laughed a few weeks ago if you said that the Brits were about to unleash a prolonged period of looting, arson, and racial conflict.

Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.