August 17, 2011

Riots and rage without race

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the “National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” (commonly known as the “Kerner Commission” because it was chaired by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner) to study the causes of the 1967 race riots in Detroit. The Motor City’s disturbances happened on the heels of the 1965 “Watts Riots” in Los Angeles, the 1966 “Division Street Riots” in Chicago, and the “Newark Riots” in 1967.

In February 1968, the Kerner Commission concluded that the riots largely resulted from black frustration at a lack of economic opportunity. The report berated federal and state governments for failed housing, education and social service policies that disadvantaged blacks. It also opined that the mainstream press “has too long basked in a white world looking out of it, if at all, with white men’s eyes and white perspective.” Hmm. The most famous (or infamous) conclusion of the committee was, “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal.”

Some dispute whether Johnson ignored the committee’s findings and recommendations or just didn’t have time to act on them. A little over a month after the report, Martin Luther King’s assassination touched off more rebellions. In November, Richard M. Nixon won the presidency on a “Law and Order” platform. His response to unrest and racial division? More police, more guns.

Conservative United Kingdom Prime Minister David Cameron seems to be taking the same approach in response to recent rioting in England after police killed 29-year-old Mark Duggan (who was black) during an apparent shootout in Tottenham. Some call Duggan a victim. Others tag him a gangster. Either way, the resulting Tottenham Riots had a definite racial element. Subsequent disobedience across London did not.

In the midst of widespread unrest, many of England’s politicians, pundits and citizens struggled to reject the notion that the country has a serious racial problem. From where I’m sitting, this probably isn’t all about race, but it can’t be absolutely dismissed either. Like most complex socio-political situations, this is more than likely a combination of issues of race, class and power. Like Nixon, Cameron doesn’t seem to care. He’s quickly reverting to type, as conservatives usually do in such situations.

After increasing the number of police on London’s streets from 6,000 to nearly 16,000 last week, Cameron opined, “It is simply preposterous for anyone to suggest that people looting in Tottenham at the weekend, still less three days later (in) Salford, were in any way doing so because of the death of Mark Duggan.” Cameron went on, “There are now more police on the streets, more people arrested and more criminals being prosecuted … As I have made clear, nothing is off the table. Every contingency is being looked at. The police are already authorized to use baton rounds. And, as I said yesterday, while they would not be appropriate now, we do have in place contingency plans for water cannon to be available at 24 hours notice.”

More police. Batons. Possible water cannons. Mass arrests. This sounds all too familiar.

While some British writers deny the racial element altogether, others such as Katharine Birbalsingh intimate that police have legitimate cause to regard blacks as an especially dangerous population. On the other end are those who see race as a long-festering British sore with historic roots of inequality, oppression and political powerlessness similar to what the Kerner Commission described in America over four decades ago.

In a thoughtful piece in The Guardian, Joseph Harker draws parallels between the current situation and English conflicts in 1981 and 1985 when Margaret Thatcher led the country. Responding to “inner-city unrest” in Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth, Handsworth and other parts of Britain in the ’80s, Thatcher “dismissed suggestions that the Brixton riot was due to unemployment and racism.” Harker bellows that time proved Thatcher was “wrong.” I agree.

Nixon was wrong. Thatcher was wrong. And now Cameron is heading down the same path. The constant is that black and poor people are their mistakes’ cannon fodder. And in today’s “post-racial world,” others are less and less sympathetic to their plight. In his article, Harker sadly asks, “So, who, today, speaks for black people?” I hate to be the bearer of bad news, good brother from across the pond, but nobody does. On second thought, maybe Obama will save you!