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History can be repeated

Posted: August 13, 2011 - 10:53pm

The following editorial first appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer:

For Americans of a certain age, television footage of the last week’s riots in Britain’s urban centers looks familiar.

Memories spring to mind of Philadelphia in 1964, the Watts area of Los Angeles in 1965, Detroit and Newark in 1967, and Los Angeles again in 1992. The circumstances that ignited those riots then and the ones in England now are also similar, as is the rampant looting that followed.

London’s riots broke out after a man of African Caribbean descent said to be a gang member was shot and killed by police. Police initially claimed Mark Duggan, 29, shot at them first. But an investigation has revealed that the Italian-made pistol Duggan carried had not been fired.

Just as it was with the earlier U.S. riots, however, the violence that has spread from London to Birmingham to Manchester isn’t just about a member of a minority group becoming a victim of overzealous police. The riots also express the frustration of a part of society that feels it has been unfairly consigned to poverty.

Looters aren’t even trying to hide their faces from TV cameras. Many feel no shame in stealing what they believe they are owed for suffering the punishing lack of economic opportunity that strangles their ambitions. Of course, others are just taking advantage of the situation to steal.

“This is criminality, pure and simple, and it has to be confronted and defeated,” said British Prime Minister David Cameron. And he’s mostly right. Criminals should receive swift and certain punishment. But, as others note, the underlying economic and educational deficiencies that fertilize riots also must be addressed.

In Britain, more than a million people between the ages of 16 and 24 are unemployed. Many of these young people have dropped out of schools where teachers are focusing on those students who have a greater likelihood of meeting educational goals. Does that sound familiar, too?

In this country, public officials in particular must take more than a passing interest in the British riots. Conditions in too many poor American communities today are as bad as or worse than they were in the 1960s, when all it took was the right spark — typically a racially tinged confrontation with police — to set off days of rioting.

It is especially important to remember the past as some members of Congress act as if there would be no consequences to blithely shredding the safety net that began with Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. Federal spending can be reduced without making the most vulnerable Americans take a crippling hit.

In urban neighborhoods across America, where unemployment is high and frustration is higher, it is clear that the ingredients for a riot do exist. All it takes is a spark. Then it won’t be looters in Britain being broadcast on TV.

The Kerner Commission on civil disorders said in 1968 that rioters, “rather than rejecting the American system ... were anxious to obtain a place for themselves in it.” That so many still lack that “place” is discouraging.

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