UK Riots
A woman passes the burned out shell of a camper after overnight rioting and looting in the neighbourhood of Toxteth in Liverpool, northern England August 10, 2011 Reuters

The ongoing civil disturbances in England have wreaked widespread havoc on shopkeepers, homeowners and police who have become overwhelmed by the sheer scale of lawlessness. Hundreds have been arrested, at least five people have died and the final financial cost of the damage is likely to reach hundreds of millions of pounds.

Such rioting and looting are not new to urban Britain, although the current conflagration has the potential to escalate into the worst civil disorder in living memory. There were similar riots during the long, hot summer of 1981 (and lesser street conflicts in subsequent years, particularly in 1985 and 2001).

However, as a resident of the United States for many years, I am puzzled as to why such disorders do not happen in America.

After all, the same potent brew of factors that have led to the UK riots -- racial tension, high unemployment, widening income gap between rich and poor, worsening economy, hopelessness among youth -- exist in the U.S., in some cases to a much greater extent.

Still, the only large-scale civil disturbance I can recall in the U.S. were the riots that convulsed Los Angeles in April 1992 after four police officers were acquitted of brutally beating black motorist Rodney King (an incident that was videotaped and sparked fury around the world).

In the L.A. episode, thousands of mostly black and Hispanic youths took out their frustrations against what they viewed as a prejudiced police force and a society they felt was determined to keep them marginalized. Ironically, the looters destroyed much of their own neighborhoods and turned against Asian (most Korean) shopkeepers who had established businesses in poor areas.

These same factors exist in virtually every major American city – but nothing like those riots in Los Angeles have occurred anywhere in this country in the past two decades.

What can explain this?

Rioting has been as American as apple pie. In the 19th century, public demonstrations of violence were quite common, particularly in the large Northern cities where a large and poor immigrant workforce felt besieged and exploited by company bosses.

And, of course, race-related riots scarred the American landscape for much of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Moreover, the U.S. has hardly been immune to crime and violence -- quite the contrary, criminal acts have practically become part of the nation’s very landscape. Drug epidemics (heroin in the 1950s and 1960s; angel dust in the 1970s; crack cocaine in the 1980s and early 1990s) created a whole new chapter of unprecedented crime and violence across major cities.

But for the past 20 years … it’s been rather quiet on American streets.*

Are British youth simply more politically engaged?

A British blogger wrote of the factors behind the riots: “Cuts to everything, including welfare and education, have created an atmosphere where the poor and alienated feel that the basic means to the ends of success are no longer available. Moreover, at the same time that austerity is expected of the poor, who are simply meant to swallow their lack of opportunity, it is, of course, business as usual for the rich who continue to consume and the mass media which persists in selling everybody a consumer fantasy. “

This scenario could apply almost perfectly in the U.S.
Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida, opines that the United States has “a large middle class and generally a standard of living that even for the lower class, is far superior to that of billions around the world.”

Snaith adds: “One thing America does offer is a chance to transcend the socioeconomic class into which you are born. I feel that in the U.S. anyone has the chance to work hard so that you, and maybe more importantly your children, can have a better life. This fact quells some of the discontent that inequalities in wealth in the U.S. might otherwise foment.”

Vivien Goldman, the adjunct professor of punk and reggae at New York University's Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, and who has written extensively about British youth culture, feels there is a difference in mentality between Americans and Europeans that has created this difference in behavior over social inequalities.

“Young Europeans regard it as their natural right to take to the streets to protest injustice; Young Americans don't,” she said.

“They [the Americans] used to back in the 1960s, when almost everywhere was aflame with riots; but now they've lost the taste for it.”

Perhaps apathy among American youth also plays a role.

Goldman asks plaintively: “Where is today's committed youth [in the U.S.]? OK, American kids cluster online and sign petitions -- but where is the nitty-gritty hand-fighting on the barricades?”

She added that while there are always some activists in every generation, “many kids today can't be bothered. Some feel that America's big battles, i.e. civil rights, [have been] won, or on the way to being so, and even if they would like to see social progress, they still haven't found their own front line. Many others are basically lulled by the myriad pleasure resources now available into just wanting more stuff and more fun, as opposed to [fighting for more] complicated things like world peace.”

Indeed, the American Dream still gleams, she asserts, and street-fighting evidently seems too “confrontational” a method to attain such things.

“In that sense, maybe young Americans still believe in the system,” she stated.

On the flip-side of that argument lies the perception that U.S. youth have no faith in the system and have long since given up trying to change a deeply-engrained capitalist structure.

“Many kids feel they have no stake in the system and have no personal power,” Goldman stated.

Separately, different attitudes towards policing also are a key factor in this discussion.

“Police [in the U.S.] are also more willing to use lethal force than in some European countries,” Snaith said.

Goldman concurs: “The biggest reason that American youths do not take to the streets to show their displeasure is that here, the police carry guns and in Britain they do not. The single shooting that sparked days of rioting in London would have been just one among many in New York.”

*However, in the early 1990s, some days of rioting did take place in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y. in a conflict between Orthodox Jews and Afro-Carribeans. That imbroglio claimed some lives, but was largely confined to that neighborhood.