Oh, Those Rioting Kids

Work or Riot

Work or Riot

One of the commenters on my gold post, unable to offer a hint of why gold remains an alluring investment other than that God, errrr, the market, has chosen it, decided to link that discussion to a cultural critique of the rioting in Great Britain.

“Just like what happened to those punk rioters in England, who grew up on the Dole and won’t motivate themselves to live beyond what government provides for them,” he or she said, pseudonymically.

Gold and riots must have some unique hold on the imagination of the economically and culturally fundamentalist. There are psychological theses to be written there. But for today, I just want to point out, in our country alone, the long and storied history of young punks rioting. It was particularly acute in the days of no dole, but why take time to know that when you can make half-baked, ignorant assertions and dress them up as theory?

I’ll start with the 1863 draft riots of the Civil War just because I don’t feel like going further back. Then we’ll take the Hamburg Massacre of South Carolina in 1876, typical of Reconstruction rioting across the South.

How about 1898 soldiers riot in Lakeland before deployment to Cuba in the Spanish American War?

We can accelerate from there. 1906 Atlanta. The Jack Johnson riots of 1910. East St. Louis and Houston 1917. The Red Summer of 1919, every freaking place, from Chicago to Washington D.C. to Elaine, Arkansas.

Ocoee in 1920. Tulsa in 1921. Rosewood in 1923.

Douglas MacArthur, the Bonus Army and the National Mall in 1932. Harlem 1935. Detroit and Beaumont 1943.

About the only post Civil War decade before our own that we might call reasonably free from rioting was the 1950s, which were characterized by enormous marginal tax rates on the rich and widespread union penetration. I’m sure that’s just a coincidence; I’m equally sure it’s a coincidence the devout aren’t interested in adding to their limited data set for analysis.

And then there was the 60s, with assassination and Detroit again and Atlanta again and Washington D.C. again. And a lot of other places, including the Stonewall Riots in New York. I’m sure Chuck remembers Louisville 1968.

Camden, NJ, 1971.

Miami 1980. Crown Heights 1991. LA. 1992. St. Petersburg 1996. Cincinnati 2001. The University of Wisconsin at some point I remember. And maybe Katrina in 2005.

And our country’s history is more or less typical of social disorder, I would say.

All things considered, modern America, really since LA, has done a pretty good job of containing the traditional riot. Is that because people are better? Policing smarter and broader? Safety net programs deeper? Jails larger? All of the above. I don’t know.

I would submit that the “cause” of the London riots is actually the same cause of the financial crisis and most conflict in the world: the inherent viciousness and competitiveness of young men striving to dominate each other and their surroundings. In fact, I would argue that the whole of human history is essentially the story of efforts to harness, deploy, and suppress the animating force of young men in the service of the interests older men–and much more recently women. No economic or belief caused that viciousness–it has surfaced under all systems–and none will make it go poof. We do, however, need to consider how best to anticipate it, maintain order, and recover from it when it goes amok.

That’s a very exacting intellectual and moral challenge. It requires a bit of honesty and thoughtfulness.

People who say things like “Just like what happened to those punk rioters in England, who grew up on the Dole and won’t motivate themselves to live beyond what government provides for them,” who want to reduce human nature and behavior to their pet equations, are really very silly and lazy.


Creative Commons License image credit: Manuel Martín Vicente

15 thoughts on “Oh, Those Rioting Kids

  1. Since many people speculate the riots were fueled by rising unrest after austerity measures reduced welfare funding in the UK as well as continued elevated unemployment — the police shooting being merely the spark in a tinderbox — I think SkepticalE has a point. Might it be “very silly and lazy”? Sure. But then so might be ignoring the point of a commenter and then rattling off American riots, with no reasons given behind such riots, in response to someone pointing out a reason for the recent UK riot.

    Unless you really think Rosewood was about uncontainable youthful enthusiasm… then we have a problem.

    • Many people speculate about everything. It’s doesn’t make them informed. My point is that history shows clearly people were happy to riot–in Britain too–long before there was a “dole.” And of course Rosewood was about youthful “enthusiasm”. I’d use a different word than enthusiasm, but who do you think “rioted”? Young men. Rather than “austerity” being the trigger, this time it was social custom surrounding probably false allegations of black on white sexual violence and then white response to armed black self-defense. In both case, rioters created an anarchy that they could control to accomplish what they wanted to do. 

      If it isn’t austerity, or the dole, or panic of black men dating white women, it will be something else. Competition for jobs. A football game. etc. etc.

    • Many people speculate about everything. It’s doesn’t make them informed. My point is that history shows clearly people were happy to riot–in Britain too–long before there was a “dole.” And of course Rosewood was about youthful “enthusiasm”. I’d use a different word than enthusiasm, but who do you think “rioted”? Young men. Rather than “austerity” being the trigger, this time it was social custom surrounding probably false allegations of black on white sexual violence and then white response to armed black self-defense. In both case, rioters created an anarchy that they could control to accomplish what they wanted to do. 

      If it isn’t austerity, or the dole, or panic of black men dating white women, it will be something else. Competition for jobs. A football game. etc. etc.

      • So there are many reasons for people to riot. It’s not exclusive to young males, but the older men get, the less likely they’ll riot. Women may riot, but they tend to do it far less than men. “If it isn’t austerity, or the dole, or panic of black men dating white women, it will be something else.”

        Got it. So how does that make SkepticalE’s position of “dolers gone wild” less informed than yours? Actually, I don’t see you having a position on this except “against” SkepticalE.

        “Rosewood was about youthful “enthusiasm”. I’d use a different word than enthusiasm[…]”

        Oh no you di’int. Don’t play that “yes it is but no, not really it isn’t” game on me, I play that on you.

        *mumble* oh, it’s about enthusiasm, but not REALLY enthusiasm… b*tch, please… stealing my ineffective tricks, too, when I don’t want to admit I misspoke… boy’s got some nerve… */mumble*

        • Got it. So how does that make SkepticalE’s position of “dolers gone wild” less informed than yours? Actually, I don’t see you having a position on this except “against” SkepticalE.

          I think, quite clearly, the dole is irrelevant. And I think history, as I showed, bears me out. These types of things have always happened. Economic conditions contribute to them mightily, but the feral have always been with us. SE seems to think they are a new creation, specifically of the dole. And that’s ignorant.

        • Got it. So how does that make SkepticalE’s position of “dolers gone wild” less informed than yours? Actually, I don’t see you having a position on this except “against” SkepticalE.

          I think, quite clearly, the dole is irrelevant. And I think history, as I showed, bears me out. These types of things have always happened. Economic conditions contribute to them mightily, but the feral have always been with us. SE seems to think they are a new creation, specifically of the dole. And that’s ignorant.

          • Yes, there are many reasons to riot. In this particular riot, however, I think economic conditions did play a large part. At this time, I think the main reason was anger and lack of trust with authority. News talking about scandals involving highest ranks of government, economic measures affecting their free money, then the cops shoot a neighbor… boom.

            You’re not likely to riot if you have something to lose (like a job), but it’s fine if your money isn’t connected to your actions. When the news tells you how the rich and powerful flaunt societal mores without seeming punishment, yet your neighbor gets gunned down by agents of said authorities, well… free time, righteous indignation and media-fueled anger can be a potent combination.

          • I agree with this 6,000 percent. But I do not think it is remotely the same as what SE said. Because I agree with this 6,000 percent, I support ending the drug war through legalization and doing away with the dirty underground cash economy–and attendant criminalization of large parts of the population. I think that would have a far better impacts on social conditions–on the relation of the people and individual to the state–than anything we can do. I think the “dole”, whatever that actually is, is a talking point. And I have no time for talking points passing off as cultural analysis.     

          • Damn, I hate it when I agree with you on anything. The drug war is evil and has far reaching predatory affects on our society.

            “the dole” boils down to large percentages of the UK population, including masses of young men, living off the industry of others without cost. I don’t think there’s enough room on the page here to itemize all the ways in which one can obtain “free” money from the UK government. As DR alluded to, that’s a lot of idle hands and there is great wisdom in the old saying “idle hands are the devils playground”. If you’re a productive, engaged citizen you don’t burn other people’s property or loot local shops in your spare time. You might fight aggression or injustice in the streets, but you don’t pop the window at the corner mart for cigarettes, beer, and big screen TV’s. 

            It wasn’t just the dolers rioting and looting, there were the children of the rich and middle class there as well. I’ve seen reports of at least one millionaire heiress being arrested. It’s as much a story about a generation of wastrels who haven’t ever contributed anything positive to their society through industry or intellect. To them, wealth is something that is bestowed not earned. Work is for suckers who don’t know they are being abused by the “system”.

            You whine about old white people sucking up healthcare dollars, but at least most of them first had the virtue of productivity to help create the most prosperous society on Earth. 

    • Also, DR, you and the other might enjoy this. It’s the first two paragraphs of an editorial that ran on Jan. 12, 1923, in the Gainesville Sun,  couple days after the Rosewood riot/pogrom. It was titled “The Vagabond.”

      “The horrible trouble at Rosewood was brought about by a lawless an criminal negro vagabond. He was loafing over the country, shirking work, violating law and was a disgrace to his race. The people of his race in Florida should not be condemned because of this vagabondish convict. The negroes of Florida are conducting themselves well. They are a law abiding people who deserve to live in peace.

      “We have vagabonds and criminals in our race. They have no legitimate employment but go about  committing crime and avoiding work. They are burglars and thieves. They are wiretappers and bootleggers. They burn houses and sometimes commit rapes.”

      Any of that sound familiar? Put aside the truth of the specific allegations for a second and just listen to the tone of the conventional wisdom. You think their “vagabonds” were women? Or 60? Use the word Chav or Hoodie and that exact same passage could have appeared in The Telegraph last week.

      You can feel free to go toe-to-toe with me over Rosewood–and 20s era social disorder generally–if you want. But you’re on my turf. I’ve done the work that you haven’t to know something about it. 

      • I really don’t think I’d see “The Negroes of [England] are conducting themselves well” in the Telegraph, but I digress.

        I certainly won’t go toe-to-toe with you over Rosewood, but I think it’s clear that that pogrom (apt word, I’ve only heard it used for Jews) was not caused by uncontainable youthful enthusiasm.

  2. One in five U.K. families don’t have an adult who has to work for their income.

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/family/6868063/One-in-five-families-in-traditional-unit.html
    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1310220/7-million-live-jobless-households-works.html

    That’s a shameful tragedy. 

    Just last year, the new government started a medical evaluation program to re-screen people on disability benefits to ensure they are actually unfit. Maybe we could do with a dose of that: http://gawker.com/5803413/stanley-the-adult-baby-investigated-for-social-security-fraud

    But back to these kids. You’ve kindly pointed out some poignant examples of some of our own tragic history, but please tell me that you don’t equate the valuable political and social movements of our past with wanton thievery and destruction? The rioters spoke plainly, they were getting some of their “wealth” back which in their world had been unjustly stolen. http://reason.com/archives/2011/08/15/the-riot-act I guess their public schools don’t teach much in the way of economics over there. 

    Britain isn’t some Middle Eastern dictatorship who is killing off regime opponents anyway so there’s nothing to lose by fighting fire with fire. Large scale, peaceful political movements have every possibility of changing government behavior, and this wasn’t one of those. 

    I read a number of personal U.K. blogs and many would be stunned at the personal anecdotes of living in British society today. Their political correctness has gotten to the point where you can’t say boo to anyone about poor behavior. The first night of the recent riots illustrated the lax Police attitude writ large. By and large, the police failed to decisively engage the looters and that just emboldened them. People actually have the nerve to criticize groups who protected their businesses and property when the police couldn’t or wouldn’t. 

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