This is how I’ve been spending my summer vacation: riveted to the telly in our rented London flat, staring at images of burning buildings and widespread rioting and looting—images that have stirred uncomfortable memories of the1992 Los Angeles riots.
The flat is near Sloane Square, and it's been pretty quiet in the 'hood except for a few targeted break-ins, a heightened police presence and the wail of a siren now and then.
Not so for other parts or London, or for L.A. nearly two decades ago.
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Back then, L.A. was reeling from the violent aftermath of a jury verdict that acquitted 4 white policemen accused of the videotaped beating of black motorist Rodney King. Over a six-day period, damage and looting spread throughout the L.A. region.
Then-Presidential candidate Bill Clinton argued that people "are looting because ... [t]hey do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours, without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support."
On the other hand, President George H.W.Bush called the unrest “purely criminal.”
Now, Ken Livingstone, London’s former Laborite mayor, argues that “The economic stagnation and cuts being imposed by the Tory government inevitably create social division.”
On the other hand, in his first statement on the riots (he didn’t make it back from vacation until Tuesday) Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron labeled the disturbances “criminality pure and simple.”
As the days and nights wore on in both L.A. and London, protest gave way to what the media in both places labeled “lawlessness.”
In London, violence broke out in on Saturday, just days after a young black man, Mark Duggan, was shot and killed by police under circumstances that are still unclear. Disaffected youth, battered by a stagnant economy, a lack of job opportunities and an antagonism toward police and government institutions reacted.
All over England, trust in institutions has been eroded by government scandals, the sacking of two senior police leaders in the wake of Murdoch-gate and the implication of Met officers in bribery.
As in L.A. (where the Mayor and Police Chief were not on speaking terms), police morale was low. Like the LAPD response to rioting, the London police have been criticized for being slow on the uptake.
As in L.A. , “copycat” riots popped up beyond the protest zone. But, unlike Los Angeles, violence has spread—almost instantly--beyond London to several other major cities.
The role of media has evolved—or devolved, depending on your perspective, since Rodney King stepped in front of TV cameras and pleaded, “Can we all get along?”
In L.A., multiple live shots of reporters wondering when their stand-up position might be hit, often led to their stand-up position being hit. In London, reporters recapping the third night of violence wondered on air, “…which borough…will be targeted tonight.” Looting carried on for a fourth night.
No doubt media alone didn’t instigate the riots, but they certainly influenced their dynamic. And in London, that influence has rocketed to a new level—unheard of in the 1990s. A headline from Tuesday’s Times of London says it all: “Blackberrys were used as the riot’s recruiting sergeants.”
Social media and instant messaging have made everything easier.
The questions and criticisms raised this week in London are similar to those raised nearly 20 years ago in Los Angeles.
89-year old, Aaron Biber ,whose Tottenham barber shop was destroyed, summed up dilemma: “This country has changed. We’ve lost something.”