The Long, Hot Summer

There was rioting in Baltimore Saturday night.  Demonstrators protesting the death of Freddie Gray broke windows, smashed storefronts, threw rocks, and vandalized cars.  Gray died from spinal injuries a week after being arrested by police, and his funeral is today.  The Baltimore protests follow protests last year in Ferguson, Missouri.

Gray’s death, the shooting of Michael Brown by Ferguson police, and other recent incidents involving African-Americans and police have raised tensions in our urban communities.  One incident follows on the heels of another, and the barrage seems to be having a cascading effect.  Many African-Americans feel that they are being racially targeted and, at times, brutally mistreated by the police, and the police in turn feel that they are under siege and unfairly maligned for a handful of incidents out of thousands of uneventful apprehensions and arrests.

Those of us who lived during the ’60s remember summers where rioting and violent clashes with police seemed to be routine and block after block of inner cities in America were looted, vandalized, and left gutted and smoking by arson.  Many neighborhoods that were destroyed never recovered and are still haunted ruins even now, decades later.  The ’60s were an especially turbulent time for many reasons, but that doesn’t mean what happened then could never happen now.  Simple protests can turn into riots when people feel sufficiently desperate and hopeless.

At this point, many of us are holding our breath and hoping that we can avoid another high-profile incident that might prove to be the tipping point.  Having lived through the ’60s, I have no desire to see another long, hot summer.

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British Breakdown

It has been an evil week in England.  Across that country, there has been an outbreak of lawlessness that has overwhelmed police and firefighting forces and left law-abiding Britons frustrated and furious.

The problems began on Saturday, when what started as a peaceful protest of a police shooting in a London neighborhood suddenly turned violent.  The violence quickly spread to other London neighborhoods, and for three nights England’s capital city was the scene of arson, vandalism, and rampant crime as gangs roamed the city, burning cars and storefronts, looting businesses, and terrorizing citizens.  Police struggled to decide how much force to use to deal with the problem, while politicians at all levels were harshly criticized for failing to take action.  Last night, there was a massive show of police force in London that quelled the violence in that city, but the rioting and disorder spread to other British cities and towns, where hundreds of arrests were made.  (And don’t look now, but some American cities, like Philadelphia, are experiencing similar problems, on a much smaller scale, with teenager “flash mob” violence.)

Sociologists and criminologists will debate what has caused the rampages — is it boredom due to lack of jobs, or a reflection of general dissociation from mainstream society, or something so simple as a desire to get new athletic shoes and flat-screen TVs for free? — but the real tipping point would come if average citizens conclude that their government can’t protect them, their businesses, and their possessions, and therefore they need to protect themselves.  If that happens, a short-term outbreak of lawlessness becomes a long-term societal change with profound, and entirely negative, economic and political implications.