America Is a Spark Away From Riots of Its Own

Monday, August 15, 2011
By Paul Martin

By Bill Boyarsky

As President Barack Obama tried to calm a United States facing the threat of financial disaster, riots raged across the Atlantic in London and other British cities. Could it happen here, as our nation adopts British-style austerity and suffers through worsening unemployment? It certainly could, just as it has in the past.

As a reporter and then a columnist for the Los Angeles Times 20 years ago I covered the genesis, the explosion and the aftermath of the Los Angeles riot of 1992, described by author Lou Cannon as “the nation’s deadliest race riot since the Civil War.”

As I followed the accounts of the British rioting on the BBC, The Guardian and other media, I was struck by how it resembled what we saw in Los Angeles—looting, arson, random attacks on people and buildings burning, often without police or firefighters in sight. We also saw ethnic minorities—mainly African-Americans and Korean-Americans—locked in combat in a city where “minorities” constitute the majority of the population. What began as anger over the acquittal of police officers in the beating of a motorist, Rodney King, unleashed the community’s long-ignored tensions.

The British rioting, triggered by a police shooting, followed severe cuts to the welfare state by the government of Prime Minister David Cameron. The New York Times said, “For a society already under severe economic strain, the rioting raised new questions about the political sustainability of the Cameron government’s spending cuts, particularly the deep cutbacks in social programs. These have hit the country’s poor especially hard, including large numbers of the minority youths who have been at the forefront of the unrest.”

In his excellent book dealing with the Los Angeles riot, “Official Negligence,” Cannon found the same factors at play. He explained that the riot was preceded by a sharp diminishing of the area’s industrial base, particularly aerospace, and major reductions in government aid programs.

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