Defining Ideas

You Say You Want a Revolution

Wednesday, October 5, 2011
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Image credit: 
andrewshiue

Across the globe, large numbers of young people have been rapidly congregating in public places, overwhelming police attempts to maintain order. These youths have been burning, looting, and destroying property. And they have been robbing, assaulting, and injuring bystanders and police. During England’s summer riots, at least five people were murdered. The various attacks have, to paraphrase Shakespeare, "made uneasy the heads which rule nations"—be they heads of oppressive dictators or heads of democratically elected officials.

Indeed, authorities continue to energetically search in vain for methods to prevent future anarchy. The only thing surprising about the current disorders was the general failure of governments in England and the United States to perceive that the uprisings in the Arab world represented a game changer. The need to prepare for similar eruptions would soon be upon the democracies. The current mass demonstrations and arrests in New York City’s "Occupy Wall Street" protest are a clear signal that the United States may be about to experience an "American autumn" mirroring the Arab Spring.

Riots and protests in the United States
Occupy Wall Street protest (Photo credit: andrewshiue, via flickr)

In August, similar disorders took place across the United States: in various locales in Wisconsin; in Kansas City, Missouri; in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; in San Francisco and Oakland, California; and in a number of other locations. The disorders in the United States, as in England, usually seemed to stem from police incidents laden with racial undertones. In Kansas City, the fact that the African-American mayor was actually in attendance at the youth gathering, trying to ensure calm, didn’t prevent three young people from being shot by other rioters. The elite Plaza District, the city’s regional shopping area jewel, is still under a nighttime youth curfew, and its image had been badly damaged.

Similarly, in Philadelphia, the presence of African-American Mayor Michael Nutter, condemning the rioters and their neglectful parents, didn’t stop the thugs. Nor was the crime spree halted when the equally tough, outspoken African-American Police Chief Charles Ramsey bluntly said it wasn’t that the rebellious youth didn’t know the difference between right and wrong; these young people simply didn’t care about the difference. As in England, rampaging mobs in Philadelphia were able to break through police lines and engage in violence against neighborhood citizens, shopkeepers, home-owners, and the police themselves.

History should have taught American society that as desirable as it is to have highly visible African-American leaders courageously condemning criminal violence, it is unfair to expect them to be a panacea in overcoming the deep-seated resentments and alienation which provide fertile ground for youthful violence, especially in minority communities.

Police must move forcefully and decisively against the rioters.

For example, in 1989, Mayor David Dinkins, New York City’s first and only African-American mayor, was elected in the hope that his administration would help alleviate the city’s simmering racial tensions. In Crown Heights, Brooklyn, however, a car that was part of a Hassidic motorcade under police escort driven by Yosef Lifish, a Hassidic Jew, tragically struck and killed Gavin Cato, a seven year-old black youngster. Hostility between Jewish and black residents ran high in the area.

Mayor Dinkins and his highly respected African-American Police Commissioner, Lee Brown, quickly assembled police. Both officials went to Crown Heights to urge nonviolence. Despite their efforts, a large group of black youths engaged in widespread destruction. A Jewish student in the area, Yankel Rosenbaum, was brutally murdered during the disorder.

Two years later, the report of an investigation ordered by Governor Mario Cuomo found that gangs of black youth had run wild, violently attacking innocent Hassidic Jews. The report criticized the mayor and police commissioner for trying to maintain a low police profile instead of moving forcefully against the rioters early in the disorder.

Largely as a result of the run-away riot, Mayor Dinkins was narrowly defeated in the next election by Rudolph Giuliani. Mayor Giuliani then appointed William Bratton as police commissioner. Bratton presided over an unprecedented decrease in crime in New York City. Later, as police chief in Los Angeles, he repeated his achievements in reducing crime and increasing the public’s sense of safety.

In both cities, Bratton managed to work closely with leaders in the black community, despite taking a more aggressive attitude toward enforcing the law. Bratton, who earned the title of "America’s Super Cop," recently agreed to serve as an adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron on how to deal with youth gangs in England. But a backlash by the traditional English police against taking advice from a Yankee may provide Bratton with more powerful obstacles than the gangs themselves.

Over the summer, in Oakland and San Francisco, large, unruly demonstrations took place protesting a white police officer’s earlier fatal shooting of an unarmed young black man who was struggling with a group of officers. The policeman claimed he had mistakenly used his firearm thinking it was a Taser electronic control device. He was convicted and sent to prison. Critics complained that the sentence was too lenient.

The world may be on the brink of unimaginable political and cultural revolutions.

Shortly after the officer was released from jail, a similar event happened. A homeless man was killed by a Bay Area Regional Transit (BART) policeman in a case that is still under review. Demonstrators against BART recently employed the tactics of flash mobs in trying to halt train service. The BART authority responded by shutting down cell phone service at the targeted stations, thus preventing, to some extent, the ability of organizers to speedily assemble large crowds. Presently, there are many complaints that BART is using the oppressive tactics of authoritarian dictatorships in trying to squelch public protests.

It would be prudent to assume from the brief sketches above that it is likely that large crowds of predominantly young people will continue to rapidly convene to protest real or imagined grievances and demand changes ranging from silly fantasies to long overdue, sensible reforms. Just look at what’s happening on Wall Street today. Or consider the historical precedent.

During the 1960s, gatherings that focused on counter-cultural causes morphed into the anti-war movement and revolutions in sexual and drug-use practices. During those years in the United States, crowds of young people engaged in widespread vandalism and picked battles with police. For better or worse, depending upon personal opinions, profound changes occurred around the world. In the United States, the Vietnam War ended, gains of equality reached during the Civil Rights movement were expanded and reinforced, new ideas towards sexual practices and feminism were advanced, and President Lyndon Johnson decided not to seek a second term.

It does not necessarily follow that the events of 2011 portend changes of the same magnitude. The awesome power of online social networking to spawn large crowds willing and able to use illegal force, however, does augur the possibility that the world is on the brink of political and cultural revolutions that are difficult to imagine.

On the other hand, it is certain that existing governments, regardless of their ideology, will need to adapt to new crowd tactics if they are to maintain the legitimacy to govern. For the United States, the difficulties are particularly acute. The legacy of slavery in all its evil still hangs over the land. Large underclasses of black youth inhabit many urban areas in which "Gangster Rap" and "Don’t Snitch" cultures have shaped a world of illegitimacy, illiteracy, welfare dependency, drug addiction, crime, and high unemployment. It is not a case of young men and women being temporarily unemployed; they are functionally unemployable.

Social networking has created an unprecedented ability for unlawful protests to occur.

As Philadelphia Mayor Nutter said to them: "If you walk into somebody’s office with your hair uncombed and a pick in the back, and your shoes untied, and your pants half down, tattoos up and down your arms and on your neck, and you wonder why somebody won’t hire you? They don’t hire you ‘cause you look like you’re crazy. You have damaged your own race."

No doubt Mayor Nutter’s blunt words will be criticized by some, especially by whites who hesitate to even condemn the hatred, barbarity, and disrespect for women and society spewed by black rappers who glamorize criminals and urge people not to give evidence against those who commit vicious crimes. Rappers deliver their nihilistic messages to a youthful audience all too vulnerable to self-destruction. African-American scholars Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell have long criticized "white guilt" as a negative force creating "victimization" mentalities among blacks, which has led to dependency and a failure to take advantage of the unique opportunities offered by America for advancement to better lives.

My thirty-five years of experience rising through the New York Police Department and serving as chief of police in Kansas City, Missouri, and San Jose, California, is filled with a warm admiration for people from different races and backgrounds working together to reduce crime and improve society. There is no limit to what can be achieved when people of good will work in partnership for a better America. Neither whites nor blacks need to apologize for articulating right from wrong. One can be well aware of the terrible consequences of slavery and its aftermath and still be forthright in denouncing the idea that it in any way justifies a criminal who injures another person.

Police tactics are extremely important when it comes to preserving the rights to assemble and engage in free speech while simultaneously protecting the rights of others to be safe from harm and unlawful interference in their lives. But digressing into the minutiae of police tactics—like the appropriateness of using water cannons or pepper spray—is a distraction. The real question is whether or not that level of force was needed.

More importantly, nothing should be done to restrict the police from using reasonable methods to gather intelligence against those who would use the internet to assemble mobs to cause crime and chaos. The police ability to deploy rapidly and initially confront and dissuade those who would riot is the crucial element in preventing the escalation of a disorder. Social networking creates an unprecedented ability for crowds to gather unannounced and without permits when required. The police will have to develop lawful methods to adapt to this new reality.

The underlying causes of real and imagined grievances, however, must not be ignored. The most important factor in healing race relations and convincing high-risk youth to lead constructive lives is to support people like Mayor Nutter and Police Chief Ramsey when they send the right message to young people.

In our society, it’s been long established that the presidency is a bully pulpit. When disaffected youth engage in pervasive patterns of flash mob rioting, and not so subtly hide behind the excuse that their crime sprees are somehow justified, who better than President Barack Obama to say to them: "I grew up in a single parent household, raised by a mother and grandmother. I know what it is to face race discrimination, but I didn’t wait until all injustices were removed, until it was a perfect world. I worked hard and became president of the United States. So don’t hide behind excuses. If you commit crimes you are wrong. You have no right to hate other people because they are different. If you don’t study, if you don’t work hard, others will be better off than you. Equal opportunity means just that, that YOU must take advantage of the opportunity."