Like many of you, I’ve watched footage of the riots in England. I’ve heard and read the raging comments. (One article on identifying looters from photos featured one photo only of a looter who was female, blonde, and extremely fair-skinned, yet all the comments poured vitriol on “these blacks.”) Most of all, though, I’ve wondered how long it will be until something much like this hits these shores.
I live on the “wrong” side of Troost Avenue in Kansas City, the poor side, the dark side, of this street that divides this city, racially and socioeconomically. The people in my neighborhood and the neighborhoods around us were suffering severely for at least three years before the economic crisis hit the stock market and was finally declared. It seems we only worry about the economy when it adversely affects the well-off. What does that say about us as a country?
I remember the riots of the 1960s. More people would do well to remember them. If you’re not old enough or weren’t aware enough when they occurred, google them. And imagine them now, with the gang population in many cities much larger than it was then, with automatic weapons in the hands of much of the population. There is frustration, hopelessness, and anger of that immensity that is building in this country right now.
The riots of the 1960s were a wake-up call for the United States. As a country, we set up programs to deal with the poverty and hopelessness and racism that brought them about—programs that brought more people of color and people from poor backgrounds into the middle class than ever before, programs that brought medical care, nutritional care, education, job training and many other good things to what were essentially bad places to live one’s life.
In recent years, we’ve been dismantling the structure of safety-net services and programs that we set up after those riots. Things have been peaceful through the decades of greed. No one’s been pitching bottles or breaking windows. So we take—and take and take—from the poor and the working class and, now, even the middle class and give it all to the wealthy and the corporations. We don’t listen when people protest. The country turns its back.
Well, the angry youth in England know something that the poor here know also. My husband once knew someone who was writing a thesis called “Violence Works.” The point being exactly what one of the rioters told an MSNBC reporter. He pointed out that the press wouldn’t be there if they weren’t being violent, that a few months earlier thousands had marched peacefully to protest, and the media had totally ignored them. If you look at the U.S.’s history, you’ll see plenty of proof of it, as well. Basically, it is when people can’t take it any longer and erupt in violence that we, as a country, wake up and do something to improve the situation. Most of our social improvements have followed that chain of events.
When we wipe out program after program designed to help people pull themselves and their families out of poverty, we are playing with fire. When we ignore the damage the economy sustains from short-sighted greed until the damage spreads to the wealthy—and then provide bailouts only to the powerful—we say something about what kind of country we are and what we value. Maybe it’s time we took a look at what we truly value versus what we say we value. What kind of a country do we want to be?
We are creating the future now.