Riots and the Antisocial Media

Whether reacting to the welfare cuts in Prime Minister David Cameron’s new austerity budget or gripped by simple lust for mayhem, Londeoners have carried their rioting through its third straight night. Parliament’s recess has been cut short; the England-Netherlands football match has been cancelled. Police — of whom 16,000 are now patrolling London’s streets — are now reporting one fatality, 14 serious injuries and 525 arrests. Smaller mobs in Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool have been smashing windows, looting stores and, in one case, setting a police station on fire.

This seems to be one of those stories that leaves media people speechless. The best analysis I’ve eben able to find comes from Michael Goldfarb, who notes that the violence quickly grew beyond any plausible connection to its flash point, the shooting by police of Mark Duggan, a 29-year-old black man. He finds its root causes in massive youth unemployment and its chief aggravating factor in social media:

The underlying causes of the rioting are difficult to say with certainty but one key fact must be considered: youth unemployment.

The rioters were overwhelmingly teenagers and kids in their 20s. About 20 percent of 16-24 year olds in Britain are unemployed. That figure is much, much higher on council estates — the British term for housing projects. (You can leave school at the age of 16 in this country). Unemployment statistics in Britain are sadly vague, but a reasonable estimate of youth unemployment just in Hackney is 33 percent. (Those attending college or performing any form of unpaid apprentice work are considered to be employed.) There don’t seem to be any statistics for youth unemployment on council estates — as I live in the neighborhood I would say well above 60 or 70 percent is a good guess.

The reason I say this is that unlike in Paris or New York, London doesn’t wall its poor people into ghettos or banlieues. There are streets in Hackney where very ordinary row houses cost a million bucks but on the corner there is a council estate. The kids who grow up in the million dollar houses go to college and then on to jobs; many of those in the estates leave school at 16 and find no work. If a third of Hackney’s youth is unemployed and the middle-class kids are all going on to higher education, the segment of the population pulling the unemployment figure up must come from the estates.

Goldfarb’s prognosis is grim. He writes: “This kind of hysteria can take time to burn itself out. With TV cameras focused on them and smartphones at the ready, it may be a few nights yet before the fever subsides. There is very little the police can do.”

We’ve been spared anything quite like this — at least so far. But this past summer, various sources have reported on the proliferation of the riot’s midget cousin, the flash mob. Flash mobs consist of youth who, rallied by messages sent out through social media, commit violent robberies, among other crimes. In June, Fox News listed some especially notable instances of flash mob violence:

Chicago
Last week, four violent assaults and robberies occurred in Chicago’s upscale area of Streeterville. One man was dragged into the street and beaten by a group of 15 to 20 teenage males after a baseball was thrown so hard at his head that his motor-scooter helmet was knocked off. Another man was robbed of his cell phone and camera after being knocked off his bike and punched by a group of teenage males. Three teenagers were recently arrested due to their alleged involvement with these strings of flash mob robberies, four of which occurred within a 10-minute span.
And on June 9, Jesse Andersen, the 35-year-old brother of Smashing Pumpkins frontman Billy Corgan, was punched in the face as his iPad and money were stolen by multiple perpetrators.

Washington, D.C.
On April 25, G Star Raw, workers at a retail store in Dupont Circle were caught off guard as a group of about 20 teenagers swarmed the store, stopping to look through sizes, taking over $20,000 worth of merchandise and promptly exiting the building. Store Manager Gregory Lennon told FoxNews.com that their staff has a heightened sense of awareness of customers who enter their store in large groups, but there is little they can do to protect themselves from another flab mob attack. D.C. was previously hit two weeks prior, when a store owner of a small T-shirt shop was pushed out of the way as she tried to protect her store from the 20 to 25 teenagers who robbed it.

A truly nasty, frightening business. One solution would be to restrict the use of social media to persons with a 720 middle FICO and a 35% debt-to-income ratio. But I’m afraid I’d make the cut just barely.

  • Mary

    …or restrict the use of social media by teenagers to those who have “friended” a parent who will monitor/be responsible for their on-line activity…

  • Nathan Sward

    “In choosing to believe it, the public showed excellent taste.” Love it. When I was in the seminary, a response to loveable hagiographic stories was, “If it isn’t true, it should be!”

    Popular devotion can be deliciously peculiar sometimes. Perhaps even dangerous on occasion. However, the ‘sensus fidelium’ can’t be discounted, even if the truth of some of these is solely on the level of myth (in the fullest sense of the word).

  • http://jscafenette.com/ Manny

    “The rioters were overwhelmingly teenagers and kids in their 20s.”

    Kids in their 20s? When I grew up you were an adult at 18. I think it’s time the police got rough with these punks. There is no excuse for damaging and stealing private property.

    Side note: This reminds me of Anthony Burgess’s novel, A Clockwork Orange.

  • http://profiles.google.com/klwhoward Karen Howard

    I was living in Los Angeles in 1992, and one of the things that facilitated the riots then was the television news reporting: “I’m reporting from Hollywood and Vine, and THERE ARE NO POLICE HERE.” I can only imagine if they’d had Twitter.


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