London Riots Reminder of Hurricane Katrina

The August 2011 riots in parts of England, although they were not the result of a natural disaster, bear a large resemblance in my mind to some of the things that I saw happening, as well as heard had happened, after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. These include not just the violence, but the cleanup efforts too.

That to me is a frightening thing, because people on both sides of the political aisle will be quick to demonize SOMEBODY for the actions of the rioters, whether it be by painting the rioters themselves as “a mob made by the welfare state” or by saying that the rioters represent the consequences of “a country in which the richest 10% are now 100 times better off than the poorest, where consumerism predicated on personal debt has been pushed for years as the solution to a faltering economy, and where, according to the OECD, social mobility is worse than any other developed country.”

Either approach ignores the people in the middle of the situation who have to deal with the violence being done to their cities and their homes. Both approaches ignore that the police are an integral part of the situation. In this case, the police shooting an armed suspect was the trigger. Those who point to marginalization and police corruption as the cause will often try to use events such as these for ‘justification’ – I saw this type of thinking in action during the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when a local mall was broken into and stripped of valuables. Those who say that the ‘welfare state’ stripped the looters of any sense of accountability will also use these events as a ‘rationale’ for their views.

Both sides are right, and both sides are dangerously wrong. Yes, there is a feeling of “entitlement” that some of the more marginalized-feeling members of our poorer groups have because the measures which were originally put in place to help people make more of themselves have become either crutches or albatrosses. And yes, that feeling of “entitlement” is a product of the ‘welfare state’. However, there is also a tendency among some of our wealthier brethren to, in effect, blame the working poor for BEING poor and lump people who are honestly using social programs for being the cause of the inequities that are plaguing both them and other members of society. And either side of the coin ignores that sometimes the policies that could be helping people DO contribute to the problem.

People say that single mothers who are accepting benefits from welfare need to stop having more kids and go to work. Good ideas on paper, unless you realize that the reason that many of these mothers are single is because they would not GET necessary benefits if they had a spouse “in the picture” – whether or not he actually could contribute financially; that many of these mothers would either not have as many children or any at all if contraception was not being attacked by socially conservative groups; or have no access to affordable childcare which is truly affordable instead of costing as much as a family’s rent.

Welfare programs are NOT the only problems causing this type of thing in areas such as New Orleans or the parts of England which were most affected however. There is also a deeply rooted mistrust of the authorities, especially the police, existing in these areas. This is in part because of governmental corruption although it is also sometimes due to the ways that well-meaning reformers have ignored the underlying social fabric and created opportunities for governmental abuses.

As someone who is a member of that group known as “the working poor” (although it is sometimes very difficult to FIND work), who was also a member of the “working poor” during Katrina, I say that we ignore the lessons of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 at our peril. In the event of a natural disaster, as well as in the event of ‘civil unrest’ such as rioting, there will inevitably be some looting. The reasons for the looting are the key to understanding why I say that both groups of analysts in the London riots are wrong.

After Katrina, the looters were divided into two groups. The first group was what I call ‘survival’ looters. They were the ones who actually looted ONLY for food, water, necessary clothing, necessary medicines and other things like diapers. There were a LOT of ‘survival’ looters that I saw both the day OF the storm and on following days. Because these people had often lost everything, they should not be blamed by either side for their actions. They did however often get tarred by the same brush as the other sort of looters, the group that I call “criminal” looters.

The English government is likely to be its own worst enemy in the aftermath of these events. I hope that in their efforts to deal with the criminals they do not prevent individual efforts to help repair the damages from happening – the way things happened after Katrina in New Orleans.

It is BOTH the “criminal” looters AND the corrupt members of the police that are the problem. Neither side of the political divide will want to admit that both are though. Nor will the two sides admit that the solution is a combination of individual and governmental accountability. But it IS the combination that is needed here if our global society is to learn from these events and to move forward from them.

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