Whether it's in London, or Athens, or Philadelphia, or Chicago, or Milwaukee, mob violence seems to be in the air these days. Many have been quick to blame government austerity and "extremist" conservative economics, while others have rushed to blame moral rot and the welfare state. Since we have both budget-slashing and widespread welfare dependence in spades here in California, observers could be forgiven for wondering whether London-style violence could be on the way. Certainly, with flash-mob robbery and violence evident in places like Stockton and Los Angeles, gang activity even in gentrified places like downtown San Jose, and the fact that wearing the wrong sports jersey can be life-threatening here, there seem to be plenty of ominous signs about social order in the Golden State. Indeed, over at Cal Watchdog, Wayne Lusvardi describes how an incident of racially-offensive graffiti has much of Pasadena on edge these days. Nevertheless, anticipating large-scale riots requires consideration of what they're about.
Most Californians, of course, are old enough to remember the 1992 riots that devastated Los Angeles; some even remember the massive riots there in 1965. (Aside: a friend of ours tells a terrifying story of trying to drive from Redondo Beach to Diamond Bar during the King riots. With the 91 jammed, he got off the freeway and drove through South Central to rescue his mother from an office tower downtown.) In both cases, what began as street protests against police abuses in traffic stops quickly brought out scores of people with a far different agenda in mind. Watts ended not with heads rolling or meaningful reforms at the California Highway Patrol, but with National Guardsmen forming a cordon around a large swath of South Central LA until the protestors had burned their own community to the ground. In 1992, though there were ultimately consequences for the involved officers and the LAPD, it wasn't clear what random attacks on people like Reginald Denny, gun battles with Korean business owners, or rampant looting had to do with Rodney King or the police department. As with Watts, the fears of homeowners watching the spires of smoke from their balconies in Glendale and Orange County were unfounded, as the rioters chose to destroy neighborhoods near the center of Los Angeles. As with the more recent riots in London, the motives of the King rioters were only superficially political.
The best analysis of urban riots we've seen recently comes from Gary North. To North, the difference now is that "the violence has moved uptown." Now, it's coordinated via Twitter and Blackberry Messenger, and it explicitly targets private businesses, much as the two Los Angeles riots did. And, unlike the storeowners in 1992's Koreatown, property owners are largely disarmed via gun control. What's the same, however, is that the motive is property damage, not social justice. "There is no list of grievances. There are no spokesmen. This is well-organized banditry." Why does it happen? Aside from the unfortunate constants of jealousy towards others who have what you don't and the envious hatred that makes people want to destroy the things others have, and the advantages provided by social networking technology, North offers the following reasons: state-funded and mandatory schooling, which deprives the young of any stake in society, minimum-wage laws, which keep the young and dark-skinned out of work even in "progressive" California, and the breakdown of families as subsidized by welfare. In other words, when the incentives of large numbers of people tend toward depriving them of their self-respect, and they have few options for obtaining the things you have, they may well hate you for having what they don't. And when crowds are pouring into the streets for whatever reason, they may head outside looking for you.
So, is rioting due to make an appearance in California? We'd tend to guess it is. Certainly the seeds are there: widespread poverty and a crushing recession with no end in sight; a hasty evaporation of the middle class's wealth, thanks to the Federal Reserve and the housing collapse; and politicians intent on casting productive citizens and private industry as the cause of society's ills. Hard work and entrepreneurship have a way of producing good character. And one day California may well face the consequences of doing everything in its power to suppress them.