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Why Rioters Destroy Their Own Neighborhoods

Let's not be surprised that the London riots occurred; being a resident of Los Angeles means knowing the kinds of racial and economic tensions that lead to outbursts against law enforcement. In the best case scenario, the police were defending themselves against a guy with a gun. In the worst case, they executed him. Since random men (criminal or not) are often shot by honest police officers just doing their jobs, the riots cannot simply be about pure, simple hooliganism. There is a reason, and it is disparity.

But the question on everyone's mind is "Why would these rioters choose to destroy their own neighborhoods?" Versus someone else's, I suppose. To (ineffectively) defuse the violence, the mayor of London's has stated "They should not take matters into their own hands and destroy their own communities." Even David Lammy, the member of Parliament from London's Tottenham neighborhood is baffled, and told NPR

We are seeing not retail chains, but independent shops—hairdressers, travel agents, post offices—burnt to the ground. I'm afraid there will be profound questions about what has happened with a particular constituency of young people that their values are such that they could steal, rob and endanger life in their own neighborhood in this way.

Even intrepid news organizations are dumbfounded, with an NBC affiliate stating "So when it comes to rioting basics, I get it, you're mad, feel disenfranchised and unwilling to take an ounce more of disrespect. But you do realize you still have to live there tomorrow, right?"

But the answer is simple, and starts with a series of studies conducted way back in 1969. Stanford psychologist Philip Zimbardo chose neighborhoods in the Bronx in New York City and in Palo Alto, California. He placed in each a car with no license plates and with their hoods up, as though they had been abandoned.

Within ten minutes, a young family (mom, dad and a son) showed up in the Bronx and stole the battery and radiator. Within 24 hours, the car was reduced to stripped, dilapidated remains, which became grounds for freeform destruction. The remaining windows were shattered, scrap metal was ripped from all sides, the upholstery was wrecked. Finally, the post-vehicle street sculpture became a filthy playplace for unsupervised neighborhood kids. And surprise! Most of the vandals were white and well-dressed.

Meanwhile, a week passed in Palo Alto, and the car remained pristine. So Zimbardo grabbed a sledgehammer and inflicted some damage. Within a few hours, the car had been overturned, lit on fire, and destroyed. Again, the vandals were white and well-dressed.

Similar social experiments have been carried out over the years and a theory was developed that goes a little like this: when others don't respect a community, you don't either. One shattered window breeds many. One dilapidated building triggers the dilapidation of a whole block. One cracked sidewalk panel leads to miles of unmaintained sidewalk. The environment breeds the response.

London Deputy Mayor Kit Malthouse seems especially ignorant for stating that Londoners should be "at home and behaving themselves" before the city begins a conversation about improvements with neighborhoods like Tottenham. It's specifically because his like hasn't worried about maintaining these neighborhoods that Tottenham residents have lost their will to self-preserve.

In a speech to the Florida AIA, James Howard Kunstler said that when you create a culture that considers places throwaway, that doesn't value its transitional buildings or businesses, and that doesn't invest in the quality of its social spaces, you invite people to stop caring about the spaces around them. Soon, whole communities aren't worth caring about. And because they're not worth caring about, they're not worth defending. The more cracked sidewalks we see, the more dilapidated buildings surround us, the more broken windows and broken-down cars we have to deal with on a day-to-day basis, the less likely we are to care at all. The less value our community has, the less value we give it, and one instance of destruction leads to many. "Our behavior reflects the agony of our everyday world. And it operates as a self-reinforcing negative feedback loop: the worse it gets, the worse we act, and the worse we act, the worse it gets, and so on, ever downward," he says.

So how can a political system or police agency enforce the law in a community that neither they nor the residents value? Dealing aggressively with protesters isn't the answer, and didn't work during the Los Angeles Zoot Suit Riots in 1943, the Watts Riots in 1965, or the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, instead reinforcing the idea that police are brutal and unforgiving, while protesters are chaotic and nihilistic. Worse, macho displays of police power (like what happened when police came in from around the UK) make subjugated people in other places resentful. Hence, riots in cities all over the nation.

Still, Malthouse is determined: "... my primary concern, and that of the mayor, is to maintain order in the city, and if that means that there has to be confrontations with certain groups of young people, then I'm afraid that's the first priority." But he's not afraid. He's not the one getting his hands dirty and he's never had to live in places like Tottenham. He has no means whatsoever of relating to the rioters. To him, they are wicked children who need to be punished.

It's fallacious to dismiss any riot as "sheer criminality." Such naive notions invite others to dismiss the underlying causes of violence and the plights of those affected by social inequality. The L.A. riots didn't solve our problems with injustice or brutality, but they did highlight those issues to the nation. This conversation isn't going to come up on its own.

More positively, the L.A. riots changed the way the LAPD operates: they began to hire more diversely, to run more community outreach and school programs. You still hear the occasional "Latino gang member killed by police" story and wonder what really happened, but things are a lot better than they used to be.

To address the disengaged, you must empower them. Firing rubber bullets at them and blasting them with freezing hose water temporarily suppresses them, but how long can the underlying problems remain unaddressed? For how long can you let a neighborhood fall apart before it doesn't seem worth repairing? How much less value can a community have before its residents are fine burning it down?

But the most important question, the question Zimbardo was most infamous for asking, is how should people act when they've become powerless? The answer is the reason people like Kit Malthouse cares more about law and order than the Tottenham community, and the true reason so many rioted on the streets of London.

[This article was originally posted on]