Americans Are Protesting, But What Keeps Full-Scale Riots From Breaking Out?
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The first factor complicating Katz's thesis is Occupy Wall Street. Although OWS's decentralized nature makes it difficult to assert that it is and will always be completely non-violent, some say claims of protestor violence have been exaggerated while police brutality runs rampant. In a December podcast Katz said: "I see no evidence...whatsoever" that the Occupy movement will lead to cities burning. He does see the movement as a new form of social movement in America (no leaders, very diffuse) using organized, largely non-violent protest tactics to make demands upon city governments in an age of austerity and ever-increasing inequality. Since the interview, Occupy Oakland has been the site of sustained protestor and police conflict, with reports of militant occupiers attacking property and police. But the city seems to be an outlier, with a tense history between activists and a police force that is currently being threatened with a federal takeover due to its checkered history.
But mostly OWS still fits into Katz's formulation. The movement's effectiveness may be hindered by the fact that it is almost entirely rooted in Northeastern, Midwestern, and West Coast metropolises, which are dramatically underfunded and underrepresented in national and state politics. There are immense structural limits to the power of the local politicians who actually deal with OWS. When Philadelphia's Mayor Michael Nutter declared his allegiance to the 99 percent, the claim actually held more validity than occupiers might think. Cities have suffered immense fiscal losses over the last half century, as many of their more affluent citizens decamped for the exurbs taking their tax dollars with them. To make matters worse, conservatives in D.C. ended most national spending on cities: "Between 1980 and 1990 the share of big city expenses covered by the federal aid dropped from 22 percent to 6 percent," Katz writes.
Following the Great Recession and the end of the Obama administration's stimulus spending, conservative state legislatures are raining hellish cuts upon helpless and already cash-strapped city governments. Right-wing politicians know that urban dwellers don't vote Republican anyway, so making them suffer won't lose them many votes.
In short, the Occupy movement is running up against the same problem that previous generations of urban social movements faced: they are marching and making demands far from where real power is located. Faced with another brutal round of state-imposed cuts to everything from higher education to Medicaid, Donald Schwarz, deputy mayor for health and opportunity, told the Philadelphia City Paper, "Philadelphia will do all it can to blunt these effects, but given the city's fiscal situation and the magnitude of the estimated cuts…there's not much we can do."
Another recent phenomenon complicating Katz's thesis brings criminal violence, as collective violence, into more affluent areas. In recent years, low-income, largely black youth have been engaged in seemingly spontaneous mass gatherings (some organized through social media), which often result in violence and theft in predominantly white or ethnically diverse business centers. Dubbed "flash mobs" by the media, incidents usually involve a great mass of youth idling in, or sprinting down the street, while some members vandalize, thieve and viciously beat bystanders.
The impetuous behind these collective attacks is murky, but the answer could relate to one reason Katz provides for the 1960s riots: "boundary challenges," when shifting boundaries between ethnically homogenous areas provoke violence. Philadelphia, along with many of the other flash-mob afflicted cities, experienced a downtown boom and the gentrification of some neighborhoods close to the city center, while adjacent low-income areas, populated by people of color, have seen little benefit. Philadelphia is one of the most racially segregated cities in America, and the wealthier downtown neighborhoods are the only places where white population grew in the last 10 years. The revitalized core makes disparities clearly visible to impoverished youth, who have been slammed by dramatic cuts to school budgets and youth programs. (Philadelphia youth program funding fell from $16 million in 2002 to $1.2 million in 2010, according to the New York Times.)