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Americans Are Protesting, But What Keeps Full-Scale Riots From Breaking Out?

Michael Katz's new book traces the lack of urban unrest to America's complex web of freedoms and repression.

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Michael Katz's  Why Don't American Cities Burn? is both a crushing reminder of seemingly intractable problems that still face American cities and an exploration of why things aren't worse. It is a slim book that serves as a general overview of the current state of the urban studies field, and although it went to the presses before Occupy Wall Street broke out, it provides some insight into the structural challenges facing the protesters who have recently flooded the streets of American metropolises.

Katz lives in Philadelphia, where he teaches history at the University of Pennsylvania. The book's engrossing prologue is told in the first person and uses a murder trial, at which Katz served on the jury, as a framing device to set up his major themes. He gives us a portrait of the North Philadelphia badlands, where the underground economy is the largest employer and violence is a normalized part of life. Katz weaves fascinating insights on urban America into the larger narrative, which centers on a deadly confrontation between two African-American men, Shorty and Herbert, and ends with the former dead of a knife wound.

Why Don't American Cities Burn? returns to these two men again and again, but readers hoping for a continued easy read will soon be disappointed. Chapter 2, titled "The New African-American Inequality," looks at almost every imaginable metric by which wellbeing can be measured and shows that inequality persists in every way, despite significant advances, between black Americans and their counterparts. It is as enlightening an as unremitting litany of statistics can be, but the effect is numbing.

Katz uses Herbert and Shorty as the catalyst for the titular chapter, which asks why anger at the crushing conditions in many urban neighborhoods resulted in a wave of criminal violence, rather than acts of collective rage. The conditions that inspired urban violence in the 1960s still exist and, in many cases, have worsened: unemployment, police brutality, failing schools, segregation, and poverty.

Similar conditions led France's immigrant youth to a two-week spasm of violence in 2005, an event that captured headlines across the world and provided Katz with the inspiration for Why Don't American Cities Burn? But the United States has seen very little urban rioting since the 1960s -- the LA riots of 1992 being the obvious exception.

Katz traces the lack of urban unrest, both peaceful and violent, to America's complex web of freedoms and repression. In contrast to European immigrant communities, the Hispanic-American community has not typically turned to burning cars, instead favoring non-violent protests and organized political pressure. Katz hypothesizes that this may be because the United States assimilates immigrant communities in a fashion alien to most industrialized societies. After five years in the U.S., documented immigrants can be naturalized, and their children are considered American at birth; most European nations are far more stringent.

Still, there is persistent inequality between whites and blacks, and the African-American middle class and those who were not given the chance to take advantage of the gains of the 1960s. Anger over this injustice is kept corralled within heavily segregated neighborhoods by a militarized police force and the political repression of most non-mainstream political organizations, thus curbing "collective violence against perceived injustice or organized political protest." And America's masses of undocumented immigrants are kept in line by the fear of ICE raids, while "the twin mechanisms of deportation and unemployment constitute an effective method of social control."

Instead of collective violence or mass protest, Katz argues, despair and rage have been turned inward resulting in heightened personal or criminal violence, like the confrontation between Herbert and Shorty. (Katz notes that of the 375 Philadelphia murders in 2005, 308 of the dead were black men, most of them young.) Massive unemployment and deeply troubled school systems contribute to the rise of criminal activity. The problem metastasizes as the influence of the underground economy (reinforced by the hostile tactics of many urban police departments) strains, and often breaks, the community's relationship with law enforcement.

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