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David Linzee

Are London's Troubles What Lie In Store For Delmar?

August 24, 2011
Delmar's nightmare came true in London two weeks ago while I was there. We have throngs of kids, some of them loud and obnoxious. They had kids burning buildings, looting stores, and assaulting and even killing people. Should we take this horror as a warning of what lies before us?

Damaging as it is to my image as daredevil foreign correspondent of the West End Word, I have to admit that I saw nothing of the disturbances. I was out and about all over the city, and all seemed perfectly normal. The disorders were isolated and short-lived, though the news media worked hard to give a different impression. When it comes to sensationalism, the British media are even worse than ours. Even the Manchester Guardian, a supposedly respectable paper, ran the headline "London Engulfed in Flames," which simply wasn't true.

Though the coverage has been overblown, it accurately reflects public alarm and disgust. The reaction is remarkable in several respects. First, it lacks a racial dimension, unlike the reaction to crowds of youths on Delmar, or practically any other issue in St. Louis. The unrest began with the police shooting of a black man, but whether it was justified was completely irrelevant to the arson and opportunistic looting that followed. News coverage showed that many of the looters were white, and many of the victimized store owners were people of color.

The other remarkable feature of the reaction was what one TV commentator called "a lack of hand-wringing." It was hard to find anyone making excuses for poor misunderstood youth. The courts are busy as I write, and stiff sentences are being imposed. The tone of ordinary folks' conversations is exasperated. The public is frightened, angry and looking for someone to blame.

The police came in for a lot of blame at first, for not being able to clamp down on the troublemakers immediately. But it's unreasonable to expect the police to fight crime the way super-heroes do, swooping down to catch bad guys red-handed. Order is kept in a functioning society not by massive policing, but by a general consent that order works in everyone's favor.

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That social compact is falling apart in Britain, many are saying. Youth running wild in the streets is a symptom of social breakdown. This isn't a new idea; "A Clockwork Orange" was 40 years ago. But the lack of novelty only increases the anxiety. The alarm clock has been buzzing, but we wouldn't get out of bed, and now it's too late. Which threat you worry about most depends on individual bent. It can be the national debt, climate change or civil disorder, but the general mood, in Britain and America, is pessimistic.

I must admit to sharing the feeling that the future looks less than rosy, and I would never say that American cities can't be hit by the troubles that struck British ones two weeks ago. But to the question I posed above, do Britain's troubles tell us what lies in store for Delmar? I would answer no.

Social conditions in the two countries may be broadly similar, but the urban geography is strikingly different. In Europe, generally speaking, the well-to-do live in the central city, while the poor and middle-class live in the suburbs.

To transpose London's troubles to St. Louis, you have to imagine the plastic surgeons and CEOs of North St. Louis watching in horror as arson and looting break out in Ballwin and Belleville. It was the diffuseness of the law-breaking that made it so hard to contain. Delmar, by contrast, is compact: it's a fairly short stretch of one street. That makes it easier to police effectively. In addition, our police have an advantage – the curfew. Under British law, it's difficult to impose a curfew over a whole area, though that is now likely to change.

On the other hand, an advantage the British police have that ours do not is the widespread presence of closed-circuit television cameras. They didn't prevent the riots, obviously, but they are aiding greatly in the apprehension and prosecution of rioters. University City officials have been talking about putting CCTV cameras on Delmar for a couple of years now, and I expect we will be seeing them in the near future.

Finally, I think the British unrest highlights the shakiness of an assumption we hold dear, the one that underlies much of the worrying about the Delmar situation. We assume that if you allow a lot of kids to get together, they're bound to make trouble. This isn't so much wrong as outdated. The British looters were using their Blackberries and Facebook pages to egg each other on and coordinate their criminal activities. Thanks to modern technology, kids don't need to get together to make trouble.

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