Civil unrest—civil disorder, widespread violence, and anger provoked by popular anger and discontent—could be far more likely in the United States in the near future than you might think. The classic recipe for civil unrest is a large class of unemployed or underemployed people that believe that they have little hope and little to no future.
Such people are bored, frustrated, and looking for somebody to blame their problems on. All that it takes to rouse such people to violence is a little demagoguery or rumormongering.
The large, discontented class that fuels civil unrest is already with us. One fifth of all American families need to use food stamps to buy groceries despite the improved economy. To make matters worse, the United States has one of the highest youth unemployment rates in the world. Nearly 17 percent of Americans between eighteen and twenty-nine years of age are unemployed. If that wasn’t bad enough, 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed and working in jobs that don’t require a degree.
We now have huge numbers of young people out there with a good reason to be angry. Historically, it has been such angry young men and women that fuel civil unrest and violence. The race riots of the 1960s were fueled by young African-American men that had deliberately been shut out of the American dream by decades of racism.
Today we have a whole generation of young people shut out of the American dream by economic circumstances beyond their control. Their frustration is growing because of a lack of opportunity and growing problems like student loan debt. The miracle is that they haven’t exploded into violence yet.
Civil Unrest 21st Century Style
Okay, so the ingredients for civil unrest certainly abound in our society, so what will twenty-first-century civil unrest look like? It’ll be very different from that of the 1960s, because it won’t be racially motivated; instead it will be politically and economically motivated. The roving mobs will be composed of angry and unemployed people of all races.
Those that want a preview of what it might look like should take a look at the riots that swept through British cities in August 2011. Large mobs of students and unemployed youth swept through London, Birmingham, Manchester, and other cities. The rioters smashed up cars and looted and pillaged. Many of the targets were the upper class, including diners at posh restaurants. Some news reports said rioters entered one restaurant and yanked jewelry off of wealthy patrons. The cause of the riots was purely economic, and large numbers of petty criminals and professional hooligans apparently joined the mobs.
The riots were also apparently organized by young activists and troublemakers who used Facebook to encourage rioting. Text messages over Blackberry smartphones were used to direct rioters to soft targets and to alert them to police responses. At least two young men were convicted of using Facebook to encourage rioting in Norwich, England.
Particularly frightening is the fact that many of those who organized the mobs and led them were college-educated radicals. One of them, Fahim Alam, a graduate of Oxford’s law school and the London School of Economics, has even produced a film glorifying the rioters and portraying them as heroes and victims of repression. It’s clear that many of these people were proud of what they did and would do it again. It isn’t hard to see U.S. activists like those in the Occupy movement taking a similar course.
Many of the people involved in the riots had no political axe to grind; they were simply out to loot and pillage. Mobs pillaged supermarkets and clothing stores as well as high-end shops. Yet the riots were politically motivated, and they set a clear pattern of what future violence in the U.S. might look like.
Radicals or professional criminals will use electronic media to organize a flash-mob style event. One possibility is a false rumor, say that police have murdered an activist or that food stamps are about to be shut down. The event will degenerate into violence, and criminals will come out and take advantage of it. A likely scenario is a running series of riots, in which rioters break and run when alerted to a police response and reassemble elsewhere. A mob might start pillaging downtown then get warned that police are coming by text messages and break up and head out to the suburbs to continue the fun.
Naturally, it isn’t hard to imagine authorities deliberately organizing or inciting such a violent outburst in order to justify repression. Police will use such unrest to demand more funding, more manpower, more equipment, and a greater ability to interfere in our lives. Authorities will use such unrest as an excuse to shut down the Internet or cut off cell phone service or deprive select individuals, such as members of radical groups, of the right to use electronic media.
Protecting Yourself and Your Family from Civil Unrest
So how does an average person protect herself and her family from such civil unrest? The best way to avoid such unrest is not to live near those places most likely to be hit by civil unrest. The most likely targets in a new round of civil unrest are likely to be wealthy, gentrified neighborhoods in big cities, financial districts, and posh suburbs located near large cities. Examples of these include Brooklyn, Denver’s Highlands neighborhood, and Santa Monica and Beverly Hills in Los Angeles. Also stay away from large universities, college campuses, and government buildings, which are likely to be the epicenters of disturbances.
The new style of rioting will target symbols of wealth and power. Persons driving expensive cars, high-end shops, expensive restaurants, and the well dressed are likely to be targeted. Any large store or shop that the mobs can easily break into is a likely target; this will include shopping malls and big box stores.
Living in a rural area or a district of an urban area such as a middle- or working-class suburb is a good way to be safe. If you have to work in a metro area, try living in a small town or suburb within easy commuting distance.
A good way for an average person to avoid being a target of civil unrest is to not be ostentatious. Don’t drive an expensive car, don’t live in a high-end neighborhood, don’t wear expensive clothes, don’t display expensive jewelry and cell phones, and avoid eating out at expensive restaurants. If you hear media reports of civil unrest, get out of expensive areas and downtown districts and stay away from them until it’s over. Don’t assume being in the suburbs can protect you; rioters can jump in a car and be out there in a few minutes.
What to Do in Case of Civil Unrest
The most important thing to do in the case of civil unrest is to not panic. Remain calm and logically assess the situation. Be leery of media reports, especially TV coverage, because they’re often inaccurate and exaggerated.
Get your family together in a safe place and stay there until it’s over. Most civil unrest is confined to small areas; if you stay out of it, you should be safe. Go home and hunker down and wait until it is over. Make sure your children are out of school and with you.
It would be best not to drive or use public transportation during such a situation, because you might become trapped, especially if authorities close off part of the community. Instead, stay in one safe place until it is over. Civil unrest is another reason why every family needs to have several weeks’ worth of food and supplies stockpiled in its home. Definitely stay away from shopping areas and banks during civil unrest, because those are most likely to be hit.
One step I would not take is to visibly display firearms or to try to organize any sort of armed patrol or defense. Yes, you should defend your home and your family, but you should not take any action that might provoke an armed response by police or the military. Don’t go out into the street armed or stand in front of your house with a gun. Keep your guns handy but out of sight.
Something to remember is that police and soldiers are likely to be very jittery during a disturbance. They might not be able to distinguish between an average citizen and an armed looter. This situation could get far more dangerous if the regular military, the National Guard, or police officers not used to patrol duty get sent out into the streets on armed patrol. During civil unrest, radicals often deliberately try to provoke over response by shooting or throwing objects at the police and troops. The Kent State shooting tragedy occurred because a radical tossed a dummy hand grenade at National Guardsmen during civil unrest in 1970.
The best way to get through a civil disturbance safely is to stay out of the way of both the rioters and the authorities. The last place you want to get caught is between the authorities and the rioters. Civil unrest in the United States is likely in the years ahead, but most of us should be able to get through it safely by staying out of its way.