New York Times, February 1, 2011, 6:00 am
It’s Always the Urban Pot That Boils Over
By EDWARD L. GLAESER
From the Boston Massacre to current events in Tunisia and Egypt, social unrest often requires the critical mass of cities to take hold.
Edward L. Glaeser is an economics professor at Harvard and the author of the forthcoming book “Triumph of the City.”
Will the conflict in Cairo end with a free and peaceful Egypt? Or is it Tehran 1979 all over again, where anti-American theocracy trumped secularism and freedom?
Whatever course history will follows, the momentous changes in North Africa remind us that our world is shaped by its cities. The poorer and less democratic parts of the planet have become increasingly urban and that makes change, full of hope and fear, inevitable.
That recent uprisings have been assisted by electronic technologies like Facebook and Twitter only reinforces the point that technological change is making cities more, not less, important.
Cities aren’t just places of economic productivity and cultural innovation. For millennia, they have also been the epicenters of dramatic political upheaval.
The Dutch revolt that led to Europe’s first modern republic began in urban Flanders in 1566 with icon-bashing mobs. The American Revolution had roots in the rowdy crowds of Boston, with its tea party and its “Boston massacre,” a street fight that left five colonists dead. Urban agitators toppled regimes in Paris in 1789 (and 1830 and 1848), Wuchang in 1911, St. Petersburg in 1917, Leipzig in 1989 and now Tunis in 2011.
These uprisings aren’t just accidentally urban; they would be unthinkable at low densities. Cities connect agitators, like Sam Adams and John Hancock. Riots require a certain kind of urban congestion; police power must be overwhelmed by a sea of humanity.
A protester who engages in some extralegal activity on his own, like throwing a rock at a police officer or solider or yelling out calls to topple a dictator, has a pretty good chance of being arrested. The same protester undertaking the same action has almost no chance of being locked up if he is one of thousands.
Because the cost of rioting (the probability of arrest) falls with the number of rioters, riots are a classic tipping-point phenomenon that can sustain themselves only if they reach a certain scale.
Riots can achieve this scale through a pre-existing crowd, such as the hundreds who gathered to watch a white highway patrolman impound the car of an African-American arrested for drunken driving in the Watts section of Los Angeles in 1965. With the strength of numbers, “the mob stoned automobiles, pulled Caucasian motorists out of their cars and beat them, and menaced a police field command post which had been set up in the area,” according to the report of a state commission.
Organizers can also pull together the scale needed for a successful riot. The deadliest riot in American history seems to have planned during the weekend before Monday, July 14, 1863, when organized mobs marched across New York to protest the draft.
In the Spartacist Uprising of Berlin 1919, an initially small fracas expanded dramatically when political leaders, including Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, prodded their allies to turn out en masse.
The most puzzling riots form after some mysterious signal that people interpret as sign that their city will rise up — that signal then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The acquittal of the four policemen charged in the Rodney King beating began the 1992 Los Angeles riot. A similar acquittal began the 1980 Miami riot.
In Tunisia, the focal event was the self-immolation of Mohamed Bouazizi in Sidi Bouzid. The uprising was unplanned: people just took to the streets knowing that others would be there. As news of the uprising spread, more and more people took to the streets.
Despite the mysterious power that some events have to conjure a riot, urban upheaval is not exactly random. Across countries, urbanization and ethnic heterogeneity increase the frequency of riots. Dictatorships have fewer riots. Across cities in the United States in the 1960s, riots’ frequency and intensity increased with the unemployment rate, not poverty.
While neither Tunisia nor Egypt are particular poor, by world standards, they have high rates of unemployment.
Typically, riots are repressed after overwhelmed local police forces get significant external support, such as the Union Army that came to New York City in 1863. When riots can often overwhelm police forces, most modern governments have more than enough military might to repress any riot, if the army is willing to slaughter civilians.
The key moment in an urban revolution is the point when it becomes clear whether the army will fight to defend the existing government. The uprising in Cairo reached that point yesterday, when the Army said that it would not fire on the protesters.
The end of the Ancien Régime became obvious when the Gardes Françaises, who had often lived with civilians, were unwilling to fire on Parisians in July 1789. The czar’s rule was over in March 1917 when his troops mutinied rather than suppress the St. Petersburg demonstrations.
In Tunisia, “it was General Ammar’s refusal to fire on civilians that led to Mr. Ben Ali’s final exit,” Arab newspapers reported.
By contrast, the United States has maintained political stability through countless riots by summoning troops with little empathy for the rioters, like the farm-boy soldiers who surely had little fondness for the urban, often immigrant, draft resisters of 1863 New York.
Cities are places of revolution, because urban proximity connects organizers of opposition. Large urban populations create the scale needed to initially overwhelm local law enforcement. The physical barriers that occur in cities make it difficult for troops to maneuver and disperse demonstrators.
And the economic importance of cities means that citywide demonstrations can disrupt the economic heart of a nation. Cities also create the social exchanges between soldiers and citizens, such as the food-sharing between protesters and the military, that can be so fatal for military discipline.
Isolated farms are stable; cities are not. The constant interaction of human energy in dense clusters creates innovations in every area of human life, including politics. Instability is scary, especially for people who already enjoy freedom, peace and prosperity and therefore have much to lose.
But a status quo full of repression and poverty is bad. Change brings hope, as it has to Tunisia, which is feeling the warmth of first freedom. The risk inherent in urban life is still far better than the pharaonic solution of rural poverty and dictatorship.
We shall see after this Saturday in Munich how big is the Pot.
START Me Up
Rebecca N. White | 02.02.11
New START is finally getting off the ground...
tester; thanks for the heads up, and the link. I'll be looking for news out of Munich this weekend.
I posted the It’s Always the Urban Pot That Boils Over article because it discusses critical mass, and there are parallels between Egypt and the UBC. We Carpenters have been subject to the dictatorial regime of McCarron, like the Egyptians under Mubarak. As a third party, the U.S. Government tries to balance mass aspirations with interests of the status quo. When enough people demand regime change it can happen. While legalistic remedies press for reform, organizing networks of opposition groups towards critical mass appears to be the most effective method for toppling tyrants. We need to keep moving beyond the virtual reality online, out into the real world, face to face, widening a circle of allies until our movement becomes spontaneous and self perpetuating. More meetings, events, and activity! We have the numbers in NYC to turn the tide. But it takes time to build inertia; waiting on someone else to lead is what's keeping us from getting anywhere. If even just a few Carpenters here and there do something-- scheduling informational rallies, circulating petitions and leaflets, setting up meetings to brainstorm on strategy and diversity of tactics, organizing letter writing sessions, outreaching to community, advocacy groups, implementing technology, twitter, etc.-- our autonomous, and coordinated efforts have the potential to continue growing into an unstoppable force. We see how to overthrow totalitarian rulers; let's get out there in the street and make history!
In reply to this post by albert-mcguire1876
Curious, Where was this post when just a few marched on the council months ago ???????
Or am I wrong and you did sign up that day ?
Thanks for your emphasis on the need for initiative, and action, over hollow words. We need reminding for the urgent need for action, as the tendency to opt out into the comfort zone does try to take over. Too few present at marches will be a concern until we reach critical mass. Apathy from our point of view seems less about a membership set in its ways, than a communication problem, an outreach project. We observe on line discussion branching out through voices at meetings, information flowing daily among thousands of Carpenters working jobs, and on the OWL. Every one of us can apply pressure in different ways, as appropriate to the moment. Brother Musumeci is calling to task union officials for their obstinate refusal to abide by the rules of parliamentary procedure, just as stewards should resist the urge to look the other way in the event of noncompliance on the job, or inadequate response by BA's. What appears to be an insignificant breach may be where a stand needs to be kept. We need to step it up a notch, however possible, and take back this union for the membership. All overseers taking a paycheck on us should be put to work; that means our authority is to be reclaimed as the do-it-yourself ethic kicks in. Standing back and seeing the big picture, keeping records, generating creative solutions, pushing from all directions, finding our courage; 2011 is the year rank and file NYC Carpenters can rise up. Out-of-work=picket duty, let's get to know each other and coordinate. We can all distribute informative leaflets with meeting dates. The content can be posted here in files so anyone can print copies to hand out on job sites for members who aren't keeping up on the news. Like Joe Strummer of the Clash said: THE FUTURE IS UNWRITTEN!
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