US cities riot-free this summer: can simple courtesy keep them calm?
New York — So far, this summer has been relatively free of street violence in the cities of America despite dire predictions about the effect of Reagan administration budget cuts on the urban poor.
Only recent sporadic clashes between police and minority demonstrators and construction workers here in New York have marred the picture, unlike last year when rioting erupted in Miami, Tampa, and other US cities -- and unlike Britain, whose old industrial cities are beset by similar trouble at the moment.
Can common courtesy and brotherly love help defuse racial tensions and prevent minority unrest?
An emphatic yes, declare some authorities on social problems, such as Steven Klein of the Martin Luther King Center for Social Change in Atlanta, which holds annual conferences on nonviolent means for social change.
But other leaders stress just as emphatically that additional concrete steps have to be taken to avoid the possible recurrence of the kind of strife that has shaken American cities in the past. Street crime, which is on the rise, these leaders say, is only a more subtle form of minority unrest.
According to Mr. Klein, Columbia University sociologist Herbert Gans, and other authorities whose views were solicited, these are the main reasons why minority communities have not reacted so far, despite the considerable "economic crunch":
* By improving minority hiring practices and working more closely with neighborhood leaders, many police departments throughout the nation have not generated the kind of "sparks" (such as shootings of blacks by white officers) that have triggered much of the urban violence in the past.
* When such incidents have taken place -- inadvertently or otherwise -- reason often has prevailed over emotion. Even in Philadelphia, which has a long history of black unhappiness with police brutality, "There have been some shooting of blacks by white officers [in the past year], but there has been an opportunity for reason," says civil rights lawyer Anthony Jackson.
* "There may be a perception within the minority community that we're on a conservative crest right now and this may not be the most propitious time to go out in the streets and demonstrate," says Bernard McDonald, an expert on minority community affairs with the Ford Foundation.
Mr. McDonald, who is black and has been a community activist himself for many years in Brooklyn, also believes "there is more common sense and understanding within the minority community, which indicates that urban unrest has not been that useful in producing lasting results. . . ."
* More blacks and other minorities now are working within the system to attain their goals.
However, some experts like Klein believe the lack of widespread unrest this summer could well be "the lull before the storm," unless greater efforts are made to stem rising black unemployment and other critical needs. Specifically, Klein warns that the fact that 314,000 CETA (Comprehensive Employment and Training Act) jobs will be eliminated locally by Sept. 15 -- half of which are held by blacks -- could generate new unrest.
(Others contend that the schools, which will have resumed for a majority of young people by then, will help channel the restlessness that might have been caused, had the CETA cuts come earlier.)
Nationwide, however, the job picture for black seems to be worsening. According to the latest US Department of Labor figures black unemployment has risen over the last year, while white unemployment has fallen. Total black unemployment has gone from 14.5 percent in June, 1980, to 15.5 percent last month. Many minority leaders contend that black unemployment is even higher, especially in urban areas. White unemployment on the other hand, has dropped from 6.7 percent to 6.4 percent in the same period.
Meanwhile, the Reagan administration contends that its economic package is a prescription that will eventually reduce minority unemployment as the entire economy improves and more workers are needed.
"Obviously, lots of things have been done since the 1960's," Professor Gans said in an interview. "One of the things is that you have a larger black middle class and a larger black upper-middle class that is much less threatened than poor blacks. On the other hand with the economic crunch, the whole atmosphere is becoming leaner, and the signals for that are coming from Washington."
As a result, he continued: "I think that deliquency and juvenile crime will go up. It has to if the unemployment figures go up. Mugging is an individualistic kind of protest, in a way. It's not necessarily a conscious one , but I'm not sure that riots are always conscious protests."
Mr. McDonald says one has to be careful in trying to link unemployment to racial unrest: "Simply because there is high unemployment [among minorities], I don't think one should expect automatically for there to be urban unrest. These incidents usually result from some precipitous act, whether it relates to the criminal justice system [or] police handling of a sensitive situation."