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Jerome Lyle Rappaport

Jerome Lyle Rappaport
Founder and Board Member
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Edward Glaeser

Edward Glaeser
Professor of Economics at Harvard University
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Stephen P. Johnson

Stephen P. Johnson
Executive Director of Phyllis and Jerome Lyle Rappaport Foundation
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Greg Massing

Greg Massing
Executive Director for the Rappaport Center for Law and Public Service
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Alasdair Roberts

Alasdair Roberts
Professor of Law and Public Policy at Suffolk University Law School
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Joseph Curtatone

Joseph Curtatone
Mayor, City of Somerville
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Tim H. Davis

Tim H. Davis
Independent Research Consultant
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Scott Harshbarger

Scott Harshbarger
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Vivien Li
Executive Director of The Boston Harbor Association
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Guest contributors

Monika Bandyopadhyay
Suffolk University Law Student

David Barron
Harvard Law School and former Deputy Counsel for the Office of Legal Counsel in the US Department of Justice

Linda Bilmes
Senior lecturer in public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School. Assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Clinton Administration.

Brandy H.M. Brooks
Director, Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, Bruner Foundation

Felicia Cote
Rappaport Fellow, Harvard Law School/Harvard Kennedy School.

Amanda Eden
Suffolk University Law School student

Sara Farnum
Student, Suffolk Univ. Law School

Kristin Faucette
Student at Suffolk University Law School

Benjamin Forman
Research Director, MassINC

Arthur Hardy-Doubleday
JD/MBA student at Suffolk University Law School and the Sawyer School of Business

Theodore Kalivas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

David Linhart
Student, Boston University School of Law

Antoniya Owens
Research Analyst, Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Susan Prosnitz
Senior Advisor, TSA, Washington, DC

Ben Thomas
Boston Green Blog, Dukakis Center for Urban & Regional Policy

Matthew Todaro
Student at Boston College Law School

Alexander von Hoffman
Senior Researcher, Joint Center for Housing Studies

Brett Walker
Student, Boston College Law School

Margarita Warren
Student at Suffolk University Law School

It’s Always the Urban Pot That Boils Over

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011
By Edward Glaeser

 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.


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