Did COVID-19 Lockdown Orders Help Fuel Riots Nationwide?

Millions of people out of a job and stuck at home for months is a recipe for civil unrest.


The lockdown orders imposed by America's governors and mayors already inspired one wave of "reopen" protests explicitly aimed at lifting those restrictions. There's also good reason to think these same heavy-handed shelter-in-place mandates helped to fuel the anti-police protests currently sweeping the nation.

Last night saw yet another round of demonstrations, police crackdowns, and looting in America's cities. Police in Washington, D.C., fired off flashbangs, while helicopters with U.S. Army markings buzzed the crowds at low altitudes.

In New York City, people smashed up businesses throughout midtown Manhattan. The same was true in Los Angeles, where a day of peaceful protests once again morphed into an evening of property destruction and arrests.

The epicenter is Minneapolis, where city police killed an unarmed George Floyd, his death captured in a truly shocking video last Monday. The city soon after erupted in mass protests, and later, riots. Close to 500 people were arrested over the weekend, and both local businesses and a police precinct have been burned down.

This basic play-by-play—where protests spring up in response to the police killing of an unarmed black man, and then later degenerate into riots and violent police crackdowns—is hardly unheard of in recent American history.

In 2014, we had Ferguson. This was followed by the Baltimore riots a year later. Neither required a global pandemic nor a near-total shutdown of the economy to happen.

And yet, while these killings sparked large-scale "Black Lives Matter" protests across the country, serious rioting and property damage were mostly contained to the cities where the shootings actually happened.

Not so in the case of the Floyd killing, which has prompted intense protests, riots, and police violence in almost every major American city. If Monday night's events are any indication, there's little sign of either the street activism or the violence slowing down.

Given the circumstances leading up to these protests and riots, this probably shouldn't be surprising.

Jobless claims passed the 40 million mark last week, reports The New York Times. Many of those still employed have been stuck at home (and often ordered to stay there) with nothing to do for close to three months now. Both have left people feeling frustrated while depriving them of any real outlets for their anger.

The protests that have arisen organically in response to Floyd's death, and police brutality in general, have therefore provided the perfect opportunity for millions of bored, frustrated, and out-of-work Americans to let off some steam. With no bar or party to go to on the weekend, and no job to show up to during the week, why not engage in protesting or even rioting?

This is an intuitively plausible idea. It's also one supported by economic research.

In a 1996 paper, economists Denise DiPasquale and Ed Glaeser tried to understand the causes of the 1992 Los Angeles riots, which were sparked by the acquittal of four police officers who had beaten black motorist Rodney King.

The two economists looked at international riot data, cross-city comparisons from the 1960 race riots in the U.S., and then evidence from Los Angeles itself to try and determine how much of the rioting L.A. saw was the result of community factors, and how much of it could be chalked up to individual incentives.

In addition to social conditions like L.A.'s ethnic heterogeneity and large population, their paper found that a high unemployment rate for black men—which was 25 percent in South Central Los Angeles at the time—was a significant contributing factor to the riots.

The two theorized that "citizens with a lower opportunity cost of time should be more willing to spend time rioting, and less bothered by the time costs involved in prison time." Basically, someone without a job had few better ways to spend their time than participating in a riot, and had relatively less to lose by being imprisoned for said rioting.

The Los Angeles Times reports that the current unemployment rate for the entire city of Los Angeles is 24 percent. It's a similar picture in Washington D.C., where 104,000 people have filed for unemployment out of a workforce that numbered 420,000 in March.

The New York Department of Labor reports that New York City's unemployment rate for April was 14.2 percent. Over 2 million people in Pennsylvania have filed for unemployment, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer, as of late May.

That's a lot of people who don't have to show up to work in the morning, and who therefore have less of a disincentive to participate in protests or even street violence.

At the same time, many of the social alternatives to protesting remain officially closed. Concerts, sporting events, and other forms of mass gatherings are still prohibited nationwide.

D.C. only started its Phase One reopening on Friday. That same day, Los Angeles announced dine-in restaurants and "non-essential" businesses could reopen, provided they maintained strict social distancing protocols. New York City is not expected to start its phased reopening until June 8.

The fact that so many businesses remain closed further lowers the opportunity costs of time for potential protestors and rioters, making them more likely to pour out into the streets.

Business closures also mean that there are fewer shopkeepers keeping an eye on their stores, and fewer patrons out on the street, all of whom could play some role in suppressing violence just by being out, about, and law abiding.

That leaves the police as the only feasible means of law enforcement. Given the anti-police nature of the protests and the cops' own penchant for overreaction, that's obviously going to escalate things further.

None of this is to say that lockdown orders are the sole cause of the civil unrest that the country is now experiencing. The particulars of the Floyd killing, long-simmering grievances against law enforcement, not to mention overaggressive police tactics, all play a role.

The COVID-19 pandemic would have put a lot of people out of work, regardless of the government's decisions. Nevertheless, government lockdowns have shuttered much more of the economy than was necessary, and have kept it closed for longer than it needed to be.

That might not have caused the current wave of protests and riots, but it has almost certainly helped fuel them.