George Floyd

A Few Days of Riots Can Echo for Many Years

America has survived worse in terms of urban unrest. But that's not necessarily reason for optimism.

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The property damage, looting, and fires that accompanied many of the protests over police abuse after the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers can create a dizzying sense of a society that is inescapably doomed. However, even worse waves of destruction have hit America before, for the same or similar reasons.

The police killing in 2014 of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, led to much urban unrest and police clashes, but the largest-scale directly analogous urban rioting came in the aftermath of the 1992 acquittal of Los Angeles police for brutally beating Rodney King after pulling him over for a driving infraction.

Like this year, the public release of a video of the police committing their crime precipitated the public rage. Those riots resulted in 50 deaths, 2,000 injuries, nearly 12,000 arrests, and 1,000 damaged buildings amounting to a billion dollars in property damage. But it also led, over time, to reforms of the Los Angeles Police Department that made it a marginally better institution. As The Wall Street Journal reports, "Shootings by LAPD officers fell to a 30-year low last year, with officers firing on 26 suspects, compared with 115 in 1990."

The Rodney King beating led to spillover riots in a handful of other cities, but the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968 are the most apt analogy to what's happened after the murder of George Floyd, in terms of breadth and intensity of unrest.

The nation's capital was hard hit, with 8,000 arrests, 13 dead, over a thousand injured, hundreds of stores looted, and over a thousand fires. National Guardsmen and even members of the 82nd Airborne Division, numbering over 12,000, swarmed the city for over a week. Most analysts assume the District's 15 percent loss of population over the 1970s can be largely attributed to the riots and their aftermath.

The unrest likely caused as much as $200 million (in contemporary dollars) in direct damage. As a result, insurance became difficult and expensive in the city for many years thereafter. While some might assume that shuttered businesses would return when the rioting stopped, it actually took decades for that to fully happen.

In 1968, Baltimore saw its streets filled with over 6,000 enforcers, from city cops to state troopers to, mostly, the National Guard. Over 250 fire alarms were reported and by the time the days of unrest were over, more than 700 people had been injured, six killed, and 5,500 people arrested; 1,050 businesses were burned, vandalized, or looted, at a cost of $79 million in damages (in current dollars). Housing values and population plunged for years afterward.

Chicago was another of the most damaged cities, with over 2,000 arrests, 48 citizens shot by police, and 11 deaths. National Guard and Army forces filled the city, where over 100 fires were set, telephone and power lines were disabled, and the city's notoriously tough then-Mayor Richard Daley shut down streets to cars and ordered gun and ammo sales halted.

Pittsburgh also had the National Guard called in to deal with over 500 fires and over 100 businesses looted and nearly 1,000 arrests. Over the course of the post-MLK assassination riots, 125 cities saw some rioting, Army soldiers, Marines, and members of the National Guard took over multiple cities, dozens of people died, over 21,000 people were arrested, and many hundreds of millions of dollars in property damage were inflicted. Not only that, but the groundwork for the insane level of police militarization that we suffer today were laid via the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration.

The negative effects of riots, looting, and widescale vandalism echoed for decades. Researchers in a 2004 National Bureau of Economic Research paper found that "riots depressed the median value of black-owned property between 1960 and 1970, with little or no rebound in the 1970s," and "that the racial gap in the value of property widened in riot-afflicted cities during the 1970s….Using both city-level and household-level data, we find negative, persistent, and economically significant correlations between riot severity and black-owned property values."

It Didn't Start (or End) in 1968

But 1968 was an amplified continuation of a pattern of urban rioting that began earlier. America suffered eight riots in 1965, 36 in 1966, 134 in 1967, leading up to the 141 riots of 1968. The Watts riots in Los Angeles in 1965, also proximately triggered by police mistreatment of African Americans, led to over 3,000 fires and 34 deaths.

Just in 1967, America saw nearly a billion dollars in property damage, thousands of people injured, and 177 people killed in riots that resulted in over 20 cases of the National Guard being called in to quash citizens.

Many of the same cities, and even neighborhoods, that experienced unrest in 1968 saw riotous destruction along with protests in the past week. Chicago suffered over 80 fires in one night, a worse one-night record than in 1968.

We are far from done tallying the damages of the riots accompanying the George Floyd protests, which saw, as the Associated Press reported, "Curfews…imposed in major cities around the U.S., including Atlanta, Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Seattle. About 5,000 National Guard soldiers and airmen were activated in 15 states and Washington, D.C.," and fires, tear-gassings, and police cars set on fire from Reno to Fargo to Salt Lake City. Nearly 62,000 National Guardsmen have been acting as domestic law enforcement around the country.

Cleveland, Pittsburgh (at least 60 buildings damaged along with at least 44 arrests), Grand Rapids, Charleston, Greensboro, Louisville, Portland, and Wilmington are still licking untallied wounds, and massive damage has hit Seattle (property destruction worse than that city's 1999 World Trade Organization protests).

Insurers are confident that Minneapolis, where the murder of Floyd occurred and whose police force is facing the largest public opprobrium, is facing well over $25 million in property claims now with at least 220 buildings burned, though the chamber of commerce there grimly predicts economic damage more like $1 billion. Some economists guess, in the aftermath of story after story of sad businesspeople who saw their businesses looted or destroyed the very week they returned to business from the COVID-19 shutdown, that the riots may well shave another couple of percentage points overall off U.S. GDP this year.

That America has survived similar or worse waves of urban destruction doesn't mean we can blithely write off either the destruction or the causes with which it was connected as something we don't need to worry about unduly, especially when we recall that the larger issue of abusive policing of minorities is still lighting fires metaphorical and real decades after 1992.

Even beyond the shorter-term costs to individuals and cities of trying to rebuild after the destruction, we know that such bouts of chaos can and likely will mean decades of bad news for businesses, homeowners, and those whose quality of life depends on reliable access to a variety of commerce, or simply a sense of basic civic peace.

Police getting away with abusing and murdering citizens extrajudicially is terrible and cannot be countenanced. Setting fires and destroying buildings and businesses in cities is also terrible and ought not to be countenanced. America seems fated for now to suffer both these terrible injustices, with no obvious path out.

The many incidents of violently riotous police actions at events protesting that very behavior makes one worry that nothing short of dismantling urban policing from the ground up will do much, though the nascent effort by Rep. Justin Amash (L–Mich.) to quash "qualified immunity" is a decent start.

It's also too soon to know if 1968 is the most apt historical analogy for 2020—or if this year will prove to be a redux of 1967, or even 1965, pointing toward longer, hotter, more destructive summers ahead.

NEXT: 3 Libertarian Tips for the #DefundPolice Movement

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  1. a billion dollars in property damage.

    Meh. That’s, what, 0.01% of the COVID bailout?

    1. Yes but keeping airline executives in clover was totally worth it.

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  2. America seems fated for now to suffer both these terrible injustices, with no obvious path out.

    Some believed there was a brief moment of opportunity (I’m not so sure) to make a dent in one of those injustices before the other took hold of the narrative.

    I can only assume some level of urban flight followed those previous riots. Coupled this year with virus-induced panic, I’d have to think more with means to do so will leave densely populated cities to themselves.

    1. With in my life, the start of no-knock warrants was the beginning of the end. Justification for the militarization of police soon followed, with broken window policing and civil asset forfeiture following close behind. Police had become the armed wing of tax collection, with and endless array of cites to enforce, and a hapless populace with a byzantine maze of procedures to navigate to get some relief.

      Inner-cities were just as much a lost cause then as they are now. An area I lived in had millions pumped into it as redevelopment. It is several blocks of vacant fields now. For whatever reason, the ghettos are irredeemable except as incentive for the best and the brightest to get the hell out.

      A local restaurant seemed to have a high percentage of obvious mental defectives on staff, whether through charity or some other cause. That works well enough to keep the otherwise unemployable occupied and productive, but otherwise the pull yourself up by your bootstraps of libertarianism writ large will end in gated communities and ghettos, as the mediocre will find it easier to throw a brick than navigate the new social landscape.

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      2. “A local restaurant seemed to have a high percentage of obvious mental defectives on staff, whether through charity or some other cause. ”
        You can say the name, it’s Waffle House, isn’t it?

  3. A few days of riots will echo malignly for years for those who lost their businesses, their livelihoods, and their life savings.
    But at least a bunch a thugs got to loot, (I mean redistribute the wealth) and get a bunch of free shit.
    As a added plus, a whole lot of spoiled, clueless rich white kids were able to release their frustrations over an evil capitalist system that gives them thousands of dollars every month from their trust funds that Daddy was so mean and cruel to give them.

    1. Yes, but those spoiled, clueless rich white kids will be able to boast about their revolutionary activities at the club for years to come.

      Totally worth stuff like this: https://streamable.com/sdjvfa

      Homeless men shouldn’t have “stuff” anyway.

      1. That makes me sick to my stomach. You know what, I sort of wish that these fucks get their wish and the police get disbanded. See how long they enjoy it without anyone protecting them.

        1. Every one of those rioters slept the sleep of the just and the good that night, because they burned that poor man’s only possessions in the fight against racism.

          Here are some noble rioters beating a small business owner with a 2×4 because she tried to protect her shop. It’s okay though, she might have been a secret racist or something, they beat her with the approval of their own consciences.

          1. Let’s get together and DO SOMETHING!

    2. We’re gonna go from redlining, to white flight, to gentrification, and back to white flight here soon. If communities start re-instituting red-lining again, the circle will be complete.

  4. At least the riots have been equal opportunity events.

  5. Thanks for the historical perspective. I was around for all of that albeit watching from afar. There is no question that the riots helped transform great cities like Detroit and Baltimore into the shit holes they are today. And they also empowered the law and order types like Joe Biden to bring the hammer down that led to even more evil shit like the WOD. Unlike the 60s the press these days is mostly celebrating the riots but ultimately people of all races and classes will not tolerate disorder and will demand that the state bring the hammer down. And history will repeat itself once again.

    1. I would love nothing more than to see those punk degenerates who beat up that woman in front of her store get nabbed either by police or some old fashioned Sicilian justice.

      1. or face some old…

      2. Leave the cops out of it. Cops handle people, and these fucks, they’re just rabid animals. There’s only one way to deal with a rabid animal.

    2. Detroit was already trending downward fast. The riot in ’67 just sped the process up.

      1. I don’t disagree.

  6. Yes, but those spoiled, clueless rich white kids will be able to boast about their revolutionary activities at the club for years to come.

    Totally worth stuff like this: https://streamable.com/sdjvfa

    Homeless men shouldn’t have “stuff” anyway.

    1. Reply to Uncle Jay. How it duplicated itself down here as well is beyond me.

  7. Well, NBC News just informed me that Trump had threatened to turn the military loose on protesters, and the 4 star general Kelly had rebuked this idea in a scathing op-ed. Is there another “President Trump” out there? I one I saw on tv was the usual a–hole who is usually seen on tv, but I swear that guy never said he would use the military on “protesters.”

    1. The establishment elite are hyper-prescient.
      They knew through the alignment of stars that Trump was double-super-secret dogwhistling to the hoi polloi about a plan to turn the military loose on protesters.

    2. There’s an ex-secret service, ex-cop on youtube, Dan Bongino, he said today that according to some old contacts he has at the white house, a number of generals are talking about removing trump from the chain of command, make him into just a powerless figurehead.

      1. That would be bad for everybody

      2. Wow. Everyone is so pissed that Trump hasn’t started a war.

        If true I hope those Generals are Private E-1 before a week is out.

        1. Keep an eye on the news this weekend. See if it turns into something that the regular people will need to do something about.

  8. What’s the problem? Insurance covers nihilism right?

  9. Families were denied access to their loved ones during the pandemic, Floyd gets a televised funeral on national TV with no masks and social distancing.

    Spin this one for me.

    1. It was a clever trap. All those people are gonna git the coof fer shur.

  10. Well for starters, as a way out, we should stop supporting organizations that defend bad cops, like police unions, and we should stop supporting organizations that defend rioting, like Black Lives Matter.

    1. Pretty sure those were step one and done quite a while ago for most of the folks here.

  11. While I do not, and wish never to, understand the logic of looting and wrecking private property due to your complaint against government. We suffer from much too much government. Something of or someone of the government(s) is, thus, all too easy to find. Arguments for order and nonviolence, no matter the purpose or provocation have no more logic nor historical literacy on their side. Political disorder and violence or the threat of the same have and will always, in cases of adequate purpose or provocation, be necessary to the cause of liberty. America was born of political disorder and violence, and the Magna Carta was birthed from the threat of the same.

    “Among the several cloudy appellatives which have been commonly employed as cloaks for misgovernment, there is none more conspicuous in this atmosphere of illusion than the word Order.” ~ Jeremy Bentham

  12. 50 plus years of riots..trillions of dollars spent on all sorts of “social welfare” programs (many folks got very rich running), govt laws to reduce inequity…and here we are. Any better than 50 years ago. Maybe someone should investigate why a little more…then again if we did we might be very disturbed at the reality of the situation…and of course a lot of folks wouldn’t be able to enrich themselves anymore.

    1. Median IQ in a given population of people likely has something to do with the observed outcomes…

      But *everybody knows* those IQ tests are racist and classist. I mean, how’s a kid from Baltimore or Chicago supposed to know what a regatta is? Amirite?

      Why… blaming these outcomes on average intelligence must be rayciss or something.

  13. What happened to the old headline? Malignly? My phone doesn’t think that’s a word.

  14. Everyone deserves equal justice under the law, even convicted criminals. It would be nice, however, if the protests didn’t include looting, and if the central figure, Floyd, wasn’t a felon convicted of assault and armed robbery, with five years in the slammer. Social change is crucial, but before people select heroes and causes, I wish they’d be a little more thoughtful.

    1. I agree the argument is with the government not the sandwich shop, we suffer under so much government that something or someone government is all too easy to find.

      A police victim with a “cleaner” history would be a much better case for a cause. The Jack Yantis, a rancher called by police to help them with a bull then murdered by them, and Grace Denk, an Air Force Crew Chief blowing off a a little steam between deployments and celebrating a promotion murdered by police for raising a little hell, cases of unacknowledged murder by police have long incensed me.

  15. We have too many cops, especially in cities where unions get guaranteed staffing levels. Since serious crimes like murder have dropped, these cops are bored and look to harass mostly black people over “quality of life” crimes. So you can either eliminate these crimes, which won’t do much to stop the police abuse, or you can lay off a big chunk of the police and take away their toys like tasers and military equipment. Would love to see that happen, but am not going to hold my breath.

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  16. I was just a kid in Detroit in the late 60’s, so I didn’t really experience the riots first hand, but I do remember what was later called ‘White Flight” and what ultimately turned into varying degrees of “White Avoidance”. My parents and their generation mostly avoid Detroit whenever possible. I don’t actively avoid it, but I just don’t find myself with a reason to go down there. And if I’m considering it, I end up deciding that the drive (including the return drive after drinks), parking and crime aren’t worth whatever I was going there for.

    I can’t IMAGINE living in the city, or moving my business there. The taxes are high, as is crime and corruption (Hey Kwame!) and the schools are terrible, even though they spend as much per pupil as our suburban school.

    More riots just reinforce that the city is a net negative, and an unnecessary risk.

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