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.


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.