Though thousands of demonstrators have taken to the streets of cities across the nation to express their outrage over the death of George Floyd, many hundreds have engaged in mob violence and looting. Mr. Floyd’s tragic death is, for them, a pretext for hooliganism.
We’ve seen this before, back in the bad old days of the late 1960s, when rioting became a near-everyday occurrence. Economists William J. Collins and Robert A. Margotallied an extraordinary 752 riots between 1964 and 1971. These disturbances involved 15,835 incidents of arson and caused 228 deaths, 12,741 injuries and 69,099 arrests. By an objective measure of severity, 130 of the 752 riots were considered “major,” 37 were labeled “massive” in their destructiveness.
At the time, black radicals and some white leftists saw the riots purely as political protest. Tom Hayden, the well-known New Left leader, described the violence as “a new stage in the development of Negro protest against racism, and as a logical outgrowth of the failure of the whole society to support racial equality.”
This analysis ignored the observations of witnesses on the scene. Thousands of rioters in the 1960s and early 1970s engaged in a joyful hooliganism—looting and destroying of property with wild abandon—that had no apparent political meaning. In the Detroit riot of July 1967, one of the era’s most lethal (43 people died in four nightmarish days of turmoil), the early stage of the riot was described by historian Sidney Fine as “a carnival atmosphere,” in which, as reported by a black minister eyewitness, participants exhibited “a gleefulness in throwing stuff and getting stuff out of the buildings.” A young black rioter told a newspaper reporter that he “really enjoyed” himself.
Analysts of urban rioting have identified a “Roman holiday” stage in which youths, in “a state of angry intoxication, taunt the police, burn stores with Molotov cocktails, and set the stage for looting.” This behavior is less political protest than, in Edward Banfield’s epigram of the day, “rioting mainly for fun and profit.” We are seeing some of the same looting and burning today, often treated by the media as mere exuberant protest.
Analyses of the riots that pinned blame on white bias and black victimization buttressed the protest theory. Such explanations received official sanction in the report of the influential National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967, and headed by Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner. The Kerner Report famously declared that “white racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.” While not explicitly calling the riots a justified revolt by the victims of white racism, the Kerner Report certainly gave that impression.
Today we have the Black Lives Matter movement, which claims that police racism is the heart of the problem and calls for “defunding” police departments. Its apologists ignore the pressing need to protect black lives in communities where armed violent criminals daily threaten law-abiding residents.
A seeming oddity of the disturbances of the late ’60s and early ’70s is that they failed to materialize in many cities. An analysis of 673 municipalities with populations over 25,000 found that 75% of them experienced no riots. Even within riot-torn cities it is estimated that 85% or more of the black population took no part in them. Although they’ve gotten little or no media coverage I expect we will see comparable enclaves of tranquility today.
One possible explanation for why some cities explode with violence and others don’t is contagion theory: the tendency of people to do what their friends are doing. Once the rocks and bottles start flying in a neighborhood, it becomes tempting to join in. Youths, who played a major role in the turbulence, are particularly susceptible to peer influence. Consequently, when teenagers and young men begin rampaging, the situation often quickly escalates. No one wants to miss the party. As more young people join in, what begins as a manageable event can rapidly spiral out of control.
Closely related to the contagion theory is the threshold—or, more popularly, the “tipping point”—hypothesis. Once a certain number of rioters have become engaged, this view holds, those who had preferred to stay on the sidelines will be motivated to jump in. While imitation plays its part here too, the size of the event in itself becomes the crucial determinant of the ultimate magnitude of the riot.
Of course, a peaceful situation can quickly descend into mayhem in the presence of provocateurs. Back in the ’60s, a new generation of young black militants, such as Stokely Carmichael and H. Rap Brown, traveled around the country making incendiary speeches, unabashedly endorsing black revolution. Today we have antifa and various anarchist groups using social media and encrypted messages to organize the violence effectively but anonymously.
Certainly, there are those who honestly believe that America’s police are racist and in need of fundamental reforms. They are mistaken, but they should have ample opportunity to express their views peacefully. There should be no confusing such protesters, however, with looters, arsonists and those who would kill police officers. They deserve a different name: criminals.
I don’t believe there’s any practical way of preventing a massive angry demonstration from changing into a riot with dizzying speed. All it takes is one “influencer” shouting “Let’s start looting!” Set aside “free speech zones” for demonstrations far away from tempting targets and be willing to enforce order. Even that won’t be enough.