Restoring order to America’s cities isn’t a complicated proposition.
All it requires is resources and determination, and a firm rejection of the longstanding progressive fallacy that an overwhelming police presence is “provocative” and “escalatory” and must be avoided.
Out-of-control looting is almost always a failure of municipal resolve or police tactics, and we have seen plenty of just such cowardice and foolishness lately, most notably in Minneapolis, ground zero for this spasm of urban disorder.
In a display of sloppy wishful thinking at the worst possible time, the city’s leaders decided to vacate the 3rd police precinct. Mayor Jacob Frey explained that they believed this would be “a way to both help de-escalate and prevent hand-to-hand combat.” Instead, it allowed for a major escalation, as protestors gleefully torched the police building, in the worst symbol of official abdication of this crisis so far.
During the first couple of nights of violence, Minneapolis barely managed to arrest anyone.
For his part, Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota hesitated to mobilize the National Guard lest he seem “oppressive,” apparently unaware that his target audience wasn’t a social justice seminar at Oberlin College, but provocateurs and nihilists who were going to take every inch they were given and make it a mile of broken glass and looted goods.
President Donald Trump has been a steady fount of inflammatory and crude statements lately, but when he blasted the “total lack of leadership” in Minneapolis, he wasn’t wrong.
All state and municipal leaders need to know about controlling riots is obvious from a cursory review of the history.
Consider the worst disturbance in recent times, the L.A. riots. They began when about two dozen cops retreated before an angry crowd after the Rodney King verdicts, some of them literally running away. The mob descended on the intersection of Florence and Normandie, and began beating Anglo and Latino motorists, completely unmolested by the authorities for hours. Some police reported being ordered to leave the area — and then being ordered not to return.
The rest is history — days of violence, more than 60 people killed and 2,000 injured, and in excess of $1 billion in property damage. By the end, thousands of federal troops were in the city.
Back in 1970, in his classic book on domestic unrest, “The Riotmakers,” Eugene Methvin identified police absence or pullback as the accelerant on riots. It was a huge factor in the Watts riots in 1965. The same dynamic held in a Philadelphia riot the year before. In Detroit in 1967, cops retreated and the authorities underestimated the forces they needed as a riot devastated the city.
It is simply not true that rioters will be quickly sated if they are allowed to break and burn things freely. Disorder feeds on itself. Looting one store, overturning one police car is never enough.
There is no alternative to imposing curfews, zealously enforcing them, arresting violators and calling out the National Guard if there’s not enough police manpower for the job. This doesn’t escalate the violence, it stops it.
Over the weekend, Minneapolis finally got more serious about policing itself and saw a drastic diminishment of destruction. Anyone who doesn’t want American cities to burn should take note.
Rich Lowry is editor of the National Review; his opinions are his own.