Rioting, Policing, and Rhyming: Lessons from Our Riotous Past

Julio Rosas/Townhall

In a recently published piece titled A Riot Primer from NRO’s paper archives from 1991 and republished in 2005, I am extensively excerpting passages from that piece found here .  There the author discussed some lessons… lessons that we could have learned from past rioting they led with the question:

Do we have to relearn every couple of decades–at high cost in blood and treasure–the ABCs of riot ignition and suppression?

Originally written after the Rodney King riots National Review looked back at what they called…

“… the bloody, long hot summer of riots in Watts, Newark, Detroit, Washington, and many other cities in 1965-68.”

In the piece they noted that:

“Two recent outbursts [LA and Houston] of urban mass violence suggest we may be in for a chain reaction of anti-police rioting like the ones that erupted in Harlem and five other cities in 1964, followed by the bloody “long hot summer” riots”

One city, Washington, D.C. the scene was described like this:

In Washington, D.C., on Sunday, May 5, a black female police officer attempted to arrest a Hispanic man who was drinking and unruly on a street in the Mount Pleasant area, heavily populated by recent Central American immigrants. The man drew a knife and advanced, the officer reported, whereupon she shot and severely wounded him. The rumor spread that he was dead, shot while handcuffed. A flashfire of violence erupted as hundreds of youths set fire to police cars, smashed windows, and looted.

But, like recently in Baltimore and other cities today the police tried to stand down and events played out as described below:

Washington’s new mayor, Sharon Pratt Dixon, at first ordered police to disperse crowds but make no arrests. The second night, running gangs of youths fought a thousand policemen, burning and looting as they spread out. Mayor Dixon then declared a curfew and ordered arrests, whereupon the violence subsided. Police made 230 arrests in three days.

And this is where we start to rhyme, as Mark Twain was reported to have said, The Past Does Not Repeat Itself but it Often Rhymes, the article noted:

The social phenomenon is well documented, but the books lie on library shelves, dusted off only once a generation or so by mayoral or presidential commissions. We need only look at Atlanta in 1905; East St. Louis in 1917; Charleston, Chicago, Washington, Boston, and Knoxville in 1919; Harlem in 1935; Detroit in 1943; and Harlem to Watts to Washington and nearly everywhere else in 1964-68.

The piece then went on to make the following observation:

When a moral holiday is declared:  Riots begin when some set of social forces temporarily overwhelms or paralyzes the police, who stand by, their highly visible inaction signaling to the small percentage of teenaged embryonic psychopaths and hardened young adults that a moral holiday is under way. This criminal minority spearheads the car-burning, window-smashing, and bloodletting, mobbing such hate targets as blacks, or white merchants, or lone cops. Then the drawing effect brings out the large crowds of older men, and women and children, to share the Roman carnival of looting. Then the major killing begins: slow runners caught in burning buildings and-as civic forces mobilize-in police and National Guard gunfire.

Do our leaders ever learn?

The books are on the shelf- let the responsible authorities in city hall and police headquarters check them out.

The time to halt a riot is right at the start, by pinching off the criminal spearhead with precise and overwhelming force. The cops will usually be caught flat-footed (no pun intended) by the initial outbreak. But they need to spring into a pre-arranged mobilization that should always be as ready in every major city as the fire-department or hospital disaster-response program.

When it is done wrong, we get:

While Detroit Burned:  In the worst urban riots of the 1960s–Watts, Newark, Detroit, and Washington–the police did nothing or next to it for the first several hours. Deaths and property destruction soared.

But… when it is done right, we get something radically different.

Contrast what happened in Toledo 36 hours after Detroit’s outburst. (Editor’s note: Toledo—1970’s population=384,000, 70 miles south of Detroit—1970’s population >1,500,000)

There, five hundred young men began breaking windows along a six-block stretch. The fourth police cruiser arriving radioed: “Do you want us to observe?” That such a question should even have been asked was damning proof that Americans had let years of extreme court rulings and hysterical “police brutality” propaganda paralyze our last line of defense against criminal anarchy.

Yet in Toledo the answer snapped back steely and clear. Police Chief Tony Bosh happened to be monitoring the radio and he barked: Arrest every lawbreaker you can–and meet illegal force with legal force!

Just as quickly, Toledo’s mayor requested and Ohio Governor James Rhodes called in five hundred National Guardsmen to stand behind police in reserve, with well-publicized orders to kill if necessary to maintain order. They were never needed. Toledo’s police arrested 22 people (nine for possessing firebombs) in the first three hours. That was almost triple the number Detroit and Newark police arrested in the same period.

How did it end, you ask?

Chief Bosh laid out for a Senate committee the criminal records, “some as long as your arm,” of the rioters jailed in his city’s three-day eruption. Of the 126 adults a startling 105 had prior arrests, averaging six apiece. Every single one of the 22 young adults jailed in the first three hours had criminal records; they averaged only twenty years old and three prior arrests apiece. The twenty young men jailed on firebomb charges averaged four apiece.

The result of the quick arrest policy: Toledo’s trouble hardly earned the name “riot.” No one died–not one person, looter, policeman, or innocent bystander.

“Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it” Santayana.

The will that Toledo’s civil authorities displayed, like a heavy rain on a kindling forest fire, made the difference between “incident” and “insurrection.” They [Toledo’s civil authorities] withdrew the one essential ingredient for a major riot: implied official permission for criminals and rowdies to coalesce and rebel.

Back to Today…

In the summer of 2020 unlike 1960’s and 1990’s and our cities having only a few ‘enlightened’ mayors, a significant proportion of many of our Democratically controlled cities and even the regions and states these cities are part of are, by the standards of the 1990’s ‘enlightened.’

And, as with much of the leftist/socialist agenda and those that embrace it believing that “It will be different this time, they just did it wrong or not enough or…” pick you pablum, the truth of the matter seems to be:

When the civilian authorities withdraw their implied official permission for criminals and rowdies to coalesce and rebel… peace in our communities can be maintained for all its citizens.

This chapter in the nation’s history is almost over, but the question that has been with this country forever seems to still be alive and still relevant, “Will the books lie on library shelves, dusted off only once a generation or so by mayoral or presidential commissions?