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June 01, 2020

Shooting Looters

An historical perspective

In 1965 I joined the NY National Guard in order to avoid getting drafted and sent to Vietnam (I’m not proud of that). The main job of the Guard then as well as now was to serve in times of local disaster. Then as well as now we built barricades from sandbags, evacuated people, and handed out food and other aid supplies. But we were always deployed armed because it is a sad fact that almost every disaster brings out opportunistic looters.

The standard doctrine we were taught was “When the looting starts, the shooting starts”. The reasons given were:

  1. The best way to save lives in a disaster is get people out of harm’s way BEFORE the disaster hits.
  2. People don’t obey evacuation orders when they are afraid that homes and businesses which they leave behind will be looted.
  3. It is terrible to be caught in the middle of an armed conflict between looters and property owners.
  4. Looting can only be prevented by shooting to kill looters.
  5. Looting is prevented when would-be looters fear being shot.
  6. People will evacuate if they are not afraid of looting.

We believed this doctrine. Equally important, would-be looters believed we believed it. Looting rarely happened when armed police or National Guard were present. Hardly any shooting happened.

At the time, there was no overtly racial tone to any of this. The disasters we deployed for were largely caused by mother nature or a faulty power grid. We were not expected to hold fire for white looters or to let black-owned property be stolen.

However, in the mid60s US cities were engulfed by a wave of “race riots”. Like every other disaster, then as well as now these riots brought out looters. It quickly became clear that the simple “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” wasn’t going to work. We couldn’t tell who was just protesting, who was there to loot, and who was just protecting his or her property – not like a beach community after an evacuation order when almost the only people there are first responders and looters. Moreover, these were race riots. The protestors and the looters were almost all black. The National Guard and police (at the time) were almost all white. White people shooting black people fanned the flames. We still turned out with rifles and fixed bayonets; we often didn’t have any bullets although we were well-trained with tear gas.

Not shooting meant the looting and arson went unchecked. The damage was mostly done to black communities. Looters then (and perhaps now) do most damage near home. A black woman pushed aside my bayonet to shout into my gas-masked face “shoot that [racial epithet deleted] on the roof! Don’t you see him? He’s burning the building where my babies are.” I was on the South side of Chicago during the Martin Luther King riots supposedly protecting a fire truck, which was being shot at and pelted with rocks while responding to arson fires. I had no bullets.

Parts of Newark and Los Angeles have never recovered from the damage done.

The Washington Post says the sentence “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” as tweeted by President Trump originated with 1967 Miami Police Chief Walter Headley who said “I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” I don’t know where Trump heard this phrase (and I doubt that WaPo does either); but I do know that Headley was just quoting then current law enforcement doctrine.

More importantly, we do have to deal harshly with arrested looters as well as with brutal police. Unfortunately both brutal use of power and the urge to loot are part of human nature. It is not racist to insist that looters be punished nor is it anti-police to say that that crimes committed by law officers need to be successfully prosecuted. It is both racist and cruel to withdraw law enforcement from black neighborhoods and it is unproductive and wrong to blame all the police in our mostly well-integrated police forces for the actions of a few or the tensions they all operate under.

See also : After the Storm

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