In a soon-to-be-released book, Republican Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan says when President Obama called him during the 2015 riots in Baltimore, he expected the president to offer federal assistance. Instead, Obama urged Hogan to back off.
Hogan ignored Obama’s advice about the violence following the death of Freddie Gray, and worked to restore order to the state’s largest city. More than $20 million of damage was done after Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake told reporters the city would provide space to “those who wished to destroy.”
If Baltimore’s Democrat leaders gave $20 million of “space to destroy” in 2015, the price tag ballooned 100-fold in cities governed by the hard left in the 2020 round of urban violence.
The left and major media say the urban violence often accompanying protests following the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis on May 25 is a direct descendant of America’s past paroxysms of racial unrest. As such, the looting and arson in major cities is claimed to be the righteous child of Baltimore (2015), Ferguson (2014), Los Angeles (1992), and even the widespread riots in America’s major cities following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968.
But is it really? Or could it be something entirely different?
In past urban riots, a single spark ignited a mixture of anger and resentment over racial discrimination, poverty, or police brutality. When the cities burned, the damage concentrated in and around the neighborhoods of the urban poor. I witnessed this first-hand as an Army National Guard officer deployed to Los Angeles in 1992. The city was calm in the morning, and by the evening there were widespread murders with businesses being looted and burned.
In 2020, Floyd’s death appeared to trigger something different. Rather than a spark, a signal flare was sent aloft, with prepared cadres launching protests in cities across the nation often followed by violence late into the night.
Unlike Baltimore in 2015, cities like Minneapolis and Seattle featured leftwing mayors and governors, none of whom appeared interested in restoring order. This was due to those elected officials’ deep sympathy towards the protesters’ stated goals: defund the police, or, at the very least, reduce the apparent incidence of police brutality while shifting public funds out of law enforcement to more social welfare spending.
While the protests are ostensibly about the police, including accusations of routine police brutality and racist law enforcement practices, this claim can be subjected to a statistical test. For instance, are cities that spend more on police, resulting in a higher number of police per capita, more prone to violent protests in reaction to perceived over-policing?
Similarly, might cities with a high percentage of black residents have a larger share of their population that may harbor anger at their treatment by law enforcement? Or are cities with high crime rates that routinely feature violent interaction between neighborhood criminals and law enforcement stoking resentment against the police? Lastly, might poverty be a driving factor, with poorer urban areas leading to anger among the residents about the lack of opportunity?
Let’s Run the Numbers
The number of police per capita, the share of the black population, violent crime rates, and poverty levels are routinely reported by the FBI and Census Bureau. It is also possible to estimate recent urban violence by measuring protest news coverage in 37 of America’s big cities when a story also mentions “violence,” “looting,” or “arson” in the period from May 26 to June 30, and then factoring for a city’s population.
(The cities analyzed total 41.5 million people in Atlanta, Austin, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Madison, Miami, New York, Newark, Oakland, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, St. Louis, Tampa, and Washington D.C. Minneapolis was excluded since many news stories included mention of Minneapolis in stories about local unrest.)
Comparing the above factors in a multivariate regression analysis with the incidence of violence as the dependent variable shows a statistically noisy and weak link to the number of police.
Of note, considering an additional variable—the share of a city’s population with a college degree or post-graduate degree—generates an even higher correlation to violence than does police per capita, suggesting that the protests and allied rioting are not the result of a working-class movement.
But none of these factors is convincingly determinative. There was one variable that did correlate strongly to urban violence: a city’s percentage of vote for Hillary Clinton in 2016. The more a city voted for Clinton, the more violence it saw in conjunction with the protests. (For the statisticians, the regression provides a significance of 0.0019 with the 2016 vote variable yielding a P-value of 0.003). The greater percentage of support for Clinton in 2016, the more likely a city was to suffer wanton destruction in connection with the “mostly peaceful” protests.
The figure below displays the simple correlation between urban violence and the 2016 Clinton vote.
Tellingly, out of the top ten cities for violence, looting, and arson, the average vote for Clinton was 77 percent. In the ten cities with the least destruction, Clinton won 53 percent of the vote.
That a city’s political leanings are more likely to lead to a breakdown in law and order in service of political protest shouldn’t be a surprise. In this, Seattle, with a black population of 7 percent, San Francisco (5 percent), Portland, Oregon (6 percent), and Madison, Wisconsin (7 percent) have one big thing in common with Washington D.C. and Atlanta, with black populations of 47 percent and 52 percent, respectively: They are all governed by the far-left.
Why did the leaders of the hardest-hit cities decide to give space to destroy? Some mayors saw the protest organizers as political supporters. A few may have calculated that widespread coverage of burning cities would harm President Trump’s reelection chances. And some just didn’t want the responsibility of ordering their police to restore order.
Unfortunately, it is often the case in politics and revolutions that the common people—the proletariat—are sacrificed for the movement. In this case, it will be those living in dangerous neighborhoods who will end up being murdered, robbed, raped, and extorted in greater numbers if the misguided call to “defund the police” becomes a widespread reality.
Americans have largely forgotten the hard-won gains made in public safety since 1992, during the last peak of violent crime. If crime rises to the level of a generation ago, we would suffer 14,261 more murders (almost double those murdered in 2018), 580,460 more robberies, and 636,038 more aggravated assaults every year. And these crimes would be concentrated in our urban centers, specifically in working-class and poor neighborhoods.
Think about that the next time you see those young vanguards of the proletariat, armed with law degrees and Molotov cocktails, visiting violence upon a city, only to return to their expensive lofts with a city view before daybreak. In this, the leaders of our recent round of urban violence appear to be trying to ignite a revolution rather than merely win a campaign.