Hopefully, by the time you read this, the riots now wreaking havoc in dozens of US cities will be history. Tempers will have calmed, cities will have started rebuilding torched neighborhoods, and the legal system will be hard at work meting out justice for the horrific death of George Floyd, the African American whose death touched off the rioting. This is the best possible scenario. The worst case makes our current problems look like a picnic by comparison.
The rioting began after a video showed Floyd, 46, dying while lying handcuffed on a street in Minneapolis in the custody of a police officer. That officer, Derek Chauvin, was kneeling on Floyd’s throat for nearly nine minutes. During this time, Floyd repeatedly said that he couldn’t breathe, and begged that his life be spared.
Both the medical examiner and a family-commissioned autopsy ruled Floyd’s death a homicide. Chauvin has been charged with second degree murder and manslaughter, and three other officers at the scene were charged with aiding and abetting second degree murder.
The video went viral, outraged people of all races, and led to the current crisis in our streets. Cities from New York to Los Angeles have erupted in rioting, burning and looting - at least 145 cities were affected.
So was DC. On Sunday night, May 31, the mayhem there reached unprecedented levels. More than 60 Secret Service agents protecting the White House suffered multiple injuries from bricks, rocks, and cement-filled water bottles hurled at them. Eleven needed to be treated at a local hospital.
The rioting was so intense that the President had to be taken to a secure bunker to ensure his safety. Even the Lincoln Memorial, National World War II Memorial, and other shrines were defaced.
Losers and Winners
Everyone in America lost out from Floyd’s death. Cities around the country were in effect shut down. Mobs killed some people and beat others mercilessly. Police officers were killed and injured, some critically, and thousands of rioters were arrested. Even police stations were attacked and burned. Floyd’s family and close friends, the first to suffer, are in mourning and their loss can never be erased.
Crazy as it sounds, there is thinking that some “forces” out there wanted turmoil in our streets, cooperated with rioters and even assisted them. This may sound like an extreme conspiracy theory, but people in positions of authority have said as much.
According to President Trump, “The nation was gripped by professional anarchists, violent mobs, arsonists, looters, organizers of terror and others who are leading instigators of this violence.”
Attorney General Barr said, “outside radicals and agitators are exploiting the situation to pursue their own separate, violent, and extremist agenda.”
Former Speaker of the House and Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said the government “needs to use the FBI and other assets to find out who is inciting the rioting, who is organizing it, and how it is happening.”
John Miller, New York’s Deputy Commissioner for Intelligence and Counterterrorism, said even before the protests began, that “organizers of certain anarchist groups used a complex network of bicycle scouts to direct rioters to locations where police officers would not be present… where they could torch police vehicles and throw Molotov cocktails.”
People on the left also came to this conclusion. “Criminal activity and extremist groups are using this moment for their own purposes and exploiting this moment,” said New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, a view almost identical to Barr’s.
And in Chicago, African American Democrat Mayor Lori Lightfoot said, “There is no doubt this was an organized effort. There were clearly efforts to subvert the peaceful process and make it into something violent.”
And then there were those mysterious bricks. Police in Minnesota found pallets of them conveniently left in the path of rioters. They also found caches of flammable materials intended to be used by rioters. Stacks of these and other dangerous materials were also found in Los Angeles, Baltimore, Manhattan, Kansas City, and Dallas – and possibly other locations.
One website asked: “Is this level of planning and sophistication coincidences or are we dealing with something that is far more complex than a few thousand people letting off steam?”
Starting a riot is easy and inexpensive. However, the consequences can be shockingly high. People of all backgrounds, business owners, property owners, employees, police officers, and mostly average Joes and Janes are left with the bill.
In 1992, LA resident Rodney King was suspected of “driving under the influence,” pulled over by police and brutally beaten. That incident was filmed and widespread riots broke out. Property damage was estimated at $446 million.
But this was by no means the entire bill. Victor Matheson, a Professor of Economics at the College of the Holy Cross, said those riots cost almost $5 billion in lost sales and that “economic activity in the areas affected had not returned to previous levels for at least 10 years.”
Sometimes, after rioting, things never return to normal. In 1967, Newark, NJ, had been a safe and pleasant middle-class city. Then race riots erupted. Twenty-six people died, hundreds were injured, and businesses closed permanently. Middle-class people who were able to flee did so, and the city never recovered.
Calculating the costs of riots is complicated and imprecise, but following are some of the factors that need to be considered. Police officers need to be paid and get overtime pay. There are high medical bills related to the rioting and equipment that is damaged and destroyed.
And there is other property damage, too. A storefront window costs thousands of dollars and many thousands of them were smashed in the ongoing crisis. Merchandise was looted, and stores and buildings torched. And there were lost sales, lost tax revenues, and lost jobs, which also need to be calculated.
Until the rioting stops there is no way to estimate damages, but when the final numbers become available you can bet they will be very high – clearly much higher than they were in Los Angeles in 1992.
Some people will be unable to raise funds necessary to rebuild their businesses; others will lack the will power to even try.
In at least a few instances, small business owners trying to recoup their losses from looting filed claims for theft on their insurance; those were denied. Insurance companies, battered by claims from the virus, have determined that losses from looting are not in the category of theft.
There are also those intangible costs such as fear of returning to work, walking, or even driving in areas that were destroyed; the destruction that unfolded are traumatic and will cause very real emotional suffering for a long time.
Who is responsible for all the wanton destruction? Certainly, some of the rioters were African Americans, but many were white, and that’s very obvious in the videos that were taken.
Some of the violence is organized. Carla Murphy, who lives in Chelsea, told an interviewer that she saw “organized groups of people working together to break in to store after store…. Cars would drive up, let off the looters, unload power tools and suitcases and then the cars would drive away. Then the cars would come back, pick them up, and then drive off to the next spot. They seemed to know exactly where they were going. Some of the people were locals, but there were a lot of out-of-towners.”
Hate groups also have been implicated: left wingers, black extremists, white supremacists, and neo-Nazis. Antifa, which Pres. Trump said will be labeled a terrorist group, has been linked to the riots and so has ISIS.
There’s never a good time for a race riot and the current atmosphere is certainly no exception. People are under intense financial pressure, emotional stress, their safety is threatened and they simply can’t handle any more pressure. And all of this is compounded by the tensions created by COVID-19.
There are other costs. The rioting has lowered the public’s confidence in government, heightened mistrust between the races, and created barriers between neighbors and neighborhoods. On the bottom line, no one knows how all of this will play out.
This has been a very strange year: the unimaginable is becoming reality, the institutions we have long trusted are falling apart, and unprecedented events are unfolding at a very rapid pace.
A Mishnah in Pirkei Avos advises us to pray for the well-being of the government because without that people would devour each other. The ongoing mayhem gives us a better understanding of this advice.
Let’s hope that our prayers for peace and everything else we need are answered speedily. At this point, no one knows what a new day will bring forth. The best advice: Keep your tehilim (Book of Psalms) nearby and don’t leave home without it.