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In 1968, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King, a great many American cities were engulfed by riots. In one such city – Detroit – the mayor, a well-meaning liberal Democrat named Jerome Cavanaugh, made a fateful decision to rein in the police and let the riot burn itself out. To his judgment, the state’s governor – George Romney – deferred, and the riots went on for five full days. “Burn, baby, burn,” they said. And burn it did.
Eighteen years before, Detroit had been the richest city in the United States – with a per capita income exceeding that in every other urban area in the country. By 1968, it was no longer so well situated. But it was prosperous. It was vibrant. The architecture was stunning; the churches, beautiful; the picture palaces, a wonder.
Thanks to Cavanaugh’s decision, all of this in time disappeared. Every major black-owned company, including Motown Records, abandoned Detroit soon after the riots. The white-owned companies soon followed suit, and Detroit gradually descended into anarchy. By the time that I moved to Michigan in 2007, it was a wasteland resembling a bombed-out city or a town rendered virtually uninhabitable long before by the plague. Among the vast multitude of houses left derelict was the abode where Governor Romney, then an auto executive, had reared his young son Mitt. Never in human history, to the best of my knowledge, has anything like this happened to a city absent war or an epidemic.
All of this took place for one reason. In Detroit, you weren’t safe, and your property wasn’t either. Law and order are the key to prosperity. Law and order are necessary to civilized life, and civilized life is not what one had come to associate with Detroit.
Detroit was not the last such city. A few years ago, a similar riot took place in Baltimore, and the mayor acted as Jerome Kavanaugh had, restraining the police and allowing the rioters free rein. In the aftermath, the police force was cut, and much of Baltimore descended into anarchy. No one in his right mind would go to live there now. Baltimore is gone.
In the last three weeks, cities all across the country have experienced similar riots – replete with property damage, looting, arson, and murder. In virtually all of our cities – including Minneapolis, Washington, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Denver, and Atlanta – mayors have followed the Kavanaugh playbook and governors have stood aside. The mainstream press, what remains of it, has played down the damage done and the violence, and nearly all of the television networks have done the same. But that has not changed the facts. The people who live in or near these cities know what has happened, and they know that neither they nor their property will be protected by the police. In the interim, there have been calls for defunding the police, and they have been taken up by the Minneapolis City Council, the mayors of New York City and Los Angeles, and a great many other local officials. In Denver, the school board voted unanimously to withdraw the police from the public schools.
Unless there is a dramatic reversal – and there is no reason to expect one now or in the near future – what has been done by the authorities in the last three weeks is going to lead to a withdrawal from our cities. No one is going to want to live in an urban area where person and property are unsafe, and what I am saying applies to our fellow citizens of color at least as emphatically, if not more so. Why would any African-American want to live in the southside of Chicago? Next to no one there can afford a car, and the grocery stores have all been looted or burned to the ground. By the same token, why would anyone want to live in Georgetown where the stores are all boarded up and looters were allowed to run free?
There are thugs everywhere. There have always been thugs everywhere, and that will never change. They can be contained; they can be restrained – but not without rigorous policy and lengthy prison terms. America’s great cities are about to follow Detroit . . . into a nightmare world.Published in