Riots Redux: Whither Portland . . . and the U.S.A?

Here we go again: another riot in Portland, this time purportedly stoked by President Trump’s legal challenge to vote counting.

Riots and voting have a history dating back to the Watts Riot of 1965, which occurred one month after President Lyndon Johnson signed the Voting Rights Act. The Watts riot was one of many riots in U.S. cities during the “long, hot summers” of the 1960s.

White liberals blamed white racism, conservatives pointed to a breakdown of order in Democrat-run cities (sound familiar?). The result was “rioting mainly for fun and profit.” I gathered evidence supporting that thesis in my Independent Review article “Burn, Baby, Burn: Small Business in the Urban Riots of the 1960s.” The riots in the aftermath of George Floyd’s death played out in accordance with this interpretation.

This latest riot in Portland, like earlier riots in that troubled city, is different. Politically-motivated rioters seem more interested in destruction and less in looting. The sustained unrest–now five months-long–reflects a breakdown in law and order. In a replay of the 1960s, the mayor of Portland instructed police that it was better to let them riot than shoot (or use tear gas in Portland). The political price paid by a progressive politician was (and is) too much to bear. This time, the mayor was not consulted as Governor Kate Brown activated the National Guard. 

The exact precipitating cause of riots is often elusive though, at times as with Portland, the rioters make their political intentions clear. (Whether that accounts for all the rioting activity is another matter). The policy response is clearer: on the one hand, there are powerful incentives for left-liberal politicians to stand down the police. On the other hand, this feeds “more of the same.” Witness Portland.

One thing that is different: we have a well-studied history of riots and policy responses. We know Trump’s response: strong law-and-order conservatism constrained by the nature of our federal system. His election would mean more of the same.

Will a President Biden tack toward a New Democrat appreciation of order? Or, will he detach himself from events on the streets? This might be a bellwether of Biden-era governance.

Jonathan Bean is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and editor of the Independent book, Race & Liberty in America: The Essential Reader.
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