Fifty years and one month ago, a 15-year-old black teenager was shot and killed by an off-duty white policeman in Harlem. The policeman, Thomas Gilligan, later testified that he was acting in self-defense because the smaller, slighter teen, James Powell, was coming at him with a knife. (A fact not mentioned in this photographic recap of the riot.) I am just trying to briefly recount the known facts. I do not know whether Gilligan just decided to shoot a black kid down in the street, or whether Powell would still be alive today if he had been a white boy, or if Powell was showing off in front of his friends and decided to challenge the white man, not knowing he was a cop.
A radical communist group, the Progressive Labor Party, saw an opportunity for enlisting more people to the cause of Marxism-Leninism and they distributed flyers in the streets which said, "Wanted for Murder: Gilligan the Cop." Their leader, Blll Epton, ambitiously called for outright revolution and advised that "we're going to have to kill a lot of cops." Angry protests and rallies spun into riots and looting that lasted for four days. A grand jury declined to indict Gilligan.
I'm not writing about this to take sides, or to stoke outrage. I'm sad and disgusted that the same tragic and futile chain of events is playing out again 50 years later. But I want to emphasize that the biggest tragedy is what happens after the riots and looting subside and the opportunists and the media go home.
The tragedy is that capital flees.
The Harlem riot was one of many destructive and deadly urban riots in America in the 1960's. In Detroit: "whole blocks [went] up in flames, and the looting was so extensive that in some neighborhoods, alleys and sidewalks were lined with old sofas and armchairs that residents had cast out to make room for new furniture....Today, empty lots of thigh-high grass cover much of the area [where businesses, including those owned by black business people, were burnt down.]
Recently, two professors from Vanderbilt University analyzed the long-term economic effects of the 60's riots, comparing cities that escaped rioting and cities in which riots occurred, such as Detroit, Newark and Chicago. They confirmed that the 60's riots "depressed inner-city incomes and property values for decades." Black male unemployment rose in cities where riots occurred, people moved away, businesses closed, property values fell:
"[T]he 1960's riots destroyed much of the accumulated wealth of many of the most prosperous African-Americans, those who had left the South for the greater economic opportunity of industrial cities." The researchers found that: "[f]rom 1940 to 1970, the value of homes owned and occupied by blacks in central cities jumped to 69 percent of the value of urban homes owned and occupied by whites, from 51 percent.... By 1990, however, the ratio was down to a mere 53 percent, nearly as low as in 1940."
This newspaper article about the Newark riot says that the 60's riots "focused attention on the lack of economic opportunity in predominately poor, black neighborhoods." Six paragraphs later: "While the middle class and businesses had been leaving the city for decades, the abandonment quickened after the riots, making Newark a symbol of urban decline and decay."
Riots start over a single event. But riots become a lot of different things to a lot of different people with different agendas. What seems to be inevitable is that riots related to black inequality end up hurting blacks the most.