Last night, the president of the United States called on the military and police to murder black residents of an American city.
Several journalists noted that the president’s most blatant words—“When the looting starts, the shooting starts”—were ripped off the late Miami Police Chief Walter Headley, who made it a personal slogan in the late 1960s.
This seemed like a natural topic for this newsletter, whose main purpose has always been to find the history behind the news. What I found made my head spin.
Headley first made his “looting/shooting” remark in a December 1967 speech in which he declared war on the black community. The chief saw himself in the vanguard of a nationwide movement that called for a violent crackdown against black men and boys. Denouncing attempts to work with community leaders as “appeasement,” he called on his officers to strictly enforce the city’s new “stop and frisk law” and authorized the use of “shotguns and dogs” to terrorize residents.
The immediate result was a campaign of abuse, racism, and torture. This led to deadly riots, in which police killed three people, injured dozens more, and imposed near-martial law in Miami’s major ghetto of Liberty City.
The goal of all this, Headley said, was to create “an epidemic of law and order.”
The Long Version
Racism made Liberty City. As historian Eric Tscheschlok has written, Jim Crow ordinances forced Miami’s first black residents to live in a congested area known as “Colored Town,” whose boundaries and subjugation were enforced by police brutality and the Ku Klux Klan.
In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Colored Town was destroyed. Florida officials routed the downtown leg of the new Interstate 95 through the neighborhood, purposefully destroying thousands of black homes and the area’s entire business district. Refugees were forced to find homes on the outskirts of the city and in suburban Dade County. As they moved in, whites moved out, and the ghettos grew.
With “stop and frisk” and his shotgun and dog patrols, Headley was responding to this new dynamic by transplanting old brutal attitudes of the KKK and the inner-city cops. When two police officers stripped a black teenager to his underwear and dangled him by his feet from, appropriately enough, a highway overpass, Headley responded: “We don’t mind being accused of police brutality. My police officers are used to it.”
Eight months after Headley’s “epidemic” speech, the Republican National Convention came to Miami. Accepting the nomination would be Trump’s predecessor in crime, Richard Nixon. Nixon’s campaign planned to use “law and order” as a barely concealed racist dogwhistle to pry southern whites away from their traditional home in the Democratic Party while outflanking the segregationist third-party candidate George Wallace.
On August 7, 1968, the black residents of Liberty City held a protest against the “lily-white” GOP convention. Police lined up on one corner of the street, revving their motorcycles, and setting up roadblocks. An Associated Press reporter who witnessed it said police were intentionally creating resentment—“baiting the trap,” as he put it.
Around 7 p.m., a white man driving a yellow Mercury with a “Wallace for President” bumper sticker (the 1968 equivalent of a “Make America Great Again” hat), speeded through the rally’s intersection and stalled half a block away. The crowd converged on the car, smashed its windshield, and set it on fire. (The driver escaped with injuries.)
The crowd then turned on white-owned businesses on the main street. Black community leaders appealed for calm, but the protesters responded, “We can’t wait.” The next day, a thousand people in the ghetto formed a mob. Police filled the air with teargas and fired blindly into the crowd. The riot ended when Dade County Sheriff E. Wilson Purdy, who had far better relations with the black community than Headley did, dispersed both the black crowd and the police with a regiment of the National Guard.
Headley was on vacation. When reporters tracked him down to ask whether he planned to go home, he repeated the advice he’d already given his officers months before. “They know what to do,” he said. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
An old story
The conditions that made life intolerable in black neighborhoods like Liberty City half a century ago— lack of housing, poor access to medical care, and poor employment prospects—haven’t changed.
One specific reason tensions were high in 1968 was that the Small Business Administration had awarded $1 million in loans to Miami’s mostly white-skinned Cuban community while giving only $80,000 to black people. The same racist disparities are being seen in the disbursement of SBA loans in the COVID-19 crisis today.
Trump doesn’t just echo Headley’s words but the attitudes of his 1960’s police force, including its intimidation of protesters and journalists. You can see it in the contrast with his attitude between his murderous rage at black protesters while siding with white, conservative protesters threatening state governments with guns (“very good people, but they are angry,” he said, urging governors to “give a little, and put out the fire”).
And you can see it in the Trump movement’s fetishization of police—the forces that murdered George Floyd in Minneapolis, Breonna Taylor in Louisville, and condoned the lynching of Ahmaud Arbery in Georgia—while they shrug at a pandemic that has disproportionately killed black and working-class Latino people.
I don’t know where Trump got the idea to quote Headley, or if he even knew he was doing it. Maybe someone around him learned about it while modeling his 2016 convention speech on the one Richard Nixon gave at Miami Beach during the riot.
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Jonathan Myerson Katz is a journalist and the author of The Big Truck That Went By: How the World Came to Save Haiti and Left Behind a Disaster. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, explores the life of Gen. Smedley Butler and the rise and fall of America’s empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.
Top photo: AP