On one level, the irony could not have been more poetic. As people gathered to mark the first anniversary of George Floyd’s death at the Minneapolis intersection that bears his name, gunshots suddenly filled the air. Associated Press journalist Philip Crowther was on the scene when the bullets started flying; he later estimated that 30 shots had been fired.
“Stray bullets shattered a window and ripped into a tour bus as parents sprinted to find children who moments earlier had been playing nearby,” reported Molly Hennessy-Fiske of the Los Angeles Times. “Men threw themselves on the ground and ducked behind buildings.”
Nor did the violence stop when the shooting did: Crowther tweeted that “a fellow reporter just had her phone smashed because she took photos of a storefront hit by a bullet.”
All of this happened at a memorial site intended to symbolize peace and respect.
Unfortunately, the violence that occurred on May 25th was not really ironic, because it was not unusual or unexpected. Over the past 13 months, the area around George Floyd Square has become a frighteningly dangerous place.
Back in March, the Minneapolis Star Tribune reported that local black business owners “felt abandoned by a city that has failed to protect their safety and livelihoods.”
The paper also quoted a remarkable statement from Minneapolis City Councilwoman Alondra Cano.
“I get to hear from all the people no one wants to listen to,” Cano said. “I get to hear from the Black elderly woman who has to sleep in her bathtub so she can avoid being shot at night. I get to hear from the other Black elderly woman who has chronic pain and can’t access the bus and therefore can’t go grocery shopping, and I get to hear from the residents who text me when there’s bullets zinging by their faces in the middle of the day as they’re gardening.”
In early June, the city of Minneapolis took steps to begin reopening George Floyd Square to traffic. Progressive activists tried to block this reopening, with some complaining that city officials want to “gentrify” the famous intersection, yet by June 20th cars were once again passing through.
The sad truth is that Minneapolis has much larger problems than the future of a single memorial site. Indeed, the horrific death of George Floyd and the ensuing riots fueled a surge of violence that has terrorized local residents.
Last year, citywide murders increased by 71 percent, the number of shooting victims increased by 105 percent, and carjackings increased by 301 percent, according to the Minneapolis Police Department (MPD).
“Although violent crime was trending upward through the first half of the 2020, it really took off after May 25, when Floyd died,” the Star Tribune has noted.
This trend has continued in 2021. On May 20, the MPD revealed that murders were up by 108 percent, shootings by 153 percent, and carjackings by 222 percent, compared with the same period in 2020.
In that sense, the costs of the 2020 riots go well beyond the people who were killed or injured and the property that was damaged or destroyed in the riots themselves. We must also include the massive, sustained increase in violence that followed.
It’s a nationwide phenomenon. According to data compiled by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, the total number of murders in 66 of America’s biggest police jurisdictions increased by a combined 33 percent last year.
Many cities saw a larger increase, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix, Philadelphia, Fort Worth, Columbus, Indianapolis, Seattle, Denver, Boston, Nashville, Portland, Ore., Memphis, Louisville, Milwaukee, Tucson, Fresno, Mesa, Atlanta, Kansas City, Mo., Omaha, Oakland, New Orleans, Cleveland, St. Louis, Buffalo, and others.
Several of those cities—Columbus, Indianapolis, Memphis, Louisville, Milwaukee, and Kansas City—each set an all-time record for aggregate homicides. Meanwhile, St. Paul tied its all-time record; Philadelphia finished one murder shy of its record (set in 1990 amid the crack-cocaine epidemic); and Cleveland and St. Louis both posted their highest murder rate in modern history. At 87 per 100,000 residents, the rate in St. Louis reached a level we normally associate with war zones or gang-ravaged countries in Central America.
According to preliminary FBI data, the increase in aggregate murders nationwide might have been around 25 percent. While we won’t have the complete 2020 figures until later this year, it seems almost certain that, as Manhattan Institute scholar Heather Mac Donald has written, the United States experienced “the largest annual percentage increase in homicides in recorded history.”
Thus far, the wave of violence has persisted in 2021. After examining 34 U.S. cities, crime researchers Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez of the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Thomas Abt of the Council on Criminal Justice found that total murders had increased by 24 percent in the first quarter of the year compared with the same period in 2020.
As of late June, homicides were up by 126 percent in Albuquerque, 90 percent in Oakland, 82 percent in Louisville, 69 percent in Columbus, 45 percent in Atlanta, 42 percent in Houston, and 35 percent in Philadelphia, while the number of shooting victims was up by 50 percent in Los Angeles and 36 percent in New York.
The murder spike in Portland, Ore., has been even more precipitous. In the first five months of 2021, the Rose City suffered more than six times as many homicides as it did during the same period a year earlier, along with more than twice as many shooting incidents. As one local news outlet recently put it: “The sound of gunfire is becoming increasingly familiar across Portland as shootings and homicides reach historic rates, with no sign of slowing down.”
Many journalists have lazily attributed this violence to the COVID-19 pandemic, as if the stress of the lockdowns and economic disruption had prompted Americans to lash out in homicidal rage. I believe the protracted lockdowns, and especially the protracted school closures, were a tragic mistake. But they don’t come close to explaining the eruption of bloodshed.
After all, if the big spike in violence really did stem from pandemic restrictions, it would’ve started at the height of the lockdowns in late March, April, and early May. That isn’t what happened. According to a study of 34 U.S. cities by the three researchers mentioned above—Richard Rosenfeld, Ernesto Lopez, and Thomas Abt—the most dramatic increase in murders did not begin until after the death of George Floyd.
“Homicide rates were higher during every month of 2020 relative to rates from the previous year,” Rosenfeld, Lopez, and Abt noted. “That said, rates increased significantly in June, well after the pandemic began, coinciding with the death of George Floyd and the mass protests that followed.”
Six years ago, Heather Mac Donald popularized the term “Ferguson Effect” to describe the police pullback and subsequent increase in violent crime that followed the August 2014 death of Michael Brown and riots in Ferguson, MO. (Between 2014 and 2016, both the number and rate of murders in the United States jumped by 23 percent.) The events in Ferguson became a rallying cry for anti-police activists, who insisted that Officer Darren Wilson had shot Brown while the latter was trying to surrender. In March 2015, the Obama Justice Department announced a very different conclusion: “Given that Wilson’s account is corroborated by physical evidence and that his perception of a threat posed by Brown is corroborated by other eyewitnesses,” it said in a report, “there is no credible evidence that Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat.”
By that point, however, the myth of Ferguson had supercharged the Black Lives Matter movement, demoralized untold numbers of cops, and discouraged proactive policing. As a result, criminals felt emboldened, which unleashed a swell of violence in cities across the country.
Something similar happened after the George Floyd riots—only this time, the increase in violence has been much larger and more widespread. Once again, the key drivers appear to be a reduction in proactive policing and a newfound sense of impunity among criminals.
“A close analysis of the emerging crime patterns suggests that American cities may be witnessing significant declines in some forms of policing, which in turn is producing the homicide spikes,” University of Utah law professor Paul Cassell observed last year. “Crime rates are increasing only for a few specific categories—namely homicides and shootings. These crime categories are particularly responsive to reductions in proactive policing. The data also pinpoint the timing of the spikes to late May 2020, which corresponds with the death of George Floyd while in police custody in Minneapolis and subsequent anti-police protests—protests that likely led to declines in law enforcement.”
In St. Louis, for example, murders were actually below 2019 levels through the first several months of the year, before skyrocketing in June and July.
“By the end of May 2020, we were down five UCR [Uniform Crime Reporting] homicides Year-To-Date, compared to 2019, and things seemed to be trending in the right direction,” St. Louis Police Commissioner John Hayden wrote in the department’s 2020 annual report. “Unfortunately, by the end of July our UCR homicide numbers rose to 30 more than the same time in 2019.”
Of course, plenty of additional factors have contributed to the violence. Progressive bail “reforms” have made it more difficult to keep criminals behind bars while they await trial. Some cities have also witnessed a steep decline in felony prosecutions, thanks to left-wing district attorneys. Police departments from New York to Minneapolis to Seattle are struggling with a flood of departures and retirements. And the decision by many cities to slash police funding amid a crime explosion surely exacerbated the problem.
Still, the timing of the 2020 homicide surge indicates that some type of Minneapolis Effect was the main cause—which means, in turn, that proactive policing is the main solution.
To rebuild support for that agenda, urban officials must refute the notion that most black Americans want less policing of their communities. In fact, a Gallup survey conducted last summer found that 81 percent of blacks want the police to spend either more time or the same amount of time in their area. Just a few months ago, 65 percent of black likely voters told the liberal think tank Data for Progress that regular police patrols in their neighborhood would make them feel safer.
What happened to George Floyd was appalling, and we should continue demanding accountability for police officers who abuse their power. There’s no question that many cops need better training on how to handle potentially combustible situations. Yet the relentless campaign to demonize the police has had disastrous consequences.
One final story: In May 2020, a Chicago lawyer named Sandra Wortham sent a letter to the Sun-Times newspaper on the tenth anniversary of her brother’s murder. Thomas Wortham IV was a black Chicago police officer and Iraq War veteran. One night in May 2010, when he was off duty, a group of men tried to steal his motorcycle in front of his parents’ house on the South Side. When Officer Wortham identified himself as a cop and pulled out his service weapon, one of the men shot him, and then two others ran him over with a car while fleeing the scene.
Writing to the Sun-Times last year, his sister Sandra offered poignant thoughts on the debate over race and policing.
“Watching the public narrative in this country, a person could be led to believe that Black people don’t need the police and that the police don’t serve a vital function in Black communities,” she wrote. “My brother was a Black man. He was also a police officer. . . . The Black community and the police cannot be cast in opposing roles. Lives depend on it.”
Wortham went on to reject the idea that black neighborhoods suffer from excessive policing.
“I cringe when I hear people say black communities are over-policed,” she wrote. “My neighborhood is not over-policed. To police equitably requires fairness across communities. I have never, ever had a neighbor ask me how we can reduce the police presence in our neighborhood. I am, however, consistently asked how we can increase our allocation of police resources.”
It would be hard to fit all those messages on a lawn poster or bumper sticker, but they should concentrate the mind of anyone who thinks that police officers represent the biggest threat to young black men in American cities.