Why there wasn't more looting during the blackout.

The history behind current events.
Aug. 15 2003 5:03 PM

Where Have All the Looters Gone?

Why there wasn't more crime during the blackout.

Times Square: Dark but not demoralized
Times Square: Dark but not demoralized

With the odd exception of Ottawa, Ontario, none of the major metropolises hit by Thursday's blackout faced social disorder on a large scale. In New York City last night, street life was not a fearful tableau of pandemonium but a convivial scene of neighbors and strangers sharing candlelight, radio news, and small talk.

In contrast, the last time the lights went out in New York—1977—chaos reigned.

So, what changed?

First, recall the scene in 1977. On July 13, a series of lightning bolts between 8:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. disabled key high-voltage power lines, sending 9 million New Yorkers into darkness. Electricity wasn't fully restored for 25 hours. In what Mayor Abraham Beame called a "night of terror," New York's impoverished neighborhoods—from the South Bronx and Harlem to Jamaica in Queens and Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn—erupted in spontaneous sprees of looting and arson.

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Tearing grates off storefronts with crowbars, pillagers smashed windows and made off with TV sets, liquor, rifles, diamonds, sneakers—even 50 new Pontiacs hot-wired and driven out of a Bronx showroom. Arrests in New York numbered 3,776 and would have been higher had the police not chosen to forgo apprehensions in favor of simply trying to contain the marauding. In his Newsweek column, George Will invoked Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Even if news reports prove to have been overly rosy—this morning Mayor Michael Bloomberg reported just one blackout-related death in New York City overnight—neither Gotham nor Detroit nor Cleveland suffered anything remotely like the anarchy of 1977. "New Yorkers showed that the city that burned in the 1970s when facing similar circumstances," Bloomberg said, "is now a very different place."

The reasons for the variance range from the technical to the sociological. One small but significant difference is the timing. The current blackout began shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday, with more than four hours of daylight remaining. Government officials, police, and security guards had ample time to mobilize, and, despite the reports of stranded commuters sleeping in Bryant Park, many more people could get home safely. Moreover, the general recognition that the city was ready for trouble helped deter it.

Another possible reason for the muted reaction this time around, some have suggested, is the residue of Sept. 11. Although early news reports largely discounted terrorism as a likely cause of the power outage, the thought naturally occurred to city dwellers—especially New Yorkers—almost immediately. A collective vulnerability and the felt need to unite against a potentially grave external danger may have ratcheted up people's sense of public duty. And the relief people experienced on learning that terrorists presumably weren't to blame helped foster a neighborly bonhomie.

It seems probable, though, that even if this latest blackout had happened before the 2001 attacks, we still wouldn't have seen a replay of 1977. A post-9/11 civic responsibility may have augmented the exemplary behavior, but it didn't create it. The real difference between 1977 and 2003 is the change in the condition of New York and America's Northeastern cities, including in their poorer enclaves.

At the time of the 1977 blackout, analysts were hailing an urban crisis. In the inner cities, decades of feckless or ill-considered social policies had made problems like crime, housing, and drug use seem insoluble. To some, the social order itself seemed to be collapsing. All of America was facing an economic downturn, as high unemployment and inflation—along with the much-discussed national "malaise"—prompted questions about whether the country would ever regain its former prowess. In the summer of 1977, joblessness was acute, reaching Depression-era levels. Many saw the blackout violence as a response to economic suffering and hopelessness.