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.

New York in particular was in bad shape, struggling to climb out of bankruptcy. Films such as The Warriors (1979) and Escape From New York (1981) captured the city's late '70s feeling of blight and despair. Among the many casualties of the hard times was the morale of the police department. At the time of the blackout, cops were rebelling against the mayor's plan to put only one officer in every patrol car, and on the fateful night, only 8,000 of the city's 25,000-person force reported for duty, while some who showed up stood by passively as looters rampaged.

Racial problems in Northern and Midwestern cities had also become inflamed. The riots of the late 1960s had tapered off, but among many urban blacks, resentment remained high, fueling the nighttime looting. "Being that the lights are out and the niggers are going hungry," a black New York teenager told Newsweek, "we're going to take what we want, and what we want is what we need." Of course, in 1977 the vast majority of New Yorkers of all groups obeyed the law. But the high number of African-Americans among the looters indicated that racial tensions were a key part of the equation.

Not only were all these problems severe in 1977, but they seemed to be getting worse. The nighttime disorder seemed almost unsurprising—a culmination of long-festering frustrations. In contrast, as any casual subway rider can tell you, today things seem to be on the upswing, even with the city's latest economic woes. The reasons for the recent turnaround remain contested, but they include the general prosperity of the 1990s, new and more effective policing strategies, and demographic trends (there are now fewer young men and teenagers in the age brackets most likely to commit violent crimes). 

Perhaps most important, New Yorkers (and other city dwellers) have a greater sense of investment in their metropolis. Large numbers of immigrants, who have a stake in their businesses and communities, have changed the face of the city's neighborhoods. And while inequities still burden poor black neighborhoods, the deep sense of grievance that once gripped them has abated. A virtuous cycle has taken hold, in which civic pride has led all manner of New Yorkers to care more about their city.

George Will notwithstanding, the crown jewel of the Empire State—for now, at least—has neither declined nor fallen.

Thanks to Professor Kenneth T. Jackson of ColumbiaUniversity and Professor Vincent Cannato of the University of Massachusetts, Boston.

David Greenberg, a professor of history and media studies at Rutgers and author of three books of political history, has written the "History Lesson" column since 1998.

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