Museum of America in the Pandemic Year, 2020

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Dec 11: A day after the panel votes, the FDA agrees to an EUA for the Pfizer, BioNTech vaccine. The Supreme Court rejects a Texas lawsuit that was to overturn Biden’s wins in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The U.S. government buys another 100 million doses of Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine. Pro-Trump groups plan nationwide election results protests.

From the Cutting Room Floor...

Crime is up across US cities. Police are framing it as a result of the Black Lives Matter protests this summer and the “defund the police” mantra that became attached to it.[1] Richard Rosenfeld, the Curators’ Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of Missouri–St. Louis, remains skeptical of such a claim. I reached out to him because his research focuses on crime trends and crime control policy. He is a member of the Council on Criminal Justice in DC and a former President of the American Society of Criminology.[2]

“It’s true [his research group] found a big spike in violent crime,” Rosenfeld told me over Zoom, “including homicide, gun assaults and overall aggravated assaults, and that spike coincided in time in late May almost immediately after George Floyd was killed.” Moreover, he said, these increases occurred across the board, both in cities with traditionally high violent crime rates and those with traditionally lower rates. “A 42% increase in the 20-plus cities we looked at during the summer of 2020 compared to the summer of 2019…. A 34% increase in the fall.”[3]

He was still compiling the data, but this kind of a jump indeed appeared dramatic. So, I asked if he could speculate on the causes.

“COVID has meant that lots of officers are off the job because they have the virus, or they’ve been exposed to someone. … Or simply their own reasonable decisions to maintain social distance reduced police presence and activity of the kind that can help to keep crime, including violent crime, in check. … But that’s clearly not the whole story.”

“Yet,” I interjected, “the media has reported police departments and unions seem to be blaming the ‘Defund the police’ protests.” The logic seems to be that those protests took police off the streets, or away from their normal beats, and that led to this rise in crime.

Rosenfeld shook his head, “Certain kind of claims can be discounted immediately. The argument that somehow the protesters themselves were responsible for the uptick in violence—the uptick was much too large and too far outside the communities surrounding the protest demonstrations. A similar claim that violence not only increased, but it spread out geographically through many communities, including in those cities that had traditionally pretty low levels of violence … doesn’t appear to be the case either. What we’ve seen is increases in violence in those neighborhoods and cities—Birmingham [Alabama], I think, would be a good example—where levels of violence have traditionally been high in what are more often than not economically disadvantaged African American communities. So those ‘Defund’ claims [made by law enforcement] we can rather quickly disconfirm.”

“Does this mean the protests have nothing to do with it, then?” I followed.

Rosenfeld thought there was something deeper that explained both the violence and the protests themselves. “There’s an argument that diminished police legitimacy—and, you know, one can broaden that to diminished state legitimacy—occurs during periods of widespread unrest about police violence. That argument is certainly worth pursuing. The notion here would be that as confidence in the police in their fairness and effectiveness is diminished during periods of widespread protests against the police, in some communities, the reduction in police legitimacy is sufficient to widen the space for so-called ‘street justice.’ People take matters into their own hands, you know, effectively it’s an alienation from the police and other organs of the state, leaving people to address problems and disputes, in effect, on their own. It’s very difficult to know how to evaluate that empirically, but I do think something like that is occurring. There’s something in community dynamics and community relationships with the police that is altered during periods of widespread protests against the police. I think we saw this about five years ago after Ferguson and similar incidents across the country and widespread protests during that time against police violence we saw during the 1960s. Those urban ‘insurrections’ or ‘riots’ were often sparked by police, you know, such as when a police interaction with a community member was widely viewed in certain communities as an inappropriate, illegitimate use of police force.”

That was helpful for me to hear, especially because it unlocked another thing that seemed to be historically the case: “It seems that, historically, crime follows economic collapse when that economic collapse disproportionately hurts the already poor—as if it’s the poor acting out of their desperation in material deprivation.”

But Rosenfeld didn’t think it explained this summer. “This increase was simply too abrupt to be explained by an equally abrupt degree of ‘immiseration.’ The relationship between economic recessions and crime rates is complex. We did not see an increase in crime during the 1930s during the Great Depression. Nor did we see an increase in crime during the Great Recession of 2008 and 2009. In nearly every other recession between the ‘30s and the present, we have seen upticks in crime, coinciding with recession. … What seems to be at play, at least in part, is the following when recessions coincide with increases in inflation in prices, we tend to see crime rises. During the ‘30s we saw deflation, absolute price decreases. We saw the same thing in 2009. … What I found in my own work is that when economic decline coincides with increases in inflation, we tend to get increases in crime. The classic case are the recessions of the ‘70s and early ‘80s, when we saw prices skyrocket.”

“Why does inflation make the difference?” I wondered.

“The basic idea is that as prices go up, people, in the economists’ term, “trade down.” So, if you had been doing your shopping at mid-level retail outlets, you might be now doing more shopping at Walmart or other big box stores. If that’s where you’ve been doing most of your shopping, some people then will ‘trade down’ to Goodwill and Salvation Army outlets. Now, [when those prices are too high] where do those people go? As prices increase, some enter the underground markets, and that can include everything from backyard sales to the market for stolen goods. The market for stolen goods expands incentives for those who supply the goods for those markets. We see increases in property crime first and foremost but increases in property crime are often followed by increases in violent crime.”

“Why might that be?” I asked.

“Think about the way people obtain stolen goods. They’re meeting. Those who supply the goods in social spaces that are not regulated or monitored by authorities. And those social spaces can give rise to violence to settle disputes. Additionally, street robbers tend to be attracted to those [illicit] places because people are carrying cash or goods of value. That’s the basic argument. During periods of economic decline, we tend to see crime increases when prices are also going up. It helps to explain why we did not see big crime increases during the ‘30s or during the more recent so-called Great Recession.”

I nodded. That all made sense.

“There’s one other element I’ll try out on you as an historian. I’m just not sure what to make of it, but I’ve begun to think it may have a role. Students of collective behavior have this concept of a ‘moral holiday.’”

“I don’t know if I’ve heard of that,” I admitted.

“What they mean by that,” explained Rosenfeld, “is during periods of social unrest … normal rules of social interaction are temporarily suspended. It’s not that people [break the law] in some wholesale manner or reject [laws], but because the social situation has so fundamentally altered those more normal rules are set aside for the moment. People don’t ordinarily gather together and march or walk down the street shouting slogans. Not to mention break into stores and loot. … One has to ask whether the same phenomenon may exist out in the communities, especially those that in which in our case, police violence has been heavily concentrated. Whether members of the community believe, at least temporarily, they’ve been treated to a moral holiday. I have mixed feelings about [this explanation], but I do think it’s important to use all the conceptual tools we have at our disposal to try to figure out what happens in communities during periods of widespread unrest. There’s little question those periods tend to be accompanied by increased levels of so-called ordinary crime, including violent crimes.

“It’s interesting,” I mused, “that this is a kind of explanation given by social scientists a century ago that when there is a lot of stress in a society that societies have to equalize themselves by loosening something else. Now I say it this way, it sounds way too mechanical, but I wonder, is there a kind of cultural pressure release valve in societies?”

“It stands to reason if this social terrain is altered in a fundamental way,” clarified Rosenfeld, “the ordinary rules that govern behavior in the terrain may well give way as well. Now the better students of collective behavior will quickly point out it’s not simply an outburst. Even if they are quite temperate, there are rules that govern behavior in these situations. For example, people who engage in violence [during these ‘moral holidays’] don’t begin killing their mothers and sisters. The violence remains pretty much within traditional channels—the uptick in violence we’ve seen during the summer in the fall, by and large, still remains [consistent] within this explanation.”

I want to finish by pressing on whether 2020 will be a 1919 or 1968 moment. “So, is 2020 a turning point?”

Rosenfeld doesn’t think so—at least not on a trajectory toward the sort of violence in major cities that the US saw a half-century ago. “We have not reversed the crime decline that began in the early ‘90s. Certainly not with respect to property crime. It continues to go down. And even with respect to violent crime, we’re not back to where we were in the early ‘90s. With a few notable exceptions, we are back to where we are in most of the cities we looked at 5 to 10 years ago.”

But, just before I breathed a sigh of relief, he continued, “You know, what we haven’t talked about is another ingredient that makes this situation even more complex: so-called right-wing violence. We’re not even close to armed insurrection or anything of the sort, but as agitation on the right about a stolen election, about overly restrictive pandemic prohibitions, and so forth, as that agitation increases, we should expect a greater number of so-called ‘Lone Wolf’ incidents. I think that’s what we’ve seen. But we’ve seen more or less organized threats of violence as well.”

This, too, follows a pattern. Rosenfeld’s work might be tapping into something historians have seen throughout American history. In times of societal stress, while some might see some kind of “moral holiday” and others, crimes of opportunity, white nativists, nationalists, separatists, supremacists, or whatever other name they want to call themselves, have organized to commit violence against minority communities. From the 1820s to the 1960s, and in most major cities from Cincinnati to New York City, white mobs, even organized militia, looted, burned, raped, and murdered African Americans during economic downturns.[4] Indeed, if there is any saving grace in 2020, it’s that Rosenfeld is seeing scattered violence and crimes of desperation, not organized mob rule or vigilante groups. Even the pro-Trump conspiracy theorists who, at this late date continue to wave their Gadsden flags in front of state capitols from Arizona to Michigan hoping for GOP officials to overturn the Biden/Harris victory, appear mild compared to the heinous actions of a few of our ancestors.



[1] Martin Kaste and Brandt Williams, “Police Departments Try To Walk The Line Between Reform, Public Safety,” NPR, December 9, 2020,

[2] Personal communication with the author, December 15, 2020.

[3] Richard Rosenfeld and Ernesto Lopez, “Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: November 2020 Update” (Washington, DC: Council on Criminal Justice, December 2020).

[4] Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2016); Anna-Lisa Cox, The Bone and Sinew of the Land: America’s Forgotten Black Pioneers and the Struggle for Equality (New York: PublicAffairs, 2018); Lacy K. Ford, Deliver Us from Evil: The Slavery Question in the Old South (Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2009); Stephen Middleton, The Black Laws: Race and the Legal Process in Early Ohio (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2005).

Read more
Rosenfeld, Richard, and Ernesto Lopez. “Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: November 2020 Update.” Washington, DC: Council on Criminal Justice, December 2020.
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