• U.S.

Nation: Should Looters Be Shot?

4 minute read

Chicago’s Mayor Richard J. Daley was hopping mad. Mulling over the massive damage caused by black rioters on the city’s West Side after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination, Daley came to the conclusion that he had been badly let down by his police. The toll: 162 buildings gutted by arsonists, 22 more partially destroyed; 268 businesses and homes looted; $9,000,000 in property losses; eleven lives lost. Yet, of the 2,900 Negroes arrested, only 19 were charged with arson. Last week Daley’s ire erupted with nationwide reverberations.

“I have conferred with the superintendent of police and given him the following instructions, which I thought were instructions on the night of the riot that were not carried out,” he said at a City Hall press conference. “I said to him very emphatically and very definitely that an order be issued by him immediately to shoot to kill any arsonist or anyone with a Molotov cocktail in his hand, because they’re potential murderers, and to shoot to maim or cripple anyone looting.” As for young looters, Daley favored the use of Chemical Mace as “safer.” Rapping his top cop, James B. Conlisk Jr., for failing to apply “deadly force” to stop the burning and looting that erupted in the Windy City, Daley appointed a nine-man “blue ribbon” investigating committee to determine, among other things, if a conspiracy was the cause of the chaos. “If anyone doesn’t think this is a conspiracy,” he said darkly, “I can’t understand.”

Applause & Repudiation. Reaction came swiftly, both in applause and repudiation of Daley’s orders. “A fascist’s response,” protested the Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of Chicago’s Operation Breadbasket (TIME, March 1) and a longtime aide of Martin Luther King. “The mayor may have a killing program for the dreamers, but he has no program that can kill the dreams.” Arthur J. Bilek, a former Chicago police lieutenant now administering the criminal justice curriculum at the University of Illinois, said: “A bullet fired into the body of a suspected looter is, after all, a quite irrevocable act.” Others blurred the distinction between Daley’s kill and maim categories. Said Arnold Sagalyn, a U.S. Housing and Urban Development Department official and member of the President’s riot commission: “It clearly seems wise public policy not to deprive a person of his life, particularly without a trial, for a crime that may involve property worth only a few dollars.”

Daley did have supporters. More than 4,500 letters and telegrams running 15 to 1 in favor of his stand reached his office. Some even suggested that Daley run for President. Few of the hard-liners noted that in the confusion of a riot, police would have to be veritable Lone Rangers in their marksmanship to pick off arsonists or to “maim” running looters, supposedly hitting them in the legs to bring them down. Moreover, warned U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, the indiscriminate use of “deadly force” could lead to “a very dangerous escalation of the problems we are so intent on solving.”

Life v. Property. New York’s Mayor John Lindsay summed up the sentiment of most leaders and lawmen throughout the nation: “Protection of life, particularly innocent life, is more important than protecting property. We are not going to turn disorder into chaos through the unprincipled use of armed force; we are not going to shoot children.” That drew down on Lindsay the collective wrath of Harlem and Bedford-Stuyvesant merchants—both black and white—who charge that the mayor has been “soft” on rioters and insensitive to their pleas for city aid in repairing looted and burned-out businesses.

Upset by the furor, Chicago’s Daley later tried to ameliorate the psychological impact of his kill-and-maim statement. “There wasn’t any shoot-to-kill order,” he said lamely. “That was a fabrication.” In fact, Daley’s tough new order still stood. Whether the “deadly force” he intends to apply in future rioting will serve as a goad or a preventive may well be tested in the summer ahead.

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