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Pandemics and Pandemonium

Cities in which inequality has been allowed to deepen for a generation now need to find new strategies that provide hope and fairer policies to their poorer residents. The alternative is watching them burn when minority and working class resentment inevitably erupts.

· 11 min read
Pandemics and Pandemonium
Photo by Matthew J. Lee/The Boston Globe via Getty Images.

Minneapolis and urban centers across America are burning, most directly in response to the brutal killing of a black man by a white Minnesota police officer. But the rage ignited by the death of George Floyd is symptomatic of a profound sense of alienation that has been building for years among millions of poor, working class urbanites. The already diminished prospects facing such people have only been worsened by the unforeseen onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic and the policies devised to combat it.

Like earlier pandemics, the virus has devastated poorer communities, where people live in the most crowded housing, are forced to travel on public transport, and work in the most exposed “essential” jobs, most of which are badly paid. Unlike the affluent of Gotham, some 30 percent of whom were able to leave town and work remotely, the working class remained, forced to endure crowded conditions as the disease raged through the city. No surprise then that inhabitants of the impoverished Bronx have suffered nearly twice as many deaths from COVID-19 as those in the more affluent, but denser borough of Manhattan.

This pattern can be observed globally. In Spain, the bulk of infections and reduced incomes are concentrated in poorer areas. Similar disparities can be found in countries as varied as China, Japan, France, and Italy. Even in egalitarian Singapore, infections have risen precipitously among the country’s migrant workers—an underclass who tend to live in crowded dormitories. Similarly, in Los Angeles the poor have died from COVID-19 at four times the rate of the city’s overall population. In both New Orleans and Detroit, the vast majority of fatalities have been among disproportionately impoverished African Americans.

As if this were not already quite bad enough, we are now starting to see the economic consequences of the lockdowns. In the US, roughly half of all job losses in April were in low-paying fields such as restaurants, hotels, and amusement parks; in contrast information and finance jobs were barely touched. Almost 40 percent of those Americans making under $40,000 a year have lost their jobs as the wage gains made during the first two years of the Trump administration largely evaporated.

These social divisions are now spreading to developing countries, where the decades-long reduction of poverty is grinding to a halt. The International Labour Organisation believes that 1.6 billion people could lose work as a result of the pandemic and the lockdowns. According to the World Bank, sub-Saharan Africa will account for about half of the roughly 50 million people about to be pushed down into extreme poverty.

Sleeping on a volcano

In the late 1840s, Alexis de Tocqueville warned Europe’s elites that they were “sleeping on a volcano” of furious working-class resentment. The threat to Europe’s long-established social order that Tocqueville identified followed a tradition of grassroots disturbances dating back to medieval times, particularly in the wake of grain shortages and pandemics which undermined economic and social stability.

These early “riots” were not confined to poor areas or impoverished villages. The 14th century Wat Tyler uprising hit London, where peasants and mechanics got to pillage the rich and intimidate their betters. In the end, the protestors were impaled on spikes, but they bequeathed a legacy of fear to their more affluent counterparts.1 Throughout that pestilence-filled century, which reduced the population by 40 – 50 percent,2 similar violence erupted in France,3 Flanders, Florence, Lübeck, Transylvania, Croatia, Estonia, Galicia, Sweden, and culminated in the great Peasants’ Rebellion of 1525 in Germany.

Asian countries such as Japan4 and China suffered similar traumas, the worst of which occurred during the Taiping Rebellion which began in 1850. The rebellion was finally put down more than a decade later, with massive loss of life. Some of the Taiping program would later be adopted by Sun Yat-sen, who would overthrow the imperial regime, and then by Mao Tse-tung and the Communists.5 If the pandemic continues to devastate their economies, we can expect to see similar disturbances in the great cities of the developing world—Mumbai, Delhi, Lagos, Sao Paulo, Mexico City—where inequality and poverty are already rife.

Yet even affluent cities are feeling the heat of Tocqueville’s volcano, with the rise in mass homelessness and disorder. In some cities, progressive governments have hastened the release of criminal elements in order to spare them the increased risks of COVID-19 infection in prison; some of these, at least in devastated New York, are using their freedom to commit new crimes. In San Francisco, meanwhile, non-violent crimes are already barely punished. Open air drug markets and panhandling are replicating the kind of common urban malaise that characterized Dickens’ London.

Can the middle classes escape chaos and rebellion?

For the middle and upper classes, the first response to pestilence or chaos is flight. Like their Renaissance and medieval counterparts, the upper classes—including the roughly one-third who can work remotely on their laptops—have largely decamped to avoid the dangers posed by the pandemic.6 Demographer Wendell Cox estimates that over the last few months New York has lost as many residents as it gained over the past half-century.

This exodus has brought the divide between the poor and the comfortable urban haute bourgeoisie into sharp relief. Concentrated poverty grew even in “good times”—the number of these high-poverty areas has grown steadily over the past few decades and doubled in population size between 1980 and 2018. Over the past decade, the New York Times records that cities have gone from “engines of growth and opportunity” to places “with invisible but increasingly impermeable boundaries separating enclaves of wealth and privilege from the gap toothed blocks of aging buildings and vacant lots where jobs are scarce and where life is hard and, all too often, short.”

During previous upheavals, the urban upper classes were more insulated from inner city violence as generally distant neighborhoods like Chicago’s southside, London’s Brixton, or the banlieues of Paris burned. But the Floyd riots have not been contained to the ghettos. The protests quickly spread to affluent urban neighborhoods like hipster rich Uptown in Minneapolis, historic Washington, D.C., the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, the Grove shopping center in Los Angeles and even Beverly Hills as well as such symbols of order as City Hall in Philadelphia.

The return to the “riot ideology”

Perhaps the most alarming development during these riots has been the urgent revival of what urban historian Fred Siegel calls “the riot ideology.” The roots of this thinking can be traced to the late 1960s when they were set down among progressive analysts who decided that violence and looting constituted a just response to abuses by law enforcement and other agents of oppression. This notion became painfully popular during the 1992 LA riots, which I covered as a journalist, when random looting and even killings were applauded by some radical activists as part of a glorious “rebellion” or uprising.

Today, two generations later, this ideology is staging a comeback. Vox scold anyone who refers to outbreaks of widespread mayhem and looting as “riots” preferring to describe them as righteous protests. In an essay for Mother Jones, Daniel King objects to widespread use in reporting of the terms “rioters” and “looters,” which he argues are “tropes historically used to single out and vilify communities of color protesting police brutality.” Writers at the New York Times have even proposed “de-funding” police forces in favor of spreading more money to other government programs. Slate, for its part, endorsed the burning of the Minneapolis police station as “a reasonable reaction” to George Floyd’s death, and suggested that such wanton destruction is a “quintessentially American response, and a predictable one” comparable to the Boston Tea Party and Stonewall.

National Democratic leaders, including presumptive presidential nominee Joe Biden, have been strangely reluctant to denounce the violence, while correctly criticizing President Trump for his needlessly inflammatory tweets. Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison has quoted Martin Luther King’s remark that “a riot is the language of the unheard” and stripped it of its original context to decorate the current violence with the romanticism of justice. Radical Minneapolis firebrand Rep. Ilhan Omar has suggested that her constituents are “terrorized” by the presence of the police and National Guard.

Deep blue mayors like Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey, a 38-year-old progressive focused heavily on racial injustice, cede the streets to the most violent elements, even abandoning a police station that was set alight—a response former St. Paul Mayor and Senator Norm Coleman called “stunning.” Rather than contain demonstrations, some cities initially conceded critical urban space to the rioters to the point of threatening prime central city real estate. In Chicago, city officials, much like their medieval counterparts, raised the bridges over the Chicago River to keep the protestors out of affluent parts of the central city.

Remarkably, these mayors seem to be largely indifferent to the rise of largely white, anarchist groups, like Antifa, who can be seen in videos committing acts of vandalism and violence, even over the objections of African American protestors:

Some progressives have even sought to shift the blame for the chaos onto the Russians or white supremacists. A more likely explanation is that legitimate outrage provoked by the senseless death of a man in custody has been hijacked by violent radical agitators whose antics have already been tolerated for far too long, and organized criminal gangs. On Monday, Bellevue’s Police Chief Steve Mylett told reporters some of the looting was the work of a crime ring. “There are groups paying these looters money to come in,” he said, “and they’re getting paid by the broken window.”

Gutting the inner-city middle class

The already beleaguered inner-city economy was further undermined by the pandemic, which has been particularly cruel to small grassroots businesses in places like the heavily immigrant suburbs of Paris where small shops have been closed and relatively few can work comfortably behind a computer screen. General unease about the lockdowns has sunk President Macron’s low approval ratings even further.

In the American inner-cities, meanwhile, COVID-19 was already devastating small local firms before the current riots. Local community developers and business owners in places like south and east Los Angeles have been devastated by prolonged lockdowns. The prospects are particularly gruesome for the small restaurants so prevalent in immigrant-rich inner cities. If the shut-downs last much longer, as many as three-quarters of independent restaurants simply won’t make it. Many of the losers from the lockdown and riots will be minorities who, according to the California Restaurant Association, own 60 percent of the state’s dining establishments.

Like small businesses across the country, many of these firms have not been able to access federal funds to withstand the downturn. Some economists concede that Washington’s bailout program has been tilted in favor of Wall Street and larger firms. Many inner-city businesses, note local advocates, lack the necessary bank relationships or savings to survive, and much of their business is cash-based. Still others are owned and operated by non-citizens, some of them undocumented.

Reducing the Chance of New Pandemics
Sydney. London. Toronto.

“There is a lot of resentment out there now,” notes long-time east LA activist Rudy Espinoza. “People are struggling more than ever and many of them blame the government for letting them down.” Pending large cutbacks in social services from the fiscally stressed state is not likely to make them any more congenial.

Many small restaurants and businesses lack the expertise and technical resources needed to shift to pick-up and delivery as well-capitalized firms like Taco Bell, Panda Express, or Chick-fil-A have been able to do. Similarly, small landlords in places like Leimert Park, notes attorney Diane Robertson, have no recourse to stay in business when their tenants cannot pay the rent. Massive mortgage defaults may force these small proprietors to sell out to bottom-feeding speculators, whose funds are expanding as they prepare to turn a big profit from a future resurgence in gentrification. “The business owners are scared,” says Mirabel Garcia, who works on micro-loans for the east LA-based Inclusive Action for the City. “They are worried they will not be able to hold on against Wall Street and the big investors.”

The devastation of these local firms can have awful consequences. In a report for the Democratic Leadership Council’s Progressive Policy Institute that I wrote with David Friedman on the causes of the LA riots, we found that, besides the police-related protests, many of the community’s stalwarts—secretaries, machinists, managers—had just lost their jobs in the post-Cold War defense retrenchment. The 1992 disturbances may have been sparked, like the current events, by police abuse, but the underlying causes included the massive decline in high-paying stable jobs as a result of the end of the Cold War. Many middle-class African Americans worked in southern California’s aerospace factories, and when they lost their jobs, essential community linchpins were lost.7

Needed: law and order—and reform

The ambivalent responses to the current violence may encourage future outbreaks. The more political leaders and pundits push the “riot ideology,” the greater the incentive for protestors, including professional agitators of whatever political stripe, to attack the police, disrupt neighborhoods, and loot stores. At a time of diminished opportunities, you can get to be both a celebrated “protestor” and help yourself to an iPhone along the way.

We certainly can’t expect much from President Trump, whose tweets are only escalating the rhetoric of an already volatile situation. But Trump may yet be a beneficiary of this spiraling urban chaos, just as his rightwing predecessors Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Spiro Agnew were during the tempest of the late 1960s and early ‘70s. People may not like Trump’s awful manner and incoherent response to issues from the pandemic to international trade, but they value their safety and may be reluctant to hand the White House to anyone less than unequivocal in their condemnation of vandalism and street violence.

These riots and the experience of the lockdowns demonstrate the fragility of urban societies that work for the wealthy, but not for the vast majority. It’s clear that the current progressive approach is not working any more than the “luxury city” approach adopted by neoliberal mayors like New York’s Michael Bloomberg who watched impassively as inequality mushroomed to levels not seen in generations. The same patterns have been seen in other large urban areas as well.

A deeply bifurcated economy provides most urban residents with only a low wage job at best, and sometimes no job at all. A new urban paradigm is needed to supplant the current economic patterns and the suicidal embrace of the “riot ideology,” which will simply drive business and upwardly mobile families out of the city. The inner-cities need policies that will create opportunity more than they need expressions of sympathy and solidarity from the affluent.

A laser-like focus on economic opportunity is required to repair the social safety net broken by COVID-19. It will have to promote self-sufficiency and not dependency. My Chapman colleague Marshall Toplansky recommends bolstering medical coverage, improving skills-based education, building affordable housing in redundant office and retail developments, offering incentives to businesses to hire new talent, and expanding employee ownership of enterprises. The specifics of proposals like these will need to be carefully considered and debated, of course. But the fundamental problems cannot be left unaddressed.

Cities in which inequality has been allowed to deepen for a generation now need to find new strategies that provide hope and fairer policies to their poorer residents. The alternative is watching them burn when minority and working class resentment inevitably erupts.


1 “Tyler, Wat,” The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., ed. Paul Lagassé (Columbia University Press, 2000).
2 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 507.
3 Ibid., pp. 176 – 82.
4 Karl Van Wolferen, The Enigma of Japanese Power: People and Politics in a Stateless Nation (New York: Vintage, 1990), p. 261.
5 Kenneth Scott LaTourette, The Chinese: Their History and Culture (New York: MacMillan, 1967), pp. 284 – 86, 292 – 94.
6 Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century (New York: Knopf, 1978), p. 99
7 Joel Kotkin and David Friedman, “The Los Angeles Riots: Causes, Myths and Solutions”, Public Policy Institute, Feb. 1993.

Corrections: An earlier version of this article mis-stated the date of the Taiping Rebellion. Apologies for the error. The reference to an essay in Mother Jones has been amended to better reflect the argument of its author.

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