‘When The Looting Starts, The Shooting Starts’: Trump Quotes ’60s Police Chief’s Bloody Phrase

Miami policemen drag a young man during a clash on the last day of the Republican National Convention, August 8, 1968. (Getty Images)
May 29, 2020 11:40 a.m.

President Donald Trump on Friday tweeted a phrase that recalled the racist police violence of the ’60s: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The President was responding to the upheaval in Minneapolis in recent days in response to the police killing of George Floyd.

Trump’s use of that phrase earned him a warning label of sorts from Twitter: The tweet wasn’t visible until clicking through a disclaimer that the text “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”

In a statement, Twitter confirmed that the specific violation had to do with “the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”

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The words indeed have a bloody history.

National Guard members barricade shops in Miami. (Photo by Schuppe/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The phrase itself comes from a December 1967 press conference held by then-Miami police chief Walter Headley, in which he declared a “get tough” policy — a “war” on crime in black neighborhoods in Miami. Or as Headley was quoted in news reports at the time, “young hoodlums, from 15 to 21, who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.”

“We don’t mind being accused of police brutality,” Headley said. “They haven’t seen anything yet. Community relations and all that sort of thing have failed. We have done everything we could, sending speakers out and meeting with Negro leaders. But it has amounted to nothing.”

The chief added that Miami hadn’t had a “serious problem with civil uprising and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Headley said at the press conference that patrols in black neighborhoods would be armed with shotguns and police dogs.

The police chief was known for his aggressive “stop and frisk” policy, which often escalated police encounters. In February 1968, for example, police suspected a teenager had carried a concealed knife into a pool hall. In 2018, The Washington Post detailed what happened next: Police officers dangled the teen by his feet over a bridge 100 feet above the Miami River.

The Post noted a report from the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence published the following year, in 1969, that said the policies had left the black community in Miami “in a state of continued agitation” from December 1967 to August 1968. It read:

Eight months after that press conference, Headley repeated the “looting” phrase during a riot that occurred parallel to the August 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach.

The three-day riot began with the police incursion into what organizers described as “a mass rally of concerned Black people” — and ended with the police killing of three people and wounding of 18 more.

Headley was on vacation in North Carolina at the time and did not return home as the violence escalated, the New York Times reported in his obituary when he died in November 1968.

“They know what to do,” the vacationing Headley said of Miami police officers. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Police walk with a man injured during riots in Miami during the 1968 Republican National Convention. (Getty Images)
A Miami police sergeant stands near the crumpled form of an African American woman on August 8, 1968, at a clash during the Republican National Convention. (Getty Images)

On Friday, even the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers condemned the President’s tweet. That group first came to prominence in 2015 as an armed presence in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing there of Michael Brown.

“This is a disaster,” the group tweeted. “President Trump needs to retract that statement ASAP, stating that he misspoke & did not mean to say that National Guard should shoot people for stealing.”

The ACLU said Trump’s tweet was “hypocritical, immoral, and illegal” and called on the National Guard and law enforcement “to comply with the law — not President Trump.”

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