Those who doubted the wisdom of severe coronavirus lockdown measures were often accused of valuing economics more than public health. That charge was always a caricature, and the riots and lawlessness engulfing America’s cities ought to discredit it. The consequences of the lockdown also include social dislocation.
The majority of those gathering to protest are peaceful and legitimately outraged by the brutality against George Floyd in Minneapolis. Yet the wave of police protests associated with the Black Lives Matter movement after 2014 never devolved into the wanton looting and property destruction now taking place nationwide. It doesn’t take a sociology Ph.D. to suspect that the unprecedented conditions the nation has been living under for more than two months have contributed to the anger apparent in the riots and violence.
More than 40 million Americans, especially in low-wage occupations, have filed for unemployment. We don’t believe in the economic determinist school of social pathology. But there’s no doubt that millions of people have been idle and cooped up for months. Closures of pools, basketball courts and parks have made recreation more difficult and exacerbated isolation. Some rioters may be acting out of boredom and a sense of impunity that can be exploited by ideological provocateurs or Antifa agitators.
The lockdowns also mean that the streets are emptier. The broken-windows theory of policing argued, among other things, that crime flourishes in places law-abiding citizens avoid. With commercial districts in places like New York frequented less by those trying to honor social distancing, it is easier for criminals to congregate.
Add to that the jail releases, pressed early on in the crisis by criminal justice reformers. About 1,500 New York City inmates were released. In Hennepin County, Minnesota — the site of Floyd’s killing and early protests — the jail population fell by more than 350 from March to April. Philadelphia implemented a delayed-arrest policy. It’s a good bet that at least some of those burning down buildings had previous run-ins with the law.
Virus-fighting measures were necessary to stem the loss of life, and the human toll of coronavirus—which hit African Americans hardest—has no doubt contributed to the unrest. But as Americans continue to debate the wisdom of the lockdown experiment, more than economic damage ought to go in the cost ledger. There has also been damage to the social fabric and the rule of law.