By Andrew Byler

Abstract: Continuing the inquiries set out in Section One, Section Two of the “Business as Usual” series focuses on the tumultuous period of urban rioting in the 1960s. Gone are the ragtag slave catchers policing antebellum properties, or the businessowners leasing cheap convict labor in the decades following the Civil War. Instead, this section looks at how local and federal governments responded to crises in American cities by strengthening police authority to quell demonstrations of unrest. While many businesses suffered losses due to riots in the 1960s, the promotion of “Law and Order” politics gained traction in this decade through its promise to protect commercial interests, and continues to influence policing and serve commerce well into the 21st century.

Policing Law and Disorder in the 1960s

Several months before the Watts riot, in a March 1965 address to Congress, President Lyndon Johnson reflected on growing unrest in the nation’s urban centers (riots had already erupted in Rochester, Philadelphia, Harlem, and outside of Chicago): “streets must be and places of business must be secure.” [1] The second section of this project will focus on the securing of “places of business” to show how, underlying countless interpretations of the era, local commerce had an interest in restoring law and order and business to their cities in the 1960s. “Riots are bad for business” is an oversimplification that ignores the impetus for and suppression of mass civil disobedience, but an oversimplification that still helps us analyze police practice in America. For, if riots are bad for business, we can see the brutal police practices, which were portrayed as attempts to quell violent unrest as benefitting a status quo where business could proceed, as usual. After discussing damage to property and local businesses caused by the 1967 Newark riots, this section will consider how federal responses to “crime” and “disorder” served commercial interests.  

In a similar concession to that in Section One, it is important to note that focusing on commercial interests during late-1960s riot policing leaves a lot out. This angle is not meant to be all-encompassing, but a way to understand more simply that amid the nuances and contradictions of police departments across the country, there has always been financial incentives for a certain kind of policing. Some scholars debate the way media representation of 1960s rioting galvanized a political ‘law and order’ rhetoric instrumental in the rise of the carceral state; others focus on how the American Right used riots and urban violence to discredit the War On Poverty and dismantle the welfare state; some historians focus on race, the underclass frustrations that heated many of these conflicts and consequent white backlash to the violence; more scholars should examine the ways women’s participation in and fallout from riots are left out of dominant historical narratives. There is no “correct” way to approach a complicated era. Indeed, “complicated” is an understatement; as Elizabeth Hinton writes, during “five summers of Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency, the nation witnessed over 250 incidents of urban civil disorder.” [2] I hope to highlight that following these years of violent upheaval in American cities lawmakers and politicians could have chosen to improve the conditions that led to urban unrest, instead they chose to empower local and federal police responses to that unrest.

Amid all of the other social, political, and cultural implications of major riots, it is important to point out that businesses lose revenue to widespread urban civil disorder. Specifically, many businesses can’t operate during violent conflicts, they often lose money and inventory to looting or arson, and lose further retail opportunities during the fallout of curfews and restricted activity in the following weeks and months. Amid a historical analysis of race and economics in New Jersey, historian Kevin Mumford takes a close look at the cost of rioting in Newark (1967) in his book Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. He writes:

“Reported after-riot losses for retailers was $1,734, 925, of which $1,412,375 was in stock (and the remainder in property damage). By the end of the riots, 85 percent of the storefronts suffered broken window glass, and the total number of businesses destroyed was 1,092, leaving 4,492 employees at least temporarily out of work. The estimate of building damage was $2 million. The auditors submitted a total loss estimate of $10,251,200.” [3]

In 2023 we can better see how structural poverty and institutional racism can lead to large-scale urban disorder, not a singular “catalyst” act. Some academics and politicians in the 1960s had similar insight into what was happening in American cities. Yet for business owners and employees who lost their livelihood, landlords and real-estate developers who lost property investment to these riots, I would argue that most saw an increased police response to disorder in line with their interests.

Starting in 1965, with Johnson’s “Law Enforcement Assistance Act,” police response to disorder began to pay huge dividends to local departments. The first half of the 1960s saw increases in urban civil unrest and “crime” both real (the 1964 riots; a near-doubling of the murder rate between 1963 and 1968) and constructed (black men were seventeen times more likely to be arrested for robbery than white men). [4] As a response to this amalgam of disorder, the LEAA marked Johnson’s commitment to symptomatic, rather than structural, treatment of inequality in America. In its first year the Act allocated over $7 million to police departments in 30 different states because, Elizabeth Hinton writes, Johnson “saw urban policemen as the ‘frontline soldier’ of the national law enforcement program.” [5] LBJ was not alone in prioritizing police authority in the fight against crime and disorder. Michael Flamm points out that conservative Americans, longtime advocates for commercial interests, “praised in particular the neighborhood policeman who protected local values – political, moral, and property.” [6] In the second half of the decade urban conflicts increased, and so did federal funding for local police departments.

Ignoring the recommendations of the Kerner Commission in early 1968, which implicated white Americans’ hand in black ghetto conditions – “White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it” – the Johnson administration doubled down on its commitment to law and order. [7] The “Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act” of 1968 followed a simple formula: increase the quality and quantity of policing to reduce crime. Outlined in its Declaration of Purpose, policymakers swear allegiance to this formula. “To prevent crime and to ensure the greater safety of the people, law enforcement efforts must be better coordinated, intensified, and made more effective at all levels of government.” [8] The 1968 Omnibus Act was a goldmine for local police departments across the country. Funding new surveillance equipment, payroll for new officers, and military SWAT equipment among other provisions, the Omnibus Act rewarded the police departments Johnson deemed “frontline” fighters in the War on Crime. 

The Omnibus Act, Hinton writes, began “financially incentivizing and at times specifically requiring state and local authorities to increase surveillance and patrols in already-targeted black urban neighborhoods.” [9] In much of the scholarship on this era, the debate over “law and order” is often limited to Right vs Left and the rhetoric of politicians; for more ordinary commercial interests – “monotonous business” – that were disrupted or ruined by riots, or felt threatened by violent media depictions of disorder, how appealing was an increase in police? On a broader scale, we should ask, considering the commercial third-party beneficiaries outlined in my earlier discussions: how much did local businesses gain from this punitive turn?

One answer would be: in the long run, not much. Historians have shown how the increased police presence in many cities caused more conflict than it averted, and, in the decade following the Omnibus Act many urban property values plummeted and businesses relocated. Elizabeth Hinton summarizes some of these effects: “Johnson and federal policy makers had ushered in a national law enforcement program to staunch the bleeding in American cities. Yet, in the end, shifting the trajectory of postwar liberal reform toward surveillance had the opposite effect: increased police presence on the streets, in the sky, and within schools and housing projects further inflamed violent civil disorder.” [10] However, Hinton also shows how these Acts empowered an entirely new economy of housing prisoners privately, which has proven Big Business in the 1990s and 2000s, elaborating a “merger of antipoverty programs with anticrime programs that laid the groundwork for contemporary mass incarceration.” [11] If we look more broadly at trends in urban divestment and renewal over the following forty years, perhaps this merger also paved the way for gentrification, destabilizing and depopulating urban areas that, a few decades later, mostly-white developers could buy up cheap.

Clearly, in the 1960s we see a dynamic between commercial and police interests nowhere as simple as a planter hiring patrols to find and return his slaves or a railroad company paying sheriffs for their prisoners’ labor. Yet, in establishing the legislation that effectively drove 21st century carceral industries and expanded police forces for gentrifying urban areas, perhaps a more creative answer to the question posed above shows how, in the longer run, a relationship between the police and American commercial boosters only solidified in the late 1960s. That is, while many private real estate developers and urban business owners took a loss due to urban civil disorder of the 1960s, the emphasis on “law and order” as a response to that disorder arguably contributed to wealth concentration in the 21st century. Although the 2023 equivalent of household farmers who could lease cheap convict labor in the 1890s are left behind, “commercial interests” closer to the top 1% of earners are now better served by local police than ever before. The third section of this project looks at the current decade and shows that the relationship I’ve outlined between an owning class and the police has only grown stronger.


[1] Heather Ann Thompson, “Why Mass Incarceration Matters: Rethinking Crisis, Decline, and Transformation in Postwar American History.” The Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (December 2010): 729.

[2] Elizabeth Hinton, “‘A War Within Our Own Boundaries’: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State.” Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (June 2015): 100.

[3] Kevin Mumford, Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. (New York: New York University Press, 2007), 158.

[4] Michael Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 2, 5.

[5] Elizabeth Hinton, “‘A War Within Our Own Boundaries’: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State.” Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (June 2015): 103.

[6] Michael Flamm, Law and Order: Street Crime, Civil Unrest, and the Crisis of Liberalism in the 1960s. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 3.

[7] Otto Kerner, et. al, “Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.” Washington D.C. (February 29, 1968): 1.

[8] “Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act: Public Law 90-351; 82 Stat. 197.” Washington D.C. (June 19, 1968): 1.

[9] Elizabeth Hinton, “‘A War Within Our Own Boundaries’: Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and the Rise of the Carceral State.” Journal of American History 102, no. 1 (June 2015): 109.

[10] Elizabeth Hinton, 108.

[11] Elizabeth Hinton, 100.

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Sep 10, 2023
Public Policy


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