What can be done about the current wave of urban riots? The obvious answer is, sad to say, not much. Public officials with only a handful of exceptions are paralyzed to respond with the necessary force lest they be accused of brutality and provoke yet more rioting and violence. There is some good news, however. Evolution matters—homo sapiens have adapted and survived worse. Protecting society from chaos is far from hopeless though not immediately. Solutions are possible and need not cost a fortune or require draconian social engineering to domesticate a violent under-class.
Let’s start with architectural adjustments, bricks and mortar fixes to use a currently popular term, are guaranteed to perform as advertised for the simple reasons that rich people for millennia have successfully protected their property from violent rabble. We already possess formulae. Medieval castles with their moats and drawbridges, stone walls and narrow windows may not have been totally secure, but hard to imagine today’s screeching social justice warriors looting it. Urban planners of yesteryear knew how to safeguard a city—think Washington, DC and Paris–where a few well-placed troops could block unruly mobs marching on the capital. County seats in American Midwest towns typically have solid stone fortress-like, easily defended courthouses, built on hills, obviously designed to prevent debtors from seizing and then burning their mortgages (think Shays’ Rebellion).
This anti-looter architectural style has long been visible in “diverse” neighborhoods populated by a criminally inclined clientele. The distinctive and highly functional style features bars on the windows, cashiers secure inside bullet-proof plexiglass cages, and security cameras everywhere. Signs warn patrons that they are on camera and when these businesses close for the day, they are protected by steel shutters. Potential troublemakers know full well that the counter clerk is often armed, most cash is kept in an inaccessible safe and a large German Shepard frequently keeps the clerk company. Occasional news accounts tell of clerks shooting a would-be robber, so stick-ups are relatively rare.
If the threat of mass looting becomes commonplace, this “ghetto” defense style is easily extended to more mainstream establishments albeit with better optics. In a word, commerce would be “hardened.” Target, pharmacies and even liquor stores can build fortress-like stores with slits smash- proof glass windows and a single impenetrable steel blast front door that can be closed by remote control from company headquarters, if necessary. As with Medieval castles, employees can flee via hidden passageways and safely re-emerge blocks away. Totally secure “safe rooms” might be available if the staff and lingering customers are caught by surprise.
The modern mall—including downtown versions–will be totally re-designed to be entirely surrounded by windowless brick or concrete walls with a small number of quickly sealable entrances. Mall stores that have past histories of attracting looters—those selling sneakers, electronics, cell phones, for example, would be segregated to one section and if a riot occurred, a steel gate would be deployed to isolate them (high-priced Michael Jordans can be displayed only one shoe at a time with the second shoe kept at a secret off-premises location). Parking lots in the suburbs would have fewer points of entry and could quickly be closed to prevent the feeding fests that occur once it became known that a looting party was in progress. Access from public transportation, often the source of troublemakers, could be re-configured so as to better control entry.
The recent shift to e-commerce also provides major opportunities for risk management. Stores like Best Buy no longer need to have piles of self-service merchandise so alluring to the grab-and-run crowd. Stores need only display a single (securely chained) model of a TV or iPhone, and if ordered, it would be delivered same day at no charge via Amazon or FedEx. Want it now? Visit the customer fulfillment center, a bunker-like building behind a ten-foot wall a half mile distant. Going cashless could also be extended and thus reduce looter incentives to damage registers and safes while providing quicker access to customer payments.
Upscale, super-pricey stores that wish to keep their present ambiance can adopt a scorched earth approach, a military strategy that undermines the enemy by preemptively destroying anything of value—food, vehicles, industrial resources—before the enemy arrives. So, if the looters are milling outside a Gucci boutique, and the situation looks threatening, the staff will immediately spray paint or otherwise mutilate everything. This is not as draconian as it may seems since ultra-luxury stores stock minimal inventory (this conveys “exclusivity”) and extraordinary high store mark-ups limit actual monetary loss. Less obvious, these firms—Dior, Chanel, Fendi, Burberry etc.—anyway dread their brand being “ghettoized” so destroying them prior to theft is a wise business choice. Would-be looters are not that stupid—who would steal a shredded Prada or a Louis Vuitton purse?
This conversion is not as costly as it may initially appear. Savvy builders favoring this anti-looting style would enjoy an advantage in today’s struggling commercial real estate market. Brick and mortar stores relying on e-commerce for partial fulfillment would be smaller with and thus would pay less rent. A powerful incentive would be reduced insurance premiums and, as an added bonus, the insurance firms would research looter behavior to advise real estate developers. City ordinances can also legally require anti-riot measures (“public safety”) just as they currently demand fire doors and automatic sprinklers. Laws might be passed to limit the number of unaccompanied minors allowed into stores at any one time to prevent a critical mass of unruly teenagers.
Meanwhile, private security would be transformed. Gone would be the ubiquitous inoffensive, elderly “mall cop” terrified of racial profiling accusations and thus unable to deter young black troublemakers. Now fight fire-with-fire: hire security whose appearances terrify young would-be hoodlums. A few well-tattooed Mexican gangbangers might make white middle class shoppers slightly uneasy, but the message would unambiguous to blacks—don’t mess! Beefy Russians with gold teeth and thick accents would also do the trick.
Looters sense cowardice. During the 1960s a pet store in New York City’s “Spanish Harlem” (actually an Italian enclave) went absolutely untouched despite days of nearby looting and burning. Not a single parakeet was inconvenienced. Everybody knew that the store was mob-owned, and the Mafia was not easily intimidated by local punks.
The catalogue of adaptive responses to the breakdown of civil society is far more extensive than depicted here. Elon Musk and others can surely improve upon Tasers, pepper spray and tear gas. What about jamming or frying cellphones? During the 1960s I recall research on generating extra low levels sound waves that would induce an involuntary bowel movement. Concentrated cat urine might work better than tear gas. These would slow down any mob. The Covid-19 pandemic illustrates how people can quickly re-locate to secure persona safety, and telecommuting may take root not to escape disease but also to avoid young men outraged over America’s historic structural racism and economic inequality.
Evolution saves lives. Not even feckless politicians and race-mongers can stop adaptions to avoid mayhem. Civilized people for millennia have successfully deterred the barbarians, so we are just reawakening dormant responses. Keep in mind that the modern style professional police force is only a little more than 200 years old, so it is hardly a core requirement of civilization.