archive / 1977 blackout

Genevie, Louis et. al. April 1987. "Predictors of Looting in Selected Neighborhoods of New York City During the Blackout of 1977." Sociology and Social Research 71, #3: 228-231.


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of the neighborhood that had been empirically and theoretically linked to riot behavior in previous studies (e.g., Cantril, 1973; Werner, 1968; Gurr, 1970; Morgan and Clarke 1973; Spilerman, 1976; Wanderer, 1969; and Warren, 1969). The data collected included information that was thought to be related to variation in looting: the social and economic characteristics of the community and the extent of fear and violent crime. A second series of questions focused on formal and informal social control mechanisms: residents' perceptions of the police and courts; their internalization of societal norms regarding stealing; and the extent of social cohesion in the community, factors that were thought to suppress the extent of looting.

In order to determine if these community characteristics were related to the extent of looting, responses to each question were cross-tabulated with the number of stores reported looted in the respondent's neighborhood. The results of this analysis are presented in Table 1.

Results. The findings indicated that residents' perceptions of the extent of looting were strongly related to the number of stores that were reported looted. In areas that were extensively looted, 93% of the respondents indicated that they had seen people carrying things out of stores. This figure declined as the number of stores looted declined, reaching a low of 596 in those areas where no stores were reported looted. These figures provide strong support for the accuracy of respondent information and the validity of the survey data. This is especially true when one recognizes that the number of stores reported looted is, like all reported criminal activity, an underestimate of the actual number of looted stores. Like other victims of crime, many store owners did not report their loss to the city.

According to neighborhood residents, more looting took place when there were more social problems such as unemployment and economic crime in the area and when violent crime, fear and underground economic activity were greater. Of these social problems, unemployment formed the strongest relationship with the extent of looting: 40% of the respondents in areas that experienced no looting agreed that unemployment was a problem in their neighborhood, compared to 81% of those in areas that were heavily looted.

In addition to the extent of social problems in the area, we also found that residents' relationships with both formal and informal social control mechanisms were also important in understanding the extent of looting. Where residents viewed the police and the courts positively, less looting occurred. When these agencies, the most visible elements of social control in a community, were viewed negatively by area residents, when residents believed that "the police in this neighborhood really don't respect the people who live here"; and that "the legal system is not fair to poor people", more looting took place.

Just as formal control mechanisms were important in understanding the extent of looting, so too were informal control mechanisms such as the extent of social cohesion in the area and the degree to which residents had internalized societal norms regarding theft. The findings indicated that less looting occurred in areas where there was greater cohesion among neighbors: where residents agreed that "people in this area are friendly and helpful." In addition, looting tended to be higher in areas where residents agreed that, "Since poor people don't have enough money, they can be expected to loot if given the opportunity. Only 26% of those in non-looted areas reported this expectation, compared to 77% of those in extensively looted areas.

Discussion and Conclusions. In understanding the causes and consequences of looting, we found that it was important to take into account the social problems of the community, especially the extent of unemployment and underground economic activity, as well as formal and informal elements of social control. The social problems, which relate to the quality of life in a community, could be viewed as "push" factors, forces that worked to increase the extent of looting. When unemployment, crime, fear and underground economic activity were high, residents did not develop a strong sense of attachment to the community and were more likely to behave destructively when opportunities like the Blackout arise.

This is, of course, only part of the answer to the question of why more looting occurred in some areas than in others. Perceptions of social problems take place in a normative context, a context we found to be very important in understanding the looting. The formal and informal elements of social control, residents' perceptions of the police and courts, how cohesive the neighborhood was, and the extent to which residents had internalized societal norms regarding theft, were found to be restraining influences, forces that tended to limit the extent of looting.

These data suggest that when neighborhood residents perceive the criminal justice system as incompetent or corrupt, the barrier between socially sanctioned and proscribed behavior breaks down. When there is no trusted agency to enforce legal proscriptions, adherence to those proscriptions declines.

From a social policy perspective, the data point to the need for increased attention to public perception of the criminal justice system, especially the police and the courts. There are real costs to a community's poor relationship with the police, or its perception that the courts are unfair, costs that are paid when an opportunity like the Blackout arises. Increasing the effectiveness and fairness of the police and courts is not only within the power of government, but a basic responsibility -- one that must be pur-

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