As protests intensified in Minneapolis following the death of a Black man pinned down by a white police officer, President Donald Trump issued a naked threat in a pair of tweets.
“I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis,” he wrote Thursday night. “Either the very weak Radical Left Mayor, Jacob Frey, get his act together and bring the City under control, or I will send in the National Guard & get the job done right.”
He continued in a second tweet: “These THUGS are dishonoring the memory of George Floyd, and I won’t let that happen. Just spoke to Governor Tim Walz and told him that the Military is with him all the way. Any difficulty and we will assume control but, when the looting starts, the shooting starts. Thank you!”
Twitter posted a content warning over the latter half of the president’s message, warning users that it violated the platform’s rules about glorifying violence but was still available out of public interest. (The same label was applied to an identical tweet from the official White House account.) It was the second time this week that the company labeled Trump’s tweets with some kind of content warning.
Later Friday, Trump attempted to backpedal with a nonsensical series of tweets, claiming that his racist call to violence was misunderstood (a reading that would require ignoring the immediate context of the threat, in which the president invoked the military to assert “control” of the situation).
“It was spoken as a fact, not as a statement. It’s very simple, nobody should have any problem with this other than the haters, and those looking to cause trouble on social media,” he tweeted.
Trump did not coin the phrase “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.” The line is half a century old, and combative Miami Police Chief Walter Headley Jr originally used it during the height of civil rights protests in the 1960s.
Headley led the Florida city’s law enforcement from 1948 until his sudden death in 1968. He attracted national attention and condemnation in December 1967, when he threatened to step up already severe policing practices that included use of tear gas and an aggressive stop-and-frisk policy.
“This is war,” Headley told reporters, according to a United Press International article from the time. He described his problem with “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.”
The police chief then explained that he maintained order by threatening violence: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
His comments angered civil rights leaders at the time. Martin Davies, a spokesman for the NAACP, told UPI: “This man has no place in a position of public trust. If necessary, we will get a lawsuit to keep him from enforcing this type of arbitrary action.”
Headley’s news conference so alarmed residents that he was put before the Miami City Commission to explain himself, according to his New York Times obituary. He claimed his remarks had been partly misinterpreted, and the publication said he “held his ground on enforcement and gained the commission’s support.” The city council and its mayor were all white men at the time.
“We don’t mind being accused of police brutality. They haven’t seen anything yet.”
It wasn’t the first time Headley would publicly use the “looting” phrase, either. Facing criticism in August 1968 for remaining on vacation while riots broke out in Liberty City, a majority-Black neighborhood in Miami, Headley said his department could handle the situation without him. “They know what to do. When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” he said, according to the Times obituary.
His officers killed three people. Eighteen were wounded.
Headley’s defenders said he transformed the department, which Miami Herald columnist Charles Whited had once described as being “comprised of more beef than brains.” But it became known for brawny tactics.
In the Headley era, two cops strip-searched a Black teenager suspected of bringing a knife into a pool hall and dangled him by his feet over a bridge crossing the Miami River, according to a Washington Post article about the era’s unrest.
At the time, local leaders claimed Headley was effective, but his authoritarian policies increased distrust between the Black community and law enforcement ― a long trend that has since led to the Black Lives Matter movement.
Protesters have demonstrated across the country since George Floyd, a Black man, died Monday after a white police officer restrained him by pinning his neck to the ground with a knee. Video of the incident shows Floyd pleading for his life and saying he could not breathe.
Some of the protesters turned violent on Wednesday night, setting fire to several Minneapolis businesses. They breached a city police station on Thursday, setting it ablaze and smashing windows as officers retreated.
Floyd’s brother, Philonise Floyd, called for the violence to end earlier this week.
“I want everybody to be peaceful right now, but people are torn and hurt because they’re tired of seeing Black men die,” he told CNN. “Constantly, over and over again.”