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‘When the looting starts, the shooting starts’: A brief explainer on where the phrase comes from

Where does the phrase come from? Miami in the 1960s

LAPD riot police stand by outside City Hall during a protest of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis, in downtown Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 27, 2020.
LAPD riot police stand by outside City Hall during a protest of the death of George Floyd, a black man who was in police custody in Minneapolis, in downtown Los Angeles, Wednesday, May 27, 2020.
Ringo H.W. Chiu, Associated Press

President Donald Trump tweeted Thursday night about the Minneapolis protests over the death of George Floyd, a handcuffed black man who had pleaded for air as a white police officer kneeled on his neck.

  • Trump wrote: “I can’t stand back & watch this happen to a great American City, Minneapolis. A total lack of leadership. 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.....
  • “....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 restricted Trump’s tweet, saying it led to “glorification of violence.” Specifically, the phrase “looting starts, the shooting starts” drew ire over that reason.

Where does the phrase come from?

  • According to NBC News, the phrase came from Walter Headley, the police chief for Miami back in 1967. He said the phrase while discussing his departments “crackdown on ... slum hoodlums,” according to a United Press International article written at the time.
  • Per NBC News, Headley — who was the police chief in Miami for 20 years — said law enforcement went after “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 reportedly said Miami had not faced any “racial disturbances and looting” because he told his department that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
  • Per The Washington Post, the phrase was believed to lead to race riots in Miami in the late 1960s.