‘When The Looting Starts, The Shooting Starts’: Trump Quotes ’60s Police Chief’s Bloody Phrase
President Donald Trump on Friday tweeted a phrase that recalled the racist police violence of the ’60s: “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
The President was responding to the upheaval in Minneapolis in recent days in response to the police killing of George Floyd.
Trump’s use of that phrase earned him a warning label of sorts from Twitter: The tweet wasn’t visible until clicking through a disclaimer that the text “violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence.”
In a statement, Twitter confirmed that the specific violation had to do with “the historical context of the last line, its connection to violence, and the risk it could inspire similar actions today.”
The words indeed have a bloody history.
The phrase itself comes from a December 1967 press conference held by then-Miami police chief Walter Headley, in which he declared a “get tough” policy — a “war” on crime in black neighborhoods in Miami. Or as Headley was quoted in news reports at the time, “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. Community relations and all that sort of thing have failed. We have done everything we could, sending speakers out and meeting with Negro leaders. But it has amounted to nothing.”
The chief added that Miami hadn’t had a “serious problem with civil uprising and looting because I’ve let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
Headley said at the press conference that patrols in black neighborhoods would be armed with shotguns and police dogs.
The police chief was known for his aggressive “stop and frisk” policy, which often escalated police encounters. In February 1968, for example, police suspected a teenager had carried a concealed knife into a pool hall. In 2018, The Washington Post detailed what happened next: Police officers dangled the teen by his feet over a bridge 100 feet above the Miami River.
The Post noted a report from the National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence published the following year, in 1969, that said the policies had left the black community in Miami “in a state of continued agitation” from December 1967 to August 1968. It read:
Eight months after that press conference, Headley repeated the “looting” phrase during a riot that occurred parallel to the August 1968 Republican National Convention in Miami Beach.
The three-day riot began with the police incursion into what organizers described as “a mass rally of concerned Black people” — and ended with the police killing of three people and wounding of 18 more.
Headley was on vacation in North Carolina at the time and did not return home as the violence escalated, the New York Times reported in his obituary when he died in November 1968.
“They know what to do,” the vacationing Headley said of Miami police officers. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”
On Friday, even the right-wing militia group the Oath Keepers condemned the President’s tweet. That group first came to prominence in 2015 as an armed presence in Ferguson, Missouri, after the police killing there of Michael Brown.
“This is a disaster,” the group tweeted. “President Trump needs to retract that statement ASAP, stating that he misspoke & did not mean to say that National Guard should shoot people for stealing.”
The ACLU said Trump’s tweet was “hypocritical, immoral, and illegal” and called on the National Guard and law enforcement “to comply with the law — not President Trump.”
The TPM Journalism Fund: A New Way To Support TPM
We're launching the TPM Journalism Fund as an additional way for readers and members to support TPM. Every dollar contributed goes toward:
- -Hiring More Journalists
- -Providing free memberships to those who cannot afford them
- -Supporting independent, non-corporate journalism
CONTRIBUTE Learn More
Are you experiencing financial hardship?
Apply for a free community-supported membership
Are you a student?
Apply for a free student membership