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Trump’s tweet about rioters echoes 1960s Miami police chief

President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, May 29, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

CHICAGO – President Donald Trump's tweeted warning Friday amid unrest in Minneapolis that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” echoes the language of a Miami police chief in 1967 who made clear his distaste for civil rights activists and his belief that violent protests should be met with deadly force.

The language has also been attributed to segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace in a 1968 campaign speech in Pittsburgh.

Trump said he was unaware of the origins of the language.

About 13 hours after his provocative tweet, he took to Twitter again to claim that he wasn’t suggesting the shooting of rioters. Instead, he said he was referring to gun violence that has been spurred by the unrest.

The phrase first made headlines when Miami Police Chief Walter Headley uttered it in a 1967 speech outlining his department’s efforts to “combat young hoodlums who have taken advantage of the civil rights campaign.”

“We don’t mind being accused of police brutality,” he said in the same speech, according to news reports from the time.

Trump, in his follow-up tweets, appeared to be referring to the deadly shooting of a man outside a Minneapolis pawn shop on the second night of protests there and to the wounding of people in Louisville, Kentucky, when gunfire broke out at a Thursday protest stemming from the March police shooting death of a 26-year-old black woman.

“Looting leads to shooting, and that’s why a man was shot and killed in Minneapolis on Wednesday night - or look at what just happened in Louisville with 7 people shot,” Trump tweeted. “I don’t want this to happen, and that’s what the expression put out last night means.”

Speaking to reporters at the White House later on Friday, Trump said, “I don’t know where it came from or where it originated.

“But I’ve heard it for a long time, as most people have,” Trump added. "And frankly it means when there’s looting, people get shot and they die.”

Headley, who spent 20 years leading the Miami department, sought to send an unambiguous message to protesters that he had little tolerance for any actions that he deemed over the line.

During the 1968 race riots in the Liberty City section of Miami that stemmed from anger in the black community over substandard housing and bleak economic conditions, Headley's language was even more harsh as he reprised the looting-shooting phrase. Police killed three residents during that riot.

“There is only one way to handle looters and arsonists during a riot and that is to shoot them on sight,” Headley said. “I’ve let the word filter down: When the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

The Rev. Al Sharpton, a civil rights activist and frequent critic of Trump's, said that phrase has reverberated in the South and was “always used about civil rights protesters.”

Sharpton said Trump’s “race-tinged” comments reminded him of Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley calling on police “to shoot to kill” arsonists and “maim or cripple” looters in the April 1968 riots in the city following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

“I don’t know if the history of it was in his head or someone around him said it and he liked the sound of it,” Sharpton said. “But it’s certainly in his spirit, and it poisons an already volatile situation."

Wallace, who pushed pro-segregationist policies as governor of Alabama, used the same phrase as he campaigned in Pennsylvania in 1968, according to a 2005 column by a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette writer who was at the event.

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Shafner reported from New York.