The real meaning and history of 'When the looting starts the shooting starts' - Donald Trump’s Twitter threat

At the end of May, Twitter placed a “public interest notice” on a post from Donald Trump about protests in the US city of Minneapolis.

The president tweeted after protesters angered by the death of George Floyd in police custody set fire to a police station, and threatened, “when the looting starts, the shooting starts”.

“...These THUGS are dishonouring 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!” Trump’s tweet read.

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    What does ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts' mean?

    The tweet can now only be read after clicking on a disclaimer from Twitter moderators which reads: “This Tweet violated the Twitter Rules about glorifying violence. However, Twitter has determined that it may be in the public’s interest for the Tweet to remain accessible.”

    But what does ‘When the looting starts the shooting starts’ mean?

    It probably won’t surprise you to learn that it’s not an original quote from Trump. Instead, the President is actually echoing the words of late Miami police chief Walter Headley.

    Infamous for his violent reprisals on black protesters in the 1960s, Headley said in 1967 that Miami didn't have problems with race riots “because I've let the word filter down that when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

    “We don't mind being accused of police brutality,” Headley added at the time. “They haven't seen anything yet.”

    “This is war. I meant it, every bit of it."

    When was the phrase first used?

    A young boy raises his fist during a demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia (Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

    Headley's first known use of the phrase came during a press conference following racially motivated civil unrest in the summer of 1967.

    Headley announced that teams of officers equipped with "shotguns and dogs" would respond to the "young hoodlums" from "Negro districts" in Miami with lethal force, stating that "any force, up to and including death, is proper when apprehending a felon".

    The police chief repeated the phrase a year later, when riots broke out in Miami during the 1968 Republican National Convention.

    Headley – a Democrat – was on holiday at the time of the clashes between police and mostly black activists protesting the United States' unfair political, social, and economic systems.

    But he told reporters that his officers “know what to do”, saying “they can handle the situation… when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

    The phrase has also been attributed to the pro-segregationist former Governor of Alabama and multiple-time US presidential candidate George Wallace, but that assertion has since been disputed by fact checkers.

    In fact, Wallace said "Shoot 'em dead on the spot...That may not prevent the burning and looting, but it sure will stop it after it starts."

    Why are there riots in America?

    Some 50 years after the riots of 1967, Miami is once again seeing unrest following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis (Photo: Cliff Hawkins/Getty Images)

    The death of George Floyd – and the subsequent protests rocking America – has caused uproar throughout the world, drawing attention back to the vast systemic racial injustices within society.

    On 25 May, Floyd – an African-American man – was handcuffed and lying face down on a city street as white American Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on the right side of his neck.

    Chauvin’s knee remained there for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, despite Floyd’s repeated pleas of “I can’t breathe” – 2 minutes and 53 seconds of that time occurred after Floyd became unresponsive. He died in custody.

    The fallout from this most awful of racially aggravated events has been far reaching, with dramatic clashes between protesters and police forces across many American cities over the past week.

    As racial injustice rears its ugly head once again, demonstrations have been seen in countries across the world, despite much of the planet still under some form of lockdown from coronavirus.