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The Agony of Victory
William Oscar Johnson
July 05, 1993
After three violent championship 'celebrations' in 1993, experts are pondering why people riot for the home team
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July 05, 1993

The Agony Of Victory

After three violent championship 'celebrations' in 1993, experts are pondering why people riot for the home team

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Wild in the Streets

When the Tigers swept the World Series in 1984, youths in Detroit attacked their hometown (right), a phenomenon that now has become depressingly common after sports triumphs in other cities.

Date

Location

The Human Toll

Crime/Damage

Event

6/20/93

CHICAGO

Three dead, dozens injured, 700 arrested

Shootings, burglary, disorderly conduct; $150,000 (early estimate)

Bulls win third title

6/9/93

MONTREAL

168 injured, 115 arrested

Stores destroyed, 47 police cars damaged, looting; $10 million

Canadiens win Stanley Cup

2/9/93

DALLAS

26 injured, 25 arrested

Looting, fighting; $150,000

Cowboys win Super Bowl

6/14/92

CHICAGO

100 injured, 1,000 arrested

Stores destroyed, 61 police cars damaged, looting, fires; $10 million

Bulls win second title

6/14/90

DETROIT

Seven dead, hundreds injured, 140 arrested

Shootings, stabbings, fighting, looting, cars damaged

Pistons win second title

5/24/86

MONTREAL

Nine arrested

Looting, fighting, store windows smashed; $2 million

Canadiens win Stanley Cup

1/20/85

SAN FRANCISCO

184 arrested

Store windows smashed, fires, rock and bottle throwing

49ers win Super Bowl

10/14/84

DETROIT

One dead, 80 injured, 41 arrested

Rapes, cars attacked, fires, rock and bottle throwing; $100,000

Tigers win World Series

10/18/77

NEW YORK

20 injured, 40 arrested

Yankee Stadium seats ripped out, turf torn up, vandalism

Yankees win World Series

10/17/71

PITTSBURGH

100 injured

Store windows smashed, fires, motorists attacked, armed robberies

Pirates win World Series

10/10/68

DETROIT

200 arrested

One rape, store windows smashed, fires

Tigers win World Series

On the evening of June 20 more than 5,000 Chicago police officers—four times the usual number for a Sunday night—were on duty in the streets at the moment John Paxson sank his three-pointer to clinch a third straight NBA crown for the Bulls. Armored trucks and prison vans were positioned to perform with maximum efficiency in handling mass arrests. The number of judges, prosecutors and public defenders on duty was doubled to expedite the processing of suspects. Extra firemen were at work. In all, the city spent $3 million to prepare for the postvictory violence that everyone knew was coming.

But no show of force could prevent the mayhem that burst over Chicago as the final buzzer sounded in far-off Phoenix. Over the next several hours thousands flooded into the streets. Dozens of shops were looted, and scores of cars were burned. A day-care center and four public schools were broken into. By dawn the rioting had claimed two lives, both random victims of celebratory bullets. Rosalind Slaughter, 26, was outside her South Side apartment building with her neighbors when she heard gunfire. Turning to go inside, Slaughter was three steps from her front door when she fell to the ground, a bullet in her temple. Slaughter's one-year-old daughter, one of her two children, was in her arms. Michael Lowery, 12, was sitting in front of his house in a middle-class South Side neighborhood when he was shot in the head. No arrests have been made in these murders, and none are expected.

After the madness was over, some Chicago officials proclaimed the riot of 1993 to have been tamer than that of '92; after all, there were only 682 arrests this time compared with 1,016 a year ago. Yet no one died in the '92 rioting, and some Chicagoans have suggested that this year's violence only seemed more benign because the fashionable Michigan Avenue shopping district was left largely undisturbed while inner-city neighborhoods bore the brunt of the ugly celebration.

Of the bullet that cut down her son, young Michael's mother, Patricia Lyles, said, "It could have happened anytime. It didn't have to be because of the Bulls. There is a lot of shooting that goes on around here."

True enough. But the Chicago violence was because of the Bulls' victory, and it thus took on a more frightening significance than if it had simply been part of the normal pattern of crime in the Windy City.

For what happened in Chicago had also happened in Montreal 11 days earlier, when the Canadiens won the Stanley Cup, and in Dallas four months before, after the Cowboys won the Super Bowl. Victory celebrations that turn violent are hardly new (chart, page 34). But while there used to be an ugly scene every five or six years, then one every year, there have now been three in 1993.

These incidents are all evidence of a grim ritual in which we celebrate major sports triumphs by turning our cities' meanest streets even meaner, filling them with feral packs of kids and criminals who loot, shoot and leave their hometowns awash in blood, bullets and broken glass.

With large-scale violence now having occurred in two successive years, Chicago is beginning to rival Detroit when it comes to such mayhem. The Motor City was the scene of the first modern celebration riot in 1968 (after the Tigers won the World Series) and has since been plagued by rioting in '84 (the Tigers again) and in '89 and '90, after the Pistons won the NBA title. In the '84 night of violence, celebrants raped three women and shot to death a man who was in his car quietly awaiting a friend. That was the U.S.'s worst sports-victory melee—until the Pistons won their second NBA title, on June 14, 1990. On that night scores were injured by gunfire, stabbings and fights, and the death toll reached eight—including a four-year-old boy killed by a car; a man shot dead in a parking lot by a random bullet; and four people, three of them children, killed when a man drove his car onto a sidewalk and into a crowd of celebrants.

So what has caused this viciousness to replace ticker-tape parades as our way of celebrating big victories in sports? There have been many theories advanced over the years, some more original than others. For instance, after the Detroit mayhem of 1984, a New York social psychologist, Carl Wiedemann, offered TIME magazine his own list of explanations. Theory No. 1 had to do with the then rebounding auto industry. "Detroit is already making a comeback," Wiedemann said. "In sociological terms it is a perfect place for a revolution of rising expectations." Theory No. 2 suggested that the Tigers' rapid sweep of the San Diego Padres had left Detroit fans with "unspent warlike energy." And theory No. 3 speculated that the riots were "the equivalent of a rebellion by the Rustbelt against the Sunbelt."

Lieutenant Mike Hillman, an instructor at the Los Angeles Police Department's Unusual Occurrence Response Training Center, says of celebratory violence, "It's like the Wave. It starts, and if you don't do it, you screw up the whole thing, and people are going to taunt you and jeer at you. You do it because everyone else is doing it. If you're breaking windows and stealing and there is nobody there to do anything about it, you do it."

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