Skip to main content
Original Issue

The Agony of Victory

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

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."

David Silber, chairman of the psychology department at George Washington University, says, "These kids live in cities that are virtual prisons of poverty. If a person is angry to begin with and is then exposed to a violent stimulus like a football, hockey or basketball game, that person is far more likely to act in a violent way. Adding alcohol to this mix makes it even more troublesome."

But the U.S. has always been a violent country, and our cities have always had impoverished areas. Why then has the triumph of the home team only recently provoked spasms of violence? "This is not 1950, when most people feared God and their parents and had respect for the police," says John Bryant, a community activist who is the director of Los Angeles's Operation Hope, a redevelopment group founded after that city's riots following the 1992 Rodney King verdict. "This is an era marked by weakened family structure, which means there is a lot less love by virtue of less discipline."

Each of this year's three victory riots was as different from the others as were the three cities in which they occurred.

The Dallas riot began as a massive midday civic celebration and parade on Tuesday, Feb. 9. The crowd was estimated as high as 400,000—far more than authorities had anticipated—and several city high schools reported absentee rates of more than 50% as young people from many neighborhoods thronged the downtown area. Most behaved themselves, but a few black youths, perhaps no more than 100, began harassing whites and Hispanics. They looted liquor stores, stripped vendors of Super Bowl memorabilia and did about $50,000 worth of damage to city buses, the same buses that had provided free rides to the parade site.

The Dallas violence was a day at the beach compared to the bloody street battles of Chicago or Detroit, but the city's conservative citizenry was shocked. The report of a task force that investigated the roots of the riot said the violence had "some racial overtones" and went on: "Post-parade disturbance, assaults and 'wilding' activities were generated by the combination of a sports-excitement atmosphere, the lack of sufficient police presence and mob psychology by groups—and therefore, by race."

Pettis Norman, a former Cowboy tight end who is now a Dallas businessman, and who was on the task force, says, "Dallas will win again soon, and next time the city will spend $3 million to have 10 times the police force out. We should be spending that three million trying to solve the problems that created the climate for such violence in the first place."

In Montreal on the night of June 9, the climate for violence had nothing to do with race and little to do with sports. Nor was it spontaneous. More than half an hour before the Canadiens completed their Stanley Cup victory over the Los Angeles Kings, crowds of young men, virtually all of them white, began swarming out of the subway outside the Forum on St. Catherine Street "like rats out of a sewer," as one witness put it. Many were carrying bricks and steel bars. Some had plastic garbage bags around their waists, soon to be filled with loot. When the exultant spectators tried to emerge from the Forum after the final siren, they had trouble getting out of the building because of the swirling mobs outside. Some 600 police officers, as well as a specially trained riot squad, were poised nearby. But no orders came for the cops to go into action.

The crowds headed east toward downtown. Police inertia was an unexpected boon to the dozens of professional looters who used the celebration violence as a cover for some skillfully organized robbery: After shop windows were broken, trucks backed up to the stores and thieves loaded in merchandise. The rioters did an estimated $10 million in property damage and thefts before the police finally went into action about midnight.

The next day Montreal police chief Alain St. Germain offered a limp defense. "Right now, in the context of human rights and freedoms, we're walking on eggshells," he said. "Police must have sufficient cause to intervene. You have to remember there weren't only rioters in front of the Forum. There were people there simply to celebrate the victory of the Canadiens."

But as Tomas Gabor, a University of Ottawa criminologist, points out, "If police fail to stop criminal acts, there is no one to send the message that vandalism and looting is unacceptable."

In contrast to its genteel image, Montreal is all too familiar with mob violence. When the Canadiens won the Cup in 1986, a frenzy of violence and looting occurred that has since become known as the Gucci riot because the city's most fashionable stores were the hardest hit. Merchants that year were also outraged by police timidity—which some observers said was the unintended result of criticism that the police had endured after they were accused of excessive brutality during a political riot in '80.

Two weeks after this spring's violence in Montreal only two people had been arraigned on criminal charges. The bulk of the suspects will be charged with "mischievous behavior," which carries a maximum sentence of six months.

This slap-on-the-wrist justice is in sharp contrast to the way Chicago prosecutors have been handling their cases. As of last week 164 suspects in this year's violence had been charged with some form of burglary, a felony punishable by a prison term of three to seven years, although probation is possible. There has been discussion among lawyers on both sides as to whether sentences will be harder or softer in light of the fact that the crimes occurred amid the heady atmosphere of a championship triumph.

John Eannace, chief of the criminal prosecutions bureau in the Cook County state's attorney's office, says, "We will argue that a burglary on the night of the Bulls' win cries out for a more severe sentence. The victory is an aggravating factor. The motive behind these crimes is the destruction of property. They should be treated accordingly."

On the other hand, Shelton Green, chief of felony and trial for the Cook County public defender, says, "We would explain to the judge that the Bulls did something that has not happened in 20 years. Our client maybe had a couple. He was there. Look at the circumstances, Judge, we would say. It just happened in the moment, and the sentence should be minimal, definitely probation."

If what happened to culprits caught breaking the law in Chicago during the riot of 1992 is any indication, Cook County judges are going to be harsh. In all, 391 people were charged with felonies, and in the 281 cases concluded so far, 76 individuals were sent to prison for more than a year, two for less than a year, 161 were placed on probation, and 42 were found not guilty—results that are tougher than those in the general run of burglary cases.

But justice moves slowly in Chicago, and last week, as the city was still tallying the costs of the riot of 1993, the fates of four young men who had been arrested in the '92 melee were being decided in a Cook County courtroom. Three of the rioters—Gregory Jackson, Michael Howard and Lloyd Harwood—were ready to be sentenced by Circuit Judge Thomas Durkin following their convictions on charges of being among a mob that looted a grocery store. Durkin noted that the trio had helped cause $40,000 in damage and that they had thrown bottles and cans at the officers who had arrived to arrest them even as they were grabbing merchandise off the shelves. All three had no previous convictions, and Durkin sentenced each of them to 21 days in jail, two years of felony probation and 120 hours of community service, which means picking up trash and helping stranded motorists along Chicago's busy expressways.

The fourth young man appearing in Durkin's courtroom was Bertrand Davis, 22, who was in the second and final day of a jury trial on the charge that he had been one of a gang of eight or 10 males who had beaten and robbed three Koreans on the night in question.

According to prosecutors Tom Lyons and David Styler, only one victim, Jong Kim, was willing to testify, but he offered a frightening account of what goes on during the wild hours of a championship celebration. According to Kim's testimony the gang, riding in three cars, cornered the auto of the victims, forcing them at gunpoint to pull into a side street. The gang demanded money. Kim and his friends refused, so the beating began, with punches, kicks and a beer bottle. They then turned over their cash—$38.

After that, the gang demanded the Bull T-shirts, emblazoned with the slogan REAL MEN WEAR RED, that all three victims were wearing, and the beating resumed until the T-shirts were surrendered. A man Kim identified as Davis then opened the victims' car trunk and found 33 more Bull T-shirts in a box, which he stole. The same man also found a windshield ice scraper and started beating Kim with it while demanding more money. By then Kim had suffered many cuts and a broken wrist.

The gang finally fled. The police found the shirtless, bleeding victims sitting in the street. Forty-five minutes later Kim spotted Davis crossing the street with another man and pointed him out to police as his assailant.

Davis insisted at his trial that he had been with his girlfriend when the assault took place and that he had just crossed the street to buy cigarettes when the police descended on him. The prosecution presented testimony that the arresting officers had found bloodstained money in Davis's pocket.

After four hours of deliberation the jury acquitted Davis. No one will be held accountable for the pain inflicted on Kim and his friends during a night of violence nearly forgotten after the passage of a year and yet another Bull victory riot.

With the World Series, the next championship milestone on the sporting calendar, less than four months away, is another ugly outburst of violence in 1993 inevitable? Not necessarily, pointed out the Vancouver Sun on June 15. Recalling those who celebrated the World Series victory of the Toronto Blue Jays last fall, the Sun remarked, "They were cool. Liquor bottles stayed in the bars.... When cops on horseback asked the revelers to move back onto the sidewalks, most obliged. It was a mixed crowd. Whites, blacks, Asians, mixing together, milling, hanging out, cheering."

The hope is that Toronto was not a quaint exception. The very real fear is that the events of Dallas, Montreal and Chicago are now the rule.



A stray bullet made Lyles's son Michael the victim of a celebration.