The Risk of Large-Scale Civil Unrest and Violence in the United States

Guy M. Burgess
Heidi Burgess

July, 2018

You can download this video from Vimeo for offline viewing.


This video examines large-scale unrest in the U.S. in the past--particularly in the 1960s and asks whether the polarization we are experiencing today could conceivably escalate into civil unrest or violence along the lines of -- or even more severe than -- the 1960s if nothing is done to "step back from the brink."

Full Transcript:

Slide 1. This is Guy Burgess. For this post, I would like to explore a topic that we used to think was unthinkable – the risk of large-scale civil unrest and violence in the United States.

Slide 2. Or, put another way, just how bad could the Red/Blue confrontation get?

Slide 3. Could we be looking at a second US Civil War?

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Slide 4. Or, might we be looking at large-scale civil unrest of the kind that characterized the US in the 1960s and early 1970s?

Slide 5. It is certainly true that the United States has something of a violent history, though I think, to be fair, most countries have something of a violent history. One obvious example is reflected in the new "Lynching Museum" from Enslavement to Mass Incarceration. There are lots of other examples that one can find by scanning Wikipedia or looking at the various roadside monuments across the country. Two more examples are the Wounded Knee Massacre of Native Americans and the Ludlow massacre of striking coal miners in Colorado. 

Slide 6. It is also true that the United States has pretty high levels of underlying criminal violence. If you look at our incarceration rates, we are "off the charts" compared to every other country on the  planet. Much of this is attributable to the prison industrial complex and politicians who are often competing by claiming to be "tougher on crime" than anybody else. Still, there's also a sense in which we maybe do have more crime that we'd like to think. Our homicide ranking places the US 126th out of 219 countries. 67 out of 76 countries have lower gun violence rates than the United States.  Question: where did you get these numbers?  I was curious about whether 1 was best or worst, so I googled it and found a ranking of 83 for the US.  

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Slide 7. We also don't do very well on the Global Peace Index. There are lots of countries in the developed world that do much better. In fact, we are in the same category as China and a lot of the Middle East, Africa, and South America in terms of the various "peace indicators." Still, we would like to think that we are, somehow, better. 

Slide 8. Political Polarization statistics from the Pew Research Center documented an alarming increase hostility between the United States' political left and right over the last 20+ years.

Slide 9. In this context, I think it is useful to look back 50 years to around 1968, first, as a reminder that things could be worse and, second, as a caution that things could deteriorate beyond the levels of violence seen in the 1960s. 

Slide 10 The mid 1960s was, first of all, a time when a great many US cities were experiencing "long hot summers" of large-scale civil unrest. This was the time that produced the Kerner Commission Report that was commissioned by President Johnson to examine underlying racial tensions. 

Slide 11.  Then we had, in 1968, the assassination of Martin Luther King. Literally overnight a large fraction of the big cities (and smaller cities in the United States) erupted into violence. 

Slide 12.  To give you a sense of what happened, The Washington Post recently ran this excellent multimedia presentation that looked at the four days following King's assassination and how it transformed the District of Columbia. If you multiply that by city after city you get a sense of the social upheaval that was taking place. 

Slide 13.  One of the most stunning charts to come out of the Washington Post article was this map and animation that is on their website. Each one of these dots shows when and where a violent incident occurred. It wasn't like it was one riot concentrated in one place. The whole city erupted! In fact, the whole country erupted! 

Slide 14.  This was only one of a series of stresses on the society in the late 1960s. There was the Vietnam War. Young men were being drafted to fight and die in war when nobody had convinced them that the war was really necessary. I was part of the Vietnam generation myself. In fact, I decided to pursue a career in the peace and conflict field, in part, to understand what was going on and what could be done to prevent such wars in the future.

Slide 15.  Just a few months after Martin Luther King was killed, Robert Kennedy, the peace candidate, was assassinated. just after having virtually won the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. He was, in a very real sense, the Barack Obama of his time. To lose somebody like that, without really anybody to replace them was deeply jarring to a very large segment of the society. 

Slide 16.  This played out in the 1968 Democratic National Convention where there were widespread riots in the streets and huge conflicts over who was, in fact, entitled to be a delegate at the convention.

Slide 17.  All of this contributed to underlying tensions within the society that, over the next few years, included a series of borderline violent demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. And then there was Kent State where the National Guard opened fire on a crowd of student demonstrators, killing four of them. On the very next day, cities all over the country again erupted in gigantic marches. I was part of one in Colorado that probably drew 100,000 people to the state capitol.

Slide 18.  This was also a time when the culture wars were arguably more intense than they are today. The "make love, not war" counterculture generation was a direct a repudiation of the traditional values of their parents.

Slide 19.  This was a time that saw the proliferation of "America--Love It or Leave It" bumper stickers that reflected what middle America and the "silent majority" thought of the rebellious youth culture.

Slide 20.  Still, somehow, we stepped back from the brink, as the society did not slide into larger-scale civil unrest and violence. It could could easily have been much much worse.

Slide 21.  Part of the reason was Watergate and the proof that the system did, actually, work when Nixon was ultimately forced from office.

Slide 22.  Still, deep tensions remained. This interesting retrospective on the Kerner Commission Report (written by the last surviving member of the Commission) explores our failure to successfully deal with the problem of racism in the U.S.

Slide 23.  Will we, somehow, find a way to step back from the brink of large-scale violence this time? 

Slide 24.  Distrust of the system is very deep and very widespread. You see it in Black Lives Matter. Go to their website to get a sense of how little trust they have in the system and the reasons for this distrust. 

Slide 25.  Or, go to the National Rifle Association website and you're greeted with a proclamation that this is "a time for warriors." Here, of course they are not talking about warriors who would fight some foreign enemy. They see the fight as occurring within the United States.

Slide 26.  We could very easily see an intensified process of "stepwise escalation" in which provocations followed by counter-provocations followed by counter-counter-provocations lead to the continuing erosion of taboo lines that constrain our most inhumane and unthinkable impulses. 

Slide 27.  We now have all sorts of inflammatory media like this article claiming that Democrats would also lose a second Civil War. You could easily get a kind of esprit-de-corps effect in which both sides are confident of victory and, therefore, unwilling to back away from confrontation. 

Slide 28.  We are also looking at deliberate efforts to provoke large-scale unrest. Special Counsel Mueller's assertion that Russia has been deliberately trying to tear the country apart is deeply troubling. It represents a different and very serious kind of conflict problem – one that operates independently of the substantive disputes between the parties. 

Slide 29.  We also have to deal with the problem of violent extremism. This slide shows shows just a few examples of organizations that are trying to deal with violent extremism in other parts of the world. It is not unreasonable to think that this kind of violence could happen in the US. Plenty of people know how to engage in the kind of asymmetric warfare that extremists in other parts of the world do so effectively. 

Slide 30.  And, there are additional security threats. All modern developed societies are astonishingly vulnerable. If the taboos against attacking the society as a whole ever break down, we could easily be in a lot of trouble.   This implies all the other stuff aren't "real security threats."  Can we rephrase the transcript?  (I don't think it is worth taking the time to re-do the video itself.)

Slide 31.  What might trigger something like this? One possibility would be a series of politically-motivated mass shootings or other acts of terrorism. For example, imagine what would happen if we have a sequence of Las Vegas-type shootings that were deliberate attacks on the left and/or the right. 

Slide 32.  This could easily escalate into the kind of thing that would produce something like the map from 1968, with lots and lots of incidents and deep grassroots violence.

Slide 33.  There are also serious questions about what would happen if Trump were either vindicated and victorious or removed from office and defeated. Ask yourself what the most hot-headed people on your side would do. One or the other of these two options is pretty likely to happen.

Slide 34.  There is also a sense in which the big anti-Trump movement has been singularly unsuccessful in persuading the other side to change its views. For all of the intensity and conflict, we are not changing anybody's mind. 

Slide 35.  All of this could result in one of two scenarios. If one side turns out to be a lot more powerful than the other, you could conceivably wind up with an authoritarian society in which the more powerful faction oppresses the others using high-tech techniques similar to those used in 1984. With the latest things coming out of the Silicon Valley, this is a pretty scary possibility. The other scenario is an equal-power conflict. Here you get what Quincy Wright saw as the key definition of war – a confrontation in which relative power was "so nearly equal as to lead to the extreme intensification of each" (SNEATLTTEIOE --a funny little acronym there that I learned as an undergraduate that has stuck with me ever since). The notion is that if you have confrontations between large groups of equal power, they will be compelled to go "all out" and use every confrontation strategy available to them regardless of the taboo lines that have to fall. This is what produces society's most terrible atrocities.

Slide 36.  So, will we find a way to step back from the brink? The truth is, I don't know.

Slide 37.  I'll leave you with something I learned from Kenneth Boulding. He used to like to cite Murphy's Law as an unequivocal scientific fact by adding the word, "eventually." "If anything can go wrong, it eventually will." If we allow today's tensions to persist, sooner or later (just by the laws of statistics) they will lead to catastrophe. So somehow we MUST find a way to step back from the brink.

Referenced Resources:

Slide 7: Source: 2017 Global Peace Index --

Slide 8: Graph Source:

Slide 10: The Kerner Report (The James Madison Library in American Politics) by The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and Sean The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

Slide 11:  Wikipedia entry on King Assassination:

Photo Credits:

Slide 3: Battle of Petersburg – Source:; By: Currier & Ives; Permission: Public Domain

Slide 4, 12, 13:

Slide 5: Lynching Museum --  Ludlow Massacre --  Wounded Knee --

Slide 6:

Slide 7: Source: 2017 Global Peace Index --

Slide 8: Graph Source:

Slide 10: Watts Riots – Source: By: New York World-Telegram; Permission: Public Domain

The Kerner Report (The James Madison Library in American Politics) by The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders and Sean The National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders

Slide 11: Martin Luther King Memorial:  Source:; Public Domain  Source:

Slide 14:  Vietnam Helicopters – Source:; Permission: CC0 Creative Commons

Vietnam Protests – Source:; Permission: Public Domain