I live in San Francisco. Some people I know are worried about living in US cities at election time because of the potential for political unrest. This seems surprising to me, since I figure the chance of rioting harming a specific person in a large city is very low, especially if that person takes the precaution of not being intentionally at a riot. If I thought the chance of a riot so incredibly huge and destructive that one in a thousand people in my city is killed is as high as one in a thousand, that is still only giving me around a one in a million chance of death, i.e. similar to the risk from a flight to New York. Possibly I’m not being imaginative enough.

To check I’m not just badly mistaken about riots, I looked a bit for particularly bad previous riots in the United States. The 1863 New York City draft riots is the disaster with the largest death toll listed as a ‘riot’ in this list of US disasters by death toll. Wikipedia lists it as involving the death of around 120 people (though someone argues 2,0001), and the population at the time was apparently 813,669, so that’s around a one in ten thousand mortality rate of city residents. The 1967 Newark riots were also mentioned somewhere as especially bad, and seem to have involved a similar death rate of city residents. The 1992 Los Angeles riots involved 62 deaths, from a population of about 3.5M, which is a one in fifty thousand chance of death per resident. This wasn’t a very in depth review, but seems to support my view that a riot which killed one in one thousand residents in a city would be very surprising (e.g. would probably be the deadliest riot in US history). It seems fairly unlikely that this election involves the deadliest riot in US history at all, and if it did, unlikely that such a riot occurs in my particular city, and even if it did, a resident might then have a one in a thousand chance of death, ignoring probably a large further factor of safety for not joining a riot.

What am I missing?

  1. “The most reliable estimates indicate at least 2,000 people were injured. Herbert Asbury, the author of the 1928 book Gangs of New York, upon which the 2002 film was based, puts the figure much higher, at 2,000 killed and 8,000 wounded,[25] a number that some dispute.[26]” - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_York_City_draft_riots#Aftermath