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In 2003, Donald Rumsfeld gave a perfect explanation for why people riot

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

When Iraqis looted hospitals and businesses in Baghdad after the US invasion in 2003, the conservative secretary of defense at the time, Donald Rumsfeld, suggested that looting was a result of legitimate, pent-up anger — a comment that closely mirrors how many protesters feel about the rioting that erupted in Baltimore this week after Freddie Gray's funeral.

Rumsfeld said, according to Pentagon correspondent Pamela Hess at UPI:

While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression and people who have had members of their family killed by that regime, for them to be taking their feelings out on that regime. And I don't think there's anyone in any of those pictures … [who wouldn't] accept it as part of the price of getting from a repressed regime to freedom.

Rumsfeld's explanation for rioting is spot-on, according to historians and experts who have studied urban upheavals.

"People participate in this type of event for a real reason," Darnell Hunt, a UCLA professor who's studied the 1992 Rodney King riots in Los Angeles, said. "It's not just people taking advantage. It's not just anger and frustration at the immediate or proximate cause. It's always some underlying issues."

In Iraq, people were furious not just at the former regime that tyrannically oppressed them for decades, but with US invaders who were now occupying their country.

In the case of Baltimore, the tense protests and riots over the past week were catalyzed by the death of Gray, a 25-year-old black man who died of a spinal cord injury shortly after allegedly brutal treatment while in police custody. But the roots of the protests and riots are people's desperation and anger with a local police department that has a history of brutality — particularly against black residents — and huge socioeconomic disparities, which cause different Baltimore neighborhoods' average life expectancy to vary by decades. It's not just Gray's death or people taking advantage of the situation to loot — it's a genuine display of rage at a system that protesters feel has in many ways failed them despite decades of complaints.

In response to the Baltimore riots, local and state officials imposed a weeklong 10 pm curfew and called in Maryland's National Guard.

(Hat tip: Deray McKesson.)

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