At the end of May 2020, Americans had experienced the better part of two full months in unprecedented isolation. Politicians and public health officials made preserving that solitariness into a national moral crusade. So, when those same politicians and public health officials pivoted toward a new moral crusade, one that required you to be out in the streets, Americans—the young, in particular—took maximum advantage of the opportunity to comingle again. The breakdown of ordered society that accompanied the pandemic ensured that much of that comingling took the forms of violent protest and riot. Given their priorities, the political class was loathe to acknowledge the connection between these two phenomena at the time, but not anymore. Covid has become an all-purpose way to excuse mass violence.
Long Branch, New Jersey, erupted in a lawless display last Saturday that was so disorderly it was atypical even of the Jersey Shore. In what local outlets deemed “a troubling repeat of what happened” last June—indeed, mass violence is becoming a seasonal event—a “pop-up party” quickly devolved from a joyous affair into anarchy.
Thousands attended the event. Hundreds of revelers attacked local businesses and each other. Riot police were dispatched. Crowd control ordinance was deployed. At least 15 people were arrested, including four minors.
It took several days for New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy to address the chaos in his state’s streets over the weekend. But when he finally did, he said the pandemic was to blame for the pandemonium. “You’re coming out of a pandemic where people are desperate to get back out and scream from the highest mountains and get back in with other people,” Murphy said. “I get that, and we have to figure out responsible ways for that to happen.”
The only part of this statement that isn’t bizarre is the governor’s eagerness to treat people who behave in a criminal fashion as if they bear no responsibility for their actions. Robbing the reckless of personal agency has become a lamentable feature of how those who share the Democratic governor’s political sympathies think about crime. Beyond that, it’s entirely unclear what Murphy is talking about.
In New Jersey, the on-again, off-again state of emergency around the pandemic first ended (as a result of a gubernatorial pen stroke) in June 2021. Businesses and entertainment venues had opened again in a limited capacity well before the governor acknowledged the conditions on the ground. And when he reimplemented a state of emergency in January 2022, it was not universally applicable or observed by many of the firms that had already returned to normal. That state of emergency came and went with the surge of the Omicron variant across the country–which is to say, rapidly.
By contrast, violent crime and property crime in the Garden State have been far more constant. At the end of last year, murders increased in the state at the fastest pace per capita since 2003. The number of shooting victims jumped by 41 percent from 2019 to 2020. In some major cities, shootings are up by as much as 50 percent year over year. This terrifying trend has yet to abate.
“I do think the pandemic, the stressors caused by that, and I think at the heart of it lies illegal crime guns in the hands of violent recidivist offenders,” said New Jersey State Police Superintendent Col. Patrick Callahan. He’s partly right. The “stressors caused” by the pandemic include an outgrowth of 2020’s summer of violence: the Democratic Party’s commitment to handcuffing the police.
New Jersey was among the first to implement a bail reform law in 2017. As its critics anticipated, the reform resulted in an uptick in recidivism rates among pretrial defendants (which NorthJersey.com bizarrely insisted does not represent a “crime surge”). In October 2020, the state granted early release to thousands of incarcerated individuals to relieve the pressure on the prison system. It was, according to the New York Times, “one of the largest-ever single-day reductions of any state’s prison population.” That same year, the state eliminated fines for juvenile offenders and allowed for the termination of post-incarceration supervision even if outstanding fines and restitution remained unresolved.
By 2021, a group of mayors in New Jersey’s most crime-afflicted cities begged state officials to “modify” the bail-reform statute. Though they maintain it was an “unintended consequence” of the reform, the measure allowed suspects who were found in possession of an illegal weapon to get out of custody immediately following a bail hearing. “Those who supported the original law realize the courts and judges have their hands tied,” ABC News reported.
As this latest (apparently regular) outburst of mass violence in Long Branch attests, the problem is not gun crime alone. Indeed, given the high rate of vehicle theft in the state and the acting Attorney General’s decision to once again allow police officers to engage in the pursuit of stolen vehicles (yes, seriously), the problem is one of general lawlessness. New Jersey’s failure to deter crime with the promise of a cost-prohibitive prosecution and lengthy prison sentences for convicted offenders is having the anticipated effect.
Why would Phil Murphy try to blame his state’s violence on a pandemic that is today all but a memory? Why was he among the first to violate his own proscriptions on public gatherings in the summer of 2020? The answer to both questions is simple: cowardice. Like so many left-of-center lawmakers, he has been led by the progressive activist class into a box canyon. They demanded maladministration, and that’s what they got. Even as the virus that tormented the planet subsides, the epidemic of lunacy that accompanied it will be with us for years to come.