Today marks the 100 year anniversary of the great earthquake of 1906 that hit Northern California on April 18. Somewhere between one and five thousand people were killed in San Francisco alone and until recently the story about the quake and its aftermath has not been adequately told. I think there is much here for criminologists to think about. Why has this story been so long in coming? Obviously we have a centennial anniversary of a great event that may hold commercial promise that could explain the recent interest in this issue. However, the lack of our adequate understanding of what happened is probably much deeper than we imagine. Past researchers have found that the distinctive tourist economy of San Francisco has suppressed its crime problem, and we know that the 1906 quake has been downplayed considerably: in the past it has been shown that photos have been doctored to make it appear that buildings were destroyed by fire and not the quake.
So there is so much more to this story than a quake and the inevitable death and suffering. As with many but not all catastrophic events, there was a law and order period following the event--although no formally declared martial law. In Philip Fradkin's (The Great Earthquakes and Firestorms of 1906: How San Francisco Nearly Destroyed Itself, U C Press, 2005) frank view,
Who, or what, was to blame for the earthquake and its violent aftermath? Not nature, which merely set the events in motion. San Francisco was the city that nearly destroyed itself, and is poised to do so again for most of the same reasons.
It seems pretty clear that Fradkin is not out to make San Francisco look pretty but rather to tell a story that has not been told: one of blatant racism West Coast style; the grab of commerce and price gouging by a power elite; the use of armed guards with orders to kill to protect propertied interests; and the purposeful suppression of the story of the quake.