In Defense of Looting (2014)
by Vicky Osterweil (The New Inquiry, 2014)
[Read the book: In Defense of Looting, 2020]
For most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.
As protests in Ferguson continued unabated one week after the police killing of Michael Brown, Jr., zones of Twitter and the left media predominantly sympathetic to the protesters began angrily criticizing looters. Some claimed that white protesters were the ones doing all of the looting and property destruction, while others worried about the stereotypical and damaging media representation that would emerge. It also seems that there were as many protesters (if not more) in the streets of Ferguson working to prevent looting as there were people going about it. While I disagree with this tactic, I understand that they acted out of care for the struggle, and I want to honor all the brave and inspiring actions they’ve taken over the last weeks.
Some politicians on the ground in Ferguson, like alderman Antonio French and members of the New Black Panther Party, block looting specifically in order to maintain leadership for themselves and dampen resistance, but there are many more who do so out of a commitment to advancing the ethical and politically advantageous position. It is in solidarity with these latter protesters–along with those who loot–and against politicians and de-escalators everywhere that I offer this critique, as a way of invigorating discussion amongst those engaged in anti-oppression struggle, in Ferguson and anywhere else the police violently perpetuate white supremacy and settler colonialism. In other words, anywhere in America.
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The dominant media is itself a tool of white supremacy: it repeats what the police deliver nearly verbatim and uncritically, even when the police story changes upwards of nine times, as it has thus far in the Brown killing. The media use phrases like “officer-involved shooting” and will switch to passive voice when a black man is shot by a white vigilante or a police officer (“shots were fired”). Journalists claim that “you have to hear both sides” in order to privilege the obfuscating reports of the state over the clear voices and testimony of an entire community, members of which witnessed the police murder a teenager in cold blood. The media are more respectful to white serial killers and mass murderers than to unarmed black victims of murder.
And yet, many of the people who perform this critique day-in, day-out can get jammed up by media perceptions of protesters. They want to correct the media’s assertion that protesters were all looters for good reason: the idea of black people looting a store is one of the most racially charged images in the white imaginary. When protesters proclaim that “not all protesters were looters, in fact, most of the looters weren’t part of the protest!” or words to that effect, they are trying to fight a horrifically racist history of black people depicted in American culture as robbers and thieves: Precisely the image that the Ferguson police tried to evoke to assassinate Michael Brown’s character and justify his killing post facto. It is a completely righteous and understandable position.
However, in trying to correct this media image—in making a strong division between Good Protesters and Bad Rioters, or between ethical non-violence practitioners and supposedly violent looters—the narrative of the criminalization of black youth is reproduced. This time it delineates certain kinds of black youth—those who loot versus those who protest. The effect of this discourse is hardening a permanent category of criminality on black subjects who produce a supposed crime within the context of a protest. It reproduces racist and white supremacist ideologies (including the tactic of divide-and-conquer), deeming some unworthy of our solidarity and protection, marking them, subtly, as legitimate targets of police violence. These days, the police, whose public-facing racism is much more manicured, if no less virulent, argue that “outside agitators” engage in rioting and looting. Meanwhile, police will consistently praise “non-violent” demonstrators, and claim that they want to keep those demonstrators safe.
In working to correct the white-supremacist media narrative we can end up reproducing police tactics of isolating the individuals who attack property at protests. Despite the fact that if it were not for those individuals the media might pay no attention at all. If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson be a point of worldwide attention? It’s impossible to know, but all the non-violent protests against police killings across the country that go unreported seem to indicate the answer is no. It was the looting of a Duane Reade after a vigil that brought widespread attention to the murder of Kimani Gray in New York City. The media’s own warped procedure instructs that riots and looting are more effective at attracting attention to a cause.
But of course, the goal is not merely the attention of dominant media. Nor is the goal a certain kind of media attention: no matter how peaceful and well-behaved a protest is, the dominant media will always push the police talking points and the white-supremacist agenda. The goal is justice. Here, we have to briefly grapple with the legacy of social justice being won in America: namely that of non-violence and the civil rights movement. And that means correcting a more pervasive and totalizing media and historical narrative about the civil rights movement: that it was non-violent, that it claimed significant wins because it was non-violent, and that it overcame racial injustice altogether.
In the 400 years of barbaric, white supremacist, colonial and genocidal history known as the United States, the civil rights movement stands out as a bright, beautiful, all-too-brief moment of hope and struggle. We still live in the shadow of the leaders, theory, and images that emerged from those years, and any struggle in America that overlooks the work (both philosophical and organizational) produced in those decades does so at its own peril. However, why is it drilled into our heads, from grade school onward, in every single venue, by presidents, professors and police chiefs alike, that the civil rights movement was victorious because it was non-violent? Surely we should be suspicious of any narrative that the entire white establishment agrees is of the utmost importance.
The civil rights movement was not purely non-violent. Some of its bravest, most inspiring activists worked within the framework of disciplined non-violence. Many of its bravest, most inspiring activists did not. It took months of largely non-violent campaigning in Birmingham, Alabama to force JFK to give his speech calling for a civil rights act. But in the month before he did so, the campaign in Birmingham had become decidedly not-non-violent:¹ protesters had started fighting back against the police and Eugene “Bull” Conner, throwing rocks, and breaking windows. Robert Kennedy, afraid that the increasingly riotous atmosphere in Birmingham would spread across Alabama and the South, convinced John to deliver the famous speech and begin moving towards civil rights legislation.
This would have been impossible without the previous months of courageous and tireless non-violent activism. But it is also the emergent threat of rioting that forced JFK’s hand. Both Malcolm X and MLK had armed bodyguards. Throughout the civil rights era, massive non-violent civil disobedience campaigns were matched with massive riots. The most famous of these was the Watts rebellion of 1965 but they occurred in dozens of cities across the country. To argue that the movement achieved what it did in spite of rather than as a result of the mixture of not-non-violent and non-violent action is spurious at best. And, lest we forget, Martin Luther King Jr., the man who embodied the respectable non-violent voice that the white power structure claims they would listen to today, was murdered by that same white power structure anyway.
Though the Civil Rights movement won many battles, it lost the war. Mass incarceration, the fact that black wealth and black-white inequality are at the same place they were at the start of the civil rights movement, that many US cities are more segregated now than they were in the sixties: no matter what “colorblind” liberals would say, racial justice has not been won, white supremacy has not been overturned, racism is not over. In fact, anti-black racism remains the foundational organizing principle of this country. That is because this country is built on the right to property, and there is no property, no wealth in the USA without the exploitation, appropriation, murder, and enslavement of black people.
As Raven Rakia puts it, “In America, property is racial. It always has been.” Indeed, the idea of blackness was invented simultaneously with American conceptions of property: via slavery. In the early days of colonial America, chattel slavery was much less common than indentured servitude—though the difference between the two was not always significant—and there were Irish, French, German and English immigrants among these populations. But while there had always been and continued to be some black freedmen, over the course of the 17th century light-skinned European people stopped being indentured servants and slaves. This is partially because production exploded in the colonies much faster than a working population could form to do the work–either from reproduction or voluntary immigration–and so the cost of hired labor went through the roof. Even a very poor and desperate European became much more expensive than an African bought from the increasingly rationalized transatlantic slave trade.
The distinction between white and black was thus eventually forged as a way of distinguishing between who could be enslaved and who could not. The earliest working definition of blackness may well have been “those who could be property”. Someone who organized a mob to violently free slaves, then, would surely be considered a looter (had the word come into common usage by then, John Brown and Nat Turner would have been slandered with it). This is not to draw some absurd ethical equivalence between freeing a slave and grabbing a flat screen in a riot. The point, rather, is that for most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting. The specter of slaves freeing themselves could be seen as American history’s first image of black looters.
On Twitter, a tongue-in-cheek political hashtag sprang up, #suspectedlooters, which was filled with images of colonial Europeans, slave owners, cowboys and white cultural appropriators. Similarly, many have pointed out that, had Africa not been looted, there wouldn’t even be any black people in America. These are powerful correctives to arguments around looting, and the rhetorical point—that when people of color loot a store, they are taking back a miniscule proportion of what has been historically stolen from them, from their ancestral history and language to the basic safety of their children on the street today—is absolutely essential. But purely for the purposes of this argument—because I agree wholeheartedly with the political project of these campaigns—I want to claim that what white settlers and slave traders did wasn’t mere looting.
It was genocide, theft, and barbarism of the lowest order. But part of how slavery and colonialism functioned was to introduce new territories and categories to the purview of ownership, of property. Not only did they steal the land from native peoples, but they also produced a system under which the land itself could be stolen, owned by legal fiat through force of arms. Not only did they take away Africans’ lives, history, culture, and freedom, but they also transformed people into property and labor-power into a saleable commodity. Chattel slavery is the most barbaric and violent form of work coercion—but as the last 150 years has shown, you can dominate an entire people through law, violence, and wages pretty well.
Recently an Instagram video circulated of a Ferguson protester discussing the looting and burning of the QuikTrip convenience store. He retorts the all too common accusation thrown at rioters: “People wanna say we destroying our own neighborhoods. We don’t own nothing out here!” This is the crux of the matter, and could be said of most majority black neighborhoods in America, which have much higher concentrations of chain stores and fast food restaurants than non-black neighborhoods. The average per capita income in Ferguson, MO is less than $21,000, and that number almost certainly gets lower if you remove the 35% white population of Ferguson from the equation. How could the average Ferguson resident really say it’s “our QuikTrip”? Indeed, although you might hang out in it, how can a chain convenience store or corporate restaurant earnestly be part of anyone’s neighborhood? The same white liberals who inveigh against corporations for destroying local communities are aghast when rioters take their critique to its actual material conclusion.
The mystifying ideological claim that looting is violent and non-political is one that has been carefully produced by the ruling class because it is precisely the violent maintenance of property which is both the basis and end of their power. Looting is extremely dangerous to the rich (and most white people) because it reveals, with an immediacy that has to be moralized away, that the idea of private property is just that: an idea, a tenuous and contingent structure of consent, backed up by the lethal force of the state. When rioters take territory and loot, they are revealing precisely how, in a space without cops, property relations can be destroyed and things can be had for free.
On a less abstract level there is a practical and tactical benefit to looting. Whenever people worry about looting, there is an implicit sense that the looter must necessarily be acting selfishly, “opportunistically,” and in excess. But why is it bad to grab an opportunity to improve well-being, to make life better, easier, or more comfortable? Or, as Hannah Black put it on Twitter: “Cops exist so people can’t loot ie have nice things for free so idk why it’s so confusing that people loot when they protest against cops” [sic]. Only if you believe that having nice things for free is amoral, if you believe, in short, that the current (white-supremacist, settler-colonialist) regime of property is just, can you believe that looting is amoral in itself.
White people deploy the idea of looting in a way that implies people of color are greedy and lazy, but it is just the opposite: looting is a hard-won and dangerous act with potentially terrible consequences, and looters are only stealing from the rich owners’ profit margins. Those owners, meanwhile, especially if they own a chain like QuikTrip, steal forty hours every week from thousands of employees who in return get the privilege of not dying for another seven days.
And the further assumption that the looter isn’t sharing her loot is just as racist and ideological. We know that poor communities and communities of color practice more mutual aid and support than do wealthy white communities—partially because they have to. The person looting might be someone who has to hustle everyday to get by, someone who, by grabbing something of value, can afford to spend the rest of the week “non-violently” protesting. They might be feeding their family, or older people in their community who barely survive on Social Security and can’t work (or loot) themselves. They might just be expropriating what they would otherwise buy—liquor, for example—but it still represents a material way that riots and protests help the community: by providing a way for people to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty and by creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so through wage labor.
Modern American police forces evolved out of fugitive slave patrols, working to literally keep property from escaping its owners. The history of the police in America is the history of black people being violently prevented from threatening white people’s property rights. When, in the midst of an anti-police protest movement, people loot, they aren’t acting non-politically, they aren’t distracting from the issue of police violence and domination, nor are they fanning the flames of an always-already racist media discourse. Instead, they are getting straight to the heart of the problem of the police, property, and white supremacy.
Solidarity with all Ferguson rebels! Justice for Mike Brown!
- I use the rather clunky phrase not-non-violent purposely. For some non-violence ideologues breaking windows, lighting trash on fire or even building barricades in the street is “violent”. I once watched a group of black teens chanting “Fuck the Police” get shouted at for “being violent” by a white protester. Though there are more forms of violence than just literal physical blows to a human body, I don’t believe a conception of “violence” which encompasses both throwing trash in the street and the murder of Michael Brown is remotely helpful. Frustratingly, in protest situations violence tends to be defined as “whatever the nearest cop or non-violence practitioner says it is.” Calling breaking a window “violent” reproduces this useless definition and places the whole argument within the rhetorical structure of non-violence ideology. Not-non-violent, then, becomes the more useful term.