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One Author's Controversial View: 'In Defense Of Looting'

A flag drapes across looted shelves in a hardware store in Philadelphia during unrest following the death of George Floyd in late May.
Mark Makela
Getty Images
A flag drapes across looted shelves in a hardware store in Philadelphia during unrest following the death of George Floyd in late May.

This story was updated on Sept. 1, 2020. The original version of this story, which is an interview with an author who holds strong political views and ideas, did not provide readers enough context for them to fully assess some of the controversial opinions discussed.

In the past months of demonstrations for Black lives, there has been a lot of condemnation of looting. Whether it was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying that stealing purses and sneakers from high-end stores in Manhattan was "inexcusable," or St. Paul, Minn., Mayor Melvin Carter saying looters were "destroy[ing] our community," police officers, government officials and pundits alike have denounced the property damage and demanded an end to the riots. And just last week, rioters have burned buildings and looted stores in Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, to which Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., has said: "Peaceful protesting is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Rioting is not."

Writer Vicky Osterweil's book, In Defense of Looting, came out on Tuesday. Osterweil is a self-described writer, editor and agitator who has been writing about and participating in protests for years. And her book arrives as the continued protests have emerged as a bitter dividing point in the presidential race.

When she finished it, back in April, she wrote that "a new energy of resistance is building across the country." Now, as protests and riots continue to grip cities, she stakes out a provocative position: that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society. The rioters who smash windows and take items from stores, she claims, are engaging in a powerful tactic that questions the justice of "law and order," and the distribution of property and wealth in an unequal society.

I spoke with Osterweil, and our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

For people who haven't read your book, how do you define looting?

When I use the word looting, I mean the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot. That's the thing I'm defending. I'm not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force. It's not a home invasion either. It's about a certain kind of action that's taken during protests and riots.

Looting is a highly racialized word from its very inception in the English language. It's taken from Hindi, lút, which means "goods" or "spoils," and it appears in an English colonial officer's handbook [on "Indian vocabulary"] in the 19th century.

During the uprisings of this past summer, rioting and looting have often gone hand in hand. Can you talk about the distinction you see between the two?

"Rioting" generally refers to any moment of mass unrest or upheaval. Riots are a space in which a mass of people has produced a situation in which the general laws that govern society no longer function, and people can act in different ways in the street and in public. I'd say that rioting is a broader category in which looting appears as a tactic.

Often, looting is more common among movements that are coming from below. It tends to be an attack on a business, a commercial space, maybe a government building — taking those things that would otherwise be commodified and controlled and sharing them for free.

Can you talk about rioting as a tactic? What are the reasons people deploy it as a strategy?

It does a number of important things. It gets people what they need for free immediately, which means that they are capable of living and reproducing their lives without having to rely on jobs or a wage — which, during COVID times, is widely unreliable or, particularly in these communities is often not available, or it comes at great risk. That's looting's most basic tactical power as a political mode of action.

It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions. It points to the way in which that's unjust. And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.

Importantly, I think especially when it's in the context of a Black uprising like the one we're living through now, it also attacks the history of whiteness and white supremacy. The very basis of property in the U.S. is derived through whiteness and through Black oppression, through the history of slavery and settler domination of the country. Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police. It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected. And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that's a part of it that doesn't really get talked about — that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory.

What are some of the most common myths and tropes that you hear about looting?

One of the ones that's been very powerful, that's both been used by Donald Trump and Democrats, has been the outside agitator myth, that the people doing the riots are coming from the outside. This is a classic. This one goes back to slavery, when plantation owners would claim that it was Freedmen and Yankees coming South and giving the enslaved these crazy ideas — that they were real human beings — and that's why they revolted.

Another trope that's very common is that looters and rioters are not part of the protest, and they're not part of the movement. That has to do with the history of protesters trying to appear respectable and politically legible as a movement, and not wanting to be too frightening or threatening.

Another one is that looters are just acting as consumers: Why are they taking flat-screen TVs instead of rice and beans? Like, if they were just surviving, it'd be one thing, but they're taking liquor. All these tropes come down to claiming that the rioters and the looters don't know what they're doing. They're acting, you know, in a disorganized way, maybe an "animalistic" way. But the history of the movement for liberation in America is full of looters and rioters. They've always been a part of our movement.

In your book, you note that a lot of people who consider themselves radical or progressive criticize looting. Why is this common?

I think a lot of that comes out of the civil rights movement. The popular understanding of the civil rights movement is that it was successful when it was nonviolent and less successful when it was focused on Black power. It's a myth that we get taught over and over again from the first moment we learn about the civil rights movement: that it was a nonviolent movement, and that that's what matters about it. And it's just not true.

Nonviolence emerged in the '50s and '60s during the civil rights movement, [in part] as a way to appeal to Northern liberals. When it did work, like with the lunch counter sit-ins, it worked because Northern liberals could flatter themselves that racism was a Southern condition. This was also in the context of the Cold War and a mass anticolonial revolt going on all over Africa, Southeast Asia and Latin America. Suddenly all these new independent nations had just won liberation from Europe, and the U.S. had to compete with the Soviet Union for influence over them. So it was really in the U.S.' interests to not be the country of Jim Crow, segregation and fascism, because they had to appeal to all these new Black and brown nations all over the world.

Those two things combined to make nonviolence a relatively effective tactic. Even under those conditions, Freedom Riders and student protesters were often protected by armed guards. We remember the Birmingham struggle of '63, with the famous photos of Bull Connor releasing the police dogs and fire hoses on teenagers, as nonviolent. But that actually turned into the first urban riot in the movement. Kids got up, threw rocks and smashed police cars and storefront windows in that combat. There was fear that that kind of rioting would spread. That created the pressure for Robert F. Kennedy to write the civil rights bill and force JFK to sign it.

But there's also another factor, which is anti-Blackness and contempt for poor people who want to live a better life, which looting immediately provides. One thing about looting is it freaks people out. But in terms of potential crimes that people can commit against the state, it's basically nonviolent. You're mass shoplifting. Most stores are insured; it's just hurting insurance companies on some level. It's just money. It's just property. It's not actually hurting any people.

During recent riots, a sentiment I heard a lot was that looters in cities like Minneapolis were hurting their own cause by destroying small businesses in their own neighborhoods, stores owned by immigrants and people of color. What would you say to people who make that argument?

People who made that argument for Minneapolis weren't suddenly celebrating the looters in Chicago, who drove down to the richest part of Chicago, the Magnificent Mile, and attacked places like Tesla and Gucci — because it's not really about that. It's a convenient way of positioning yourself as though you are sympathetic.

But looters and rioters don't attack private homes. They don't attack community centers. In Minneapolis, there was a small independent bookstore that was untouched. All the blocks around it were basically looted or even leveled, burned down. And that store just remained untouched through weeks of rioting.

To say you're attacking your own community is to say to rioters, you don't know what you're doing. But I disagree. I think people know. They might have worked in those shops. They might have shopped and been followed around by security guards or by the owner. You know, one of the causes of the L.A. riots was a Korean small-business owner [killing]15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who had come in to buy orange juice. And that was a family-owned, immigrant-owned business where anti-Blackness and white supremacist violence was being perpetrated.

What would you say to people who are concerned about essential places like grocery stores or pharmacies being attacked in those communities?

When it comes to small business, family-owned business or locally owned business, they are no more likely to provide worker protections. They are no more likely to have to provide good stuff for the community than big businesses. It's actually a Republican myth that has, over the last 20 years, really crawled into even leftist discourse: that the small-business owner must be respected, that the small-business owner creates jobs and is part of the community. But that's actually a right-wing myth.

A business being attacked in the community is ultimately about attacking like modes of oppression that exist in the community. It is true and possible that there are instances historically when businesses have refused to reopen or to come back. But that is a part of the inequity of the society, that people live in places where there is only one place where they can get access to something [like food or medicine]. That question assumes well, what if you're in a food desert? But the food desert is already an incredibly unjust situation. There's this real tendency to try and blame people for fighting back, for revealing the inequity of the injustice that's already been formed by the time that they're fighting.

I have heard a lot of talk about white anarchists who weren't part of the movement, but they just came in to smash windows and make a ruckus.

It's a classic trope, because it jams up people who might otherwise be sort of sympathetic to looters. There's a reason that Trump has embraced the "white anarchist" line so intensely. It does a double service: It both creates a boogeyman around which you can stir up fear and potential repression, and it also totally erases the Black folks who are at the core of the protests. It makes invisible the Black people who are rising up and who are initiating this movement, who are at its core and its center, and who are doing its most important and valuable organizing and its most dangerous fighting.

One thing that you're really careful about in your book is how you talk about violence at riots. You make the distinction between violence against property, like smashing a window or stealing something, versus violence against a human body. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about why making that distinction is important to you.

Obviously, we object to violence on some level. But it's an incredibly broad category. As you pointed out, it can mean both breaking a window, lighting a dumpster on fire, or it can mean the police murdering Tamir Rice. That word is not strategically helpful. The word that can mean both those things cannot be guiding me morally.

There's actually a police tactic for this, called controlled management. Police say, "We support peaceful, nonviolent protesters. We are out here to protect them and to protect them from the people who are being violent." That's a police strategy to divide the movement. So a nonviolent protest organizer will tell the police their march route. Police will stop traffic for them. So you've got a dozen heavily armed men standing here watching you march. That doesn't make me feel safe. What about that is nonviolent? Activists themselves are doing no violence, but there is so much potential violence all around them.

Ultimately, what nonviolence ends up meaning is that the activist doesn't do anything that makes them feel violent. And I think getting free is messier than that. We have to be willing to do things that scare us and that we wouldn't do in normal, "peaceful" times, because we need to get free.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Natalie Escobar is an assistant editor on the Code Switch team, where she edits the blog and newsletter, runs the social media accounts and leads audience engagement. Before coming to NPR in 2020, Escobar was an assistant editor and editorial fellow at The Atlantic, where she covered family life and education. She also was a ProPublica emerging reporter fellow, where she helped their Illinois bureau do experimental audience engagement through theater workshops. (Really!)