We need to reexamine looting.
Regarding its critics, let me start by saying that, at the level of determining solid community building options, critics of looting are right: it’s not productive. What is built from looting? Not much. Certainly nothing in the concrete world. On top of that, looting is illegal. It is against the law to break into a building and take what’s inside of it out. I don’t think anybody is confused about that, or believes that taking things out of a liquor store or burning down a Little Caesars should be confused with an urban renewal initiative. None of this, however, means that looting has no merit as an act.
Looting is a response, not an opportunity. Looting doesn’t randomly happen. Looting is what happens after something else has happened to a group of people that feel disenfranchised. There are not bands of random black people running around looking to pillage and burn down businesses on any given day of the week, particularly in their own neighborhoods. We are not Huns. If people in Ferguson were prone to looting naturally, culturally or socially, they wouldn’t wait until the National Guard was in town and dozens of reporters with cameras were watching. They’d do it on a sleepy Thursday morning just before dawn while everyone was still asleep and they only have to contend with a few cops on call. Talking about looting like it’s a crime wave is wrong. Straight crime is about gain, about getting what you got because I want it. The looters in Ferguson were not by and large waiting for a chance to get a pack of cigarettes for free. They were angry, disenfranchised, beaten, demoralized people who feel like they live in a war zone 365 days a year now, not just when CNN rolls into town. It is easy to see looting as an opportunistic response because on a base, tit-for-tat level of engagement, it is. At the same time, to paint it solely and predominantly as an opportunistic CRIMINAL response is wrong. It’s like saying 100% of the music on the radio is rap music just because it all has lyrics. To talk about it as if it has no impetus is worse than misleading…it is outright deceptive. In the larger scheme of action, criticizing looters is far less productive than looting itself. Critics of looting have essentially created the revolutionary equivalent of black holes.
The cops weren’t present where looting was happening, which should surprise no one. People don’t generally loot where there is an active lawful presence. However, when the law has given up on an area or cordoned off other areas instead, people are left to seethe, to fester, to hurt, to suffer, to lash out. And that’s symbolic too. It’s no coincidence that the one place that should have received all of that rioting ire – protesters should be warming marshmallows over the smoking embers of the Ferguson courthouse this morning – was the most protected building in town. It is a building with nothing of value in it as concerns commerce, save that it stands as a symbol of the version of justice that is in charge. It is no coincidence that police were not where crimes were occurring, but where privilege must be preserved.
Looting is not a perfect reaction. Most reactions made in the heat of overwhelming despair aren’t perfect reactions. You must forgive black people their stumbling attempts at revolution these days. We haven’t had a lot of practice with it since the 1960s, and never in the face of such a daunting adversary. We’re a little rusty. Most of us thought like most white folks think: that we no longer live in a world where we have to keep doing this just to not be killed (which isn’t same as living), let alone be noticed. Since any semblance of justice continues to elude the issue of cop-on-black violence, I’m sure we’ll have plenty of opportunities to tighten up our game. Looting is just a piece of the reactionary puzzle, but in a better world – not even ideal, just better than this one – we wouldn’t have anything to react to.
The critics of looting are not hard to understand. Despite the veneer of much of their objective tones, they’re as emotional as people who think looting possesses merit. They’re frustrated too. They’re mad at the world around them and see it as falling apart. They see imbalance in the media and unfairness in the law and experience sadness over dead people just like anyone else. Their mistake, however, comes in two parts. First, they have no willingness or interest in looking down the timeline to deconstruct the history of a single act. Second, they have no willingness or interest in deconstructing the reasons for the behavior they do observe. They see looting as a snapshot, not a panoramic display of reactions and meanings. To them, looting is all the same, at least when black people do it. Ask around: these are likely the same critics who don’t even remember the largely white 1999 Seattle WMO riots, which dwarfed Ferguson by tens of thousands of people and, when it was all over and people had a chance to look at how the situation was handled by the city, resulted in the resignation of their police chief and the defeat of their mayor in his next election. Oh, and they caused about $20 million worth of damage. So yeah, riots can affect change. They do it all of the time. And yes, looting is often part of the disobedience that gets noticed. Which is what the whole point of civil disobedience – in all its forms – is about:
LOOK OVER HERE.
LISTEN TO ME.
I AM DYING.
THE PEOPLE WHO ARE SUPPOSED TO PROTECT ARE KILLING US.
PLEASE SAVE US.