Looting is a Response, Not an Opportunity

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:


233 thoughts on “Looting is a Response, Not an Opportunity

  1. It’s patently ignorant for those who have never felt injustice through inequality to gauge what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour in times of ‘civil unrest’. Fantastically written article, hats off.

  2. Interesting take on the matter. As someone living in Europe, it’s interesting to read something other than the general media, on this issue.
    Looting as a puzzle piece. Wonderful!

  3. I agree that looting can be an act that invigorates a cause, but don’t you think it’s destructive [to the cause] to rob and destroy property that belongs to other community members, the bakery being the most popular one it seems (in regard to media attention)? It would seem to me that such an act would demoralize some portion of the protesters and therefore be negative for the cause itself.

    Ultimately, very interesting perspective.

  4. looting=stealing=crime.
    Where do you live? What if it were your home?
    Do you own a business? What if it were your business?
    I understand what you are trying to say but you are just completely wrong. Goods stolen were purchased for retail by someone. Therefore there is a victim. This person invested part of his or her life to earn the finances to buy the goods. So theft is like stealing a part of a person’s life.

    So if crime and victimizing other people is your type of protest then perhaps you have earned and deserve your disenfranchisement since that is what happens to criminals. Do you think Martin Luther King would agree with you? If you do then you really know nothing about the Civil Rights Movement. Equal rights for everyone and universal respect of everyone’s rights. I was there. Old guy here!

    1. During wartime there is this thing called collateral damage, and that’s the beginning of the answers to your questions.

  5. This reminds me of a conversation I had with my father. I was frustrated by the looting and burning, for a couple of reasons: one, it gives more ammo for opponents to paint the community involved in a bad light, and two, the buildings targeted weren’t even involved in the situation. However, my dad basically made two points: one was that a lot of times, the shops in Black communities are run by people who are hostile towards Blacks. The other answer, which accounts for the Black-owned businesses that were damaged, is simply that when people reach a certain point, they just don’t care anymore. They lash out, and don’t really worry about the long-term or practical effects of their actions.
    It reminds me of something The Minister said – – that injustice imbalances the human mind.

  6. Reblogged this on africanamericandefenseleague and commented:
    “While I don’t endorse thieving as selfish individual act. In the momentum of progressive civil disobedience/disorder to bring attention to a grave injustice, I endorse any revolutionary acts of looting, burning, shooting, killing, etc., as long as it is in the line of self-defense! This is an example of organize/unorganized chaos. The incentive is encouragement toward an equal society with grasp toward equal benefits governed by natural law and/or social contract. If the lawmakers are not following the laws that governs society, Why should we!” Dr. Mauricelm-Lei Millere – African American Defense League

  7. There is never any reason for looting short of a zombie apocalypse. To use this as a protest act is a cowards way out. This was not a protest but an act of taking advantage of a situation to steal things. You can say that this was a purposeful act in St. Louis, but I say you need to look at what the true justice is. You can’t make everything in life a racial act against you. The facts are in my eyes follow this line…… If you have a gun in your hand in committing a crime, you level said gun at an officer of the law, he has the right to kill you. Regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation or anything else you throw in there. Where do you draw the line? How many other ethnic groups have had the same problem but no one swept up then. How many white have been shot or stabbed and who stood up for them? Where were you folks then?

    1. I accidentally reblogged this on the wrong blog so I deleted it and tried to send it to my other site: http://www.stoptakingthebluepill.wordpress.com but I can’t figure out how to do that now as it won’t let me reblog twice from the same account. I may have to try cut and paste. Anyway, it was a great post!!! I’m glad I found your blog.


    There is ZERO justification for adding any violence & vandalism/ theft on any situation!!! None whatsoever!!! Regardless of any label you want to put on yourself!

    Here is a simple true fact-
    The ONLY thing that is fair about life is that we all have 24 hours in a day!!!
    SUCCESS Only comes before WORK in the dictionary…….

    Nobody owes anybody anything, If you want to achieve or accomplish something, you must get off your ass and WORK FOR IT!!!
    Nothing good or worthwhile is easy or cheap.

    Pull your pants up, get a belt. Turn your hat the right way up, and find a way to work for the change / success you want. No matter what your color or any other label, there IS Lots of money available, we just have to figure out a way to work for it………

  9. Very interesting post about looting here. The riots in London, and in a few other UK cities, a little while back produced many scenes of looting. Some of the looters who were caught were reasonably affluent and didn’t even need the goods they were looting but there was quite a variety of people doing it. The riots and the looting were both about increased public anger towards the government. Many members of the government had been found out as claiming false expenses from public money, basically abusing the system to get extra homes and to get their home decorating done. The majority of people in Britain were experiencing harsh cuts because of the economic crisis at the time and to see an MP claiming public money to build himself a moat (true story) while many others were barely making ends meet sparked national outrage. I do not condone looting at all but I feel that in many cases it is more about anarchy and public unrest than greed. People felt very cheated by the actions of their government and the riots were exclusively caused by this anger. The riots were about the economy so the looting reflected that. In their minds they may have thought ‘well the MP’s can break the rules for greed so I will’.

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