The death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO is a tragedy that had obviously elicited much media coverage and discussion.
Without explanation that’s been better said elsewhere, I came across this piece, “In Defense of Looting” by Willie Osterwiel. What follows is large excerpts of it with my questions and response.
A note in general, I have a strong appreciation for radical arguments like this. I really, earnestly want to arrive at the truth. I think it is possible to arrive at the truth. As a Catholic Christian, I want to champion the cause of the truly oppressed while also keeping in mind that there is no perfect world to be had here on earth.
And given the topic, I want to remind the reader that the Boston Tea Party was itself an act of looting.
With all that being said, here follows excerpts and my objections:
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.
Emphasis added. [SMP: Yes, it reveals that there is a thin line between society and anarchy, a line that we all too often forget is present. We forget how little prevents total anarchy. While it’s true that looting reveals the tenuous nature of private property, extolling looting ignores the actual human beings who own and operate the store, not to mention the human beings who developed the product. While large corporations are not free from moral inquiry, small businesses illustrate the point well. Looting violates the justice owed to the owners, workers and developers who offer their labor in return for monetary exchange. They have staked their well-being on the legitimacy of the system of buying and trading that exists legally in the U.S. One can object to this economic system, but nonetheless, the humans who participate in it have entered into it with the expectation of remuneration for services. Looting deprives them of that.]
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.
SMP: I certainly take the point here, and certainly there are times when people need things that society makes it hard for them to come by. If a person has a just need of such things, it’s good for them to be able to get it. However, “having nice things for free” is not a viable way for society to operate. It comes directly at the expense of those who made those “nice things” available. In short, no society (neighborhood or nation-state) could exist if everyone just took “nice things for free.”
That is not to say that our economic system is perfectly just. I would not argue that ever. But however much one objects to “wage-labor capitalism,” there are real human beings involved in it, and looting (in itself) has the potential to really harm the economic well-being of a lot of people, from the store clerks to the owners.
And finally, if the value of looting lies in its ability to question and/or disrupt the “white-supremacist, settler-colonialism regime of property” (a value that it may well have), then the intention is very, very radical; more radical, I think, than the author of an essay like this realizes.
Our current regime of property relations, yes once involving the use of black persons, was built up over hundreds of years and involves far more factors as well such as the economic and political forces in Western Europe, the geographic resources of North America, the philosophical and cultural tradition stemming back to Ancient Greece. If the author is right, that the current economic system irredeemably oppresses black persons and others, that is an enormous indictment. What then would be the solution?
A total overthrow of the social order in the West? Maybe so.
The thing is, if oppression is really an intrinsic part of American society as the author claims, a society built up over hundreds of years through infinite inter-related causes cannot be “fixed” by just stopping the oppression because oppression is apparently what this society is built on. Therefore hundreds of years of development would have to be undone in order to undue the oppression.
Now, I am willing to entertain such a claim.
But still, is there not another way? Can it be admitted that black chattel slavery was indeed part of America’s economic development, but a reprehensible one. Can we make amends and learn to live together without a total overthrow of society?
I hope so.
Because I don’t think that anyone (black, white or otherwise) would benefit very much from a total revolution and descent into anarchy. Granted, the smaller societies that rise from the ashes of the destruction might be good, but that would take generations to achieve.
I believe and hope in peaceful solutions where all can benefit.
What is really at stake in looting vs. law?