What Looting Really Is

It's what happens in a system dominated by violence.

By most accounts, the looting in Minneapolis started on Wednesday night at the Target on Lake Street and 26th. The store is located across the street from the Minneapolis Police Department’s 3rd precinct, where Derek Chauvin, the police officer who killed George Floyd, worked.

Based on Twitter accounts and local news reports, it seems relatively easy to figure out how this started. The protesters marched to the third precinct, and, after smashing the shit out of it, decided to smash the shit out of the major retail store across the street and help themselves to some free stuff. 

Many see looting as a red line in America, which is strange, especially considering that the Boston Tea Party forms a core part of our foundational myth. The discourse around protest in general — how it should be done, who should be allowed to do it — is already a fertile ground for race and class resentment, but there is absolutely nothing that causes widespread hysterics and dismay like the image of a black or brown person carrying a fresh TV box without a receipt. 

The critique, when it’s not explicitly racist, usually looks something like this.   

Let’s pretend, for a minute at least, that Miller’s question is genuine, despite the fact that he’s a Twitter Guy whose bio says “objective journalist” and whose feed is mostly retweets of conservative wormbrains like Tucker Carlson. 

The answer, it seems to me, is that looting is a way of exerting control over a situation — securing direct material gains for yourself or your community in an environment that presents a constant risk to your life, your livelihood, or your sanity. It’s opportunistic and sometimes violent, to be sure, but in the context of that environment it makes sense. There’s a reason comfortable Americans don’t lose their shit every time Rick Grimes filches a can of beans on The Walking Dead; what they don’t realize is that for many groups of people the structure of America is just as dangerous as the hordes of zombies that plague Rick and his friends.

Target, AutoZone, DollarTree, Cub Foods — all of these businesses are emblematic of and supported by this system of white supremacy, which passes pain and violence down to poorer or browner communities through institutions constructed to ensure that the people America was designed for can live their lives unfettered by inconvenience or fear. These businesses are also not people, as Ashley Reese pointed out earlier today in a fantastic piece for Jezebel

Property is inanimate. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t have hopes, dreams, or mouths to feed. There are properties we cherish—our homes, our places of worship, buildings of historical and cultural significance. A Target is not one of these places, and neither is an Arby’s, a Wendy’s, an Aldi, an Autozone, or an empty construction site. It’s safe to say that the aforementioned establishments are better insured than many Americans. 

She continues later: 

For far too many Americans, it is easier to mourn the destruction of a series of chain stores, owned and operated by millionaires, than the death of a Black American. A stolen lamp is worthy of a kind of empathy that a black person could only dream of.

While Reese’s point rings true, I don’t think the hysteria over looting is rooted in empathy for the CEO of Target, or even for the small business owners whose livelihoods were damaged by the inevitable collateral damage of civil unrest. Instead, it’s rooted in fear. Any way you look at it, looting is a violent act. Throwing a brick through a police station window is a violent act, taking goods by force is a violent act. That does not mean they are necessarily unjust; violence is a tool that has been used to correct injustice nearly as much as it has been used to perpetuate it. Protesting is in itself a threat: the idea of gathering people in one place is to provide a show of force for any given cause. And more often than not, the only time society has a problem with these acts is when the kinds of people who are only ever supposed to absorb violence and pain decide to deploy it.

This is not to say that the violence used by the oppressed is the same as that used by their oppressors. The agents of the state who perpetuate this system can kill indiscriminately, sacrificing only the occasional career of an individual officer while preserving the system that affords them their power. Since 2015, police forces in the United States have killed an average of three people per day, the vast majority of them young black men. This trend is just the modern manifestation of a system that has existed since the founding of this country. Compared to that, as Vicky Osterweil wrote in her 2014 essay “In Defense of Looting,” burning down an AutoZone doesn’t hold a candle:

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.

Violence is an imprecise tool, and can create unintended pain for those who use it and for the communities it affects. There were small businesses damaged in Minneapolis, and one protester was reportedly shot by a pawn shop owner who claimed he was defending his business. But the responsibility for most of this pain doesn’t lie with the looters or protesters trying to wrest back control of their lives. It lies with the people who created and perpetuated a system where violence was the only way out.

Directly, the responsibility also rests with the police, who began firing marking rounds and tear gas into largely peaceful crowds on the first night of protests in Minneapolis, and significantly escalated violence both there and in Los Angeles, where officers drove aggressively through crowds of protesters occupying the 101 freeway. This is state-sponsored violence on a grand scale, and yet it’s routinely praised by social media and credulously reported on by the mainstream press. Why isn’t that a red line?

There is no way that we can break this cycle of violence without making these distinctions. More people who look and live like me need to see looting for what it is: a justifiable backlash against an unjust system whose only exit is often violence. The consequences if we do not are dire. Treating looting like a universal evil performed by a monolithic force leaves far too much room for hostile actors to exploit the violence. Some of them, like Jon Miller or Tucker Carlson, want to reinforce stereotypes of looters to enable and excuse the violence that provokes the looting. Others, like the occasional white nationalists and armed “boogaloo boys” who may very well have instigated some of the looting, seek to use violence to further their own goals of societal breakdown. The vast majority of the people on the streets in Minneapolis last night wanted neither of those things. They simply wanted to live in a world where they wouldn’t have to fear being killed in the street. Considering the risks they face every day, a free TV is far less than they deserve.

Screenshot: YouTube/HillTV