Reflections: Addendum To “On Looters and Looting.”

These three notes are on topics that deserve more emphasis than I gave them in my two original posts on the protest. This Addendum is then followed by a response to my post of June 13, by Peter Marin, but I should add that he wrote it before the Addendum.

  1. The first note has to do with the nature of the damage and thievery attendant on the protests in various cities. As the Times put it in a headline after a few days of demonstrations:

“In Shift, Wealthy City Enclaves Become a Target of Protesters.” The story went on:

“…In Chicago, protesters have converged on Michigan Avenue, the city’s famous strip of high-end retail. In Atlanta, it has been affluent Buckhead. In Philadelphia, Center City. In New York, SoHo. In Los Angeles, protest leaders have deliberately steered toward upscale neighborhoods, including downtown and Beverly Hills.
The late-night looting that has followed some of these demonstrations has left a similar string of upscale targets: a Nordstrom in Seattle, an Apple Store in Minneapolis, an R.E.I. in Santa Monica. There is limited symbolism in a store hit by opportunistic looting. But historians have noted the shifting geography of protest. In 1964 in Philadelphia, black neighborhoods along Columbia Avenue and North Broad Street were damaged ..This time, high-end Chestnut and Walnut Streets around Rittenhouse Square downtown were hit over the weekend… In Los Angeles, where Watts was a site of unrest in 1960s, now Rodeo Drive is on the radar.”

Somehow the Times missed the astonishing story of Santa Monica Promenade, where one bewildered reporter called attention to the phenomenon of policemen sitting lazily in their cars a long block away, while thieves happily ran in and out of boutiques and linen supply stores carrying huge hauls on their shoulders, almost begging to be arrested–as some were, eventually, just for the logbook, one imagines..

The point here is that in the 1960’s, especially in Watts, white liberals were upset by the prevalence of looting in black neighborhoods: why are they attacking their own people, their own living spaces, their own food stores (not always owned by black men or women, to be sure)? It seemed to be irrational, though in fact it was understandable in retrospect: these were neighborhoods the cops didn’t protect, or even enter, after all; why not take what you can get?

But in these last three weeks, the police have wasted their energy, their protective duties if they have any, to harass the demonstrators, leaving targets of opportunity in upscale neighborhoods unguarded. If you see a lot of people committing a similar type of crime, you can almost certainly discount the supposed irrationality of it. And if you see police in large numbers doing one type of job and ignoring another, you can pretty well assume that is exactly what they want to be doing. So much for the protection of property.

2. A second note, then, about the epidemiology of rage. We rationalists tend to think of rage as something best left hidden, though you can brag about it to close friends–“I’m beside myself with rage about the behavior of the NYPD. It is seen as as one of the “irrational” emotions, as though anger has no “rational” function. But this is obviously false, since social change often occurs precisely through the channeling of rage. Acted out, rage is a non-verbal communication, and has to be evaluated like any other, the question being simply: is it appropriate under the circumstances?

White male rage at the relative loss of privilege compared to black men or to women, as so many see it, can be explained but cannot be justified, because it is a demand to retrieve something that was undeserved to begin with: it is inappropriate–at best. When the rage, however, is the outcome of decades or centuries of injustice, as it has been and still is, here and now, on the streets or in the shadows of the big cities, it’s a communication from people who have never been listened to, never been offered anything that they didn’t have to struggle for against obdurate resistance. So, we want to know what young black men in the neighborhood are thinking? POW! In both of its meanings

3. And a final note about the police. The full picture of their depredations will never be known, but one thing has become clearer. “Lethal force”–SWAT teams busing into apartments, minor offenders being deliberately choked to death, guns being fired–is relatively rare but usually indefensible when it occurs, and thus is very difficult for the law enforcement establishment to deal with. Cops will be suspended, police chiefs will resign, coroners will report, questions will be asked in the legislature, videos will surface, infamy will descend.

Thus the powers that be do not like lethal force; it calls “law and order” into question. However, as contradictory as this might seem, it’s precisely when the police are using “less than lethal force,” as they euphemistically call it, that peaceful protesters are in real trouble. As opposed to what would happen at the first sign of murderous gunfire, there are no checks at all on the use of tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, swinging batons, and the like. And they hurt people, send them to the hospital, sometimes kill them. You’ve just given the bullies, the racists, the legions of angry Trumpites, a license to do whatever they want, and by god they will seize that opportunity.

The so-called rioters and looters did nothing by comparison. The Gestapo in Paris and Copenhagen and Amsterdam could take lessons from the NYPD or the endlessly brutal police of Minneapolis, in how to dominate an occupied territory, as the Secretary of Defense or the President or Tucker Carlson might put it. Don’t frighten the horses, just put them down.

And now, as promised:

“Reflections on Looting and Looters: A Response”

The following is a response I received from an old friend, Peter Marin, with whom I once traveled on freight trains back in the day. He now lives in Santa Barbara, where he is an activist who advocates–fiercely and unremittingly — for the homeless. I found his remarks thoughtful and interesting, and so I post them here. Anyone who wants to comment on them can forward their comments to me, and I will send them on to Peter, and perhaps post them on this blog as well.

From Peter Marin:

I find your essay oddly opaque, as it doesn’t actually seem to be about the looters or the looting; it is rather a rather complex critique of criticism of the looters and therefore a trifle (or more) misleadingly titled.

Moreover, by “looting” you seem to cover a pretty wide range of actions, from the rather principled looting of Rodeo Dr stores to the perhaps less well-thought destruction of small local stores, though I will grant you in advance that it would be both interesting and necessary to know the local history of each store and its relation to the black community, as well as the race of the owners — but in that case we’d have a sort of justifiable class judgment or vengeance in which a lesser or poorer (yeah lesser is a word to be avoided) class loots “upward,” and maybe w/ good reason.

The essential point though, coming clear at the end, is that most white (and privileged) people should shut up about it, because their knowledge is limited, their consciousness “conditioned” and their morally “relative” and positioned view-point hardly objective and therefore too questionable — tho I suppose you can allow it as an “opinion” or “feeling.”

Besides, and here is the crux of it for me: although you for some reason don’t say so (but do seem to be reasoning more as a Marxist than a social democrat) the looting can best be understood as an attack on capitalism, or at least capitalistic behavior and economic structure — and it is also I think, in some sense, a more obvious and clear-cut and even justifiable form of rebellion (a critique via deed) than that of the peaceful and relatively mute protesters, who are opposed surely, to racism, but not the deeper and more vast system of which it is a part.

Thus the looters may in fact be cutting closer to the heart of what is wrong and must be changed. Since the essential function of the police can be said to be the protection of property ( the more or less random killing of black folks is explicable in terms not only of racism but cop arrogance and uncontrolled power), the notion of de-funding the police can be seen in essence a statement about property and therefore about socialism or even more Leftist forms of government. Although of course we have to remember the unfortunate roles police and authority played in many Leftist states.

When Labour was governing in England or had a foothold in Italy and France, what were the changes in police behavior? In Cuba, we know, the record seems uneven, especially of course in relation to gays and other “social” issues. And in several other Latin American countries where Leftist regimes were in part initiated by the army, and in Mexico as well, many grass-roots efforts, if NOT initiated by the state, were subject to destruction and punishment, though in places like Peru, folks were often given the option of associating themselves with the state before the violence began…

And if certain left-wing regimes substitute the military or Federal enforcers for local ones, do we count that as a change for the better in policing?

As far as I can tell, the protesters taken en masse are either silent and/or not clear about this. Reformation of the police? Better control? “Civilian” control? I’ve heard some talk about Police Review boards comprised of regular citizens, which have apparently worked pretty well out here in CA. Indeed our female police chief here in Santa Barbara brought w/ her from San Diego the head of their local Review Board as 2nd in command; we had lunch and he told me “we were on the same page.” But we weren’t. They immediately began to tow vehicles for small infractions, making them (a la Ferguson) far too expensive to retrieve. Over the past several years I’ve frequently spent 2K or more to get back RV’s worth probably less…

What changed here in Santa Barbara was the tone of pronouncements, but not in fact the pursuit and punishment of the homeless or the poor. Much like Ferguson, actually. And we still have no civilian review board, despite the fact that the 7-person city council is controlled by 6 liberal to progressive Democrats. For my money that’s class at work, right there.

I have far less hope re all this than you do, though much of yours may be theoretical. But in essence I read your piece mainly as a critique of not only white but also privileged class opinion. You don’t dwell on that, although the word “white”is now being used as identical to the word “class,” which is totally inaccurate.

[I agree with Peter about this. In certain quarters of the Left, “white workers” are sometimes implicitly equated to “the working class,” which is offensive at the very least. In terms of consciousness, they are a tribal group. PG]


Emeritus Professor of Gov’t, Smith College, Visiting Professor, The New School, Editorial Board, The Nation,