Reflections on the Crisis: On Looting and Looters

From media commentators and reporters, as well as friends, I often hear what sound like a lament about the “looting” and vandalism that took place during an earlier stage of the anti-racist movement. The lament usually has two parts: 1) that the “looting” was bad for the movement, and/or 2) that it is morally objectionable. What I will argue here is that you can’t hold both of those positions at once, and moreover that neither is properly made by protest sympathizers–meaning among others most of my readers, and myself included.

To begin with the argument. The first statement already suggests surrender to what is purely a political construct designed to distance us from the real meaning of an event. If we look at its dictionary definition, “the taking goods by force, among the synonyms” are pillaging, plundering, sacking, despoliation, marauding, “as part of a military or political victory” or a “catastrophe, such as a war, a natural disaster or rioting…” The last term, putting “rioting” on the scale of the other two catastrophes, does the dirty work, as it implicitly casts the entire protest movement in a totally false light. What has happened is not looting, but stealing; thievery. To resort to the more pejorative term is instantly, if only subconsciously, to distance oneself from the unfolding of a mass movement. This is what the mass media do almost instinctively. I think that we should not emulate them.

Aside from the political reasons for avoiding that language, there is another, more compelling reason. That the so-called looting is bad for the protest movement seems to be a putative statement of fact, but it is not. Nor is it an opinion that one is forced to utter by the search for truthfulness. Rather it’s an historical projection, that the looting [will turn out to have been] in fact self-destructive. We make such projections all the time, but we are often mistaken. As I can testify from my own experience, rarely if ever do we possess historical certitude.

Be that as it may, it’s not just that such projections may be wrong–as, think, that’s turning out to be so in the instant case–but that they logically entail the admission that they may be mistaken. If I think that some action is potentially harmful tactically or strategically, and that’s the ostensible reason for my criticism, I’m tacitly conceding that if I [turn out to be] wrong, my criticism will have been de trop. So why make it, then? The fact is that whatever happens, we will never know what concatenation of events brought about the end–what often is not a verifiable end at all. In making such a questionable projection, we are distancing ourselves, seeming to engage in an analysis of a possibility that is already built into every revolt, every uprising, every revolution. As a criticism at the present moment, then, it expresses an emotion out loud, suggesting a kind of virtue signaling: “I sympathize with them, but I’m not blind to the difficulties with my position. I am concerned; I’m torn.”

Of course, that might be exactly what one wants to do. But then it’s not possible to make a purely moral case against the “looting,” as a principled advocate of non-violence might do. The two arguments are incompatible. The moral argument has to stand on its own feet; it’s not strengthened, but actually weakened, no longer a matter of principle, by depending on contingent practical considerations.

Does the “looting” or the “rioting” demand moral opprobrium from us, even though it may have ultimately strengthened the legitimacy of the protests, by generating an even greater appreciation of and focus on their overwhelming peacefulness, and their general repudiation of violence compared to that of the police? I think that it does not, and not merely because of the logical difficulty; not at all. As a moral position I reject it, and I suggest to others to do the same

That is, we need not be “torn” by a purely personal emotion, because there is nothing that can ever be done, or ever has been done, or even should be done, to eliminate all violence from social change: especially as long as the untrammeled violence of the police remains. For both the sympathetic but critical and moralistic arguments, the following account from Wikipedia, “George Floyd protests in Minneapolis–St. Paul,” stands as a refutation; it is one of just many from those early days:

“By the morning [of May 28] more than 30 businesses in Minneapolis had been damaged by rioters…That evening, protesters in Minneapolis near the third precinct police station set two nearby buildings on fire. As fencing surrounding the precinct station was torn down, police used tear gas against protesters as tensions and fires mounted. Later in the night, police were ordered to evacuate the
third precinct station, which was then overrun by protesters and the police station building itself set on fire.”

This was surely graver damage than “looters” did anywhere. Yet rather than redound negatively to the development of what in short order became a nation-wide protest, it actually was cheered by non-rioting protesters and strengthened their resolve. To put it bluntly, the attack on the police station symbolically made the most important statement of all, as did other such actions: the police are not all-powerful; they can be resisted, and we have successfully resisted them. Thus in the verdict of history these actions will be seen as a significant part of all that has followed.

And what has followed is a massive shift in public opinion, expressed best by Al Sharptonmn speaking on this very subject at the George Floyd memorial, Echoing Martin Luther King, with the approval of every black person we’ve heard in commentary, he told us: what happened is sad, but has to be understood in what it says about the lives and the unfortunately realistic expectations of those young people who looted (“I just wanted to get some stuff”) or rioted.

That above all, in my belief, is what we need to confront without qualm: What is and always has been systemically wrong, what needs to be done to correct it. Of course, I understand that many of my friends and readers–not to mention commentators on the media! — will reject this way of judging, or not judging, and will still want to reaffirm their critique. That is a personal choice I can respect.

However, t his turns me finally to the question of personal judgment, at least as I see it. Whatever I say, I’m addressing these events as a white person, which describes almost all of us; and as a somewhat over-aged spectator (which describes a good many), watching vicariously from the sidelines as events unfold, writing about them but no more than that. Some of us, I know, are participating in some way, helping organize community groups for support–but even then in most cases probably not standing in the face of barely restrained police violence. For me, obviously, that’s primarily a commentary on myself and my own life, and it’s also true that in many of our lives lack of participation has been determined by the pandemic. The fact remains.

And the further fact remains that not all crimes are equal, just as not all laws are enforced equally. It’s unnecessary to re-read Les Misérables to know that; we can just quote and re-quote Anatole France: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.” That’s what the protest is about. So to return to King and Sharpton, let us not talk about opportunistic petty thieves as though they came out of nowhere: as though they, “who steal the goose from off the common,” are in the same nefarious class as “the greater felon, who steals the common from the goose.”

For myself, I don’t feel fully qualified to act as a judge of the actions or beliefs of those who are making history on behalf of a more just society: it doesn’t help anything. (I’m not speaking of the deliberately destructive provocateurs). To be fully qualified to make an authoritative statement about what can and should be done in such circumstances, you have to have been doing it; to be part of that community, or at least intimately related to it, learning by doing: as now all the protesters are. So I listen to them before I pronounce.

PS — I will be publishing an Addendum to this post Sunday or Monday


Emeritus Professor of Gov’t, Smith College, 40 years Editorial Board, The Nation,

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