By Natalie Escobar | 27 August 2020
NPR — In the past months of demonstrations for Black lives, there has been a lot of hand-wringing about looting. Whether it was New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo saying that stealing purses and sneakers from high-end stores in Manhattan was “inexcusable,” or St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter saying looters were “destroy[ing] our community,” police officers, government officials and pundits alike have bemoaned the property damage and demanded an end to the riots. And just this week, rioters have burned buildings and looted stores in Kenosha, Wis., following the police shooting of Jacob Blake, to which Wisconsin Sen. Ron Johnson has said: “Peaceful protesting is a constitutionally protected form of free speech. Rioting is not.”
Writer Vicky Osterweil’s book, In Defense of Looting, came out on Tuesday. When she finished it, back in April, she wrote (rather presciently) that “a new energy of resistance is building across the country.” Now, as protests and riots continue to grip cities, she argues that looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society. The rioters who smash windows and take items from stores, she says, are engaging in a powerful tactic that questions the justice of “law and order,” and the distribution of property and wealth in an unequal society.
I spoke with Osterweil about this summer’s riots, the common narratives surrounding looting, and why “nonviolence” can be a misleading term. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
For people who haven’t read your book, how do you define looting?
When I use the word looting, I mean the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot. That’s the thing I’m defending. I’m not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force. It’s not a home invasion, either. It’s about a certain kind of action that’s taken during protests and riots. …
It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions. It points to the way in which that’s unjust. And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.
Importantly, I think especially when it’s in the context of a Black uprising like the one we’re living through now, it also attacks the history of whiteness and white supremacy. The very basis of property in the U.S. is derived through whiteness and through Black oppression, through the history of slavery and settler domination of the country. Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police. It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected. And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that’s a part of it that doesn’t really get talked about—that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory. […]