“In Defense of Looting.” That’s the title of an essay over at The New Inquiry which offers a glimpse into the mindset of those justifying the looting, arson, and property damage seen in Ferguson, Missouri, since last week’s announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the shooting death of Michael Brown.
The piece confirms two things I have been saying about Ferguson from the start. First, that there is no genuine desire among rioters to pursue justice, despite their flaunting the word. Second, that the ideological underpinnings of the protest reject private property as such.
Author Willie Osterweil established the first point while rebuking fellow travellers for drawing a distinction between non-violent protest and looting:
…in making a strong division between Good Protesters and Bad Rioters, or between ethical non-violence practitioners and supposedly violent looters—the narrative of the criminalization of black youth is reproduced. This time it delineates certain kinds of black youth—those who loot versus those who protest. The effect of this discourse is hardening a permanent category of criminality on black subjects who produce a supposed crime within the context of a protest. It reproduces racist and white supremacist ideologies (including the tactic of divide-and-conquer), deeming some unworthy of our solidarity and protection, marking them, subtly, as legitimate targets of police violence. These days, the police, whose public-facing racism is much more manicured, if no less virulent, argue that “outside agitators” engage in rioting and looting. Meanwhile, police will consistently praise “non-violent” demonstrators, and claim that they want to keep those demonstrators safe.
Let’s take a moment to unpack this stunning statement. According to Osterweil, distinguishing between those who loot and those who do not is a “tactic of divide-and-conquer” motivated by “white supremacist ideologies.” Police practice “racism” when sorting out the people who loot from those who do not. Looting, and we might presume arson and other forms of property destruction, is a “supposed crime” which actually stands as a legitimate form of political protest. In summary, you’re a racist if you object to theft and property destruction.
This is the context in which words like “justice” are wielded, as if anyone subscribing to a worldview legitimizing looting has the slightest grasp upon the notion. This is why dialogue, discussion, and listening are futile activities in response to the Ferguson violence. When you are dealing with people who don’t believe that theft is unjust and properly ought to be stopped by police, you have no common ground upon which to build a peaceful exchange. That’s the same reason we don’t negotiate with terrorists.
As Osterweil continues, he lays out his contempt for private property, a notion which underscores his sanction of looting:
…this country is built on the right to property, and there is no property, no wealth in the USA without the exploitation, appropriation, murder, and enslavement of black people.
As Raven Rakia puts it, “In America, property is racial. It always has been.” Indeed, the idea of blackness was invented simultaneously with American conceptions of property: via slavery.
Osterweil goes on to build a case that America was built upon looting:
Similarly, many have pointed out that, had Africa not been looted, there wouldn’t even be any black people in America. 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.
Here’s the money quote:
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.
Up is down. Left is right. Right is wrong, and wrong is right. Property is maintained by violence, because we pursue and punish thieves and vandals. The violent taking or destruction of property is a righteous political statement revealing that “things can be had for free.”
This is what we’re up against, folks. This is the mindset on one side of the debate we’re having about racial disparities, social justice, and the excesses of law enforcement. You might be inclined to respond to words like “justice” with sympathy and a desire for reform. But realize, too many who use the word don’t mean what you think.
(Today’s Fightin Words podcast is on this topic available here.)