After the police killing of George Floyd, mobs descended on major cities, rioting, looting, and burning down buildings. Yet left-leaning journalists, commentators, and politicians insisted that the riots were “mostly peaceful protests.” A new book seeks to justify looting, in particular, and taxpayer-funded National Public Radio (NPR) published a lengthy interview with the author. Among other things, the author defends looting as a way to undermine the “white supremacy” behind the idea of property and that the value of small businesses is a “right-wing myth.”
NPR’s Natalie Escobar introduced the subject by claiming “there has been a lot of hand-wringing about looting.” In the newly-released book In Defense of Looting, (published by Hachette Book Group, which has published books by Joel Osteen, J.K. Rowling, Newt Gingrich, and others) Vicky Osterweil “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.”
Indeed, in an interview with Escobar, Osterweil claimed that looting — which she defined as “the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot” — is a tool for justice that doesn’t really harm anyone. She also dispelled certain “myths” about looting, like the idea that rioters and looters are disconnected from a peaceful protest.
Attacking the idea of property
According to Osterweil, looting “attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property. She claimed that property itself is unjust because it means 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.”
She argued that “the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories.” Looting, according to this author, allows rioters to “demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.”
The In Defense of Looting author apparently has never read or perhaps even heard of Adam Smith, who explained that the idea of property enriches everyone, by encouraging people to work in order to enrich themselves. Without the idea of property and wages, inventors would not invent, builders would not build, and there would be no “things” to have for “free.” The idea of property inspires ingenuity, hard work, and the creation of the very goods and services Osterweil intends to enjoy.
Yet Osterweil followed the Marxist critical theory suggestion — pushed, among others, by The New York Times‘ “1619 Project” — that “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.” In order to fight “white supremacy,” rioters must destroy the idea of property.
Looting is essentially harmless
Osterweil admitted that looting “freaks people out,” although she argued that “it’s basically nonviolent.”
“You’re mass shoplifting. Most stores are insured; it’s just hurting insurance companies on some level. It’s just money. It’s just property. It’s not actually hurting any people,” she argued.
While many businesses are insured, looting does more than cost insurance companies money. Insurance premiums go up accordingly. Many businesses, terrified by the lawlessness, decide to leave and remove both the goods and services they provide to the community (at a price, of course, but they still provide them) and the jobs they offer to locals. City centers become hollowed-out skeletons.
Of course, many businesses aren’t insured, and looters don’t exactly check for insurance before hitting a business. The insurance line is a post-hoc justification for the lawless and destructive activity.
Osterweil admitted that some businesses leave after bouts of looting, but she blamed the businesses themselves and the “inequity of the society” for the hollowing-out of cities.
“A business being attacked in the community is ultimately about attacking like modes of oppression that exist in the community. It is true and possible that there are instances historically when businesses have refused to reopen or to come back. But that is a part of the inequity of the society, that people live in places where there is only one place where they can get access to something [like food or medicine],” she argued. “The food desert is already an incredibly unjust situation. There’s this real tendency to try and blame people for fighting back, for revealing the inequity of the injustice that’s already been formed by the time that they’re fighting.”
In other words, looters aren’t responsible for any negative consequences for their actions. They can steal and destroy in the name of justice. When they destroy a business owner’s life savings, they are “sticking it to the man.” When they drive businesses away, that’s just more proof of the “evil” of property.
Small businesses are also instruments of “oppression”
In a particularly chilling section of the interview, Osterweil argued that even small and locally-owned businesses are instruments of “oppression.”
“When it comes to small business, family owned business or locally owned business, they are no more likely to provide worker protections. They are no more likely to have to provide good stuff for the community than big businesses,” she claimed.
“It’s actually a Republican myth that has, over the last 20 years, really crawled into even leftist discourse: that the small business owner must be respected, that the small business owner creates jobs and is part of the community. But that’s actually a right-wing myth,” the author repeated.
Dispelling other “myths”
Osterweil also decided to dispel other “myths,” some of which actually are false.
“One of the ones that’s been very powerful, that’s both been used by Donald Trump and Democrats, has been the outside agitator myth, that the people doing the riots are coming from the outside,” she argued. While some of the rioters and looters have come from out-of-town, many if not most of them have been locals. The narrative that every agitator is an out-of-state white supremacist is entirely absurd.
“Another trope that’s very common is that looters and rioters are not part of the protest, and they’re not part of the movement,” Osterweil added. “That has to do with the history of protesters trying to appear respectable and politically legible as a movement, and not wanting to be too frightening or threatening.”
Tragically, the rioters and looters are part of the movement. The protesters in the larger groups would not continue to march, night after night, if they were truly outraged at the rioting and looting for which their protests provide cover.
Early this month, Mayor Ted Wheeler (D-Portland) urged peaceful protesters to avoid providing cover for the riots. “If you are a non-violent demonstrator, and you don’t want to be part of intentional violence, please stay away from these areas. Our community must say that this violence is not Portland, that these actions do not reflect our values, and these crimes are distracting from reform, not advancing it,” Wheeler said.
Osterweil also claimed that it is a “myth” that “white anarchists” are leading the riots. While many black people are taking part in the lawless activity, antifa groups specifically recruit white people to commit violent acts because they don’t want black people to end up getting arrested. Yet Osterweil claimed that the “white anarchist” line “does a double service: It both creates a boogeyman around which you can stir up fear and potential repression, and it also totally erases the Black folks who are at the core of the protests.”
At the end of the lay, looting is still theft
Despite Osterweil’s repeated insistence that looting is an effective tool of protest, non-violent, and somehow also harmless, looting is still theft, a violation of a commandment central to the freedom and prosperity of modern western civilization.
The author admitted that looting “immediately provides” a “better life,” but she suggested there is no moral evil in it. She insisted that looting “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.”
After months of coronavirus lockdowns, it stands to reason that some people are seeking a release. Yet the glee of taking something that does not belong to you is still immoral, no matter how hard you try to justify it. Widespread theft and lawlessness erodes the foundation of society. It may feel great in the moment to steal your neighbor’s goods, but the lawlessness undermines the basis for modern freedom and prosperity.
If the 2020 election is a battle between “law and order” and the justification of theft and destruction, there is no question in my mind that Americans will side with freedom and prosperity over lawlessness and chaos. But Americans of both parties should reject this toxic ideology.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.