Keywords for Social Change - Looting

This is the first of a series of very short essays focused on important terms and concepts in the history of social change. Future essays will focus on words like “socialism,” “incrementalism,” “labor power,” “single-issue politics,” “slow violence,” “social death,” and “the 99%.”  Our hope is that these pieces will help to clarify a number of recent political issues as well as provide a common basis for understanding and action. As always, we welcome your feedback.

#1 – Looting

Recent protests following the murder of George Floyd by the police, although for the most part peaceful and nonviolent, have resulted (in some cases) in property damage and looting. News reports of looting and vandalism led President Trump to tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts,” an exact quote from a Miami police chief in 1968 with controversial and racist overtones.  

The word looting has a long and complicated history. Although its first usage dates from the 18th century, the term began to take hold in India in the 19th century, which was by then an English colony. A Hindi word, looting has always had racial connotations. It was used to distinguish between the “lawful” conquest, brutalization, and theft carried out by colonial powers and “unlawful” activity carried out by “restless natives.” Arguably, looting still carries these colonial and bigoted connotations. It immediately calls to mind working-class or poor people—often people of color—scurrying away with wide-screen TV’s from Best Buy or Big Lots. Yet we seldom refer to hedge fund managers or other financial speculators who are directly responsible for plundering billions of dollars of assets from people’s retirement funds or IRA’s as “looters.”

Historians generally differentiate between two types of looting, that which follows natural disasters and that which follows civil unrest. This is because there tends to be far more goodwill and community consensus following a natural disaster: “When a disaster strikes, property rights are temporarily redefined: There is general agreement among community members that the resources of individuals become community property. Individual property rights are suspended, so appropriation of private resources—which would normally be considered looting—is temporarily condoned.” On the other hand, civil disturbance, by its very nature, represents a rift in the community. Therefore, when those who are disposed by poverty, neglect, and systemic racism respond by looting or destroying property, the class that is in power regards this activity as a direct attack, not only on their property, but also, understandably, on their “God-given” position in society. Perhaps the disconnect between these two opposing forces can best described as the difference between people who see through the eyes of colonizers and those who see through the eyes of the colonized.

This disconnect as well as its racial and colonial components (exemplified by Governor DeWine recent statements concerning the “defacement” of the Ohio Statehouse) is present in the very language we use to describe what it is we see happening. For example, when you search online for the 2017 “Unite the Right” white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, you’ll see it primarily referred to as a “protest.” The Minneapolis uprising following the death of George Floyd on the other hand, even though it, unlike Charlottesville, did not result in the loss of life, tends to be reported as a “riot.” The racial overtones are clear. But what is also evident is the clear priority given to protecting and valuing property over human life. If we follow this logic to its conclusion, looting (taking or damaging property) is somehow a worse crime than attacking, injuring, or killing another human being, whether with a car (in Charlottesville) or with rubber bullets, tasers, tear gas, pepper spray, or flash grenades (Minneapolis). 

Finally, while there are clear aspects of looting that are opportunistic, asocial, and apolitical, and while we in the Think Tanks do not support it as political tactic, in some instances it would seem to constitute as a legitimate form of political speech. First, it signifies the intense rage, hopelessness, and alienation felt by a huge segment of the population for whom the American dream has never really been a possibility. Second, rioting and looting in the 1960’s, especially in northern states, were arguably as important as the MLK-led non-violent demonstrations in the south in prompting then Attorney General Robert Kennedy to convince his brother to pass civil rights legislation. The near-total social collapse that becomes more visible every decade or so through mass demonstrations (the Rodney King uprisings, Occupy Wall Street, Ferguson, Minneapolis, etc.) has coincided with the greatest transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich in US history. Looting simply must be seen against the backdrop of this greater, and entirely “legal,” injustice. 


D.B. Ruderman