Wednesday, October 7, 2020

#281 / Looting

Vicky Osterweil, pictured above, is advancing a controversial thesis. She contends that looting is not, really, all that bad. In fact, Osterweil thinks it is a positive thing, and she outlines this thesis in her recent book, In Defense of Looting.

To find out how Osterweil justifies looting, you could, of course, buy a copy of her book. Before you do that, you might want to read a conversation between Osterweil and Issac Chotiner, published in The New Yorker magazine. By reading that article, you could save yourself some money.*

Chotiner'a article, published by The New Yorker online on September 3, 2020, is titled, "Examining Vicky Osterweil’s Case for Looting." Just click that link to be directed to the Chotiner-Osterweil conversation. The New Yorker article seems to give a pretty good overview of Osterweil's argument. Osterweil says, for instance: 

  • I don’t believe that we will be able to find justice in the voting booth. We face ecological and social crises right now, like horrible police violence and killing that is unending, and the rise of a far right.
  • I think that any real social change has come from people moving in the streets, has come from people fighting outside of elections and outside of the parliamentary method that we’re taught in a civics class, if people still have those.
  • One of the criticisms of looters comes from within the movement, and it’s often people who are sympathetic but relatively new to thinking about these things, and they have a reflexive anti-looting position that has to do with the fact that it’s a very radical and frightening tactic. The book is written, in part, to those people, not to critique them but to help them see the ways in which, in fact, it is a powerful tactic that goes back to our whole history of liberation struggles.
  • I don’t think [looters] are necessarily revolutionary activists acting with political consciousness. I think a lot of people think that, in order for something to be political, people have to be yelling a slogan as they do it or something, that there’s a standard at which something becomes political that’s based in the intentions of what the person is doing. And I don’t subscribe to that belief in political action. I think that actions have their own effects and logics and that we are in a moment during those riots that is a generalized moment of anti-police action. People are in the streets. They’re chanting, “Black lives matter.”
  • I think there’s also a liberatory political character to people just getting what they want for free ... Rich people get it from the exploitation of people working for them and through their generation of rents and profits, through labor and through ownership of factories and stores. I think that when people loot during a riot, they are solving a lot of the immediate problems that make their lives very, very hard, and they may also take the opportunity to make their lives more pleasurable. Liquor is also really expensive, and it’s often one of the only pleasures people who live in those neighborhoods can actually afford, but it’s still expensive on their terms. And being able to have that stuff for free allows you to have more communal pleasure, pleasures that are totally normal. 
  • I certainly don’t think that any ends justify any means, or that any action is acceptable. I think that revolutionaries have made a tremendous number of mistakes, going in authoritarian directions with terrors and violence that I think have been ill placed, but I think it is really about centering and understanding the fact that Black oppression in this country, and the class and colonial oppression has gone alongside that, is an ongoing travesty, a total tragedy, and most of the things that happen during looting and rioting are happening in self-defense against those systems, as an attempt to break away from that form of oppression.

I think it is always worthwhile to try to understand things - really understand them. The more we understand things, the more power we will have to act in new, and courageous, and positive ways. It is particularly true that we should try to understand the things that we find offensive, that we find threatening, and that we almost immediately reject. It is good to learn more about whatever those things are, and to think about them, as a way to understand them better. 

I instinctively reject looting. I don't like it. I do find it threatening. I don't think it's "right." All the more reason, then, for me to listen to what Osterweil has to say. Osterweil's analysis can help inform our understanding of looting, and if we force ourselves to think about looting, and try to understand it, that is both important and worthwhile. 

But "understanding" something, and "defending" it, are not quite the same. It may well be appropriate to think about what Osterweil says, but that is not a claim that her points are valid. The article by Matt Taibbi, referenced earlier, definitely presents the "other side."


On Tuesday, June 20, 2020, I wrote a blog post titled, "Ending The War." It was prompted by the civil disturbances then occurring in connection with the protests that immediately followed the callous killing of George Floyd. I included a video of Kimberly Jones, talking about looting.

I invite you to click that link and to listen to Kimberly Jones. Jones is a Black woman, speaking with passionate anger. When she talks about looting, as she does near the end of the video clip, she speaks out of that anger, and not in the cold and anlytical style of Osterweil. To my mind, this makes Jones' comments more worthy of attention than what Osterweil has to say, and I actually think that Kimberly Jones ended her angry justification of looting by showing us a way forward.

Let's try to understand - really understand - what's going on. Listen to Kimberly Jones, and think about this picture, taken from my June 20, 2020, blog post. I think it points us in the right direction: 

*You might also read this article by Matt Taibbi, who (properly, in my view) denounces the Osterweil thesis.

Image Credits:
(1) -
(2) - Ted Smith Facebook Page, June 15, 2020

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