CULTURE & ARTS
26/08/2020 4:54 AM AEST | Updated 26/08/2020 4:54 AM AEST

Are Looters Undermining The Movement — Or Creating It?

Vicky Osterweil's "In Defense of Looting" makes the case that looting isn't a betrayal of protests for Black lives, but a vital aspect of the movement.

Illustration: Damon Dahlen/HuffPost; Photos: Getty/Bold Type Books
Vicky Osterweil's new book, "In Defense of Looting," is a both a history of American looting and an argument for its value.

Windows smashed and vehicles set ablaze; government building doors shattered; cops blanketing protesters in tear gas: Kenosha, Wisconsin, has become the latest battleground between police and protesters resisting state violence toward Black people. The uprising broke out after police shot 29-year-old Jacob Blake seven times in the back, in front of three of his children, on Sunday night. 

This summer’s wave of protests following the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer had barely gotten underway when the condemnation started. As police precincts burned and protesters smashed store windows, the public conversation quickly turned away from the horror of anti-Black violence toward the horror of property destruction. On the right, of course, invocations of law and order were swift. But pundits and politicians on the left, while unwilling to openly critique Black Lives Matter protests, concern-trolled about white anarchists and outside agitators undermining the movement with their reckless violence. 

For Vicky Osterweil, author of the new book “In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action,” the sentiment was deeply predictable. Riots and property damage, she argues, are often erased from the accepted history of protest movements, including the 1960s civil rights movement, while nonviolence is held up as both more effective and more righteous. This year has been no exception.

In a conversation with HuffPost in July, Osterweil pointed out that the standard line of criticism has continued despite popular sympathy with rioters. According to one poll released in June, the burning of Minneapolis’ 3rd precinct was considered at least partially justified by a majority of Americans. “If those riots hadn’t spread to every major city and many smaller ones across the country, would there be this much constant activity, these protests which give the people who critique looting the opportunity to say, ‘It’s not the point of the movement’?” Osterweil said.

“In Defense of Looting” was born out of the protests in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014 and 2015. “This book only exists because the rebels in Ferguson showed us all the way,” Osterweil told HuffPost. She observed the uprising in the streets, and the media narrative that quickly arose — the condemnations of property damage, the tsk-tsking about how scenes of looting would surely turn the public against those protesting in defense of Black lives — and wrote a stirring rebuttal in the New Inquiry. Looting, she argued, has been “one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available” in America. Her argument reaches back to the foundations of the country, and the establishment of slavery as a system under which white people held property and Black people were property, and could find freedom by “stealing” themselves. It extends to the recent past, examining the necessity of riots and looting to Black civil rights movements in the 1960s and the 2010s.

“The last few months of movement have exceeded any possible imagination of mine, frankly,” she said. “We’re living through a truly unprecedented and historic social movement right now.”

In her conversation with HuffPost, Osterweil discussed the downsides of fixating on organizing and nonviolent tactics, why white supremacy and property are inextricably linked, and the problem with abstract conversations about civility.

Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu Agency via Getty Image
Protesters in response to the police shooting of Jacob Blake light a cleaning truck on fire in Kenosha, Wisconsin, on Aug. 24.

Your book really could not be more directly speaking to the moment, in a lot of ways, especially because there ended up being ― as there often is during these waves of protests — a lot of discourse about looting and whether it’s effective, whether protest should be nonviolent, is looting a distraction from the point of the protests. How have we seen looting and sort of non-nonviolent tactics playing a role in what’s going on with these Black Lives Matter protests?

I think the thing that happens a lot when people start talking about nonviolent tactics being the only right way is that they immediately begin erasing the very, very recent history of a movement. If it wasn’t for three days of rioting and looting in Minneapolis, including the burning down of a condo development and the 3rd precinct, would there be any movement in the streets at all right now? The immediate history of the movement indicates that rioting and looting are effective at growing a movement and making an issue come to the forefront. And these riots are destroying what last shreds of credibility President Trump had left, that and his terrible mishandling of the coronavirus, of course.  

So when I hear people saying, “Oh, rioting and looting isn’t part of the movement,” it strikes me that it is pure ideology. That all of those people came into the streets because of rioting and looting, they participated in rioting and looting — that is the movement. And to say that it distracts from the movement or it’s what the state wants, I think reflects at best a really intense confusion, and at worst an innately anti-Black and anti-liberatory perspective. 

You discuss organizing, as opposed to something like rioting, as being a bit of an obsession for a lot of people on the left, as being almost fetishized as the only right way to oppose the state and white supremacy. I would love for you to talk a little bit about why we should, in fighting white supremacy, be more skeptical of organizing and organizations, and what the risks and pitfalls are of relying on organizing as a tactic.

There are lots of things that fall under the aegis of organizing that I think are very important. You know, calling protests, having meetings with people you care about, trying to politicize, reading, thinking together, these are all very important things that we should be doing. But formal organizations tend in my experience to emerge during lulls in street activity. So there’s a big uprising, there’s a lot of activity happening. And then it starts to recede and people worry rightly that the moment is slipping away and they want to hold on to that power that they felt, and they want to build from that moment. That impulse is admirable, and I share it and I think it’s beautiful, but it often then means that organizations are formed on the basis of a moment of a lull. They’re formed to keep activists active when the movement isn’t really very strong in the streets.

As a result, organizations often take on tactics, strategies, habits, internal cultures that are based on keeping a small base of people active and in control. And this is just sort of innate and it just happens. It’s not really the fault of any one organizer. So when something happens in the streets that expands well beyond the remit of that organization, they either don’t know how to respond because it doesn’t fit in their modes of organizing, or they try to get in front of it, to control it, to funnel people into their organization, because during a lull, funneling people into their organization was the way that the movement stayed alive for them. 

Things get really, really unstable when a revolutionary moment, or even proto-revolutionary moment, opens up. Organizations are usually not willing to risk their very existence, to just throw it all into the movement. 

ASSOCIATED PRESS
Protesters set off fireworks as a fire burns at the Minneapolis police 3rd Precinct building, May 28, following the police killing of George Floyd.

I thought that the way that you contrasted this with rioting was really intriguing because it’s true that, I think, we tend to see riots close to home especially, as you write, as not being a movement, but as being just an illogical outburst or a sort of explosion. And in some ways, maybe an organization or a leader allows us to sort of integrate the idea of a movement into our understanding of what’s happening, in a way that a leaderless, very grassroots movement with no identifiable people speaking for it in a cohesive way is difficult for the media to kind of grasp. I’m curious how we can come to understand riots as a form of movement, as a method of the movement happening, when our way of understanding the world around us is formed so much around great men and women and leaders and not around mass action. 

That’s one of the big projects in the book. I think we do have to change our understanding of history, actually. The way that we are taught history is very purposefully — not purposely like in a conspiracy way, but purposely — designed to emphasize certain kinds of real events led by leaders, by parliaments. If there is a movement in place, that movement must be summed up by its leaders and by its most important documents. One of the things that I’m trying to do in the book is to show a lot of examples of moments when that has led our understanding astray. 

One that I think is really important is what W.E.B. Du Bois calls the General Strike of the Enslaved, which is the movement of mass escape from plantations and strike that is building up before the Civil War, leads to and causes the Civil War, and then during the Civil War accelerates to such a point that 500,000 enslaved people all threw down their tools and escaped their plantations, or took them over, in the span of four years. To the extent that we think about that having a leader, people think about Abraham Lincoln. But Lincoln was very opposed to emancipation until it was forced upon him. He wanted to contain slavery in the South, as did the rest of the Republican Party, at the time.  

When 500,000 largely illiterate enslaved people who are separated by great distances on plantations, kept, as best they can be, ignorant by their masters, when they all rise up and respond to historical moments in the same way, that reveals a kind of organization. That’s what Du Bois is writing about: that this is a form of organization, but it is one that our bias towards formal card-carrying membership, leadership-based organization, makes invisible to us. 

So when riots happen, it is a similarly invisible organization that’s happening. There’ve been studies that show that the people who riot are often actually the most connected in their communities, they’re already activists or organized. They’re the people who are most involved in their community life. They have all this knowledge of their local areas and they fight on that basis. These forms of organization get made invisible and organizers have a tendency to demand that this informal organization be brought into a political party, a movement proper. And in doing that work, they often, organizers often will slow down the direct action that gave birth to the movement in an attempt to construct a structure. 

An interesting example of that, that we’re seeing right now, is that as the uprising continues there hasn’t been a strong organizational structure anywhere that I’m aware of that has really emerged. There have been these leaders who have tried to take control of things in certain ways, like you were talking about, the folks in New York who got on the bullhorn and tried to lead chants for the police or whatever, but there hasn’t actually been any — that I’m aware of — any formal organizations. Even relatively loose formal organizations of leftists haven’t been able to capture this moment. And that’s because the moment is ongoing and organizations — right now, where we’re at, the way that they’re formed — they are not productive for that. And there are lots of people in lots of organizations on the ground right now. I want to be clear, I’m not disrespecting people who are out there fighting every day. But the fact that no single organization has managed to coalesce the movement is a strength of the movement.

You started talking about something that I’d love to have you explain in a little more detail, which is slavery and how it established the concept of looting and property and Blackness and its relationship to those things in the American consciousness. I’d love if you could talk a little bit about how we see slavery in America creating and hardening this white supremacist conception of property that leads to where we are today with the Black looter being a symbol of disorder and also of revolution and freedom.

In the book, I worked through a premise that was in the original piece that I wrote in 2014, that this book is based on, which is that the first image of the Black looter is the enslaved freeing herself. The word looting didn’t exist in American English at that point — it’s entering into the English lexicon across the 19th century, so they weren’t described as looters. But as Saidiya Hartman writes about in her really important book, “Scenes of Subjection,” slaves understood their actions towards freedom as stealing. So if they had a secret meeting, they would call it “stealing the meeting.” And when they escaped, they called it stealing away. They were pointing their actions towards the abolition of property, by abolishing themselves as property through the movement of fugitivity.

It’s a very, very long and complicated history. But in short, when the American colonies are being settled, the idea of whiteness doesn’t exist at all. Blackness exists, somewhat provisionally, but isn’t really fully established at that point. What you have is what Lerone Bennett Jr. refers to as an equality of oppression in the early colonies. So you had African slaves working side by side with often Irish, often other racialized European — Scots, Welsh — but also criminal Englishmen, servants, Indigenous servants too.

As colonists arrive, to this new world, they have to claim that it is empty, that it is free, in order for them to justify taking it. But of course it is not empty and it is not theirs. There are Indigenous societies that have been around for thousands of years on the land. What they begin to do is they begin to develop notions of property that are good and European versus the idea of the savage. So the savage has no concept of property; they don’t actually have any real ownership to the land. And that concept of savagery is then also applied to the enslaved people and the servants in the colonies.

But as the Indigenous population starts to fall to genocide, and as the African slave trade is increasingly rationalized and made more efficient, the African slave becomes cheaper to put on the plantation than the servants from Europe, and more available than the Indigenous who are, of course, succumbing to purposeful genocide. As that happens, an ideology begins to coalesce around, how do we justify this? Especially as the revolutionary era happened, and the U.S. colonists are talking about fighting for our freedom, for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. So what do you do about all of these people who very clearly do not have life or liberty, or the pursuit of happiness? The pursuit of happiness is a modification of a Locke quote, which is the pursuit of estate. So the pursuit of happiness has always meant the acquisition of property. What do you do about these people who can’t acquire property because they are property? 

Race becomes the answer to this question. They are Black, they are inferior biologically, historically, culturally. And then whiteness starts to form in contradistinction to that. Whiteness is the thing that someone has that allows them to own a Black person, that allows them to own property, that gives them life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

So it develops on the ground through these historical processes of Southern colonialism and slavery. And so when Black folks freed themselves from the plantations, they were stealing themselves, they were abolishing themselves as property, and they were attacking the very notion of property and therefore the notion of whiteness. What that history hopefully sketches out is that whiteness and property are inextricably linked. And that if you want to fight against white supremacy and whiteness, you have to fight against the property that gives it its reason and its form.

One thing we’re seeing in the current movement that I think is telling is that there’s a lot of discussion about racism and white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and there’s a lot of discussion about the police and their role in enforcing those things. The third term that connects them, private property, which is implicitly being attacked in riots and looting, which has been the subject of much of the force of the movement, has gone unremarked upon. People don’t talk about this movement being an attack on private property. And that’s because if we attack whiteness, private property and the police all at once, you’re talking about a revolution.

AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast
A door to the Block 37 retail building is shattered Monday, Aug. 10, in Chicago.

I’d love to talk a little bit also about gender. I was really intrigued by your argument that looting and rioting are not masculine and in certain ways are actually quite femme. I would love to have you talk a little bit about why you see the idea of violence in the form of rioting and looting as not macho per se, and why we could see it as a more feminine kind of approach.

There are a number of ways that we can use feminist analysis to talk about this. One thing that feminist analysis often focuses on is the question of social reproduction, of how we remake each other, how society keeps going and how often it falls to women and femmes to do that work, to do emotional caring labor, to do healing labor, to do education labor, to cook, to clean, et cetera. Riots and looting interact in the sphere of social reproduction. The way that a riot empowers you is, first of all, it makes it easier to live your life because you get lots of stuff for free, and it makes it much easier to reproduce your life. But they also are experienced as joyous, communal, empowering, community-reinforcing events. They genuinely reproduce the social, to put it really bluntly. 

Dividing things as femme and masc, it’s not always super productive having these sorts of binaries. But operating within those ideas, one thing that is often associated with femininity or femmeness is affect: acting on emotion, acting with the goal of emotion. And riots are very often about mourning and about grief and about rage and about pleasure and about joy. Whereas political campaigns tend to be much more, you know, quote-unquote “masc”: intellectualized, focused on reason and argument. Riots don’t argue with anybody. They just do the thing.

One thing that I think is really misunderstood about riots by people who don’t participate in them, or don’t take them seriously, is when, in a riot, a group of people who experienced the city as an oppressive place suddenly experience it as joyful, celebratory, carnivalesque one. During a riot, you use physical force to repress the police and property, the very forces that make you unsafe in the street in the first place. So there is this violence, but it’s largely self-defensive, and it’s largely creating a territory in which you can safely, freely and happily reproduce your life. It’s a way of producing a zone of safety, and imagining a world where we’re all safe on the street all the time.

It’s something that people have been talking a lot about this summer, and you’re touching on it here. I hear people out in the streets saying it, even people who aren’t engaged in the protests, but who are just amid them for some reason: just the joy that’s in the air and the feeling of safety and the feeling of mutual care. Why is it important to talk about things like rioting and looting through the lens of pleasure, as well as through lenses like self-defense and desperation, things that might frame the rioters more as acting purely out of victimhood and self-protection?

It’s really important to think about riots in terms of pleasure and freedom and joy and safety, because that’s the world that they point towards and that they enact immediately. What we’re fighting for ultimately isn’t about violence and it isn’t about seriousness, and it isn’t for me even really about justice. It’s about a world of liberation, of freedom, of queer expression, of sexual and emotional and material peace and happiness. And I think one way that the framing of riots as macho, one thing that serves to do for the state is to take away what is actually really beautiful in a riot, and what, as you said, lots of people in the country have actually experienced, which is that the world could be different. We don’t have to live under these oppressions. We don’t have to live divided from each other by white supremacy and by settler colonialism, and by all of these forms of violence that are so historically powerful.

Starting to see that freedom is an experience that changes everyone who participates in it. Part of what is so inspiring about this current moment is it’s been so widespread, and, you know, I read all these documents from the 60s, from the 30s, where people talk about how they never forget that feeling. Well, we now have a whole generation of people who’ve had that feeling and who never forget it. And it is so important for the state and the media and capitalism to try and repress that feeling, to confuse it, to blame it on white supremacists or white anarchists or outside agitators or whatever, because that feeling is so real and so immediate. 

The civility discourse has been a dominant one in mass media over the past few years, especially, and it’s been a very interesting juxtaposition to have it continue and get even more intense, even as we’re seeing people in the streets uprising, rebelling. One thing about the civility discourse is this idea of, like, certain tactics are good for everyone and certain tactics are bad for everyone. Is it an error for us to try to attach moral value to tactics? Is there a world in which we form rules of engagement for how we build a better society and we all adhere to them? Or is that just a totally misbegotten way of looking at how progress is achieved?

Well, it’s going to be pretty ironic for someone who just wrote a book called “In Defense of Looting” to say the following, but I don’t think that we can really judge tactics outside of their context. I don’t think that any tactic at any point is morally or politically or ethically removed from the movement in which it appears. That’s why I spent two chapters talking about white rioting and police. It’s very important to recognize that no tactic is just good or bad.

That said, I also don’t believe that the ends justify the means as an operating principle, because I think, you know, one of the really valuable anarchist insights into the world is that the things that we enact now in the world shape the world that we build. So, there’s been a lot of fetishizing of, for example, the guillotine. Which, like, I get it. It’s funny, like, you yell “guillotine” at a rich person, I totally get the appeal. But the guillotine is also a technology that is based on you having already kidnapped someone and then executing them. And that for me is very different from, say, defensive violence against the police to protect a riot zone, or burning down their building. Although these are all forms of violence. 

So I guess what I’m sort of saying is, yes and no. Tactics do shape our movements, they shape our outcomes. We are never going to make a list of tactics that are good and tactics that are bad, that is never going to be satisfying. That is never going to point the way to a freer society. What we can do is trust the people that we’re in movement with, trust them to know what they’re doing. Trusting that people are basically trying to get free and using the tactics that seem appropriate to that, and then understanding the world from that basis. So sometimes will you end up critiquing some tactics and thinking that they’re not good? Absolutely. And will some things seem counterproductive? Absolutely.

If we start from the abstract plane of, what tactics are good, what tactics are bad? ― you heard me just dither about it! You end up in a spiral that doesn’t work. It’s sort of the wrong question. The question is, what are people doing right now? Is it working? Like, how can we help them? That’s the question that I think we have to be asking.