A Riotous History of Uncivil Action
Of the many forms of political action in twenty-first- century America, it’s hard to think of any less popular than rioting and looting. Voting and electioneering are widely respected as the baseline of political action; petitioning and lobbying elected representatives are not far behind. Labor action, despite four decades of propaganda and federal action against it, still has strong support in many quarters. Community organizing is at least theoretically the founding principle for thousands of nonprofits across the country. Liberals and conservatives alike grudg-ingly support demonstrations, at least when they’re nonviolent and their people are doing it.
More extreme political actions also have widespread support. Both liberals and conservatives believe in war, considering it a necessary evil or a fundamental good. Liberals may oppose the death penalty, but they, like conservatives, believe in the efficacy of murder: they had little to say about Obama’s extrajudicial drone executions, his death lists and Terror Tuesdays, and Democrats mostly critiqued Trump’s 2020 assassination of Qasem Soleimani on procedural grounds: “He didn’t consult Congress!” Torture is celebrated a thousand times a day on television in police proce-durals and action flicks, and most people accept imprisonment—years of unrelenting psychic torture—as a necessary fact of social life. Economic coercion on the international stage, through sanctions, trade agreements, and development loans, is a matter of course. At home, the threat of un-employment, homelessness, starvation, and destitution, along with debt, taxes, fines, and fees of all kinds, are so naturalized as to rarely even be recognized as a form of political domination at all.
But rioting and looting have few defenders. Conservatives, of course, oppose it utterly, rooting for the police to put down protesters, with the Far Right claiming riots are just professional troublemaking fomented by George Soros, Jews, and the “global elite.” Liberals oppose rioting, too: because their love for law and order is much greater than their belief in freedom, they claim that rioters are “hurting their own cause” or are led by police provocateurs—agreeing with the fascists that rioters are paid troublemakers, just disagreeing about who signs the checks.
In the face of rioting and looting, even sympathetic self-identifying radicals sometimes balk. They claim that these more extreme actions are mainly the work of outside agitators, “opportunists,” or out-of-step middle- class radicals. They claim that those doing the looting are “not part of the movement,” that they are “apolitical” and ignorant, that their actions reflect “false consciousness,” or even that they are acting as con-sumers and therefore furthering capitalism.
From within the movement, people tend to claim that what hap-pened wasn’t rioting but an uprising or a rebellion. No one wants to be associated with the idea of riot, and this is doubly true for looting. Even while a riot is going on, people in the streets often work to block looting. Many of them do so out of care for the struggle, worried about unfair media representation and hoping to advance the politically and ethically advantageous position. I understand that instinct, but it was to critique and push against that thinking, crucially in love and solidarity with those who pursue it and with looters the world over, that I began this project.
Other people, however—including local politicians, middle-class “leaders,” political groups, and reactionary organizations—block loot-ing in order to gain power for themselves. These peacekeepers and de- escalators cooperate with the police to derail and destroy uprisings to show the white power structure that they are responsible parties, that, because they can control and contain the unruly masses, they are the “natural leaders,” the people who should be negotiated with. This book is spit in their eyes.
Looting is so unpopular not because it is an error or bad for the move-ment but because it is often a movement’s most radical tactic. Looting attacks some of the core beliefs and structures of cisheteropatriarchal ra-cial capitalist society, and so frightens and disturbs nearly everyone, even some of its participants. After all, we have all been raised and trained to hold, follow, and reproduce those beliefs every day. Looting rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property, the moral injunction to work for a living, and the “justice” of law and order. Looting reveals all these for what they are: not natural facts, but social constructs benefiting a few at the expense of the many, upheld by ideology, economy, and state violence.
That looting is one of the most racially loaded, morally abhorred, and depoliticized concepts in modern society should come as no surprise. From its very first usages, the word has served to re-enforce the white supremacist juncture of property and race.
The word loot is taken up from the Hindi word lút—similar to “plun-der” or “booty”—which first appears in Anglophone contexts in 1788 in a handbook on “Indian Vocabulary” for English colonial officers. In loot’s first recorded appearance in the English language, it describes how an officer managed to gain consent and gather recruits for subduing Indian resistance: “He always found the talismanic gathering-word Loot (plun-der) a sufficient bond of union in any part of India.” The racialized idea of an “Indian” identity did not yet exist outside the minds of the coloniz-ers, but a natural racial tendency, one overcoming tribal, religious, and cultural differences, could be “revealed” by the offer of plunder. In other words, a deviant relationship to property is the “sufficient” attribute that unifies and defines an otherwise disparate group under the sign of race. The earliest appearances of the gerund looting, meanwhile, refer to “hir-sute Sikhs” and “Chinese blackguards.” Looting is a word taken from a colonized people and used to denigrate and racialize riotous subalterns resisting English empire. It would from the very beginning refer to a non-white and lawless relationship to property.
The looting that I am defending in this book is not that act that can be described by the synonym plunder. The looting of captured territory by armies, for example, or of colonial wealth by empire and its agents, can be equally well described by words like robbery, pillage, booty, and spoils. But the looting described, defended, and historicized here—that of a crowd of people publicly, openly, and directly taking things in the midst of riot and social unrest—has no easy synonym. I personally like the phrases “proletarian shopping” and “shopping for free” quite a lot and use the Marxist “expropriation,” too. But all those phrases drain the idea of looting of its racializing character. Although it is understandable why people would want, in defending their movements, to find a less charged word, it is precisely the fact that looting exists at the nexus of race and class that gives it its tactical power.
Looting is a method of direct redistribution of wealth, from the store owners and capitalists to the poor. Looting, as scholar Delio Vasquez writes in “The Poor Person’s Defense of Riots,” “directly results (unless you get arrested) in your acquiring the things that you are seeking.”3 It is a practical, immediate form of improving life. Looting represents a material way that riots and protests help the community: by providing a way for people to solve some of the immediate problems of poverty and by creating a space for people to freely reproduce their lives rather than doing so through wage labor. Looting is an act of communal cohesion.
But looting is also an act of excess, of property destruction. When something is looted, that thing’s nature as a commodity is destroyed by its being taken for free, out of the cycle of exchange and profit. Everything in the store goes from being a commodity to becoming a gift. Less ab-stractly, looting is usually followed up by burning down the shop. Looters also frequently throw items out onto the streets for anyone to take or pile goods chaotically in the middle of the store or pass bottles of liquor, bags of food, or goods between strangers and around the crowd. Looting in-volves not only taking wealth directly but also immediately sharing that wealth, which points to the collapse of the system by which the looted things produce value.
Looting is a communal practice: it cannot be done alone. Anthro-pologist Neal Keating argues that looting creates a similar relation to property as the potlatch, a communal practice of Indigenous nations in the Pacific Northwest. In the potlatch, held on a variety of special oc-casions—births, deaths, weddings, festivals—wealthy people compete to see who can give away the most possessions to the gathered celebrants and they vie with each other to destroy the most accumulated wealth in a massive bonfire. The potlatch works to level wealth in the community by consuming surplus, which might otherwise enable some to develop more permanent forms of power through excess accumulation. Rioting and looting similarly redistribute and reduce the wealth and the surplus, leveling material power differentials.4 The potlatch was outlawed by the Canadian government as a part of its (ongoing) genocide of the First Na-tions: the potlatch was considered one of the most important obstacles to their becoming “civilized” and Christian. Like looting, this nonwhite, noncommodified communal approach to property was seen as a danger-ous threat to capitalism and “civilization.”
Though no single instance of looting is on its own sufficient to trans-form society, obviously, looting—at least when carried out by Black, poor, or Indigenous people—will always be strenuously and vigorously dis-avowed by the powers that be because it points to and immediately enacts a different relationship to property, a different history. There have been few instances of looting in the United States in the last quarter century; when it has appeared, it has been during brief and often one-off uprisings. De-spite this fact, when the flames went up over a looted Quik Trip in Fergu-son, Missouri, in August 2014, as antipolice rioting broke out after Michael Brown was killed, the media produced lines of argument and criticism that you might have just as easily heard in the sixties. Politicians and media out-lets have a number of tried-and-true disavowals and defamations of looters at the ready. Before moving on to the historical narrative of looting in the United States, it’s worth dealing with these common objections here.