In Defense of Looting
A Riotous History of Uncivil Action
By Vicky Osterwei
Published by Bold Type Books
“To get some respect we had to tear this motherfucka up.” —Ice Cube
In one week this month, the presidential candidate for the Democratic Party spent 45 million dollars on one television advertisement. Its central message is spoken by Biden himself: “Rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. . . . It is lawlessness and those who do it should be prosecuted.” Joe Biden is rushing—“like a rat to peanut butter,” as one comrade of ours commented on Twitter—to not be outflanked by Donald Trump, whose apocalyptic vision of America and his law-and-order response is essentially his central campaign message.
From Kenosha, Wisconsin, mayor John Antaramian to Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, Democratic mayors around the country—who have played the main role in suppressing the uprising against racism and police violence—also talk tough about clamping down on looting and use this to shift attention away from the epidemic of police terror. “This is not protest!” polite society exclaims with an intensity that often surpasses its outrage over the events that birthed the massive wave of protests: the wanton murder of Black folks by police.
“If looters are ‘not part of the protest,’” Vicky Osterweil asks in her provocative new book In Defense of Looting, “then why do they appear again and again in liberatory uprisings?” Her central argument in the book is that looting, along with riots, arson, vandalism, and armed self-defense, are all legitimate tactics to be defended and argued for in the struggle for social transformation. These tactics, she contends, all have revolutionary potential for a political project of the complete overthrow of the system of racist capitalism.
As her arguments and historical examples advocate for this broad category of “uncivil” action, in some ways her book is mistitled. There are whole chapters that do not address looting specifically. Her case is that the many struggles against oppression and exploitation in this country (she focuses entirely on the US context) have deployed tactics that are impolite and confrontational, messy and riotous, and, yes, illegal and felonius. Often first demonized then whitewashed in liberal fairy-tales these are the tactics Osterweil recenters in the story of social struggle. She reminds us that there is indeed a crowbar in the activist toolbox.
Though what Osterweil advocates is a broader set of tactics than just that of looting, the reason for highlighting it also seems obvious. Surely there is no other element of popular protest that is as controversial and divisive. This is the case not just among Fox News crackpots or in broad society, but also among participants in movements. Often rooted in a well-intentioned desire to defend the movement, people often attempt to, at minimum, make distance between looting and street protest, and, at maximum, attempt to stop looting, even in the midst of riot-like situations. Osterweil points out many cases of the latter, such as street gangs and the Nation of Islam during the Baltimore uprising of 2015.
Osterweil makes the case that looting’s taboo and provocative reputation is precisely because of how it so frontally attacks certain core beliefs of capitalist society. It upsets a whole set of dominant ideas—the ideas of the ruling class, as Marx reminds us—around the sanctity of private property and ownership, the ethic of “earning” through hard work, and the “justice” of law and order.
The act of a “crowd of people publicly, openly, and directly taking things in the midst of riot or social unrest” contests the priorities and values of capitalist society. Armies of cops are deployed to protect private property. Politicians who speak in bland hushed tones (if they speak at all) about cops killing people, spit fire and brimstone when a shop window gets broken or some diapers get swiped. In Chicago, the mayor literally raised the drawbridges to the financial district and built barricades to protect what she termed “our city.” In New Orleans after Katrina police gave instructions for vigilanties to shoot people trying to get supplies in a drowning city and to just “leave the bodies on the side of the road.” What is valued by the rulers stands in stark relief when a few stores get jacked.
Despite 93 percent of the protests of the movement for Black lives being peaceful in what may be the largest mass movement in US history, the media is stuck on loops of people making off with some small items that they have claimed as a door prize of the carnival of the oppressed. Broken windows and stolen sneakers are more important to those who rule society than broken lives and stolen futures. Lightfoot’s conception of “our city” reveals how the state works to defend big business and the families of capital against the working people to whom this city does not belong.
It is what this act unsettles and exposes that makes looting so frightening and disturbing to so many, even to many people who participate. This provocativeness, for Osterweil, is also its revolutionary potential.
The potential that Osterweil sees in looting and other uncivil activity is described as two-fold: the first is its capacity to radicalize individuals, create new organizers and organizations; and second is its success at exacting change. Over the course of her briskly moving examples she pushes the perimeter of how history is often told to not just include but center riotous action as a key element of social movements and explosive revolutionary moments. She describes how events from the Boston Tea Party, to unemployed riots of the 1930s, to armed Black self-defense against lynching, to Stonewall from gave birth to larger movements. The generative power of these radical acts serve as sparks for greater action by people from below.
The notion of looting and riots playing a productive role in struggle pushes beyond even most defenses of riots that are held by some liberals and some on the left. This position is exemplified by and almost always makes use of Martin Luther King Jr.’s comment on the 1965 Watts rebellion that a “riot is the language of the unheard.” This holds that riots, and especially looting, are unfortunate; symptoms of a people who have no other outlet. The arguments focus on looting’s causes—oppression, disenfranchisement, etc—in defense against the right-wing position that this is just criminal behavior or the work of opportunists not resulting from real grievances and few avenues for action. Osterweil points out that this understanding of these explosive events still sees them as excesses to be avoided, as “inchoate, senseless outpourings of anger and resentment.” She pushes beyond this and suggests that they should rather be embraced and seen as “crucial and transformative” moments in political struggle.
Gimme the Loot
One of the most poignant cases Osterweil lays out is about the end of chattel slavery in the United States. As chattel slavery literally made Black people property she describes how the “self-looting” of tens of thousands of enslaved people emancipating themselves by fleeing slavery either to the North or to fugitive maroon communities, along the continual explosions of insurrections by enslaved people, contributed to ending the institution.
Osterweil unspools the presence of riots and looting throughout social struggle in this country, demonstrating how bread riots in the mid-nineteenth century drove down the price of bread to almost zero, and how the birth of the American labor movement emerged from the insurrectionary-like activity of the railroad strikes of 1877, where vandalism, arson, and looting of train cars was a common tactic. Osterweil even reframes the 1921 anti-Black pogrom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from the typical history of tragedy, with Black Tulsans being passive victims to the racist massacre. Instead, she posits the white supremacist violence as a reaction against sucessful Black armed resistance to lynching. The labor struggles of the 1930s that won the New Deal also entailed the looting of bread, which was commonplace in the misery of the Great Depression. “All that stands between you hungry people and food are a few plate glass windows,” Osterweil quotes Frank Keeney, a militant miner agitating a demonstration of miners at the time, as saying. “No state has a right to call you criminal if you take what you must to live.” Throughout the book, examples like these shake up common conceptions of what revolutionary activity can and must look like.
Osterweil also focuses on explosions in Black urban centers during the high points of the Black freedom movement. These events also speak to how the boundaries of “legitimate” protest activity should contain looting. Osterweil reminds us that the Birmingham campaign, a pivotal moment in the civil rights movement, was a “duel of rocks and fire hoses,” led by the youth. To quote one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s aides, Vincent Harding, Birmingham escalated to “a burning, car smashing, police-battling response,” that amounted to the first urban rebellion of the period, and that escalation was key to its success.
Of the wave of civil riots that swept the country in the latter half of the 1960s, Osterweil highlights that of the Watts rebellion to depict how the “six days of insurrection against all authority” broke open the focus on legal equality and civil rights and exposed the deeper systemic roots of American racism. Osterweil credits Watts with a role in inspiring a whole wave of Black nationalist and revolutionary activists and organizations and propelling the issue of civil rights to the number one political concern of Americans per polls of the time. This would deepen and broaden as rebellions erupted in almost every American city—Harlem, Philadelphia, Newark, and Detroit especially. The story of these rebellions indicates, according to Osterweil, that “we must do away once and for all with the myth on nonviolence and with the false moral divisions between uprising and social transformation, between insurrection and movement, between looting and boycotting, between rioting and community organization.”
The recent national rebellion rising up in Minneapolis this past May seems to reflect some of what Osterweil argues (though she notes in the book that she turned in her manuscript almost literally in its first days). In the nebula of social struggle something came together and made the case of George Floyd explode as an impetus for action about the systematic killing of Black folks by police. What made his name, as opposed to the many others, echo in the streets of every city and transform the political landscape is most likely due to a confluence of causes. From the continuity of organizing around and recent memory of the police killing of Philando Castille in the Twin Cities, to the shock and exposure of the graphic video, to the pressure cooker of the COVID-19 pandemic and its racist disappropriate impact, to the powerful protests every day and every night that refused to stand down in the face of police aggression, something resonated in thousands upon thousands of people around the country and drew them into action.
The looting and destruction of a police precinct and unoccupied luxury condos were an important element of this process that, following from the arguments Osterweil makes, is not a byproduct of protest that has “gone too far” but rather an important part of what made this specific case of police murder give birth to a movement. This legitimacy of uncivil action was persuasive; during the movement’s height, 54 percent of Americans supported the arson of a police headquarters and another 17 percent approved of the use of looting as a form of protest. The latter is of course a less substantial number but still rather shocking for an act that is often the most maligned and demonized in the public eye. Looting and riots are not just the emotional cry of the unheard but also articulated words expressing a demand.
Strikes vs Stealing
Osterweil’s general argument is both salient and important. First, it cuts through the liberal perspective that riots and looting are excesses to be avoided, outside the perimeter of “real protest,” even if paired with an empathic position that points out how these excesses stem from systemic failures. Second, it also challenges the notion that some socialists consider orthodoxy that, while “legitimate anger” drives the tactic, looting is antisocial behavior that undermines support for the broader movement. The strike is counterposed as the correct path to social change.
But the counter-positioning is in error. An open-ended political general strike certainly presents more of an to upheaval of the system. However to equate strikes in general with their highest application seems more of an appeal to some pure idea of social change than to things as they actually are. Especially in the United States, where union density is low, where the large unions have stagnated under forty-plus years of business unionism and political deference to the Democratic Party, the notion that combative political strikes are immediately on the horizon, reachable if we just hold back from tactics like looting, is a bit of a fantasy even if desired. Even the notion of the mass strike, as David McNally persuasively argues, is an expansive one of social upheaval and not just the simple walking of a picket line with Scabby the rat. None of this is to denigrate strikes, which are the main weapon that our side has to improve conditions. However we should break with the counter-positioning of the strike with uncivil activity. While detractors are correct that a riot alone will not overthrow capitalism, it is also correct, as Mick Armstrong has argued, that “strikes, picket lines, demonstrations, student protests, soldiers’ mutinies and factory occupations on their own will not overthrow capitalism either.”
However strong the general point made by Osteweil is, there is a lot left open and unanswered in her analysis. At multiple points the book states how individual instances of rioting and looting can have blowback, trigger repression, function as a “safety valve” that diffuses anger, and also that there are reactionary uses of riots and looting (as described in the chapter “White Riot”), Even with that there is still an indeterminacy to some of the deeper questions that advocating for the viability of looting raises. She seems to argue that in every instance looting and rioting need to be taken further. One must wonder if this underestimates or under-analyzes reaction and how it is deployed. While uprisings can give birth to organizations, state repression can also destroy them. For example the Revolutionary Action Movement, a Black revolutionary organization operating in the mid-1960s that Osterweil credits for its role in the Philadelphia uprising, was ruthlessly destroyed by the FBI for this role—and it was not the only one.
If looting and riots are indeed included as tactics that can provoke change and build movements should they be advocated for in every instance? Is the answer to building social struggle that one advocates for the most radical action at every moment? I tend to think the answer to this is no. Short of revolutionary overthrow of the state, every protest, strike, riot, has to make a retreat at some point. How are these tactics and decisions considered? How does one navigate the fact that in periods of rebellion there are certainly provocateurs and opportunists, without disavowing legitimate rebellion? Additionally, Osterweil seems to underemphasize the degree to which looting is unpopular among broad swathes of people. How do we deal with this so as not to alienate our movements too much from those we hope to agitate?
These questions are largely absent from Osterweil’s book, and deeper discussion is warranted with tactics so provocative and that so readily draw fierce reaction from the state. And these questions are very real. In Chicago during the uprising this summer there were two major incidents of looting and uncivil action, one being the weekend concluding the month of May and the other being August 10th. The first example was a part of what fueled a continual wave of protests through the city for at least two weeks following. The second had little response from our side, as protest activity, pace, and militancy was in decline. There is much to unpack and doing so involves more than tactical questions but ones of political analysis, strategy, and perspective.
In Defense of Looting’s general case is impassioned, important, and provocative. While I would quibble with a host of small political points (like a problematic reliance on J. Sakai’s Settlers), what I find to be the weakest point of the book is its contradictory position on organization. In the chapter “Looted Bread, Stolen Labor” Osterweil makes a hard anti-organization argument. Although the main targets are deservedly the atrophied bureaucracy of trade unions, the argument is presented as universal. “The logic of formal organizational power, no matter how noble or radical the organizations’ goals,” always restricts and holds back the struggle of the unorganized, Osterweil argues. The organization, then, is unalterably hindered by its own self-preservation, as opposed to being responsive to the democratic control of those in the struggle. This theory of the inevitability of oligarchy, in my opinion, is stale and undynamic and unfortunately periodically becomes en vogue in movements. Without underestimating the difficulties and challenges of building democracy in movements, it is simply the case that to argue that all organization leads to degeneration is a pessimistic position, as Duncan Hallas pointed out, that implies that working people are incapable of democratic control of their organizations. How then do we expect to democratically control our world after we smash capitalism?
But even this position, which is argued quite starkly, is contradicted elsewhere in the book. One of the main justifications for looting being valuable is that it gives rise to organizations. Osterweil uses the examples of groups like Robert Williams’s chapter of the NAACP, the Deacons for Defense, the Black Panther Party, the Community for Unified Newark that formed after the 1967 Newark riots, and the Black Congress among many others. These organizations are presented as positive steps for the movements from which they sprang. Osterweil does not clarify how these organizations’ rise can be positive at the same time that the “logic of formal organizations” supposedly force them to serve as a brake on struggle. It would seem that a group’s political orientation, perspective, and structure were indeed important in analyzing an organization’s ability to either hold struggle back, or lead it to the barricades. This requires political analysis deeper than the theory of inevitability of oligarchy.
Overall, despite some of its limitations, In Defense of Looting is a provocative book deserving engagement as an important intervention into a live question that, looking around at our world on fire, will continue to be crucial. The uncivil actions of rioting, looting, vandalism, and the like have served as important catalysts of social struggle in this country’s turbulent history and should be embraced as such, along with honesty about the challenges and risks. Revolution, to quote Leon Trotsky, is “always characterized by its impoliteness,” and Osterweil’s book embraces and praises this fact. It is on this question of revolution that I would even push the argument a step beyond Osterweil’s main formulation. Osterweil’s focus is on the looting of goods, a “redistribution of loot” as we at Rampant have described elsewhere. What would it mean to see the revolutionary potential not just to take back goods that have been produced by us working people but to loot the very ability to make those goods? In that way a narrow focus on looting can be broadened to include the horizon of reclaiming not just the wealth of the rulers but their power to use us to make that wealth. In that sense, we can loot back and take it all, depriving rulers the means to ever steal from us again.