It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, and the first thing on big-box and high-end retail stores’ wishlist this year is more cops.
Over the past few weeks, there have been a number of high-profile incidents involving organized “looters” carrying out audacious flash mob or smash-and-grab-style requisitions from high-end retail stores. In an impressive display, roughly eighty people raided a San Francisco Nordstrom, snatching the goods in a matter of minutes. In the Chicago area over the past two weeks, there have been several incidents of group expropriations of Burberry, Canada Goose, and Louis Vuitton stores.
Ever quick to foam at the mouth, armies of lobbyists for retail stores, along with pro-cop organizations like the National Sheriffs’ Association, have since been busy whipping up these incidents into a complete moral panic about “retail theft.” Liberal commentators are wringing their hands that “crime is raging across the country” and California governor Gavin Newsom joined the chorus. Congress held hearings on the issue at the beginning of November, and the White House joined in last week expressing “serious concern” about the so-called crime wave.
Predictably, there is a full-court press by retail corporations and police organizations in every major city to increase funding for the police. In many ways, this can be understood as a delayed reaction to the uprising of summer of 2020, where some of the rebellions included varying degrees of looting. At the time, with the sheer size of the protests fueling its moral force, many retailers were relatively quiet. Big box stores like Target and Nordstrom refused to comment on the looting, and Target’s CEO even issued a statement in May 2020 about the protests and being in a “community with pain,” even parroting the “say their names” chant.
But no one should be so naive as to believe that the lip service paid to the protests and existence of Black Lives Matter in the windows of businesses means any change as to their relationship with the protectors of private property—the police. Rather, the current campaign for more police and harsher penalties for looters represents a belated response to 2020 and an attempt to seize the moment to push through more police in a period of diminished rebellion.
Unsurprisingly, like most hand wringing about crime, the retail theft uptick is a fabricated narrative that willfully overstates the actual trend of activity known to them as crime. However, there is more to be said about this activity than minimizing its impact. Indeed, the organized appropriations from swanky stores, while statistically being overblown in order to get more cops, should be defended. Working-class people doing a little bit of illicit holiday shopping from massive corporations should not be cause to fret but to celebrate.
The fabricated narrative on the epidemic of “organized retail theft” can be traced back to its early telling in San Francisco when Walgreens announced that it was closing five stores due to the impact of shoplifting. Very quickly, this publicity stunt was exposed to be as flimsy as a plastic shopping bag. The San Francisco Chronicle showed that all five stores only reported two shoplifting incidents per month on average since 2018. Additionally, it was reported that in 2019 Walgreens rolled out a plan to close two hundred stores after review of its “real estate footprint.” Local leaders criticized Walgreens’ ridiculous plan to cut costs and increase profits by closing stores and shifting toward online while selling it to the public with a fake story of being the victim of a crime wave.
Despite these vapid origins, news stories surfaced in many major cities, all declaring that the brazen organized retail theft is hurting business and making stores “unsafe.” However, as Alec Karakatsanis pointed out on Twitter, the same collection of groups “sounded the alarm” and were the reported sources for the story in city after city. In most instances, some combination of retail business lobbies and federations, CEOs and right-wing district attorneys, sheriffs, and cop groups were those yelling “fire” in the streets. This narrative was reflected in reporting such as in Chicago’s corporate media raising the warning of “crooks” wantonly smashing windows in the Magnificent Mile high-end shopping district.
However, as Jerry Ianelli pointed out in an article for The Appeal, shoplifting nationwide actually decreased by 18 percent from 2019 to 2020 per FBI numbers, and overall larceny levels are at a historical low not seen since the 1960s. Importantly, Ianelli also points out that companies like CVS have gone to Congress to complain about alleged $200 million losses due to shoplifting while selling $91 billion in goods and turning a $7 billion dollar profit in 2020. Since September 2021, US corporations have made more profit than in any three-month period on record. The second highest, it should be noted, was the three-month period immediately prior to that!
The notion that a shoplifting wave is hurting the record profits of these corporations is a ridiculous fantasy. So why are retailers making such a hullabaloo about the snatching of some teeth-whitening strips and razors, a designer purse here or Burberry coat there?
Profit and Police
The actual amount of loss from organized retail theft as estimated by the National Retail Federation was $2.1 billion in 2020 nationwide, debunking the retail lobby’s overinflated numbers of $49 billion. Compare that with the fact that these same corporations carry out an estimated $15 billion a year in wage theft from their own employees. These cynical sociopaths don’t bat an eye at swindling every cent of profit, or breaking laws to do it. But it doesn’t seem likely that this national campaign is purely about maintaining a little extra profit for their already bloated coffers. Perhaps, as in the case of Walgreens, it is an attempt to provide cover to a shift away from brick-and-mortar stores, but I think there is another piece of the puzzle: the reaction by property to last year’s rebellions.
Underneath the sham statements of sympathy for Black lives, there is no way that retailers are happy with the confidence of the appropriations that were carried out in the rebellion. As Tyler Zimmer wrote in Rampant at the time:
Despite skyrocketing unemployment and plummeting working-class incomes in the midst of a public health crisis, the authorities have not suspended rent payments, mortgage payments, debt servicing, or utilities. As a result, more than is usually the case, masses of people are struggling to meet their most basic needs. And in the meantime, billionaires have been making bank.
This is not a state of affairs that deserves to be maintained. Indeed, under circumstances such as these, just about any flow of resources from rich to poor is justified.
The lords of profit fear redistribution and any blow to their ill-gotten cash. The events of that summer of rage demonstrate that when workers rise up en masse, there is little that can be done to prevent some individuals from taking loot that they need, loot that they can sell in order to get what they need, or even secure a small object that can give joy and status in a world where we have so little. Their side fears this and the solution for them (as it always has been and as is being called for now) is more police and more punishment. Rather than talking about real solutions that would have an effect on so-called crime like increased spending on housing, health, education, and jobs, the rich return to their solution of more police.
At a time when the majority of people in the US were in favor of the immolation of a police station, some savvy corporations may have realized that their rabid shrieks for more cops may not have been timely for their public image. But now they are making their move. This manufactured crisis is the pretense being used by retail capital to apply pressure in major cities and at the federal level to increase policing and criminalization of theft. These corporations (along with real estate developers) are leading the charge for more cops because their aim is a controlled consumer experience for affluent customers, even if it means the organized abandonment of poor communities, lifetimes of imprisonment, or worse for everyone else.
Partially in response to this campaign, Biden increased the funding by $139 million in November for the Community Oriented Police Service (COPS) hiring program, which gives direct federal grants for local departments hiring more cops. This means that Biden, a Democrat, has increased federal money for the program to $537 million, more than three times what Trump spent in a year.
What also drives this alliance between retail associations and the police is a shared interest in creating a business friendly atmosphere for investing at the cost of intensifying the carceral state and putting more Black folks in cages. In both San Francisco and in Chicago, this campaign fits snugly in with the ongoing attempts by the “business community” to pressure the cities’ “progressive prosecutors” Chesa Boudin and Kim Foxx respectively to be harder on crime. Foxx has been a reviled target of retail and cops for her “softness” on crime, as evidenced by her raising the threshold for the dollar amount required for felony shoplifting convictions. It’s working. Foxx—as a result of this campaign—has signaled she is thinking about lowering the thresholds, thus ruining more lives with felony convictions and jail time.
All Power to the Looters
It is essential to expose and decry the coordinated campaign between retailers and cop groups and push back against calls for more policing and expanded penalties for theft that will disproportionately affect Black and brown individuals.
But at the same time, it’s only in keeping with the holiday spirit if we can also appreciate the gusto of those organized acts of reappropriation that are occurring. Working-class people, whose livelihoods and futures are stolen everyday, striving to get by in a pandemic economy with record corporate profits, have every right to loot back a bit. These working-class people are not targeting others in their class but multinational corporate chains. To engage in something akin to “theft” in that context is not only fair but welcomed. While we should not confuse this with a kind of class struggle that will transform society as such, we can see these actions as creative contempt for the social order and as a thumbing of the nose at the faceless peddlers of unattainable luxury.
Our side has had so much taken from us. While we fight to take back the world, there is nothing wrong with having a little Louis Vuitton for the ride. This holiday season, we can be all the more jolly at the newly filled stockings of those who otherwise would have too little.