Q. & A.
Examining Vicky Osterweil’s Case for Looting
September 3, 2020
The writer and activist Vicky Osterweil’s new book has alarmed liberals and conservatives.Photograph by Philip Pacheco / AP
his summer’s protests
against racism and police violence, in response to the killings of George Floyd
, Breonna Taylor, and other Black Americans, represented the largest popular movement since the civil-rights era. They also, in some cases, led to violence, as police fired pepper spray and rubber bullets and forcibly detained protesters, some of whom burned police stations and cars and looted stores, in Minneapolis
, Atlanta, and Portland
, among other cities. Liberal politicians and Black Lives Matter activists have condemned the destruction of private property, saying that it distracts from the cause of racial justice. But last week, a writer and activist named Vicky Osterweil published a book, called “In Defense of Looting
,” that makes a radical attack on that assumption.
Osterweil, who first wrote an essay
of that title during the Ferguson uprising, claims in her book that “those who participate in rioting and looting tend to be the most politically informed and socially engaged in the neighborhood,” and that their actions should be understood “as essential tactics in fighting racial capitalism.” She leans heavily on provocation, titling one chapter “All Cops Are Bastards” and writing that when nonviolence is “pushed as a philosophical, moral, or religious principle, it gains a nasty, authoritarian edge.” She denounces local politicians and political groups who might try to limit looting during an uprising, adding, “This book is spit in their eyes.”
Coming in the midst of violent clashes in Portland and Kenosha, Wisconsin
, the book caused alarm among liberals and conservatives. After NPR
published an interview with Osterweil, politicians from both parties condemned her defense of looting, and conservatives criticized NPR for giving her a platform. In response to the interview, the Times
columnist Bret Stephens, an anti-Trump conservative, wrote that NPR “was doing its small part to make sure the president would be re-elected.” As President Trump claims that “no one will be safe in Biden’s America,” Stephens asked, “Does Joe Biden have the nerve to stand up to the extremes in his own party, or does he just mean to appease them?” On Monday, in Pittsburgh, Biden seemed to answer the question, saying, “I’m going to be very clear about all of this—rioting is not protesting. Looting is not protesting. Setting fires is not protesting. None of this is protesting. It’s lawlessness, plain and simple. And those who do it should be prosecuted.”
I spoke by phone with Osterweil last week, several days before the NPR interview was published. I wanted to understand how she reconciled looting with democratic government, and what limits, if any, she placed on her defense of it. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed whether Americans should be seeking change from within the political system, whether Black business owners should have their property destroyed, and why Osterweil compares small-business owners to slaveholders.
You use the word “revolution” a lot in the book. Is the reader supposed to assume that you think that looting should replace democratic politics, or do you see them going hand in hand?
I think now is a very good time to challenge the concept that we live in an even imperfect democracy. You have Donald Trump admitting he is trying to shut down the constitutionally mandated Post Office to do voter suppression, and too many people in prisons, and in dozens of states felons can’t vote. It’s not a straightforward narrative toward more and more democracy, and Donald Trump lost the election by a few million votes, but the Electoral College, which was designed specifically to continue empowering the plantation owners in the South, still handed it to him.
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 a lot of people have spent the last five years really trying to convince the Democratic Party to take this on with Bernie Sanders or even Elizabeth Warren. And the Democratic Party has, in my opinion, responded with contempt and solidified behind Joe Biden.
But if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren had won the Democratic nomination, they would be leading a movement to get themselves voted into office to achieve change that way.
Absolutely, and I was not a supporter of either of them. Even those paths of reform through the Democratic Party, for example, will not actually be that efficient. 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.
So you feel like the Democratic Party was too dismissive of Warren and Sanders, but at the same time you yourself did not support them?
I think the Democratic Party made an error in that if they had chosen to get behind Warren or Sanders, they could have captured a lot of the energy that we have been seeing in the last three months. They could have had that energy going into the election instead. Personally, that’s not a tragedy to me, but I’m more excited about the move of energy because I think it’s where the real change comes from.
You criticize people in the book who look down on looters, and you say that judging looters is “implying that they don’t know what they are doing.” What do you think people who criticize looters are implying when they criticize them?
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.
But I also do think that there are a lot of people who use disdain of looters as a dog whistle. On his Web site, Donald Trump, for example—I keep going back to this guy—had a page about law enforcement where he said, “We will support families, but we do not support looters.” So I spend a lot of the intro of the book sort of calling out the racialized history of the word “looting,” and the language that has always been used to denigrate racialized people—Black, indigenous, colonized people rising up.
That’s undeniable, but you are chiding people for making assumptions about looters. Aren’t you making an assumption that these people are revolutionaries who are carrying out some political, ideological act? How do you know that when you see private property destroyed or taken?
I don’t think those 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.”
That’s definitely why many people are in the streets. But most activist groups say they want no part of looting, and so I’m wondering how we know that the people who are choosing to take property are part of the same political movement. I’m sure some of them are, but how do you make that assumption?
I think that the question is sort of backwards, because there is no movement without these moments of rioting and looting and property destruction. They reappear, and they fight side by side with people, and there have been studies from the nineteen-sixties that showed that folks who participated in rioting and looting were in fact people who are very politically active and connected to their community.
Many political movements have used methods that are not always democratic at times, from Nelson Mandela on. But I read an interview with you where you said, “In the case of riots, as looting is usually done by people who live in the neighborhoods where it occurs, distinctions are often made between businesses that gentrify or oppress, and those that don’t. Liquor stores, pawn shops, pharmacies, and gentro-cafes tend to be hit much more readily than the quaint ‘small business’ the phrase is designed to evoke.” Lots of these places could be “small businesses,” and I wouldn’t want to make a claim that young men going into liquor stores are doing it because they view these things as having an oppressive or gentrifying character. I don’t know who owns the businesses of a lot of places in my neighborhood. I think a lot of people don’t. Are you over-interpreting these actions as having some political character?
I think there’s also a liberatory political character to people just getting what they want for free.
To people in a movement 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.
You write, “Though the buildings destroyed may be located in a predominantly Black or proletarian neighborhood, the losses go to the white, bourgeois building and business owners, rarely the people who live near them.” There have been lots of stories from Atlanta, from Minneapolis, from Seattle, about small-business owners, often non-white small-business owners, who are very unhappy with the things that have gone on, and I’m not sure that taking things from them makes any sort of point.
People know who they’re attacking in their neighborhoods. A lot of the people who are rioting or looting in a neighborhood have worked for those small businesses. They have shopped in those small businesses. They have been followed around by security in those small businesses. Personally, I’ve had a tremendous number of service jobs, and I’ve never been treated worse than I was at two family-owned businesses that I’ve worked with.
It seems like we’re slipping up on whether these businesses are perfect, which I’m sure they’re not, and whether it’s O.K. to take their property, which would seem like different things, right?
I guess what I’m saying is that small businesses also oppress the community in a similar way that large businesses do, often more directly. That form of oppression is real, and then when people riot and loot, they’re striking back against that form of oppression.
You also said in that interview, “I believe we should trust those who loot and riot to understand their targets and their actions: to have analyzed the social world they live in, and therefore to trust them when they select the targets of their rage and resistance—especially when that rage is applied to property. No amount of lost business is worth a lost life.” It seems like you are describing them as somewhat political figures who are making extremely clear calculations. Is that wrong?
I’m describing their actions as politically legible and understandable, and I am describing them as people who know what they’re doing, yeah.
I thought you were slightly disputing that earlier.
Oh, no, no.
You also say, “I think riots and militant violent action in general get slandered as being macho and bro-y, and lots of our male comrades like to project that sort of image. That definitely happens, but I actually think riots are incredibly femme. Riots are really emotive, an emotional way of expressing yourself. It is about pleasure and social reproduction. You care for one another by getting rid of the thing that makes that impossible, which is the police and property. You attack the thing that makes caring impossible in order to have things for free, to share pleasure on the street.” Can you explain a little more what you mean?
So it’s not always my favorite mode of doing feminist analysis to describe things as feminine or masculine. I think there are tremendous limits to that mode. I think, in this instance, one of the ways that people tend to think about militant action is being very macho and male chauvinist. And I think that that slander is dangerous, because it is very necessary that our movements not be male chauvinist and be anti-patriarchal and feminist at their core. But I think that we have a tendency to immediately equate those things with masculinity. It’s part of the way that the idea of nonviolence versus violence works, right? I don’t think looting is a particularly violent action. It’s mass shoplifting. It’s violent against property and against the bottom lines of the store owners, but it’s not hurting, it’s not physical violence.
If you’re taking from a store owner who needs to pay her daughter’s hospital bills or whatever it is, that could have an effect on someone’s health. This seems to be a type of connection that people on the left often want to make, no?
Sure, but there’s no really clean or easy way to struggle without ever hurting anyone. I was reading a piece in the Times a while back, which I just looked up again before this interview, and there’s a scene there where an immigrant from Iraq named Hussein Aloshani is “waving his arms,” as the Times says, “in frustration.” Looters are near his store and he’s saying that he doesn’t have any insurance for it. I’m wondering, when you read things like that, what is your emotional response?
Can I ask you, did he in fact get looted, or were they just near his store?
I don’t know what ended up happening.
Like I said, in Minneapolis, there was a community bookstore, for example, that was amid the row of all the corporations that we saw get hit in that neighborhood. And that bookstore went untouched. You see it often in neighborhoods—in the sixties, people would put up signs that said “Black-owned.” You see it again now, people putting up “Black Lives Matter” signs in their store, but often in those instances, that store owner might have been able to tell them that and might have been able to communicate with them, so they’re just people who are acting, you know? But I don’t know. I don’t know what happened to him.
In any case, I feel empathy for this man who’s terrified of losing everything, obviously. I feel anger at the way in which capitalism in America has often organized its society such that you have immigrant groups who end up working as store owners and small-business people in largely Black communities. It’s an old pattern. It’s easier for them to get loans and business startups. You saw that in 1992, where there were so many Korean immigrants, and in Watts in 1965, there were a lot of Jewish immigrants and Jews who were store owners there. So it’s a pattern that is established to produce these racial hierarchies that often has real, disastrous human consequences, and it’s tragic to me. But also I think you see a lot of what we saw in New York or even in Chicago two weeks ago, where looters specifically go down to fancy downtown. They attack the Magnificent Mile in downtown or through SoHo in New York. I think there is a lot of that as well.
Right, but those places also have people working for them who may not be of great means. I was curious if it changed your calculation if the looters were of a higher economic status than the people they were looting.
I find that very hard to imagine. Looting is a very, very risky and dangerous endeavor that one can only take very rarely, and I find it very hard to imagine that anyone participating in looting is more well off than the store owners.
We saw some property destruction in Brooklyn and elsewhere, where I would not be surprised at all if the people who were rioting or looting were of more means than the people whose stores they were looting. But it feels like you’re getting close to saying you’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelette.
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.
And on the small-business-owner thing, I think if we can think of property as the evil that we saw slavery as, which was very clearly a horrifying regime built on incredible violence, obviously. We all accept that. Most of us do, in this day and age. And the idea of a small slaveholder being ruined by a fugitive running away because he only enslaved two people, right? That’s possible.
Sorry, are you comparing small-business owners to small slaveholders?
I am saying that the naturalization of those systems, the naturalization of slavery and the way that property works was built on a violence that is very similar to the way that property is naturalized now. So the naturalization of property now is built on an unimaginably violent prison system, imperialist war, anti-Blackness to its core, and a murderous police, and now we have to start seeing property as part of those systems of oppression very, very directly.
Yeah, so to go back to the omelette and eggs, it just seems like when you see any private property as akin to slavery, you’re basically saying anything goes because slavery is really bad and you need force to destroy it.
No, I am not saying . . . Well, yeah. Let me think about that. I don’t think anything goes. I don’t think that attacks on property should be understood as going too far, and I think that we do actually have to overthrow the system of property and of capitalism and of the state. You have to do it in order to save the planet from ecocide, in order to serve the people in this community who are at constant threat of violence from the police. The police need to be abolished. Property needs to be abolished.
Do you feel the same way about Black people’s private property?
What do you mean?
Black people own small businesses. Black people own goods. They participate in the same system. Are their goods and businesses part of the problem or the solution?
I don’t think that’s a solution. We had a Black president, and these questions didn’t shift. I don’t think there’s some amount of Black private property or Black middle-class size that could be gained that would mean freedom from anti-Black oppression, and I think there will always, as you said, there will be limits, and there will always be fewer paths to that sort of wealth for Black folks. The Black middle class goes back to the colonial days. There were Black middle-class people in the North already. Not that many of them, and they weren’t understood as Black yet in many instances, but they were there. The question is not of the right people acquiring enough property and becoming middle class, and then we get freedom. That will never work.
The reductio ad absurdum here seems like me—a white guy with a good job who’s been very fortunate in his life—as part of this revolution, looting a Black-owned store, and I’m trying to figure out whether you think that would be wrong, if I was doing it in the service of bringing down capitalism.
For me, hypotheticals like that are pretty unproductive. I think that if you find yourself moved to be part of the movement and moved to be in the street with people and to be fighting side by side, you will decide for yourself and in communication with them and as part of that movement and that community.
How much does political backlash worry you? I think that a lot of people thought that the protests that happened around George Floyd would be politically catastrophic for the left, and it doesn’t seem like that’s been the case, which shows the problems with being overly cautious. But most people do not believe in abolishing private property, and a lot of people will take what you are saying as very extreme. I don’t have poll numbers about looting on me right now, but I think we would both acknowledge that if you ask people whether they approve or disapprove of looting, there would be a vast, vast, vast majority of people of every race in this country who would oppose it.
In terms of polling, there was a poll that came out days after the first police precinct was burned down in Minneapolis that showed that it was polling at fifty-four per cent, so it was fifty-four-per-cent popularity for burning down a police station. It was polling better than Biden and way better than Trump. A lot of people don’t think they would like something until they see it, because they can’t imagine the way that it would come about. Just to clarify that poll number, I’ve got it here from Monmouth, in early June. The question was not about the police station burning down specifically, but about the actions of protesters generally. Seventeen per cent of people said they were fully justified, thirty-seven per cent said partially, thirty-eight per cent said not at all. I don’t think that that’s asking whether it is O.K. to burn down a police station.
You’ve mentioned Trump a couple times, and you do say in the book that “mass media is the enemy of liberation.” Do you have any concern about referring to media as the enemy, given the way he’s tried to frame the media?
I think that the way he talks to and treats the media is reprehensible. I think it’s also a strategically advantageous terrain for him to argue on, because it allows a standard trope among many journalists and writers, of which I’m partially one, to defend themselves and see themselves as a noble Fourth Estate, and when Trump is attacking that, of course that’s part of his creeping Fascist authoritarian breakdown on society, and it should be opposed. But also the media will generally tend to support the ruling class’s central arguments.
Should I throw in a link to your book in the intro, or do you want to encourage people to go take it for free from their local bookstore?
You can include a link if you like. No problem. People should support their local bookstores. If they go to bookshop.org
, they’ll support local bookstores that way. I just want people to read it. That’s what I want people to know. I want them to read it, however they get it.
Race, Policing, and Black Lives Matter Protests
is a staff writer at The New Yorker, where he is the principal contributor to Q. & A., a series of interviews with public figures in politics, media, books, business, technology, and more.
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