It was inevitable. Although many on the left have downplayed looting and violence that sometimes accompanies protests, there have also been some who came close to excusing the violence, if not justifying it. Now comes writer Vicky Osterweil—on National Public Radio (NPR), of all places—touting her new book, In Defense of Looting. The NPR interview link is below, and since the piece dwells a lot on race, I’ll add that Osterweil is white (not capitalized, though she capitalizes “Black” and “Brown”).
First, the book (click on icon to go to Amazon site).
Looting–a crowd of people publicly, openly, and directly seizing goods–is one of the more extreme actions that can take place in the midst of social unrest. Even self-identified radicals distance themselves from looters, fearing that violent tactics reflect badly on the broader movement.But Vicky Osterweil argues that stealing goods and destroying property are direct, pragmatic strategies of wealth redistribution and improving life for the working class–not to mention the brazen messages these methods send to the police and the state. All our beliefs about the innate righteousness of property and ownership, Osterweil explains, are built on the history of anti-Black, anti-Indigenous oppression.From slave revolts to labor strikes to the modern-day movements for climate change, Black lives, and police abolition, Osterweil makes a convincing case for rioting and looting as weapons that bludgeon the status quo while uplifting the poor and marginalized. In Defense of Looting is a history of violent protest sparking social change, a compelling reframing of revolutionary activism, and a practical vision for a dramatically restructured society.
The NPR interview with Osterweil is below; click on screenshot. Note the title of the NPR sub-site as well as its its motto.
Now NPR is about as woke as the New York Times, but I’m still surprised that it would publish something like this. Yes, the piece may foster discussion (in my view, the main benefit of publishing it is to “out” both Osterweil and her minions who think looting is justifiable), but imagine if a right-winger were to publish a book on, say, why it’s good to destroy abortion clinics. You’d never see that on NPR.
Anyway, read and weep, or, as in my case, get angry, for I see Osterweil’s argument as both weak and indefensible. Code Switch is NPR’s “blog on race, ethnicity, and culture.”
First, we should clarify what the author means by “looting”, which she defines as “the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot.” She emphasizes that she’s not defending any expropriation of property by force (I guess she means robbery) or in home invasions. To her, “looting” is something that accompanies protests and riots, and is the (“non forcible”???) taking of stuff from stores, whether they be big department stores or mom-and-pop stores.
She begins her blather by saying that “looting is a highly racialized word” (it comes from a Hindi word that means “goods or spoils”). But what is the point of that? Nobody even knows that, but somehow she has to work the idea of race into her interview as early as possible. Her point is obscure. If “looting” is highly racialized, so is “pajamas.”
Osterweil’s defense of looting is that it is an effective tactic to equalize the distribution of wealth, free the looters from having to work for “bosses” to get stuff (I guess she’s a hard socialist or Marxist), and to demonstrate that the concept of “property” is bogus. But read below. I am not making this up.
Can you talk about rioting as a tactic? What are the reasons people deploy it as a strategy? [JAC: I think the questioner, Natalie Escobar, who throws softballs at Osterweil repeatedly, means “looting” rather than “rioting”, though Osterweil sees looting as a subset of rioting.]
It does a number of important things. It gets people what they need for free immediately, which means that they are capable of living and reproducing their lives without having to rely on jobs or a wage—which, during COVID times, is widely unreliable or, particularly in these communities is often not available, or it comes at great risk. That’s looting’s most basic tactical power as a political mode of action.
It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss, in order to buy things that people just like them somewhere else in the world had to make under the same conditions. It points to the way in which that’s unjust. And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.
This is unbelievable. For without some form of capitalism, you’re not going to get fancy televisions, sneakers, and and booze for free. And really, “working for a boss”? In fact, many of the small stores that were looted in the spate of recent riots were mom and pop stores, in which the owners worked not for a boss but for themselves.
Further, if looting attacks the idea of “property”, does that mean that the looters don’t consider what they take as their property?
Finally, no, you can’t have things for free under any society. How are you going to have televisions and clothing unless somebody makes them and you have to pay for them? What kind of society is she envisioning? Clearly one without police, which would be a disaster, but she’s even more Communist than the Soviet Communists. And without “state oppression”, how are you going to have the kind of communism Osterweil apparently wants.
But wait! There’s more! Looting is also a form of liberation. Note that she also justifies riots here:
Importantly, I think especially when it’s in the context of a Black uprising like the one we’re living through now, it also attacks the history of whiteness and white supremacy. The very basis of property in the U.S. is derived through whiteness and through Black oppression, through the history of slavery and settler domination of the country. Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police. It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected. And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that’s a part of it that doesn’t really get talked about—that riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory.
. . . But the history of the movement for liberation in America is full of looters and rioters. They’ve always been a part of our movement.
. . . Ultimately, what nonviolence ends up meaning is that the activist doesn’t do anything that makes them feel violent. And I think getting free is messier than that. We have to be willing to do things that scare us and that we wouldn’t do in normal, “peaceful” times, because we need to get free.
I’m not sure whether people who lose their stores or their cars or their houses (after all, arson doesn’t count as “violence” in Osterweil’s world) are becoming free, and are experiencing joy and liberation. As for the fact that many businesses that were looted were owned by minorities, well, Osterweil says that “most stores are insured; it’s just hurting insurance companies on some level. It’s just property. It’s not actually hurting any people.”
Think about that. Have you seen news reports of store owners who lost their business, who were livid with rage and shaken with sorrow because they can’t rebuild and can’t make a living for a while even if they do? Those people aren’t hurt? Well, maybe not physically hurt, but their lives are severely damaged. And if looting of a mom and pop store is okay, and liberatory, why is shoplifting not okay by Osterweil’s lights? Shouldn’t that be liberatory as well? It’s just property after all, and you get stuff for free and it doesn’t really hurt anybody.
Finally, Osterweil tries to cover other bases, like “what about small business owners?” Her response is that it’s a right-wing myth that small business owners create jobs and are “part of the community” and, anyway, looters don’t really attack the good businesses in the community—only the ones that participate in “modes of oppression.” She won’t admit that any businesses that have been destroyed and looted didn’t deserve that.
She tries to dispel the idea that the looters are “outside people” who aren’t protesting, and the idea that looting is not an intrinsic part of “the movement.” By claiming these ideas are wrong, she’s actually flying in the face of those on the Left who have previously explained looting, trying to say it was the work of outsiders and wasn’t inherent in the protest. But Osterweil has a bigger fish to fry: she wants Marxism.
Osterweil’s words make me livid, for the woman is totally clueless. What kind of country does she think this would be if looting weren’t a crime, and if there were no police? What kind of country does she envision? Maybe it’s in her book, but I can’t bear to read it. It wouldn’t be good for my health.
Osterweil is a dangerous person because her ideas and her book are dangerous, for they provides a rationale for those who would riot, loot, and destroy property. Fortunately, Americans aren’t buying her argument. And I hope they’re not buying her book. There’s no doubt, though, that Osterweil will become a hero to certain people on the Left. Such people are to be avoided.
The author (from Hachette Books profile):