from Athabasca University tutor, Dr. Leigh Brownhill.
Who’s looting who?
The police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, on May 25, 2020, has sparked an unprecedented outpouring of protests, vigils, marches, and demonstrations in every state of the United States, in Canada, and across the world. Millions of peaceful protesters are standing up against police brutality and systemic anti-Black racism. The police shooting of EMT Breonna Taylor in her own Kentucky home in March, and the stalking and murder of jogger Ahmaud Arbery in his own Georgia neighborhood in February are just two of the many horrific instances characterizing the epidemic of racist violence in the United States.
To the extent that cases of rioting, looting, and destruction of property have taken place during these historic weeks of protest, many politicians, police, and media outlets have been fast to frame this as “violence” and focus on it as if looting were the main event. Some business leaders, media executives, and public officials have been swifter and more determined to protect and defend buildings than they have been to protect and defend the lives of Black people.
But while the FBI and special investigators have been unable to uncover any left-wing conspiracy to organize chaos, they have uncovered agents provocateurs and white supremacists intentionally escalating tensions by carrying and firing weapons at protests and instigating many of the instances of rioting and looting (Stanley-Becker, 2020). Such vigilantism is calculated to promote nefarious ends, including eroding public sympathy with the protesters and provoking more domineering responses from the police.
It is entirely disingenuous to make a false equivalency between systemic racist violence and sporadic looting during protests against that violence. A true equivalency is almost unthinkable: a true equivalency would involve protesters’ return of fire — not burning buildings but shooting bullets — and taking up the use of deadly force against other human beings. A true equivalency would be an outright war. It would involve social movements ditching their long-established tactics of non-violent civil disobedience and instead taking up arms. A true equivalency would not see social movements on the streets, but instead armed militias who, with or without recourse to constitutional protections, used the same force against police as has been used against the public. This is not what we are seeing. This is not what social movements do.
One of the results of this false equivalency is the attempt to silence discussion and debate about the claims and demands of the aggrieved. Another is to cast the protests as the problem, rather than systemic racism. Martin Luther King Jr. famously argued that looting is the “language of the unheard.” Looting is, besides an expression of outrage, an attempt to bring public attention to injustices that are otherwise being ignored or that disappear after a few days in the news cycle.
“One of the results of this false equivalency is the attempt to silence discussion and debate about the claims and demands of the aggrieved. Another is to cast the protests as the problem, rather than systemic racism.”
“A wholesome and unifying demand”
Some victims of the looting are much more understanding. Owners of a Minneapolis restaurant that was burned down on day three of the protests over the murder of George Floyd came out publically in support of the protesters. “We can bring back the building. We can’t bring back George Floyd,” restaurant owner Hafsa Islam said (CBC). Lenny Lanteigne, the manager of Steve’s Music Store in Montreal, where looters wrecked and robbed the shop on May 31st, says “if … it keeps one person from getting hurt in the future,” it was all worth it.
Without any questions whatsoever, it’s a noble demonstration and it’s clearly far overdue…. I’m not saying ‘Hey, come over here and do this next week,’ but you know, let’s kind of put it into perspective. They’re guitars, not human lives. (Ross, 2020)
More consequential still is the support given to protesters by retired U.S. Marine Corps General James Mattis, who connected the ongoing protests with the defense of democracy itself, and deeply criticized Donald Trump for his divisive rhetoric and dangerous escalation of the situation:
The words “Equal Justice Under Law” are carved in the pediment of the United States Supreme Court. This is precisely what protesters are rightly demanding. It is a wholesome and unifying demand—one that all of us should be able to get behind. We must not be distracted by a small number of lawbreakers. The protests are defined by tens of thousands of people of conscience who are insisting that we live up to our values—our values as people and our values as a nation.
… We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose. And it starts by guaranteeing that all of us are equal before the law.
Instructions given by the military departments to our troops before the Normandy invasion reminded soldiers that “The Nazi slogan for destroying us…was ‘Divide and Conquer.’ Our American answer is ‘In Union there is Strength.” We must summon that unity to surmount this crisis—confident that we are better than our politics (statement reproduced in whole in The Atlantic, see Goldberg 2020).
In the same way that police brutality is an attack on the sanctity of life, looting is an attack on the sanctity of private property. Looting during protests against systemic violence is a way of saying that life is more important than property. But looting is not, and has never been, the main tactic of any protesters anywhere. Rather, it is a cry for justice and a measure of people’s rejection of the regularity and brutality of police desecration of the sanctity of the more important of the two: human life.
Leigh Brownhill is a scholar focused on social movements and popular struggles for decolonization, ‘recommoning,’ and economic, social, and ecological justice. At Athabasca University, she teaches two online courses: SOCI 378/CMNS 385, Rebel with a Cause: Social Movements in History and Popular Culture, and SOCI 450, Environmental Sociology.