The year 2020 will go down in history for a number of reasons, including a divisive presidential election, a global pandemic, and high levels of unemployment. It will also be remembered for an increase in civil unrest—numerous American cities were the scene of protests, rioting, and looting following the tragic death of George Floyd on May 25. While some protestors have been authentically peaceful, others have resorted to destructive actions such as burning down buildings, vandalizing, and looting and damaging storefronts.
Vicky Osterweil’s book, In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action, was published in August—just three months after the unrest sparked by Floyd’s death began. Osterweil says looting liberates societies from oppressive infrastructures set up by white males—namely, capitalism and the police force—and believes looting is only illegal because it is effective.
Osterweil is wrong. Looting does not liberate society; it jeopardizes liberty.
The Subversion of the Law, Police, Capitalism, and MLK
Osterweil alleges that four aspects of America’s history and social structure have led to an oppressive and racist society. According to Osterweil, change will only occur when these structures are overturned—and one of the essential means of overturning them is looting.
The first aspect is slavery. Osterweil claims Abraham Lincoln did not free the slaves; rather, “The enslaved freed themselves. They did so with an act of mass looting and strike that shook the regime of white supremacist capitalism to its core: they stole themselves…” (p. 39). Osterweil argues that looting was made illegal precisely because African-Americans were the ones doing the looting. In other words, looting was outlawed to ensure white Americans stayed in power. The logical response to this is, what if African-Americans are the ones being looted? Osterweil makes no differentiation between looting minority-owned stores and white-owned stores. In any case, no matter what the ethnicity of the store owners is, the justification or legitimization of the act of looting is always wrong and is always immoral.
The second aspect is police. According to Osterweil, police officers are the new, government-authorized version of the Ku Klux Klan: “The forces doing that everyday work of repression, deferral, and destruction have tended to wear a blue cap or a white hood” (p. 73). Osterweil alleges police officers are not intended to promote justice, uphold the law, or maintain peace in our neighborhoods. Rather, they are intended to oppress minorities and enforce power. Later in the chapter on police, Osterweil makes this all-encompassing statement: “The slave catcher is thus embedded in the DNA of all modern police forces” (p. 82).
Osterweil is convinced that the police were organized and established to reproduce and continue colonialism, slavery, and racism. In other words, there are no real criminals, only those whom the police see as a threat to their regime. What Osterweil neglects to mention is that not all police officers are white males. In fact, 65 percent of police officers are white, which means that when you encounter a police officer, they are only 15 percent more likely to be white than a minority. No matter what ethnicity police officers are, the law is meaningless without enforcement, and without enforcement, communities—white and black—will be enslaved to anarchy and injustice.
The third aspect is capitalism. Osterweil claims that capitalism, like the police force, is only beneficial to the powerful and oppresses the poor and marginalized. Osterweil says that organization is good and “revolutionaries love organization” (p. 123), but capitalism steals the spotlight from rioters and looters by calling them chaotic. In short, Osterweil believes capitalism is too competitive for the poor and marginalized. “[A]s long as they [capitalists] measure their success by their ability to direct, to dictate, to marshal, and to focus, they will never be able to achieve the liberation they seek. They must allow the real movement [looting/rioting] to change them, or they can only live to see themselves become its enemy” (p. 148). However, according to the Hoover Institute, it is clear that over the last three decades, capitalism has not only made the rich richer but the poor as well. For example, the poverty level in the United States fell from 31 percent in the 1940s to only 2 percent by the 1980s. While these number have fluctuated over the years due to various external circumstances, the benefits and freedom of capitalism remain.
The fourth aspect is Americans’ common understanding of the civil rights movement. The chapter entitled “No Such Thing as Nonviolence” argues that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was only verbally against violence and looting. Osterweil says, “Rioting and looting were not the accidental offshoots of the Black Freedom movement, not some ‘opportunistic’ or ‘tragic’ consequence of the civil rights struggle. Instead, they formed a central part of the movement’s power and effectiveness…” (p. 152). Osterweil says violence (looting) is the answer to solve unresolved civil rights issues because it is the one thing that white patriarchal supremacists fear. Beyond the blatant absurdity of thinking that only “whites” fear looting, Dr. King’s words clearly and poetically articulate the moral principles of behaving honorably and peaceably: “Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.” Dr. King not only advocated nonviolence with his words but with his actions. All of the civil protests and demonstrations he led were nonviolent.
Are Emotions More Important than Moral Principles?
Osterweil asserts two conclusions in defense of looting. First, authority, boundaries, and order do not equal freedom or joy. “The experience of pleasure, joy, and freedom in the midst of a riot, an experience we almost never have in these city streets where we are exploited, controlled, and dominated, is a force that transforms rioters, sometimes forever: the experience of such freedom can be unforgettable” (p. 206). Second, Osterweil concludes that you cannot be a victim if you are not black or a minority group; being white equals having power. “White supremacist forces always play the victim to justify their ongoing anti-Black oppression” (p. 207).
Osterweil’s defense of looting is emotionally compelling. There have indeed been corrupt systems and institutions that have preyed on and marginalized the vulnerable. Slavery did exist in America and around the world, racism and segregation were prevalent in our nation, and there have been unjust uses of police force. But should we respond to past or present injustice by perpetrating more injustice?
Osterweil says that capitalism destroys opportunities for minorities and is systematically racist, but this book was only published thanks to capitalism. Unironically, Osterweil also suggests that white men are the oppressors of our nation and inherently universally racist; however, Osterweil identifies as a transgender woman, meaning Vicky—originally Willie—is a biologically white male.
The Christian response to In Defense of Looting should be nuanced but resolute. While it is true that we as a society must continue to denounce actual racism in all its forms and work towards rectifying injustice and pursuing racial reconciliation, we must never abandon biblical principles in order to appease agendas that are centered around identity politics and emotional appeals. Osterweil believes that looting “liberates” societies, and individuals deserve free money, free housing, and free education and should not be oppressed by order, boundaries, or authority. However, Christians must remember that boundaries and limitations are essential to maintaining freedom. Psalm 15:6 reminds us, “The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; surely I have a delightful inheritance.” Scripture has clearly said that, “You shall not steal…you shall not covet your neighbor’s house…or anything that is your neighbors” (Exodus 20:15 and 17).
We are called to find contentment in the blessings that God has given us and not seek to steal or fixate on the blessings given to others. Liberty is not locked away to be looted; rather, it is maintained through responsibility, respect, and building relationships.