In Defense of Looting: An Interview with Vicky Osterweil

Shane Burley

“But why does it have all those pictures all over it?” I said asked first time my friend showed me her Louis Vuitton purse. “It’s so everyone knows it was expensive, of course,” she laughed. She had saved up for six months to buy the bag used for $400. Brand new, it cost five times that.

To call Louis Vuitton a status symbol is to state the obvious: its entire format is designed to telegraph wealth. People know it by the iconic “LV” logos that cover the surface of its bags, accessories, and upholstery, indicating that money was spent. Louis Vuitton is a character of its own in music and pop art, bragged about in rap songs, carried by reality stars. There’s a cultural consensus about what it means. It is aspirational, a sign of attainment—that one has made it. As my Mom would say when giving permission to indulge, “It’s okay to have nice things sometimes.” She was never able to afford Louis Vuitton.

That thought crossed my mind on May 29th as I watched a rough chunk of concrete pass over my right shoulder and shatter the window of the Louis Vuitton store in downtown Portland, Oregon. Earlier, a thousand-plus protesters had assembled to hold a vigil in honor of George Floyd, who was murdered by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The vigil erupted into a march and, as in Minneapolis and other cities around the country, protesters took to property destruction amidst the rage.

They marched to the Justice Center, which houses the central police precinct, courts, and a county jail. Several protesters broke windows, stormed inside, threw computer monitors, and set the offices on fire. Once the police pushed back the crowds with tear gas and “flashbangs,” grenades that emit blinding light and echo like a cannon, protesters moved over to the Pioneer Place mall. Unlike many of the struggling malls in the suburban areas outside of Portland, Pioneer Place is known for its high-priced stores. I tried to go back-to-school shopping there once, but I couldn’t afford $400 for “raw denim.” Protesters broke out windows and, after ripping open the doors to the closed building, looted Louis Vuitton for bags, belts, and bandanas. Across the street, the same thing happened to the Apple Store, where some of the transparent glass that encased the giant silver box was smashed—a community’s anger directed at another glistening symbol of wealth and status.

Right-wing media hucksters, liberal activists, and Donald Trump have a few things in common: they often pay lip service to supporting “peaceful protests,” yet use any looting as an immediate excuse for condemnation. There are a range of allegations: some insist that looting is the work of white nationalist agent provocateurs; others that unnamed “white anarchists” are causing trouble. The claim is simple: the good people would be protesting placidly and effectively if not for the agitators who are not of the community and who are taking advantage of the protest’s energies for their own ends.

This allegation is, with few exceptions, without evidence. The arrests that happen are almost all “in state,” meaning that it’s the people who live in these communities who are taking part in everything from burning down police stations to looting Target. The composition of the protests have generally matched the cities in which they emerged. In Portland, however, which is over 75% white, the protests were much more diverse, further undermining this narrative.

The second piece to this is that much of the illegal action, the looting in particular, is condemned as a self-serving act that is dislocated from the politics of the protest. When people were photographed running out of a Target in Minneapolis holding flat screen TVs, they were decried on social media as opportunists, people using a crisis for their material gain. This line goes back decades, to the way that white commentators dehumanized the people trying to survive after Hurricane Katrina or during the community uprising in South Central Los Angeles after the police who beat Rodney King were set free. Looting, and rioting in general, are considered outside the political sphere, acts that are about individualized needs and desires rather than about collective action. These actions are called hedonistic, nihilistic, selfish, criminal, thuggish, and, in particular, counter to liberal democratic values.

Over the past few months, a genuine uprising has taken place at a scale not seen since the urban revolts of the 1960s and 1970s. In places like Detroit, Watts, Newark, and other cities around the U.S., there were aggressive rebellions against the militarized police occupation of Black communities. The media coverage, ranging from liberal talking heads on corporate outlets to right-wing media performers, have portrayed the current uprising as a novelty. Whether unaware of or intentionally ignoring the historical precedents, they identify the cause of such rebellions through an “outside agitator” narrative.

This places the catalysts for rioting outside the agency of these communities, onto a malicious force infecting otherwise “good” neighborhoods of citizens. Sometimes, as in the pervasive antisemitic right-wing belief that George Soros is funding legions of antifa militants, they claim only a cabal of elites could be responsible. This is the result of a toxic blend of racism and amnesia: They forget or ignore what was at the heart of the Civil Rights movements and the ongoing struggles against the racial caste system of the U.S. These struggles were not only made up of the march across the Selma Bridge—it was also the broken windows, the aggressive street tactics, the physical altercations, the community self-defense groups, and the militant action to break the spell of peace and complacency that won those changes. It was also the looting.

It was serendipitous, then, that Vicky Osterweil’s long-awaited book In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action was released in this moment. Inspired by a 2014 article she wrote about the Ferguson uprising, it traces the role of settler colonialism, white supremacy, and property in the way that looting and rioting is seen through an ideological lens. Within this, the concept of looting, which takes back power by shifting the context of spaces, material wealth, and community, is re-analyzed in its historical importance. I interviewed Vicky about her book, what looting means in an uprising like we’re experiencing, and why her defense has caused such a panic.

♦♦♦

Shane Burley: I was looking at some of your recent interviews and the really frightened response that people have had, places like The Atlantic or Newsweek. Why do you think people are responding this way? These people seem really freaked out.

Vicky Osterweil: A lot of people are afraid. I think the way that liberals manage these moments, both ideologically and politically, is historically to just say, “No one condones the rioting. No one likes it. It’s bad, and it’s not done by real people. It’s monstrous. But, it points to a real problem.” Like it’s a symptom, or a weather pattern or something. That it’s a storm. Christina Sharp is really helpful here, she talks about anti-Blackness being like the weather. These anti-police riots, these uprisings are like tornados or hurricanes that no one can be happy about, but they point to real problems.

I think what is really terrifying for those people is when people say, “No, these are just people consciously and actively fighting back against the system that wants to destroy them in the name of liberation.” And the idea that someone is genuinely, and with their chest, saying, “I think that what they are doing makes sense tactically and it has a long history of being a part of liberation movements.” People get terrified by that.

The other thing is that a lot of people really, really don’t want to talk about private property. It is a third rail for them. That includes a lot of the leftists that got angry at me in the last few weeks. When you start talking about attacking property, people, sometimes because of their class position who can’t imagine a world without private property, will just freak out. This is incredibly satisfying in a certain way because in the first pages of my book, it says, “Looting is the least popular thing.” And the last chapter of my book is about how looting has become a perfect colorblind dog whistle. So the thesis of the book has really been proven by the reaction people have had.

SB: I was thinking about this nonviolence dogma, but it’s almost more than that. There is this well known history of nonviolence that eclipses all other action, like the other form of action has been erased from our narrative of history. Like this belief that the Civil Rights Movement was principally nonviolent start to finish. And I don’t think it is disingenuous, I think people don’t remember or maybe never knew. Why do you think this characterization continues?

VO: I think it’s actually been a very conscious process of retelling of that history and historicizing. When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated he was one of the most unpopular people in America. And after his death there was a week of rioting, sort of like we saw with George Floyd’s death, just massive uprings called the “Holy Week Riots.” People really don’t talk about the Holy Week Riots, it got within a few blocks of the White House, it was sort of a proto-revolutionary uprising happening everywhere all at once. If you ask people about the riots of the ’60s, people may know about Newark or Detroit or Watts, but they don’t know about the biggest week of riots.

After that riot there was a massive campaign of trying to recuperate Martin Luther King and trying to change his image. One of the ways they fought back against that movement is by trying to say the thing they loved about Martin Luther King was his nonviolence (especially his period of 1955-63, where he was really advocating nonviolence). There have been decades of a lot of different attempts to tell this history and narrative of both the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement as positive things that improved American liberalism and were just part of the progress of history, both inevitable and good. In order to tell that narrative, you have to cut out the part where it was actually an attack on the system and failed to truly revolutionize the society.

Part of what the book really is and part of what has helped me in doing the research was realizing how much controlling the narrative of history really blocks our ability to imagine a new world. Part of what blew my mind is that the oldest police force was from the mid-18th century, and most are from the mid-19th century. Prisons really are just from the 1820s. We think of them as these eternal things. The way history is taught, or the way it is specifically erased, really affects our ability to imagine a different world.

So there are a lot of people who are leftist who imagine nonviolence as the only real strategy. People talk about the late ’60s and the Black Power movement as a militant mistake that wasn’t really popular and wasn’t really very massive compared to the more noble earlier nonviolent strategy. If you look at polls from the 1960s during the nonviolence movement, white liberals were still saying activists were moving too fast. The lunch counter sit-ins weren’t very popular at the time. But then as we moved into a period of escalating riots and formations like the Black Panthers and RAM, you had all of these organizations getting more militant, that caused the liberals to flip the script and were saying, “Oh I wish it was nonviolent, that’s when it was good, that’s when it was making real achievements.”

SB: You talk about this accusation, which is leveled often by the left, but that looters are essentially engaged in consumerism. As opposed to the supposedly proper strategy of being an aesthetic or something. The idea that people were doing something pleasurable or walked away with material goods used for pleasure, like a fancy handbag, was essentially critiques as if they were doing politics incorrectly. As if it is founded on this idea that only fighting for abstractions, universals, or things that do not benefit someone personally are legitimate. How do you think this narrative, that political action should not be pleasurable or self-interested, have disconnected direct action from people’s lived experiences?

VO: In some ways a lot of what happened is the habit and ideas for over the past forty years has been on the non-profit model of community organizing around one topic. This idea is that you push and push and push and make small local gains, and that is how progress is made. In order for something to be political in this model it has to engage directly with power in a way that asks something of power, state and capital. For something to be political it has to communicate with the power you are fighting.

But what I think is beautiful about rioting and looting is that it actually communicates only to other people in the struggle. It is not interested in talking to the bosses, talking to power. You don’t worry about what people think because you are directly enjoying your life. And you’re enjoying it, having fun in these shopping districts where we usually either work miserable jobs for low wages or we see things we can never have even though we are told we want them. Looting is flipping the script on a social space, making a space somewhere where we can all imagine together and be free in a certain way (in limited confines such as the duration of a riot).

It scares people because it is a peek into a totally different world. Even people who claim to want that often want it in a certain particular orderly way. And the people who want it in a particular way will be outed by looting and rioting. They will reveal that they want change to happen in the way they had imagined rather than the people who are fighting for the change immediately on the ground. When police and politicians enter a riot zone, and this is true in Baltimore in 2015 as Watts in the ’60s, they are terrified by how happy everyone is. They think it should be this really dour, miserable thing, but actually it is a dour and miserable world 364 days of the year. But on riot day, suddenly it is a very different space. And I think it scares even leftists who imagine that things have to happen in a particularly politicized and orderly way to be meaningful.

SB: There also seems to be these expectations that every single particular action should be a perfectly strategic, rational decision according to some outside logic. There are always questions as to why this particular neighborhood was chosen by riotous protests. So a process that is emotive and spontaneous now has to answer for not following some type of politically strategic roadmap.

VO: One of the things that has been incredible about this uprising, other than in Minneapolis and Kenosha where the rioting was particularly intense, people all over the country have really hit fancy downtown neighborhoods. Magnificent Mile in Chicago. Soho in New York. That downtown mall in Portland. Here in Philly they hit Chestnut Street and Walnut Street. A lot of these fancy commercial districts have been gone after. So even that argument, that people are hitting the wrong neighborhood, doesn’t hold that much water, but people still try to make it. People seem to expect people to yell “George Floyd” while they are doing something for it to be seen as properly political, and that is precisely this idea that it has to be political in a certain way to be legitimate. Part of my apprehension about my whole book is that part of what I think is powerful about rioting as a form of action is precisely that it evades these definitions of the “political.” And so by trying to explain and politicize it I worry that I threaten to just bring it into the box of “genuine political militancy,” which I think is not what I want to do and not why I make these arguments.

A lot of people on the left, especially people with big platforms (not just the center left, but the left in general), are people who genuinely know things need to be better, but on some level deeply disdain, or hold contempt for, poor people and Black people. So one of the ways that this comes out is by disowning action as “nonpolitical.” Disavowing stuff that isn’t in line with their abstractions of what a “real movement” should look like. But if you ask them what a “real movement” looks like, they will often say “oh, we support looting food or baby formula, but we wouldn’t support looting Louis Vuitton.” So, you support a struggle that keeps the people poor? But people who are struggling don’t want to be poor anymore. They don’t want to not have nice things anymore. For me, the thing that really informs the whole project is to look at the world and to look at the way people are struggling and take them seriously and believe that they know what they are doing. They are fighting in a way that makes sense for them immediately, and I begin from that premise.

SB: It also seems to misunderstand where the fulcrum is in direct action. They think that media sympathy or persuasion of people in power is how the intervention is made, but that mistakes exactly what the action and goals are. It’s as if they can’t understand things as being political unless it just amounts to aggressive lobbying of people in power. Do you think people are just stuck in this symbolic model of organizing?

VO: Yeah, even people who are pro-riot say things like “Riots work.” I think “riots work” is a historically accurate statement, but that’s not even the thing I’m interested in with riots. Riots aren’t powerful because they win demands, they win demands because they’re powerful.

It’s exactly that reversal, where people get really upset with respectability about how you appear in the media. They often will forget how any of this happened in the first place. There are strategic and tactical moments when it can be good to win media coverage. But, for the most part, as a narrative, the media is controlled by capital. That is why it’s so available everywhere, that’s why they make all that money. So this idea that if you just acted right the media would be on your side, is a lie revealed by the last decade of political history.

Occupy, which was never “violent,” rarely got a good moment in the media. But these riot waves starting in 2014, even though they have been much more extreme, have actually forced the conversation about the issues that they’re about more than all the nonviolent protesting that happened. So even if the argument is it just matters what the media conversation is, then riots are more effective.

But that’s not the point of direct action. The point of direct action is not to get people in power to notice you and talk about you. The point is to remove their ability to be the people in power.

SB: People seem uncomfortable with the idea that taking power or holding power is valuable in and of itself, rather than just as a pathway to some specific effect or reform.

VO: If you look at the historical legacy of the riots in Watts, Newark and Detroit, out of all three of those, very, very different movements emerged. Out of Watts you get the Black Panthers and the kind of organizing recognized as Black Power. In Newark you get CFUN (Committee for a Unified Newark), an organization that builds economic and legal power throughout the neighborhood. And in Detroit you get the League of Revolutionary Black Workers and the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), the last really intense burst of militant unionism (and we are going through another one now that is really exciting). So the last union movement that made any real victories also came out of a riot.

What I’m trying to point out by bringing out these separate histories is to show that that experience of that power inversion and direct action inspires people to move further in their thinking. To imagine more. To push harder. To fight differently.

And it doesn’t always result in the same kind of politics, it doesn’t always result in the same kind of movement. But that direct experience of power changes people forever. And we just lived through a summer in which as many people as have experienced this in US history have just experienced it all at once. And it is producing a diversity of movements, which we are already starting to see around the country. In Philly, for example, we have these homeless encampments that have been going on for months. In New York you get this staccato of industry shut down and mini-rioting. In Louisville you have Confederate statues getting hit. In North Dakota you have Indigenous blockades. All over the country, all of these different kinds of movements are blossoming because everyone had that experience of power inversion and direct action. Because I want to see the end of this capitalist, white supremacist world, that experience is so much more important to me than even winning some demands. Demands and concessions help. People live on that stuff, it’s really important. But more important to me is the way in which this action builds so much creativity and possibility in people’s minds and lives and community. And that is revolutionary.

SB: You mentioned the complexity of the press, and it is something that is on my mind a lot, particularly when I am at the protest. You and I are both ostensibly the press. How would you talk to media people or writers who are engaging with the protests and standing in solidarity with the protests, but also have their cameras turned on the demonstrations and play a role in the larger media?

VO: That’s a hard question. For me, I’m a movement member first and a writer second. I have always wanted to be a writer my whole life, I want to be clear. But for me what is most important is people getting free. And I see writing and interviews like this as a way to maybe help push that. To maybe help move that forward. So if people feel that they are media first, then I don’t really know what to tell them because for them what is important is representing the story. A lot of people say “I’m a journalist because I want to speak truth to power and I want to show how things are going.” Okay, but do you want to speak truth to power first, or do you want to be media first? So that’s another question you have to ask yourself. Why are you really out there? What are you doing? To approach it on that level and not think abstractly about your “role.” As a protester, or an organizer, or a revolutionary, or a journalist. Don’t think about yourself in these abstract roles, because when you do that you will stop acting like a person and you will start acting like one of those things.

So I think it is difficult to give hard and fast advice. Because I think there are a lot of moments when you are going to want to record, and it will feel right to you. For the most part I think it is better not to record visually, especially if anything illegal is happening. But I also think sometimes you’re going to want to share experiences. Sometimes you are going to want to put yourself out there and write a book about looting! For me, it’s more about thinking about what you want in the world first. Listen to other people who want that in the world, what are they saying, and really listen to other people. And listen to Black people, and queer peoeple, and Indigenous people on the ground. Pay attention to people around you and take them seriously, and take what you want seriously as well, and make decisions that way.

SB: So we are talking in advance of an upcoming Proud Boy rally, which is coming after a member of the far-right group Patriot Prayer was killed. Obviously people are having anxiety. Not only are there many years of the Proud Boys coming to Portland to fight protesters, but now they are talking about white vigilante Kyle Rittenhouse. On the August 22nd Proud Boy rally, the police stayed several blocks away, refusing to intervene for the first time in several months. So I am thinking about the two types of police violence. There is the violence that they enact, as when they shoot someone. But there is also a second type of violence, the violence they refuse to or are unwilling to intervene in. And when they brutalize protesters and create only a gap for the far-right to engage in violence, it becomes glaringly obvious. So why do the police not intervene on these white vigilantes, or as you mention in the book, “white riots”?

VO: I think it’s very telling that the feds executed Michael Reinoehl for killing a fascist. The state went out of its way to kill an antifascist for doing that.

One of the things that really changed after the Civil Rights Movement is that anti-Black violence in America largely came under the purview of the state. That mostly played out in the prison industrial complex through colorblind drug laws. One of the things that was true of American society up until 1960 was that anti-Black oppression was for most of American history a mix of state and vigilante actors. A mix of volunteers and professionals.

The KKK is the most famous example. In 1919, for example, there’s the “red summer,” there’s this very huge year of white rioting. Veterans come back from World War I, these sort of veterans and “patriot groups,” riot against socialists and Black people in these massive riots. Lynching is obviously very famous at the turn of the century, but it was also a crucial strike against Reconstruction in the South, which was really a social revolution that did not succeed. Everyone should read Black Reconstruction by W.E.B. DuBois. The fact of white supremacy, the way it gets narrativized is, Jim Crow is the sort of middle system between two major interventions, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, and the myth is that they each sort of end this legal form of white supremacy—slavery, then Jim Crow—and then the world is better and the problems are likely solved. But actually, there is no way that settler violence and white supremacy could continue for the four centuries that they have on this continent were it not for a tremendous amount of volunteer work on the part of white settlers.

It has been in the last fifty years that the police have been distinct from vigilante groups, the Proud Boys, or their forebears the KKK or the White Citizens League or the John Birch Society. The separation and the fact that the state has done most of [the racist violence] has been historically novel.

So the return of white fascists in the street killing protesters, killing Black people, executing people rioting in the streets, and getting explicit state support is, I think, shocking to a lot of people, but probably not to a lot of historians of white supremacy in America. Because that is how it operated basically up into the ’60s. And the Civil Rights Movement put a partial stop to it. But obviously there is still George Zimmerman and Dylann Roof, and these vigilantes continue.

I think what we are witnessing, especially in this uprising and with Kyle Rittenhouse, is that the state can’t quite get the genie back in the bottle right now. It can’t actually put down the uprising with its main method, its main simple method. So instead we are seeing this two-pronged attack.

On the one hand, we are seeing the state accuse white supremacists of starting the rioting. This accusation is an interesting, horrifying counterinsurgency tactic because it allows a lot of people who are unsure of how to interact, they are too angry to disavow the rioting entirely, but they have a sort of inclination against direct action. So if you say it is white supremacists rioting it allows them to disavow the rioting without getting rid of the movement. On the other hand, they are also explicitly letting white supremacists know that it is open season on protesters. That combined tactic reveals both a fascist turn in the state, and also the weakening of its ability to control the situation. And it is abnormal for our lifetime, but it is normal for statecraft.

SB: I am just a few miles outside of the zone where the summer wildfires have been here in Oregon. And a lot of people are taking photos of these handmade signs that have been put up that say “looters will be shot.” How has the phrase “looting” been used as an excuse for extrajudicial racialized violence?

VO: Looting is a “colorblind dog whistle.” After Trump took office, he had a page on WhiteHouse.gov called “Standing Up for Law Enforcement” and he had the phrasing “we stand up for families against looters and rioters.” By that point it had been years since any major looting or rioting had happened, and in those situations it was just for a couple of days in Ferguson, Baltimore, and other cities. (That’s not to disrespect the importance of that movement, which was really powerful and gave birth to the movement happening right now.)

But the point is, why is he talking about looters and rioters on WhiteHouse.gov? It doesn’t make any sense, until you understand it is a dog whistle. The most famous example that we have of this rhetoric is after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. When people who were fleeing a hurricane zone, particularly in Algiers Point, a middle-class white neighborhood that had an evacuation point in it. And a white militia formed in Algiers Point and started murdering Black people who were trying to get to the evacuation point. They were saying as much on video, in interviews, “it was hunting season, police told us to kill looters.” It was open season.

One of the core arguments of the book is that the first image of Black looters in America are enslaved people freeing themselves. While the term looting had not entered the popular lexicon at that time, what Black people were doing was, in an organized and often public way, stealing and abolishing white people’s property. The Underground Railroad was a mass direct action movement in this way. Harriet Tubman and John Brown are looters under this understanding, because what they’re doing is attacking and abolishing white property by stealing themselves and supporting other people to steal themselves. If we can recognize that the entire system of property in our history is built on what Simone Brown called “the propertification of race,” when we understand that Blackness is a mark that makes someone property (potentially), and that therefore they can’t actually be killed in this worldview because they aren’t people, they are property in a certain way. Obviously this is very dark, dark shit. So in this system anything is justified in protecting white people’s property from threat by Black people because ultimately, in this white supremacist country, Black people aren’t seen as people. And whiteness is the ability to own property and to kill to defend that property.

In the riots of the 1960s, police and the National Guard had directives that they could shoot looters to kill, but they had to prove that they were looting. No one ever got punished for their executions. This is a very common response to threats on property, to murder someone, because that is ultimately what this system is about. That’s why when police have murdered someone, protesters attacking property makes immediate sense.

SB: Maybe this goes back to the idea of why joyous protests get looked down on, but it actually seems like this protest space feels like more of a community than most community institutions we have. People talked a lot about how the protests grew maybe because people were out of work because of the coronavirus, but I think that misses the fact that people were actually lonely and cut off from others because of the coronavirus and this protest space feels like a community connection. I don’t know my neighbors super well, but I know the people at protests pretty well. I may not ask my neighbors for help, but I would ask people I met in a protest space. Do you think that these kinds of protests are helping to create a climate of community as crisis expands, from COVID to climate change to political fracturing?

VO: One of the things that I found really beautiful about these protests was that as they went on for a month and a half here in Philly, people always brought out food. People really came out for each other in this real material way. People are always thinking about that for each other. The pressure valve that capitalist society usually has, social life like going to bars and restaurants, those take our money and inefficiently and ineffectively fill some of those social voids. Even those haven’t been available to us. Everyone was really having this joyous burst of possibility, and rage and sadness and tragedy that was initiated (not only) by the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. It’s important when we talk about the joy to recognize that what returned us to the street was tragedy as well as possibility, it’s important to keep that in the front of our minds.

But being able to express grief and rage together is something we don’t get. This society is very, very bad at organizing funerals. Very bad at integrating death. It’s really something Americans are not really good at. Death isn’t very efficient. Death itself, the process of grief and mourning, are not very profitable. It makes you feel totally overwhelmed and inefficient and confused and sad. So that is another way that riots offer cohesion is by allowing us to express grief and rage. And to see it in each other and to mirror and to process it. ♦

 

 


Shane Burley is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021). His work has appeared in places such as NBC News, Al Jazeera, The Daily Beast, The Independent, Jacobin, The Baffler, Truthout, Political Research Associates, In These Times, and Full Stop.

Cover photo by Tito Texidor.