For many Americans watching the country erupt in protests, the looting is the rub. Over the past week, thousands of people have taken to the streets in cities across the United States to denounce institutional racism and police violence after a Minneapolis man named George Floyd died when a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. But the breaking of windows, burning of property, and stealing of goods that have accompanied peaceful demonstrations make some people hesitant to throw their full support behind the protesters.
Police leaders generally agree that only a small percentage of the protesters are looting, but the practice is still undeniably widespread. Sunday night, a group of people cleaned out stores across Lower Manhattan, stuffing shoes and electronics into garbage bags. Earlier, looters destroyed a Minneapolis Target and swept designer jeans out of boutiques in Los Angeles.
Any time large groups of angry people gather spontaneously, property damage is common. Most race scholars argue that unprovoked police violence against both black people and peaceful protesters is the larger societal problem, and no amount of stolen merchandise will ever equal the loss of even a single human life. Still, “the looting that takes place in these situations is usually interpreted as evidence of human depravity,” the sociologists Russell Dynes and E. L. Quarantelli wrote in their seminal study on looting in 1968, another year in which protests resulted in widespread property damage and death. The sentiment in some corners seems to be, If only they would just march peacefully, and not loot, we’d be fine with this.
Relying on a half-century-old study is less than ideal, but necessary: Few sociologists study looting specifically. But interviews with a half-dozen experts on protests and social movements provide some insights into looters’ motivations.
For one thing, looters and peaceful protesters aren’t typically the same people. Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, has studied protests for 20 years, and she says it’s rare for peaceful protesters to start stealing and setting fires at random. People flock to the sites of protests with different motivations, and those who want peace tend to stay peaceful. “I’ve never seen somebody come in who’s peaceful and then it’s like, Hey, they just broke that window over there. I’m going to now start looting,” she told me.
Those in the looting group also have varied motivations. In their 1968 study, Dynes and Quarantelli note that vandalism during protests focuses on objects and buildings that are “symbolic of other values.” For example, people are more likely to attack symbols of authority—such as the CNN building or police cars—than apartment buildings.
In this way, some of the looting is a lashing-out against capitalism, the police, and other forces that are seen as perpetuating racism. “Widespread looting, then, may perhaps be interpreted as a kind of mass protest against our dominant conceptions of property,” Dynes and Quarantelli wrote. It is a “bid for the redistribution of property.”
This is part of what the sociologist Andrea S. Boyles found when she interviewed dozens of people during the Ferguson unrest for her book You Can’t Stop the Revolution. One of her interview subjects saw the looting of a QuikTrip convenience store as retribution for the economic exploitation of black communities. A man she calls “Ted” said he didn’t care about the looting of the store, especially if it had insurance. He had spent money at stores in his community, Ted told her, but when he himself was low on cash, he had no one to turn to. Looting, to him, resulted in only mild suffering for a store owner who did little to alleviate the suffering of the community.
This feeling might be especially pronounced among people who loot stores that don’t tend to serve low-income minority neighborhoods, such as Whole Foods. Boyles says looters tend to be poor, and some see it as a chance to balance the scales, to get the things they normally can’t. These communities face constant deprivation, Boyles told me, “and here they find themselves with an opportunity, be it legitimate or illegitimate, to benefit.” As one looter, Pamela Speaks, told the Miami Herald during the 1992 Los Angeles riots, “I don’t think it’s right, but it gets the frustrations out.”
During the current protests, the opportunist appeal of looting might be exacerbated by the fact that people across the country have been ordered to stay inside for months in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus. The protests might have seemed, to some, like a release valve.
Others, meanwhile, see looting as a form of empowerment—a way to reclaim dignity after decades of abuse at the hands of police and other authorities. “When you have the ability to gain some of that power back, people take the opportunity to do so,” Rashawn Ray, a sociologist at the University of Maryland, told me.
In cases where peaceful protests haven’t created change, protesters might feel that looting and vandalism are the only ways to make their voices heard. “In Baltimore, they’ve been saying for generations how bad the Baltimore Police Department was, but nobody listened,” Lorenzo Boyd, the director of the Center for Advanced Policing at the University of New Haven, told me. “And then Freddie Gray got killed, and nobody listened. And then they started protesting; nobody listened. But as soon as the CVS burned in Baltimore, the whole world watched.”
Some looters, meanwhile, aren’t affiliated with protesters’ causes at all. Instead, they seize the moment to cause chaos and destruction. This might be what’s happening in videos where white people can be seen knocking out windows and ransacking businesses. Though it’s not yet clear to what extent, radical-left and white-nationalist groups are said to have infiltrated some of the protests and to have been instigating some of the mayhem.
It’s not unheard-of for people to travel to different areas to loot, thereby sparing their own neighborhoods. At first, Minnesota Governor Tim Walz floated the idea that most of the protesters arrested in Minneapolis last week were from out of state, a notion soon debunked by a local TV station’s investigation into arrest records. But during the Ferguson unrest in 2014, “a large number” of the people arrested for looting had addresses in Illinois or Texas, The Washington Post reported.
In its recklessness, looting can seem inevitable. But the police, the media, and even protesters can sometimes inadvertently encourage looting.
The actions of police and protesters tend to mirror each other. When police use rubber bullets, flash bombs, and pepper spray on peaceful protesters, protesters are then also spurred to aggression—including, in some cases, inciting fellow protesters to looting.
Boyd says police can try to reduce looting by taking a more “community policing”–style approach to daytime protests, which tend to be peaceful. Instead of intimidating nonviolent protesters, police could try being friendly. “To have a very large police presence with riot gear during the day is antithetical to what you want,” Boyd said. “That’s when you want the police on bicycles and on foot with the protesters.” At night, when vandalism and looting are more likely, police can take a tougher “enforcement” approach, he said.
One way to practice “enforcement” is by cracking down on looters, but not protesters. But while New York police drove their SUVs into protesters over the weekend, they seemed to take a hands-off approach to looters. In Manhattan, police “sat in their cars as looters, often in full view of police, brazenly walked in and out of stores,” The New York Times reported.
Journalists can also sometimes feed into looting by covering it excessively, or by interviewing looters instead of peaceful protesters. In response to this pattern, some protesters will throw something or break a window just to get attention from the media, Ray said.
The style and organization of a protest can also encourage—or discourage—vandalism. Fisher and Ray have found that protests that are preplanned and have coherent leadership tend to result in less vandalism than spontaneous protests that lack a central message. Without a formal structure or norms for behavior, protests can spin out, especially after dark. In fact, one way to prevent looting during a protest is just to call it a “vigil,” a word that connotes quiet and calm. Take the 2017 Women’s March in Washington, D.C., as an example: The demonstration had a set agenda, speakers, and protest path, and was unusually peaceful. Today’s protests are more spontaneous, and the people involved have varying goals. “Some people want the three officers who haven’t been charged to be charged,” Ray said. “Some people want policing to just completely end, on the other end of the spectrum.”
Most of the experts I spoke with agreed that looting is a side effect of protests, which are a side effect of the conditions causing the protests. In this case, the root cause is yet another killing of a black man by a white police officer. To fully eliminate looting, you’d have to eliminate the conditions that make people upset enough to protest.
As Christian Davenport, a political-science professor at the University of Michigan, put it to me, “the best way to prevent looting is to provide individuals with a living wage, provide for their basic needs, treat them with human dignity, and facilitate a life that is about thriving.”