Last week, NPR’s Code Switch published an interview with Vicky Osterweil, the author of In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. NPR summarizes the book as an argument that “looting is a powerful tool to bring about real, lasting change in society.” If the real, lasting change you wish to effect is burning society to cinders and crippling for a generation its ability to serve its poorest citizens, then I suppose I am forced to agree. Osterweil sees an upside. Looting is good, she says, because it exposes a deep truth about the great American confidence game, which is that “without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free.” She came to this conclusion six years ago, and in her book, which is written “in love and solidarity with looters the world over,” she defends this view as ably as anyone could.
Osterweil’s argument is simple. The “so-called” United States was founded in “cisheteropatriarchal racial capitalist” violence. That violence produced our current system, particularly its property relations, and looting is a remedy for that sickness. “Looting rejects the legitimacy of ownership rights and property, the moral injunction to work for a living, and the ‘justice’ of law and order,” she writes. Ownership of things—not just people—is “innately, structurally white supremacist.”
The rest of the remedy is more violence, which she celebrates as an underrated engine for social justice. The destruction of businesses is an “experience of pleasure, joy, and freedom,” Osterweil writes. It is also a form of “queer birth.” “Riots are violent, extreme, and femme as fuck,” according to Osterweil. “They rip, tear, burn, and destroy to give birth to a new world.” She reserves her most pungent criticism for advocates of nonviolence, a “bankrupt concept” primarily valuable for enlisting “northern liberals.” Liberal is pejorative in this book. Martin Luther King Jr. is grudgingly acknowledged as a positive figure, but not as positive a figure as he would have been if he had kicked some white-capitalist ass and put a few pigs in the ICU. The “I Have a Dream” speech was, Osterweil writes, “the product of a series of sellouts and silencings, of nonviolent leaders dampening the militancy of the grass roots” and “sapping the movement’s energy.” More to her taste is Robert F. Williams, who practiced armed resistance, and Assata Shakur, who murdered a New Jersey police officer and remains a fugitive in Cuba. The violence needn’t be in self-defense—Shakur’s certainly was not. Osterweil quotes the “wisdom” of Stokely Carmichael: “Responsibility for the use of violence by black men, whether in self-defense or initiated by them [emphasis mine], lies with the white community.”
By now you have guessed that I am not the audience for this book. I have a job, and am therefore invested in building a system where you get paid for your work and pay others for theirs, and then everyone pays taxes to make sure that if these arrangements don’t work out, you can still have a dignified life. (Easily my favorite line in the book was written not by the author but by her publisher, right under the copyright notice: “The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property,” it says. “Thank you for your support of the author’s rights.”) My job sometimes entails traveling to countries recently or currently destroyed by civil unrest, and that experience has made me appreciate the fragility of peace, and has not made me eager to conduct a similar experiment in my own city.
I am also from recent-immigrant stock. Osterweil euphemizes looting as “proletarian shopping,” and no one from a place that has recently experienced this phenomenon can take seriously her assurance that it can happen justly and bloodlessly. When I think of riots and smashed storefronts, I think of Kristallnacht. I think of American businesses built by penniless immigrants who preferred to forfeit their vacations and weekends for 30 years rather than see their children suffer as they did; I think of these businesses ransacked in 30 minutes and left in ruins. Osterweil at least has the psychology right when she says that looting can be “joyous and liberatory.” I have never seen a sullen looter, but I have seen plenty of shop owners crying next to the smoking remains of their children’s future.
Absent from this book is even fleeting recognition that anyone (or nearly everyone) might prefer the current nonrevolutionary arrangement. Osterweil does not say what property-less system of government or anti-government she prefers, but I suspect it is not democracy, a term she uses only sneeringly. Nor is it clear how she intends to move from the past disgraces and present unrest to her goal, whatever it is, other than by rioting and stealing things until morale improves. What do you do when the free stuff runs out, the businesses and ordinary people who invested in your city decide not to make that mistake again, and—oops!—a few shopkeepers get beaten to death? This messy process is the “new world opening up, however briefly, in all its chaotic frenzy,” she writes. To me it sounds like a prequel to The Road.
Osterweil is unable or unwilling to relate to anyone at all with anything resembling a sense of humanity. Comrades and enemies alike are described without compassion, emotional detail, or distinction as people endowed with feelings or moral complexity. Once cast as a villain, a villain one remains, with no intricacies of the human condition explored under any circumstances. In the NPR interview, Osterweil describes the Los Angeles convenience store where Latasha Harlins was shot to death in 1991 as the location of “white-supremacist violence.” That shooting, which came two weeks after the beating of Rodney King and contributed to riots that killed 63 people, was perpetrated by the store owner, a female Korean immigrant—an irony that surely deserves probing. But Osterweil’s great class war has only two sides, so a working-class Korean woman is effortlessly enlisted on the side of the white-supremacist cisheteropatriarchs. Osterweil quotes a communist magazine: “Just as Jews were in 1965, Koreans in 1992 were ‘on the front-line of the confrontation between capital and the residents of central LA—they are the face of capital for these communities.’” As explanations of communal violence go, this is contemptibly inane.
Her conviction that her opponents deserve violence would be easier to abide if it were not obvious that nearly everyone counts as an opponent. Up against the wall are members of the media; “liberal commentators, de-escalators, nonprofiteers, right-wing trolls, vigilantes, and, of course, the police”; clergy who physically intercede between cops and protesters; and Nation of Islam members whose crime was to “broker a peace between gang leaders” and “chase looters” from neighborhood stores. You are not safe, at least not forever, even if you yourself are a victim of racism or capitalism. Perhaps you think that Dr. King’s speeches were more inspiring because he did not deliver them with a rifle in his hand, like Saddam Hussein. People like you are not part of the real civil-rights movement. “They must allow the real movement to change them,” Osterweil writes, “or they can only live to see themselves become its enemy.”
Happily I see very few people sharing Osterweil’s NPR interview approvingly, and nearly everyone consuming it in that joyous and liberatory mode known as “hate reading.” I haven’t yet encountered anyone who has read the actual book, which combines tedium and indecency in ways I had not previously contemplated. America is, after all, the country that nominated Joe Biden, who said that looters and rioters “make a mockery” of Black Lives Matter and “should be tried, arrested, and put in jail.” The consensus, especially among Donald Trump supporters, seems to be that NPR must be beyond salvage if it uncritically distributes sophomoric agitprop. (A sample question: “A lot of people who consider themselves radical or progressive criticize looting. Why is this so common?” I might have led with: “What do you think will do more for your community—a store that employs six people, or in that same location, a pile of bricks and broken glass?”)
Instead of writing off NPR or Code Switch, I prefer to think of them as coming very close to doing excellent journalism—and indeed I am jealous that I did not think of conducting this interview first. Since looting became widely reported in this season of protest over police violence, the reaction has split among those who do not support the protests or the looting, those who support the protests but denounce the looting, and those who support the protests and consider the looting a condign response to systemic injustice. Osterweil is enthusiastically in the last category and has given voice to a view that has heretofore been only gestured at. Good journalists find such voices and interrogate them roughly and fairly. The roughly part could, in the case of the NPR interview, have used a little work.
In a funny reversal of the normal polarities of “cancel culture,” conservatives might object to NPR’s decision to give Osterweil a platform at all, given that her defense of looting is a call to criminal behavior likely, even if not intended, to cause death and impoverishment. Should NPR also interview Nazis? Yes, actually—if the year is 1933, and most Americans don’t know what Nazis believe. Osterweil is not a Nazi (I have even sweeter compliments for her where that came from), but she has taken up a position that others espouse implicitly. A full exploration of that position is exactly what we need, and Code Switch found its best defender. If Osterweil’s defense is a bad one, she has now given other pro-looters a chance to reply to it and say why. If they do not, we can assume that they agree with Osterweil, and her argument is the pinnacle of looting apologia. A week ago, you could have said that looting might not be so bad, and I might have wondered what you meant by that. Now I will ask you if your reasons are the same as Osterweil’s, and I will make fun of you if you say yes. This is progress. For that, thank Code Switch.
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