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 Looting Left
I am so gobsmacked by the traction this Vicky Osterweil person has found in elite left and liberal media with her book In Defense of Looting.
You will have heard about the long interview on National Public Radio about it.
I couldn’t find a big enough photo of Osterweil in her Vicky incarnation; the photo above is when he was Willie. Here is Vicky:
It turns out that Isaac Chotiner of the New Yorker spoke to her even before the controversial NPR hit. Excerpts:
Many political movements have used methods that are not always democratic at times, from Nelson Mandela on. But I read an interview with you where you said, “In the case of riots, as looting is usually done by people who live in the neighborhoods where it occurs, distinctions are often made between businesses that gentrify or oppress, and those that don’t. Liquor stores, pawn shops, pharmacies, and gentro-cafes tend to be hit much more readily than the quaint ‘small business’ the phrase is designed to evoke.” Lots of these places could be “small businesses,” and I wouldn’t want to make a claim that young men going into liquor stores are doing it because they view these things as having an oppressive or gentrifying character. I don’t know who owns the businesses of a lot of places in my neighborhood. I think a lot of people don’t. Are you over-interpreting these actions as having some political character?
I think there’s also a liberatory political character to people just getting what they want for free.
To people in a movement getting what they want for free. Rich people get it from the exploitation of people working for them and through their generation of rents and profits, through labor and through ownership of factories and stores. I think that when people loot during a riot, they are solving a lot of the immediate problems that make their lives very, very hard, and they may also take the opportunity to make their lives more pleasurable. Liquor is also really expensive, and it’s often one of the only pleasures people who live in those neighborhoods can actually afford, but it’s still expensive on their terms. And being able to have that stuff for free allows you to have more communal pleasure, pleasures that are totally normal.
You write, “Though the buildings destroyed may be located in a predominantly Black or proletarian neighborhood, the losses go to the white, bourgeois building and business owners, rarely the people who live near them.” There have been lots of stories from Atlanta, from Minneapolis, from Seattle, about small-business owners, often non-white small-business owners, who are very unhappy with the things that have gone on, and I’m not sure that taking things from them makes any sort of point.
People know who they’re attacking in their neighborhoods. A lot of the people who are rioting or looting in a neighborhood have worked for those small businesses. They have shopped in those small businesses. They have been followed around by security in those small businesses. Personally, I’ve had a tremendous number of service jobs, and I’ve never been treated worse than I was at two family-owned businesses that I’ve worked with.
It seems like we’re slipping up on whether these businesses are perfect, which I’m sure they’re not, and whether it’s O.K. to take their property, which would seem like different things, right?
I guess what I’m saying is that small businesses also oppress the community in a similar way that large businesses do, often more directly. That form of oppression is real, and then when people riot and loot, they’re striking back against that form of oppression.
Read it all. I want to make clear that Chotiner’s interview was critical, in the way you expect a journalist to be. What slightly unnerves me, though, is the fact that these prestige liberal journalism outlets are treating the question of whether or not looting is defensible as an appropriate subject for discussion and debate. That seems to me to move the Overton window in a way that is really bad.
SK: One of the main goals of your book, one of many, is to show that looting is a conscious political choice, whether looters are radicals or reactionaries. Why is the looter such an important political figure to reclaim?
VO: They are conscious political actors. And I think they are important because the figure of the looter has emerged somewhat spontaneously through the last, well, we can say 50 years of struggle. I trace the looter back to the Civil War and Reconstruction, and I frame the slave revolts and the general strike of the enslaved as W.E.B. Du Bois does. There’s a Sylvia Wynter quote in the introduction, where she says, and I’m paraphrasing, “It’s necessary that we think through things with these classes of people that are rising up against and resisting the system as it exists.”
That’s what inspires this work: people moving to get free or, indeed, just moving politically in the street—they know what they’re doing. So rather than starting from a theory of what revolutions should look like, and then trying to fit movements into that, post facto, I think it’s very important that we look at the way that people are moving now and did in the past and take it seriously.
A big part of the book is my indebtedness to the rebels in Ferguson, who made this all visible and possible for me. These were thoughts that were already percolating around the UK riots in 2011, but the way in which the rebels in Ferguson combined a certain form of holding space, attacking the things that oppressed them, and of looting and then sharing the goods in order to flourish and to have fun as well, was the basis for all my understanding.
More (nota bene, Osterweil is a male-to-female transgender):
SK: You describe looting as as “femme” and “reproductive,” and throughout the book you highlight women and queer people’s participation in looting and political organization. Why was it important to you to decenter the image of the angry male mob?
VO: The main reason is that it’s true. Riots are largely carnival spaces where people find it easier to reproduce their lives and where people care for one another and are having fun and are expressing grief and rage and exhaustion and all of these feelings. Femme versus masc is hardly a great way to think about the world, but things like social reproduction and emotion are coded as feminine even though they are the way that this struggle happens—through rioting and through looting. A common slander of militant activity in general is that it’s macho, that it’s “bro-y,” that it’s patriarchal. For me, that is a really damaging myth because there’s no way queers and women, and certainly not black queer women and black trans women, are going to get free without being able to have all of these tactics available to them. So it’s both practically slanderous and incorrect, but it’s also untrue.
Read it all. Unlike the New Yorker interview, this one is a puffball one, sympathetic to Osterweil. The Nation, of course, is more to the left than the New Yorker.
The Atlantic is a center-left magazine like the New Yorker. It published this week a powerful pushback against that toxic book. The author of this essay is Graeme Wood. Excerpts:
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.
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.”
Wood goes on to say that NPR’s Code Switch — its super-woke desk covering race — actually did us all a favor by querying Osterweil on the subject. Why? Wood says that Osterweil “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.” Wood says that if this was 1933, then NPR would need to interview Nazis to find out what they believed. In that sense, it is reasonable for them to have interviewed Osterweil, as horrible as her views are.
That’s a defensible position — and one to which I am generally sympathetic. The Chotiner interview is far better, though, because he actually challenges Osterweil. Despite my deep unease about moving the Overton window towards the morality of looting, it is probably for the best that we know that this is how some on the left are thinking. If whether or not looting is morally correct is considered a legitimate topic of discussion and debate among normie liberal journalists, well, this is very important information for conservatives, and decent liberals, to know. You might even call it an ideological broken windows moment .