The nationwide uprising against racist policing in the wake of George Floyd’s murder is stunning, not least for the amount of property destruction it has entailed. Responses to the vandalism and theft have varied, ranging from condemnations of violence amid peaceful protests, warnings of anarchist agitators, and an emphasis on criminal opportunism amid the chaos. But the mainstream media reaction has been surprisingly tempered in comparison to coverage of the 2014 Ferguson uprising. A story in USA Today suggested that while “people need not condone the riots…they ought to understand them.” Neither The New York Times nor The Washington Post has used the word “riot” in a headline.
While editorials call for peace, love, and the maintenance of order, there has, thus far, been minimal liberal pearl-clutching. There seems to be an understanding that too many lines have been crossed, too many innocent people murdered, too many communities over-policed and otherwise neglected to expect anyone to react “reasonably.” It is a testament to the real power of actual mass movements that the media establishment has felt compelled to cover illegal, expensive, and destructive protests with such care.
But what if property destruction is more than an understandable lapse of judgment and loss of control? What if it is not a frustrated, emotional reaction but a reasonable and articulate expression in itself? The destruction is too widespread to attribute it to a few bad actors, and in some cases—such as the attacks on the CNN headquarter and the widespread vandalism of Confederate monuments—too precise and symbolically potent to be attributed solely to an opportunistic “criminal” element. The fantasy of outside agitators—a perennial feature of politicians’ responses to radical political action—is a means of presenting the real threat posed by mass actions as something foreign to the action itself.
There are a number of reasons the destruction of property should be taken seriously rather than treated as an unfortunate externality or the expression of regrettably unchecked passions. To begin with, pathologizing the act is tantamount to pathologizing the actor: Given the racial dimension of these protests, even apparently sympathetic explanations of theft and destruction risk of implying that people of color are reacting from feelings rather than carrying out reasoned, calculated acts with their own perfectly legitimate political logics. Attacking police stations, for example, makes rational sense. It is not the sudden, spontaneous expression of a disordered and irrational mob but the clear enactment of a political position, the fulfillment in some small but concrete way of the central demand being made by protesters across the country: Police need to be defunded, and some police stations need to disappear.
This moment calls for the left to define violence and nonviolence for itself—to decide what nonviolence means in the face of overwhelming state brutality and structural economic and racial injustice. Failure to do so results in a confusion of terms that has serious ethical and political consequences: Property destruction is not synonymous with the violence that is being protested. The notion that protesters are mistakenly employing violence and thus counterproductively adding to some imagined social sum total of violence is flawed. There is no such thing as undifferentiated net violence whose curve must be flattened.
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People are not objects; broken windows and burnt cars are simply not commensurate with the violence of state-sanctioned murder or the structural violence of poverty that has placed people of color at a disproportionate risk of dying of Covid-19. Plateglass windows don’t bleed. They don’t die and leave loved ones grieving. They don’t contribute to the collective trauma and terror experienced by their communities. They just break, and then, at some point, they are replaced by identical sheets of glass.
Martin Luther King Jr. suggested that looting, rather than being an opportunistic means of acquisition, demonstrated a keen understanding of a political economy organized around repression, exploitation, and disenfranchisement: “Often the Negro does not even want what he takes; he wants the experience of taking.… Alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, he is shocking it by abusing property rights.”
Or the looter might want something. Nothing symbolizes the exclusion, deprivation, and gross class inequality that characterizes our current economic system more perfectly than the luxury stores looted in New York City’s SoHo district before the imposition of the curfew. Given that capitalism largely restricts pleasure to the consumption of goods, we should be able to entertain the idea that this taking of unnecessary things—while not a recognizably political act—is understandable or even a justifiable.
What is incredible—and incredibly revealing—about a wave of protests marked by widespread property destruction is the total impossibility of making capitalism sympathetic. Verizon, Apple, Nike, Macy’s, and the like cannot be reasonably presented as a social good. Many people may have implicitly understood this before these storefronts were smashed up and emptied. But now it is explicit: As corporate behemoths have attempted to assume the role of the victim, a broader segment of the political spectrum than one might have thought possible has had to confront the fact that they don’t really care what happens to a chain store.
Small-business owners are a different and more complicated matter. The image of the “mom and pop” shop conflates property and people—effectively presenting the destruction of property as a direct attack on an individual. Certainly there is a meaningful difference between a neighborhood grocer and a Whole Foods, but the figure of the small business is also one means by which a capitalist ruling class launders itself. This is not to say that small-business owners are not sympathetic and worthy of protection, only that we should be wary of how they are instrumentalized in the service of protecting a wealthy minority.
The capitalist system as it now operates in the United States favors the very giants that it must affect to disavow during times of social upheaval. Small businesses were not given the support they needed by Congress when the economy shut down. People of color have always faced much higher barriers when opening small businesses due to discriminatory lending policies and they will certainly suffer more than white-owned businesses because loans to repair damage and reopen will be harder to come by and carry higher interest rates. Trotting them out as an excuse for repression is cynical at best.
Many small-business owners have refused to be used as a pretext for maligning protesters. Missy O’Reilly, the owner of an East Village karaoke bar, says that the damage to her establishment “sucks” but it is only “only broken glass and stolen booze,” which is “an easy fix compared to what people of color are dealing with in this country.” Another café owner whose storefront had been smashed simply replied, “If this is the price we have to pay for human rights, so be it.” Salih Mothana, a Yemeni immigrant whose store, Express Food Market in the South Side of Chicago, was destroyed amid protests, responded, “I understand why it happened, and it’s OK…. It’s not like I have to blame someone for this. I understand why this happened. If it sends out the message, it doesn’t matter to us.” Zahalea Anderson, the owner of the Urban League of Self-Defense, thinks that property destruction was politically necessary and continues to support the protests in spite of her personal losses. “I think we’ve tried a lot of ways to be heard,” she said. “People riot because they can’t speak it no more. They just have to show you.”
Other small-business owners see the destruction as yet another burden placed on the African American community. Alisha Henderson, the owner of an art store in Long Beach, worries that destruction undermines the movement’s ultimate goals, stating that “it takes a community that values each other to survive.”
The notion that nonviolence is tactically more effective—that it elicits sympathy, whereas property destruction leads to acrimony and waning popular support—has not only been proven wrong over the past week by sheer numbers; it cannot be historically supported. For the police and overtly racist portions of the US population, the difference between nonviolent and (ostensibly) violent protest is of no consequence. Either form of expression by people of color is subject to harassment, legal consequences, bodily harm, and death. None of the people murdered by cops and vigilantes have been engaged in violent acts. No amount of caution and effort to demonstrate nonviolence will ever effectively undermine the deep structure of racialized power that punishes people of color. According to a recent New York Times editorial, a man in South Carolina was arrested after he dropped to one knee in front of a police officer and declared, “All of you are my family.”
Offensive as it is to liberal sensibilities, property destruction may be integral to the success of the current uprising. At the very least, it is what marks it as different from the many other waves of protests against police brutality that have occurred over the past decade. Not because property destruction has any moral or political value in itself, but because it is coercive. It is an actual threat to order and a very real threat to capital. In other words, the ability to cause actual damage is a source of power. And in the context of a mass movement with stated demands, what might otherwise be considered mere vandalism is given an intellectual and political coherence that renders it utterly terrifying. Disavowing property destruction and even theft because of a spurious attachment to a reified notion of nonviolence is a mistake. It is a disavowal of power. It leaves police and politicians in charge of an important aspect of the narrative. And it empties the popular chant “no justice, no peace” of any meaningful content.
Peaceful protests are important, but so is exercising a form of power that constitutes an actual, material incursion into the capitalist sanctum. Instead of thinking about peaceful protest and property destruction as two opposing poles of the movement, we need to acknowledge that they support one another. An inflexible attachment to the type of protest conventionally described as nonviolent—groups gathering in the street and chanting their demands—betrays an outsize faith in a form of democracy that simply doesn’t exist. It implies that if enough people lodge a complaint, politicians will do something because they listen to people and make decisions based on some simple calculus of citizen desire. This is a naive fantasy that has been reinforced by misleading historical narratives about the success of the disciplined nonviolent protests of civil rights activists.
The civil rights movement was not nonviolent, and in fact gives lie to the violent/nonviolent dichotomy. Even the disciplined nonviolence encouraged by some civil rights leaders was actually an invitation to violence, a way of demonstrating the violence of racism to a newspaper-reading public. But not all civil rights activists consistently practiced disciplined nonviolence. By the time President Kennedy announced the drafting of a Civil Rights Bill in 1963, protesters in Birmingham, Ala., had started fighting back. As Charles Cobb Jr. has shown in This Non-Violent Stuff’ll Get You Killed, a strategy of nonviolence was a tough sell in the Southern United States, and “willingness to engage in armed self-defense played an important role in the Southern Freedom Movement, for without it, terrorists would have killed far more people.”
The narrative in which the civil rights movement triumphed because it was nonviolent elides large and significant portions of its actual history. It also obfuscates the utility of a certain form of nonviolence in the maintenance of a racially segregated, capitalist state. By the end of the 1960s, members of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense were reading Frantz Fanon’s theories of revolutionary violence and calling for expropriation and class revolution. The growing appeal within the United States of largely communist anti-colonial and distinctly not nonviolent liberation struggles abroad made “peace research” and the study and promotion of nonviolent resistance into a well-funded area of interest for both the Department of Defense and the CIA.
Property is itself a violent thing. It is created through a combination of state-sponsored expropriation and exploitation and it is defended by various forms of state-sanctioned violence. Given that the object of these protests is the defunding of racist, murderous police departments, we need to remember that large portions of our national wealth was created through the violent expropriation of land from Native Americans that was subsequently made productive and profitable through the forced labor of stolen Africans.
Acts classed as “criminal” have historically provided marginalized people with economic and political power. This is, in part, why they were criminalized to begin with. Income inequality in the United States is the highest it’s been since the Census Bureau began tracking it 50 years ago. In light of the economic deprivation experienced by large portions of the population, the vandalizing of property and the theft of goods could just as easily be framed as the enforcement of a moral economy—the rightful reappropriation of stolen wealth. The historian E.P. Thompson has argued that the periodic bread riots that punctuated a nascent industrial society in Britain were not spontaneous outbursts, but rather a way for people to intervene in and regulate unjust distribution.
Theft and vandalism are not revolutionary acts in and of themselves, but they have the potential to become powerful forms of political expression in the context of an organized mass movement. Refusing to incorporate acts of destruction into the political imaginary of protest deprives these acts of their political power. It deprives the movement of a source of material strength. And, perhaps most importantly, it ignores what many protesters are saying with both bricks and words: that the wealth contained in these looted stores is “slavery money…. So when we take it back or we burn it down, yeah. We’re getting back what’s ours.”