I remember first hearing the phrase, “Shoot the looters to kill” in 1968, with its parent being the then despicable Mayor Daley of Chicago.
I was young, incredibly angry, and very militant. I remember my first thought was okay, but which looters? Shooting people is outrageous, but I wondered does “looters” include corporate heads, real estate moguls, those who invade and plunder? If not, why not? They are mega looters. The only bad looter is a little looter?
I remember my second thought too. Some things stick in the mind, I guess, especially after you set them to paper, as I did then. The second thought stemmed from an essay I had read. The title was “Why don’t hungry people steal?”, or something very close to that.
The point of the essay was why don’t people made hungry by injustice steal? Shouldn’t they?
Some looters are rich and powerful. They perpetually seek still more wealth and power. They steal from those below to rise higher above.
Other people are poor and denied influence. They choose between food and medicine. Sometimes they loot. They do it typically from stores and institutions wealthier by far than themselves – and to get something instead of nothing.
And the article was wondering what psychological and material factors prevented more people who had incredibly strong reasons to do so, from looting in order to better survive, or even to be a little better off, or even just to exert influence, albeit of a constrained sort. I wondered the answer to that too. Yes, I felt, it is partly repressive power waiting to punish those below for any deviation from docility. But I thought, and still think, it is even more so an inclination to be civil even while enduring perpetual incivility.
Consider a seemingly minor but perhaps instructive couple of examples. It is 2 AM. Why pay off-ramp highway tolls if no one is there? Isn’t that just an inclination to civility?
Or, it is a soul-meltingly hot midday. You are walking down the street alone. You see a young child with an ice cream cone. You are parched. Why don’t you approach the child, take the cone, swat him out of the way, and walk on? You don’t do it because you are not a thug. You are civil. You are moral. But Donald Trump and the big looters, they do that all the time. It is their profession. But they do it for big wealth, big power, not an ice cream cone. Their direct victims are only rarely children, but their direct victims are always folks unable to resist.
So then some blue-shirted thug puts his knee down through a life and anger explodes. And in the next instant the blue shirted gatekeepers are outnumbered at the gates of rooms full of otherwise out of reach food or merchandise. More, the moment seems one in which real civility, real attention to morality, is on the side of resistance. It is in the streets. Looting follows.
Little looters. Shoot them? Hate them? Revile them? Use them as an excuse to bolster big-scale looting? Use them to grow forces of repression? Use them to hail big chiefs? All that is disgusting, but it is deemed appropriate in our upside down world.
I get that people – including a whole lot of Black people – wonder, what is the purpose of fires in our neighborhoods? What will be the outcome of running off with some stuff for our collective future? What is gained by looting a small white-owned business, by closing it down, and even Black-owned small businesses? Won’t these tactics hand Trump a tool to escalate repression? Won’t these tactics, even though the sought redistribution of wealth is often warranted, risk undoing the progress we are seeing in communicating the extent of systemic racism and in galvanizing energy to address it by letting the focus shift from vast oppression to littered streets and broken windows? These concerns are legitimate. I think they are actually correct. But at the same time, a hungry person stealing, whether the person is hungry for food or for stuff in a world that measures everything by how much stuff you have – while not acting in the most politically, strategically wise way – is certainly justified and not malignant. The little looter is certainly not worthy of being targeted to kill.
Some get all this. In fact, there are even police who get it, police who are now kneeling to protest. Police who are now conversing with protestors. Police who are now themselves dissenting. Not too many so far, but it is happening. And it is very promising. And how many more would there be if we had the wherewithal to reduce looting to a minimum and escalate instead sit ins blocking government buildings and even police stations?
During the Vietnam war, the on-the-ground U.S. military became largely dysfunctional due to soldiers reached by movements becoming dissident toward their officers. Doesn’t that show a path toward overcoming police repression while not giving police a reason to feel justified repressing?
Perhaps even more surprising, there are media commentators stepping beyond the strictures of their profit-seeking, system-upholding, mind rotted employers, taking about institutional, systemic racism and the need for structural changes. Not all commentators, but some. Mostly they are Black but not only Black. Also promising. And so shouldn’t we press the press and organize the pundits?
We are in the midst of a pandemonium that can go to the right, with Trump using the situation to further militarize police and demonize anyone who stands up to his machinations. That road, whether Trump himself is literally a fascist or Trump is just a pathetic instance of human potential distorted into cosmic self-seeking delusional amoral personal aggrandizement, is, in either case, a road to authoritarian hell.
But this moment’s pandemonium could also go to the left – with activists and just plain citizens discerning new truths and committing to real and serious change. Beyond momentary passion, sustained resistance and positive rebellion. Not change that enshrines elites, but change that de-fangs elites and elevates public participation and power. Change that is not for a moment and then back to business as usual, but change that struggles on and on until business is no longer business. Power to the People.
Which path will society travel? Trump and his, or we and ours?
Who will seek more effectively? Who will seek with more commitment? Who will seek with greater strategic know-how and with aims that resonate better?
Knee to the neck to kill? Or knee to the grass to protest – and then feet to the street to protest, and then minds and bodies into sustained organization and opposition, to win?
That seems to me to be the choice we face. There is no neutrality. Silence is a knee to the neck. Which side are we on?