Critics and commentators across the political spectrum have been quick to dismiss Vicky Osterweil’s book In Defense of Looting, which examines the act of looting to uncover the connections between white supremacy, property rights, and police violence. Osterweil argues that looting is not merely a manifestation of collective anger but a demonstration of resistance to a political-economic status quo that has failed most people. She reminds us that uprisings, property damage, and criminal mischief are regularly expunged from the approved history of the Black Freedom Movement, which contained many incidents of sporadic rioting alongside the more respectable examples of nonviolent and civil disobedience. She documents how, in every era of United States history, stealing and destroying private property has been an essential tactic in attacking an economic system reliant on racial domination.
Since Osterweil advocates for looting, detractors have concluded that she must also endorse the destruction of immigrant-owned, minority-owned, and family-owned shops. In Newsweek, one critic mourned “all of those Black- and minority-owned businesses in Minneapolis” that saw “their businesses,” “their dreams,” reduced to ashes. In his review, Matt Taibbi dismissed Osterweil as a “Very Online Person” who “clearly has no idea what it is to work, to spend years squeaking out the shitty little margins of a corner store or a restaurant.” Others called her “terribly condescending,” also assuming she was “privileged enough to not need money.”
In a particularly pugnacious Q&A, the New Yorker’s Isaac Chotiner asked Osterweil if she would still condone looting if “a white guy with a good job who’s been very fortunate in his life” raided “a Black-owned store… in the service of bringing down capitalism.” Osterweil was unmoved by the hypothetical. “Most of the things that happen during looting and rioting are happening in self-defense,” she maintained, claiming that damage done to small-business owners is retaliation for the violence that makes private property possible. “If we can think of property as the evil that we saw slavery as,” she reasoned, would we still feel empathy for “a small slaveholder being ruined by a fugitive running away because he only enslaved two people?” Chotiner was appalled by the comparison, but Osterweil argued that it was not at all absurd to view “property as part of those systems of oppression very, very directly.” It is “built on an unimaginably violent prison system, imperialist war, anti-Blackness to its core, and a murderous police,” she said.
In the interview, Chotiner and Osterweil exemplified two opposing positions we’ve seen clash repeatedly since 2016: those interested in reviving the Black radical tradition of the left and those resolved to pit socialism and antiracism against each other. For the latter, invoking the Black-owned small business is an old rhetorical technique meant to defang Black protests by shaming political action that falls outside the bounds of respectable activity. When the movement challenges the economic order, even progressive liberals can become staunch defenders of the status quo.
Chotiner’s rich white anarchist straw man pilfering Black-owned businesses is meant to expose leftists as hypocrites. The author of the Newsweek op-ed speculated whether Osterweil would attempt to justify her work in a room filled with people of color. If you care so much about racial justice, the argument goes, then why would you endorse destruction of property owned by people of color?
The question assumes that the left’s aim is the racial diversification of the existing system. In trying to call her out, Osterweil’s critics instead demonstrate the thinness of their own politics.
For liberals, meritocracy ranks high in the struggle to end white supremacy. By this logic, when individual people of color seek higher office or become a CEO, they are challenging white supremacy, no matter how they wield the power they’ve gained; likewise, the success of individual people of color as business owners is celebrated as anti-racist by definition. The preoccupation with entrepreneurs of color ignores the bigger picture — the exploitation, coercion, and subjugation of people of color have been instrumental and are inseparable from capitalism’s development.
Diversity is conceived of very differently on the left. Generally speaking, the left doesn’t view race as just an identity. As Asad Haider explains in Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, race is produced by relations of power, and has been a tool used to justify systems of domination like convict leasing, segregation, disenfranchisement, and mass incarceration. Or, in the oft-cited words of scholar Ruth Wilson Gilmore, racism is “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” For leftists, ending racism is therefore a matter of transforming the material relations that make race appear real.
For Osterweil, those material relations date back to American slavery — a point she tried to drive home to Chotiner. “Strong, explicit” racist ideology, according to Osterweil, “does not appear in the historical record in America until the revolutionary period, when the rights of man (and it is indeed man) became the defining philosophy of US politics.” If liberty and property were “inalienable” rights, how could the white slave-owning aristocracy explain the hundreds of thousands of persons dispossessed of all independence and property? Racialization, a long and complicated historical development, helped justify the distinction between slave and master.
Looting is unpopular precisely “because it is often a movement’s most radical tactic.” It assaults certain deeply-ingrained notions in our society, like the right to private property, the state’s monopoly on violence, and the peaceful transfer of goods through markets. Osterweil argues that violating these norms through looting “frightens and disturbs nearly everyone, even some of its participants.” Looters expose the tenuous and artificial nature of property rights and the false equality of the law, revealing them to be “not natural facts, but social constructs benefiting a few at the expense of the many, upheld by ideology, economy, and state violence.” As Osterweil notes, many of the white liberal critics who decry looting also denounce multinational corporations and predatory lenders for wreaking havoc on small communities. But then they are appalled “when rioters take their critique to its actual material conclusion.”
Historically, it wasn’t just rioting and property destruction that struck fear into the hearts of white America — it was also the movement building that came afterward. For Osterweil, the most significant result of many infamous riots was the mass politicization of Black communities that followed the upheaval. She points to the Watts Riots, which inspired Bobby Seale to start the Black Panthers, and the Detroit riots, which led to the formation of the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement (DRUM), a radical Black working-class labor organization. After last year’s Black Lives Matter uprising in New York City, decentralized left-wing groups popped up on social media and organized more demonstrations. Many of these groups did not exist before last summer, while other, more long-standing organizations have been able to use this political moment to grow their numbers and exercise leadership.
As socialism becomes more mainstream and more people of color begin to challenge both the Democratic and Republican parties, liberal pundits and politicians with a stake in the existing system have increasingly responded by depicting socialism and racial justice as at odds with one another. Last July in New York City, where I live and organize, city councilmember Laurie Cumbo frequently denounced the growing influence of the New York chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (NYC-DSA) on local politics. Cumbo, who has accepted substantial donations from the real estate industry, called NYC-DSA a “gentrification movement” with “a super majority of white organizational support” scheming how to “unseat Black leadership.” Not only are these accusations wrong — among other things, they ignore leftists of color — but also, at no point did Cumbo challenge the organization on any substantive political issues. It’s safe to assume that she hides behind allegations of racism to protect the New York Democratic establishment, an establishment that is both hostile to redistributive politics and whose close ties to real estate brought in the very gentrifiers Cumbo now rails against. Socialism, a political idea that challenges centrist Democrats’ power on moral grounds, can be conveniently dismissed by claiming it’s something for white, upper-class men.
Our discourse has been poisoned by attempts to use identity to attack and divide the left instead of as a useful lens that lets us see who is most victimized by capitalism. The idea of the rich white leftist destroying the humble Black-owned business increasingly feels like the stuff of Fox News, which has made a ritual of attempting to terrify Americans with images of burning police cars and black-clad anarchists. Fox does this in pursuit of its well-known political agenda — weakening the left and bolstering the right by trying to discredit any massive multiracial working-class movement.
In Defense of Looting makes a strong case that looting during violent anti-police rebellions is a revolutionary tactic for undermining capitalism’s very foundation. Nowhere does Osterweil argue that all instances of looting bring us closer to liberation, enjoy inherent moral justification, or represent conscious hostility to property rights. Rather, looting allows participants and open-minded observers to recognize the material connections between race, policing, and property, which can help future battles against racism. Looting enables the looter to imagine a struggle against white supremacy that doesn’t center on winning acceptance within the capitalist hierarchy of bosses and workers but instead tries to level it.
Marian Jones is an organizer, educator, and an editor of Lux.
Illustration by Sharanya Durvasula and Chloe Scheffe.