BY Haley Mlotek in Books , Opinion | 25 AUG 20

Vicky Osterweil's 'In Defense of Looting' Lights a Match

Revisiting the author’s prescient 'manifesto for a fair fight' - first published as an essay in 2014 - now out as a full-length book

BY Haley Mlotek in Books , Opinion | 25 AUG 20

When Vicky Osterweil published ‘In Defense of Looting’ in The New Inquiry in August 2014, protests against the police murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, Missouri, were entering their second week, and she was seeing a pattern. ‘Zones of Twitter and the left media,’ who were, she wrote then, ‘predominately sympathetic to the protesters began angrily criticizing looters.’ The reasons listed were familiar to Osterweil: they were unfaithful to the cause, they were undermining the rightful protesters, they were stealing the spotlight. To the well-meaning defenders of nonviolence who worried about ‘outside agitators’, she offered her critique, best encapsulated in a single question: ‘If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson be a point of worldwide attention? It’s impossible to know, but all the non-violent protests against police killings across the country that go unreported seem to indicate the answer is no.’

Six years later, everything and nothing has changed. As I wrote this review, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot condemned riots in her city in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis using a script that seemed pulled, beat by beat, from the table of contents in Osterweil’s new book, In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Published on 25 August by Bold Type Books, the text expands on Osterweil’s original essay, and is as much an argument for the possibilities of a riot as it is a reckoning between history as it happens and history as it is read. Books about looting typically detail the action very briefly, and Osterweil’s is no exception; these stories appear scattered throughout, as bright flashes in a long night. Like the illustrations of matches used as a device to denote section breaks throughout the book, Osterweil seeks out those sparks. Her readings of history lend the book its exhilarating quality and make anything seem possible.  

Vicky Osterweil
Vicky Osterweil, ‘In Defense of Looting’, 2020, book cover. Courtesy: Bold Type Books

The act of looting needs to be defended against bad actors who would corrupt its possibilities with the limits of their own imaginations. These include ‘local political, middle-class “leaders”, political groups and reactionary organizations’ as well as ‘peacekeepers and de-escalators’ – anyone who tries to prevent looting in order to keep power for themselves. To those who would ‘co-operate with the politics to derail and destroy uprising to show the white power structure that they are responsible parties,’ Osterweil writes, ‘this book is spit in their eyes’. Although the semantics and sociology of looting take up most of its pages, In Defense is, at heart, a manifesto calling for a fair fight.

Osterweil does not believe that looting is unequivocally good, and she warns that what is effective should not be confused with what is ethical. It is a common mistake to believe that there is inherent morality to organizing, rather than to understand that every act of organizing must be given a moral dimension by the people who practise it. Osterweil defines looting as part of an anti-police uprising as a ‘radical and powerful tactic for getting to the roots of the system the movement fights against. The argument is not that all instances of looting increase freedom, are righteous or politically anti-propertarian.’ When white supremacists riot, she observes, they do so to protect white supremacy; their destruction reifies the idea that all humanity not exactly like theirs is property, and all property is theirs. 

Protests against the police murder of Michael Brown, Jr. in Ferguson, 2014. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Once they are safely in the past, riots are often credited with birthing movements and mass change. The 1969 Stonewall uprising in New York paved the way for LGBTQ+ rights; the storming of the Bastille in Paris in 1789 sparked the French Revolution; and the Boston Tea Party protests of 1773 ultimately led to the American Revolution. These uprisings took decades if not centuries to form, yet their gains are written into history so that they appear inevitable. The memory for revolution in the US is as reverential as it is brief. Once a revolution has been converted into some form of legitimizing practice, like a law or a rule, it is, by definition, no longer radical. Meanwhile, the national faith in institutions that repress radical change, such as police or prisons, remains total.

History is ‘a funny thing’, Osterweil writes in her conclusion, where a footnote explains that she submitted her final manuscript on 29 May, five days after Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin and two days after the riots in Minneapolis began. ‘Having just completed a book on the history of anti-riot policing and uprisings in America,’ she wrote in a 12 June article for The Nation, which serves as a kind of postscript for this edition, ‘I cannot recall another time when protesters took over and burnt a police station to the ground […] For many, it finally broke through the veil of omnipotence, timelessness and domination that kept abolition from seeming possible. Police were returned to the realm of history.’

The interior of the Cub Foods grocery store in Minnesota, 2020. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

As the protests have changed shape over the course of the summer, many calls for police reform have centred on the corrupt ways police unions use collective bargaining to protect officers from suffering any consequences for their actions. ‘From the very beginning,’ Osterweil writes, ‘white [labour] organizers tended to distance themselves from the projects of emancipation and reconstruction […] This refusal of solidarity and alliance constantly enfeebled the labour movement and saw labour “radicals” betray Black people and their struggles again and again.’ To call on organizations such as the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (the largest union federation in the US) to disaffiliate police unions is to address the ways the labour movement still protects white supremacy, and to imagine that things could be different.  

Osterweil’s project is more perennial than prescient. It is not, to paraphrase writer William Gibson’s comment on Fresh Air in 1993, that the future is here and unevenly distributed but, rather, that we are close to a future that is being kept from us. This summer, we have seen what people are willing to do in protest and we have learned what to expect in response to riots, looting and the other ‘uncivil’ actions that Osterweil describes. What would we do if US citizens voted but their ballots were not counted? Or if elected leaders did not do what their constituents demanded? Or if fascists took power and enforced their hateful policies despite all the efforts against them? Or if the police continued to kill without consequence? These are not rhetorical questions; they are descriptions of what has already happened, and what could soon happen. ‘As much as any of us can,’ Osterweil reminds us, ‘rioters and looters know exactly what they’re doing.’ Just as no two fires burn in the same way, but all require the same conditions to ignite, history can only reveal the conditions for a blaze. Osterweil’s book sees those matches as they are: not as exact equivalents to the past, but as accelerants towards the future.

Main Image: Minneapolis, 2020. Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

Haley Mlotek is a writer, editor and organizer. She is co-chair of the Freelance Solidarity Project, a division for freelance digital media workers within the National Writers Union. She is currently working on a book about romance and divorce. She lives in New York, USA.