May 28th had the atmosphere of Halloween night. Small bands worked their way up and down Sixth Avenue going from store to store like trick-or-treaters. Drive-by looters would pull up to the curb, dart in and then reemerge minutes later with their goodie bags stuffed with whatever they could salvage.
I didn’t do it myself. I didn’t cheer them on. I didn’t judge them. I just saw it happen. A system of public order that seemed ruthless and immovable was suddenly exposed, weak, and paralyzed.
Trash cans set aflame lit the night like bonfires. The rage and heavy politics of the earlier protests had evaporated into a carnival-like atmosphere. Kids from Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx strolled about with their cousins, siblings, and neighbors laughing, screaming, recording and posting. A brick was hurled into Urban Outfitters and dozens swarmed through the shattered glass. People began to rip the plywood off the boarded-up entrance to Macy’s. The boards fell. The glass shattered. A crazed frenzy gushed in.
The brave and inspiring leaders of Black Lives Matter had earlier pleaded with them not to do this. And yet, each night, somewhere between 9 PM and midnight, the forces of entropy overtook the focused energies of BLM activism, and there was just no holding back.
The next morning my aunt called me and demanded that I delete a Facebook post she thought was glorifying the destruction. She thought it would get me arrested.
“I mean, don’t get me wrong – that video of George Floyd being murdered made me sick. I couldn’t even watch the whole thing!” she began. “But this is no way to honor him. Two wrongs don’t make a right. What would MLK say about all this?”
Her reaction is typical of her generation. My reaction is typical of mine:
Why does Karen have time to worry about CVS and Target in all this? What strange contortion of human emotion has her empathizing with insurance companies in a time of immense human suffering?
I have seen countless liberal commentators in the media contextualize the looting as an understandable culmination of the rage and indignation caused by police brutality and systemic racism. I would wager that most people who buy into this explanation have never witnessed it in person.
Yes, the daytime protests were certainly full of rage and indignation, but New York’s festive nights of looting tended to be jovial, adolescent, and overwhelmingly apolitical. This was your boyhood Lord of the Flies variety of anarchy. To the extent there was rage, it was when intoxicated teenage looters fought each other like rabid dogs over pairs of Adidas and Nikes.
Looters, by definition, are opportunists. They emerge from the woodwork at moments of chaos, disaster, or confusion. They were broadcasted from New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and New York during the 2003 blackout. They weren’t looting for BLM: they were looting BLM.
Whatever motivated the looters, the alarm and economic pressure they generated unintentionally propelled the BLM Movement forward over the past few weeks in much the same way property damage propelled the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1968 following the assassination of Dr.King. Police have been investigated, fired and arrested in record speed. Some police forces have been disbanded while others have seen budgets slashed. Systemic reform is in the air across the country.
Through all this, we reach some sober conclusions. Apparently, the public only reacts to images. The statistics surrounding police brutality didn’t change the day George Floyd was murdered, but it took one clear unambiguous video with all the attributes necessary to ride social media algorithms to virality before the average American could finally say, Maybe this police brutality thing they’ve been talking about all these years actually has real substance to it.
Then, images of property destruction proliferated bolstering a counter-narrative of black criminality, a story that was made to compete with Black Lives Matter for attention. That a sizable portion of the country focused on this second narrative over the first one is not surprising given our country’s mismatched priorities and enduring tradition of casting African-Americans in the worst possible light.
What is more revealing, though, is that the threat of property destruction spurred democratic mayors, governors, and legislatures who purportedly empathize with the protesters’ demands into appropriate and timely action in a way that ongoing state violence rarely has. The writing on the wall is clear: property over life itself.
The timing of these events allows for a curious juxtaposition: A few weeks earlier our country was faced with its biggest disaster in recent memory. Goldman Sachs, Well Fargo, CitiGroup, and countless other corporations sprung forward to loot American coffers at a time of acute national vulnerability. President Donald Trump collaborated by swiftly firing the inspector general charged with stopping such abuse. Where was my aunt’s howl of disapproval when corporations looted $500 billion in American taxpayer money?
Karen’s future earnings and her ten-year-old son’s future earnings were looted without her noticing or objecting. There were no flames or broken glass. There were no dramatic images to broadcast across CNN or Fox News.
We will look back upon the era of Covid-19 as a time of rampant looting. I hope we will remember how our executive branch, finding the public distracted by pandemic and protest, decided it was time to roll back fuel-efficiency standards for automakers and to axe environmental safeguards that kept heavy metals out of our drinking water. Apparently, the man in highest office saw this moment of dual disasters as an opportunity to pillage our two most fundamental public resources: our air and water.
I hope we will remember that Gilead, a drug manufacturer, decided to charge American taxpayers $3,120 per course of a pre-existing drug that taxpayer-funded research demonstrated was an effective treatment for COVID-19 and which cost Gilead less than $10 per course to manufacture. Yes, price-gouging is a form of looting.
These are only two examples in a long American tradition of neo-liberal pillaging during times of crisis. Recall how General Motors, Halliburton, and other military contractors swooped into the aftermath of the worst terrorist attack in US history to turn a huge profit out of the resulting whirlwind of outrage and confusion. Lockhead Martin and Exxon Mobil joined their tireless lobbying efforts to propel the nation into costly wars that would enrich their shareholders. Were there a video of Chevron emerging from the charred rubble of Iraq with lucrative, ill-gotten contracts, would it have commanded the white glare as much as the besieged Target in Houston? Trillions in taxpayer dollars later, dare we call them looters?
I’m not saying I admire the 12-year-old I watched hammer through the glass panes of an Italian bistro in Tribeca. I’m not saying the teenagers I saw pry their way into the Zara on 5th Avenue are blameless. It’s true that some small minority-owned businesses in Minneapolis and other cities may never recover. What I am saying is that we don’t have our priorities straight, and our racially-tinged selective outrage in this episode casts a long shadow of doubt over a country that has accepted decades of pillaging and assault from above.
Many of us have taken the current racial reckoning as a ray of hope in today’s political hellscape because it represents something in desperately short supply in recent decades: focus. For the first time since the 1960s, a broad cross-section of American society has managed to focus on a systemic issue where business-as-usual has repeatedly failed. We watched the scales swing toward distraction as the president pushed for a military response, but when he was shot down and rebuked, focus prevailed.
The months to come will see many more distractions new and old. China. Iran. ISIS. Migrant caravans. Whatever the storyteller in the oval office can conjure up to divert attention from the successive levels of misery this country endures under his mismanagement. The American working class is under siege now from above and has been for decades. We have a stark choice: focus or fall further.