In Defense Of Looting: A Riotous History Of Uncivil Action
By Vicky Osterweil
Bold Type Books 2020
The graffiti appeared across America as the protests about the murder of George Floyd blossomed. Two words, defiant and controversial, exhorting us to action, encapsulating an ethos as simple as a brick through a window:
After a year of Black Lives Matter mobilisation, anti-police riots across the United Snakes and a renaissance of revolt and revolution – better late than never – the timing of this book is perfect.
It’s fitting that the cover features a crowbar – an often misunderstood and much maligned instrument of dissent. Many people assume that smashing windows and crowbarring open doors is a matter of brute force, when in fact the key to this tool is leverage. As in give me a lever big enough and I’ll flip that cop car on its back. It is a matter of physics, an art-form of position and precision, and when appropriately applied in creative destruction, it becomes a slide rule for the mathematics of the underclass.
To use it most effectively, you have to understand it.
In the same manner, Vicky Osterweil’s brilliant and radical In Defense Of Looting: A Riotous History Of Uncivil Action defines the tension between violent tactics and non-violent protest throughout the American civil rights movement from colonial days up to the uprisings of the 90s and 00s. Written as the ashes of the Ferguson riots were still smouldering, it is published at a moment when organisations like Black Lives Matter, Extinction Rebellion, and indeed the entire anti-capitalist Left, have urgent need to know their theory and history in order to clearly reposition the necessity of a diversity of tactics within their strategy.
We all know it’s time to get the fuck up, yet persistent myths about looting and violent disorder as opportunist, criminal and harmful to wider civil rights struggles persist in hanging around like the ghosts of dead cops.
Osterweil unblinkingly skewers the liberal perceptions of rioting, looting back and by association, squatting in the properties of the rich, in an unrelentingly breathless attack on the accepted beliefs of the righteousness of property and ownership. Indeed, she damningly reframes the entire concept of property ownership as innately anti-Black, anti-Indigenous and anti-working class.
I cried at the end of the introduction, then sprinted into my nearest Tesco’s and robbed several sandwiches and a bag of crisps, leading to an almost immediate confrontation with three security guards I challenged as class traitors.
We could draw comparison’s with Howard Zinn’s A People’s History Of The United States or Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore – except that Osterweil’s work is contemporary to the point of prescience considering what has occured this year, and also outstanding in its centring of queer, feminist, Black and working class struggle. As she says, this book is spit in the eyes of reactionaries and those who would claim to be “natural leaders”. Without ever mentioning the word, this book is anarchist as fuck.
In the introduction alone, Osterweil shoots down the common attacks and traditional criticisms of what she terms the “communal cohesion of the act of looting”, an act that has tactical power because it “exists at the nexus of race and class”. Beyond being opportunists and criminals, “those who participate in rioting and looting tend to be the most politically informed and socially engaged in the neighbourhood, while the most apathetic, disconnected and alienated people riot at the lowest rates.”
She explores the racial roots of property, stating that “from it’s very beginning, capitalism was built on the backs and the graves of the enslaved”, yet throughout the history of slavery there has also been a hidden or wilfully obscured people’s history of insurrection, Indigenous escape, raiding and war that has proved a constant threat to profit and stability. As the sacred right of property extended to the ownership of human beings themselves, the earliest police forces emerged as gangs of slave catchers designed to maintain this fundamental basis of capitalist profit production, racialised as a construct under which “whiteness became the meta-property from which all other private property flows and is derived.”
She asks, what happens when “this ultimate commodity, the slave, refuses to be property? … the radical consummation of that refusal would mean at minimum the abolition of the entire system under which things can be commodified. Revolution … and the revolutionary potential of looting.”
Through documenting moments such as the general strike of the slaves that forced Lincoln’s union into declaring their emancipation, through generations of Black struggle to loot themselves back, through histories of maroonage, resistance, rebellion, and a detailing of how the police emerged to “keep things ‘orderly’, [which] meant from its beginning the rich and the white at the top by protecting their property”, Osterweil has given us a manual for liberation. Through exploring the riot as a powerful political tool, the author helps outline how “if we learn to pay attention to the content, tactics, and actions contained within them, we can learn not to dismiss, misunderstand or reject moments of possibility for revolutionary change and start to think and strategize how to move forward to that horizon.”
Get yourself a copy of this book by any means necessary. Of course, bonus points for stealing it. At the same time, grab yourself a crowbar and get ready for the next round of riotous uncivil action. The two go hand in hand.
See you on the streets.