Looting and Language: Seeing Right-Side Up Through the Smoke of Burning Cities

Everyone by now has seen commentary on the “looting” that has taken place amidst the smoke in Minneapolis and other cities. It’s true that lots of looting occurs in the United States. The problem is that the word “looting” is being used dog whistle style, mostly by politicians and others to deflect attention away from sanctioned police violence against citizens exercising First Amendment rights to demand justice and to delegitimize the reason citizens have been in the streets for the past week. So what is looting?

Tamika Mallory and Arundhati Roy have flipped the narrative on looting, showing that its meaning and usage have been inverted and normalized over time. Mallory gave a fiery truth-to-power speech saying the:

“American government, institutions, and those people who are in positions of power … are the looters, looting is what you do, we learned it from you…”

Colonialism and slavery indeed have an enduring historical arc that amounts to looting in its most brutal, systemic, and disembodying form.

Since AIRE works for community-owned renewable energy (where ownership, control and benefit are central, and where the public good, not private profit take precedence), what about energy and society in this looting context? How do the fossil fuel industry and the big monopoly utilities loot? The fancy word, “externalities” is a cover to dump the deadly byproducts of their profits. Neither the sky, landscapes, waterways, communities, nor human bodies should be a dumping site for the sake of maximizing profit. The climate emergency is only the most egregious consequence since it implicates the fate of human civilization, a problem that is no longer mere polemics. In another example, the federal treasury by virtue of the massive corporate coronavirus “bailout” was just looted. Finally, big corporate monopoly utilities ring up massive profits each year, pay no taxes and even get tax kickbacks, and pay top executives many millions of dollars every year. Of course these forms of looting are non-stories to corporate media nor are they as “exciting” for their commercial audience as are images of broken glass, smoke and rage in the streets. Instead, this type of looting is a sophisticated sleight of hand performed by politicians, lobbyists, and corporate leaders that is an increasingly shocking, brazen, and dangerous taking of what is not theirs to take. This should not be “normal.”

Arundhati Roy [1], in dialogue on the idea of a global green new deal, recalled a poem that puts the inverted definition of looting succinctly:

“The law locks up the hapless felon that steals the goose from off the commons,
But lets the greater felon loose, who steals the commons from the goose.”

Finally, if the poetics of Arundhati Roy don’t convey just how our systems of power have dressed-up, normalized, and legalized a system of looting that has gone madly out of control, maybe the satirical headline from The Onion will:

Protesters Criticized For Looting Businesses Without Forming Private Equity Firm First

Hopefully, one of the things we’re seeing now with Black Lives Matter is the reclaiming of voices and agency for all the contested issues important to a just and sustainable society. The territory of language is one this movement is taking back. Turns out that looting is simply the taking of what is not one’s to take, usually by some sort of force, deception, or both. Question then is, on an historic and structural scale, who is the greater felon?


[1] At the 43:20 minute mark of the video linked above in the text.

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