What Kind of Society Values Property Over Black Lives?

tags: racism, Police, Rioting, Protest

Robin D. G. Kelley is a professor of American history at U.C.L.A. and the author of Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination.

“Why are they looting?”

It’s asked every time protests against police violence erupt into civil unrest.

We know the answers by now: Poverty, anger, age, rage and a sense of helplessness. For some, it is a form of political violence; for others, destructive opportunism. There appears to be no single motive. That white youth figured prominently among looters during the recent wave of unrest confounds easy explanations.

Often the catalyst is economic — grabbing necessities, stealing goods to sell, snatching luxury items few can afford or retaliating against merchants thought to be exploitative. Looting is theft; it violates the law. But stealing commodities isn’t senseless. Given that we are in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, looting should not surprise anyone.

Let me offer a more productive question instead: What is the effect of obsessing over looting?

It deflects from the core problem that brought people to the streets: The police keep killing us with impunity. Instead, once the burning and looting start, the media often shifts to the futility of “violence” as a legitimate path to justice. Crime becomes the story. Riots, we are told, cause harm by foreclosing constructive solutions. But such rebellions have not only shined a spotlight on American racism; they have also spawned investigations and limited reforms when traditional appeals have failed.


The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the vexed relationship between black people and property. While his phrase that riots are the “language of the unheard” is always trotted out in times like these, he made a more powerful statement in an address to the American Psychological Association about a month after the Detroit rebellion in 1967.

“Alienated from society and knowing that this society cherishes property above people, [the looter] is shocking it by abusing property rights,” he said. The real provocateur of the riots, he argued, was white supremacy. Racism is responsible for the slum conditions that were the breeding grounds of rebellion. He added, “if the violations of law by the white man in the slums over the years were calculated and compared with the lawbreaking of a few days of riots, the hardened criminal would be the white man.”

What to do? Dr. King was unequivocal: full employment and decent housing, paid for by defunding the war in Vietnam.

Read entire article at New York Times

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