Among the powerful images generated by two weeks of protests, few are more disturbing than scenes of young Americans smashing storefront windows, rushing through broken glass and stripping businesses to their bare shelves.
Who are these looters? Attorney General William Barr, citing no evidence, blames the pillage on “outside radicals and agitators.” He says, “It appears that violence is planned, organized, and driven by anarchistic and far left extremists, using antifa-like tactics.”
Maybe. But my favorite razor is Occam’s, the philosophical principle that says that the simplest explanation for any question is probably the right one.
So we don’t have to devote much energy to figuring out what’s going on. We don’t have to imagine that antifa or Black Lives Matter or some element of the far left is organizing arson and looting in the service of a radical ideology.
The more likely explanation is that a small percentage of the protestors cannot resist taking advantage of the perceived license provided by the chaos. Somebody breaks a window. Somebody grabs the first thing he sees. The mob takes over. Why shouldn’t I grab the expensive sneakers that I can’t afford? Everybody else is.
Certainly, the looters should not loot. For one thing it provides easy permission for critics to discount the heart of the protest, the racial inequality and police violence that finally crystallized for most of us in the brutal killing of George Floyd.
Besides, looting is illegal and just plain wrong. Nevertheless, context is called for.
It’s not hard to imagine a prototypical looter:
Let’s say he’s a young black kid who grew up in inner-city poverty. His home life isn’t exactly stable. Resources and guidance are scarce. And he didn’t learn much in school.
But he’s not stupid. Before long he figures out that his school does not have the facilities or funds available in most predominantly white schools. He knows, or learns soon enough, that his poverty and instability are strangely related to his blackness. He may begin to understand that his parent or parents aren’t lazy, they’re just black and in our country, black people are still treated very differently.
If this young looter is paying much attention, he’s heard of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Philando Castile, Ahmaud Arbery and Eric Garner. He may not know that, according to the Washington Post, black people are more than twice as likely as whites to be killed by police, but he probably knows that George Floyd wasn’t the first subdued black man to plead “I can’t breathe” before he died.
And what about the law? This young looter knows that he may be sent to prison for the possession of a few ounces of marijuana, but that celebrities — Woody Harrelson, Bill Maher, Willie Nelson — make smoking pot a part of their brand, and they joke about it without consequences.
He might even understand that in many respects the origin story of America is about taking things that belong to other people. In fact, if looting equals stealing without thinking much about the legal consequences, wasn’t our country built on looting from the beginning?
We could think of a lot of examples, from the confiscation of native lands and black labor to the looting of northern Mexico in 1848.
For that matter, what about the 2017 tax cut? It benefitted mostly rich people at the expense of everyone else. Talk about looting! But the rich and powerful have the resources and friends in Congress to make it all perfectly legal.
And then George Floyd dies, confirming what this young black kid was already figuring out: The law does not have the same allegiance to him that society expects him to have to the law. The law represents the status quo, and the status quo isn’t good for him.
Of course, none of this justifies looting; it’s still wrong. But in the circus of the George Floyd protests, looting is an irrelevant sideshow. We should not allow it to distract us from the possibility that Floyd’s death might — at long last — provoke us to make a deep, heartfelt, practical change in how we treat black people in America.