By Rya Jetha (PO ’23)
Racism and anti-Blackness have played a long and persistent role in the history of the United States, from its founding to the present. The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery—among countless others—as well as the national movement in response, demand our attention. This article is part of a series that seeks to explore and illuminate issues of racial justice, and in particular, to examine how racism often manifests in law and public policy. We invite you to join us and contribute, and we look forward to learning together.
Within twenty-four hours of George Floyd’s murder, demonstrations were organized in a handful of cities across the United States. That number doubled, then tripled, until 2,000 cities and towns marched not only for George Floyd, but also for Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade. The protests were largely non-violent, multiethnic and multicultural, unfurling in rural, urban, liberal, conservative, majority black, and majority white communities. Protests took place in neighborhoods with median incomes of $20,000 and $220,000, transcending America’s gaping income inequality. Floridians protested as a tornado struck the state. North Carolinians weathered a tropical storm. All while the nation faced a deadly pandemic, mass unemployment, and threats of military intervention from President Trump.
Much of the complexity of the protests, however, was glossed over by the mainstream media. Coverage of the protests devolved into a simplistic ‘law and order’ narrative with the media portraying protestors as the problem rather than systemic racism or police brutality. Despite widespread consensus that protests were predominantly peaceful, The TODAY show tweeted that they were “violent” and Tucker Carlson of Fox News called them “a form of tyranny.” Disproportionate attention was given to sensationalist TV footage of “looters” and “rioters,” while questions about why protests began in the first place were swept under the rug. Instead of grappling with America’s legacy of looting indigenous lands and African labor, the discussion of looting obsessed over ‘looters’ vandalizing Target.
Of course, the damage caused by flash looting of luxury boutiques, department stores, and small businesses was deplorable. There is no justification for the damage caused by flash looters, especially to small businesses with little chance of economic recovery. After the 1992 Los Angeles riots, property damages estimated $1 billion — and that was just one city. With hundreds of millions of insurance claims being filed across the nation, damages are sure to be many billions of dollars. Coverage of the damage, especially crippling to small businesses, undoubtedly deserves media attention. However, the single-minded focus with which media outlets agonized over why people were looting, the answers which are known to be many — helplessness, poverty, rage, and opportunism — signaled a masking of more systemic issues begging to be addressed.
Instead of obsessing over why people were looting Target, the media should’ve been asking why complex civil unrest inevitably gets simplified to a discussion of petty crime using racialized language. Why did the media label sporadic vandalism “looting?” What is the effect of weaponizing the word and stripping it of its historical context? How does labeling episodic violence “looting” deflect from the historical and contemporary looting of Native lands and Black bodies?
The origins of the word lie in the Sanskrit word “lotra,” meaning to “rob” or “plunder.” The word was adopted into Hindi in the form of “lut,” and then to English as “loot,” meaning, according to Stockdale’s Vocabulary (1788), to “plunder” or “pillage.” Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, describes the word “loot” as being a “familiar item in the Anglo-Indian colloquial,” used in reference to the spoils of war pillaged from an enemy. The term was gradually adopted into the English language due to a series of conflicts in the mid 19th century — the Chinese War of 1841, the Crimean War (1854-55), and the Indian Mutiny (1857-8).
The Indian Mutiny, particularly, demonstrates the intimate ties between colonialism and the term “loot.” When Indian soldiers in Meerut mutinied against the British in 1857, prompting a colony-wide rebellion against threats of British paramountcy and fears of Westernization, they were immediately labeled “looters and rapists.” Sounds familiar?
Historian Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar writes that labeling Indians “looters” served to reduce the “natives” to mobs that were “unruly and without reason.” The term “looter” denied Indians a political consciousness, stripping them of the right to take meaningful, rational action against their oppressor. Images of Indian soldiers vandalizing British residences sent shockwaves through Britain, and served as a justification for the British consolidation of power. The Mutiny prompted the abolishment of the East India Company in favor of direct rule by the British government, ushering in an era of heightened state-sponsored looting of the subcontinent. One estimate by renowned economist Utsa Patnaik puts the value of Britain’s material looting of India at $45 trillion. And let’s not forget the looting of Indian bodies — the unknown number of men, women and children massacred at Jallianwala Bagh in 1919, the 3 million people who died in the Bengal famine of 1943 due to Winston Churchill’s “denial policy,” and the 36,000 Indian men who died or went missing in far-off theatres of war during World War Two.
History shows us that looting is intentional and systematic, not petty and sporadic. Both in 1857 and 2020, those propping up systems of oppression — the real looters — ironically called their victims “looters” when their power was challenged. In 1857, the labeling of Indians as “looters” was imperialistic and racist. The same can be said in 2020, as Black people are incarcerated at five times the rate of white people. It doesn’t end with incarceration — Black people are looted everyday through police brutality, redlining, and the denial of quality education and equal job opportunities to Black youth. There’s more — why aren’t we talking about Wall Street profiting off the looting of Black bodies? Between 2008 and 2017, Chicago sold over $700 million in “police brutality bonds” that “quite literally allow banks and wealthy investors to profit from police violence” to Wall Street that collected $1 billion in interest. So, by calling riot-related acts of theft “looting,” we are creating what historian Robin D. G. Kelley describes as “a false equivalence between the state’s relentless use of lethal violence… and the kind of episodic political violence by people who are trying to fight back or… [take] advantage of the crisis… [or who are trying] to get commodities, you know, especially in a context where over 40 million people have applied for unemployment.”
“Words don’t have meaning without context,” Ta Nehisi-Coates said on his We Were Eight Years in Power book tour. A woman other than his wife calling him “honey” would not be acceptable. Him referencing his white friend’s cabin in upstate New York as a “white trash cabin” would be offensive. All words do not belong to everyone, he explains. It’s time we stop using words to perpetuate false equivalences. It’s time the word “loot” stopped being colonized by the oppressor.