In the wake of the extrajudicial killing of George Floyd by white police officer Derek Chauvin, rioting erupted across Minneapolis. Protesters sacked a police station, broke into a Target, and wittily transformed an AutoZone into an "Autonomous Zone." Escalating confrontations with agents of the law culminated in the use of rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse the crowds. The local National Guard has now been activated to put a stop to the escalating violence.
The commentariat is largely united in arguing that looting cannot bring true justice for Floyd, drawing a false equivalency between his murder and the violence that followed in a way that obscures the larger sociopolitical context. It's worthwhile to explore why some actors are described as looters while others are not. What makes one person a vandal and another a respectable member of an unjust society?
This image of the Stele of Naram-Sin from the Louvre Museum's website portrays an ancient Akkadian lugal crushing his enemies. Naram-Sin's register is placed above three registers depicting his soldiers and his downtrodden foes. It is an apt visual metaphor for the ways in which contemporary society treats its most vulnerable members: the victors write the history; the vanquished are written out like the nameless soldiers. While the image was intended to glorify Naram-Sin for propagandistic purposes, it can be interpreted as emblematic of a unified system of oppressive accumulation that runs as deep as civilization's Mesopotamian roots.
The Stele of Naram-Sin sits in the Louvre, a museum filled with artifacts looted from across the world during Europe's zenith in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The Louvre, the British Museum, the Smithsonian, and other Western museums would sit mostly empty were it not for the tireless efforts of imperialists to rob colonized peoples of their material heritage. Nevertheless, the existence of cultural institutions predicated on large-scale theft is considered by some to be one of the greatest achievements of modern European civilization. Consequently, the condemnation of the riots in Minneapolis by those who occupy the commanding heights of America's imperial economy is nothing if not hypocritical. The Minneapolis rioters, with their egalitarian ethos, invert the twisted logic of imperial expropriation.
Moreover, it cannot be forgotten that the United States itself was founded upon the systematic theft of vast tracts of indigenous territory. Over the course of four centuries, Anglo-American settlers decimated countless native tribes, desecrating their holy places and despoiling their land. Native people remain subject to merciless persecution by agents of the state and suffer disproportionately from poverty, disease, and sexual violence. Looting on such a vast scale ceases to qualify as such, evidently.
During the coronavirus pandemic, the world's billionaires have become over $400 billion richer while millions struggle with unpaid utility bills and can't make rent. The desperate pleas of the latter are ignored by those in power as Congress passes stimulus package after stimulus package to line the pockets of the moneyed donor class.
Seen through this prism, the rioting in Minneapolis becomes more than just a limited response to a state-sanctioned atrocity. It is also, in part, a retaliation against the looting of vast amounts of capital by the billionaire elite. By occupying a department store, the 'looters' made a profound political and economic statement by shattering the illusion of monolithic prosperity depicted in advertising. By forcing the agents of the state to abandon a police station, they won a tactical victory against a juridical-carceral complex that disproportionately targets racial minorities and the mentally ill in the interest of defending the property of the (predominantly white) elite.
(From the Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/live/2020/may/28/coronavirus-us-live-trump-executive-order-twitter-death-toll-latest-updates) Protesters gesture in front of the burning Precinct 3 Police Station in Minneapolis, MN.
From my vantage point, it seems that the capitalists are finally getting a taste of their own medicine, and it's no surprise that they're far from thrilled by the experience.