Book review. In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action. Vicky Osterweil
by Ian Sinclair
Written in the wake of the 2014 protests in Ferguson, Missouri, Vicky Osterweil’s central argument is that looting and rioting are positive actions, which ‘in most instances… transform and build a nascent moment into a movement’. She maintains looting makes ‘day-to-day life easier by changing the price of goods to zero’, redistributes wealth and ‘reinforces bonds of solidarity’, concluding ‘we need to argue for and defend every tactic that might overturn’ white supremacy, capitalism, empire and property. [my emphasis added]
A significant part of the book is devoted to criticising nonviolent struggle which, at one point, she claims ‘is structured around victim blaming and anti-Blackness.’
Centred on the US, there are, to be sure, interesting sections – on the racial roots of property, the slavery origins of the police, and the Black-led resistance to these oppressive historical forces. There is a reliance on secondary sources, which wouldn’t be a problem if all the provocative arguments were referenced adequately. Instead, one can go pages without any citations, rendering assertions like Black riots formed ‘a central part of the [1960s civil rights] movement’s power and effectiveness’ largely meaningless.
I’m often attracted to polemical writing, but Osterweil is maddingly simplistic. One chapter is titled ‘All cops are bastards’. Elsewhere, she claims FDR’s New Deal ‘did nothing more than strangle a revolutionary movement in its cradle’ [my emphasis added], and seems to think pointing out Martin Luther King travelled with an armed entourage fatally undermines the case for nonviolence (there is no reference for this, of course, though a 2016 Associated Press report I found suggests this only applies to King’s early activism in the mid-50s).
Tellingly, Osterweil fails to engage with any of the academic or historical literature highlighting the efficacy of nonviolence, with no mention of the work of Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, researchers in the orbit of the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict, Gene Sharp or George Lakey.
She is also blasé about the fact looting and rioting often leads to people being injured, and sometimes killed – either by state repression or the rioters and looters themselves – and shows little interest in evidence confirming nonviolence engenders more support from the public and media. For example, a June 2020 Reuters/Ipsos poll of Americans about the Black Lives Matter protests found 73% of respondents supported ‘peaceful protest and demonstrations’, but only 22% backed violent protests. A recent peer-reviewed article in the American Political Science Review by Omar Wasow came to similar conclusions, as well as finding violent protest caused a rightward shift amongst voters.
Unserious and incurious, this book won’t change the minds of seasoned peace activists though, worryingly, it might influence those who are in the process of forming their views on protest and political change.
In Defense of Looting: A Riotous History of Uncivil Action is published by Bold Type Books, priced £16.99.