Alex Wecht ’24
Over the past twelve months, we have seen a massive surge of protests, riots, and looting. The closed economy and strict restrictions on daily life have led to increased poverty, uncertainty, anxiety, and a number of other distasteful ramifications. To make matters worse, a series of police injustices have caused major disgust and outrage across the country. Some people have even turned to looting or other forms of anarchy in an effort to gain attention. Ultra-right-wing fanatics, incited by our former President, even stormed and looted our nation’s Capitol: a spectacle not seen since the British sacked the place in 1812. Ultra-left-wing “Antifa” and similar groups have also taken to our cities’ streets to express their discontent.
Aside from the nauseating, disappointing, un-patriotic storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6, we’ve seen that angry mobs have mostly taken to the streets in cities. The urban crisis that afflicts many of our nation’s cities is haunting, and the recent events of looting have only made it worse.
Redlining has left a sorry legacy, and suburbanization has been far from an unmitigated blessing. In some places, and in varying degrees, cities have been deserted without capital, resulting in a loss of opportunity for many inhabitants with plummeting standards of living. In particular, we have seen that black-majority urban cores have too often suffered from the worst of poverty, crime, inadequate housing, and lack of residential mobility. Among the most inflammatory problems confronting largely minority populations in these urban areas have been instances of police brutality. Together, these and other symptoms and manifestations of the urban crisis have led to growing social and political unrest in urban communities. People are demanding change, and we see this demand in many forms.
As many Americans gained the ability to suburbanize following World War II (and especially beginning in the mid 1950s), those who couldn’t move were locked in place – both financially and socially. The redlining of certain neighborhoods according to race or other disfavored characteristics contributed to declining investments in areas that needed the most investment. Some people left behind in the poorest urban areas came to feel that they were being sucked dry of opportunity as a whole. In recent months, the killing of George Floyd as well as other tumultuous events have aggravated the preexisting crisis, fueling the fire and igniting protests, riots, and looting.
Now into the debate steps Vicky Osterweil (I use Osterweil as an example here as she shares the view of many involved in the looting events). Osterweil’s book, In Defense of Looting, advances the view that looting is actually good. She maintains that looting constitutes a redistribution of wealth from rich to poor. Osterweil sees looting in American cities today as wholly consistent with great revolutionary events such as the Storming of the Bastille and the Boston Tea Party. She bemoans police violence, which she views as endemic to our system, and she argues that the entire structure of government and society in what she labels “the so-called United States of America” is corrupt to its very core. She claims to seek an elimination of private property and even criticizes wage-earning work as evidence of the evils of capitalism. Though she does not mention Karl Marx, it is impossible to ignore the powerful inspiration she draws from the iconic socialist thinker and writer. Osterweil certainly is fervent in her beliefs and her passion, and she lacks any fear in advancing her views.
In Defense of Looting takes concerns over injustice to absurd extremes. Osterweil’s book reads like a lampoon, as if it was written by someone attempting to caricature or satirize a neo-Marxist, uber-extreme, left-of-left viewpoint. Osterweil, who is white and transgender, purports to speak on behalf of black people. She purports to favor free and open looting of property that others have worked hard to earn (“wealth transfer,” she calls it), yet she has copyrighted her book which bears this warning up front: “the scanning, uploading and distribution of this book without permission is a theft of the author’s intellectual property.” Wait, I thought Osterweil was against private property? Well – oh, never mind.
Osterweil defends looting in part on the basis of an assumption that it redistributes wealth from rich white people to poor black people. Facts will not get in her way. She is Robin Hood after all. She ignores the reality that many looters are in fact affluent white people (like herself) as multiple media accounts have documented repeatedly in connection with “Antifa” riots in many American cities. Osterweil completely omits the fact that looting destroys wealth earned by the hard work of working women and men, many of whom are black themselves, or are recent immigrants, or are themselves minorities who have been oppressed here and elsewhere. Then, there is this gem: “Riots are violent, extreme, and femme as fuck.” Apart from the jarring offensiveness and sexism of this rhetoric, what can it possibly mean? Thrown into shock, the reader is simply left to wonder.
The introduction to Osterweil’s book is, truly, the most outrageous gibberish I have ever read. She tells us she is not a “trained historian.” That is surprisingly obvious. What could one expect from a book with a chapter entitled “All Cops Are Bastards?” (This hateful slogan is also Osterweil’s Twitter handle). Perhaps when a “looter” comes to “loot” Osterweil’s residence and steal the computer on which she wrote this book, she will find means of recovering her stolen property that somehow do not require her to seek assistance from the “racist” police or more broadly from the evil “nation-state” and its “fascist” components (all of which she condemns). It would certainly be a great irony if she were to fall victim to the violence that she champions.
Here in the United States of America, we enjoy the right as citizens to participate in elections, to protest, and to speak our opinions due to the all-powerful freedom of speech. No doubt dialogue and learning about urbanization and the ongoing crisis of our cities can benefit from a broad range of scholarly works from thinkers of all manner of political and cultural perspectives. In this enterprise even the vitriolic can sometimes have its place. But Vicky Osterweil’s screed lies well beyond even this wide spectrum. Looting promotes wildly illicit acts and incites the violence and danger that inevitably accompany them. It can hardly be said that looting is “necessary” for any meaningful change to the crisis. Urbanization should be examined closely, in all its grandeur, in all its squalor, and at every other spot on the continuum. Looting points no way forward, it points only down, to a miserable and chaotic hell.
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