Still with me?
I know I need to keep writing, if only for my own sake.
What we’ve seen in the actions that have followed the death of George Floyd are three kinds of participants:
- Protesters – People who genuinely care and want to be part of the solution.
- Rioters – People who are just angry in general, and/or want to just tear down society as we know it.
- Looters – People looking to get stuff while there’s an opening, even if they have to make the opening through glass.
I’m good with the protesters – provided they follow up with ACTION. And I won’t waste energy on the rioters.
But focus with me on your reactions to looters.
What was your immediate reaction when you saw videos of the looting? Honestly.
When I first saw TV footage of the Villa clothing store being looted, I was instantaneously brought back to July 1964 – the “riots” in Rochester – or as I now understand it, the “rebellion” or “uprising” in Rochester. I remember TV footage of burning buildings, police cars overturned, etc. And I know my reaction was “What’s wrong with these people? Why are they so angry and destructive?” I was 20 years old, but those reactions had been deeply ingrained in me already, the heritage of the white echo chamber in which I was raised.
Our reactions reveal so much about our social programming. I don’t mean the thoughts that occur, or the ideas we have about what’s happening. I mean the instinctive, internal tweaks that spark before we even realize we’re impacted. Neuroscientists tell us that these instinctive reactions:
- Are virtually impervious to being removed
- Occur within three-tenths of a second of the stimulus being encountered.
And so when I saw the TV footage this time – 56 years and a lot of “race work” later, that was still the first reaction!! “What’s wrong with them?”
The difference is that at least now I can catch that impulse and recognize it for the judgmental, racist reaction it is.
Still, I struggle with the looting. So I listened to those who understand much better than I do, to consult different perspectives:
- Of course, there were Black leaders who spoke out forcefully against the looting, among them Mayor Lovely Warren and Rev. Lewis Stewart. Their appeal was to recognize that the looting did not in any way honor the life/death of George Floyd. There was a plea for the looters to return the merchandise. They were issuing a “corrective” to their community.
- Myra Brown had a similar plea, but with a twist: recognizing how risky it would be for looters to return the merchandise directly, she offered to have people return it to her, and she would take it from there.
- A Black female leader in Rochester who lives near the Villa store confronted a couple of the looters, admonishing them that she didn’t feel the looters understood the ethos of “Black Lives Matter.” She received a black eye for that rebuke. Still, when I spoke with her, she was quick to connect their actions with the desperation they’re facing every day.
- Ashley Gantt of NYCivil Liberties Union was one of the Black Lives Matter organizers of the original, peaceful protest. When she was interviewed on TV directly across from the looted Villa store, Berkeley Brean of WHEC-TV gave her every opportunity to put distance between the looting and the peaceful protest she and Iman Abid had organized. Instead she insisted that the root cause of each was the same, that the looting was a different way of registering the same outcry for justice. At first I thought she missed an opportunity to turn the focus back to the peaceful protest (my first reaction), but then I realized that she had refused to throw the looters under the bus!!
- Jerome Underwood, President of Action for a Better Community, gave another perspective on the looting, citing an African proverb: “When a village does not embrace a child, he will burn down that village in order to feel its warmth.”
- While intentions were announced to find and prosecute the looters, I heard another Black woman utter, “We need to find them and start with a hug!” She was recognizing that their actions were born of desperation, the sense that the “village” was robbing them of a decent education, a safe neighborhood, looting their very future. And so looting mere property seemed like justified revenge.
- Another Black elder said, “What’s the destruction of property compared to the destruction of their very lives?”
- And another: “They were going after what they should have been able to afford, the things we dangle in front of them all the time. They were going after their stuff! In fact, when they break into pawn shops, that’s actually what they’re doing!!”
I’m also thinking about “Les Miserables.” Jean Valjean is the hero. He had been imprisoned for stealing bread to feed his family. The entire play is an ode to this ex-convict. I wonder how that story would play out if he were a Black man in present-day America?
Our country was founded after violent protest, a war led by people willing to kill, desperate for respect, for freedom, for justice. Ok, but we’re white. Is there any significant difference between the Boston Tea Party and the looting of that Villa store? Were those unjust taxes the British were levying a heavier burden than the slavery, discrimination and killing experienced by Black people?
Reactions are just that. I try to notice them, but give them little agency in my thinking, because I know I have a corrupt hard drive. I find myself turning to those who know best what is actually happening here.
And now, hear another perspective on looting from someone who knows. Pay careful attention to your reactions:
“How Can We Win?” 6-minute video.