What counts as looting?

Over the last several days, protesters across the United States have demanded justice for the horrific police killings of George Floyd and countless other African Americans. These uprisings for racial justice have seen more police violence against protesters and sparked a new national dialogue on a question that needs raising: What counts as looting?

We have looting, the standard media take tells us, when people take stuff out of Target. Do we also have looting when the Target CEO takes in $21.6 million in compensation and pays so little attention to safety and employee well-being that Target workers recently had to go on strike?

Or did the satirists at The Onion have it right when they blasted protestors for having the nerve to loot a business without first forming a private equity firm to gather “a group of clandestine investors to purchase it at a severely reduced price and slowly bleed it to death.” Or is looting directing federal corona aid to the nation’s most powerful corporate execs?

Black lives do matter. The looting we should be worried about, the kind that spawns inequality and violence, has gone on for far too long.

Chuck Collins, for the Institute for Policy Studies Inequality.org


 we have to understand that terms like “looting” are an example of the way our media often imperceptibly trains us to think about economics, crime and punishment in specific and skewed ways. 

Working-class people pilfering convenience-store goods is deemed “looting.” By contrast, rich folk and corporations stealing billions of dollars during their class war is considered good and necessary “public policy” — aided and abetted by arsonist politicians in Washington lighting the crime scene on fire to try to cover everything up.

To really understand the deep programming at work here, consider how the word “looting” is almost never used to describe the plundering that has become the routine policy of our government at a grand scale that is far larger than a vandalized Target store.

Indeed, if looting is defined in the dictionary as “to rob especially on a large scale” using corruption, then these are 10 examples of looting that we rarely ever call “looting”:

1. The Fed Bailed Out the Investor Class: “Thanks to this massive government subsidy, large companies like Boeing and Carnival Cruises were able to avoid taking money directly — and sidestep requirements to keep employees on.”

2. Millionaires To Reap 80% of Benefit From Tax Change In Coronavirus Stimulus: “The change — which alters what certain business owners are allowed to deduct from their taxes — will allow some of the nation’s wealthiest to avoid nearly $82 billion of tax liability in 2020.” 

3. Stealth Bailout’ Shovels Millions of Dollars to Oil Companies“A provision of the $2.2 trillion stimulus law gives (companies) more latitude to deduct recent losses… The change wasn’t aimed only at the oil industry. However, its structure uniquely benefits energy companies that were raking in record profits.”

4. The Tax-Break Bonanza Inside the Economic Rescue Package: “As part of the economic rescue package that became law last month, the federal government is giving away $174 billion in temporary tax breaks overwhelmingly to rich individuals and large companies.”

5. Wealthiest Hospitals Got Billions in Bailout for Struggling Health Providers: “Twenty large chains received more than $5 billion in federal grants even while sitting on more than $100 billion in cash.”

6. Airlines Got the Sweetest Coronavirus Bailout Around: “The $50 billion the government is using to prop up the industry is a huge taxpayer gift to shareholders.”

7. Large, Troubled Companies Got Bailout Money in Small-Business Loan Program: “The so-called Paycheck Protection Program was supposed to help prevent small companies from capsizing as the economy sinks into what looks like a severe recession…But dozens of large but lower-profile companies with financial or legal problems have also received large payouts under the program.” 

8. Public Companies Received $1 Billion Meant For Small Businesses: “Recipients include 43 companies with more than 500 workers, the maximum typically allowed by the program. Several other recipients were prosperous enough to pay executives $2 million or more.”

9. Firms That Left U.S. to Cut Taxes Could Qualify for Fed Aid: “Companies that engaged in so-called corporate inversion transactions while maintaining meaningful U.S. operations appear to be eligible for two new programs.”

10. The K Street Bailout: “Lobbyists already got bailed out, in effect, when corporations got bailed out. This is kind of the ultimate in double dipping; corporations are nursed back to health by the sheer force of Federal Reserve commitments, this allows them to keep their lobbying expenses up, and then lobbyists lobby for free money for themselves.”

All of this looting is having a real-world effect: As half a billion people across the globe could be thrown into poverty and as 43 million Americans are projected to lose their health care coverage, CNBC reports that “America’s billionaires saw their fortunes soar by $434 billion during the U.S. lockdown between mid-March and mid-May.” 

Apparently, though, all of that pillaging is not enough. The looting is now getting even more brazen: President Trump is floating a new capital gains tax cut for the investor class, while the New York Times notes that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new proposal “to retroactively lift a limit on state and local tax deductions would largely funnel money to relatively high earners.”  

We don’t call this “looting” because it is being done quietly in nice marbled office buildings in Washington and New York. 

We don’t call this “looting” because the looters wear designer suits and are very polite as they eagerly steal everything not nailed down to the floor.

We don’t call this “looting” but we should — because it is tearing apart our nation’s social fabric, laying waste to our economy and throwing our entire society into chaos.


Op-Ed: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Don’t understand the protests? What you’re seeing is people pushed to the edge

Protesters in Chicago on Saturday


What was your first reaction when you saw the video of the white cop kneeling on George Floyd’s neck while Floyd croaked, “I can’t breathe”?

If you’re white, you probably muttered a horrified, “Oh, my God” while shaking your head at the cruel injustice. If you’re black, you probably leapt to your feet, cursed, maybe threw something (certainly wanted to throw something), while shouting, “Not @#$%! again!” Then you remember the two white vigilantes accused of murdering Ahmaud Arbery as he jogged through their neighborhood in February, and how if it wasn’t for that video emerging a few weeks ago, they would have gotten away with it. And how those Minneapolis cops claimed Floyd was resisting arrest but a store’s video showed he wasn’t. And how the cop on Floyd’s neck wasn’t an enraged redneck stereotype, but a sworn officer who looked calm and entitled and devoid of pity: the banality of evil incarnate.

Maybe you also are thinking about the Karen in Central Park who called 911 claiming the black man who asked her to put a leash on her dog was threatening her. Or the black Yale University grad student napping in the common room of her dorm who was reported by a white student. Because you realize it’s not just a supposed “black criminal” who is targeted, it’s the whole spectrum of black faces from Yonkers to Yale.

You start to wonder if it should be all black people who wear body cams, not the cops.

What do you see when you see angry black protesters amassing outside police stations with raised fists? If you’re white, you may be thinking, “They certainly aren’t social distancing.” Then you notice the black faces looting Target and you think, “Well, that just hurts their cause.” Then you see the police station on fire and you wag a finger saying, “That’s putting the cause backward.”

You’re not wrong — but you’re not right, either. The black community is used to the institutional racism inherent in education, the justice system and jobs. And even though we do all the conventional things to raise public and political awareness — write articulate and insightful pieces in the Atlantic, explain the continued devastation on CNN, support candidates who promise change — the needle hardly budges.

But COVID-19 has been slamming the consequences of all that home as we die at a significantly higher rate than whites, are the first to lose our jobs, and watch helplessly as Republicans try to keep us from voting. Just as the slimy underbelly of institutional racism is being exposed, it feels like hunting season is open on blacks. If there was any doubt, President Trump’s recent tweets confirm the national zeitgeist as he calls protesters “thugs” and looters fair game to be shot.

Yes, protests often are used as an excuse for some to take advantage, just as when fans celebrating a hometown sports team championship burn cars and destroy storefronts. I don’t want to see stores looted or even buildings burn. But African Americans have been living in a burning building for many years, choking on the smoke as the flames burn closer and closer. Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere. As long as we keep shining that light, we have a chance of cleaning it wherever it lands. But we have to stay vigilant, because it’s always still in the air.

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So, maybe the black community’s main concern right now isn’t whether protesters are standing three or six feet apart or whether a few desperate souls steal some T-shirts or even set a police station on fire, but whether their sons, husbands, brothers and fathers will be murdered by cops or wannabe cops just for going on a walk, a jog, a drive. Or whether being black means sheltering at home for the rest of their lives because the racism virus infecting the country is more deadly than COVID-19.

What you should see when you see black protesters in the age of Trump and coronavirus is people pushed to the edge, not because they want bars and nail salons open, but because they want to live. To breathe.

Worst of all, is that we are expected to justify our outraged behavior every time the cauldron bubbles over. Almost 70 years ago, Langston Hughes asked in his poem “Harlem”: “What happens to a dream deferred? /… Maybe it sags / like a heavy load. / Or does it explode?”

Fifty years ago, Marvin Gaye sang in “Inner City Blues”: “Make me wanna holler / The way they do my life.” And today, despite the impassioned speeches of well-meaning leaders, white and black, they want to silence our voice, steal our breath.

So what you see when you see black protesters depends on whether you’re living in that burning building or watching it on TV with a bowl of corn chips in your lap waiting for “NCIS” to start.

What I want to see is not a rush to judgment, but a rush to justice.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the N.B.A.’s all-time leading scorer, is the author of 16 books, including, most recently, “Mycroft & Sherlock —The Empty Birdcage” www.kareemabduljabbar.com