In August 2016, a small riot broke out following the death of Sylville K. Smith, a black man shot and killed by Milwaukee police. An auto parts store was aflame while a CBS reporter interviewed the victim’s brother. “We losing loved ones every day to the people that’s sworn in to protect us,” he said. “It’s not us, it’s the police. This is the madness that they spark up. This is what they encourage. This is what they provoke. This is what you get.”
Almost four years later, pockets of Minneapolis, Minnesota, are smoldering after two nights of protest against the city’s police. Many stores are a mess of glass and buildings were set ablaze. But a family is enjoying a new Instant Pot, a child gets to play with a new set of toys, and a household has a new vacuum cleaner thanks to an afternoon spent “looting” a local Target store, a scenario which, for some, is far more horrifying than the event that sparked this chaos in the first place: The death of a black man at the hands of a white police officer.
On Monday, George Floyd died after Officer Derek Chauvin held him down, kneeling on his neck for nine minutes. A viral video caught the incident, as well as Floyd’s cries that he couldn’t breathe, a haunting mirror to Eric Garner, who died when a police officer held him in a chokehold, ignoring his choked refrain: “I can’t breathe.”
Four officers involved in the Floyd incident—Chauvin, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng—have been fired, and both Chauvin and Thao have been investigated—but never disciplined—for excessive force in the past. But there are calls for arrests by Floyd’s family, the Mayor of Minneapolis, and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, none believing a pink slip is sufficient punishment. And in the absence of justice—which carceral punishment cannot fully alleviate—protests emerged. Hundreds took to the streets, creating a multiracial, multigenerational sea of righteous rage.
The pattern is easy enough to follow: A police officer is alleged to have killed an unarmed black person, a viral video emerges, protesters assemble, and the police respond to peaceful protest with suffocating tear gas and rubber bullets. By then, all bets are off, and so begin the fires and so-called “looting” while America’s moral arbiters play judge and jury.
While these critics include timid liberals who worry about optics of the protest above all else, the loudest naysayers have been right-wing scourges like Tucker Carlson, who said that the riots are worse than police brutality, and Charlie Kirk, who tweeted, “If you loot riot and destroy you lose all moral credibility, in my eyes, to protest injustice.” (Of course, Kirk was silent about Floyd’s death prior to the protests; it’s the destruction of property that inspired him to tweet, not Floyd’s untimely death.)
Property is inanimate. It doesn’t breathe, it doesn’t have hopes, dreams, or mouths to feed. There are properties we cherish—our homes, our places of worship, buildings of historical and cultural significance. A Target is not one of these places, and neither is an Arby’s, a Wendy’s, an Aldi, an Autozone, or an empty construction site. It’s safe to say that the aforementioned establishments are better insured than many Americans. But just as a destroyed CVS became a symbol of the unruliness of protesters in following the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, so too is the Minneapolis Target store that provided protesters with a sliver of catharsis in the face of an uncaring police force, an uncaring society.
For far too many Americans, it is easier to mourn the destruction of a series of chain stores, owned and operated by millionaires, than the death of a Black American. A stolen lamp is worthy of a kind of empathy that a black person could only dream of.
This outburst didn’t happen in a vacuum.
Since 2015, Minnesota police have been responsible for a series of high-profile killings of black men: Marcus Golden, Jamar Clark, Philando Castile, and now George Floyd. Minnesota is one of the most racially inequitable states in the nation and responsible for serious acts of injustice against its black residents. None of the above has resulted in riots until now, a feat of extreme restraint considering the history of racist violence and execution by state forces. Because as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, a riot is the “language of the unheard.” And as Langston Hughes opined in his poem, “Warning”: “Negroes/Sweet and docile/Meek, humble and kind/Beware the day/They change their mind!”
The protesters changed their minds that day, and instead of asking why this happened, how it got to this point, some people are fretting about a Dollar Tree’s broken windows.
In “The Black Riot,” Raven Rakia argues that the racialization of property spurs this handwringing, noting that during slavery a black person’s freedom threatened white claims to property, and that this prioritization of the property was laid bare when Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by George Zimmerman, who was concerned that Martin was a threat to the property of his white neighborhood.
“When the same system that refuses to protect black children comes out to protect windows, what is valued over black people in America becomes very clear,” Rakia wrote. “One cannot discuss the immorality of damaging property without devaluing the rage that brought protesters to this point.”
Rakia also noted that “Nothing gets the attention of the elite like taking away or destroying what they value above all else: property.” The result of the elites’ enraptured attention, however, varies. In the essay “In Defence of Looting,” Vicky Osterweil makes a fair point: “If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson be a point of worldwide attention? It’s impossible to know, but all the non-violent protests against police killings across the country that go unreported seem to indicate the answer is no.”
One can argue that few material improvements have been born out of the riots that captured America in the last few decades, but after two days of protest, the United States Justice Department announced that they will investigate George Floyd’s death. And the idea that looting is opportunistic folly negating the fight for justice is patently absurd. Improving one’s life with some creature comforts in the face of state violence—in the face of state forces that can make living comfortably a challenge—is an act of political resistance. But those fretting in bad faith over loss of employment or the destruction of neighborhood’s character should, perhaps, listen to some of the black people who are actually on the ground, instead of indulging fanfic about the benevolence of corporations.
A protester told media outlet Unicorn Riot that while he believed the looting does little to bring about justice, it’s minor compared to what was already lost.
“All this is replaceable, all this is replaceable,” he said, gesturing toward the burning buildings around him. “But life? When you take lives... you can’t replace it, you know what I’m sayin?”
You can donate to the Minnesota Freedom Fund, an organization that helps bail incarcerated people out of jail, here.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece suggested Philando Castile was killed by a Minneapolis, Minnesota police officer. A St. Anthony, Minnesota police officer killed Castile.