The following article is republished from Black Perspectives, published by the African-American Intellectual History Society, where it first appeared on July 6, 2020. Hear more from Navid Farnia at CASI’s webinar on Dec. 14, 2020, “Anti-Imperialism, Policing and Decolonization After the Trump Presidency.” Click here for more details or to register.
On “Looting” in an Apartheid State
By NAVID FARNIA
“In planning the direction and form that MK [umKhonto we Sizwe] would take, we considered four types of violent activities: sabotage, guerrilla warfare, terrorism and open revolution. For a small and fledgling army, open revolution was inconceivable. Terrorism inevitably reflected poorly on those who used it, undermining any public support it might otherwise garner. Guerrilla warfare was a possibility, but since the ANC had been reluctant to embrace violence at all, it made sense to start with the form of violence that inflicted the least harm against individuals: sabotage… Our strategy was to make selective forays against military installations, power plants, telephone lines and transportation links; targets that would not only hamper the military effectiveness of the state, but frighten National Party supporters, scare away foreign capital, and weaken the economy. This we hoped would bring the government to the bargaining table. Strict instructions were given to members of MK that we would countenance no loss of life. But if sabotage did not produce the results we wanted, we were prepared to move on to the next stage: guerrilla warfare and terrorism.” – Nelson Mandela, Long Walk to Freedom
On March 21, 1960, police forces representing South Africa’s apartheid state opened fire on a crowd of protesters gathered in Sharpeville, a township located near Johannesburg. The demonstrators quickly dispersed and ran away in fear, but the police were persistent and the gunfire unrelenting. Sixty-nine protesters were killed in the ensuing stampede, most of them shot in the back.
The Sharpeville Massacre was a major turning point in South African history for several reasons. White liberals within the country called on the government to compromise with the anti-apartheid movement and implement reforms. More importantly, the massacre influenced world opinion, bringing apartheid to the spotlight and making it a global issue for the first time. Yet, despite international condemnation for Sharpeville, the apartheid regime doubled down on its policies. The government declared a state of emergency, outlawed two prominent anti-apartheid organizations, the African National Congress and the Pan-African Congress, and jailed thousands of people.
In this context, ANC members determined that they could no longer wage a nonviolent struggle against the South African state. Nelson Mandela concluded, “It would be unrealistic and wrong for African leaders to continue preaching nonviolence at a time when the Government met our peaceful demands with force.1 As such, the ANC established a military wing, umKhonto we Sizwe (MK), or “Spear of the Nation.” Mandela’s opening quote, which importantly outlines four methods of armed resistance, derives from this context.
Sixty years later, Black people in the United States still find themselves fighting an apartheid-in-all-but-name state. The recent police assassinations of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, among countless others, along with vigilante executions committed against Ahmaud Arbery and many more, represent what we might call a prolonged and dispersed racial massacre on a national level.
Yet, the protests that emerged in response to these lynchings have remained almost entirely nonviolent. It is curious, then, that arms of the state would attempt to portray attacks on property as a functional equivalent to systematic murder. The discourse on “looting” is a particularly striking, if predictable, development.
When the uprisings began, U.S. President Donald Trump essentially called his racist base and equally racist police forces across the country to action, tweeting, “When the looting starts, the shooting starts.” As many have noted, Trump’s implicit call for whites to shoot on sight has historical roots that trace back to racist police chiefs and segregationist politicians of the 1960s. It represents the same ideology that compelled the killers of Arbery, Tamir Rice, and again, countless other victims, to shoot first and aim to kill.
Mandela’s words about armed resistance thus prove instructive. In the four methods of struggle that Mandela outlines, we might categorize “looting,” which itself is a racially loaded term, as an act of sabotage meant to undermine an exploitative economy. Despite this reality, the state has nonetheless fabricated and normalized interpretations of violence that equate lost (white) property to lost (Black) life.
In her prominent essay “Whiteness as Property,” critical race studies scholar Cheryl Harris describes how whiteness becomes “treasured property in a society structured on racial caste.” Harris writes:
In ways so embedded that it is rarely apparent, the set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white have become a valuable asset that whites sought to protect….Whites have come to expect and rely on these benefits, and over time these expectations have been affirmed, legitimated, and protected by the law. Even though the law is neither uniform nor explicit in all instances, in protecting settled expectations based on white privilege, American law has recognized a property interest in whiteness.
She concludes that “rights in property are contingent on, intertwined with, and conflated with race.” This relationship between race and property has evolved historically “to reproduce subordination in the present.”2
The dominant discourse on looting and the racial and colonial erasures which undergird that discourse reveal how whiteness not only functions as property, but property itself reflects a fundamental element of whiteness. Through their rhetoric and actions, state authorities ranging from liberal to reactionary seem to have concluded that “looting,” and property destruction in general, equates to attacks on whiteness. It is also notable that luxury stores in New York were boarding up as early as March, perhaps anticipating social upheaval after the coronavirus-caused closings and subsequent economic downturn. In this sense, ruling elites have understood but refused to publicly acknowledge looting as a counterhegemonic act meant to expropriate and redistribute wealth.
However, because this expropriation is spontaneous and uncoordinated, “looting” still barely registers on Mandela’s spectrum of armed struggle. Conversely, the police and vigilante lynchings fall under the category of targeted attacks, or “terror.”3 As R.H. Lossin has recently noted, this false equivalency is based on the notion that lost property deprives people of their livelihoods. But people, by this definition, are only those with capital. The state does not characterize the racially and economically oppressive manifestations of a pandemic as violence, even when tens of millions have lost their jobs, racialized disparities in health care are incredibly pronounced, and billionaires have profited by hundreds of billions in a few short months.
In this context, we must interrogate the concept of looting. When the police systematically stop people under false pretenses and merely to issue citations that will increase their local agency’s coffers, is this not looting? Is asset forfeiture not legalized systematic looting? Is corporate wealth consolidation amid a pandemic in which unemployment is at its highest point since the Great Depression not systematic looting? Or when the state confiscates the lands and properties of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and even white people for the “public good,” is this not systematic looting? Indeed, the United States was founded and built upon looted land and people.4
These structural contradictions have driven people to the streets, and protesters have exposed them to a world audience. It started with a courageous act by the seventeen-year-old Darnella Frazier, who endured the trauma of recording the methodical murder of George Floyd. After Frazier documented the banality of evil incarnated, the protesters heightened the contradictions by illuminating how the state is waging a permanent war against Black communities.
For their part, state authorities continually validate this truth. Trump asserted how the police and military would “dominate” the streets. More poignantly, the Minnesota Department of Public Safety tweeted that law enforcement and National Guard troops were mobilizing against the Minneapolis uprising in order to “address a sophisticated network of urban warfare.” State forces have long enacted structural racism through warfare while concealing these acts behind liberal rhetoric. The U.S.’s ruling class, including political officials, business, the press, and even the police and military officials, has already attempted to tame the uprising by using liberal language about Black and white people “coming together” as a nation to end “systemic racism.”
The liberal position, which aims to moderate the Trump government’s punitive militarism, is however no less repressive. On one hand, liberal journalists revert to the common refrain of decrying the loss of property. On the other, they take up the chant of “systemic racism,” words that have become alarmingly normalized in the nation’s political vocabulary since George Floyd was killed. Politicians, businesses, and journalists mention (but don’t critically interrogate) “systemic racism,” while conveniently ignoring the reality that they are systemic racism personified.
These establishment figures are now advocating police reform, and although the fact that they are even considering such measures reflects how protesters have shifted the discourse, it also represents a façade for continued and largely unchecked repression. Police reform doesn’t end systemic racism, but rather reconfigures it. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes, Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its corrupt police department in 2013 only to resurrect an expanded police network that loots the community through summonses for the most trivial “violations.” The reformed Camden police also have a reputation for using excessive force.5
Whatever their configuration, the police are the frontline representatives of the racist system. They enforce a racial order established by the state itself to the benefit of its white citizenry. This order siphons capital to whites, particularly the ruling class, and it does so precisely through the threat or reality of violence. The police protect legalized racial looting.
But protesters have flipped the narrative. They have compelled officials to make public statements which acknowledge the reality of repression. In effect, the national uprising has shown how the language of “law and order” is merely a euphemism for racial order.
When contextualizing the uprising through the truth, we are better positioned to recognize the “looting” committed by youths (who are Black, white, Latinx, and all other races and ethnicities) as political expression. Whether we call these acts “looting,” expropriation, wealth redistribution, repossession of stolen labor power, or the very destruction of whiteness, they are nonetheless undeniably in response to existing social arrangements. When protesters set fire to buildings or when they topple Confederate, Union, presidential, and conquistador statues, and every other monument to racism, colonialism, and genocide in between, they are resisting both the racist order and the history undergirding it.
Ruling elites fear this antiracist unity and collective organization the most, particularly given the specter that it might adopt a more explicit anti-capitalist character. But they are no longer in position to prevent whatever may happen. The fate of this national uprising is now in protesters’ hands.
- Nelson Mandela, “I Am Prepared to Die,” Opening Remarks at the Rivonia Trial, Pretoria, South Africa, April 20, 1964, https://www.un.org/en/
events/mandeladay/court_ statement_1964.shtml. ↩
- Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” Harvard Law Review 106, no. 8 (1993), 1713-1714. ↩
- “Terror” is another racially fraught term. While Mandela and other freedom fighters used the term in a historical sense to reference a tactic of armed struggle, it is now more prominently used as an identity descriptor. Today, the words terror, terrorist, and terrorism evoke images of West Asian and North African peoples, particularly Arabs. In his book, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question, Joseph Massad writes, “Terror is a name that is never assumed but always tendered. The taxonomy that transforms it from a practice into an identity is always particular. State power designates certain practices as terror and christens those who commit them as terrorists. Yet all subjects thus named do not accept their State-tendered names, and do not identify with them (there is, e.g. no Irish Terrorist Army, no African Terrorist Congress, and no Palestine Terror Organization).”Edward Said more succinctly explains that empires “call all resistance ‘terrorism.’” For these reasons, I do not see the language of terror as useful, even when describing state actions. Conscientious intellectuals should dispense with this terminology given the racial connotations it conjures. See Joseph Massad, The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians (New York: Routledge, 2006), 1-9. Edward Said, “They Call All Resistance ‘Terrorism,”” International Socialist Review(August/September 2001), http://www.
thirdworldtraveler.com/ Terrorism/Resistance_ Terrorism_Said.html. ↩
- R.H. Lossin, “In Defense of Destroying Property,” The Nation, June 10, 2020, https://www.thenation.
com/article/activism/blm- looting-protest-vandalism/. ↩
- Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016), 132-133. ↩