But but the outside agitators!

heavily militarized police frame a scene of a cop with a riot shield shoving two students to the ground o

They're hurting the movement! They're too rowdy!

As police clear out encampments with extreme violence, graduations and commencements end the school year, and the momentum of the university encampments begins to slow, we are starting to hear the reactionary slanders that attach themselves to every movement louder and louder. Particularly successful have been the baseline "violence" slander and the "outside agitator" line. In the introduction to my 2020 book In Defense of Looting, I went through common tropes that are used against rioters and looters, and pulled them apart one by one. It's a section many folks have told me was very helpful from the book, so I share it here in solidarity with everyone on and off of campuses struggling for Palestinian liberation and the end to the genocide.

For a more thorough take down of "nonviolence" as a principle, chapters five through seven of my book cover this extensively, through the history of the civil rights movement. If you want, you can support me by buying my book here, or you can read it online at the anarchist library for free.

...Though no single instance of looting is on its own sufficient to transform society, obviously, looting — at least when carried out by Black, poor, or Indigenous people — will always be strenuously and vigorously disavowed by the powers that be because it points to and immediately enacts a different relationship to property, a different history. There have been few instances of looting in the United States in the last quarter century; when it has appeared, it has been during brief and often one-off uprisings. Despite this fact, when the flames went up over a looted QuikTrip in Ferguson, Missouri, in August 2014, as antipolice rioting broke out after Michael Brown was killed, the media produced lines of argument and criticism that you might have just as easily heard in the sixties. Politicians and media outlets have a number of tried-and-true disavowals and defamations of looters at the ready. Before moving on to the historical narrative of looting in the United States, it’s worth dealing with these common objections here.

“Riots Are Being Stirred Up by Outside Agitators”

The myth of “outside agitators” is used by conservatives and nonviolence champions alike to discredit militancy wherever it appears. This one is a white supremacist classic, going all the way back to slavery. Under slavery, plantation owners claimed that unrest, rebellions, and fugitives resulted from the influence of “uppity negroes” and pernicious Yankees who had come south to delude the otherwise content enslaved with ideas of freedom and equality. The completely racist assumptions at the base of this argument — happy dumb slaves duped into believing they are human beings by scheming Northerners — still forms the logic behind the “outside agitator,” a phrase that emerged in force during the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King was the prototypical outside agitator, traveling the country fighting segregation, although white civil rights activists were also often tarred with this brush. These days “white anarchists,” George Soros and the employees of his organization, “antifa,” or “agent provocateurs” are likely to be the preferred outside agitating boogeymen.

This logic strips those who protest of their power, claiming that their experiences, lives, and desires are not actually sufficient to inspire their acts of resistance — implying that they don’t know what they’re doing. It also begins from the presumption that the world is fine as it is, and so only nihilistic or paid troublemakers could challenge it. But it is a racist idea on its face. What actually is wrong with an outside agitator? The concept is structured around the implicit racial logic of borders and citizenship through which an individual’s status inside/outside is the main consideration that determines political legitimacy. Outside of what?

Why shouldn’t we at least consider ideas or agitation from “outside” our most immediate environs? Isn’t that what we call solidarity?

“Rioters Are Destroying Their Own Neighborhoods”

The “why do you destroy your own neighborhoods?” trope emerged in force during the dozens of uprisings in cities across the United States during the sixties. Here we see a willful confusion of geography and power. Though the buildings destroyed may be located in a predominantly Black or proletarian neighborhood, the losses go to the white, bourgeois building and business owners, rarely the people who live near them. Civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael (later Kwame Ture) had to challenge these logics to defend the riots: “In these cities we do not control our resources. We do not control the land, the houses or the stores. These are owned by whites who live outside ‘the community.’ … White power makes the laws and enforces those laws with guns and nightsticks in the hands of white racist policemen and black mercenaries.”

Assata Shakur, freedom fighter in the Black liberation movement and the federal government’s most wanted fugitive, describes having the same argument with white coworkers, who wanted Shakur to admit “what a shame it was” that rioters were destroying their neighborhoods and to disavow them. But Shakur instead put forward the positive case for the destruction: “They don’t own those houses. They don’t own those stores. I’m glad they burned down those stores because those stores were robbing them in the first place!”

With the post-sixties emergence of a Black business class and, later, a Black president, and with the legal dismantling of Jim Crow, the logic that rioters are destroying their own neighborhoods has only grown stronger. Because a higher (though still small) percentage of owners, businesspeople, and politicians are likely to be Black, it becomes even easier to imagine looting and rioting as somehow striking internally within the Black community. As Tyler Reinhard wrote in the wake of the Ferguson uprising: “I’m not sure how people who make this argument imagine ‘owning’ a neighborhood works, but I’ll try to break it down: we don’t own neighborhoods. Black businesses exist, it’s true. But the emancipation of impoverished communities is not measured in corner-store revenue. It’s not measured in minimum-wage jobs.”

As a Ferguson rioter put it in a viral Instagram video, “People wanna say we destroying our own neighborhoods. We don’t own nothing out here!” This could be said of most majority Black neighborhoods in America, which have much higher concentrations of chain stores and fast food restaurants than non-Black neighborhoods. How could the average Ferguson resident really say it’s “our QuikTrip”? Indeed, although you might hang out in it, how can a chain convenience store or corporate restaurant earnestly be part of anyone’s neighborhood? The same white liberals who inveigh against corporations for destroying local communities are aghast when rioters take their critique to its actual material conclusion.

Only a cop, in this case Baltimore police commissioner Anthony Batts, prosecuting an arsonist from the 2015 Freddie Gray uprisings, could say without irony “Raymon Carter burned a CVS — our CVS — to the ground.” Nowhere is the absurd hollowness of modern American populism more clear than in a police commissioner’s heartfelt pause, then plea: not just any CVS; “our CVS.”

“Looters Are Opportunists and Criminals, Not Protesters: They Have Nothing to Do with the Struggle”

When protesters proclaim that “not all protesters were looters, in fact, most of the looters weren’t part of the protest!” or words to that effect, they are trying to fight a horrifically racist history of Black people depicted in American culture as robbers and thieves: it is a completely righteous and understandable position.

However, in trying to correct this media image — in making a strong division between Good Protesters and Bad Rioters, or between ethical nonviolence practitioners and supposedly violent looters — the narrative of the criminalization of Black youth is reproduced. This time it makes criminal and moral divisions between certain kinds of Black youth — those who loot (bad) versus those who protest (good). The effect of this discourse is hardening a permanent category of criminality on Black subjects who produce a supposed crime within the context of an “acceptable” protest (though those protesters would be just as quickly slandered as criminals in less confrontational protest scenarios). It reproduces racist and white supremacist ideologies, deeming some unworthy of our solidarity and protection, marking them, subtly, as legitimate targets of police violence.

If looters are “not part of the protest,” then why do they appear again and again in liberatory uprisings? In fact, a number of sociological studies from the seventies showed that, against the commonsense narrative, those who participate in rioting and looting tend to be the most politically informed and socially engaged in the neighborhood, while the most apathetic, disconnected, and alienated people riot at the lowest rates. This suggests that looters and rioters understand the stakes and meaning of the struggle, have been active within it, and see looting as a sensible escalation of possibilities.

“Rioters Hurt the Media Coverage, They Make Us/Our Concerns Look Bad”

Rioters are often accused of being the cause of negative media coverage. But this claim is always made after the cameras have arrived, without recognition of how or why those cameras got there. If it were not for rioters, the media would probably pay no attention at all. If protesters hadn’t looted and burnt down that QuikTrip on the second day of protests, would Ferguson have become a point of worldwide attention? It’s impossible to know, but all the nonviolent protests against police killings across the country that go unreported seem to indicate the answer is no. It was the looting of a Duane Reade, and not the vigil that preceded it, that brought widespread attention to the murder of Kimani Gray in New York City in 2013. The media’s own warped procedure instructs that riots and looting are more effective at attracting attention to a cause.

But the point of a protest isn’t media attention, anyway. As a 1967 editorial on press coverage of urban riots in the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee’s The Movement magazine put it: “The white-run daily press in America is not an objective, critical viewer of events. Newspapers are industries. They are private property, not public utilities. When black people revolt against their conditions, they are also revolting against the mass media; the press.”

The essay reproduced and analyzed guidelines on covering future instances of unrest that were given out to CBS reporters in the wake of Watts. The editors highlight one of those guidelines, which says: “At the outset of the disorder, broadcast newsmen should be dispatched to law enforcement command posts, rather than directly to the scene, where their presence may heighten the disturbance or interfere with efforts to establish control. An authoritatively staffed command post will undoubtedly be in communication with the scenes of disorder and be capable of providing newsmen with any desired information.”

During the LA riots of 1992, national news broadcast nonstop footage of the violent beating of white truck driver Reginald Denny by four Black teens that was captured by news helicopters. The news did not provide the context — that the National Guard had just driven through that intersection, firing live rounds at rioters, meaning Denny was in the wrong place at the wrong time — or the aftermath, in which other Black rioters ran out, tended to his wounds, and got him to a hospital, saving his life, though both were also captured on camera. Instead, the violent beating was shown on loop, out of context, across the country.

During the UK riots in summer 2011, which saw people rise up in response to the police murder of Mark Duggan, the BBC, which had mostly relied on helicopter and police footage, did a live interview with a man from Croydon, one of the London neighborhoods where rioting was intense. That man, Darcus Howe, was a respected broadcaster and writer originally from Trinidad. The presenter asked him leading questions about how terrible the riots were, but Howe clearly and angrily laid out the stakes of the riot. “What I was certain about, listening to my son and my grandson, is that something very serious was going to happen in this country. Our leaders had no idea. … But if you listened to young Blacks, and young whites in this country … you would know that what is happening to them is wrong.” The presenter then interrupted him, insulted him, and accused him of being a rioter himself. The BBC was forced to issue an apology, but it also scrubbed the footage from its websites and future broadcasts, preferring not to allow this accidental moment of radical clarity to continue.

No matter how peaceful and “well-behaved” a protest is, the dominant media will always push the police talking points and the white supremacist agenda. Although it can sometimes be leveraged strategically, the mass media is the enemy of liberation, and when we shape our actions to conform to its opinions or perspectives, we will always lose. If we riot, they will slander us. If we behave politely, peacefully, legally, they will simply return to ignoring us.

“Rioting, Looting, and Property Destruction Justify Police Repression”

People are told not to escalate, that nonviolence will prevent police from being excessively violent toward activists. But this reflects a shoddy analysis of state violence in the face of the very thing these uprisings are about: Black people being killed for walking in the middle of the street, selling CDs or cigarettes, driving with a broken taillight, wearing a hoodie, etc., etc., etc. How is it that we can go to the streets to protest that violence still believing that our behavior dictates police response rather than recognizing that the police will brutalize whoever they want, whenever they want to, unless we can stop them?

“Looters Are Just Being ‘Consumers,’ They Are Acting on False Consciousness”

Many people — self-styled “revolutionaries” — criticize rioters for looting flat-screen TVs or expensive sneakers. These people often claim they would support looters stealing medicine or food, life necessities, but because they are stealing expensive commodities it reveals that rioters are just “consumerists,” “materialistic.” As Evan Calder Williams wrote in his essay “An Open Letter to Those Who Condemn Looting,” this analysis was particularly prevalent around the 2011 UK riots. Even during the riots, the entire white UK Left, from the left-liberal media establishment to the “revolutionary” political parties, basically told rioters to drop dead. As Williams asks, are these revolutionaries to have us believe that “the poor are not supposed to understand the fundamentals of exchange-value? That they should have been loading shopping carts with flour and beans, rather than with computers which could, in theory, be sold for a much larger quantity of flour and beans?”

The failure isn’t merely an economic one: when people make this argument, they reveal a fundamental contempt for the poor. They share a moral logic with conservative antiwelfare talking heads and pull-up-your-pants respectability politicians who claim that poor people are poor because they spend their money on smartphones or fancy clothes. These so-called revolutionaries, who support the looting of bread, but not of liquor, reveal that they are only willing to support poor people in struggles for bare survival: in other words, in struggles that keep them poor. They withdraw their solidarity when the proletariat act on desires to have their lives be more pleasurable and more worth living.

These reactionaries don’t want the poor to have nice things any more than the police who execute looters do. They see the masses as fetish objects in their feverish revolutionary abstractions, who should only rise up in some pure proletarian struggle, perhaps led by them at the vanguard of a glorious Party.

All of these different slanders contain a connecting thread: that looting and rioting are not really about the issues (usually but not always police violence) that initiated them. Riots are instead minimized as criminal disorder, sudden outbursts of “tension,” or somehow objective markers of the state of race relations or poverty.

At the basis of this criticism is the idea that poor Black or working-class folks don’t know what they’re doing: that when they riot and loot, they’re acting outside of reason, outside of “real” struggle. Unlike strikers or nonviolent protesters, the people who rise up in rage and destruction are exiled from recognition as a real revolutionary subject, as people. Philosopher Sylvia Wynter critiqued this notion harshly when analyzing the LA riots:

This category [of the New Poor], unlike the working class jobholders, cannot be seen, within the economic logic of our present organization of knowledge, as contributors to the process of production. … this New Poor, seduced too, like all of us, by the clamor of advertisements which urge them to consume, so that frustrated in their consumption goals, they turn on one another, mutilate and kill each other, or “damage themselves with alcohol and drugs” convinced of their own worthlessness, or in brief episodes of eruption, “fire the ghettoes, riot, looting whatever they can lay their hands on,” means that today’s intellectuals, whilst they feel and express their pity, refrain from proposing to marry their thought with this particular variety of human suffering.

Instead, Wynter goes on, the rising of these masses has created the possibility of thinking through a new, revolutionary ethics. “The eruption … in South Central Los Angeles has again opened a horizon from which to spearhead the speech of a new frontier of knowledge able to move us toward a new, correlated human species, and eco-systemic, ethic.”