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Why We Loot

Looting has a bad reputation, but from the Battle of Corinth to the L.A. riots, it’s been a mainstay of civilization — and its ‘morality’ depends on who’s in power

A Target in Minneapolis near where George Floyd was killed by cops was heavily looted on Wednesday. Videos posted on Twitter showed a chaotic scene: people hauling away TVs, vacuum cleaners and rugs, and using stolen power tools to drill into cash registers. (Additional looters were spotted at a nearby tobacco store, a Dollar Tree and an AutoZone.) Riots are “a messy part of the evolution of society,” Time magazine noted during the 2014 civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri, when significant looting occurred in the neighborhood of Michael Brown Jr.’s shooting (another Black man dead by the hands of a white cop).

All of this, of course, is taking place against the larger backdrop of pandemic-related looting concerns around the world, as luxury stores in Beverly Hills are boarded up, Italian police are patrolling supermarkets to stop people from stealing food and the NYPD is reporting a 75 percent increase in burglaries of businesses. Meanwhile, from Mexico to Indonesia, and South Carolina to Santa Cruz, dozens have already been arrested for looting in the shadow of COVID-19. 

Interestingly, in most U.S. states, like California, any theft or burglary committed during a declared emergency constitutes looting. Looting, however, is far more nuanced than petty theft, due to its “ambiguous moral character,” explains Stuart Green, a professor at Rutgers Law School, who says that looting is widely considered to be worse than typical forms of property crimes, but also sometimes justified. And so, as the number of unemployed Americans swells to nearly 40 million, desperate citizens may resort to what Green calls “virtuous looting,” i.e., stealing that’s driven by survival. 

With help from Green, a military expert, a police chief, a sociologist and an archeologist, here’s all the historical context for what’s happening in Minnesota at the moment, as well as why the concerns about widespread corona-inspired pillaging are probably unfounded.

1) The word “looting,” which comes from Sanskrit lut, “to rob,” entered into European languages centuries ago to refer to the pillaging undertaken by invading armies, an activity apparently sanctioned by God. “You may enjoy the plunder from your enemies that the LORD your God has given you,” reads Deuteronomy 20:14

2) In 1225, Genghis Khan asked his generals, “What is the greatest happiness in life?” When they responded that it was hunting on a warm spring day while riding atop a splendid horse, Khan explained the greatest heavenly pleasure was, in fact, “vanquishing one’s enemies and robbing them of their wealth.”

3) As such, throughout recorded history, looting by a victorious army has been ubiquitous. Precious metals were the preferred bounty, thanks to their easy portability. In the Battle of Corinth (146 B.C.), the winning Roman army slaughtered the entire adult male population, enslaved the women and children and looted all of the ancient city’s treasure, marking the end of the Achaean War and the beginning of the period of Roman domination.

4) Foot soldiers viewed plunder as a way to supplement a meager income. Medieval looting was written into the contracts of mercenary troops who fought for private employers and various kings during wars, explains Joseph O’Brien, a firearms and military expert at Donley Auctions in Illinois. “If you fought and won, you got to take whatever booty the enemy possessed,” he says, adding that free companies acted independently of any government and would give a percentage to their captain, a percentage to whomever hired them and pocket the rest. 

5) Jumping forward 800 years or so, when the British Empire spanned the globe, the imperialists looted every country they conquered and transported treasures back to London to pay homage to the Queen. “Ancient heritage and art was stripped from Egypt and Greece by European colonial powers, including all of the mummies in the British Museum,” explains Roger Atwood, contributing editor at Archaeology Magazine. When Titos Flavios Demetrios died in the Egyptian town of Hawara 2,000 years ago, he expected his soul and carefully mummified body would be transported to the underworld nirvana of Osiris, god of the dead. Instead, Demetrios is spending the afterlife in a dusty display case at an underfunded provincial museum in Ipswich.

6) O’Brien calls Nazi Germany “the gold standard by which all state-sponsored looting is now judged.” When the Nazis invaded most of Europe, they determined anything they wanted to be theirs. If Hitler fancied a Greek statue, it was promptly sent to Berlin. If he wanted a French Impressionist painting, it hung on his wall within the week. Hermann Göring, the founder of the Gestapo, was known for a fabulous art collection at his hunting lodge, which displayed trophies from fallen countries. “If Göring read an article about a piece of art and a Jewish family owned it, it would be confiscated and sent to the hunting lodge,” O’Brien explains. “Once the Nazis invaded Poland and Russia, everything was taken. They’d back up a truck to nice houses, and soldiers would confiscate everything, including the tea set, and it’d end up in some German housewife’s parlor.”

7) U.S. troops weren’t above looting during World War II, either. “Once Allied troops crossed over the German border, most of their scruples vanished,” O’Brien says. “They’d been fighting and dying in a war against the Germans for several years, so why not get a little extra for their efforts?”

Dwight D. Eisenhower (right) inspects stolen artwork in a salt mine in Merkers, accompanied by Omar Bradley (left) and George S. Patton (center).

8) As the Allies stormed through Germany in 1945, museum officials in Dessau scurried to hide their art treasures in a nearby salt mine, where they would soon be discovered by American soldiers. Much of the art was preserved, but three paintings ended up in a poker game won by an American tank commander, William S. Oftebro, who quietly mailed them home. For the past seven decades, they’ve been with Oftebro’s family, most recently on the wall of his widow’s assisted living center in Texas.

9) Nowhere in the world has looting been more devastating than in the Middle East. Since 1970, a growing body of international law has been written to combat the plundering of ancient sites and monuments to feed the insatiable appetite of Western antiquities traders and private collectors. “The looting industry has become very efficient and market-driven,” explains Atwood, who is also the author of Stealing History: Tomb Raiders, Smugglers and the Looting of the Ancient World. “It consists of looters, who are essentially small businessmen, breaking into tombs to pinpoint valuable items like cuneiform tablets and cylinder seals while trashing everything around it. And they can get them to market much more quickly than ever in the past.”

10) In the dazed, nervous weeks after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003, Atwood recounts, reports of looting of archeological sites began reaching him and his colleagues at the National Museum of Iraq. “The first sign we were approaching the ruins of Southern Iraq was motorcycles that came buzzing down the road in the opposite direction. Each one carried a driver, a passenger and a bulging saddlebag draped over the back fender. Guards appointed by Saddam’s government had fled in the first days of the U.S.-British bombardment and hundreds of looters rampaged in, dug up the sites for artifacts, destroyed decades of the work done by archeologists and ripped out sackfuls of treasures.”

11) As soon as he got there, Atwood realized the ancient Sumerian sites — some of the most important in the world, archaeologically — were being completely dismantled by looters. “This proved to be just a taste of what’s happened ever since in the Middle East: a complete breakdown in authority, and the inability to protect ancient sites. It’s a complete gold rush — digging massive pits, pulling out what they can get their hands on and destroying anything they deem isn’t marketable.” (FWIW: Over the past two months of coronavirus lockdown, the Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research Project has seen an increase in online posts offering looted artifacts from mosques, museums and archeological sites.)

12) Stateside, most looting today is done by civilians in times of unrest, like in Minneapolis this week, and during natural disasters. Among the first instances of the former was the Dead Rabbits Riot, a two-day civil disturbance in New York City in July 1857, which began as a small-scale street fight between members of the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys, but exploded into a citywide gang war. The fighting spiraled into widespread looting by gangsters and criminals throughout the city, who used the disturbance to pillage at will. 

13) Looting and vandalism were widespread during the New York City Blackout of 1977, which spanned 31 neighborhoods. Hardest hit was Crown Heights in Brooklyn, where 75 stores on a five-block stretch were looted, and Bushwick, where 35 blocks of Broadway were destroyed with 134 stores looted and 45 set ablaze. Thieves stole 50 new Pontiacs from a Bronx car dealership, and youths were seen backing up cars to targeted stores, tying ropes around the stores’ grates and using the cars to pull the grates away.

A Sears outlet in the progress of being looted during the L.A. riots in 1992.

14) The costliest episode of looting in U.S. history, by far, was the 1992 L.A. riots. Following the acquittal of four LAPD officers who had brutally beaten Rodney King, an African-American motorist, after a high-speed pursuit, thousands responded by engaging in widespread looting for almost the next week. When it was all over, more than 1,000 buildings had been destroyed with damage nearing $1 billion. As L.A. photographer and writer Rian Dundon notes, “There may be no greater image of Western self-sufficiency and capitalist assimilation in recent memory than that of middle-aged Korean shopkeepers firing handguns indiscriminately into a crowd of scurrying Black and Latino looters. It conjures a Falling Down Michael Douglas versus Do the Right Thing’s Mookie. America then as it is now.”

15) When a television news reporter chased a group of looters through the parking lot of strip mall in L.A.’s Koreatown and asked why they were stealing, one man stopped to briefly engage the camera and responded, matter-of-factly, that “everyone’s doing it,” before continuing on his way, arms overflowing with shoe boxes. Such opportunistic looting is a social phenomenon, explains law professor Green, and FOMO group mentality rules the day. “The crime should be looked at in context.”

16) “People are looting because they are not part of the system at all anymore,” explained Bill Clinton at the time. “They do not share our values, and their children are growing up in a culture alien from ours: without family, without neighborhood, without church, without support.” (Tupac Shakur had a different take: “I hate to say I told you so, but I told you so.”)

17) Of the $850 million worth of damage done in L.A., half was on Korean-owned businesses. Kathleen Tierney, a sociologist at the Institute of Behavioral Science at the University of Colorado, Boulder, explains that, as was the case in Ferguson, looting was directed primarily at businesses representing what people perceived to be an “alien presence” in their community. “They were the people who owned the convenience stores and gas stations who’d had confrontations with African-American customers in the past. That’s a totally different situation in which people are sending a political message. During natural disasters, looting has been very rare, covertly undertaken in opportunistic settings, done by isolated individuals or very small groups, and socially condemned. In contrast, looting in the riots was frequent, overtly undertaken, aimed at specific targets, participated in by very large numbers of individuals often in social networks and was socially supported.”

18) If anything, an altruistic response is by far more common after a disaster, Tierney says, explaining this to be true across the board, in various regions of the world, in disasters of all kinds. While there were sporadic reports on looting on 9/11, in American Dunkirk: The Waterborne Evacuation of Manhattan on 9/11, Tierney’s former colleagues, James Kendra and Tricia Wachtendorf, recount the spontaneous altruism and self-organizing that resulted in the evacuation of 500,000 people. 

19) “Researchers in disaster science have again and again debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature,” Katy Waldman wrote in Slate about why there were so few reports of looting in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. “Research from the past several decades demonstrates, as one report put it, ‘that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and pro-socially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.’ People become their best selves when crisis strikes.”

20) So while 24-hour cable news networks breathlessly reported widespread looting after Hurricane Katrina, they neglected to report that pro-social behavior was far more prevalent than anti-social behavior. Not to mention, says Lieutenant General Russel L. Honoré, who was responsible for coordinating military relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina, “When people get hungry, they go into survival mode. You must not confuse people in the survival mode who are trying to get food and water with those who are trying to carry a 50-inch TV on their back in waist-deep water. You see people coming out of grocery stores or drug stores with arms full of stuff, and the perception of reporters in New Orleans was that they were looters. To them I ask, ‘If you were standing out there for five days with no food or water, what would YOU do?’”

21) Fear of looters, however, led to the formation of guard posts that ultimately proved deadly. Case in point: Henry Glover, an unarmed black man, was shot and burned by police after he was discovered prowling a local strip mall looking for baby supplies. “He was coming out, and the police shot him in the fucking back and killed him,” Honoré tells me. “They had an ‘oh shit’ moment, because the guy was carrying diapers and baby food. So they took his fucking body, they put it in a fucking car and set it on fire. All because they thought he was looting.” (Gregory McRae, the officer convicted of burning Glover’s body, is currently serving a 17-year federal sentence for the crime.) 

22) While Honoré doesn’t anticipate the coronavirus pandemic will lead to the type of looting he witnessed in New Orleans, he does caution that people will need to get food, and he won’t be surprised if some resort to “virtuous looting.” “People aren’t working and haven’t gotten the federal assistance that they’ve been promised, so they can’t take care of their families. So we’ve got to make sure that food banks are stocked because they’ve quadrupled the number of people they’re having to serve.” 

23) “The moment we’re in now doesn’t suggest the likelihood of looting,” predicts Green. “Looting tends to be a spontaneous sudden act, and this has been a slow-building emergency. People are staying at home rather than going out into the streets, so it doesn’t seem to me like it fits the usual historical paradigm that you’d expect to see. Then again, if you’re not earning the daily income as an Uber driver and live in one of the many inner-city food deserts nationwide, things could get pretty desperate. That’s when people will loot out of sheer necessity.”