The Focus on Looting Shows How Our Systems of Power Value Capital Over Human Lives

Rather than indicting the racist police murder of George Floyd and other black Americans, our leaders are up in arms over protests and property destruction. That’s the twisted logic of U.S. capitalism.

Eli Day June 1, 2020

Police are putting property over the sanctity of human life. (Photo by Jessica Rinaldi/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

As it is with any sea­son of protest, noth­ing brings out the mur­der­ous author­i­tar­i­an­ism in the rul­ing class quite like the sight of dis­obe­di­ence by ordi­nary black peo­ple. It comes if you ral­ly by the thou­sands to deem their author­i­ty ille­git­i­mate. If you call for an end to a hail­storm of bru­tal­i­ty. Or bring chaos upon prop­er­ty in the shad­ow of yet anoth­er destroyed black life. 

Trump’s words shine useful daylight on the depraved tendencies of the nation's ruling class.

Since the pub­lic mur­der of George Floyd by Min­neapo­lis police, protests have swept cities across the coun­try. Hun­dreds of thou­sands have risen to demand jus­tice for Floyd, and to voice their exhaus­tion with a sys­tem of pun­ish­ment that tyr­an­nizes poor com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. Pre­dictably, the out­rage has turned com­bustible, and prop­er­ty has not been spared in the unrest’s many explo­sions. Shelves licked clean at Tar­get and Sepho­ra. An Auto­Zone set ablaze while its spokesper­son trem­bles with hor­ror at the dis­turb­ing and trag­ic events.” By this, he appar­ent­ly means a few charred build­ings, but not the man whose neck was crushed by an agent of the state. Even­tu­al­ly, Minneapolis’s third police precinct was evac­u­at­ed before pro­test­ers lit the build­ing and the night sky up in flames.

In response, cer­tain cor­ners of the media and polit­i­cal ecosys­tem have been in com­plete melt­down. None more so than the White House, with Pres­i­dent Trump send­ing a deranged tweet, warn­ing the THUGS” of Min­neapo­lis that When the loot­ing starts, the shoot­ing starts.” The THUGS” here are those who strip food and tele­vi­sions from the shelves of life­less stores, but not a police depart­ment with a record of hor­rif­ic cru­el­ty against actu­al liv­ing humans, or the pros­e­cu­tors, like now Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who looked the oth­er way. We should be clear about what Trump is promis­ing here: That an extra­ju­di­cial death sen­tence is a fit­ting pun­ish­ment for pet­ty theft. That prop­er­ty is so sacred that peo­ple ought to be gunned down for it in what is, quite plain­ly, a call for pub­lic lynchings.

But Trump’s words also shine use­ful day­light on the depraved ten­den­cies of the nation’s rul­ing class, who place human life in the same cat­e­go­ry as inan­i­mate objects. 

The prin­ci­pal stretch­es back to Amer­i­ca’s anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic found­ing. Pop­u­lar con­trol, James Madi­son famous­ly wrote, must be stopped in order to pro­tect the minor­i­ty of the opu­lent against the major­i­ty.” The government’s job was to act as a guardian to pro­tect such a plain­ly unfair dis­tri­b­u­tion of wealth, prop­er­ty, and pow­er, because those who labour under all the hard­ships of life” would secret­ly sigh for a more equal dis­tri­b­u­tion of its bless­ings.” That prin­ci­ple would come to life in the mid-19th cen­tu­ry when, as his­to­ri­an Sam Mitrani has writ­ten, mod­ern polic­ing was cre­at­ed by the rul­ing class to con­trol work­ing-class and poor peo­ple, not help them.” In the South, the slave empire had its patrols. And in the North, the titans of wage-labor cap­i­tal­ism recruit­ed police to dis­ci­pline an unruly work­ing-class, who were indeed orga­niz­ing for a more equal dis­tri­b­u­tion” of the nation’s bless­ings.”

Their basic job,” Mitrani writes, is to enforce order among those with the most rea­son to resent the sys­tem.” In oth­er words, the poor and work­ing-class black peo­ple who are being ham­mered by mul­ti­ple crises all at once.

On one side is a ram­pag­ing pan­dem­ic, with near­ly 23,000 black Amer­i­cans dead from Covid-19. As schol­ar Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor writes, coro­n­avirus has scythed its way through black com­mu­ni­ties, high­light­ing and accel­er­at­ing the ingrained social inequities that have made African-Amer­i­cans the most vul­ner­a­ble to the dis­ease.” On the oth­er side is the relent­less and dev­as­tat­ing force of racism and racial hier­ar­chy itself, which under­girds every major polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic and social insti­tu­tion in the coun­try. Our (often for-prof­it) pun­ish­ment sys­tem and the police who serve as its shock troops are only the most dra­mat­ic exam­ple. Des­per­ate for bet­ter and safer lives, and with the nation’s polit­i­cal lead­ers flail­ing around hope­less­ly, peo­ple have been dri­ven into the streets, and thus right into the buz­z­saw of the pandemic.

In the dev­as­tat­ing col­li­sion of these crises, the pri­or­i­ties of the rul­ing class have come into sharp focus. White House eco­nom­ics advis­er Kevin Has­sett tells CNN that Our human cap­i­tal stock is ready to get back to work,” a clear win­dow into elite opin­ion on the lives of work­ing peo­ple, who are trans­formed into raw eco­nom­ic mate­r­i­al them­selves, whose lives can be sac­ri­ficed at the tem­ple of prof­it. George Floyd was arrest­ed and killed for alleged forgery, a crime of pover­ty pun­ish­able by death. Destroyed like faulty machin­ery. Cap­i­tal­ism, and its many enforce­ment arms, can oblit­er­ate you if you are found in vio­la­tion of the ser­vice of profit. 

In Michi­gan, white pro­test­ers stormed the cap­i­tal last month, some armed to the teeth, demand­ing a reopen­ing” of the econ­o­my. They asked for noth­ing but a return to their sta­tus quo and faced no chal­lenge from police, whose entire motive is uphold­ing that sta­tus quo. In the more recent unrest, peace­ful pro­test­ers have been call­ing for rad­i­cal changes in the Amer­i­can fab­ric, and have been met by waves of unpro­voked police vio­lence. That the first type of protest would be met by soft accep­tance, and the sec­ond by bru­tal sup­pres­sion reveals a nation des­per­ate, as author and poet Hanif Abdur­raqib writes, to return to nor­mal — howl­ing with grief, soaked in blood.”

Dr. Mar­tin Luther King Jr. summed up the moral hor­ror of America’s nor­mal” in his 1967 Beyond Viet­nam” speech, when he con­demned our thing-ori­ent­ed soci­ety” where machines and com­put­ers, prof­it motives and prop­er­ty rights, are con­sid­ered more impor­tant than peo­ple.” This quote is often shared as if it were an abstract or squishy moral assess­ment about the shal­low­ness of Amer­i­can cul­ture. But it’s actu­al­ly a seri­ous exam­i­na­tion of the country’s basic eco­nom­ic pri­or­i­ties, in which peo­ple and things that are not liv­ing at all share the same social foot­ing. King did not mince words: this line of think­ing had to be over­thrown in order to con­quer” the giant triplets of racism, extreme mate­ri­al­ism, and mil­i­tarism.” The reac­tion to today’s upris­ings only con­firms that it still needs to be vanquished. 

Pro­test­ers have not lost legit­i­ma­cy because they lack grace or deco­rum or break with the social con­tract. Rather, they have gained their foot­ing by point­ing to the cru­el under­pin­nings of our cur­rent polit­i­cal order. When Min­neapo­lis police offi­cer Derek Chau­vin dug his knee into George Floyd’s neck, he did so with the pow­er to use lethal force in the state’s name. In this instance, it was to dis­ci­pline a mem­ber of the most despised group in the nation’s his­to­ry. A group with count­less jus­ti­fi­able griev­ances against the Unit­ed States — and the cru­el pri­or­i­ties of Amer­i­can capitalism. 

Eli Day was an inves­tiga­tive fel­low with In These Times’ Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing. He is a writer and relent­less Detroi­ter, where he writes about pol­i­tics, pol­i­cy, racial and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. His work has appeared in the Detroit News, City Met­ric, Huff­in­g­ton Post, The Root, Truthout, and Very Smart Brothas, among others.
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