Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Looting Isn't Stupid

Looting isn't stupid. It's hopeless, but it's not stupid.

I'm not saying that the young men and women breaking into liquor stores and fast food restaurants and stealing shoes from the corner store are actively exhibiting anything other than an opportunistic gut reaction. What I am saying is that whether they know it or not, looting is the collective response of the truly hopeless. It's not stupid.

I don't condone violence of any kind. I don't want people rioting or looting for any reason. Then again, I have hope. My faith is built around a belief that love will win in the end, that we're, despite all evidence to the contrary, destined for a future of peace and loving co-existence in which all are welcomed, valued, and find place.

I imagine most of those who casually dismiss looting as stupid are also not hopeless. Even if your hope is somewhat less idealistic than mine, you believe there is a good chance things can or will be at least functional for most people in the future. "If only people would just _________ or understand ____________ or even elect ____________, we'd figure this out. That's hope.

People with hope don't understand looting.

Looting isn't stupid; it's just hopeless.* In the wake of extreme tragedy, disaster - a zombie apocalypse for example - there will be looting. Those who've prepped for doomsday will find these looters reactionary and callous, with their underground bunkers and decades worth of canned hope shading their eyes. But when there's reasonable expectation the world will operate differently in the future, old rules can more easily be ignored. If the aliens have landed, and are actively disintegrating every human in sight, if the flood waters have covered the roofs and armed police are forcing you back into the danger zone, there is little in your adrenaline-drenched body to believe anything will be as it was. Survival is the new morality.

We can say, rightly (at least from the majority perspective, those with hope), a decision like that of the Grand Jury in Michael Brown's death, whether we agree with its faithfulness to the law or not, is no apocalyptic disaster. That's true. It's a tragedy from any perspective, but life will go on.

Looting, in this case, is not about a hopelessness for the existence of society, but a hopelessness that right or wrong mean anything within that society for people of a certain color or socioeconomic status. Again, I don't condone looting and violence. I just can't. I have faith. But it makes perfect sense to me how a lot of young black men and women wouldn't. It makes sense to me that they look at all the events of Ferguson and say, "It doesn't matter if I do the right thing or the wrong thing, I'm still gonna end up dead or imprisoned or beaten or gassed." They do have numbers on their side. In lots of poor black neighborhoods it's more likely for young men to serve time than to graduate from high school - and a high school diploma is no guarantee of success in its own right, especially from the kind of schools our society provides for those neighborhoods.

Looting isn't stupid, but our responses to it are. We crave news coverage that shows the violence and not coverage in the dozens of churches offering shelter, food, clothes, and hope to people who might otherwise be hopeless. We tell the angry, young hopeless people to stop being stupid, rather than providing some indication there is a future worth hoping for - a future in which all perspectives are considered and included, even if they make it difficult for the comfortable, established way of life a few of us enjoy.

The answer to violence is certainly not more violence. It's a message we hope to send to looters, but one that doesn't come across well behind riot gear and tear gas. That might be practically effective, but it's ultimately useless. We're not fighting stupidity, we're fighting hopelessness. We need new weapons. Not the weapons that come at a discount to our police from the Iraqi surplus store, but those which come from personal commitment to cross boundaries in our daily lives (and not for a day or a week or an hour at a time, either).

These tragic and regrettable barriers mean few persons of legal authority carry any weight for the hopeless, believing they do only reinforces and strengthens the lack of hope. We need to listen to those champions of hope who hope so strongly they've built lives and relationships of trust among the hopeless. We need to listen, rather than arrest them; it only breeds the very hopelessness we wish to end.

It starts with recognizing that my normal, my life, my hope, my assumptions - my truth - does not work for everyone in every place. My stuff matters, but not because it's right, because it's mine. The same courtesy is owed to others, even if they seem wrong or stupid, even dangerous. I can make this claim, because I am willing to sacrifice if need be, for a future in which we all not only have a place, but feel we belong on equal ground. I certainly have not sacrificed enough,** but I believe such sacrifice is possible, because I believe in hope.

*It doesn't quite make sense in the context of this post, but there is also a looting for seemingly no reason at all, or very little reason. White teenagers celebrating a football victory (or mourning a loss), for example. I'd argue that this is still rooted in hopelessness, but a hopelessness that has no outlet in a society in which these people are already atop the mountain of privilege.

**I have to acknowledge that my hope is easier to have, because the world around me works pretty well for me, especially as compared to the vast majority of people on the planet. I also have to recognize my willingness to sacrifice for hope might be compromised when the reality of a more difficult hope sets in. We can't underestimate the power of comfort and status quo. It's much easier to change someone else than to change myself.


Craig Laughlin said...

Well said. Thank you for shedding light

gina s said...

What Craig said. Your understanding of someone else's hopelessness, Ryan, comes through loud & clear. Not everyone can so well "walk a mile in someone else's shoes."