I look at the events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri, and I just shake my head. Youngsters have no respect for the art of forming a mob, breaking into a business, loading your arms with as many goods as you can carry, then fleeing — all in the name of political dissatisfaction. In my day, looting actually meant something.
When I was a young man growing up disaffected and angry in Los Angeles in the 1960s, I realized systemic racism was to blame for many of my community’s ills, and my friends and I would spend hours each night engaged in heated debate about how to best express our frustration. I clearly remember the night we developed — with no small degree of trepidation, mind you, for we knew very well the gravity of our discourse — a new, meaningful mode of political dissent.
Much as a Buddhist might set himself on fire to protest the treatment of his community, we decided we could set fire to our entire community, rampage the very shops we relied on, our own shops, owned by our neighbors and family members. The poetry of such an act could not be misunderstood. The hand that strikes itself is the angriest.
When the time was right and riots broke out in Watts, we engaged thusly, looting with moral certainty, successfully garnering the national attention our poverty and hopelessness deserved. We were no longer “angry youth,” but rather we were “looters,” a force with which to be reckoned. To the establishment we said, “You can no longer hurt us, for we are hurting ourselves.”
Such political dissent was employed sporadically in the subsequent decades, from the LA Riots in 1992, to the Seattle WTO Riots in 1999, and afterwards — always with the clear implication that the act of looting is a symbolic act, an act of self-sacrifice. Looters were not stealing to get things for free; they were stealing to say to the world, “Hey, it’s about time you looked at us, and if I have to carry a heavy, brand-new 42-inch TV halfway across town to prove it, by golly, I will.”
Youngsters today have it all wrong. If you watch any of the the looting footage from Ferguson, the teenagers making off with boxes of Nikes or handfuls of beer and cigarillos are running with impish grins on their faces, looking like damn mice when the cat’s away. They do not respect the solemnity of their task. They act like looting is one big joke.
Even worse, some of the looters are covering their faces as if to say, “What I am doing is wrong, and I am therefore too ashamed to let people see my identity.” I know this because I’ve seen the videos of youngsters foolishing pulling their shirts over their heads as they dart into a Quikie Mart, only to emerge a moment later with nothing more than a bag of Starburst candies and a Monster energy drink. Pathetic.
It’s a shame what looting has become. I call on all the looters, rioters and vandals of Ferguson to raise your chins, reclaim your nobility, and say, “This is not funny, nor is it mere opportunistic hooliganism. This actually means something.”