Why are some people talking mostly about looting?
© 2020 by Richard Townsell
Exodus 3: 19-21 “But I know that the king of Egypt will not let you go unless a mighty hand compels him. So I will stretch out my hand and strike the Egyptians with all the wonders that I will perform among them. After that, he will let you go. “And I will make the Egyptians favorably disposed toward this people, so that when you leave you will not go empty-handed.
Exodus 12:35 The Israelites did as Moses instructed and asked the Egyptians for articles of silver and gold and for clothing. The Lord had made the Egyptians favorably disposed toward the people, and they gave them what they asked for; so they plundered the Egyptians.
I don’t know why, but many of my white brothers and sisters seem extremely bothered by the looting and property damage that occurred after brother George Floyd was murdered by the police a few weeks ago.
If anyone should be angry about that, it should be me. We had looting and property damage once again in my community of North Lawndale in Chicago, just as we have had during many protests going all the way back to when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was murdered. But I turned down some interviews with local press recently because they were fixated on it. They wanted to tour and see the “riots” up close and talk about what life was like “on the ground.” It was as if they wanted to go on a safari in the wild.
I did do a piece on Chicago Tonight on WTTW, which seemed largely respectful when it was filmed, until I watched it. Over my words, they ran images and footage of stores that were broken into and looted on the south side that were shown as if that “activity” had happened in my community. The casual observer would have inferred incorrectly that those stores were in our neighborhood. There was some damage here in Lawndale, but the media seemed intent on continuing the stereotypes about our community.
The reactions I have seen and heard over the past few weeks seem to fall into several categories. I will talk about them from the least to the most constructive in this moment:
- The least constructive come from the hard-core rule-of-law types. Apparently like our current President, they are angry and want looters and anyone doing damage to property arrested and shot. They see them as opportunists who do not really care about George Floyd and use it as an opportunity to steal some Nikes. This reaction, by the way, is not limited to white folks. There is a rainbow coalition who seem to hold this sentiment. Latinos is Chicago and Cicero attacked black folks that had the audacity to drive through their neighborhood because they thought they were looting. One man was speared through his chest and neck and another person was killed.
- The next level of reaction is from those who want to come in and “help.” They wanted to do quick, feel-good service projects. These ranged from coming out and doing a clean-up (complete with selfies) for a few hours, or volunteering to help store owners to do insurance claims or donating 50 lunches for families or some other one-time activity.
- On Saturday, June 6th, 2020, we had a community cleanup and I swear to you there were 5 white folks for every black person. Hundreds of folks descended upon our neighborhood to help us clean it up. Many I had never seen before nor expect to see again until the next “crisis” in our neighborhood. The problem is and continues to be that most of the damage from the few violent protesters had already been cleaned up by the time our helpers got there. We kind of appreciated the sentiment, but this help seemed aimed not so much for us as it was designed for them to ease their collective guilt and then go back to their largely homogeneous communities.
- The last group of reactions that I experienced were the most helpful. These folks realized that anger and quick fixes are not the right solution. They are people who already have authentic and sincere relationships with us and realize that the best answer right now for them is probably just to listen and not speak. They are ready to pitch in when invited. Real friends are reciprocal, not paternalistic. Their response is informed by humility and not hubris, connection and not condemnation. I don’t write this piece for them, and I apologize to them if it makes them feel badly; it shouldn’t.
The two Scripture passages at the beginning of this essay are an example of desperate people looting. You probably don’t think of it that way, but I am going to try to help you understand that it is. It is a story from the Book of Exodus in the Bible. Moses is leading the Israelites out of Egyptian captivity, where they have been enslaved for over 400 years (put a pin in that number) and lived in harsh conditions under a Pharaoh who exercised absolute power over them.
But after God’s plagues broke Pharaoh and he decided to let them go, the people “borrowed” some silver and gold and Louis Vuitton robes (I mean some clothes and utensils and maybe a little food and drink) on their way out of town as they headed for the promised land. That is, they plundered the Egyptians. C’mon now, admit that is what the Bible says happened. But because of their harsh treatment for 400 years, we justify and understand the humble “requests” the Hebrews made of the Egyptians to part with some of their wealth. Sounds a lot like “reparations,” doesn’t it?
Did not the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob hear the Hebrews’ cries, see their inhumane treatment, equip Moses to lead them out of captivity, and—oh, by the way—tell them it was ok to take a few souvenirs with them for their 400 years of troubles?
If so, why would the Lord be ok when they looted, but be mad when a few of our people loot?
I know you struggling with this, but I’m here to help give you some perspective. In 1968, when the riots that happened after Dr. King was assassinated tore through our community, all of the stores weren’t burned and looted. Mr. Edward Muldrow ran Del Kar Pharmacy. His son, Edwin, has run the store for the past 28 years, and he tells the story that his dad’s store was the spot that Dr. King in 1966 strolled down the street from his apartment at 1550 S Hamlin and bought his daily newspaper.
Mr. Muldrow senior was a black pharmacist at a time when there were very few. He took care of everyone in the community. When the riots started, leaders of street organizations made sure that his store was spared.
Last week, was very similar. Stores that were run by local shop owners who have respectful relationships with our community were mostly spared. But many of the stores in the neighborhood that take money out of the community and put next to nothing back were looted. Many of these store owners solicit and harass teenage girls every time they come in. They sell spoiled milk and bad meat at exorbitant prices. Their buildings look like they are abandoned, they serve us through plexiglass and throw our change at us because the workers don’t want to touch black peoples’ hands. They sell drug paraphernalia and loose cigarettes and cover their windows so you can’t see what’s going on inside. They ring up our items but don’t give itemized receipts.
Do these businesses deserve to be robbed and looted? No they don’t. But if you have not experienced decades of exploitation and blatant disrespect at the hands of these store owners, then you don’t understand why our people won’t be crying over some stolen goods. I won’t cry. Despite this daily reality for our people, the police are still more willing to guard these stores then care about the loss of life in our communities. The clearance rate on homicides in Chicago is the lowest in the nation. Black lives here clearly don’t matter, certainly not as much as they do in more affluent neighborhoods. And you know it.
But we started this reflection talking about looting, and I want to finish there. This week we also learned that a study was done by WBEZ that showed the abysmal disparity in lending in the black community by major banks and mortgage companies. It is entitled “Where Banks Don’t Lend. In Chicago, lenders have invested more in a single white neighborhood than all the black neighborhoods combined. It is modern-day redlining.” Google the story. Redlining means that banks and insurance companies draw a red line around communities where they won’t make loans or write insurance contracts.
Black wealth has been stripped from our communities in Chicago since we began moving here in large numbers in the 1950s. It is estimated that the “contract buying” scheme in Chicago alone stole between $3.2 and 4 billion dollars from black families over two decades. There are so many examples of this kind of “looting and property destruction” of black people since we were dragged here from Africa that I really don’t comprehend the current fetish about looting. Could it have more to do with politics than any real concern for us?
My charge to you is this: Be upset with ALL the looting that has taken place, not just the latest incidents. Be upset about mass incarceration of black men. Be upset with job losses due to globalization. Be upset about poor schools. Be upset about redlining. Use your privilege, connections and resources to help us build. We have a plan. Can you step up and follow our lead? From where I sit, the real looters are still looting….
(Richard Townsell is the Executive Director of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, a resident of the North Lawndale community in Chicago, and a long-time leader in United Power for Action and Justice, an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network of some 60 institutionally-based, fiercely independent, relational power organizations throughout the United States and in several other countries.)