The economics and sociology of ‘looting’ during ‘riots’


Sounds like a defence of the looting in US cities.

Shouldn’t you at least hold your fire till you’ve heard me out?

That’s what Trump said! But seriously, the violence we’re witnessing in several US cities following the death by choking of George Floyd, is arguably the most widespread civil disturbance in the US in decades.

And there’s a rationale for it?

Sociologists, historians and economists have been trying to understand why such violent outbursts happen, and they have some theories about it. These theories may apply also to riots and looting in other geographies, including in India.

In a seminal research paper from 1969, titled Dissensus and Consensus in Community Emergencies: Patterns of Looting and Property Norms, sociologists EL Quarantelli and Russell R Dynes at the Ohio State University set out to “advance an explanation of looting in terms of changes in certain crucial group norms, particularly those pertaining to property, at times of major crises.” Critically, they made a distinction between looting behaviour during times of natural disasters (when people may be desperate) and during times of civil disturbance.

That seems an important distinction.

Yes, and according to them, one of the striking aspects about looting in civil disturbances is its collective character: looters often work together in pairs, as family units or small groups — in contrast to natural disasters, where it is carried out by “solitary individuals”. Additionally, during civil disturbances, looting “is not a private act”: goods are taken openly and in full view of others. Whereas in natural disasters, such looting as occurs is covert and secret, they added.

What accounts for the brazenness?

Quanrantelli and Dynes reasoned that in civil disturbances, there is a “redefinition of property rights”: if property is thought of as the shared understanding of who can do what with the valued resources within a community, that understanding breaks down during civil disturbances, they noted.

Does this justify the violence?

Violence doesn’t solve anything. But as Paul Heideman, a scholar of American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, notes in a recent article in American Left magazine Jacobin, rioting is “a rational response to grinding poverty and oppression” — and can be effective in forcing social change. Historian Ashley M Howard, in her 2012 paper Prairie Fires: Urban rebellions as black working class politics even disavows the use of the word ‘riots’ and ‘rioters’, and sees the “urban rebellions” (of the 1960s) as “a form of gendered, working-class black community activism.”

To me, that sounds like an apologia for looting.

Perhaps, but guess who else has ‘defended’ looting? When the US invaded Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, the power vacuum triggered an epidemic of looting of hospitals, museums and businesses. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld airily dismissed it, saying: “Freedom is untidy.”

Britain’s Defence Minister Geoff Hoon, faithful to his Labour Party’s economic philosophy of wealth redistribution, said that the looters were actually “liberating” the items from the erstwhile regime and “redistributing that wealth among the Iraqi people.”

Will any good come of all this now?

In a 2019 paper, Can Violent Protest Change Local Policy Support?, social and political scientists Ryan D Enos, Aaron R Kaufman and Melissa L Sands, who studied the political landscape after the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the police beating of Rodney King, concluded that the riot caused a liberal shift in policy support — most likely as a result of increased mobilisation of both African-American and White voters. We could see something similar this time too.

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