Condemnations of Chicago “Looting” Prioritize Property Over Black Lives

The city of Chicago, like many large urban centers that serve as home to significant numbers of Black people, is often misunderstood and pummeled with the markers of being “violent” and “dangerous.” Despite the city’s desire to publicize its tourism and other neoliberal amenities to attract global financial capital, people visiting the city are generally warned against going to its South or West sides, where the vast majority of Black people live.

These narratives about Chicago’s “dangerousness” tend to erase long-standing structural violence. Mainstream media outlets often limit discussions of violence to interpersonal interactions or damage to property. People are steered toward visceral images of “looting,” a gang brawl, or a shooting, and many accept these glimpses as the general narrative on how violence operates, and accept the perceived need to suppress and arrest the perpetrators.

While this imagery serves as fodder for the “law and order” rhetoric of politicians, it wrongly reduces the problem to the actions of a few people behaving in ways that the mainstream deem to be unruly or inappropriate. Missing from these conversations is an understanding of violence at the structural or institutional level. Because structural considerations are viewed as “too complex” or “too big” to address, we are still offered the same tired solutions that do not consider violence as a series of processes that are often state-sanctioned and structural, and that deepen violence at the interpersonal level.

During this time of multiple major global and local crises, we must develop a wholly different understanding of violence. We must acknowledge that it is nuanced, structural and institutional – and we must recognize the necessity of dissent and self-determination.

These concerns are of particular importance to me when I consider the events of August 9 and 10 in Chicago. In the predominantly Black neighborhood of Englewood, a 20-year-old Black man named Latrell Allen was shot by police. The “official” police account was that there was a call reporting a shooting near a playground where young people were present. When police arrived on the scene, Latrell reportedly fled and a pursuit ensued, reportedly coupled with the exchange of gunfire from both parties. The police shot Latrell in the shoulder, resulting in his immediate hospitalization. He is currently being held on $1 million dollar bond and is charged with two counts of attempted murder and one count of unlawful use of a weapon.

It is important to note that eyewitness accounts provide a conflicting narrative, in addition to Latrell’s mother alerting media that her son stated that he did not have a gun. Meanwhile, the officers involved had their body cameras turned off. Plus, federal guidelines issued in a Department of Justice consent decree for Chicago recommend that police do not give chase if someone is running.

As word spread of the shooting through a social media post, misinformation circulated leading residents first to believe that a 15-year-old had been shot fifteen times by the police. As concerned residents arrived on the scene, the police did nothing to deescalate tensions between themselves and community members. Later that night, a series of unauthorized appropriations of property (commonly referenced as looting) took place in two areas, one being an epicenter of the city’s wealth, a shopping area known as the Magnificent Mile. As stores were damaged, the vast majority of property damage was done to multi-national retail outlets whose buildings and products are insured.

The ongoing outrage of Englewood residents over police violence is reasonable given the history of Chicago police killing Black youth, as in the 2014 case of Laquan McDonald, who was shot sixteen times by officer Jason Van Dyke. Residents of Chicago didn’t know about the killing until almost a year after the actual event, as the city suppressed video from a police dashboard camera to support the mayor’s election campaign. To this day, then mayor Rahm Emanuel has never been charged with obstruction of justice.

It is important to note that the community of Englewood, like many Black neighborhoods in Chicago and across the country, has a strained and contested relationship with law enforcement. As the community experiences disinvestment in the form of food deserts, lack of living-wage employment, school closings, longitudinal health disparities and violent policing, law enforcement presents no viable solutions to the myriad of Englewood’s concerns.

Instead, many residents of Englewood understand the police to operate as an occupying force. An example of this is when an opened “bait truck” filled with sneakers was placed in the middle of their neighborhood in 2018 with the intent to entrap people who went in to take shoes. Long before the current COVID moment, Englewood residents were very familiar with the pre-existing pandemics of white supremacy, late-stage capitalism and the carceral state.

Activist-scholar Dr. kihana miraya ross reminds us that anti-Black violence “is not based on any specific thing a black person did” but should be understood as what it means to live under a gratuitous and unrelenting violence at the hands of the state. Her work pushes us to understand that mainstream, white society only considers certain types of violence when commenting on the predicament of Black people.

Rarely are food deserts, closed schools, health disparities, staggering unemployment and housing insecurity considered to be acts of state-sanctioned violence, collectively more damaging than the destruction of property where no human was injured. Anti-Blackness alerts us that the state will always value property over Black life. And because private property is often the stolen or hoarded possessions of the white and wealthy, any perceived violation of what is theirs is construed as deserving of harsh punishment.

Young people who live under these conditions are well aware of the precarity of their lives. The nuance of their response stands out because they refused to vandalize their own communities and took their anger into the mouth of power to take from the people who really won’t miss the material items in the first place.

Some may read my comments as condoning violence and the destruction of property. To their interpretation I offer the following: The larger world refuses to see what it means to be Black, poor, hungry and fed up. Dissent — as the process of differing in sentiment, opinion and action from the majority — does not always come out in clear, concise and organized ways. Instead, it can be uneven, messy, disjointed and in the worst-case scenario, harmful to those that engage in the dissent.

In the end, I see last week’s events in Chicago as Black youth alerting the city that something has been tragically wrong for a long time. They are telling us that they do not agree with what’s happening to them and they are not concerned about whether or not the mainstream is sympathetic to their methods of response.

I understand these dissenters’ actions as a message of self-determination that cannot be ignored. As bankruptcies, foreclosures, evictions, unemployment, and remote learning loom large, many are concerned that the current moment will worsen before it gets better. Instead of worrying, it is in these moments that I am convinced that what we need — revolution — is closer than we think. When those who are suffering have made the determination to end their suffering, a new day is near.