Television screens throughout the US, and around the world, have broadcast in recent days images of Baltimore in crisis: young people of color on the streets clashing with police, protesters marching peacefully shoulder to shoulder, and a relatively small number of city residents taking food, toiletries, and consumer goods from stores. Naturally, the forces of political reaction both in the media and society at large have attempted to isolate these incidents – ‘looting’ they call it – in order to demonstrate the purported savagery and lawlessness of people and communities of color.
“You see?” the racist narrative goes, “They have no respect for property or the law,” or some such variation on this theme. However, as should be expected, the political and media establishment demonstrate an incredible degree of hypocrisy in portraying the events in such a manner. For while in 2015 media outlets such as the allegedly center-left MSNBC and CNN, and the unabashedly right wing FOX News, propagate a shamelessly racist narrative of “thugs” and “criminals” on the streets of Baltimore or Ferguson, these same media outlets almost without exception worked hand in hand with the Bush administration to justify similar actions in Iraq. So too have the media been complicit in presenting biased narratives of US wars in places like Libya and Syria where the media parroted Washington’s talking points to justify and/or condemn whichever actions were politically expedient at the time.
Examining the issue further, the questions of power and “otherness” are also unavoidable. When the powerless and marginalized – those who are not deemed worthy by the establishment – engage in such actions, they are described as violent thugs. When the powerful engage in far worse actions, they are deemed righteous. Whether it is the looting of cultural artifacts by British and French imperialists in Africa, the wholesale slaughter of indigenous peoples by American settlers, or the wholesale plunder and exploitation of entire continents, such actions are somehow justified by their historical context and role in modern social and cultural formation.
From Baltimore to Baghdad
Were one to examine the events of the last week in Baltimore purely through the lens of the corporate media and political class, one would get the sense that the actions of a small minority of the black community constitute egregious and criminal acts of savagery and barbarism, acts that could have no possible justification. Indeed, one could be forgiven for thinking so, as even President Obama (you know, “the First Black President”) had nothing but words of condemnation and contempt. As Obama explained to the media:
There’s no excuse for the kind of violence we saw yesterday. It is counterproductive…When individuals get crowbars and start prying open doors to loot, they’re not protesting. They’re not making a statement. They’re stealing. When they burn down a building, they’re committing arson… A handful of people [are] taking advantage of the situation for their own purposes, and they need to be treated as criminals.
Here Obama reveals not only an ignorance of the nature of these actions, but also a complete disregard for the systemic and institutionalized social and economic violence perpetrated against these communities for decades. While Obama waxes poetic about “property owners” being “stolen from” he has little to nothing to say about the fact that the people who live in those communities are almost entirely shut out from property ownership themselves; that the true owners are the real estate developers, speculators, financiers, and economic elites from the affluent communities. This is the class that perpetrates the true violence by exploiting the economic blight left by unequal wealth distribution, the elimination of employment opportunities, the breakdown of communities thanks to police violence, drug abuse, and countless other preventable phenomena that are the symptom, not the cause, of poverty and desperation. And make no mistake, it is poverty, desperation, and frustration that is transmogrified into violence.