Professor: “Looting Is An Expression Of Power”

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Michael Smerconish had an interesting discussion today with Professor Cliffort Scott, Professor of Social Psychology at Keele University.  Scott believes that rioting should not be portrayed as random and without meaning.  I think that is true. There are deeper causes that should be considered when considering violent dimensions to some protests. While I find Professor Scott’s work on protests and “hooliganism” quite interesting, I do not agree with his assertion on the program that “looting is an expression of power.” It is more often a means of acquisition not expression (unless they are expressing their desire for a Nintendo Switch). In other words, it is a crime act that arises in a myriad of public emergencies that offer an opportunity to steal with less risk of detection or arrest.

Scott is the co-author of such work as Stott C and Radburn M. 2020. Understanding crowd conflict: social context, psychology and policing. Current Opinion in Psychology, vol. 35, 76-80.  I commend his research to you because such work can challenge assumptions and bias in viewing scenes of violent demonstrations.

However, it is the looting point that I find troubling and less compelling.  Scott invoked Dr. Martin Luther King who once said riots are “the voices of the unheard.”  It is obviously not a view shared by Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms who declared last night: “This is not a protest. This is not in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr. This is chaos.”  Likewise, Minnesota Tim Walz objected last night “The absolute chaos — this is not grieving, and this is not making a statement [about an injustice].”  Today he called claims of the violence as an “expression” is a “mockery.”

Sometimes a crime is a crime.  Deterrence is often found in the relationship between the rate of detection and the severity of punishment. As detection falls, increases penalties can theoretically achieve the same deterrence.  When detection rises, penalties can be lower.  During a public emergency a rational actor can conclude that the chances are lower that they will be detected or arrests. The result of the reduction of deterrence is greater crime.

I have previously discussed my problem with the media “guide” to refer to rioters or looters as protesters.  I think that framing of such terms is as artificial as claiming that everyone involved in a riot is just drawn to mayhem. I have the same reaction to Professor Scott’s view of looting.  I fail to see how running out of a Target with a flat-screen television is an expression of anything other than opportunistic crime.

231 thoughts on “Professor: “Looting Is An Expression Of Power””

  1. Jonathan: There is “looting” and then there is LOOTING. When blacks rebel against systematic police racism and run out of a store with a flat-screen TV that’s “looting” that needs to be condemned as an “opportunistic crime”. But what about the “looting” that takes place in black and other communities of color around the country almost every day? This is when mostly white investors come into a minority community and evict tenants and mortgage holders who have lost their jobs due to the coronavirus. Investors won’t call this “looting” but simply investing in “distressed properties”.

    And what about Wall Street and the poster child for “looting” Bernie Madoff? He “looted” thousands of investors of their savings. In 2009 Les Leoplold wrote a book titled “The Looting of America, how Wall Street game of fantasy finance destroyed. our jobs, pensions and prosperity”. In the book Leopold shows how Wall Street devised exotic financial products, like “collateralized debt obligations”, that “looted” trillions of dollars from the global economy. And then there is Jordan Belfort whose memoir was turned into a movie “The Wolf of Wall Street” starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Belfort became infamous for his “pump-and-dump” schemes that “looted” investors of as much as $200 billion. Belfort was finally caught and convicted of money laundering and securities fraud (where was Trump and William Barr when Belfort needed them?). Belfort was sentenced to 4 years but only served 22 months.

    This brings us to your “opportunistic crime” and a black person who left a Target store with a flat-screen TV. Had this person been arrested, convicted and sentenced it is doubtful he would be released after just 22 months. But that’s how the justice system works in this country where black people get more severe prison terms than white people of means. For some academics we should not focus on the “opportunistic crime[s]” of the Bernie Madoffs or the Belforts of this world but on those committed by black people who rebel against the murder of George Floyd. That’s how skewed your analysis is of what happens in communities of color.

    1. Dennis McIntyre – Bill Clinton was President for the Belfort pump and dump, why do you want to know where Barr and Trump were?

  2. Here’s a thought:

    What happens when the “looters” hook up those “smart” TVs they stole and the units promptly report their FCC ID number and location which will be checked against store accounting records.

    Nothing like handing the evidence straight to the prosecutors. If you’re in a riot area, please make the aforementioned a suggestion to your local authorities.

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