What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Looting

Whether it’s Philadelphia in 2023, Minneapolis and Portland in 2020, Baltimore in 2015, or Ferguson in 2014, America fails to hear what the people are saying when riots and looting occur.

looting philadelphia 1964

A man walks by a boarded-up door on a shop in North Philadelphia after two nights of race riots and looting there on August 30, 1964. / Photograph by Underwood Archives/Getty Images

At the end of his life, Dr. Martin Luther King was unpopular in the eyes of the public. This was because King was opposed to the Vietnam War while pushing for the expansion of civil rights for Black people and economic rights for the poor. I can’t help but think that his comments concerning riots in urban communities didn’t help.

In a 1967 speech titled “The Other America,” King doubled down on his commitment to non-violent direct action. However, he refused to condemn riots, insisting they expressed what he called “the language of the unheard.”

For King, condemning riots without condemning “the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society … that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention” would be hypocritical. In Philadelphia today, though, the resounding refrain is that the looting happening in the city, as a form of “civil disobedience,” is antithetical to peaceful protests.

There is widespread belief that municipal judge Wendy Pew was wrong in dismissing all charges against former Philadelphia police officer Mark Dial for the murder of Eddie Irizarry. In addition, there is widespread belief that rioting and looting can’t be justified by the judge’s decision … nor can any form of injustice, for that matter. However, King’s words still ring true. Riots — and looting — continue to serve as the language of the unheard.

To understand why, one must ask, as King did: What has America failed to hear? According to King, our nation “has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last 12 or 15 years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Whether it’s Philadelphia in 2023, Minneapolis and Portland in 2020, Baltimore in 2015, or Ferguson in 2014, America continues in its failure to hear what the people are saying when riots and looting occur. Really, it should come as no surprise; even a U.S. president refused to hear it.

Back when urban riots erupted in Detroit, Watts and Newark during the late 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson wondered why, after the major legislative accomplishments of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts. To get answers, he convened the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders.

That commission issued a report in 1968 saying that the riots seen around the country at the time were attributable to systemic racism, police brutality, and the lack of economic opportunity for Black people. Who was at fault? According to the report, “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

What white society doesn’t condone is unrest and resistance to what it created.

Intolerance to Black resistance dates back to the days of enslavement. According to historian Herbert Aptheker, sabotage — including setting fires to incite a riot — was a form of resistance by Black people to that enslavement. New York City offers two examples. On April 6, 1712, a group of enslaved Africans set fire to the house of Peter Van Tilburgh in Manhattan to alert others to begin rebellion. In 1741, enslaved Africans, in that city, along with poor whites, set a series of fires to spur rebellion from March 18th to April 6th.

There’s a Philadelphia example, too … without the conflagration. An eight-day riot commenced here on July 4, 1804, in which “as many as 200 Black Philadelphians took to the streets in the form of a rebellion … St. Domingo style.”

Inspired by the Haitian Revolution and the struggles of enslaved Africans of the former Saint Domingue (Haiti) who had arrived in Philadelphia with their captors who’d fled the island, Black Philadelphians took to the streets with, according to historian Leslie Alexander of Rutgers University, “clubs and swords” to protest against enslavement — as a last resort to the ignored petitions of such Black Philadelphians as Richard Allen, Absalom Jones and James Forten.

Yet instead of being stirred to moral outrage over injustice, white settlers universally concerned themselves with reestablishing order and protecting their property — man and material alike. This prioritizing has continued to the present day, with whites considering property damage more important than addressing injustice and offering adequate redress.

As a result, the collective American posture has been to put property over people in the name of order, because justice can ever only happen with, as noted in Brown v. Board of Education II, all “deliberate speed.”

Throughout history, when property is stolen or damaged — whether by an African who flees the plantation or an African American fleeing with an iPhone — as an act of resistance to injustice, white condemnation follows. King, in his own words, was “absolutely convinced that a riot merely intensifies the fears of the white community while relieving the guilt.” He realized that the destruction of property is an excuse for ignoring the systemic destruction of lives — because protecting property has always been part of the language of America.

The time for America to learn a new language is long overdue.

Rann Miller is an educator and freelance writer based in Southern New Jersey. His Urban Education Mixtape blog supports urban educators and parents of children attending urban schools. Miller is also the author of Resistance Stories from Black History for Kids, with an anticipated release date of an expanded edition on February 4, 2024. You can follow him on Twitter @RealRannMiller.