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When the Hindi word “loot” entered the English language in 1788 as a word for plunder and mayhem (as noted by the Oxford English Dictionary), it came into the language to serve an essentially racist function. It was meant to distinguish Europeans from non-Europeans — the word’s “Eastern origin” was meant to denote an intrinsic inclination in “natives,” their fundamentally avaricious, unruly character, and which therefore required the brutal civilizing violence of European colonial masters. Europeans could engage in wholesale plunder in the colonies, but this was considered lawful cultural and economic activity, including the massive dispossession and forced migration of Asian and African art into European and American museums. Certainly, when artists and activists point out that Western museums are full of “loot,” they do so in order to strip away the facade of lawful “collecting” that underpins the legitimacy of museum collections.
But looting is not merely lawless or illegitimate activity — the racial character of the word rests in its relationship to the colonial idea that “natives” are unruly as they are without reason — it is as such a word emptied of politics. This emptying out of politics from the word “looting” is vital to note. It denies the political consciousness of the oppressed, it denies the ability of the oppressed to form a critique of an oppressive and exploitative order, and it denies the right of the oppressed to take action on their own terms.
When Donald Trump tweeted on May 29 calling for violence against those looting, right in the midst of protests sparked by George Floyd’s murder, the message by the President of the United States was not simply unconscionably thoughtless; it must be regarded as a calculated deployment of the word “looting.” We have seen in the days since how that word has triggered a massive militarized state response in many cities across the country protesting Floyd’s murder and the systemic and unrelenting violence against Black lives. In my own city of Providence, some “looting” has led to a nightly curfew, the National Guards have been called in, and helicopters are loudly encircling overhead for a second night in a row.
In this contemporary context, it’s important to understand “looting,” this Indian word in the English language, why it is being deployed here, and the work it has been doing for more than two centuries. To understand this word is to understand that a different set of words could yield very different people-centered responses to the urgent and necessary mandate of ending racism at the heart of the modern world.
Here is an example of how the term was used in colonial India where it entered the lexicon of imperialism: When the Great Revolt of 1857 took place against the East India Company’s rule in India, one of the largest revolts of the 19th century against the British empire, it started with the mutiny of its Indian soldiers who were immediately called “looters and rapists.” Imagery of Indian soldiers looting British residencies went viral in 19th-century terms, in that it became one of the most reproduced images of the revolt in circulation in Britain. This description of the revolt served to justify the extremely bloody re–conquest of India that followed, and the denial that this was even a revolt. This refusal of the political consciousness of the people that rose up meant that the violence of imperial rule continued unchecked without substantial debate in Britain until antiracist and anti-colonial struggles rose again in the 20th century.
So here we are again. As the word “looting” fills the news channels and is driving the response of mayors and governors, we need to recognize the imperial racial history of this word. It is a denial of the politics of what is happening, and of the political consciousness of those engaged in not just civil protest, but also civil unrest. Indeed, this is a time of extraordinary precarity that has exposed the historic racial biases that shape poverty, hunger, policing, and death. The word looting prevents us from addressing the unrest as a rational, if angry, critique of this racial order. It prevents us from understanding and responding appropriately to what this is — a revolt of the oppressed.