A Target in Minneapolis, Minnesota marked with “ACAB” and “FTP” tags (via Lorie Shaull/Flickr)

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 reconquest 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.

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Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali Zamindar is an associate professor of history at Brown University and presently working on a book called The Ruin Archive: Art and War at the Ends of Empire. She is also...

11 replies on ““Looting”: The Revolt of the Oppressed”

  1. “The word looting prevents us from addressing the unrest as a rational, if angry, critique of this racial order.” Well, not really. Without being overly pedantic, it’s not the word but, rather, its deployment by certain factions that is intended to prevent us, etc. etc. That is, it is deployed with an overt ideological purpose. As the writer shows when stating “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.” How and where the word is deployed and what its referent is are all parts of a struggle – and in the case of those “activists and artists”, it’s a remarkably successful usage in that it reverses our sense of museums as ‘cultural holy places’.

    Not the word, then, but the people who use it…

  2. I agree with Mark, many good points made.

    Loot comes from the Hindi word lūṭ, from Sanskrit luṇṭh- ‘rob’, so it wasn’t exactly invented to be used in that original context.
    What complicates this is that in the original context it was obviously
    being used to be defamatory (in the same way that Trump is now using the
    word) and to incite a racist attitude towards the Indians at the time
    who were legitimately protesting injustice/colonialism. However, it seems that if they said “robbing and raping” instead of “looting and raping” it would have had the same effect of inciting racist anger.

    But of course there is the act of illegitimate looting/robbing (i.e. the history of colonialism), and as you and Mark point out, it’s effective to use the
    term in re: what museums have done, and that’s a great reason to continue
    using the word.

    I suppose my objection to the position of this article is the assumption
    that the action in question should always be forgiven or explained when
    done by people who have been mistreated, and presumably be talked about
    by using a word other than “looting.”

    But should the torching in recent days of a deli, or any other mom &
    pop store, often owned by someone who is brown or black, really get
    explained and excused because it’s done by people who have been
    historically mistreated? Is it about not using the word looting in
    reference to this (because it’s a racist term) and then walking away
    from the effects of that action?

    To me, the issue at hand isn’t about using that word, but using it when
    conflating the looting/robbing by people who might do it out of their
    rage (the minority of genuine protestors) versus that done by the (often
    white right wing etc) opportunists, which has largely been the case.

    What needs to get called out is the destruction done on purpose (by
    outsiders) to discredit the movement, but then in addition to deal with
    the lack of effectiveness of it when it’s being done by “insiders”
    because, as we know from other times when it happened, it usually just
    fucks up the neighborhoods of the people who are already being fucked

  3. ‘Now, after the US president called for the killing of those “looting,” ‘
    Starting with this ineptitude, how can I read your article, then?

        1. He didn’t say to kill anyone. And if even if he had, is that the great crime to hang your hat on? How about the black communities destroyed by the “looters” or rioters? How about the many black people killed by the “looters?” How about the innocent black people cowing in their homes, afraid of the “looters?” This isn’t a colony. The British aren’t oppressing us. 200 black people are killed by police a year. Most of them were armed and dangerous. 500 white people are killed by police a year. Most of them armed and dangerous. 2000 black people are killed by black people, most of them are innocent and unarmed. So, who are the oppressors? Find the statistic on how many white people are killed by black people and then revoke this thoughtless, ignorant, cliche of an article written by a jackass who took a colonialism class in college, and lives in a wealthy home somewhere, afraid to enter an urban neighborhood.

  4. Looting is wrong…………………. There is right and there is wrong and stealing is wrong…….. If a person is in need …………..then ask other people not the Government

  5. Many of the businesses ransacked and burned to the ground in LA were owned by 99%ers, not wealthy CEOs. Corporations who took the government “stimulus” several weeks ago, if they had any property that was harmed at all in the mayhem, can easily rebuild. Most of the mom and pop stores, whose owners, if they were lucky, got the one-time $1200 check, cannot. Ask *those* owners, like the elderly immigrant man on Melrose whose whole shop was robbed bare and then burned down, who did not have insurance coverage for “civil disturbances,” what they think about people ravaging their only livelihoods. If the rioting and burning was done to express anger at economic and class oppression, as in India, or the French Revolution, why weren’t the “looters” pillaging the palaces and mansions of wealthy CEOs in Beverly Hills or Hancock Park and carrying off mink bathrobes and Koons dogs? The rioters (as opposed to the protesters) were not rampaging for ideology, they were doing it for release and thrill. And some, apparently, (alt right “accelerators”) were doing it to throw shade on black people. Ordinary shop owners, and their families, and the people who worked at, and shopped at those neighborhood stores, not rich Wypeepo, not the 1%, will suffer the aftermath of that “looting” for years to come. The people who burned our communities down do not deserve a group hug.

  6. Wow! This is fascinating. A decisive diversion from the situation at hand. That the original peoples are protesting their rights and those in power are squishing it with saying distracting things like “looters and rapists”. Happening for so many many years…..

  7. Similarly, Obama called rioters in Baltimore “thugs” in 2015, interestingly also an Indian-sourced word, as did Baltimore’s African-American mayor, Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. “Thuggees” were a plague of 14th century remorseless bandits who waylaid travelers and robbed and murdered them. Megan Garber wrote in an article for The Atlantic that using that term is a “very effective way of suggesting that the people who are doing the rioting and who are being called thugs don’t actually have a right to their outrage.” But as Councilman Carl Stokes said, “It’s not the right word to call our children ‘thugs.’ These are children who have been set aside, marginalised, who have not been engaged by us.” It is absolutely telling that we use the same words that the British used to disparage the people they colonized, to disparage the people we not only colonized but enslaved for centuries, as well as to discount their right to rage.

  8. Everything is seen through the goggles of discrimination. When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

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