A Standard Worth Keeping: Don't Steal Other People's Stuff
While covering the Portland protests in 2020, I met several anarchists. I've stayed in touch with one, and while we don't often agree on issues, our messages have always been congenial. Last week, he wanted to "alert" me to an upcoming budget deal in New York that included "pre-trial jailing for petty theft, like shoplifting diapers or baby formula." I responded that everything from toothpaste to vitamins are now locked up at my local CVS; that the past two times I've been there a theft was in progress, resulting in employees who seemed demoralized and unsure what to do - "The cops can't do anything when we call," one quietly told me -- and what did he suggest?
"I suggest," he wrote back, "people mind their own business when poor people steal from corporations. It's not a stranger’s or an employee’s job to police the store."
I asked how he knew the shoplifters were poor and countered that taking care of the store was in fact exactly an employee's job.
"You can call it 'policing' to make it sound pejorative - which is frankly a cheap shot - but people often love and count on their jobs to, you know, take care of their kids," I messaged him on Twitter. I added that the idea that only 'corporations' were getting dinged was garbage (a recent Wall Street Journal article reported that a survey of 700 small businesses "found that 54% had an increase in shoplifting last year"); that there was no way a business can survive thousands of dollars marching out of the store each day; and asked that he please not invoke “insurance covers it"- which I heard all the time in Portland with regard to stores being vandalized - because it doesn't.
He didn't. He didn't respond at all. So much for congenial conversation.
I tweeted about the exchange.
In addition to predictable expressions of outrage ("My thoughts are crack down on the bastards" "B**ch when did you ever want for anything") (another day in Twitter paradise!), I received comments from two friends, each of whom I think a lot of:
"How about the hundreds of millions [businesses] take in corporate tax subsidies when they automatically round up your purchase for 'charity'? And putting low-wage employees in the middle of it all is disgusting. Nobody should go to Rikers over Tide Pods."
"Stealing is clearly immoral and has been in every society since the dawn of history... And to those people who believe that 'property is theft' and for-profit business is bad so, it is OK to steal from them, my answer is another ancient chestnut of moral reasoning since pre-history: Two wrongs don't make a right."
While I agreed more with the second, I could appreciate that others saw fairness in the first. Still, I could not sync how ripping off a large corporation was considered tolerable, even laudable, while stealing from a small business presumably was not. Where did one draw that line? Did the people who considered stealing from CVS an ethical way to balance of the economic scales also not wear Adidas, visit Starbucks, subscribe to Netflix? And if one is able to whistle past theft, what’s the next stop on this train? Plenty of people were at one time all-in on smashing the storefronts of Jewish businesses, on bombing schoolgirls in Alabama, on currently accusing a neighboring country of being "Nazi-fied" and thus slaughtering with impunity. How did people think these campaigns started?
They usually start in the same stupid way, with distortions that create fear of "the other,” a deliberate debasement that makes it easy to perpetrate small atrocities and then bigger ones. Now perpetrators have something interesting on their hands, something that takes on the contours of power, and it’s captivating. It also seems to be whispering that they are the good people and thus get to make the rules. Do they consider how rotted those rules must be if enforcement requires thievery, intimidation, murder? I am sure some do. But the systems by which they stand cannot support doubt; ask questions and the whole thing comes tumbling down.
This is why, I think, the anarchists in Portland never answered my questions about why they committed the same acts of vandalism night after night after night, why they repeated stock phrases ("All cops are bastards!" "Photography equals death!") instead of explaining why they broke the windows of businesses that didn't have anything to do with anything. I appreciate that it's easier to shout-and-smash than it is to be articulate about a movement predicated on shouting and smashing, and that maybe my anarchist acquaintance similarly could not support his theft-is-good argument and so, clammed up.
Had he chosen to continue the conversation, I would have asked if he recalled the hellfire that rained down on Mitt Romney when he said, during his 2012 presidential run, "corporations are people." But actually, that's true! Let's look, for instance, at the Q-Tips now locked inside a case at CVS. Many are made in a facility in Long Island City, New York, with materials primarily from India and China. They are packaged, shipped, stocked, rung up. No doubt there are Q-tip meetings and advertising campaigns. The infrastructure required to make a Q-Tip is insane, untold thousands along the supply chain.
Those who boycott CVS are, in ways that add up, saying screw you to a lot of people, some of whom are poor. Which is their right to do! In America for now (and I hope forever), we get to choose where we shop. And I am not implying there are not shit-heel practices at companies large and small. But pretending there are not actual humans all the way down, at every business, is fallacious and comes with grave hazards. Caricaturing people (as pigs, rats, gorillas, fat-cats, TERFS, Trumpers, elitists, men) in order to dehumanize them is a lazy shortcut. It allows you to fight not persons but a faceless blob, on which you can paste whatever accusations necessary to justify cruelty, including seeing civilians murdered in Bucha not as human beings but targets.
I am not equating stealing a pack of Pampers with genocide. I am saying the impulse to approve of such actions is much the same and will not usher in the better worlds people claim they are fighting for.
But you know what? Maybe I am making this all too complicated. Maybe the boycotting, the sloganeering, the break-it-like-you-just-don't-care is just a phase. Maybe, like shoplifting, it's something young people feel emboldened to do for a year or two, without much fear of penalization. My friends and I were caught stealing panties and lip gloss when we were fourteen and essentially told by security, "Go home." By sixteen I understood that any form of theft was wrong.
People and institutions across the country have decided I was wrong to come to that conclusion. That, in a twist on the Gordon Gecko edict, “Theft is good.” My anarchist pal said so; pro-looting authors are given air time on public radio to say so. And if cities like San Francisco do not wholly condone theft, they are nevertheless having a difficult time deciding what qualifies as theft. Maybe imagining that Walgreen's (which since 2019 has closed 11 of its SF locations, citing an increase in retail theft "five times our chain average") is being cleaned out by parents with hungry children rather than people selling what they steal offers solace. Maybe the selling is seen as a necessary redistribution. Maybe they think it’s not their business to think about it at all, b**ch when did you ever want for anything?
Is the issue all tangled up with discussions of race? Yes, because 2022. It is hard to imagine the protests of Gibson's Bakery occurring with the same fervency had the shoplifter, who attended nearby Oberlin College, been white. Is there justice in Gibson's last week winning a $32 million libel suit against the college, which had aided and encouraged the boycotting of the 137-year-old family-run bakery? I don’t know. I do know that it having to go that far is absurd. A college freshman stole two bottles of wine. These were not necessities, and he wasn't poor. We forgive children for doing immature things, and a very good argument can be made that an underage kid trying to use a fake ID to buy liquor and instead steals it is the very definition of immaturity. But so is the idea that we should look past the law to accommodate such behavior, depending on which way the ideological weathervane blows today.
I don’t fault young people (though college-age is not that young) for behaving idiotically. I do find it pathetic that the adults at Oberlin did not have it within themselves to say, "Hey kid, stop stealing" and call it a day. Not doing so caused confusion and pain and cost millions and encouraged the corrosion of a standard I will argue is worth keeping: That we do not steal other people's stuff.
People will continue to see theft and destruction as moral imperatives. They will tell themselves they are the good guys, activists for economic and social justice, people who rightly get charged up saying, fuck that family at Gibson’s, fuck the check-out girl at CVS, these people are the enemy or in collusion with the enemy. They will send alerts encouraging young people especially to see enemies; to see paying for a tube of toothpaste as a chance to be taken advantage of, but leave out the part they’ve yet to acknowledge, that the world is as only as small and as mean as you make it.