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Spike Lee and the ethics of looting

milk before cereal

So many people are “all for” anti-racism measures yet uncomfortable with the nature of the Black Lives Matter movement. “Obviously” they condemn racism, but they’re mostly concerned about whether looting and violence are reasonable responses to George Floyd’s death.

This is the wrong starting point. We should be asking ourselves why in a world riddled with unethical behavior we choose to single out protestors for moral condemnation and why we believe that victims must be perfect in order to deserve our compassion and support.

I don’t need to reinvent the wheel here. Almost 31 years after its release, Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” remains eerily applicable to understanding and reconciling property damage with anti-Blackness.

The film takes place on the hottest day of the summer in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn and centers on Mookie, a charming yet unambitious delivery guy at the local Italian pizzeria.

The day ends with the owner of the pizza shop, Sal, bickering with two community members and long-time customers. Sal argues with Buggin’ Out about the lack of diversity on the pizzeria’s wall of fame and Radio Raheem about the volume of his boombox. Buggin’ Out threatens to boycott Sal’s and refers to him with an ethnic slur. Sal responds by calling him the n-word and destroying Raheem’s boombox. 

Raheem attacks Sal. The police arrive and break up the fight by placing Raheem into a chokehold, which kills him. The police officers drive off out of fear, leaving the pizzeria alone with an enraged crowd. Before the crowd has time to react, Mookie hurls a trash can through the window of the restaurant. The crowd destroys the pizzeria and sets it on fire.

The question that the audience ultimately asks is whether Mookie did “the right thing” by starting a riot after Radio Raheem was murdered. But how can we possibly single out Mookie as the single recipient of moral criticism in a movie where almost every character is flawed but ultimately understandable? How can we possibly define for Mookie how he should feel in response to injustices that are merely theoretical concerns for non-Black people? Why do we critique and judge the every move of the victim when the intuitive approach is to dissect what preceded it? 

Lee’s aim is not to be didactic, but rather to show how it’s possible to have sympathy for individuals who are neither perfectly good nor evil. 

The movie helps us to understand why it’s so much more productive to interrogate structures of racism instead of individual characters. Mookie or Sal being right or wrong should not determine whether or not we acknowledge and remedy our participation in unequal systems. The point of the movie’s title is that the question of right or wrong is hardly a question worth asking when you consider the complexities of individual agency within larger structures of oppression and generations of pain.

It is totally normal to be sad about destruction and violence generally, but it is incoherent for the actions of protestors to delegitimize the goals of BLM for you. The point of the movie is that victims are rarely “perfect” and that our criticism of their oppressors should not stem from the complete innocence of the victim, but rather because their life matters—regardless of what they’ve done, and particularly when outraged by a broken criminal justice system. 

It’s okay to be disappointed with looters who are uninterested in advancing Black issues and mad that the livelihoods of small business owners are being damaged. But it always seems to be the case that these talking points are meant to leave a bad taste in our mouths, chip away at the movement’s purpose and allow you to flinch in the face of injustice. Regardless, these concerns should be, if anything, reasons to invest in a more compassionate society and to be infuriated with the inequality that continuously ignites conflict.

The voices that choose to focus on looting are often the ones that fail to grasp how much this society has taken from Black families psychologically and materially even after emancipation. Evaluating individual instances of theft in a vacuum is an abstraction that distorts reality particularly when the economic and social consequences of generations upon generations of theft are so apparent. My argument isn’t to reject any sympathies you have with bystanders, but to consider whether you are doing the same work to empathize with the Black lived experience, something isolated and unrelatable for most of Duke. It’s hard to believe that you truly care about insured Target merchandise when other instances of robbery such as wage theft, land dispossession, predatory lending, and the destruction of Black Wall Street can fly under the radar.

Moreover, placing the onus of civility and compassion on the side of the protestors appears even more outrageous in light of racial history. Believing that BLM loses legitimacy due to rioting would suggest that the unrest and violence brought about by Nat Turner’s Rebellion or the Haitian Revolution should be pitted on slaves and not the institution of slavery. Comparing the status quo to slavery is hyperbole, but the logic of the positionality between oppressed and oppressor is valuable as comparison. 

Do you understand how ridiculous you sound when you argue that both sides can share equal degrees of responsibility, or that you somehow dislike the larger structures at play but shut down any response that makes you remotely uncomfortable? 

At the end of the day, the people who constantly bring up the issue of looting are telling on themselves. You can say all the right things about racism, but we know that at the bottom of your heart lies a deeper and truer connection with businesses.

It’s honestly embarrassing and suspicious to be so dismissive of protest, so angry about looting and simultaneously so stubbornly averse to changes that could remedy the protests’ initial concerns. It signals to all of us that you’re looking for literally any reason to not support a movement centered around making Black life grievable.

Ask yourself: is looting what truly disturbs you or is it a simple talking point to help you justify your neutrality on issues that would otherwise force you to grapple with America’s problems?

David Min is a Trinity junior. His column, milk before cereal, runs on alternate Mondays. Special thanks to Dani Yan for his contributions to this column. Black Lives Matter.

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