NPR and New Book's Indefensible Defense of Looting | Opinion

I keep thinking about the interview I encountered on NPR's latest offering, a new podcast called Code Switch: Race. In Your Face. The journalist, Natalie Escobar, was interviewing a white Marxist academic, Vicky Osterweil, about her new book from Hachette Book Group called In Defense of Looting.

And I keep thinking about four minority business owners in Minneapolis—three African-American and one Hispanic—and what their response would likely have been to the latest offering from one of America's premier book publishers, and one of America's biggest taxpayer-funded media companies.

First, let's go to the NPR interview. It started with Escobar asking the white progressive author about the definition of looting. "When I use the word looting, I mean the mass expropriation of property, mass shoplifting during a moment of upheaval or riot," Osterweil began. "That's the thing I'm defending. I'm not defending any situation in which property is stolen by force."

Rather than challenge the almost Orwellian new definition of looting that was conjured in thin air by the guest, Escobar plowed ahead. The NPR enabler sought further clarification on the reason why looting is morally defensible. Osterweil happily complied.

"It gets people what they need for free immediately, which means that they are capable of living...their lives without having to rely on jobs or a wage—which, during COVID times, is widely unreliable or, particularly in these communities, is often not available, or it comes at great risk," Osterweil explained.

Osterweil then went on to explain the political significance of looting.

"It also attacks the very way in which food and things are distributed. It attacks the idea of property, and it attacks the idea that in order for someone to have a roof over their head or have a meal ticket, they have to work for a boss," Osterweil explained. "And the reason that the world is organized that way, obviously, is for the profit of the people who own the stores and the factories. So you get to the heart of that property relation, and demonstrate that without police and without state oppression, we can have things for free."

But Osterweil wasn't finished with her broadside against capitalism and private property. She was just getting going.

"Looting strikes at the heart of property, of whiteness and of the police," Osterweil opined. "It gets to the very root of the way those three things are interconnected. And also it provides people with an imaginative sense of freedom and pleasure and helps them imagine a world that could be. And I think that's a part of it that doesn't really get talked about. That riots and looting are experienced as sort of joyous and liberatory."

Looting as joyous and liberatory? Is she serious? Are Hachette and NPR serious?

When asked how looting itself impacts minority-owned small businesses in the neighborhoods where riots prevailed, this was Osterweil's cold response.

"They are no more likely to have to provide good stuff for the community than big businesses," she explained. "It's actually a Republican myth that has, over the last 20 years, really crawled into even leftist discourse: that the small-business owner must be respected, that the small-business owner creates jobs and is part of the community. But that's actually a right-wing myth."

As I listened to NPR's open promotion of looting, I kept thinking about all of those Black- and minority-owned businesses in Minneapolis that I'd been reading about over the past month. Because it was their businesses that were burned to the ground. Their dreams that were burned to the ground. And the jobs that went along with them.

I kept thinking about Abdishakur Elmi, who watched in horror as flames nearly engulfed the restaurant he founded on East Lake Street in Minneapolis as the mostly peaceful protests over the death of George Floyd devolved into anarchy. Elmi had come to America from Somalia in 1996, and his place had become the go-to restaurant for what is the largest Somali community in the nation.

President Trump touring Kenosha, Wisconsin
President Trump touring Kenosha, Wisconsin MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

"I don't see the government. I don't see the power," a dejected Elmi, 55, told a reporter for the Los Angeles Times.

Some of the locals tried to protect their businesses against the looting "by taping messages of solidarity in their windows, including 'African-owned business' and 'We support our small diverse and minority businesses,'" the Times reported. It didn't stop the looters.

Mohammoud Abdi, who is a supplier for Elmi's restaurant, a fellow refugee from Somalia, and a friend, told the Times that the damage and chaos they experienced in their Minneapolis neighborhood "reminded them of their youth in Somalia, where they watched militants roam and the government lose control of the country."

"We don't have law and order," Abdi who is 47, told the Times. "This is not helpful to George's family."

Eli Aswan, 50, moved from Tanzania to pursue his version of the American Dream, owning a used car lot in the area ravaged by looting and arson. His business was attacked, with more than $17,000 worth of auto repair equipment stolen in one night. He decided to camp out at his business the next night to prevent further looting, but soon came to the conclusion that his life was at risk, not just his property. "It's too risky," he told the Times.

Eloy Bravo, who moved to the region from his hometown of Puebla, Mexico, was looking forward to opening his nail salon—and work for his staff of eight—after temporarily closing his store due to COVID-19. That wish was cut short by the looters: His Lupita Nail Salon was ransacked, and looters made off with more than $10,000 worth of supplies and equipment. Even the cash register was stolen.

"We were so excited. Now, I may have to close," Bravo told the Times. "What did I do for people to come and destroy what I built in 15 years?" Such an important question.

I keep thinking about what NPR's podcast might sound like if all of those Black- and minority-owned business owners in Minneapolis were in the same room with that white Marxist professor, her book publisher and the NPR host.

What would they have to say about a book defending the theft of their property and their dreams? What questions would they have for the white Marxist professor and her enablers at NPR and Hachette?

And how would the white Marxist professor, the NPR host, and Hachette executives respond?

It would make for one hell of a show. Don't hold your breath waiting for NPR to produce it—or for those Black- and minority-owned business owners to get a book deal from Hachette anytime soon.

It won't happen—and we all know why.

Lee Habeeb is vice president of content for Salem Radio Network and host of Our American Stories. He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.