“You Loot; We Shoot”

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Last Friday, the leader of the entity that expects my pledge of allegiance threatened to shoot—specifically—looters. Before we go into what happened last night and Saturday morning and is on track to continue through the week, let me remember some historic milestones in looting.

* In the seventies, African-American homeowners were dealing with a disturbing pattern in Houston, the world headquarters of Browning-Ferris, Inc. (BFI). Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management, Inc. took on Southwestern Waste Management and BFI. It was the first case to challenge the siting of waste dumps as racially unjust under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Section 1983), the federal law enabling lawsuits against the looting of peoples’ constitutional rights.

* In 1979, Hazel Johnson started People for Community Recovery to confront corporate looters and polluters on the South Side of Chicago, where the wounds of slow violence showed up in cancer and lung disease. Born in the section of New Orleans known as Cancer Alley, Johnson was a self-identified survivor—the only one of four siblings to survive past their first birthday.

* In 1982, more than 500 people were arrested for protesting the siting of (Governor) “Hunt’s Dump”—a disposal plan for polychlorinated biphenyls—in Warren County, North Carolina. Those arrested included the Rev. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. of the Commission for Racial Justice, the Rev. Joseph Lowery of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and other well-known leaders who refused to allow their communities’ health to be looted any more.

* In 1987, the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice showed that the pillaging of black communities by waste companies was a systematic practice. The term “environmental racism” entered our language.

* The majority African-American population of Convent, Louisiana sued to stop a $800-million polyvinyl chloride plant from robbing their town of environmental safety in 1991. Robert Bullard wrote: “The Black community is lured into accepting the industries with the promise of jobs, but in reality the jobs are not there for local residents.”

* The struggle continued in the early 90s as the West Dallas Coalition for Environmental Justice challenged lead poisoning as a racial fairness matter. Physical remnants of the battery disposal site are still surfacing from the place where annually some 269 tons of lead particles filled the air in the 80s, ravaging the environment and the children’s mental and physical health.

* In 1997, after a multiracial coalition waged a nine-year court struggle in Citizens Against Nuclear Trash v. Louisiana Energy Services, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission Licensing Board barred construction of a uranium enrichment plant. Out of hundreds of sites Louisiana Energy Services scoped out, it chose to deface the lowest-income community with radioactive waste.

The Struggle Continues, and People Are Tired

In 2005, it was the environmental justice movement that effectively responded to Hurricane Katrina with mobile health clinics for New Orleans. And now we’re watching for climate disruption and related storms and floods to pose special hazards for people facing poverty, racism, or both—knowing it’ll be largely up to communities to try to help themselves. And right at this moment, racial disparities are shaping the impact of Covid-19. Accumulated economic, social, and bodily stress make entire communities more susceptible to the virus.

This week, Trevor Noah talked of looting black bodies, and how it happens in the most ordinary interactions—for example, the weaponizing of skin tone in a case of petty rage in Central Park. Meanwhile, the New York Times reported 125 arrests for social distancing and other Covid breaches from March through early May; how is it that 113 of the detained were black or Latinx?

Looting of black bodies also happens as corporate executives sit in fancy homes and take bonuses during the pandemic from the sweat and stress of these bodies and minds. Entire communities are looted when their spaces are treated as waste dumps and they’re redlined out of other spaces. And neoliberal policies loot when they sacrifice sustainable, humane economic development for international trade strategy.

If the virus interrupts daily life and stops traffic, then so should the suffocation and murder of a human being. George Floyd couldn’t breathe, and managed to say so while pressed down on the ground by three officers. One of them, with a known history of physical violence, kneed Floyd’s neck as the others enabled the horror. Nine minutes passed before Floyd’s last breath.

If a lockdown can’t stop people driving to the Delaware beach, today’s protests will. You must let suffering speak if you want to hear the truth, says Cornel West.

That’s not to praise protests unhinged from purposeful civil disobedience. Those become a police department’s excuse for using the bodies of hapless dogs and horses as city crowd control machines. Those excite an unhinged federal administration to regroup its force against ordinary people already long under siege.

As I write, pre-dawn on Saturday 30 May, I’m seeing images of small businesses in flames. In those spots, authentic grieving, desperation, cries for justice have been overtaken by a chaos so complete, it mirrors that of the Trump administration. Now, a teen was just killed by someone firing shots at protesters from a grey Dodge Durango.

A 19-year-old! It’s unbearable. You loot, we shoot! Jesus wept!, is that what just happened?

Lee Hall holds an LL.M. in environmental law with a focus on climate change, and has taught law as an adjunct at Rutgers–Newark and at Widener–Delaware Law. Lee is an author, public speaker, and creator of the Studio for the Art of Animal Liberation on Patreon.