What is Looting?

“Burnin’ and a Lootin’ tonight…” Bob Marley.

Some of the most powerful images from the  Rodney King Riots in LA in 1992 were of the rampant looting of stores as the area burned.  The boundaries of civic responsibility were smashed and broadcast on tv for days.  This behavior startled the country, it tips an inherent  fear of chaos and disorder.  In the last week, new outlets in the US and England began reporting that there was looting in Haiti.  There were reports of mobs attacking suspected looters and other reports countering that these were highly exaggerated.  Regardless of the degree, it raises the question, what is looting?  How is it different than stealing? or Finding? How does the context of the situation help to define this?


  • This activity surrounds reading and responding to a text – a portion of an editorial by Rebecca Solnit.  I would recommend running a text-based activity on this short reading (consider Text Based Seminar Protocol or the NSRF Text Rendering Protocol.)
  • According to the protocols, give students time to review the short text and review with each other the basic facts related in the piece.
  • Run the protocol so that students get an opportunity to probe the meaning of this editorial. Allow people to explore the ideas related in the piece.
  • Keep a chart on the board to write out characteristics and build a definition of looting.’
  • Finally, consider running a Barometer at the end of the class with reference to one framing question (such as In this case, did the media misrepresent the actions in Haiti as looting?)

In “The Nation“, Rebecca Solnit wrote this week:

“There’s something grotesque about using the word “looting” to describe what’s happening in Haiti. Following that island nation’s devastating earthquake, dozens of survivors have been filmed or photographed digging through the rubble for food, water, medicine, and other necessities. In virtually every case, the media has identified these people as “looters.’’

But are they, really? To loot is to pillage and plunder for selfish gain. That’s not what wretched Haitians are doing when they grab a box of powdered milk from a collapsed store. They’re merely trying to “salvage the means of sustaining life from the ruins of their world.”

Imagine, for a moment, that your city or town was destroyed by some natural disaster, and you and your family hadn’t eaten in days. You’d be justifiably irate at the notion that “grabbing a box of PowerBars and a few gallons of water” from a shattered storefront made you a criminal. Yet we have no trouble smugly applying that description to those in similar circumstances if they are poor and foreign—and, yes, black.”



  • Have students research historical examples of looting, based on the definition created in class today.  When did they happen?  Who was involved? What triggered the action? What effect did this this have on the nation or the community after the event?
  • Write a journal entry about how stealing is different from looting.  In what ways are these things the same? How are they different?  Under what situations could they see themselves stealing?


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