NEW YORK (MainStreet) — Muntaz Lalani owns the Dellwood Market, a store less than two miles from Ferguson, Mo. Sunday night he received a call from his security monitoring service that an alarm had been tripped. He watched live surveillance video online as a mob shot out the glass front of his store and began stripping the shelves clean.
"I feel so helpless, you know?" Lalani told Fox 2 St. Louis. "I was watching right there. My livelihood is going [up] in flames and [they] stole everything. I couldn't do anything. I was just sitting and watching. What could I do?"
Countless small businesses have been raided by "protestors" in the St. Louis metro area since the shooting death of Michael Brown by a Ferguson cop.
"That's what I don't understand," Lalani said. "They want justice for Michael Brown. I don't see justice in this. Is this justice?"
Looting as a form of protest – or survival – is seldom a cause for arrest. Why? Perhaps because the sheer numbers of perpetrators often overwhelm law enforcement's ability to respond. Or, possibly police stand down, because theft is a lesser consequence of civil unrest.
Regardless, looting is not a crime in most states – in fact, only a handful of states have laws on their books specifically addressing the act of looting: Alabama, California, Illinois, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina and South Carolina. And usually these laws are in effect only when a state of emergency has been declared.
Looting in the aftermath of a widespread disaster, as seen in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, is widely reported but rarely prosecuted. Such "looting for survival" – gathering water, food and medical supplies from abandoned merchants -- is generally not bound to warrant criminal penalties. However, looters also stole football jerseys, televisions, jewelry and computers. Police officers commandeered nearly 200 vehicles from a car dealership, including 41 Cadillacs. Whether those were thefts for survival is a matter of debate.
But looting as a result of "economic harm" is not a justifiable defense, according to a 2006 report in the Nevada Law Journal. A Depression-era case provided the legal precedent in such a matter.
"The court saw no merit in the argument, since economic necessity was not a recognized criminal defense," noted Stephanie Hamrick, author of the report. "To allow the defense in such a case 'would leave to the individual the right to take the law into his own hands.' A later court added a more concrete gloss to this rationale, declaring that to allow an economic necessity defense would encourage all those who experienced financial troubles to steal."
But Steven Thrasher, a columnist for the Guardian U.S., believes "economic necessity" warrants the Missouri unrest. He says the real looting has been going on in Ferguson, and the rest of the nation, for years.
"When I hear the founder of the Rainbow Coalition and the first black president of the United States call for a stop to illegal looting that 'undermines ... justice,' I wonder: Why do they care? Why should any black person care about the storefronts of Ferguson?" Thrasher wrote. "Or care about the business life of a community where almost half of young men are locked out of the workforce – and where, if they get a criminal record while unemployed, they will effectively be locked out from employment forever?"
"Will looting solve any of this? No," he continues. "But will bringing in the National Guard to protect the very loan sharks and fast food restaurants who are exploiting us? Hell no! And let's face it: fear of these businesses getting destroyed is what's bringing the troops in, not big-picture concerns about the legal looting of human lives. Racism, looting Missouri since crackers owned slaves, lit Ferguson on fire – not some looter with a firecracker."
--Written by Hal M. Bundrick for MainStreet