Experts caution use of 'looting' in describing rash of Bay Area smash and grabs

Julian Glover Image
Tuesday, November 23, 2021
Why recent Bay Area smash and grabs aren't necessarily 'looting'
As the Bay Area grapples with a wave of smash and grab robberies, policing and journalism analysts are cautioning against using the term "looting."

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Bay Area police departments have called what happened at various retail stores this weekend "looting."

We saw similar crimes happen in the wake of the George Floyd protests, but are the past weekend's crimes truly considered looting?

Race and Social Justice Reporter Julian Glover is here to give us some context of looting.

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"As the Bay Area grapples with a wave of seemingly organized smash and grab robberies this weekend, policing and journalism analysts are cautioning against the use of the term looting," Julian says.

"The Louis Vuitton store was burglarized and looted. The Burberry in Westfield Mall was burglarized and looted," said San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott in a press conference to reporters Saturday.

Chief Scott was detailing his department's response to a wave of potentially organized retail thefts and burglaries netting a million dollars in stolen luxury goods.

A San Jose Police Department spokesman updated the media on incidents of theft occurring in the South Bay over the weekend.

VIDEO: More than $50K in merchandise stolen from Lululemon in Santana Row and Westfield Valley Fair Mall

Thieves stole $40,000 in merchandise from the Lululemon store in Santana Row and $7,000 in sunglasses from Westfield Valley Fair Mall in San Jose.

"We are talking about two incidents, we're not going to call this looting. This is organized robbery. That's what it is," said Sergeant Christian Camarillo, public information officer for San Jose Police.

Camarillo was referring to the $40,000 in merchandise stolen from Lululemon in Santana Row Saturday.

Similar crimes hit Hayward and Walnut Creek this weekend with waves of suspects rushing stores leading to major losses.

But according to the California Penal Code, what we saw was not looting.

The penal code defines looting as "theft or burglary...during a 'state of emergency', 'local emergency', or 'evacuation order' resulting from an earthquake, fire, flood, riot or other natural or manmade disaster."

To some, the distinction may be small, but Lorenzo Boyd, PhD, Professor of Criminal Justice & Community Policing at the University of New Haven, and a retired veteran police officer, emphasized that words matter.

"Looting is a term that we typically use when people of color or urban dwellers are doing something. We tend not to use that term for other people when they do the exact same thing," said Boyd.

RELATED: Smash-and-grab robbery caught on video at jewelry store at Hayward mall

To be clear, we don't know the identities or races of the majority of the thieves involved in this crime wave.

But we do know there was no local emergency declared in the Bay Area cities that experienced smash and grabs this weekend.

However, the crimes did follow the contentious verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial Friday.

A jury found the teen not-guilty on all counts for shooting three men, killing two of them during a protest against police brutality last year in Wisconsin.

Local protests this weekend in response were largely small and peaceful.

VIDEO: Nearly 100 people in Oakland protest against not guilty verdict in Kyle Rittenhouse trial

Friday night nearly 100 people took to the streets of Oakland responding to the not guilty verdict in the Kyle Rittenhouse trial.

"These types of massive, organized smash and grabs were happening before the Rittenhouse situation, because it happens cyclically," said Boyd. "It's a false equivalency. It's people trying to politicize crime."

Martin Reynolds, Co-executive director of the Robert C. Maynard Institute of Journalism Education thinks back to Hurricane Katrina, when largely Black New Orleans residents were labeled looters for crimes of survival - stealing water, food, and supplies before federal government aid arrived.

"This seems like it's an organized smash and grab robbery. This doesn't seem like looting. We're thinking of scenarios where first responders are completely overwhelmed. And folks, often may be on their own," he said.

Both experts expressed the importance of media literacy for viewers to critically think about the language used by public officials and the media as we all try to make sense of these complex issues our society is facing.

"People draw their own conclusions, if the terminologies that you use are tethered to people's understanding of how they have been used in the past," said Reynolds.