Looting should not be condoned, so why are we silent when corporations indulge in it?

It’s no secret that TV news is inevitably drawn to conflict and violence. If it bleeds, it leads remains the guiding dictum for all ratings conscious executive producers, which is why networks such as CNN and Fox News tend to gloss over the majority peaceful protesters and fixate on the criminal actions of the few, namely rioters and looters.

Over the weekend, I watched as one network after another concentrated its coverage on the looting, showing stores such as Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Target being vandalised and robbed, with one commentator after another justifiably condemning these acts of criminal opportunism. 

But condemnation without context or proportionately only shifts the conversation away from racial injustices in the criminal justice system and towards property damage. It serves only to falsely equate the value of a replaceable storefront with human life.

To talk about the looting of retail outlets without discussing how America’s largest corporations loot black communities is to not only miss the forest for the trees, but also fails to identify the role capitalism plays in the broader context of racial injustice in the US.

Corporations like Starbucks, Victoria’s Secret and Target are but a few of the leading brands that profit from the 'prison-industrial complex'.  The mass incarceration of black men and women is a central element of this complex and it is what millions of Americans are now protesting against.

There are now more than 2.2 million Americans currently behind bars, dwarfing the rate of every other country on earth. The US represents roughly 4 percent of the global population but around 22 percent of all prisonerson the planet are American citizens. 

The US puts more of its own in cages than the worst authoritarian regimes on the planet, including China, Saudi Arabia and Iran, with black Americans the primary target of what is objectively a racist criminal justice system.

In the fifty years since President Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs,” a fig leaf to carry out a war on black communities, a black person has become 600 times more likely to spend time in prison for the possession of drugs, a phenomenal disparity given whites consume narcotics at a greater rate than blacks or hispanics. 

“African Americans are more likely than white Americans to be arrested; once arrested, they are more likely to be convicted; and once convicted they are more likely to experience lengthier prison sentences,” according to a report compiled by The Sentencing Project for the United Nations.

It’s in prison where the real evil begins, with the country’s school-to-prison pipeline exploited by dozens of Fortune 500 companies and the prison-industrial-complex, which view inmates as a source of cheap or forced labour, and ever greater profits.

In fact, every single day in the US, more than a million Americans are waking up and going to work on behalf of the wealthiest corporations on earth for as little as five cents per hour. 

The prisons bill these corporations for upwards of $3 per hour, a rate well below the federal minimum wage, and then pockets the difference.

Worse – inmates are punished if they refuse or underperform, and often their on-the-job experience is not credited to their resume after their sentences have been served. It’s become such a boon for corporations and prisons that the for-profit prison sector is flourishing.

“The ‘War on Drugs’ and harsher sentencing policies, including mandatory minimum sentences, fuelled a rapid expansion in the nation’s prison population beginning in the 1980s. The resulting burden on the public sector led to the modern emergence of for-profit private prisons in many states and at the federal level,” observes The Sentencing Project.

In fact, you can buy shares in the for-profit prison sector on the stock market by purchasing shares in Core Civic Limited (CXW), which manages 65 state and federal correctional and detention facilities throughout the US.

These private prison corporations derive their profit from two sources: counties and states which pay an agreed fee per inmate, and prison labour.

Essentially, the slave plantations never went away. They were replaced by for-profit prisons, and that's why the criminal justice system is described "the new Jim Crow.” 

The corporations and municipalities that profit from mass incarceration of black men and women then lobby politicians to legislate tough crime bills, harsher sentencing guidelines and allocate even more policing resources to black communities. They need a never-ending supply of black inmates to keep their stock price surging upwards.

“We have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it,” writes Michelle Alexander, a criminal justice lawyer, in her bestseller The New Jim Crow: The Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

“Rather than rely on race, we use our criminal justice system to label people of color ‘criminals’ and then engage in all the practices we supposedly left behind.”

Seen in this light, it could be argued that corporations that profit from mass incarceration are akin to 19th century slave owners. If this is the case, then it could then be argued that the vandalisation of property belonging to companies profiteering from the prison system represents an emancipatory act.

That doesn’t condone the act, but merely includes it in the broader discussion regarding criminal justice. You can’t talk about looting without mentioning how corporate America and the prison-industrial complex loots black communities.

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