Rod Watson: Looting – from Genesee Street to Wall Street – is as old as the nation

The questions are as old as economic violence itself:

How can they, in good conscience, prey on the people who look just like them? How do they rationalize taking what’s not theirs, or destroying what someone else has worked for? How can they pillage and plunder with no regard for the devastation they leave behind or the innocent victims left in their wake?

And no, I’m not talking about the disgraceful looting that took place during the December blizzard, which a city report last week concluded hit 77 businesses. The theft and destruction left owners with a financial gut punch and second thoughts about reopening, and left neighborhood residents without desperately needed goods and services.

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But as bad as that was, I’m talking about the other form of looting that, in terms of dollar impact, dwarfs the blizzard vandalism but rarely gets called out for what it is – and for the example it sets for those who then go out with bricks in hand.

Because if we’re honest, we’ll admit that looting is as old as the nation itself and doesn’t just occur on urban streets. As political scientists told in 2020, some of the very first looters were the American colonists who stole tea and dumped it in Boston Harbor in 1773.

“The founding fathers use looting as a supplement to protest,” political science adjunct professor and former Justice Department official William F. Hall told the magazine, citing the Boston Tea Party as an example.

Another scholar recalled what was done to Native Americans, but noted how the term typically is not applied to actions carried out by those in power.

That includes people like crypto con man Sam Bankman-Fried and megafraudster Bernie Madoff, but also smaller scammers whose victims could ill afford the losses, like the Clarence financial adviser sentenced to 52 months in prison in 2019 for looting $1.4 million from his clients’ accounts. Or the Amherst businessman who spent two years in prison and was ordered in 2019 to repay $1.275 million he looted from victims of his bond fraud scheme. Or the former Hamburg man who got 46 months in prison in 2018 for the investment fraud that looted $7.7 million from his victims’ accounts.

Retirees and others left destitute when their life savings are stolen with the swipe of a pen or the click of a keyboard are no less devastated than a shop opener whose dreams are shattered with a rock through a plate glass window.

And we haven’t even gotten to the biggest theft of all: the looting of the federal Treasury Department to the tune of $428 billion – that’s billion, with a “b” – mostly by well-off tax cheats. They’re aided and abetted by Republicans in and out of government who fight tooth and nail to stifle the IRS from going after them. That leaves ordinary taxpayers – who lack high-priced lawyers and accountants – stuck with the tab to make up the difference.

Whether through deception or destruction, the goal of looters is the same: Ignore the law and social convention to prey on the vulnerable for one’s own benefit. It’s the code of the streets – both Genesee Street and Wall Street.

Both sets of perpetrators deserve the harshest punishment. But one – without resources or political cover – is much easier to catch and prosecute than the other.

Granted, the blizzard looting was different in that it did not occur in parallel with a demonstration over police abuse or some other social ill (unless you count disparate resources that resulted in the obscenely disproportionate death toll). Instead, it was rank opportunism at its most blatant.

But at its core, it sprang from the same reactionary predation that fuels those who use protest as a cover to steal in the only way they know how. Smash-and-grab is simply the street version of Ponzi schemes and insider trading, which also lack any larger political purpose – unless you consider “greed is good” to be a new governing ideology.

So go ahead and put away the blizzard looters for as long as the law allows, both because they deserve it and to send a message.

But let’s not pretend that we don’t know where they got the idea that it’s OK to take advantage of the situation to enrich themselves by preying on the most vulnerable. They got it by looking around.

To paraphrase 1960s activist H. Rap Brown, economic violence is as American as cherry pie.

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