An airport is a funny thing, one that gives you access to other places but is not much of a place itself. But its underlying character has changed dramatically in the last few decades. If the glamour and hope of flying off for a visit or a new life still cling to the terminals, the airport has become a hub for the workaday circulation of goods at a global level.
This has been peculiarly true since the global downturn of manufacturing in the seventies. In April 1973, Federal Express delivered its first package; four decades later, FedEx has the fourth-largest fleet in existence. By freight it is the biggest airline in the world. At Oakland International, my local airport, the FedEx hangar and logistics hub crouches independent of the two modest passenger terminals, a behemoth with the gravity of a planet. It’s their world; we’re just living in it.
An excerpt from Riot.Strike.Riot.
("The [Bread] Riot Or half a loaf is better than no bread." From a "collection of wood prints ... used to illustrate stories that warned of involvement in crime and unvirtuous pastimes; indeed any pursuits that was not hard work or church going," via Bristol Radical History Group.)
Among the many places one might commence the story, every one bedeviled by the impossibility of arriving at a true beginning, we might look to Bristol and King’s Lynn in 1347. It is too early, of course. These events are outliers on the scatterplot of events that have made their way into chronicles. Precursors at best. Perhaps better to start in the sixteenth century, where “food riots did not follow a hoary tradition: the earliest were like furry little mammals overshadowed by the great crashing dinosaurs of peasant and dynastic rebellions and enclosure battles.” Or E.P. Thompson’s eighteenth century, undisputed locus classicus. Charles Tilly, at his most capacious, proposes the brackets 1650–1850. John Bohstedt sees a three-century span in which “Our third century, from the 1740s to c.1820, was the golden age of food riots.” Thompson notes these are often identified as “insurrections” or “risings of the poor.” Others following Thompson caution against imposing overly rigid distinctions among types, choosing to recommend instead the approach of “moving away from the compartmentalization of protest. While division of protests into different ‘types’ — food, industrial, political, customary, and so on — may be neater, it obscures our understanding of the very linkages which overarched them.”
A picture of a young person on a BMX bike, April 27, 2015, his arms filled with looted cereal boxes. The caption on the original Instagram snap is mostly redacted. What remains reads “Baltimore shit” and “hate yall.” The person who has reposted this picture on Twitter wonders “Why would you take cereal” and attaches a series of emoticons indicating mortal disbelief. It seems like a good question. Why not take something more valuable, perhaps remarketable? Or why not something that expressed the riot’s state of exception, its curfewless joy — something like the tubs of ice cream some friends of mine wound up with in Hackney, summer 2011? The sense here is that an error has been made.
This sense corresponds to the axiomatic position of state, media, and the respectability politics that keeps state and media always in mind. Looting is not just a crime but an error, a tactical or moral failing. It is the act that delegitimates what might otherwise conjure some sympathy from the nebulous public and indeed the political class: the spasm of outrage erupting from an immiserated people. If only their refusal took a more properly political form instead of just jacking shit! Why, that’s just shopping on steroids, just — we are informed by self-serious theorists — capitalism’s ideology saying its own name through these benighted individuals greedily grabbing at goods the moment the opportunity affords. And, as our observer notes, not paternalistically but with wry puzzlement, paltry goods at that. Breakfast cereal.