I used to shoplift as a kid. When I was about fourteen, I was busted with a purse full of makeup and banned from Rite Aid for life.
My father was unusually rational about the whole incident. Clearly, all the crap I had in my room could not have been purchased with my babysitting money. And my parents weren’t giving me money to buy clothes or makeup or anything else. I don’t think my father had lost his business or had his stroke yet, but it was only a short time away. I suspect he was feeling guilty or inadequate about not being a good “provider”.
So instead of my parent’s usual tirade and grounding my father simply explained to me that I was hurting people. He said it probably didn’t seem like a bit of makeup from a huge company would even be noticed, but thousands of people doing what I did added up. And that company, he said, wasn’t going to let their profits suffer. They were going to raise prices or lower wages to make up for it.
I never wanted to hurt anyone. And I never stole anything again. But if I were starving and couldn’t see another option, I would steal.
I confess my past (and possible future) thievery because of a post last week on The Freethinker. Apparently, a Yorkshire vicar told people that they should shoplift if they need to. A couple of us godless actually had to side with the vicar on this one. Not surprisingly, others objected. One commenter, Ash Walsh, pointed out that
Criminality only entrenches poverty. If a Thief gets a Criminal Record, the Thief will find it a lot more difficult to get a job thus starting a poverty cycle that is difficult to break out of.
That is absolutely true. But why do we place the blame squarely, and solely, at the feet of the thief? Doesn’t the community also bear some responsibility? If the thief was stealing out of necessity, the community failed in providing its members with the things they need to survive. If the thief (like my fourteen-year-old self) just didn’t see the harm they were doing, then the community failed to educate them. If the thief didn’t care that they were doing harm, then the community failed to teach them morals.
And if our system of retribution ensures that a thief has virtually no opportunity to turn their life around, then the community has failed yet again.
I was lucky. My father felt some responsibility for what had happened and so reacted with compassion instead of just harsh judgment. And it wasn’t just him. Had the manager of that Rite Aid called the cops, I might have ended up in juvi instead of home with my parents. Things could have gone very badly.
But all too often thieves receive no compassion at all. They are dehumanized and vilified to the point that we accept whatever is done to them. We don’t blink when someone gets a life sentence for theft or shot by people “protecting” their property from “looters” after Katrina.
We live in secure buildings in gated communities with alarms and trained dogs. We authorize armed guards, police, and mercenaries to shoot anyone who breaches security. We are terrified of being robbed by our fellow citizens. And all the while, the biggest thefts are happening behind the scenes and are perfectly legal. Where’s the guard to protect your pension from Goldman Sachs?
Not long ago, a would be robber in Long Island was thwarted by the owner of the store he was trying to rob. The store owner showed him some compassion, gave him some money and bread, and didn’t call the police. Months later, the robber repaid the store owner and sent the man a letter saying that he got his life back together.
I’ll bet they both ate that day and slept really well that night.