Shoplifting As Social Justice?: The Importance of an Intersectional Lens

When I was a senior in college, I took on my first and only retail job. For about nine months, I worked as a “Guest Services Representative” at the Eastside Hollywood Video in town. (For you younger folk, we used to have to go to a physical location to pick up a DVD copy of a movie in order to watch it). I dutifully purchased khaki pants and a black shirt, and showed up for every weekend shift, sometimes working until after midnight to close the store.

The company as a whole was in the process of going under – to the point where, when our security camera at the register broke, corporate never sent a replacement. The entire time I worked there, our manager depended upon us employees to reduce “shrink” – or loss of inventory via shoplifting. At one point, toward the end of my tenure there, I was called into my manager’s office and written up because some DVDs had gone missing during one of my shifts. It turns out, some (male) teenagers in the store had managed to break the magnetic seals and abscond with some classic horror movies. Because we lacked security footage and the teens had made off scot-free, I ended up having to take the fall for it.

I quit, voluntarily, soon after.

So you can imagine my frustration when reading about a ring of shoplifters [warning: Jezebel link – they’re the only ones writing on it right now] around the world who blog about their “lifting” experiences, sharing tips and tricks and tools on Tumblr. These young women, from what biographical details are available on their various blogs, appear to be fairly well off, white, suburban teenagers – most of whom seem to shoplift as a hobby.

I clicked around and read some of the blogs from these young women, and found varying justifications for their criminal behavior. The most common sentiment, by far, was that by shoplifting, they were “fighting the corporations.” They refuse to give money to places like Urban Outfitters because their CEOs are assholes, so their stealing functions as a win-win in their minds – they get to “stick it to the man” while not paying for the clothing and make up they want.

Jezebel’s story on the topic fails to go beyond the “OMG LOOK AT THESE BRAZEN YOUNG LADIES” angle, so I think it’s important to examine these topic from an angle of socioeconomic justice. This subculture of shoplifters is not merely a curiosity, but rather a manifestation of a particularly American manner of consumer-oriented social justice. They don’t steal simply because it’s convenient; they steal to make a point.

But, as Sarah Moon wrote in a critique of a similar movement back in December, such forms of “justice” don’t hold water when examined under a deeper, intersectional lens. Rather than “sticking it to the man,” as these young shoplifters attempt to justify, they instead bring punishment and harm upon underpaid retail workers – in many cases, possibly costing them their livelihood.

The CEO of Urban Outfitters doesn’t care that a few hundred dollars worth of clothing disappeared from the Orland Park, IL, store. But the manager of that store sure does, and its the employees – statistically likely to be single mothers – are the ones who will get the brunt of it. With the prevalence of at-will employment in the United States, these managers don’t even have to prove that their employee did something wrong – they can simply be fired on the suspicion of wrongdoing or for a failure to prevent theft.

Such social justice work functions only as a justification to assuage the guilt of criminal behavior. By changing their self-narrative, casting themselves as the underdog hero fighting the large corporation, they become the Robin Hood of their own life stories. This twisted justice is a particularly white, well-off, and rich phenomenon. It is “justice” made capable only because of the young ladies’ position in society as white, somewhat wealthy, educated women.

And it is a form of “helping” that fails to capture the truly intersectional nature of fighting oppressive capitalistic structures. Instead of advocating for higher wages, and for better treatment of workers, this form of “sticking it to the man” becomes an aggravation of minimum wage workers, placing their jobs and their families at risk. When that middle-aged mother of two fails to catch the 17-year-old who detagged a shirt in the fitting room at Macy’s, it’s not the CEO who gets in trouble. It’s that worker. And that incident will inevitably be used against the worker in the future, if not immediately.

This kind of action is why intersectional analysis is of utmost importance. Without it, we end up harming the least of these, in a warped vision of the world in which we are the heroes and the marginalized exist to be saved – even if our way of help actually causes greater harm. We need to forever be conscious of the ways in which our “help” can actually be unhelpful, and to stop, listen, and learn before moving forward. This is the only way justice can be achieved.