It’s mid-January, so it’s cold outside. In front of the sliding glass doors of the superstore, one can see the glimmer of snowflakes falling in the navy of night and the resulting slush on the pavement. Inside the doors, however, it’s warm. Fluorescent lights flood the surfaces and the metal shelves, filled to the brim with products across all genres. The rows have a certain metallic shine. Workers pace diligently throughout the store, but a particular corner goes unnoticed.
Hidden behind the vacant check-out counters is a group of teenagers unable to be seen due to height and in sufficient quantity to make a calculated circle. In the middle of this circle is a pair of hands, prying open the paperboard that contains a plush fried egg collectible. The collection of heads maintain the noise level with conversation and ensure security by frequently glancing outside of the huddle. The fried egg is freed from the confines of plastic and paper and is slipped silently into a jean pocket. Smiles of success are exchanged, and the group splits up into different checkouts to pay for the legally obtained items. The group ventures back into the winter’s night. It was only a few minutes after initiation, and the theft was complete.
What they did was illegal under all interpretations of the law and could land any of them with a scratch on their permanent record. But, was not paying for a small toy wrong?
Stories of small thefts, trespassing, and other petty crimes are often taboo subjects, especially among classmates or acquaintances whose potential reactions are hard to anticipate. Once one anecdote is shared, however, the door often opens for many more — what was once underground flows out to the surface. Conversations of recent robberies serve as a sort of group therapy among youth and young adults, validating an experience many keep within them due to fear of the law. Where the law and the general public draw the line is not necessarily the same, however. Hobby Lobby has been called “the best place to steal from,” with social media users citing its lack of barcodes and cameras. Others’ justification stems from the chain’s conservative anti-worker and anti-LGBT+ policies. Similarly, people steal from national chain stores like Walmart and Kroger with the mindset of fighting back against billion-dollar corporate-conglomerates.
The reasoning above is easy to say out loud, but are these actions doing any good in the real world? Target stores were looted in Minneapolis during summer 2020’s Black Lives Matter protests, some arguing that the losses would not even affect the superstore’s bottom line. But as The Atlantic points out, looters are usually different people than peaceful protestors, and what is equated with altruism may just be a vehicle for young adrenaline.
When one types in “Target,” “Meijer,” or any other retail giant into Google Maps while looking at southeast Michigan, many red pins appear just a few miles apart, affixed to the suburban grid-like knots on a quilt. The streets are threaded together by the continuity of corporate brands that might invoke a seasick sense of deja vu if one drives down them for too long. This repetition has no meaningful rhythm; the logos on metal poles that are meant to excite and attract blend together into a neon malaise.
It is easy to feel a sort of contempt and powerlessness when faced with the monolithic stucco walls and fields of pavement that characterize the landscape, even while equipped with the American ideals of freedom, and if you’re lucky, leisure time. After work and school are done for the day, what is there to do? And when the pressure to buy into the capitalist ecosystem becomes too much, what else is there to do but take back? Stealing as a way to feel something, as some may put it, is an increasingly acceptable source of entertainment. What other activity puts our brain and survival instincts to the test in a world where most things are a part of a dull exchange? Under the falling snow of a January night, what else besides theft with friends gets the blood pumping so quickly and with great reward? The capitalist fabric of America has stolen so much from people, whether it be space, time, or variety — doesn’t it only make sense to take some of that back?
This power dynamic is what seems to propel the thrill: Underdog customers stick it to the man by sticking something in their pockets. When “the man” is actually a person, whether that be a small business owner, a neighbor, or a friend of a friend, the action of robbery trespasses into something more personal. Walking down the tree-lined streets of Ann Arbor, many stores are one of a kind, titled with names of owners or the street that they are on; hand-painted windows advertising their particular niche. Go to a farm stand in Kerrytown enough times and you might get your apple cider with a side of pleasant banter, and learning the name of a new kind of lettuce might lead you to know the names of the people that sell the produce. The experience of shopping small is one that is photogenic, Instagram-mable and yields memories worth posting about in the increasingly popular monthly photo dump. On the contrary, heading over to Walgreens or CVS to spend money on generic snacks can’t be romanticized.
But stealing them can.
TikToks with the hashtag “#deviouslicks” have sprung up on the For You Page of millions, in an effort to channel a rebellious version of the main character archetype. They usually begin by describing the theft as “diabolical”, “devious” or “ungodly” as a remix of a 2014 Lil B song sings in the background. A few seconds later as the video concludes, one sees the unscrewing of a hubcap in the parking lot, or the empty holes of plumbing in the bathroom where a toilet usually connects. (It is worth noting that upon searching for the hashtag today, TikTok will invite you to learn how to recognize “harmful challenges”.) What is unique about these videos is the focus on stealing from one’s own school. Any unsupervised area is fair game: the soap dispensers of the boy’s bathroom, stockpiles of disposable masks formerly tucked away in closets or the occasional ceiling tile. To users, the risk of discipline is a small price to pay for the souvenirs of classroom chairs and the rush of recognition from millions of online peers. The boredom of mandatory education seeks to be remedied through the creation of avant-garde collections of stolen institutional furniture.
Yet unlike the retailers that dot the suburbs, schools do not aim to make money and in many areas, do not have enough. While the chronic underfunding of schools is low on the list of things someone who is about to steal the door to a bathroom stall might be thinking about, there are some who carefully consider the ethics of where exactly they choose to steal. This includes large corporations as mentioned earlier, but also not-for-profit retail stores like the Salvation Army and Goodwill over concerns of worker exploitation and discrimination. Perhaps viewed as more environmentally and financially conscious consumerism by the perpetrators, those in older generations may look down upon stealing this from charity, making it harder to do the good work these organizations have done.
But are the conditions of suburban boredom and corporate conglomerates enough to justify stealing when others have to do it out of necessity? Shoplifting due to hunger increased during the pandemic, and it’s hard to criticize people who steal so they can put food on the table. What’s a semi-frequent thrill for some is a fact of life for many, and a means of entertainment doesn’t share equal weight to means of survival. One’s economic status and race affect how accessible shoplifting is. Depending on the color of the person’s hands peeling back the packaging of the toy that January night, the consequences could range from life-altering to a forgotten memory. Although an isolated act of theft from corporations does not necessarily affect any individual, in particular, does stealing wrongly take advantage of a justice system that’s overbearing on some people and too passive on others? Are the desires to bring back power to the common people served by ethical stealing if not all people can participate? As one considers the justifications of what they’re stealing from, it’s worth considering their own identity, and if they are shifting the societal power dynamic at all.
The phrase “there is no ethical consumption under capitalism” gets thrown around a lot on the University of Michigan’s campus, but it’s not too clear what this means for theft. Everyone has different comfort lines, and the gradient of what’s honorable isn’t linear. Rather, this invisible boundary can be twisted and molded to whatever shape of justification one might like — including the want for a collectible plush egg. To be clear: theft is very much illegal, but it also takes creativity, courage, and gusto and can provide new social and philosophical realms for people to explore. In a system that undervalues the arts and emphasizes infatuation with the stock market, exactly where money and resources should end up is blurred with collective selfishness. So, if you’re buying a card for a friend or getting ingredients to feed someone dinner, why not grab the things for free and get some adrenaline for yourself? The only thing stopping you is your own moral judgment.
Statement Correspondent Oscar Nollette-Patulski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.