From Shoplifting Panics to the Self-Reduction of Prices and Collective Theft

Police and their business sponsors never tire of finding new ways, or recycling old ones, to demonize poor people. They wield a politics of fear against those simply trying to survive under life-threatening conditions. In recent years people have been subjected to panics over panhandling, drug use, encampments of unhoused people, metal theft, and the more general “street disorder.” Not surprisingly, these panics benefit the forces peddling them, leading to more funding and resources for police and better opportunities for profit for businesses.

Now we are seeing another moral panic demonizing poor people for profit – the panic over shoplifting or “violent shoplifting.” Journalists and “experts” have pushed this narrative along, but a quick browse of mainstream media articles suggests that the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) has been a major force in pushing public fear about shoplifting. It seems too that even if the VPD did not originate the term “violent shoplifting, they have played a large part in boosting it.

It is important to note that the panic over shoplifting comes at a time when people are suffering under rising costs of living, inflation, and struggles over employment and housing. On the one hand it serves to distract from the much greater theft – exploitation – carried out by businesses in their pursuit of profit. At the same time, it provides another mechanism to extend surveillance and control over poor working-class people, while turning the working class against itself rather than capital.

Instead of worrying about shoplifting from business we might think about how businesses hoard and inefficiently produce necessities and how we should approach that. While defending the rights of poor people to survive and to access the necessities of life, under whatever conditions are available to them, I also want to think about collective approaches that working-class people and movements have employed in the past, including strategies of counter-theft and collective shoplifting. It is too infrequently said that, when it comes to theft from capital, property is already theft and it is right to expropriate the expropriators.

The Shoplifting Panic

The panic over shoplifting goes back years but has been given momentum by police, businesses, and corporate media in the years since the reopening from COVID shutdows. The anti-shoplifting mania has been pushed at such a pitched level that The Atlantic magazine in the US has called it The Great Shoplifting Freak-Out. In Vancouver, the outcry over shoplifting has ramped up noticeably, with media running stories on an almost daily basis. This has included the VPD’s launching of the ridiculously named Project Barcode targeting shoplifting in partnership with 28 businesses. Dozens of articles in Vancouver media have propelled the panic and lauded Project Barcode.

To add fuel to the fired-up panic, police have promoted the term “violent shoplifters,” with media uncritically repeating the term and amplifying it. As I have discussed in an interview with North Star News, this is a devious move by the police. They never bother to define the activities that gain inclusion in this category, do not define the term itself, and provide no consistent measure for what constitutes violent shoplifting. They do not detail where the violence comes from or who initiates it if it does occur (security guards, for example). Using imprecise but ominous violence language raises anxieties and elicits an emotional response. This charge boosting by cops is part of their efforts to get tougher law and order policies and bail conditions.

Businesses, police, and media have not stopped there. In late August, numerous media outlets circulated pictures supplied to them by the RCMP of two women wanted by police for stealing food items from a Real Canadian Superstore in Nanaimo, BC. Police made the case a high priority, despite their own claim that the women stole less than $300 worth of items. We might note that Superstore, owned by the Weston family billionaires, is one of the most profitable corporations in Canada, one that was found to have stolen from working-class shoppers through a bread price-fixing scheme that inflated the price of bread by at least $1.50 over a period as long as 16-years.

So, corporate criminals (who are never actually criminalized because policing was created to protect them) get away with it, while advocating for the criminalization of extremely poor people. And the focus on shoplifting is used to gain sympathy for cops and capital while making poor people more subject to public anger and state violence.

Yet if subjected to some scrutiny, even by the courts, police claims about shoplifting do not seem to hold up. Between February 18 and March 10, 2023, the VPD arrested 217 people during the Project Barcode anti-shoplifting blitz. Police recommended 278 Project Barcode charges. Police-friendly Global News examined court records and concluded that at this time 155 cases (56 percent) have resulted in no charges. Furthermore, of the 147 charges approved by the Crown, 58 (39 percent), saw convictions. Twenty-six charges (18 percent) were stayed, and another 62 charges (42 percent) are still pending.

Business owners and right wing politicians, like Vancouver Mayor Ken Sim, are predictably using the rate of charges to frame the criminal justice system as being soft on crime. While they ramp up moral panics that pose shoplifting as a threat to social order and call for tougher laws and bail conditions, we should remember that the criminal justice system primarily targets poor working-class people and, in reality, devotes most of its resources to containing poor people.

And we need to stress that anti-shoplifting campaigns, like other police-business partnerships such as Bar Watch, disproportionately harm Indigenous and racialized people who are already subjected to hyper-surveillance and targeting for “shopping while Indigenous” or “shopping while Black”. They disproportionately harm people who appear visibly poor. These are forms of racial and class profiling.

More likely, the rate of charges demonstrates the probability that the actions people are arrested for do not reflect the hyped-up fear language used by police and reproduced by corporate media. It is almost certain that their prosecution is not in the public interest, one of the Crown’s factors in determining whether charges are warranted.

Collective Shoplifting and the Self-Reduction of Prices

The rise of the shoplifting panic, while businesses rake in enormous profits off necessities like food, calls to mind the 17th Century folk poem, that goes:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.

There are plenty of ways to address the shoplifting panic and take on the forces driving it. From supporting unionization efforts of often low paid retail workers to organized legal defense of people stealing to survive. But since we are focused on shoplifting and theft from stores, let’s look at some collective forms of “shopping” that are illustrative of working-class organization and resistance against the corporate barons, especially the food barons.

During the 1970s, working-class communities in Italy, France, and elsewhere participated in the “self-reduction of prices.” The practice of self-reduction (or “autoreduction”) involved a collective refusal to comply with price increases, especially for necessities in goods and services. Over the course of several years, the practice spread to rent payments, electricity and home heating costs, and public transportation. These were not minor actions and at their peak, thousands of families reportedly took part. 

Importantly, these were collective practices emerging from self-reduction committees created in many neighborhoods, in small towns as well as city centers. Their establishment was assisted by the prior existence of neighborhood committees that had long been active in community struggles, based in what I have called infrastructures of resistance – resources, relations, and venues that sustain struggles over time and allow for strategic and tactical innovation in the ebb and flow of struggle. Italian autoreduction has become an important point of theorization for autonomist Marxists like Bruno Ramirez, who has written on the movement. 

There are some instructive examples of the self-reduction of prices in Canada, and not that long ago in the past. On December 3, 1997, the Centre-Sud Unemployed Committee in Montreal organized a mass action in which a hundred unemployed people swept into the restaurant at the Queen Elizabeth hotel, confiscated the buffet, and shared the food with people on the sidewalk outside. The action was dubbed Commando Bouffe, Food Commando. In addition to feeding people directly, they put out political messaging contrasting the quality of food eaten by the wealthy with the food that poor people received in their food bank Christmas baskets. The action was a bold one and police responded in huge numbers, with at least 100 officers surrounding the picnic and arresting 108 people.

The action gained attention and messages of solidarity from well beyond Quebec and Canada. The Montreal newspaper La Presse described the action as follows: “The expression ‘Make the rich pay!’ took on a new flavor yesterday when a food-commando of a hundred poor and leftists went to help themselves in the kitchens of power and money.”

Not long after the Commando Bouffe action, while I was with OCAP (the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty), we attempted a similar action at a luxury hotel in Toronto. A few years later we did something more dramatic and impactful – an action that might prove more suggestive in the present context.

On a late September morning in 2004, we pulled off a mass food grab at a high-end grocery store and made off with $3,525 worth of food and other essentials. The haul that day included pricey food items such as beef roasts, ribs, and chicken, staples like rice, coffee, and blocks of cheese, as well as basic care items, including diapers, baby wipes, and other toiletries. All of the goods were things that so many people need but cannot afford. One member said in a statement at the time, “I’ve never shopped like this before in my life – instead of searching for the cheapest items, I could go for the expensive quality stuff.” Another participant relayed: “It wasn’t another shopping trip where you said, ‘My cart is near empty, how am I going to make this last? This was a trip where we took what people needed and what people wanted, and it felt great.” As news media reported, we took $600 in spareribs alone.

Notably, the supermarket we targeted was owned by none other than the Weston family. Clearly it is well past time to end their reign of food terror (as it is for all grocery capital).

The action went off fairly straightforwardly. What’s crucial is that it was a mass action. Several people went inside, not openly as a group so as not to draw attention. Items to be taken had been assessed ahead of time and folks went directly to grab things quickly, again in a regular fashion to not draw attention. While some people created separate diversions, and distracted security, folks with the goods walked out. The next part of the action involved people outside distributing the food to people in the area who needed it. Again, this worked because we had built up collective relationships and capacities over years of organizing on the ground in the neighborhood.

This spectacular action was only part of the overall political campaign against capitalist control of our food supplies and government refusal to address basic needs of poor people. A few weeks after the food grab, to mark the one-year anniversary of the Liberal Government coming to power in Ontario, we held a rally and delivered the bill for the grabbed goods to the government. Our message called out the government for its continued underfunding, and cuts to, essential social programs – including their refusal to raise the rates for social assistance and disability supports in Ontario. We also stressed, and condemned, their continuing commitment to protect capital while working-class people do without and are criminalized for trying to survive. We argued that so much is stolen from working-class people that we are in our self-determining right to take at least some of it back directly.

Remember that 17th Century poem? It ends like this:

The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.