A Seattle Facebook page recently shared photos of individuals allegedly shoplifting from area grocery stores, creating a dust-up among folks who most likely don’t have a lot of experience living with scarcity. The carts in the photos contained necessities, like diapers and dog food. But rather than seeing these images and feeling heartbroken for the people in them, the thread turned angry and ugly.
With a surprising air of expertise, commenters assured one another that people don’t steal for their own purposes — they do it because they are grifters who are lawless, lazy and generally unable to play by the rules.
“This is not survival 99% of the time,” one person wrote, adding that “there [are] many options to get food if needed as well as other supplies.”
This single comment neatly summarizes the larger sentiment, but there are several glaring flaws with this line of presumption.
The first is that even if the people who were allegedly shoplifting were reselling the items, there is still someone else on the other end of that transaction — someone who is in a position where simply going to the store for necessities isn’t an option.
The second is the easily-disproved assumption that any and all human needs can be met by social services and the faith community. One commenter called Seattle a “generous city” with plenty of resources. This is a dangerous mindset. When you genuinely believe that people can get all of their needs met, you’re less likely to act to ensure that the needs of your neighbors are, in fact, being met. It’s a kind of bystander syndrome, and it helps keep people insulated from the reality of the situation.
There’s a prevalent assumption in Seattle that poor folks are immoral and lazy. Because if they really were in need, they could just get things from the mythical, well-stocked food bank that is open at convenient hours for folks with kids and jobs.
But anyone who’s lived below the poverty line can tell you: The magical land of accessible food, diapers and tampons does not exist. Our local food banks are strapped just as much as the rest of us, and often, there’s not enough for everyone.
Instead of assuming the worst in people — that they steal because they’re bad — I wonder if it’s possible for privileged folks to instead assume the worst in the situation. I wonder if they can see folks shoplifting diapers and, instead of feeling victimized themselves, see that many in our community are victims of powers much greater than themselves.
Hanna Brooks Olsen is a writer and political consultant. Her work has appeared in the Nation, the Atlantic, Bust Magazine, GOOD, Pacific Standard and some other places.
Read the full October 2 - 8 issue.
© 2019 Real Change. All rights reserved.| Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change and donate now to support independent, award-winning journalism.