Capitalist law has always existed to protect capitalist enclosers and exploiters and to punish working class people simply trying to survive. Right from the beginning of capitalism. The real violence is capitalist hoarding of necessities of life for interests of value and profit. A violence protected and sustained by the same state forces chasing after working class people needing food. So how might we respond to the shoplifting panics and targeting of especially poor working-class people, while also building collective strength and challenging grocery capital?
In late August, multiple corporate 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, British Columbia. Police claim the women stole less than $300 worth of items, but the case was a high priority for them anyway. Never mind that Superstore, owned by the Weston family billionaires, is one of the most profitable corporations in Canada.
This case of police profit recovery for capital is not unique. One can readily find dozens of articles pushing the moral panic of shoplifting from grocery stores, over the last few months alone. And the panic media goes back years ramping up since the reopening after COVID shutdows. It constitutes what The Atlantic magazine in the US calls The Great Shoplifting Freak-Out.
To fuel the panic even more, while making another push for tougher, law and order, policies, police have fabricated the term “violent shoplifters,” with media uncritically repeating the term and amplifying it. Yet another example of charge boosting by cops. Using imprecise, but ominous, language that tells little but raises anxieties and elicits an emotional response—one pliable to police calls for tougher laws and bail conditions. An online search suggests that if they did not originate the term, the Vancouver Police Department has played a big part in promoting it.
Yet there has been no such freak out, and certainly no calls for criminalization, over the much greater thefts being perpetrated by grocery companies—what they are doing is not even viewed as crime. All of this shoplifting panic, complete with images of poor women in grocery stores, gives off a feeling summed up succinctly in 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.”
The poem speaks directly to the fact that capitalist law has always existed to protect capitalist enclosers and exploiters and to punish working class people simply trying to survive. Right from the beginning of capitalism. The real violence is capitalist hoarding of necessities of life for interests of value and profit. A violence protected and sustained by the same state forces chasing after working class people needing food.
The Greater Villain Loose
The real grocery store theft is being perpetrated by grocery companies. It takes the form of exploitation of their workers, price gouging of customers, and in some cases outright criminality.
A glance at the grocery industry in Canada shows the extent of the swindle—and how much is taken by a few prolific offenders. Canada’s three largest grocery chains—Loblaws, Sobeys, and Metro—collectively reported more than $100 billion in sales and took more than $3.6 billion in profits in 2022 alone.
The numbers are striking for Loblaws, the company that owns the Superstore, where the Nanaimo police campaign originated.
In their reported financial results for the second quarter ended June 17, 2023, Loblaw showed still another quarter of massive financial gains marked by increased sales. Net earnings were up 31.3 percent. Revenue was $13,738 million, an increase of $891 million, or 6.9 percent. Retail segment sales were $13,471 million, an increase of $848 million, or 6.7 percent. The Food Retail section (Loblaw) same-stores sales increased by 6.1 percent.
And make no mistake, this is an industry that is highly monopolized in Canada. Five retailers—Loblaw, Sobeys, Metro, Costco and Walmart—control fully 75 percent of the food retail market in Canada. Remember too that they also dominate processing, where the Canadian market is even more concentrated in some sectors. Only two corporations control 80 percent of the bread-making market, —One of those was owned by Loblaw parent company George Weston Ltd until very recently.
Perfect conditions for price gouging and benefiting through inflationary pricing. In June, StatCan’s latest Consumer Price Index report showed that prices for food bought at grocery stores continued to rise at a rate of 9.1 percent year over year. RBC has concluded that even if inflation slows, they do not expect food prices to return to pre-pandemic levels. So, who is robbing who?
Do not forget either that these are explicitly criminal enterprises (though we oppose capital on principle whether legal or not). Working class shoppers were victimized by a bread price-fixing scheme that inflated the price of bread by at least $1.50 over a period as long as 16-years. Low and behold, which was one of the main companies involved in the criminal endeavor? None other than George Weston Limited, owners of the Nanaimo Superstore that has cops chasing two women over under $300. Senior officers of Canada Bread and Weston Foods (sibling company to Loblaws under parent George Weston Limited) colluded to boost bread prices and even leaned on retailers to increase their prices. Canada Bread eventually received a fine, but no company owners or executives faced the jail time that some shoplifters face.
Yet these outfits are benefiting from policing campaigns, carried compliantly by copaganda media sources, to protect their profits against extremely poor people. And those same media still run promo pieces lauding Loblaw’s owners Galen Weston.
Automation + Security = Profit for Capital, Death for Poor People
Many businesses took the opportunity of the COVID shutdowns (and government aid money during it) to restructure their stores. Part of this was increased automation and the introduction or expansion of automated check outs that get customers to do work for free. Part of this seems to be taking some of the savings and putting it into hiring more, low paid, private security. Rendering working class shoppers as suspects simply for shopping.
And this poses additional, serious threats to working class people, especially poor, racialized, and Indigenous people. In 2021, video circulated of a FreshCo security guard, Cameron McMillan, beating and detaining an Indigenous woman, Annette Custer, over a perceived shoplifting of a single beef roast. The person who took the video began recording after McMillan threw Custer to the ground “with her arms still behind her back so she couldn’t brace herself for the fall.”
While the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations called for McMillan to be charged immediately following the assault, Custer was the only one ever taken to court. The mercenaries who protect the ones who steal the common from under the goose are also protected by colonial injustice systems.
This violence is not new—Indigenous and Black shoppers are too familiar with it. It is another expression of colonial violence, surveillance, and racial profiling that mark capitalist spatial control.
This violence is, more often than is acknowledged, lethal. In 2020 alone at least three people were killed by security guards, two in Metro Vancouver. In 2016, Edmonton security guard Sheldon Russell Bentley kicked a fifty-one-year-old Edmonton man, Donald Doucette, to death and then robbed him of $20, leaving his body in an alley next to the Lucky 97 grocery store. Bentley was eventually charged with manslaughter and robbery, an outcome that is rare when it comes to formal police who kill.
Private security is largely unregulated in Canada and security guards have great leeway to act in unaccountable and largely unreported ways. They act in public space as well even though they have no special mandate to do so.
Their actions should be observed and challenged. Some have taken to Cop Watch-like counter-patrols of security guards and private security.
Unions and Legal Defenses
So how might we respond to the shoplifting panics and targeting of especially poor working-class people, while also building collective strength and challenging grocery capital?
One way is, of course, supporting grocery store workers who are organizing unions and/or striking against their bosses. Spring has recently covered one such effort, the strike by 3,700 workers at Metro Grocery Stores that shut down 27 stores across the Greater Toronto Area. The workers are unionized with Unifor Local 414. Strikes show most forcefully how workers can contest the greatest grocery store theft—the theft of the value produced by workers, surplus value, in the form of profit.
Grocery capital wants people to believe that inflation, and inflationary process increases, are caused by workers’ wages and use that to oppose their own workers’ wage demands. Former Unifor economist Jim Stanford dispels capital’s claims:
“There's something about supermarkets that gets Canadians angry, I guess because we have to go there every week [but] at least we're now talking in the right direction about what is causing inflation. It was not caused by workers having too many jobs and making too much money. It's been caused by profit taking — not just by supermarkets, but by powerful companies at every step of the supply chain.”
Other ideas, such as free legal defense have also emerged. In January a Toronto area law firm posted a message on Instagram saying they would defend anyone arrested for shoplifting food from the grocery store, under the banner “We Defend You.” The claim was not entirely true since the post also clarified that “to qualify for free representation this must be your first offence, the value of the goods must be less than $5,000.” This is obviously a purely defensive response, but one that people need. Activist lawyers might well develop legal corps to do this.
Perhaps unions could orient toward funding legal defenses as an expression of working-class solidarity. The same bosses that want to send security and cops after poor people are the ones who want to bust unions and break strikes.
Collective Shoplifting and the Self-Reduction of Prices
But since we are focused on shoplifting and theft from grocers, let’s look at some collective forms of “shopping” that are illustrative of working-class organization and resistance against the food barons.
During the 1970s, working class communities in Italy participated in practices of “self-reduction of prices,” which became important points of theorization for autonomist Marxists around questions of capital/labor relations, and strategy and tactics for working class struggle. The self-reduction of prices involved a collective refusal to comply with price increases, especially for necessities in goods and services.
These were not minor actions and at their peak, thousands of families reportedly took part. Over the course of years, the practice spread to tackle rent payments, electricity and home heating costs, and public transportation.
Autonomist Marxist theorist Bruno Ramirez writes of the collective character of self-reduction actions as self-reduction committees were created in many neighborhoods, in small towns as well as city centers. An important note in thinking about this practice is that establishing these committees was assisted by the prior existence of neighborhood committees that had long been active in community struggles. These are all examples of what I refer to as 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.
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 police 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 commando-food 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—one that is perhaps 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 $3525.00 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 at the time said, in a statement after the event, “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 related, “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. Key to it was 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 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 refusal to raise the rates for social assistance and disability supports in Ontario. And for continuing to protect capital while working class people do without and are criminalized for simply 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.