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'Experts' warn against calling California crime spree 'looting' because of racial connotations

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Amid a spree of smash-and-grab robberies terrorizing businesses and shoppers in California's Bay Area, "experts" are warning against using the term "looting" to describe the crimes.

Dozens of storefronts and businesses in California were ransacked over the weekend in what local police are calling organized burglaries. In Walnut Creek, just 25 miles outside San Francisco, police said a "criminal mob" of 80 masked and armed robbers raided a Nordstrom department store, assaulting three employees and stealing thousands of dollars in expensive goods. Three suspects were arrested, but dozens more escaped with the merchandise.

San Jose police said thieves made off with an estimated $40,000 worth of merchandise stolen from a Lululemon store Sunday night. At the same time, a bigger attempted robbery took place at the Westfield Valley Fair Mall.

Another smash-and-grab robbery was caught on video at a jewelry store at Southland Mall in Hayward, California. Hayward police said no arrests were made and the suspects fled in several vehicles, making off with an unknown amount of loot.

And a San Francisco Louis Vuitton store was ransacked by robbers on Saturday.

Police have characterized these crimes as looting.

"The Louis Vuitton store was burglarized and looted. The Burberry in Westfield Mall was burglarized and looted," San Francisco Police Chief Bill Scott told reporters on Saturday.

But others have shied away from using that term to describe the robberies, including experts who say "looting" is a term with racial connotations.

"We are talking about two incidents, we're not going to call this looting. This is organized robbery. That's what it is," said Sergeant Christian Camarillo with the San Jose police department, referring to the robbery at Lululemon.

KGO-TV reported Tuesday that under California Penal Code, the crimes committed do not meet the technical definition of "looting."

California law defines looting as "theft or burglary ... during a 'state of emergency', 'local emergency', or 'evacuation order' resulting from an earthquake, fire, flood, riot or other natural or manmade disaster."

A criminal justice professor at the University of New Haven said that the words police and journalists use to describe the crime matter.

"Looting is a term that we typically use when people of color or urban dwellers are doing something. We tend not to use that term for other people when they do the exact same thing," said Lorenzo Boyd, Ph.D., Professor of Criminal Justice & Community Policing.

KGO-TV observed that while there was no local emergency declared in the Bay Area cities where smash-and-grab crimes were committed this weekend, the identities and races of the majority of the suspects remain unknown.

Still, another expert who spoke to the local news station suggested the term "looting" has racial undertones.

Martin Reynolds, the co-executive director of the Robert C. Maynard Institute of Journalism Education, observed that after Hurricane Katrina, a large number of black New Orleans residents were labeled looters for "crimes of survival" — stealing water, food, and supplies before federal government aide arrived.

"This seems like it's an organized smash and grab robbery. This doesn't seem like looting. We're thinking of scenarios where first responders are completely overwhelmed. And folks often may be on their own," Reynolds told the local news station.

"People draw their own conclusions, if the terminologies that you use are tethered to people's understanding of how they have been used in the past," he added.

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