Media coverage of disasters on television is formulaic. Consider hurricane coverage, for example. The cycle is well-established: start with shots of empty grocery store shelves (time to stock up!) and people boarding up windows. Throw in an interview with idiots who plan to "tough it out." Lots of cutaways to the storm-addled reporter giving important updates ("It's really windy, Bob! Back to you!") while getting pelted with 80 mph rain. After the storm serve up the oh-the-humanity destruction footage. And complete the cycle with a day of footage of and moral panic about looting. Gotta have the looting. There is no better indication of the class biases and motives of the mainstream media than its obsession with looting during times of unspeakable human tragedy.

It sure didn't take the cable news networks to move beyond the human suffering frame in Haiti to get to the important question: is the property OK? Matthew L. directed me to this piece about the media's obsession with the possibility that people might be taking things for which they did not pay. It is stunning how they can't connect the stories they run from one minute to the next; they leap from food shortages and international aid not getting through to the people of Haiti to tales of civil disorder and looting. Well, if people have no food or shelter they're probably going to take whatever they can find, right? This isn't a Sunday afternoon on Long Island. It's a country that was impoverished to begin with and it is in complete ruins. A little "looting" may be understandable given the circumstances. But God forbid the media get hold of footage of looters taking non-essentials (TVs and DVDs instead of food and medicine). Their contempt becomes almost too much to bear; it takes all the strength they can muster to refrain from saying, "Typical. Just typical. Stupid nig…Whoops, we're still on the air, aren't we?" over the footage.

The linked story goes to some lengths to justify the intent of the apparent looters – maybe the man taking fabric from a demolished store needs it to shelter his family from the sun. Maybe the people taking food have starving children. That line of argument is futile for two reasons. First, we'll never know the motives of the people we are observing. Second, who gives a shit? Whether these people are taking food from the rubble or breaking into an undamaged mall to steal cell phones, looting is about 37th on the list of Haiti's most important problems at the moment. The news is now full of stories of police shooting looters on sight (implicitly condoning the idea that every crime becomes a capital offense, no trial required, during a disaster). Is this a wise allocation of resources? There were still survivors in the rubble a week ago, not to mention tens of thousands of corpses ready to rot and kill more people with disease. I can think of a few things the police could be doing other than chasing looters. How is this a priority?

It becomes a priority when the media and governments from the so-called First World impose their twisted worldview on people who have just lost everything. Americans would rather be dead than have someone (black and poor) take their stuff. Isn't that what this kind of coverage is about? A lot of our voyeuristic obsession with disaster coverage is the implicit "This could happen to me" dynamic – but in the American context, "this" refers less to the natural disaster than to the horrifying prospect of life without our shit. Ironically, projecting that materialism onto the people of the poorest country in the hemisphere makes a lot less sense than the looting we see.

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  • It always chills me to see the severity of martial law in any disaster. It would be interesting to see a study on the correlation between brutal martial law after a disaster, and the effectiveness of disaster relief and rebuilding plans.

    I would guess that the prospect of being shot on sight for looting would make people in the community afraid to come forward and help save lives/rebuild. It would probably also make them distrust outside aid, especially relief administered by military or governmental forces.

    Upon reflection, it would also be interested to see how law enforcement treats scavenging and "looting" when a disaster strikes an affluent area or a white area versus a poor or non white area.

  • One additional thought a I go over the articles and photos Ed linked:

    In times of disaster, laws are often relaxed, as normal law and order do not apply to such situations. Isn't it interesting that instead of relaxing their stance on petty theft, the authorities relax their stance on police brutality and murder?

  • This shit is rooted in the deep-seated unconscious–and horrifyingly frightening–knowledge that we "civilized" societies are really THIS-FUCKING-CLOSE to complete total civil disorder and reversion to Hobbesian natural law. Clucking superiorly at "those people" like the Haitians or the New Orleaneans who were forced to find usable shit or die lets us distance ourselves from our own rational fears that we could easily be forced into doing the exact same fucking thing.

  • You know, sometimes, when I completely shut down my frontal lobes (and being so closely related to cousin Pan Troglodytes, it is easier than you think), I pretend to be a Libertarian. And then I look at these incidents with glee. "Finely! Dadbum gun-vment infarcin me propty ryts! Text dollahs will spant! Shoot s'mores em MFKRS in the haid! Yay-yah!" And then I fall over, soil myself, and roll back forth in my own bodily wastes, completely and utterly entwined within the Be Here Now. And then Ed, you have to fucking spoil it all with rational thought. Damn you sir! Damn you to hell!

  • Noticed in one of the comments to the Guernica article someone supporting the defense of stuff because allowing looting leads to 'a breakdown of society'…? That must be a comfortable position…if you ignore the breakdown of society due to the disaster that fomented the looting.

    The idea that shoplifting suddenly becomes a capital offense is particularly heinous, though not surprising.

    Echoing David R's second post – remember the footage of Walmart looting in New Orleans, including a woman in a police uniform who was participating? After other cops showed up to do what they do and ran everyone off, they… set up camp in the parking lot using all the stuff they'd just shooed those nasty looters away from.

    Here dude, take this water, go change your socks and take a nap in that tent, we'll wake you up when the steaks are done grilling.

    At least the officer who related this story began to question and seriously doubt why he was "enforcing society" on folks doing the same thing he was. But then again, he and his crowd were armed.

  • Well, if people have no food or shelter they're probably going to take whatever they can find, right? This isn't a Sunday afternoon on Long Island. It's a country that was impoverished to begin with and it is in complete ruins. A little "looting" may be understandable given the circumstances.

    You have it exactly wrong, Ed. Desperate poverty can unhinge people, but saying it’s okay to steal nonessentials is nuts. Stealing food when you are hungry is not looting. Stealing a tent when you are homeless is reasonable. Stealing all the cell phones you can carry is not going to feed you or shelter you. I grew up dirt poor, and I think it’s unbearably patronizing not to distinguish between the poor doing what they need to survive, and the poor being exempt from the law because the pathetic savages were understandably overcome by lust for brand-name merchandise.

    How is it crass materialism to protect the property you worked to acquire honestly, but it’s not crass materialism to steal someone else’s belongings? This double standard is maddening. I don’t think shoplifting is a capital crime, but if you trust looters to pillage but not rape or otherwise assault anyone, you are too naive to discuss civil disorder. It's not a happy romp by playful, harmless adults carried away by the "school's out!" enthusiasm of catastrophic disaster.

  • Americans would rather be dead than have someone (black and poor) take their stuff.

    This is the exact same motivation behind those who want to eliminate the social safety net. ZOMG they bought beer while on food stamps, THE WORLD IS COMING TO AN END! Or, hey fatty! You're fat! You don't need food stamps! Or, homeless people with cell phones? GTFO of my soup kitchen, you greedy, greedy asshole!

    It's quite sad, but many in the First World are absolutely obsessed (to a very disgusting and damaging degree) with making sure those less fortune don't accidentally get too much of what they perceive as "their money."

    Greed. Money. Root of all evil and all that.

  • Stealing all the cell phones you can carry is not going to feed you or shelter you.

    Because nobody on the entire island is going to want to maybe buy those cell phones from you. That's crazy talk!

    Not to say there aren't just assholes out there being assholes (there surely are). But there are also, as you said, desperate people trying to desperately find any (including illegal) way to feed themselves and their family. That might mean stealing a tent, or that might mean stealing cell phones and trading them for a tent.

  • In the Simpsons episode "Bart the Murderer", Fat Tony justifies hijacking a truckload of cigarettes to a naive child:

    Bart: Uh, say, are you guys crooks?
    Fat Tony: Bart, is it wrong to steal a loaf of bread to feed your starving family?
    Bart: No.
    Fat Tony: Well, suppose you got a large starving family. Is it wrong to steal a truckload of bread to feed them?
    Bart: Uh uh.
    Fat Tony: And, what if your family don't like bread? They like… cigarettes?
    Bart: I guess that's okay.
    Fat Tony: Now, what if instead of giving them away, you sold them at a price that was practically giving them away. Would that be a crime, Bart?
    Bart: Hell, no!

    (courtesy IMDB: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0701060/quotes)

  • I actually did see a few of the tv journalists talk about the effects of desperation and needing to distinguish between thugs looting with the intent of picking up a new plasma tv and ordinary people simply trying to survive as best they could in a horrrible situation. I was amazed. It's not that often you see on-air personalities deviate from the script.

  • bane – I'm with you up to a point, but I believe the crass materialism may come into play when shoot to kill policies protect honestly acquired property. By killing people. So they don't take stuff.

  • Why would a lust for brand-name merchandise drive anyone to steal a handful of cell phones? Wouldn't they just need to steal a single really expensive one? Perhaps two if they're slightly obsessive-compulsive and are afraid the first one they swiped will break.

    Rather, the reason they'd likely be lifting large quantities of phones would be to pawn them for money. Money to do what? Who knows. Maybe buy food, rent, clothing or pay pretty much any bill that is outstanding. Reflecting your sentiments, maybe the 'pathetic savages' and 'rapists' would buy drugs, alcohol, hookers.

    Still I find it's baffling that anyone would be willing to kill and probably put themselves in the situation where they themselves can be killed over a pile of consumer electronics. Remember, you're trying to survive too. Let them head for the TV aisle while you head for the bread aisle.

  • "Any dictator would admire the uniformity and obedience of the U.S. media…. If we choose, we can live in a world of comforting illusion…The more you can increase fear of drugs and crime [looting], welfare mothers, immigrants and aliens, the more you control all the people…..

  • Echoing flathead's sentiments—

    Yes, the very use of the word "looting" is queasy, and doesn't really fit the situation. If you or the mob you're in smash up a store and take the things inside, it's looting.

    If you take things from an indefinitely abandoned storefront, shattered by natural causes, whose owner might never return or might be dead, looting isn't exactly the right word…. maybe "scrounging" or "scavenging"?
    Incidentally, scavenging for abandoned goods is legal in most states/municipalities. In college me and my more enterprising friends did this every year during dorm move-out week, netting ourselves everything from couches to canned goods. The RAs and hall directors encouraged this and participated in it while school administrators looked on. But then, we were all upper middle class, mostly white, and in college. You know— doing something more socially sanctioned than working to survive in the face pf poverty and disaster.

    Also echoing parrotlover's sentiments, I agree— "stealing" abandoned cell phones, plasma tvs, etc… is more stupid than it is evil. Given that those electronic goods might never be reclaimed by their rightful owners anyway, given all the other awful things that the rightful owners of the goods and the "looters" both face, how important is it?

  • This reminded me of the celebrated news photos from post-Katrina, one showing survivors 'salvaging' stuff, and another showing other survivors 'looting' stuff.
    Some of you may remember a visible difference in the photos.

  • Remember, this is a people who have been absolutely brutalized by neoliberal economic policy. The free market was so efficient at removing resources and employment out of Haiti's economy that a large portion of the population of Port- au_ Prince was reduced to making " cakes" of mud to stretch out their limited supply of grain.
    I hope they loot the shit out of every motherfucking shop down there.

  • Put yourself in the store owner's shoes.

    A what-if situation:

    You are a poor Haitian and struggled for years to somehow finally manage to open a storefront to carry way-off-brand electronics and used goods. You and your family somehow manage to escape when the disaster strikes. You cannot get back to your store and must stay where you are for the time being. You are unfortunately still too poor to have theft insurance and can only fend off robberies (during good times) with a gun. While you are gone, your store is cleaned out. When you come back, you have nothing to sell or any means to recoup, even while your store is damaged and may never be rebuilt. You have just stepped down in local economics. You were the beginning of a "middle class" in Haiti, but that's all over now. You have no store thanks to the earthquake and now you have no merchandise left to try and start over thanks to mob mentality.

    Is this scenario just too hard to imagine for those who can't stomach the use of the word "looter"? When all of humanity is reduced to taking someone else's things, the necessary "middle class" who have storefronts and market stalls disappear forever. Who then can develop the small businesses that sell to the rest of us? Is it then suddenly a government problem to solve? Do we create a permanent welfare state as a solution?

    Sorry, but even in a disaster situation, stealing is wrong. It may help you temporarily, but it hurts society indefinitely.

  • I'm not talking about the market stall where a family is trying to eke out a living selling pots and pans. The capitalists have no interest in that. I'm talking about what they're reallyinterested in protecting. What they're willing to kill for. The warehouses, sugar mills, plantations, etc. The foreign property.

  • I second what David R said; I was thinking of "scavenging" myself when I got to his post.

    As for the shop owners, well, I imagine that community goodwill is very important for them in the course of their business. IF THEY'RE EVEN STILL ALIVE, then they probably are in need themselves, and will very likely want to give to back to their community in whatever way that they can.

    Food in stores? Gonna go bad if it doesn't get eaten soon. Cell phones? Is there even service there, now, and who could afford to open an account anyway when they're trying to survive?

  • Because Nike et al. can afford organized protection, don't you think it more likely that local merchants will be looted?

    And I'm sorry, but allowing looters to steal your stock does not engender community goodwill — nor would it be needed. If shoppers have needs and cash, they will buy goods even from shops that don't encourage the patronage of thieves.

    Also, don't you think it should be the shop owner's choice to give back to the community, in the amount and way he feels best, rather than have people steal from him?

    To put all this another way, if you leave ("abandon") your car in a parking lot, and someone breaks the window and snatches your laptop, will you return to find this and conclude that a homeless man fenced it to feed his starving family? Will you think that you have given back to the community through your involuntary contribution? Will you have the money to replace the window, the laptop, and still donate to the needy?

    Maybe you will, but do you think the people of Port-au-Prince would be happy to lose much to the earthquake, and more to their neighbors?

  • The contradiction of pro-materialism and the government enforcing materialism/capitalism makes me chuckle a little bit. Do the pro-materialism folks realize that they also bitch about taxes and therefore hate their taxes going to government to enforce pro-materialism views? Wouldn't the anarchic state of Haiti be a pro-capitalism, Ryandist's wet dream? Government wouldn't play any part in creating a stable playing field for capitalism now, would it? Maybe government isn't so bad after all (a conservative's head just exploded).

  • Liebchen says: As for the shop owners, well, I imagine that community goodwill is very important for them in the course of their business. IF THEY'RE EVEN STILL ALIVE, then they probably are in need themselves, and will very likely want to give to back to their community in whatever way that they can.


    That is truly a pathetic and weak argument at best. A huge gap of logic and reasoning occurs between supposed "community goodwill" and getting your store cleaned out by looters. Like Ladiesbane says, it should be THEIR choice when and how much to give. If you have zero stock left to sell, (and in the current situation, none coming in) you are then reduced to poverty status along with the looters. Conjecture as to their status (dead or alive?) doesn't bolster your position very well since this particular example renders them as living.

    Giving food and water to those in need is goodwill, having all of your means of ever getting back to "normalcy" taken by others is victimization.

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