Monday, January 18th, 2010

Looting Overtakes the Media

LOOT"Looters," reported the Wall Street Journal yesterday from Port-au-Prince, "were scaling a crumpled building, apparently a grocery store, and throwing items to the assembled throng below." That "looting" is traditionally construed to mean illegally obtaining goods for one's own benefit-not for the benefit of a waiting crowd of the recently homeless-seems to have entirely escaped these reporters. The Journal, while chronicling this "violence" against property, does, however, offer one dissenting viewpoint: "Standing at the edge of the mob, 18-year-old Reginald Elacen suggested the police should be allowing the badly damaged stores to be emptied, and helping keep order. 'We really don't have a choice,' he said, referring to the desperate needs of Haitians who lost everything in the quake. 'If the police would help, it could be done without violence.'" What a wild idea. And? "Still, just a few blocks away on the road, a store owner was calmly overseeing an orderly emptying of his broken shop. He was using a kind of bucket-brigade of some 30 young men stretching over the store's shattered roof, handing out goods can by can." This article, incidentally, is headlined "Haiti Authorities Battle Looters."

We turned to the Sunday edition of our Paper of Record as well, for desperately needed context and clarity. Sorting through the chaos and ruins of post-earthquake Haiti, the New York Times fronted an impressionistic dispatch reassuring its privileged readership that, yes, at long last, looting was truly under way on the streets of Port-au-Prince.

Throughout the past week, of course, the U.S. media has seized upon any faint hearsay inkling of post-disaster mayhem in the Caribbean nation with the unseemly gusto that Sandy Dennis showcased as she hooted for "More violence!" in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? And Times correspondents Simon Romero and Marc Lacey joined the chorus, after a rushed disclaimer to the effect that, what with the overarching "desperation, the lack of food and water as well as the absence of law and order" in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, "it was all the more remarkable that a spirit of cooperation and fortitude prevailed nearly everywhere else" outside the capital city.

And with that out of the way-on to the bloodsport! Here, for instance, is a group of Haitian police officers dispersing a crowd of looters on the Boulevard Dessalines, many of whom "wore bandanas over their faces, shielding their identities from the policemen and their noses from the smell of rotting corpses." Nearby, Romero and Lacey, or their stringers, happened upon a man outside a general store who "emerged wild-eyed with a pair of shoes still in their box," who announced-"with a smile," mind you-that "there is good pillaging here." They also goose up the mood of general alarm by noting this footwear-themed fiendishness occurred "a few blocks away from the Civil Prison, which had collapsed in the quake, freeing all the inmates who were not killed." "No one could answer," they disclaim with near-palpable regret, whether a marauding group of machete-wielding looters "were among the dozens who escaped" the facility (because of course in any quake recovery effort, the first thing you do is issue machetes to newly liberated inmates).

But no matter; a digressive speculation is all that's needed to plant the seed of social panic.

That, and quotes from understandably jumpy survivors and aid workers. One anonymous World Food official actually notes that "for the moment, the population is rather quiet," but-wait for it-"we are seeing the first signs of violence and looting." The dispatch alights, confusingly enough, on a vigilante mob besetting a looter detained by police, stripping and battering him and finally setting him on fire-a heinous outbreak of violence, to be sure, but one that doesn't clearly bespeak an unruly contempt for property in the wake of a devastating natural disaster. And even the looting outbreaks the Times duo can confirm point up something shy of insatiable bling-lust; outside Port-au-Prince stores and warehouses, they note, crowds fought over "rolls of fabric, saucepans, and other items," bespeaking either the widespread desperation of an already poor population looking to meet basic needs as international aid starts to trickle in, or else a cohort of street gangs and violent escaped prisoners with a most inapposite Martha Stewart fixation.

It is, of course, an article of faith in Timesland, and the mediasphere at large, that reckless disturbance of the social peace is the role scripted for poor people in the wake of a disaster-especially those who happen to be darker complexioned, and thereby conveniently saddled with all the coded insinuations that typically accompany "culture of poverty" arguments.

In an exceptionally cloddish column on Thursday, Times opinion hand David Brooks rushed to just such an argument. He maintained that regardless of any aid efforts, Haiti will remain mired in destructive want, thanks to "a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10."

There is also, of course, a couple of centuries worth of deliberate economic isolation, fomented chiefly by the diplomatic seers in these United States, who for all sorts of embarrassing reasons did not want the Western hemisphere's second major republic to be founded and led by former slaves. There's also a history of brutal recourse to political violence to shore up the rule of unpopular authoritarian regimes in the island nation-furnishing in the process additional rationales for US interventions that have rarely erred on the side of an expanded Haitian democracy. Those are just a couple among scores of reasons that the culture-first maunderings of the Brooks crowd-who at the end of the day are little more than less forthright and better credentialed Pat Robertsons-can't withstand more than a moment's critical scrutiny.

You'd like to think that the armada of American correspondents now on the ground in Port-au-Prince could be more mindful of such enormous Monroe-Doctrine blindspots as they file their breathless "Is-it-violent-yet?" dispatches. But that all looks like drearily wonky fare, I guess, next to the Mad-Lib style insinuation that a machete-swinging marauder might possibly be an escaped convict.

And the actual social conditions of Haiti over the last century or so can't compare with the goggle-eyed observation-collected inside the Times' A section by the same Lacy and Romero team-that the earthquake amazingly enough, afforded no special protection to the thin stratum of Haiti's wealthy folk. "Earthquakes do not respect social customs," they announced in the sort of reporterly dumbfoundment that has long been the Times' calling card on matters of social class. "They do not coddle the rich."

Digging deeper, they marvel that "the unsettling feeling of seeing one's home collapse, no matter the size, affected Haitians of all social strata…. Destruction… was on display up and down exclusive residential areas like Pacot, near the old center, and Pétionville, in the hills above the city. Mansions were flattened and monied families slept in the street in front of their destroyed residences, clinging to their possessions."

That's right. The devastating Lisbon earthquake of 1755 prompted a widespread spiritual crisis among the philosophes of Europe, causing them to question how such random devastation could be squared with the existence of a compassionate personal God; our own makers of respectable opinion are shaken to their existential core, evidently, by the reflection that there are some calamities that can even extend to mansions and monied families.

Curiously enough, Lacy and Romero are able to buttonhole one departing Haitian businessman named Harold Marzouka on the dread specter of popular looting. Marzouka, who owns a spaghetti factory in Port-au-Prince, was about to board a charter flight to Miami, so is clearly none too sanguine about short-term prospects for social peace. But unlike the ideal-type Times reader, he's pretty unexcited about the prospect of damage to his own property. Telling our correspondents that he fully expects one of his food warehouses to be looted in the days ahead, he says, "I understand it and I don't mind."

It would be useful to know whether that outlook sprang from a weary fatalism about Haiti's socioeconomic plight, or a simple recognition that people without any other resources tend to do what they need to in order to keep eating. We'll never know, though-the guy, after all, was dealing with a media culture where responsibility is not often internalized.


Chris Lehmann is currently out of the house, looting some free Wifi.

17 Comments / Post A Comment

belltolls (#184)

Stupid earthquakes.

mandor (#1,014)

Jesus fuck, that article on how rich people lost their homes really pissed me off. I was at least thankful that the LA Times did not have any ZOMG LOOTING!!! articles on their front page yesterday.

This is an awesome piece!

I have been pissed off about this very thing in reading various news reports during the past week, and the folks at The Awl – as far as I can tell – are the only ones calling the media out on this bullshit.

mathnet (#27)


HiredGoons (#603)

Well done.

Also: Sandy Dennis' son is the Superman on Hollywood Boulevard.

This film is WEIRD.

Abe Sauer (#148)

It's been recommended to me that I avoid most Haiti coverage for health reasons. I eschewed advice and read this and now need a beta blocker.

Also: "Marines arrived off the shore of this crumbled capital city on Monday, their mission to protect a huge relief operation from marauding looters… Especially prized was toothpaste, which people smear under their noses to fend off the stench of decaying bodies."

citizen192 (#68)

I'd vote to have some of the mass donations filtered to "broken shop" owners as insurance.

bb (#295)

The horrifying part is not just that the media is amped up over looting, but that the US is as quick to send military/police aid as humanitarian – in fact, the two get smooshed together as "security" resources. Has anyone read Dave Eggers' book Zeitoun, an account of post-Katrina law and order (partly anyway)? The quick jump to military enforcement in these cases is scary as fuck. If you haven't got enough to fear from starving or lacking medical care, you have soldiers "protecting" you by shooting you.

IronicYouth (#2,983)

Let's not forget the best part of Zeitoun – that the military detention facilities were built faster than any relief efforts because they were able to borrow prison labor from upstate. Security forces come from a hierarchical world that can respond quickly, and that as much as anything else contributes to why they're on the ground so soon and so often.

hep (#3,064)

i love everything about this post.

sigerson (#179)

Oh, hello. Looks like this angle of the story is finally getting play.

Nice to see The Awl get a link from the MSM. Wait, what?

fran (#176)

Sure. Countless Haitian have-nots couldn't believe their good fortunes when they realised the earth had moved and granted them access to the Land of Cockaigne.
I want the media to be sane again. When exactly did it all go to hell?

crookedE (#1,817)

This is a fantastic post.

lawyergay (#220)

Great piece.

kpants (#719)

On last night's evening news one of our (Portland) local stations referred to "salvaging" rather than "looting." "Scavanging" seems to be the media's word alternative of choice, but salvaging explains what's going on with a lot more clarity.

xpurg8d (#3,097)

Brooks says "…Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10."

So I must have been mistaken when I saw a clip of U.S. marines handing out one bottle of water each to people who stood in a very, very, long (and orderly) line yesterday, and every single one said, "Thank you." When two young children were handled their bottles of water, the father gently nudged one and prompted quietly, "Say 'thank you'." And both children said, "Thank you, Sir." That sure is a whole lot of neglect going on there.

HannerHearse (#3,101)

FANTASTIC article. I'm spreading it around to everyone I know.

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