[News] Covering Haiti - When the Media Is the Disaster

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Jan 21 11:35:31 EST 2010


When the Media Is the Disaster
Covering Haiti

By <http://www.tomdispatch.com/authors/rebeccasolnit>Rebecca Solnit

Soon after almost every disaster the crimes 
begin:  ruthless, selfish, indifferent to human 
suffering, and generating far more suffering. The 
perpetrators go unpunished and live to commit 
further crimes against humanity. They care less 
for human life than for property. They act without regard for consequences.

I’m talking, of course, about those members of 
the mass media whose misrepresentation of what 
goes on in disaster often abets and justifies a 
second wave of disaster.  I’m talking about the 
treatment of sufferers as criminals, both on the 
ground and in the news, and the endorsement of a 
shift of resources from rescue to property 
patrol. They still have blood on their hands from 
Hurricane Katrina, and they are staining themselves anew in Haiti.

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for 
example, the Los Angeles Times ran 
series of photographs with captions that kept 
deploying the word “looting.” One was of a man 
lying face down on the ground with this caption: 
“A Haitian police officer ties up a suspected 
looter who was carrying a bag of evaporated 
milk.” The man’s sweaty face looks up at the camera, beseeching, anguished.

Another photo was labeled: “Looting continued in 
Haiti on the third day after the earthquake, 
although there were more police in downtown 
Port-au-Prince.” It showed a somber crowd 
wandering amid shattered piles of concrete in a 
landscape where, visibly, there could be little worth taking anyway.

A third image was captioned: “A looter makes off 
with rolls of fabric from an earthquake-wrecked 
store.” Yet another: “The body of a police 
officer lies in a Port-au-Prince street. He was 
accidentally shot by fellow police who mistook him for a looter.”

People were then still trapped alive in the 
rubble. A translator for Australian TV 
out a toddler who’d survived 68 hours without 
food or water, orphaned but claimed by an uncle 
who had lost his pregnant wife. Others were 
hideously wounded and awaiting medical attention 
that wasn’t arriving. Hundreds of thousands, 
maybe millions, needed, and still need, water, 
food, shelter, and first aid. The media in 
disaster bifurcates. Some step out of their usual 
“objective” roles to respond with kindness and 
practical aid. Others bring out the arsenal of 
clichés and pernicious myths and begin to assault the survivors all over again.

The “looter” in the first photo might well have 
been taking that milk to starving children and 
babies, but for the news media that wasn’t the 
most urgent problem. The “looter” stooped under 
the weight of two big bolts of fabric might well 
have been bringing it to now homeless people 
trying to shelter from a fierce tropical sun under improvised tents.

The pictures do convey desperation, but they 
don’t convey crime. Except perhaps for that 
shooting of a fellow police officer -- his 
colleagues were so focused on property that they 
were reckless when it came to human life, and a 
man died for no good reason in a landscape already saturated with death.

In recent days, there have been scattered 
accounts of confrontations involving weapons, and 
these may be a different matter.  But the man 
with the powdered milk? Is he really a criminal? 
There may be more to know, but with what I’ve seen I’m not convinced.

What Would You Do?

Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a 
disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you 
spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. 
Your credit cards are meaningless because there 
is no longer any power to run credit-card 
charges. Actually, there are no longer any 
storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of 
anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.

By day three, you’re pretty hungry and the water 
you grabbed on your way out of your house is 
gone. The thirst is far worse than the hunger. 
You can go for many days without food, but not 
water. And in the improvised encampment you 
settle in, there is an old man near you who seems 
on the edge of death. He no longer responds when 
you try to reassure him that this ordeal will 
surely end. Toddlers are now crying constantly, 
and their mothers infinitely stressed and distressed.

So you go out to see if any relief organization 
has finally arrived to distribute anything, only 
to realize that there are a million others like 
you stranded with nothing, and there isn’t likely 
to be anywhere near enough aid anytime soon. The 
guy with the corner store has already given away 
all his goods to the neighbors.  That supply’s 
long gone by now. No wonder, when you see the 
chain pharmacy with the shattered windows or the 
supermarket, you don’t think twice before 
grabbing a box of PowerBars and a few gallons of 
water that might keep you alive and help you save a few lives as well.

The old man might not die, the babies might stop 
their squalling, and the mothers might lose that 
look on their faces. Other people are calmly 
wandering in and helping themselves, too. Maybe 
they’re people like you, and that gallon of milk 
the fellow near you has taken is going to spoil 
soon anyway. You haven’t shoplifted since you 
were 14, and you have plenty of money to your 
name. But it doesn’t mean anything now.

If you grab that stuff are you a criminal? Should 
you end up lying in the dirt on your stomach with 
a cop tying your hands behind your back? Should 
you end up labeled a looter in the international 
media? Should you be shot down in the street, 
since the overreaction in disaster, almost any 
disaster, often includes the imposition of the 
death penalty without benefit of trial for suspected minor property crimes?

Or are you a rescuer? Is the survival of disaster 
victims more important than the preservation of 
everyday property relations? Is that chain 
pharmacy more vulnerable, more a victim, more in 
need of help from the National Guard than you 
are, or those crying kids, or the thousands still 
trapped in buildings and soon to die?

It’s pretty obvious what my answers to these 
questions are, but it isn’t obvious to the mass 
media. And in disaster after disaster, at least 
since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, those 
in power, those with guns and the force of law 
behind them, are too often more concerned for 
property than human life. In an emergency, people 
can, and do, die from those priorities. Or they 
get gunned down for minor thefts or imagined 
thefts. The media not only endorses such 
outcomes, but regularly, repeatedly, helps 
prepare the way for, and then eggs on, such a reaction.

If Words Could Kill

We need to banish the word “looting” from the 
English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.

“Loot,” the noun and the verb, is a word of Hindi 
origin meaning the spoils of war or other goods 
seized roughly. As historian Peter Linebaugh 
out, “At one time loot was the soldier's pay.” It 
entered the English language as a good deal of 
loot from India entered the English economy, both 
in soldiers’ pockets and as imperial seizures.

of interviewing survivors of disasters, and 
reading first-hand accounts and sociological 
studies from such disasters as the London Blitz 
and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I don’t 
believe in looting. Two things go on in 
disasters. The great majority of what happens you 
could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who 
could be you, someone in the kind of desperate 
circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary 
supplies to sustain human life in the absence of 
any alternative. Not only would I not call that 
looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.

Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in 
the United States and other countries, though 
it’s usually applied more to, say, confiscating 
the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding 
hungry children. Taking things you don’t need is 
theft under any circumstances. It is, says the 
disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has 
been studying the subject for more than half a 
century, vanishingly rare in most disasters.

Personal gain is the last thing most people are 
thinking about in the aftermath of a disaster. In 
that phase, the survivors are almost invariably 
more altruistic and less attached to their own 
property, less concerned with the long-term 
questions of acquisition, status, wealth, and 
security, than just about anyone not in such 
situations imagines possible. (The best accounts 
from Haiti of how people with next to nothing 
have patiently tried to share the little they 
have and support those in even worse shape than 
them only emphasize this disaster reality.) Crime 
often drops in the wake of a disaster.

The media are another matter.  They tend to 
arrive obsessed with property (and the headlines 
that assaults on property can make).  Media 
outlets often call everything looting and thereby 
incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as 
a hysterical overreaction on the part of the 
armed authorities. Or sometimes the journalists 
on the ground do a good job and the editors back 
in their safe offices cook up the crazy photo 
captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.

They also deploy the word panic wrongly. Panic 
among ordinary people in crisis is profoundly 
uncommon. The media will call a crowd of people 
running from certain death a panicking mob, even 
though running is the only sensible thing to do. 
In Haiti, they continue to report that food is 
being withheld from distribution for fear of 
“stampedes.” Do they think Haitians are cattle?

The belief that people in disaster (particularly 
poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals 
or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly 
justifies spending far too much energy and far 
too many resources on control -- the American 
military calls it “security” -- rather than 
relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN 
people sprinting to where supplies are being 
dumped from a helicopter a "stampede" and adds 
that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The 
chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on 
these people desperate for food and water. Or you 
can, and in doing so help convince your audience 
that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.

Back to looting: of course you can consider 
Haiti’s dire poverty and failed institutions a 
long-term disaster that changes the rules of the 
game. There might be people who are not only 
interested in taking the things they need to 
survive in the next few days, but things they’ve 
never been entitled to own or things they may 
need next month. Technically that’s theft, but 
I’m not particularly surprised or distressed by 
it; the distressing thing is that even before the 
terrible quake they led lives of deprivation and desperation.

In ordinary times, minor theft is often 
considered a misdemeanor. No one is harmed. 
Unchecked, minor thefts could perhaps lead to an 
environment in which there were more thefts and 
so forth, and a good argument can be made that, 
in such a case, the tide needs to be stemmed. But 
it’s not particularly significant in a landscape 
of terrible suffering and mass death.

A number of radio hosts and other media personnel 
are still upset that people apparently took TVs 
after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 
2005.  Since I started thinking about, and 
talking to people about, disaster aftermaths I’ve 
heard a lot about those damned TVs. Now, which 
matters more to you, televisions or human life? 
People were dying on rooftops and in overheated 
attics and freeway overpasses, they were stranded 
in all kinds of hideous circumstances on the Gulf 
Coast in 2005 when the mainstream media began to 
obsess about looting, and the mayor of New 
Orleans and the governor of Louisiana made the 
decision to focus on protecting property, not human life.

A gang of white men on the other side of the 
river from New Orleans got so worked up about 
property crimes that they decided to take the law 
into their own hands and began shooting. They 
seem to have considered all black men criminals 
and thieves and 
a number of them. Some apparently died; there 
were bodies bloating in the September sun far 
from the region of the floods; one good man 
trying to evacuate the ruined city barely 
survived; and the media looked away. It 
me months of nagging to even get the story 
covered. This vigilante gang claimed to be 
protecting property, though its members never 
demonstrated that their property was threatened. 
They boasted of killing black men. And they 
shared values with the mainstream media and the Louisiana powers that be.

Somehow, when the Bush administration 
subcontracted emergency services -- like 
providing evacuation buses in Hurricane Katrina 
-- to cronies who profited even while providing 
incompetent, overpriced, and much delayed service 
at the moment of greatest urgency, we didn’t label that looting.

Or when a lot of wealthy Wall Street brokers 
decide to tinker with a basic human need like 
. Well, you catch my drift.

Woody Guthrie once sang that “some will rob you 
with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.” 
The guys with the six guns (or machetes or 
sharpened sticks) make for better photographs, 
and the guys with the fountain pens not only 
don’t end up in jail, they end up in McMansions 
with four-car garages and, sometimes, in elected -- or appointed -- office.

Learning to See in Crises

Last Christmas a priest, Father Tim Jones of 
York, started a ruckus in Britain when he said in 
a sermon that shoplifting by the desperate from 
chain stores might be acceptable behavior. 
Naturally, there was an uproar. Jones 
the Associated Press: “The point I'm making is 
that when we shut down every socially acceptable 
avenue for people in need, then the only avenue 
left is the socially unacceptable one.”

The response focused almost entirely on why 
shoplifting is wrong, but the claim was also 
repeatedly made that it doesn’t help. In fact, 
food helps the hungry, a fact so bald it’s 
bizarre to even have to state it. The means by 
which it arrives is a separate matter. The focus 
remained on shoplifting, rather than on why there 
might be people so desperate in England’s green 
and pleasant land that shoplifting might be their 
only option, and whether unnecessary human 
suffering is itself a crime of sorts.

Right now, the point is that people in Haiti need 
food, and for all the publicity, the 
international delivery system has, so far, been a 
visible dud.  Under such circumstances, 
into a U.N. food warehouse -- food assumedly 
meant for the poor of Haiti in a catastrophic 
moment -- might not be “violence,” or “looting,” 
or “law-breaking.”  It might be logic.  It might 
be the most effective way of meeting a desperate need.

Why were so many people in Haiti hungry before 
the earthquake? Why do we have a planet that 
produces enough food for all and a distribution 
system that ensures more than a billion of us 
don’t have a decent share of that bounty? Those 
are not questions whose answers should be long delayed.

Even more urgently, we need compassion for the 
sufferers in Haiti and media that tell the truth 
about them. I’d like to propose alternative 
captions for those Los Angeles Times photographs 
as models for all future disasters:

Let’s start with the picture of the policeman 
hogtying the figure whose face is so anguished: 
“Ignoring thousands still trapped in rubble, a 
policeman accosts a sufferer who took evaporated 
milk. No adequate food distribution exists for Haiti’s starving millions.”

And the guy with the bolt of fabric? “As with 
every disaster, ordinary people show 
extraordinary powers of improvisation, and 
fabrics such as these are being used to make sun shelters around Haiti.”

For the murdered policeman: “Institutional 
overzealousness about protecting property leads 
to a gratuitous murder, as often happens in 
crises. Meanwhile countless people remain trapped beneath crushed buildings.”

And the crowd in the rubble labeled looters? How 
about: “Resourceful survivors salvage the means 
of sustaining life from the ruins of their world.”

That one might not be totally accurate, but it’s 
likely to be more accurate than the existing 
label. And what is absolutely accurate, in Haiti 
right now, and on Earth always, is that human 
life matters more than property, that the 
survivors of a catastrophe deserve our compassion 
and our understanding of their plight, and that 
we live and die by words and ideas, and it 
matters desperately that we get them right.

At the dawn of the millennium, three catastrophes 
for the United States: terrorists in New York, a 
hurricane in New Orleans, and an earthquake in 
San Francisco. Rebecca Solnit lives in San 
Francisco with her earthquake kit and is about to 
make her seventh trip to New Orleans since 
Katrina.  Her latest book, 
Paradise Built in Hell, is a testament to human 
bravery and innovation during disasters.

Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit

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