Wednesday, August 31, 2005

The Hurricane Katrina Catastrophe (or on "looting")

In the last few days, friends and correspondents have pointed out to me or I've come across images and commentary that juxtapose images and descriptions of some of the people in the Hurricane Katrina-affected regions (White) as "finding" things, while depicting others (Black) as "looting." (A longer discussion of this can be found on BoingBoing.) I actually wrote CNN the other night to ask that they stop showing an endless loop of gleeful looters, and in my message also praised Louisiana's Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who, under questioning by CNN's Rita Cosby, kept her cool and suggested that the breathless Cosby and viewers consider the horrible conditions the hurricane and levee breaks had left behind, rather than rush to judgment about the survivors' actions.
Loot vs. Find
The mainstream media's racism should surprise no one; they have always been grossly racist, sexist and classist, and they're not about to change now, especially when dealing with a catastrophic event that has primarily devastated Black and poor people. Nor should anyone be surprised that many--but not all--in the media seem to have missed the basic issue: how to allocate scarce and necessary resources at such a critical time, and in a place in which all order has collapsed, creating a truly Hobbesian scenario. What are people to do? Some obviously are taking the worst route.

I should add that in some cases, media reports about "finding," "looting" and other forms of distribution conflict; while some people are outright stealing things that do not meet the description of basic necessities (foodstuffs, clean water, dry and clean clothes and shoes, medicine, hygienic products, etc.), I have seen accounts of some store owners actually distributing their goods, and that the declaration of martial law allows city officials, I believe, to take and distribute private goods for their own purposes. Also, from what I've read and seen, the vast majority of people are ASSISTING each other at a time of tremendous fear and desparation. They are not looting or stealing or killing or even acting out, but trying to help each other and figure out ways to get out of what just a week ago was one of the most beautiful cities in the United States but what is now "New Atlantis."

But back to the "looting": I'm not excusing or condoning it, but here are some additional thoughts on the issue:

First, since many of the Black people (and many of the Whites, Latinos, and everyone else at this point who've suffered the hurricane's devastation) depicted looting are jobless, penniless, homeless, hungry, facing an even more uncertain than before, and since the system that has always neglected them had completely broken down, and since they've been distrustful of the authorities and the system anyway, why wouldn't some of them act out? It's become obvious that at the state and federal level, no one seems to have set up real, readily realizable contingency plans in the event that Hurricane Katrina (or a similar storm) hit the city. The President of the United States could not be bothered to leave his vacation when two states were hit, and then yesterday spoke so casually and indifferently (the idiot actually GRINNED!) that he made it clear he didn't give a damn. Maybe some of the "looters" are thinking, now is their one chance to get as much they've ever wanted, whether or not they enter into short-term or long-term considerations, such as that they might not be able to take this stuff anywhere. They live in society where some people have everything and they have nothing (isn't a quarter of New Orleans' population living below the poverty level?), and now the system that maintains that society has utterly broken down, so I'm not surprised that some of them would take advantage of it.

Second, why wouldn't they steal guns to commandeer a car or truck or helicopter or boat to get out of there now that the city has turned into a giant toxic vat? To get food and water? Why wouldn't some try to punish the authorities, whom they might feel are not taking sufficient account of their needs and interests? This is not to condone their actions, but to point out why people might be acting as they are. Also, why wouldn't some take electronic equipment like TVs and DVD players and Game Boys that they thought they might sell in Arkansas or Texas or Tennessee or somewhere else, for food, or clothes, or gas? Why wouldn't they take things that have some resale value, especially now that they have ABSOLUTELY NOTHING? Since the pre-existing economic system, on whose margins they lived prior to the hurricane's hit, has completely broken down, why wouldn't they devise their own system, which might include bartering to survive?

Third, I saw a CNN correspondent (Martin Savidge?) enter one of the stores that was being "looted." He spoke with a Black policewoman who was trying on shoes and not stopping the looters. The policewoman seemed slightly embarassed, queried Savidge about why he was there, and then continued with what she was doing. Though packing a gun, she was making no effort to stop anyone from what they were doing. (There appeared to be White and Latino people roaming through the aisles as well.) When Savidge told a young brotha that the shorts he'd grabbed--a pinkish-purple--were a color that didn't suit him, the boy threw them down and kept on with searching for goods. What struck me was how many people were calmly and coolly--not frantically--pushing carts around as if they were shopping under normal circumstances. I thought, why hasn't anyone in the media pointed out that for millions of people in our hyperconsumerist society shopping, among its other functions (economic, social, etc.), also serves as a form of psychological therapy and entertainment, and that some of these "looters" may be doing the very thing we're always and endlessly encouraged to do, to consume, but that they may be doing it for therapeutic reasons, especially in the face of such a terrible trauma? Money or no money, the people I saw seemed to be relaxed and actually enjoying themselves.

All in all, the situation in New Orleans and the surrounding area, as well as along the Mississippi gulf area, looks extremely grave to me; as of last night in New Orleans there still numerous people waiting on their roofs, 1500 people trapped in a hospital, countless sick and elderly people who didn't have medicine and were waiting to be rescued. Dead bodies were floating in the water. In coast Mississippi many people were still waiting for rides to get out, waiting for food, water,medicine, some kind of aid. Bodies might still be trapped under the rubble of homes in Gulfport and Biloxi. WHERE ARE THE NATIONAL GUARD and SEARCH AND RESCUE TEAMS???

I really hope that the state and federal authorities get it together, but I have heard New Orleans' mayor express repeated frustration about the failure of the Army Corp of Engineers to begin plugging the levee breaches as he'd asked right away, and Louisiana's governor seemed not to be able to coordinate things with the federal authorities. I also heard that Bush had been planning to phase out FEMA and had slashed New Orleans's levee restoration budget by millions of dollars a few years ago to give out tax cuts (mostly to the rich) and fund his Iraq War. When are people going to wake up about this man and his disastrous domestic and international policies? He's managed even to make the effects of a natural calamity even worse....

One personal note: several years ago I worked closely with a number of faculty members at and visited the campuses of Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana, two of the historically Black universities located in New Orleans. I checked the Websites of both, but unlike Tulane University, neither was loading as of tonight. I sincerely hope neither campus has been too severely damaged, and that all of their students, faculty and staff have been able to get out of the city safely.

(Update: I have to note with sorrow that Dillard University is flooded, though a friend has sent word that some of the people I knew who teach there were able to evacuate in time. Another friend has forwarded a message saying that numerous famous New Orleans musicians, including 76-year-old Fats Domino and his wife, soul singer Irma Thomas and arranger and lyricist Allen Toussaint have not been heard from in the last few days.)


For those who want to help, you can send money to the American Red Cross directly via this secure contribution page or calling them at 1-800-HELP-NOW.

For those who can contribute housing or would like to search for housing for the Hurricane Katrina refugees, please go to's Hurricane Housing page.


  1. Thanks a lot for this. You have a fabulous way with the pen ... or keyboard ... and can manage to put so much in perspective.

  2. Rod, thanks for the compliments and for visiting this blog!