Sunday, January 24, 2010

Rebecca Solnit: Covering Haiti: When the Media Is the Disaster

Friday's LA Times story on Haiti offers a relevant intro to Solnit's essay
* It's headline is "Combing rubble to buy a day"
* the intro paragraph reads "Vast piles of debris are rich with
possibilities for the poor of Haiti, who have long had to scavenge to
* the photo is of a man harnessed to a cart filled with sticks of wood, and
captioned (bold) "On his own, A scrap collector in downtown Port-au-Prince
the devastated capital, pulls a cart called a bwet', the gathered pieces of
wood it holds will be used for cooking fuel."

Vast piles are rich with possibilities for a guy with sticks in a bwet?
The poor have long had to scavenge. Why is that? Why this interpretation
making this desperate struggle for life almost into a folk tradition?

Saturday's paper turns exotic and essentially infantalizing with Voodoo.

Here, Solnit develops an analysis of this framing and its function. -Ed,_in_haiti,_words_can_kill/

When the Media Is the Disaster
Covering Haiti

By Rebecca Solnit
Tomgram: January 21, 2010

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

Within days of the Haitian earthquake, for example, the Los Angeles Times
ran a 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

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 dug 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

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

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
points 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.

After years 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

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 calls 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

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

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

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 shot 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 took 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 housing.. 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 told 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, breaking 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

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

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

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 were forecast 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, A Paradise Built in Hell, is a testament to human
bravery and innovation during disasters.

Copyright 2010 Rebecca Solnit

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