Thursday, March 4, 2010

Lose the looting

Despite my remonstrations against it on Nine to Noon two
days ago
, the news media are inexplicably continuing to
use the words ‘looting’ and ‘looters’ indiscriminately in
connexion with the aftermath of the Chile earthquake.
Foreign reporters and correspondents keep deploying the
words and our media parrot them unthinkingly. I have
every sympathy with this tendency, having spent a great
deal of my life unthinkingly parroting other people’s words
and ideas, but there is a limit. As Rebecca Solnit has so
persuasively argued
, what journalists and those convenient
characters called ‘the authorities’ like to call looting is more
often a desperate attempt to get food and basic supplies by
those stripped of all normal means of survival by disaster.
What would you do, asks Solnit, if your home had been
destroyed by an earthquake and there was no food for your
children? Sit and wait for ‘the authorities’—who, by their
own admission, in Chile’s case, have been slow to react to
the quake and subsequent tsunami—to come and look after
you, or take matters into your own hands? This is not to
deny that some people will take advantage of disaster
disruption to steal and plunder, but to lump criminals in
with the great mass of ordinary people is a kind of crime in
itself. These are people like you and me who would
normally never shoplift a stick of chewing gum but who, in
exceptional circumstances, do exceptional things.

All too often, alas, as Solnit very forcefully points out, the
immediate concern on the part of ‘the authorities’ (cheerled
by international media) is the preservation of normal
property relations. So any attempts to get hold of what you
need just to feed and clothe and heal and shelter yourself
and your family is easily labelled ‘chaos’ or ‘panic,’
justifying the claims of ‘deteriorating security’ and the
imperative need for a ‘crackdown’ by armed forces. Today’s
report in the Dominion Post, reprinted from the Los
Angeles Times
(one of the targets of Solnit’s criticism
following the Haiti quake), is a classic case of the media
faithfully following the usual narrative arc. How does it
begin? With the heroic triumph of the forces of law and
order: ‘The Chilean army marched yesterday into the ruins
of Concepción…rounding up looters and receiving the
applause of besieged survivors.’ The report goes on to quote
people praising the police and army presence on the streets,
but one is left with the uneasy feeling that the people being
quoted are those who were better off to start with (and thus
more readily accessible to Western media hungry for a
soundbite when deadlines are pressing), and that the voice
of the truly poor and most disadvantaged is not being heard,
at least not as loudly. Even the accompanying photo—a
helmeted soldier pointing a gun at a young man lying face
down on the pavement—bespeaks the same old script. What
a sad, tired choice of picture at such a terrible time. This is
journalism asleep at the wheel. ARMY MOVES IN TO QUELL
, crows the headline. For God’s sake, editors, get a life
—someone else’s life, the life of someone truly suffering, not
the life of the comfortable middle and upper classes
worldwide. Make a start by banning the word 'loot' and
asking yourself, every time you automatically start to type
it, what would I have done in that situation?


Fatal Paradox said...

Well said! Unbelievable that in the 21st century people trying to meet their basic subsistence needs are still branded 'criminals' simply because their actions do not comply with capitalist economics...

Anonymous said...

"For your stole Trevalyan's corn,
So our babe might greet the dawn,
Now the prison ship lies waiting in the bay"

Opening lines from the song The Fields of Athenrye about the Irish potato famine. Look it up, great covers on YouTube.

Cheryl Bernstein said...

What I've never understood about the ubiquitous post-disaster 'looting' paradigm is why it keeps getting endlessly recycled in the news media. One could go all high-minded and suggest that its inclusion in the reportage of disaster benefits those in positions of power -- the army, oppressive governments, big property owners and so on -- who share similar outlooks and business interests with the owners of big media.

But presumably there is an individual reporter, or a sub-editor or editor somewhere each time who decides to label photos of people scavenging to feed their families as 'looting'. Presumably there's no active prescription by the newspaper; presumably they can call the circumstance how they see it, and caption the picture accordingly. Given that these individuals generally have no connection with the authorities of the natural disaster site in question, it escapes me why they do seem to perpetually decide to act as long-distance cheerleaders for the oppression of people in the most desperate circumstances. It's odd. It's very odd. Nice piece.

Dylan Packman said...

There was an uncomfortable double standard following Katrina where black people were reported as looting while white people were reported as finding.

Here's the Snopes item on it:

Mrs Hawes said...

Marx (I think) once said "Property is theft". This is never more true than in the aftermath of a disaster, when there is no possible way to buy essentials but you still aren't allowed to have them. Disgusting.