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Andrew Buncombe's Asia Diary

The Independent's Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe is based in Delhi. His dominion ranges over India, Pakistan, Burma, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, occasionally parts of South East Asia and - or at least he is hoping - The Maldives.

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Looting - is it really a matter of black and white?

Posted by Andrew Buncombe
  • Friday, 22 January 2010 at 04:07 pm
I'm sure I'm not the first person to have imagined what it must have been like for the people of Haiti, struggling without food and water or medical help for days on end. And to have imagined too, what it must then have felt to have been accused of "looting" if you went to a store or a warehouse and helped yourself to some bottles of water or a bag of rice. To be honest, I didn't need to think about it long; in such circumstances I'd have had no hesitation in doing so if I thought it would keep myself, or my family or friends alive. Would anyone? Why then this obsession with looting, this obsession in so much we've read or watched with law and order?
 There's a fine piece on this topic by Rebecca Solnit, a veteran of many natural disasters, who, in an article for Tom Dispatch, suggests we ban the use of the word "looting" altogether. Her article is very critical of much of the media coverage of Haiti and of "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".
 Of course, in Katrina,  for some people, whether you were a "looter" or a "gatherer" appeared to come down a matter of race. Who fails to remember the painfully shameful captioning of two separate photographs by the new agencies, the white couple having just "found" some food while the black person had "looted" theirs.
 Indeed, the obsession with law-and-order and the hyping of reports of criminal activity led to a situation in New Orleans where volunteers from police departments and National Guard units from across the country were dispatched to the city when what it really needed was people with food and water, or at the very least a bucket and mop.
 I remember one afternoon, maybe five days after Hurricane Katrina struck, standing outside the police control room in the centre of New Orleans, trying to interview some heavily-armed and scowling mercenaries from Blackwater or some such outfit, who were sitting on the steps of a bank, letting everyone see their automatic weapons and wrap-around sunglasses. It would have been comical were it not so sad. Needless to say, I didn't get much of an interview.
 A colleague from the Guardian, Julian Borger, also wrote a superb eye-witness account of the failure of armed police and soldiers to help those most in need, suggesting that it appeared that "being poor and black was a contagious disease". 
 At the same time, I think it's important that we're honest and admit that looting does go on in the aftermath of such disasters. I don't have much time for people hauling away televisions and DVD players in shopping carts, but let's also keep in mind that such episodes are usually in the minority. (One example to the contrary was following the overthrowing of Saddam, when the US stood by and allowed a minority of Iraqis steal wholesale from government ministries and museums. Donald Rumsfeld blew it off. "Stuff happens." Indeed it does.)
 But the business of race does not go easily away. One of the most chilling episodes during Katrina was when police from an overwhelmingly white suburb fired their guns above the heads of a largely black crowd that was trying to get out of the city, forcing them back.  In contrast, who would have said a word against the little old lady I saw when I was driving out of New Orleans to get a flight out of Houston (the airport was still shut for normal flights)?
I was in the the city's Garden District and was driving past a Whole Foods store (an upmarket, organic supermarket) and spotted the door to the store was swinging open. I could see the store was full of fresh food that would soon go bad. A moment later the elderly, white woman came out, pushing a shopping trolley with provisions. I had to chuckle to myself, wondering whether she would have been a looter or a gatherer if she'd been snapped by a photographer. 
 I was discussing such issues by email with David Edwards of the always-worth-a-look Media Lens website, who had an interesting take on the recent events in the Caribbean. "I think Haiti helps reveal one of the great, hidden truths of our time - that the 'civilised' West is "still" afflicted by a deep, deep racism/cultural arrogance towards poor, brown-skinned people," he said. "The difference is that, now, we don't see them as inferior primarily because they're black but because they're dirt poor and lacking in modern technology. Our prejudice hangs on different hooks, but we still think they're 'savages', innately prone to violence, and so on."



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