Who are the real looters?
Published Sep 5, 2005 11:18 PM
Many government officials and much of the
corporate media have focused their discussion and coverage of Hurricane Katrina
on the so-called “looting” of storm-ravaged cities.
31, two photos published on the Yahoo News website caught the attention of web
bloggers. In both, people are wading through chest-deep waters with food in
their hands. One caption describes the young Black man shown as “looting a
grocery store,” while the other describes the two white people as
“finding bread and soda from a local grocery store.”
Yahoo News was quick to offer the disclaimer that the photos were taken by two
different photographers, who wrote the captions, the effect remained the
same—the criminalization of Black youth.
Racism has always been a
tool of the capitalist ruling class, wielded to keep the working class divided
and to justify war, occupation and poverty. Now the state is using the racist
view of Black people as “looters” to justify an outrageous lack of
response on the part of the federal government to the needs of the most
oppressed in the delta region—before and after the hurricane—as well
as to force yet another occupation of troops onto a community of
The big-business government in Wash ing ton has looted the delta
region for decades.
It looted public services for poor people while
giving huge tax breaks for Big Oil operations in the region.
To pay for
the wars in Iraq and Afghan istan, it looted money from levee repair and other
infrastructure upgrades that could have prevented much of today’s death
And then it looted the people a third time by completely
ignoring their cries for help after the storm hit, failing to provide for
evacuation, food, housing or clothing for the survivors until four days later,
when many had already died and a health emergency had been called.
right to survive
It is criminal that the media would even suggest that
people whose only way to get food, water and clothing is from locked stores are
“looters.” The U.S. government, in fact, should have imme diately
announ ced that the people had the right to take whatever they needed from the
stores to survive.
In trying not to sound too harsh on those left with no
resources, the media sometimes tries to differentiate between “good”
looters—the ones who are only taking food—and the “bad”
ones—those who take other goods from stores. This happens to include
clothing, on most accounts, which is badly needed by people who’ve been
wading and swimming through filthy water for almost a week. But even if people
take things other than food and clothing, is that the real crime here? Given the
long history of economic repression in the area, a history dating back to
slavery, they’re entitled to a lot more than that in reparations for
generations of suffering.
Yet the capitalist politicians, with the media
as their faithful allies, use tales of “looting” and
“lawlessness” to blame the victims of this disaster for the failure
of the government to carry out its mandated responsibility to help the people of
the region. It is the same reasoning given by Michael Brown, the much-criticized
director of the Federal Emergency Manage ment Agency, who said that the death
toll from the hurricane is “going to be attributable a lot to people who
did not heed the advance warnings.”
This kind of blaming the victims
is nothing new in the United States. After the terrible Johnstown, Pa., flood of
1889, a headline in the New York Herald blared “Drun ken Hungarians,
Dancing, Singing, Curs ing and Fighting Amid the Ruins.” The Hungarians
were the most recent immigrants of that time. After big storms in Galveston,
Texas, in 1900 and a flooding of the Mississippi River in 1927 that inundated
New Orleans, the scapegoats were Black people, many of whom were rounded up and
transported to work camps. (“The Storm After the Storm,” New York
Times, Sept. 1)
Today in New Orleans, police and military operations
against looters have replaced rescue efforts in some areas. The Associated Press
reported on Sept. 1 that “the number of officers called off the
search-and-rescue mission [in order to go after looters] amounts to virtually
the entire police force in New Orleans.”
The AP article then
describes city officials using equipment taken from an Office Depot and says
that “during a state of emergency, authorities have broad powers to take
private supplies and buildings for their use.”
Why isn’t this
entitlement given to the people, especially when the government fails to respond
to a crisis?
It was the Toronto Star of Canada—not a U.S.
newspaper—that put the issue of “looters” into perspective. It
reported on Sept. 3 about what had happened before the arrival of food and water
from the federal government, four long days after the hurricane struck:
“Thousands of refugees lined the street outside [the New Orleans]
convention center yesterday, weak, begging for help and accusing their
government of leaving them here to die. Instead of their federal government
stepping in, they said, they had been saved by looters who smashed windows of
abandoned stores and distributed food and water to those left with
The imperialists realize that immense anger is brewing in
the region. It is the same type of righteous anger, maybe even more intense,
that led to uprisings like the 1965 Watts rebellion and the 1992 Rodney
King-related rebellion in Los Angeles.
In those instances, the code words
“looting” and “riot” were used to downplay and even
ignore the justified rage in poverty-stricken Black communities occupied by
brutal, racist cops. Then as now, the images of “looters” were
overwhelmingly of Black youth. The National Guard is sent in with tanks and guns
drawn, then and now, to protect private property over human lives, but also to
ensure that self-organization of the masses does not occur.
Anger over the
racist policies of U.S. imperialism is not contained to the delta region. Across
the country and the world, it has only intensified with each news account of the
devastation. It is coupled with anger about the continued U.S. occupation of
Iraq, which was brewing long before Katrina struck.
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