August 31, 2005

Looting and charges of racism.

On Metafilter, one member thought he'd found shocking evidence of racism in reporting the news about looting in New Orleans, and many members spoke up to express their outrage. Saner posters stated the plain facts about how Yahoo News collects the stories it displays, which should have led to a massive "never mind," but didn't.

Pictures of looting are stirring up emotions, and I hope these reactions won't take an ugly racial tone. I haven't read much of the commentary yet, but I see that Michelle Malkin is expressing strong outrage against the looters and comparing it to urban riots of the past. The big difference, of course, is that people are stranded in the water in New Orleans and elsewhere. In a riot, you only need the people to calm down. Today, people are struggling to survive, and I would not blame them for taking food and things to drink.

If the news reports show people carrying away televisions and the like, however, a lot of overheated judgments will be made. But it is hard to imagine how terrible the people there must feel. It's almost an invasion of privacy to photograph people doing bad things when they are in such a state. But we've got to also feel sympathy for the rest of the people who are stranded there and frightened by a breakdown in order.

UPDATE: Michelle Malkin emails that her "outrage is particularly directed at people looting non-vital items," and says "I have sympathy for moms taking diapers from CVS stores. I have no compassion whatsoever for idiots of all colors stealing Dyson vacuum cleaners and diamond earrings."


Pogo said...

I had a chance to watch some of the video. Looters were stealing food and water at times, but others were stealing TVs and clothing.

Disasters like this usually bring out the very core of a person. For many, it appears, their first impulse was compassionate, even to heroism. For others, their very first consideration was what can I steal?.

I think we can (and should) judge here. Such looting is wrong. It's why looters are often shot. I suspect you would be among those trying to help their neighbors, not rob them.

Food and water is another issue, and judgement need be suspended. But the film I saw smacked of greed and opportunism during a disaster. Shame on them.

Simon said...

I agree with the previous two posters. "AOL!", as they say. Necessities is one thing, and while it is indeed "hard to imagine how terrible the people there must feel", I just can't imagine the thought process: "oh, I feel terrible, I'd better steal a new DVD player to cheer myself up"?

ALH ipinions said...

There is no denying the editorial filter that influences the images of looting we see. Equally, however, there is no denying that the vast majority of those looting are black. But, where I sympathise with blacks (and whites) who grasped for food and water, I feel nothing but disgust for those who took this tragic opportunity to loot so indiscriminately!

Sometimes it's OK to call a spade a spade...

Ann Althouse said...

ALH: I assume a large proportion of the people who lacked the means to evacuate are black. I am really afraid that TV viewers will make an inaccurate conclusion that black people are more likely to loot or some such thing. We need to be careful about that. People are suffering enough without our adding a new layer of trouble.

Coco said...

Not to mention that around 70% of the population of New Orleans to begin with are black.

Goesh said...

What the hell, if the flood is going to wash away those Rolex watches in that abandoned shop, one may as well be on my wrist for a while, eh? That is one take on it I suppose, coupled with the rationale that insurance will compensate the store owner anyway. Are we going to digress into equal opportunity looting here? Possibly the dry spots on which people could film such doings are where a bunch of Black people just happen to live - I don't know. Surely there are a few good Liberal photographers down there who can get in a boat, cruise and find some white looters and Cajun looters and Creole looters and Asian looters too. Look to the media to sensationalize this common phenomena and cause a polarity and rift, which is already opening, when unity is the message that should be delivered. Show me the Red Cross in Action, I already knew there would be some looting.

Paul said...

Then, soon, you will hear of people selling case of water at hugely exorbitant prices, wonder where they got that water?
No one says to harm people looking for food and water, you can't eat or drink shoes or tv's.
Order among thieves can be almost totally established by a few deaths among them. Word spreads rapidly. And the despair people are feeling will not include being preyed upon by scum.
As far as publicizing things, well aren't we conservatives always mad because only "some" things hit the news? It's their duty to give us as many facts as they can, and looting surely is one of them, and for us to digest it.

Serenity Now said...

Ann Althouse: If the news reports show people carrying away televisions and the like, however, a lot of overheated judgments will be made. But it is hard to imagine how terrible the people there must feel. It's almost an invasion of privacy to photograph people doing bad things when they are in such a state.

InstaPundit: I agree with Jonah Goldberg that it's one thing for desperate people to help themselves to bottled water, food, or diapers from abandoned stores, and another to just sack those places for valuables. People doing the latter should be shot.

[emph. added]

I'm somewhere in between you two, but lean towards Prof. Reynold's position. I doubt people steal wide-screen TVs because the flood made them "feel terrible".

Elizabeth said...

If I am thinking of the right pictures, yahoo ran one photo of a young white couple swimming along with a loaf of bread and some drinks tucked underarm, in chest-high water, with the caption "couple finds bread and soft drinks in New Orleans grocery store", and another picture of a young black man in dreadlocks, with a loaf of bread underarm, in chesthigh water, captioned, "man walks with bread after looting New Orleans grocery store." That's your liberal media at work!

There's a combination of people left in the city--most are black, and of them, most are very, very poor, so poor that they are essentially out of the loop of common communications. Some ignored evacuation orders and help--there were busses to take people to the Dome, for example, but others had no idea that such a severe storm was coming. They're that isolated.

Others in the city still include generations of stubborn folk, white and black, who convinced themselves they'd seen this all before and could ride it out like they'd done all their lives. There's also a bunch of tourists stuck with no cars.

All of those folks might end up raiding a store for bread and bottled drinks. But there are also armed gangs roaming the streets, and drug addicts looking for drugs. The looters are starting to break into houses, and a group even surrounded Children's Hospital last night, I assume looking for drugs.

There's a terrible breakdown of order, and I can't see what can be done about it. Some of the looting is obviously about need, some of it must be a reaction to fear, but some of it is payback, from the perspective of the looters. It's damned ugly right now. But the rising water will probably settle that issue on its own, sadly.

Freeman Hunt said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Ann Althouse said...

Michael: I'm conceding that it's bad to steal anything other than things needed for survival and basic care. I'm just saying I feel sorry for people who are giving in to this temptation. I'm sure we've all done some things that are wrong, under less dire conditions, and did not have our actions photographed and run on national television. Forgiveness is also a virtue.

Ann Althouse said...

Elizabeth: I agree that force is needed to restore order, especially when the looters are themselves using weapons. But I don't think anyone ought to be shooting people who are only stealing, even if they are stealing nonessentials like TVs.

Elizabeth said...

Freeman, lighten up. There's so much slung about on blogs about the "liberal media" bias, it's worth a joke every once in awhile. Saying white people "find" food and black people "loot" is a pretty good illustration of how such beliefs about media are full of crap.

Elizabeth said...


We agree about force. Force should be used to minimize danger and threat to innocent lives. I love my tivos, but if someone has looted them, I'd just as well they weren't shot outside my doorstep. This is horrific enough as it is. But for the armed guys running around carjacking people trying to evacuate still, or shooting at cops, or breaking into hospitals and generally being thugs, well, that's what force is for.

knoxgirl said...

I see the extreme conditions and suffering as making it a worse crime to loot, not more excusable.

It's easy not to care if a Wal-Mart is looted, but think of all the small business owners. They're already looking at a bleak future... to be robbed by people, when what they're wanting and needing is help from people. It's like being kicked in the face when you're already down. They are the ones who get my sympathy.

Freeman Hunt said...

There's so much slung about on blogs about the "liberal media" bias, it's worth a joke every once in awhile. Saying white people "find" food and black people "loot" is a pretty good illustration of how such beliefs about media are full of crap.

My point is that it is not an illustration of lack of liberal bias at all. Racism is not a conservative or liberal quality.

Pogo said...

The first duty of any government is survival. Looters represent a direct threat to order, and have serious downstream effects, including diversion of police from rescue efforts, loss of needed supplies, and increased risk of violence.

According to the National Community Development Association, The Des Moines Flood of 1993 damaged 2,100 homes and 310 businesses. The economic impact
on business throughout the city totaled $175 million in losses, as 2 industrial parks and the entire Central Business District were shut down for a week. Electrical power was cut-off to 30,000 for up to 10 days. The only loss of life occurred when a National Guardsman was electrocuted.
Note: "Looting was very minor and quickly

A lesser disaster, to be sure. But what does it say of a people, regardless of race, whose first impulse during trouble is to harm others?

Pogo said...

National Community Development Association report:
Disaster Preparedness Guidebook for Community Development Professionals link.

Elizabeth said...

Right now it looks like the primary focus is saving people who are in danger from the waters, and who are injured. I'm alarmed, and angry, to be honest, about how the looting is being tolerated. You're right about the business owners. I am keeping track of some of the losses in my own neighborhood, and it's unexcusable.

There simply are not enough responders in the city to both save lives and save property. I think it will be discussed in great detail after this one whether governments can actually force people to evacuate, rather than urge and cajole. And for the huge numbers of poor in NOLA, I don't understand why there weren't busses taking them to the shelters set up north of I-10 and I-12. We're all paying for that miscalculation.

wyok said...

My first thought is that we just assume because people are black, they are poor (although I am not real clear about how someone is too poor to evacuate).

Isn't giving a 'pass' to people who loot unneeded items, the same as giving terrorists a pass because of "what they have been through"?

Sure, I would hate being photographed doing something so abhorrent, but it wouldn't be the photograph or the circumstances that would make me hate it as much as it would be the mirror it held up to my ego-- showing me and the world exactly who I was deep down.

Freeman Hunt said...

I think it will be discussed in great detail after this one whether governments can actually force people to evacuate, rather than urge and cajole.

I think you're right. As you wrote, having to rescue people splits the resources. Plus, certainly there are opportunists who will ride out a storm in hopes of looting later.

Jeff said...

Looking the other way, disaster or no, is a bad idea.
Recording, publishing, and -this is the imprtant part- shaming such behavior is vital to keeping order and "civilization" intact.

I live in in NYC. I was in Manhattan both during 9/11 and the last blackout. In both cases the conditions for civil breakdown were present but the mass of citizens kept it together and rose above the situation. In fact, common courtesy and neighborliness actually increased, strangers helped one another and even made eye contact!

This is apparently in contrast to the blackout in the 70's. I firmly believe that the cleaned up, orderly NY of Guliani led in large part to a much lower tolerance of crime and disorder on the part of even the poorest citizens, especially in our recent crisises.

Confucius obserevd somewhere that true order is kept by observation of taboo rather than law; that is laws can and will be broken, but a taboo is so strong that only those beyond the pale will break them.

Freeman Hunt said...

As to shooting at looters: I'm not in favor of this because I think televisions and stereos are worth killing people over. I'm in favor of it because the more lawlessness that is permitted, the more it will escalate, possibly to violence.

I think it would be a good idea for the people stuck in the city to start forming some civilian crime patrols.

Joel Fleming said...

Elizabeth - the two photos were from different news agencies. That's why there was different terminology used for the same act. It was unrelated to race.

Tim Sisk said...

I don't advocate shooting looters, but one of the reasons people don't evacuate when hurricanes come is because they want to stay home and protect their property from looters. That is what makes looting more evil than normal theft.

I haven't detected any kind of bias toward the color of the looters, but like Ann I worry that we be careful not to spread prejudice. My seven year old daughter (who hasn't learned racial prejudice yet) did ask this morning while the "Today" Show was showing looting, "What are those brown people stealing, daddy?" If she notices, then we have to be careful how we characterize the looters.

I don't have sympathy for people though, who steal televisions and basketball goals, as many struggle to stay alive.

PatCA said...

I saw video of white people looting...but if most of the residents are black, does that mean we can't show the film? I also heard lots of PC excuse-making, like looters are reacting to oppression or stealing necessities (TVs?), etc., which excuses them and makes things infinitely more difficult for the good people.

On crime in NO: A few years back I stayed at a very nice hotel in NO. I came out of my room the next morning and found police patrolling the halls. I asked what was going on. Nothing, they said. So that's on an average day, not an emergency. So, come on, it's a tough town.

lindsey said...

Iirc, it's the murder capital of the US. I remember reading sometime this past year about a community meeting where members of the community threatened to murder members of the police force essentially in front of the mayor and chief of police. New Orleans has had a large problem with corruption in its police force, but the community doesn't seem to be much better. From the article it seemed NOLA was completely left out of the changes that took place in the 90s regarding decreasing crime rates and better public order.

Jonathan said...

Elizabeth wrote:
I think it will be discussed in great detail after this one whether governments can actually force people to evacuate, rather than urge and cajole.

I agree that this is an important question. Local govt in these situations is in an impossible position: if it errs on the side of caution and tells residents to evacuate it will be blamed for needlessly disrupting people's lives and for any looting that takes place in evacuated areas; if it adopts a laissez-faire attitude it will be blamed for hurricane deaths. As someone here suggeted, one of the problems with not taking looting seriously enough is that fear of looters gets people killed because they are reluctant to evacuate.

I don't think this is a soluble problem. In the long run the situation in affected areas may ease as building codes are upgraded. But WRT what happens during emergencies, whatever govts say or do citizens are generally going to do whatever is in their own best interests. In these sorts of mass emergencies people are probably going to be on their own for a while, no matter how good the anticipatory public planning was. At the least, local governments should try neither to scare or reassure citizens, but should make an effort to pass along accurate information.

OnTheClock said...

In such a devastating disaster, people are looking to gather resources. No, of course you can't eat or drink an iPod or TiVo. But these seemingly useless resources can be traded or bartered with others who possess essential goods. Sneakers may turn into a loaf of bread, a TV may turn into a jub of water, diamonds may turn into a week of housing, etc. What we have here may be a developing market system.

Instead of condemning these people and suggesting they be shot, we should instead recognize the looting as an unconventional, crude, but potentially life-saving economic system.

norefugee said...

I work in New Orleans East. I try to help families there. I've recieved telephone death threats from people I couldn't help. I've known children whose father had been shot. People who moved after they had been held up at gun-point. The list goes on. You can't say that the hurricane is the only root of this problem. Many of the thugs running around the city now, were thugs before Katrina as well. This just gave them an opportunity to turn more of the city into the lawless chaos they tend to drag with them where ever they go. I pray for the innocents who lived in fear of them before the storm and especially those who live in fear of them now. They must be stopped.

rattlerd said...

There is a time for PC navel-gazing, but this just is not it. I guess this shows that no disaster, no crime is so heinous that we can't let race paralyze our judgment. But on the bright side, it gives us all a great chance for some virtuous hand-wringing to show how exquisitely sensitive we are to how this might be characterized and what it might perpetuate. Because after all, it's all about us, not them.

MFE said...

The idea of people stealing things in a city that has been declared as uninhabitable for the next 2 months or more doesn't bother me at all -- they aren't stealing as much as going through the garbage dump to see if there is something useful or valuable can be salvaged.

What does bother me is the amount of attention that has been focused on the breakdown of law and order when the breakdown is not caused by the people looting -- it is caused by lack of communication, by lack of options, by terror and desparation of people trapped in a city that has ceased to exist with their lives totally destroyed and no clear way of rebuilding or of even escaping.

What is causing the breakdown is the lack of National Guard forces who should have been there on Monday as soon as the winds died down; the lack of "field communication" that I assume the military manages to put together e.g. in Iraq; the lack of a clear plan for dealing with the situation and the lack of federal resources that are only now being sent in that should have been there on Tuesday.

Where are the articles about the pathetic and too-little-too-late response from the Federal Government -- that bears the true responsibility for breakdown. We left them in this mess -- it's our fault, not theirs.

What does bothers me is the sneaking suspicion that if the people left in New Orleans would not have been the bottom 10% of a city that is one of the poorest in the country -- if this had happened in New York City, for example -- that they would have been out by Wednesday night.

People in war zones doing whatever it takes to get themselves and their families out -- we make movies about that. Here we just complain about how these people aren't behaving.

What is amazing is that 20-30,000 people left without food, water, toilets and informaiton for more than 48 hours are coping as well as they are.

I agree that this is making things worse for the people who are there, but lets put the blame where it belongs.