Who are the real looters?

By LeiLani Dowell

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.

On Aug. 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.”

While 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 color.

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 destruction.

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.

The 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 nothing.”

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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