My quandary on looting

I’ve been thinking a lot about the looting issue in New Orleans over the past few days. I’ve heard the most vitriolic condemnations of the people looting (“the looters”) and they left me feeling distinctly uncomfortable. On reflection, the reason that the blanket and vehement disdain for all looters gives me pause is that I’m not sure I’m against looting in this situation.

First, this doesn’t apply to the people hauling away DVD players, piles of jeans, TV’s whatever. I mostly just have a lot of pity for those people because they don’t realize how fucked they are, and how much none of that stuff they’re looting is going to matter in the economic and infrastructural devastation that is going to leave it’s mark in the area for some time. What are they going to do with it? Play their new DVD player with non-existant electricity? Sell their jeans on ebay and have them delivered by UPS? Try selling their brand new TV to people who are going to be wanting more essential items like potable water? Yes, some of those individuals may find a way to profit slightly from their looting. Most of them are in a much worse situation now than they were before Kat hit.

My guess is that a good number of the people (not all, not even most, but a good number) didn’t evacuate because they didn’t have the resources to do so realistically. Little money, unrealiable transportation, nowhere to go, large family and close community networks that aren’t easily evacuated and without the luxury of time to take off for a few days until this hurricane blew over. This is a guess based mostly on visual cues and on historical precedence for who gets left behind in such situations. So, the most economically impoverished are left in the city to sink or swim, and not realizing that this isn’t an L.A./Watts riot situation where the chaos will be over in a few days, they take advantage of the chaos to head out and try to recoup the economic loss of the little they *did* have. And it’s not going to matter, because if they didn’t have the resources to leave the city before, they definitely don’t now, and they probably didn’t have the resources (or training) to stock up on the large variety of rather expensive survival gear that you need in such situations. So them, I mostly pity. It’s hard to be mad at people who just lost everything, and who are snatching at what amounts to loose change or less when many of them may be facing dehydration, dyssentary, etc.

But my real quandary is regarding the looting of essential items. I’m not against that at all. Water? Go for it, you’ll need it. Food? (especially non-perishables) Ditto. Camp gear, survival gear, medicine, diapers, etc? Most of that stuff is going to be a loss anyways, and the corporations are going to be reimbursed by their insurance companies (who actually profit from large disasters in the long-term, because not only can they get away with raising rates, but because they get whole swaths of new clients who suddenly realize that this can happen to them). So, the companies get paid whether the stuff is taken or whether it’s left to rot. What is bad looting and what is necessary looting? And how can we really judge? I have questions, like if you haven’t stocked up in survival gear then shouldn’t you just evacuate now? And if that option is open to people, why don’t they take it? I’m making a lot of assumptions in these questions based on very little verifiable data. And since I don’t understand what these people are going through, but I do have a pretty good guess of what they can look forward to, I find the blanket condemnation of looting extremely problematic.

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18 thoughts on “My quandary on looting

    • Without a doubt there is a racial aspect. Moreover, the language people use to talk about “the looters” depicts them in an almost wandering tribe-like fashion, as if “the looters” are a group of people who wander from disaster to disaster. Here’s a disaster and, hoop! Here come The Looters. How we hate The Looters (those dark-skinned hooligans!) It bothers me that the specifics of each circumstance, and the economics and history of the particular situation, are obscured through that label.

  1. It’s heartneing to know that peeps are thinking things like this out, wheras a good 50% of my El Jay flist is preaching the “anyone who stayed and didn’t evacuate deserves whatever happens to them” POV.

    Le Grr.

  2. It’s a nice sentiment, the notion of stealing a loaf of bread to feed your family, but this is in *no* way so simple.

    Looting doesn’t mean the disadvantaged gain respite; it just means the strong or cunning among the disadvantaged get comfort. Those who are poor and suffering but either consider stealing to be wrong or are incapable of doing so (like the elderly who have limited physical strength or parents who don’t want to take their young children to see them stealing) remain screwed. This is made even worse so because any hope they have of acquiring such goods diminishes when people steal them.

    It’s not like you need to be rich to buy water and canned goods. Looting in this situation doesn’t so much steal from the hands of the wealthy (which I personally still consider just as wrong, but let’s say for this argument that it’s okay). Instead, looting in this situation simply becomes a new, more violent and anti-social way to divide up what is available. There is almost no one in this city that is not needy at this point.

    (Mind you, this argument excludes defense of those who price gouge severely.)

    • I don’t think that (or anyone else here) is advocating stealing or “mob rule.” Rather, they are expressing disgust that those who are attempting to legitimately subsist are being lumped in with those who are attempting to profit from the experience. I understand your sturm und drang with regard to overly liberal sensibilities, but the fundamental problem is that the government failed in its duty to these people. They were promised, implicitly or explicitly, a safe, lawful society where their belongings would not be taken from them with little to no warning. Pointing fingers at individual victims (as they are all victims) is reprehensible.

    • kniedzw makes excellent points.

      something else to consider is the fact that there are no stores open for people to buy supplies. on top of that, the people who are still in New Orleans are, for the most part, there because they didn’t have the economic means to get out. the only option they were given was that if they managed to make their way to the Superdome (which is a mighty long walk from the poorer sections of NOLA), they’d be given a concrete floor to sleep on, overflowing and dirty bathrooms, no air conditioning, a leaking roof and when it was all said and done they wouldn’t be allowed to leave. oh, and they’d be in there with several thousand other folks.

      saying that stealing to feed your family is a ‘nice sentiment’ whitewashes over the fact that for many of these people, it’s loot or starve. if you were in that situation, you’d be welcome to sit on your roof and starve indignantly, but i don’t begrudge hungry, devastated people doing what they need to do to survive.

      • So, he who grabs first gets to live eh?

        You want to tell me that a community effort broke into a store and rationed out to the food to the populace at a reasonable rate….sure, call it fair.

        To say that you need to loot or starve might be truth, but it sure as hell isn’t anything noble. After all if nothing else it means that the poor soul who was a bit slower than you doesn’t get to eat.

        Score one for Hobbs I guess.

        Or you know….maybe take a second out of your day then to thank the good people at Publix whose stolen food now lets you live rather than spiting on them for being evil giant corps. It might be the governments responcibility to take care of you, but sure as hell isn’t Publix’s.

        *sigh* I’m sorry if this sounds venomous….I don’t think that desperate people should starve if they can get to food. But you can’t steal without hurting someone and in the wake of need that’s very easy to forget.

      • So, he who grabs first gets to live eh?

        Many of them are grabbing for their families and for the most part are grabbing what they can carry. In some instances, the looting went on with the police standing by keeping somewhat order so that fights dont break out, I assume. That to me is a community effort. Much of what they take is damaged goods anyway. The food isn’t going to sit there forever and the stores wouldn’t be allowed to sell it after floods anyway. Clothing and other goods could be sold still, I assume, but would you want to pay new prices for goods from a flood? These stores are going to write off their losses and move on. The ones this will hurt is all of us who will pay higher prices and insurance rates. I think as long as the companies don’t gouge us, it’s a cost we can all bare for the sake of those who need those supplies.

        For goods such as Jewelry, guns and such, that to me does go too far. Also fighting over goods. For this, there should have been enough troops to lock down the city and enforce martial law. That is ultimately the responsibility of the President who not only has failed but is trying to blame others. The local authorities were out there, the state troops were there too. These are people who often victims themselves having lost homes, perhaps family. Plus the emotional strain of seeing their city ruined. They should have had help from the onset and there was none. We have all paid our taxes for that help to be there and it wasn’t. That is the true crime here.

  3. The National Guard and other shelters were counting on this stolen food to provide supplies to the people of the city. Now the almost 30,000 people in the Superdome, who obeyed the laws, have no food or water. The people in the Superdome are just as poor, just as incapable of leaving the city, and, quite frankly, just as balck.

    The looters are not the oppressed. the loooters are the same opportunistic people have always robbed, murdered, raped, and caused general chaos in the city. The oppressed people are standing on their roofs waiting to be rescued.

    • This is not what I had heard from other sources, and I am curious where you got the information that the various relief organizations were counting on food which would almost certainly be spoiled by untreated water levels rising to the point at which they are now.

      Moreover, my further understanding is that the refugees were being evacuated from the city limits yesterday, after it became clear that the levee was nearly impossible to deal with via conventional methods, and New Orleans was effectively a lost cause for now. Given that 80% of the city is now under water, and there is little hope for respite for this situation in the coming week or two, I’d say this is a more reasonable assessment.

      If the National Guard and Red Cross were in fact counting on these supplies, then they were being far more optimistic than any organization in their position had any right to be. The government has failed these people rather significantly, in any event; please don’t tell me that the minimal faith that I still have in their capabilities was misplaced.

      • Actually, whether or not the levee was impossible to deal with we’ll never know, because apparently bureaucratic snafus meant that the sandbags to plug it never got there.

        And it’s going to be more than a week or two. The mayor — who you could tell, even in transcript, was just barely hanging onto civil language — has said that he had an 8-10 week plan to get the city back on its feet, which has now been pushed back probably another month or so by the failure to plug the levee.

        I agree with your doubt that relief organizations were planning on local grocery stores to feed refugees.

      • My source for the food resource statement is an interview with a government official on http://www.wwltv.com/ They are a local station providing a live stream of their coverage.

        http://www.nola.com/ is also a good source of information, as it is the local paper.

        The cable coverage of this event is not very good. A director from Tulane Hospital called CNN Monday night and told them about the breach in the levee. The CNN anchor did not understand what this meant. It took them two hours, and several e-mails from people who are familiar with the engineering behind the city, before they started following up her statement. Coverage has gotten better in the last day, but New Orleans is a unique situation that local media understands better.

        The Wall-Mart on Tchopatoulis was opened by the local authorities and things were being rationed before people overtook the authorities. I do believe many of the ‘looters’ are looking for things for survival. But even before this, New Orleans was a city where a third of the population are predators involved in criminal activity. The city is 66% black, and criminals come in all races, so I am not trying to make a racist statement here.

        The government has largely failed the people. They have know that this situation was an inevitability since before the day they built the levee system. The public officials should have had a better system in place for repairing the levee long before this happened. They should have started bussing people out of the city the second a category 5 hurricane was forcasted to hit anywhere near the city. They should have massed a forced evacuation situation the second they found out the levee broke instead of trying to downplay the situation to avoid hysteria. It is much easier to move people out of a foot of water than 12. But, people looting only makes the situation more complicated and desperate. The looters are making people, including hospital employees who are trying to evacuate sick patients, scared to leave where they are and head for the I-10 overpass where they can eventually be helped out of the city.

  4. No Quandry at all

    I have no quandry whatsoever. I am clear on this:

    1. Anybody standing in judgement of anyone looting should clean up their own moral house and get out there and concentrating on aiding people not judging people.

    2. DVD type looting is materialistic. Doing it or giving a damn about it is a waste of time for those who understand that a spiritual world doesn’t have that junk stuff. May all those who do it or give a damn about it being done warm the cockles of their souls by clutching their stuff to themselves. I am sure the man who could not hold on to his wive’s hands would be willing for all the stuff hoarders or valuers to have all the stuff in the world if he could just have his wife in his hands again.

    3. Food, clothing, medicines and precious fluids of any kind have no value sitting on shelves. They need to be in the hands of the needy survivors. I don’t care if people take them or the government takes them or the owners of the stores get to them and distribute them …. just that they are off the shelves and saving lives. Anyone spending 1 minute worrying about stopping this have their priorities so totally out of whack it really saddens me. Every ounce of energy should be on rescuing people.

    People matter …. stuff is so lacking in value. Those who think otherwise can hoard it in hell.

    ps. If you live in Indiana and have an available couch, please make it available to a displaced person.

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