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.