The Language of Looting

Haitian Earthquake survivor from the Jakarta Globe, 2010.

I just want to be clear. I want to be clear, because it doesn’t seem as if the mainstream media is being clear or thoughtful about its language – and that includes surprisingly, the venerable National Public Radio. I am speaking about the characterization of Haitian earthquake survivors as looters, the references to looting, and the insidious predictions of the mayhem and violence that pundits and humanitarians alike, say is invitable. All while aid to Haiti is slow to mobilize.

 First, looting is defined, as:
noun – 1. spoils or plunder taken by pillaging, as in war. 2.  anything taken by dishonesty, force, stealth, etc.: a burglar’s loot.  3.  a collection of valued objects: The children shouted and laughed as they opened their Christmas loot.  4.  Slang. money: You’ll have a fine time spending all that loot.   5.  act of looting or plundering: to take part in the loot of a conquered city. 
–verb (used with object)  6. to carry off or take (something) as loot: to loot a nation’s art treasures.  7.  to despoil by taking loot; plunder or pillage (a city, house, etc.), as in war.  8.  to rob, as by burglary or corrupt activity in public office: to loot the public treasury.  
–verb (used without object) 9.  to take loot; plunder: The conquerors looted and robbed.
In what way, pray tell, do thousands of people, who have survived a massive earthquake, managed to survive a week without adequate housing, water, burial services, sanitation or food, who are struggling in the poorest nation in the hemisphere, looters? I’m at a loss. I don’t understand how “looting” and “looters” best describes what is actually happening in Haiti. What seems closer to the truth, is that thousands of exceptionally desperate people, literally buried by a 7.0 earthquake, 7 days after that earthquake are running out of provisions – food, water, and clothing – and options.
There are no banks or ATMs from which to withdraw money, no grocery store to go to in order to “pick up a few things,” government agencies are not functioning. So. When someone, desperate for food, with children to feed, bent by grief, goes into a store and removes food, water, or clothing, they are not looting. They are attempting to survive. We’re talking about survival.
In a recent news cast, an American womyn who survived in a collapsed grocery store with several others, by eating the food in the grocery store, was portrayed as being “lucky” to have been stranded where she was – in a place where food and water were readily available so that it was possible to survive for days without rescue. Yet, the same is not said for Haitian survivors. They are framed as thieves, as looters.
But what war did Haiti wage? Who is taking anything dishonestly and not primarily out of desperation? Haitian survivors are being framed, perhaps predictably, using colonialist language and imagery, that suggests that Haitian survivors have no control, rather than owning the fact, that while there have been many donations and offers of support,  organized, comprehensive aid remains elusive. And that is not the fault of Haitian survivors or people. 
And why do we never call those that actually do engage in exploitative practices in the Caribbean, “looters?” To reference “looting,” or “looters,” is to call forth a storied bank of imagery depicting people of color, removing items, often from places that have engaged in exploitative relationships with their community, in many instances, but not all, in an attempt to survive. So when I hear mainstream media say, “looting has begun,” or “it’s predicted that widespread looting will continue,” or “looters,” I understand that this has become code for, “look, those Black people are taking things again.” I understand that it serves to hide and cover the complex dynamics below the surface that don’t fit into a 30-second sound byte.
What we are seeing  is not some innate predilection to stealing, but tough decisions based on survival and the fact that aid is not widely available – nevermind access to food. Each time the mainstream media references “looting,” and tags on the corresponding “widespread,” it covers the failure of recovery efforts, and blames Haitian survivors, for trying to do just that: survive as aid has been, as it is in many cases, slow to take root.
Organized, comprehensive aid is difficult to deliver when a country has no infracstructure. Prior to the earthquake, Haiti was recovering from 4 hurricanes, a fragile government gathering strength and credibility, and poverty. Even before the earthquake, Haiti was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. When you add an earthquake of this magnitude to the mix, suffering results. When you add centuries of racism, systemic disenfrachisement, and willfull ignorance or and policies to ignore Haiti, you perpetuate poverty and desperate situations. And yet over and over, we see and hear language that reifies a racist view of Haiti.
It is a small, small, nearly silly request among many real, substanial needs. It is the request that we stop referring to survivors trying to live another day, to find family, loved ones, and friends, as “looters.”
May we call our fellow human beings, who they are – people struggling. There is an innate desire to live. Let us not label that deeply, powerfully human urge to exist, to live, as dilinquent; and not especially when we see people of color, in a nation that defeated Napolean for its freedom, downgraded into a nation of “looters,” instead of a nation engaged in a battle to survive. 
It does us all a dishonor. That is the real looting, the dishonor of taking humanity from others, with such simple, simple utterances.
I just want to be clear, that’s all.
Check out Democracy Now’s piece,  “Misinformation and racism have Frozen the Recovery Effort,” about how misinformation impacts the aid efforts in Haiti.

One Response to “The Language of Looting”

  1. right on – much of the media’s language in this tragedy parallels the coverage of katrina. i appreciate the way you highlight the way race skews how we understand behavior and other people.

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