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Creek Running North

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August 31, 2005

On the topic of looting

Katrina's powerful hurricane-force winds did an efficient job of peeling that thin layer of tolerance from the hides of many so-called liberals. A chorus swells of condemnation over those people, abandoned by their supposed protectors and surrounded by an increasingly chaotic, desperate, and violent populace, who themselves take up arms or take jeans or boomboxes or silverware from local stores.

I don't condone theft, whether it's a 25-inch television from an abandoned store or a pension fund. But I'm not going to waste a tear for property being taken by people who are, in effect, free-lance salvage workers. These people have been abandoned, given NOLA's "Every Man For Himself" evacuation strategy. The comfortable can sit back in their computer chairs and cluck about propriety from behind their mouthful of Doritos. But were I faced with the prospect of trying to survive a month of flood only to emerge into a post-disaster New Orleans with neither jobs nor infrastructure, and a nation blaming me for not having the foresight to be wealthy enough to be able to leave for a month's vacation on a moment's notice, and if a microwave was sitting in a store window just above the rising waters of Lake Nawlins, you'd better believe I'd be tempted to take the damn thing. What good does it do anyone if it's ruined by the flood? Salvaged - stolen - call it what you will - it might bring 25 bucks that I could use to buy food in two months.

And just how wicked is that much-referred-to stack of stolen jeans? In that situation, what would you do for some clean, reasonably dry clothing? forget your credit cards and your full tank of gas and your college pals with the comfy couch in the next state. You're there in that water for a month. There are ten pairs of jeans sitting there. Some of them might be your size, or your spouse's, or your mother's. Tell me how loudly your finely-worked-out, long-held moral strictures will be shouting in your ear.

There was a time in my life when I survived, in part, on food stolen from grocery store shelves. Or taken from the dumpsters out back, which was every bit as illegal. Do I defend my behavior? No. And neither will I condemn it when others are forced to the brink.

If that makes me "pro-looter," as one blogger alleges today, then so be it.

Cherie Priest offers the populace-bashers more eloquence than they deserve. Excerpt:

"Look at the reporters who are "incensed" by the rampant looting. Look at the smugness from those distant from the situation who chastise the dumb southerners for not evacuating when they had the chance. It blows their minds how many idiots stayed to wait it out. It makes them shake their heads and make "tsk-tsk" noises into their shiny microphones.

Well, fuck the lot of them."

Incidentally, the Making Light family has been doing top-notch NOLA blogging. I got the Priest link there.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 31, 2005 12:16 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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i've been thinking all day about this, about what difference it makes. brand spankin' new or waterlogged you can't tell me that everything in every store downtown isn't already bought and paid for by the store owner's insurance (or not, but still it's lost) -- with most such owners probably not thinking about returning to set up shop. and then the stuff gets tossed. how much more good could it do in some folks' lives -- to have been desperate and now have a nice microwave or tv they never had before or, as you say, to have something to barter for food or water down the line. i'm having a hard time blaming anyone for anything, especially when the state and city have basically said they're shutting the town down for the next two months -- what about the folks who don't have the ability to just relocate.

if i have a wish it's that violence doesn't intrude. there's already enough grief to go around.

and i wonder if we aren't looking at the world's largest ghost town -- how will they ever rebuild that city? if they're going to spend the money, why not rebuild from scratch on higher ground?


Posted by: tony g at August 31, 2005 12:28 PM
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i pretty much agree on the looting. anyone there to loot has probably lost everything, anyway, and so have the merchants. no way in the world will i feel bad about stranded parents stealing diapers and food. those big-screen TV's are not going to be much of a prize in flooded houses with no electicity, and it seems doubtful the merchants could salvage them, anyway.

the gunfire i've read about bothers me a lot. what the hell is that about?

Posted by: kathy at August 31, 2005 01:12 PM
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I'm with you. Fuck the talking heads on the news who are going on and on about what a horrible thing this looting is. All that property is most likely damaged and would be scrapped anyhow.

Mostly everything that people are looting is covered by the respective store's insurance anyhow. Are you people aware that some retail outlets write off up to half of their inventory each year for theft?

If I were that poor and stuck in the shitville that now is NOLA I'd be doing the same thing. The only thing that bothers me is that on tv only black people are shown looting. You know everyone who is still there is doing the exact same thing, regardless of the color of their skin.

Posted by: seth at August 31, 2005 01:20 PM
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It can't stop shaking my head. This is America, right? The richest land in the world? I mean, all those things being looted are just "things" right and there really should be enough to go around for everyone for survival, no? Shouldn't everyone be spending more time concentrating on making sure everyone else is all right, that everyone has enough food, a safe place to stay, that no one is hurt or dead? Who CARES about "things" right now? The reports keep concentrating on all the "things" people lost (and, as Seth said, on black people, but is that what is really so important at the moment? For instance, what does it say about our society when news crews can cruise by the, as the CNN reporter put it, "hundreds and hundreds of people at the sides of the roads with nowhere to go" and not stop to at least offer some kind of help? Why is the news more important than the actual helping of people in need?

What struck me so strongly is the difference in the way a lot of the local people have reacted after this disaster compared to, let's say, the local people after the tsunami last winter. Why is there looting at all? Why isn't EVERYONE freely sharing whatever they have with everyone else, for once just not clinging to their possessions and without even thinking twice about it, just handing things out? Why wasn't there an immediate organization to use all the available items in the stores and elsewhere to make sure everyone was taken care of in areas that are inaccessible otherwise right now? It seems nearly everyone rallied and helped one another out after the tsunami. Why not in this situation? It's dismaying and incomprehensible when I hear of gunshots and people getting killed at such times. Isn't the flooding and the hurricane disaster enough? Are people all mad?

And a little puzzlement... every year I see in the news such flooding in the South. Every year hundreds of homes get inundated and destroyed, this year especially bad. May I ask why homes are never built up on pylons and other flood thwarting methods to deal with these inevitable floods (and I won't go into the problems that damming and straightening out and building levees along such rivers as the Mississippi have caused)? I've just never understood building without taking the local environment into consideration...If the people of the Sulu Sea can live ON the ocean, surely people in the South can build their cities to more easily deal with levees breaking and the land flooding... Yeah, I know, who wants to deal with zoning laws...

But seriously, aren't the most important things to be learned here respect for one another and for the land?

Posted by: butuki at August 31, 2005 01:53 PM
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Ditto. These places getting clothes, etc. stolen from them are likely insured, and it's not like these are normal circumstances. Now if you're stealing a TV and you have no home anymore, this I question.

Posted by: Blunderford at August 31, 2005 01:57 PM
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Ding, ding, ding, give the man a prize 'cause he nailed it. I was going to write about this yesterday but got stuck in homework. Just as well, Chris did a better job by far.

From what I keep hearing on the news, you'd think a bunch of people decided to stick around in the path of a Class 4 hurricane just so they could score some electronics. There are hundreds of thousands homeless, god only knows how many dead, god only knows how many sick or injured with no access to health care, no clean water, no fresh food, and people are squawking about some diapers and a few tvs? Amanda, can I borrow your tinfoil hat?

Posted by: Stephanie at August 31, 2005 02:23 PM
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Thank you and the other commenters here for saying what has been on my mind.

Somehow America managed to forget--once again--what a large portion of our population lives in utter destitution. And now the indigent people of NO and a good chunk of the Gulf Coast have nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Let them have the fucking Adidas for God's sake. Even better, help them get out.

Posted by: SneakySnu at August 31, 2005 02:46 PM
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Amen to the commenters here.

Hell, I'm a small businees owner and my sympathies lie with the looters, especially the ones taking food and meds for their families.

Given the way things are going in this slow motion catastrophe, most of this stuff was destined to be covered by slimy muddy water in the next day or so anyway.

I though the left was personified by Jean Valjean, not Inspector Javert. Guess I was wrong....

Posted by: handdrummer at August 31, 2005 03:10 PM
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The true test of ethics is not what we do day to day, but what we do in the most dire of circumstances.

Posted by: Martha at August 31, 2005 03:10 PM
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i hope everyone is looking at the previous post, too.

One hero among many
Via Roxanne, A Small Victory has an emailed note from an MD who's helping set up an impromptu hospital in the NOLA Ritz-Carlton. Read it. Then drop some cash on the red Cross. (That last link is getting tons of traffic, so keep trying, or look up your local chapter and call them.)

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 31, 2005 11:32 AM | TrackBack

it is really something to hear of people on the ground doing things.

in addition to giving cash, i know at least one psychologist who can't go, but is offering to fill in for others so they can go. great needs there, too.

there are just so many needs... we can all sit around talking about "the media" or "american ethics," but the bottom line with this thing is that folks need food, water, shelter, comfort. and fast. and in quantity.

Posted by: kathy at August 31, 2005 03:18 PM
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That's an excellent maxim, Martha. I agree with it. And to me, much of the looting that's being done right now seems eminently ethical. Much of it is not: breaking into private homes to take durable goods such as jewelry comes to mind, not that I've heard of any instances of same.

It turns out, I've read, that there's not nearly as much looting today as there was yesterday. It may well be that people got what they needed for a day or three, and the few interested in accumulating worthless expensive crap are now deprived of cover.

Of course, any calculus of the ethics in this situation must include the evacuation plan drafters and the people who slashed funding for levee repair in order to pay for the war and the tax cut.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 31, 2005 03:27 PM
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Looks like I spoke too soon on the looting slacking off.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 31, 2005 04:15 PM
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I dunno. I don't think of CNN talking suits as liberals, but it astonishes me that they are overwrought about disorder in the streets, when thousands are possibly dead, or dying if they are not rescued, and those left behind are required, more or less literally, to sink or swim. The New Orleans disaster plan was for everyone to be wealthy enough to get out.
We see that plan didn't work.

Posted by: Jim McCulloch at August 31, 2005 05:05 PM
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You are surely correct about the reasons some people stayed behind; they had no other choice. And you are correct that taking food, water, shelter, clothing and the like are matters of survival. But I think you are wrong for not condemning the looters of resale goods (one man selling stolen Nikes in the streets; another taking flat-screen TVs). That is naked theft, now being accomplished by armed gangs (and I don't just mean the police). The effort they expend stealing for profit could be spent building shelter, helping others, or just getting out of town.

That is crime, not survival. Indeed, I think it's worse than regular theft. They are taking advantage of others in a time of crisis. It is despicable.


Posted by: carpundit at August 31, 2005 05:35 PM
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yep, it's crime, carpundit. really, really stupid crime. not sure how much profit there is in soggy TV's....

i have to believe this is a very tiny slice of the population, people who can't even think of their own survival, much less the common good.

when there are people still waiting to be rescued from rooftops, tens of thousands to be evacuated, the city nothing but a fetid swamp teeming with disease opportunities, perhaps thousands of bodies yet to be recovered -- the cops and rescue folks would have to be terminal idiots to care about looting right now.

the guns -- i'm hoping they all rust. have to assume many of the theives weren't smart enough to read up on gun maintenance, much less that they have found a dry spot and time in their schedules to clean and oil those suckers.

Posted by: kathy at August 31, 2005 06:13 PM
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Thank you for saying what I was having a hard time coming up with the words for. I know that if I was there mama bear instinct would take over and there's NOTHING I wouldn't do to feed my babies and make sure they got what they needed.

Posted by: Annie at August 31, 2005 10:06 PM
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The only sins in Holy Capitalism are against the property/perogatives of the Owner class.

Posted by: bellatrys at August 31, 2005 11:22 PM
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Chris, I agree with you...up to a point.

There is looting, and then there is looting...stealing from hospitals and nursing homes is just plain sick.

Stealing guns in order to make it easier to steal is just plain vicious.

No, it's not black and white, (in more ways than one) but there are some things that really are inexcusable.

Posted by: KathyF at September 1, 2005 01:09 AM
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Butuki writes: "This is America, right? The richest land in the world? I mean, all those things being looted are just "things" right?

That's the sickness right there - Sure, this si America. America has become a society where "things" define us; where the things you have matter more than anything else. For one group of people, who have next-to-nothing, "things" can be the simple essentials we can't imagine not being able to attain. For others, brought up by these same mealy-mouthed media oogling after the rich and famous and advertisers feeding a steady diet of "gotta-have-this" (latest luxury item, latest overpriced gear), without learning ANY alternative set of values -- what the hell do we expect? The violence is terrible but it is one more symptom of the sickness of a society that is based on money and acquisition, and which is even more sharply divided along economic lines than any red/blue political divide. I'm totally with Chris on this.

Posted by: beth at September 1, 2005 06:07 AM
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--although the latest news talks of shots being fired at a rescue helicopter, which I am completely at a loss to explain. Is it rampant violence, or misplaced anger at the government, or what? Why would anyone do that?

Posted by: beth at September 1, 2005 06:32 AM
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That's pretty distressing, Beth. I agree. The only thing I can think of is that there's a certain criminal element - probably about 17 years old - that is reveling in the "freedom" from law enforcement. Thugs will do amazing things sometimes. Same for looting hospitals and nursing homes. I agree with Kathy. I'm not going to second-guess someone who uses deadly force to defend hospitals and nursing homes.

Carpundit, I think you're too quick to draw a line where you do. The fact is that a lot of the people there had no money - or very little money - and evacuation costs money. Especially considering that most of these people, when they leave New Orleans, are going to be starting over in a new place, most likely with lots of competition. If I was there, perhaps with a couple kids, and I wanted to get out of town, and I had a couple big boxes full of shoes, you bet I'd be trying to sell them to whoever would buy. In different circumstances, people like that would be lauded for their initiative.

Gouging is different though, and I condemn it wholeheartedly whether it's done by NOLA's internal refugees or by the managers of the Ponchatoula Holiday Inn. Funny, I've seen only very limited coverage of gouging by business owners to the north. That limited coverage says it's happening. Why isn't that getting more coverage?

A side note: I love that people who diisagree here can voice that disagreement, and I love that it's done so warmly and constructively. You guys are great.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at September 1, 2005 07:19 AM
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i'm in agreement on stealing from hospitals and nursing homes. and the reports of armed robberies, shooting at rescue helicopters, etc. just boggle the mind...

here is an opinion piece on why the looting:

new orleans is getting much of the attention, but here is an article about the destruction in biloxi:

Posted by: kathy a at September 1, 2005 08:13 AM
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We're just drawing lines in different places. If the shoe-sellers were trying to finance a family exodus, I might put that in the bread and water category. But that's not what I read about.

Gouging is indecent and unforgiveable. But so is preying on your fellow disaster victims.

Either way, it's nice that we can discuss it from the comfort of our stable homes.

Posted by: carpundit at September 1, 2005 09:44 AM
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I'm glad I haven't done much media-watching of this story, because I know there's not going to be much about "hey, why are we getting all this crazy weather, could it be global warming?" It's just "bad bad looters" and "how will I ever afford to fill my SUV gas tank again?"

I don't think there's anything wrong with taking something that will be destroyed otherwise. As with everything, there are a few people who take advantage of the situation to escalate their usual levels of mayhem, but most people are just doing what people are genetically programmed to do -- not letting resources go to waste.

That being said, the store owners are in a bad place, too. The stores may be insured, but the stock may not be. And chances are they're not insured for 100 percent, and maybe not for flood. That's expensive, and because of the economic conditions in NOLA it's probably not feasible to insure everything.

Think of all the small stores owned by people just like the people in your neighborhood. Many don't own the store itself or the land, they just own the business and the stock, both of which are totally gone now.

I remember hearing that many shop owners unlocked their stores to prevent having their windows and doors destroyed. And there's a picture on one news site of a store owner handing out packages of food and water at no charge to people lined up outside, through the bottom of a security gate. Not only did that owner give up stuff willingly, s/he took the time and energy to dole it out and planned things so that the strongest and meanest wouldn't be the ones to get everything.

In any case, the store owners will probably have a hard time collecting what insurance they have coming to them, like many of the victims of Isabel here in the Baltimore area who got jerked around by the insurance companies and the government.

Even if they could not have salvaged the things in their shops, I am sympathetic to the shop owners' pain in seeing it taken away. Katrina is the real cause of the loss, but when you see people with your stuff in their hands, it's easy to get angry at them instead.

Posted by: JoAnne at September 1, 2005 09:51 AM
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Thanks, Chris, and everyone else. It's nice to know that there are other people out there who have a realistic sense of their moral footing. I got blasted yesterday at my site for expressing a similar view.

I hope I'd hold out on stealing stuff under similar circumstances, but who knows? Imagine the sense of panic you'd feel if you stayed home and saw your neigbors returning with armloads of food and clothing. I wouldn't want to get left out, you know? But I don't think I'd be stealing electronics. Those things are heavy enough on dry land. Jewelry and pharmaceuticals, now, them's good bartering.

Posted by: TravisG at September 1, 2005 11:32 AM
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