January 15, 2010

That "Looting"

Haitians Looting

I think media has got to be very careful in using the term “looting” in the midst of an overwhelming humanitarian crisis, especially given how much that term calls to mind generations of violent protests and riots over civil rights. (One of The BAG’s most widely circulated posts — Outside the Crawfish Shak — had to do with exactly this, as media headed down the same path in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)

Compare these two paragraphs from the same AP story, “Struggle to aid Haitians as fears of unrest rise,” dated Friday, for example. The article’s second paragraph is followed by the eighth:

Pockets of looting flared across the capital. Small bands of young men and teenagers with machetes roaming downtown streets helped themselves to whatever they could find in wrecked homes.

“People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation,” U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva. “If they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat.”

Looking at this photo and caption from MSNBC (which specifically states that the “looters” are fighting over food), what I’m wondering is:

Is it “looting” if people are starving and desperate, and have no other recourse but to “steal” food? And then, what are the racial dynamics of using the term “looting” — instead of “stealing,” or just “taking” — particularly when the photo specifically features young black men?

(Photo: Olivier Laban Mattei / AFP – Getty Images caption: Haitian looters fight for food in a street of Port-au-Prince. US military leaders said, they would pour 10,000 troops in earthquake-battered Haiti in the coming days, warning that it was urgent to bring water and food to prevent deaths and unrest.)

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Michael Shaw
See other posts by Michael here.

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