Every other day, when I peek in at Haiti, my heart starts beating fast… I click through pictures, and I read “nearly 200,000 dead.” And I try to imagine: What would Oakland (where I live now), or Flushing, NY (where I grew up), look like if there were upwards of 200,000 dead people lying in the streets?
I close the screen.
I am once again overwhelmed by that bewildering feeling that I had a little more than four years ago, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. My heart broke then, while I, along with the rest of the world, watched as thousands lost their lives in the aftermath. Ironically, I was on the Island of Hispaniola at the time, though not in Haiti, but rather in the east, on a family vacation in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.
I am not naïve. So I do not expect for any pre-existing bias held previously toward the nation of Haiti to have magically disappeared because disaster struck. Thanks to the same journalists who report the news, while simultaneously making claims of objectivity, we are reminded, time and again that there are still so many of them (and if we are honest, there are still so many of us), who are blinded by variable levels of xenophobia and racism.
In terms of sending aid, however, we are thankfully seeing that the world’s best intentions outweigh any individual’s willful ignorance. Still, I am incensed daily by writers presumably unaware of the ramifications of the articles that they write. Maybe I’m trippin’, but it just feels contextually inappropriate, and journalistically unconscionable that in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, one might reduce a person's seizure of any available resource to “looting.” How dare you. Have we learned nothing from New Orleans?
I had hoped for better. But I am grateful to writers and thinkers like Eric Zorn who challenge us to “Change [the] Subject,” from the “looting” and the “machete wielding” black men who roam the streets of Port-Au-Prince, ultimately back to the crisis at hand. On January 15th, he wrote:
"The buffer between civilization and anarchy is far smaller i[n] perpetually desperate nations such as Haiti, but don't events like this make you wonder how many days we -- you and I, comparatively comfortable Americans -- are from lawlessness, chaos, roving the streets with weapons trying to get food, water and medicine?
What wouldn't you do if members of your family were dying? If you thought you could save them with a little humanitarian freelance redistribution of resources?
Maybe these looters and machete wielders are mere opportunists, and if so, no corner of hell is hot enough for them. But maybe they're just doing what you'd do.”
But seriously, what would you do?
His questions challenge us to engage this conversation in a way that impresses upon our ability to offer empathy rather than to pass judgment. If not for anything else, they should also remind us that our focus, at least for right now, should be the problem solving mission of saving as many innocent lives as quickly and as efficiently as possible. It should also encourage us all to prioritize lives, over policing goods. Perhaps instead of arresting and dispersing would be “looters,” police should be working together with those same able bodied people, to organize and amply relief efforts elsewhere in the country. I could be wrong... but the help would probably be appreciated.
I remember the range of emotions I went through as I sat in front of a public computer in the lobby of my hotel, night after night, observing the humanitarian effort in the wake of Katrina. My emotions teetered between sadness, and hopelessness. But I recall being most heavily impacted by the deep sense of anger I felt, when first confronted with the “looting” vs. “finding” binary that surfaced in the news; which was (of course) drawn along a black vs. white racial lines.
I was not surprised then, when I came across an article by the Wall Street Journal’s Dionne Searcey and Kevin Noblet entitled “Haiti Authorities Battle Looters." The authors seem almost shocked when quoting 18-year-old Reginald Elacen, who “suggested the police should be allowing the badly damaged stores to be emptied, and helping keep order. ‘We really don't have a choice,’ he said, referring to the desperate needs of Haitians who lost everything in the quake. ‘If the police would help, it could be done without violence.’” I could be alone in this, but I don't find that suggested scenario hard to imagine.
I was neither surprised by another article by the New York Times’ Simon Romero and Marc Lacey, which lead with the title “Looting Flares Where Authority Breaks Down,” Haiti’s president René Préval is quoted saying “The problem is there’s no control […] And people are desperate.” Still, I am troubled by the feeling I get that there is simply never enough time, or never enough resources to make things right. It's a feeling I carry for the folks that I encounter in my day to day life who may be too be suffering from poverty and homelessness, let alone in a situation as dire as this. But I’m smart enough to know better than that. These quotes say much more to me about a nation of people who are used to being forced to save themselves by any means necessary, than they do about the perceived lawlessness their article titles invoke- especially when so many in the United States and in many nations around the world live with abundance, sometimes even in excess. Who are WE to judge?
My anger is exacerbated when taken in context of the history of the Republic of Haiti as whole, a nation known as the first to gain it’s independence in Latin America, along with being the first post-colonial independent black-led nation in the world, and the only nation whose independence was gained as part of a successful slave rebellion.
I know the shortage of resources and time feels real to me, in large part due to the priorities (and beliefs) we make real by our collective consciousness.
For many, that consciousness starts with our media. In an interview with the Socialist Worker, Canadian Haiti solidarity activist Yves Engler explained: “The media coverage of the earthquake is marked by an almost complete divorce of the disaster from the social and political history of Haiti. They repeatedly state that the government was completely unprepared to deal with the crisis. This is true. But they left out why.” Engler is alluding to a legacy of questionable policies levied against the nation of Haiti by the United States, France and others, which ushered in an influx of foreign crops and ravaged agricultural development. Engler may also be referring to the history of the struggling nation who as Jay Smooth of illdoctrine put it, “taught all of us in the western hemisphere how to be freedom fighters.”
In this way, things have not changed. Journalists fail Haiti by refusing to do their jobs, reporting on real needs in the disaster stricken Caribbean Republic. And as a body politic of bystanders, we collectively fail Haiti if we do not hold journalists accountable for the undercurrent racism and bias leveraged in every “looting” account.
So this is my appeal to journalists, and every literate being who happens to read this blog, on behalf of Haiti:
Let us carry forward the lessons we learned from disaster coverage in New Orleans , and remove "looting" from vocabulary surrounding the current crisis in Haiti, from this point forward. I ask that you stop yourself, in every article you read or write. Consider every Haitian citizen a victim of this natural disaster first, regardless of whether or not they have been labeled an alleged “looter” (be it of goods of necessity or luxury). When confronted with stories of "looting," investigate the circumstances. And I implore you, suspend your perpetuation of the idea of this country as "hopeless" and unstable. But if you insist on holding fast to such beliefs, do so with an air of complexity, taking into account the history which has kept the Republic of Haiti unstable fiscally or otherwise. Call for the cancellation of Haitian debt.
If all else fails. I ask that you at least try to put yourself in the situation of a Haitian citizen and to exhaust every effort to ensure that Haiti and it's citizens are presented as nothing less than survivors. As human beings, we fail the people of Haiti if we continue to perpetuate this misrepresentation, and say nothing.
As world citizens, we fail OURSELVES if we do not learn the history.
For further Reading:
my best friend gayle: Simple Math: Let's Make a Deal
The Three Phases of Disaster Response - (via kris ex)
Cancel Haiti's Debt