Looting and Compassionless Conservatives
People who survived Hurricane Katrina are dying in the streets of New Orleans. They are women and small children, the frail and elderly, and those without their medication. Human beings are crammed in the Superdome and Convention Center without food or water. Louis Armstrong International Airport is now a hospital and people are dying there too. It is quite likely that thousands more will die as federal, state, and local officials underestimated the scope of this tragedy. This is a national disgrace and embarrassment.
And Fox News Channel and conservative bloggers are fixated on looting. They are nothing more than compassionless conservatives.
I’ve done nearly a 180 degree turn on the looting that’s taking place in New Orleans in the wake of the devastating flooding brought on by Hurricane Katrina. Originally, two thoughts came to mind: The first was what a lot of people thought: “I can’t believe my eyes . . . . punish these predators who are stealing.” The second is something that a lot of Black people undoubtedly felt, but many won’t admit: “I can’t believe my eyes . . . . Why are these brothers and sisters stealing like this? It’s embarrassing.” Those were my initial thoughts and I was wrong. The more I thought about what’s going on there and saw and heard first-hand accounts, I realized that my original thoughts were easy and simplistic and didn’t fully take into consideration the needs on the ground.
I’ve come to see that there are two kinds of looters: those who are desperate for basic needs without better alternatives and those driven by opportunism and nihilism. Those in the first group, about which I’m most concerned, should be given the benefit of the doubt. They are trying to stay alive. Those in the second group are disgusting and should be put in jail for a very long time. Those thieves are stupid–they don’t seem to remember that they don’t have homes to which they can take their stolen electronics. What's more, they'll have to leave it wherever it is when they evacuate the city.
I believe that most of the looting is driven more by desperation than rank opportunism and nihilism. People are in trouble throughout the region and there are no easy answers. Those who want to use this as an opportunity to bash poor people, particularly poor Black people, would do well to put on their compassionate conservative caps and give the benefit of the doubt to all those driven by desperation in New Orleans and the rest of that region as they deal with something that their worst dreams could not have imagined. That city is one of the poorest, Blackest cities in the country and is dealing with as large a civilian catastrophe America has seen. They don’t have the resources and infrastructure to deal with it all and they don’t have a wealthy enough population that could easily go somewhere else.
It’s easy for those of us watching this unfold from the comfort of air-conditioned, middle- and upper-middle-class existences hundreds or thousands of miles away to harshly judge the desperate who are looting. The video I’ve seen leaves me conflicted: I'm angry and sad. But the fact is that there is a level of desperation and stress running through that part of the country that we have never seen. Desperate times lead people to do things they would never normally do.
Consider this scenario: you are a 30-year-old mother who bottle-feeds a six-month old infant. You work in a service job at a downtown hotel making barely above minimum wage. You live paycheck to paycheck and only get paid when you work. You have no money. Your home is reduced to rubble. Your neighbors' homes are similarly destroyed. Your extended family is homeless. You have no one to call on to send you money. And even if you had money, there is no place to use it. Your entire neighborhood is flooded. You are indefinitely unemployed. You are now officially desperate and, oh, by the way, the baby is hungry and the formula was washed away in the flood. What do you do? It’s easy for some to say: “I would never loot” or “They’re nothing but common criminals.” But how do you know what you would do in that situation?
So let’s ease up on those driven by desperation and be tough on those stealing televisions and others who want to simply take advantage of an opportunity. After all, “but for the grace of God go I.”
© Michael K. Fauntroy
August 31, 2005