Another Look at Those Left Behind

Friday, September 09, 2005 | 0 Comments

The comments from my looting post really got me thinking about the situation in New Orleans and the treatment of poor in general. It is my understanding that the majority of the people that were trapped in New Orleans did not evacuate because they were poor. They didn't have a car or money for gas. They had no where to go if they could manage to leave.

These are people who have been living on what they thought was rock bottom for most likely all their lives. Now they had that rock pulled out from under them.

Imagine what that would feel like. You have been struggling for years just to try and keep your head above it all, and then suddenly everything is gone and there is no hope for recovery for you. Those lucky people who had enough to get out before the storm were also the people that would have insurance to help them rebuild their life. These people still in New Orleans or one of the evacuee camps have NOTHING and will continue to have NOTHING! And most likely all their family also has nothing and their community had nothing. How will these people go on?

I understand the panic that they must have been going through. I'm sure that the first day or two they thought that they would be helped. When Thursday rolled around and things still weren't moving, they felt that once again, there would be no compassion or help for them. The desparation would be tremendous. Not to mention the anger.

No one was telling them what is going on. The police and the National Guard just drove by, not stopping or giving them any information. Some of the people that they have been huddling with the last few nights were dying. Were they next?

Some had adopted the "end of the world" mentality and apparently had decided to implement their "take em out with me" strategies. I had heard reports of serious fights breaking out, women being raped, and rescue crews being shot at. You can say that they are just bad people taking advantage of the situation, which I guess might be true. But it is also possible that these people were cracking under the pressure of uncertainty. I'm sure that there is a little of both going on here.

This is what people become when they are faced with real, honest to goodness survival. Imagine what it would be like to feel even half of that every day of your life. They already were faced with lack of affordable housing, food and clothing. Now the prices of everything are going to skyrocket. Affordable housing? Forget about it. The money to rebuild will go to homes that will give the city the most money. Affordable housing across the nation has been an extremely low proirity, why should it change now?

What will these people's future be? Where will they live? How will they eat? They are facing pure destitution. So I don't blame them for being highly anxious and more than a wee bit pissed.

The Doc linked a very interesting thread. The following are two of my favorite comments. I think RedEmma would understand what I'm trying to say:
look, i think that some of y'all are missing the point: i'd bet a bottle of looted Glenlivet that the vast majority of the folks who stayed during the storm did so because they had no other options: no car, no place to go, and sometimes a complete lack of understanding of possible resources and how to get access to them. (extreme poverty can sometimes make folks crazy, too.)

the fact that folks bound by those limitations loot ridiculously useless items in the face of ... a really bad situation... oughtn't be that surprising. hence, reports of taking makeup (which is expensive and a luxury to someone poor), televisions and other electronics... i especially note how sad it is to see someone hungry looting soda instead of something that actually could offer some nutrition. (although i have seen ghetto grocery stores before, and it's possible there wasn't much to take.)

it's like folks who grouse about food stamp users buying junk food instead of produce--IMO, you've got to take into account what poverty does to a mind, and what USian culture preaches about "necessity" versus "luxury." what do you do when "god" has taken everything you own in the world, you have no way to recoup that loss (no insurance and no options), and "god" opens up the doors of your neighborhood electronics or jewelry store? especially when you see Joe-who's-an-asshole from down the street making off with a big-ass TV?
posted by RedEmma at 11:18 PM PST on August 30

Another comment that I felt conveyed what I feel:
I heard a short interview with Mayor of New Orleans C Ray Nagin earlier today where he made a statement about the looting that went something along the lines of 'Look, we're in life saving mode. People need to eat. People need fresh water. The police need to focus on helping people and doing search and rescue, not protecting a bunch of damaged goods. I can't fault people that are scavenging food and water and supplies to survive.' and basically stopped just short of condoning this "looting" for survival goods. I'm heavily paraphrasing my recounting of Nagin's statement, but that's the gist of it. He seemed pretty pissed that CNN or whatever cable news network I was watching at the time kept harping on and on about the looting.

And they are harping on and on about the looting. They love the fear and fantasy of a good looting session. On one hand it titillates the "haves" with a bunch of fear and loathing about how it could happen to them, to their businesses, homes, and neighborhoods. And on the other hand it titillates the "have nots" with fantasies of what they could grab for themselves in a similar situation. Free food, free booze, free diapers, or even something nice and useless like a $5000 flat screen TV.

The food thing I understand easily. I even can understand the clothes and everything else. It may be stupid and selfish and totally unjustifiable in our system of morals, but for a lot of people, this will be the only known chance to ever even think of having something "nice".

Perhaps that says something about human nature and greed. Perhaps it says something about the system and authority we currently live under. Perhaps it says something about rigged systems, prejudice, poverty, or capitalism. Or a little of all of the above.

Perhaps we don't see looting like this in "white and/or affluent" neighborhoods simply because they already have some nice things, and perhaps because they are better educated, or perhaps because they are the system, or are at least not disenfranchised by it. Perhaps we do see looting in "minority and/or impoverished" neighborhoods because of a lack of education, or a lack of wealth, or whatever.

As uncomfortable as it may be to face, almost all of the US is just about 72 hours away from very similar set of circumstances under the right conditions. Hell, I saw it with my own eyes in Los Angeles just because they acquited a bunch of violent cops that beat up some stupid crackhead. It doesn't take an earthquake or hurricane. It simply takes some needs, wants, and maybe a little anger or injustice.

I can say one thing about all that. Greed is most certainly not monopolized by any one race or economic class or neighborhood.

Greed is greed, and whether you steal with lobbyists, laws and corporate shenanigans like Enron or you steal with a brick, a gun, or some muscle - you're still a thief.

Things may have changed in the last few hours but at that point I had yet to see the Red Cross in action distributing food and water on the ground in any news sources online or broadcast.

Yeah, sure, these people should have left. Or they should have already had emergency supplies. But it's pretty hard to save up enough for supplies when you already can barely afford milk and bread on a weekly basis without a catastrophe interfering.

Not to degrade the enormity of this disaster, but there's already an ongoing catastrophe of poverty in America, and it's been going on for decades or even centuries. It's very difficult to have a capitalist, democractic society without poverty. The base of the pyramid has to rest somewhere.

And localised, physical catastrophes like this just make it worse.

We could easily debate the relative intelligence levels of those in poverty, make generalizations, make broad sweeping statements about whose fault it may be on one side of the fence of "haves" and the other side of the fence of "have nots", but the somewhere down that chain of blame the source of that failure resides on each of us.

We're either a society, or we're just pretending to be a society. To me, lately it seems a lot like we're just pretending to be a society.
posted by loquacious at 12:25 AM PST on August 31


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Blogger sands of time said...

Ive read those posts and many like them.It seems to me that the public are wanting these people to be helped and the government have been dragging their heels

September 09, 2005 11:26 AM

Blogger Spencer said...

Have yourself a wonderful weekend!

September 09, 2005 11:39 AM

Blogger Sylvana said...

June, I definitely think that the government has been dragging it's heels.

Spencer, I will most definitely try!

September 09, 2005 1:05 PM

Blogger Shannon said...

I've been re-evaluating my attitude toward the looting, realizing that I haven't been seeing what's really going on. I think because I work with the "lower class," I'm also just frustrated by their lack of empowerment (not their fault! I know, I know, but it's still frustrating when you 're trying to empower people, and they slip away), and I guess I was frustrated by the lack of order exemplified by the looting...which is not the looters' faults at all!

I really liked these comments. They called my attention to the fact that I am a "have" and although I came from a "have not" background, I seemed to have forgotten the feeling. You've got nothing. This is your one chance to get everything you dreamed of- be it a tv, a piece of gold (omg, gold!), that new lipstick, etc, etc. It's like an eminem song. This is your one shot...

I want to add, however, that it's more than not preparing b/c you can't afford bread and milk. I believe it's about not being empowered- believing you can't do it, there's nothing you can do, shit's always happened and it will continue to do so. You just get used to the shit you're in, and so you don't recognize when you can do something to change it. You don't recognize that instead of buying a 12 pack of coke, you can buy 2 gallons of water and store them and 1 liter bottle of coke. Something that simple. My mom had this attitude. Some of my friends growing up had this attitude. Some of my clients and students have this attitude.

I guess the hardest part of life is changing one's perspective- be it to a more empowered or more compassionate perspective.

September 09, 2005 3:29 PM

Blogger DrMax said...

It is so strange to me that the folks who have been so concerned about American not respecting Christian beliefs, some of Bush's fundamentalist supporters, have been the same ones I've heard being critical of people for not leaving. "Why didn't they go? It's their own fault!" Can't wait until they have that chat with Jesus that they all long for. "Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me." They can correct Jesus on his liberal beliefs.

September 09, 2005 7:18 PM

Blogger Sylvana said...

Shannon, thanks for the great comment.

I totally agree that perspective can make a huge difference. Unfortunately it does not bring equality to people.

There really is no easy answer to any of these problems since they are so systemic and the stereotypes and oppression are so ingrained in everyone.

The disadvantaged will have to get good strong role models, so that they can learn ways that they can beat their situations. They will have to change their attitudes and outlook, but so will the rest of society. You can force a person to jump only so many hurdles before they just give up.

September 09, 2005 7:26 PM

Blogger Sylvana said...

Good one, DrMax!! I often think what Christian conservatives would have to say to Jesus. They wait for his second coming, but I doubt that they'd recognize him. They'd instead persecute him for his liberal beliefs.

September 09, 2005 7:53 PM

Blogger OldRoses said...

I think it is perfectly understandable (is that a word?) that impoverished people would loot "useless" luxuries. We are bombarded daily through TV, radio, print media, and the internet with the message that everyone "needs" or "must have" these goods. But those goods remain totally out of reach for poor people. Katrina provided a once in a lifetime opportunity for poor people to aquire luxuries that they have been convinced are necessities by our culture.

September 09, 2005 11:26 PM

Blogger Sylvana said...

Right on, OldRoses. Can't say that under those circumstances that I wouldn't want to reach for a little happiness myself, no matter how silly or wrong it may seem to others.

September 10, 2005 12:04 AM

Blogger Wendy A said...

Gosh Guys, you have some real ....cant find the words..insightful thoughts. Poverty is an facinating topic. I was lucky enough to live in Chile during the last year of the Pinochet dictatorship(1990)and a couple of years after. I lived on an island in S. Chile where people were lucky to make a $1.00/day. They were high society if they had a pair of shoes. I think it is so hard for N. Americans to understand the true desperation of poverty unless you have been really poor and desperate which none of us have ever experienced. I remember the fruit that was thrown at my door durning the US ban of imported Chilian fruit in 1991. The North Americans didn't really understand the implications of their plight on the poor destitude of the impoverished country. I remember the maid (yes we had a maid at $20.00/mnth.) She was thrilled to have a job, rooting through my garbage daily looking for old produce that I would throw out. I was just out of collage and paying off student loans, certainly not rich however sooooo rich compared to what these people had. I always knew I had opportunity. These people didn't. Each day was spent just looking for a way, anyway to feed themselves or their families. I really feel the people of N. Orleans are so desparate. They have no reason to trust the govt. will take care of them. It's track record is very poor. Lets face it the general population of the US doesn't really feel like these people deserve any better. So sad.

September 11, 2005 4:49 AM

Blogger Sylvana said...

Wendy A, I have been in poverty by US standards, but never by those standards. I may have had to wear shoes that were overworn by many months to a year or never fit right in the first place but were the only ones we could afford, but at least I had shoes. I am saddened as well for the lack of compassion in this country for the poor.

September 11, 2005 7:14 PM

Blogger Scott said...

Sylvana, sorry I'm late commenting. I understand some of the reasons people were looting. I will never truly understand what many of these people were going through before and after the hurricane, and I don't think most wealthy Americans realize that they live in an entirely different country than people who live in abject poverty.
Still, people like to talk about the "victimless crime". The biggest defense for looters was that the products were likely to be thrown away anyway. But it ignores all of the side effects of having criminal activity. People died because they were scared to leave their houses. They had no faith (and rightly so) in the police to protect their belongings during an evacuation. Many people had homeowners insurance that would cover losses from theft and looting. But some of the very same people who were hardest hit by Katrina were also some of the poorest who couldn't afford to abandon their possessions. There was no insurance. These people faced one certainty: ruin. They were ruined if the hurricane hit and ruined if it didn't. So they made the only choice they could, which was to stay behind and protect their homes.
It is the wanton looting and destruction of property that helped hamper the evacuation. We've seen it in the past. Potential evacuees of future hurricanes will consider Katrina's looting in the future. Just because we can understand and even forgive the people looting doesn't mean we have to allow it or forgive the government for not controlling it.

September 13, 2005 2:28 PM

Blogger Sylvana said...

I didn't see any stories on private homes being looted- only businesses. And anything that was taken as far as survival goes, well, that's just the way it goes when you are trying to survive.

I certainly am not saying that they aren't committing a crime by looting a TV or CDs or anything non-essential. I just hate the demonizing of them like this is what they REALLY are like! Now you see them for what they REALLY are and we should all be afraid of THEM. And all the paranoia, strereotyping, and everything else that goes with it. It's just not accurate. Not for the majority of the people that were involved, anyway.

I've listened to many accounts of the survivors that stayed. They never mentioned the fear of robbery/looting as a reason for staying. As one woman put it (and I'm paraphrasing here):

I ran home and started yelling to everyone to get their things. To pack up. We have to get out of here, I said. They said that they are evacuating the whole city! And my family rolled their eyes and started making fun of me. And that's when it hit me. Oh yeah, we're poor. We can't leave, we don't have the means. I actually forgot we were poor.

September 16, 2005 6:15 PM

Blogger Sylvana said...

Oh, that looks like I'm attacking you. You know I don't mean it that way, right? Good, cause I don't.

Your comment has given me something to think about- as always :)

September 16, 2005 6:29 PM