Monday, January 18, 2010

Stealing or surviving?

Most of us have no idea what it means to be so desperate for food and clean water that we would do absolutely anything to provide for ourselves and our families. That’s why I have trouble with media images that describe Haitian women and children as looting and pillaging from devastated stores and markets. While I would never condone violence, I can understand that such desperation could lead men to join machete-armed mobs to demand relief supplies. Until we’re in that situation, I don’t believe we can judge them.

Damon Winter, New York Times

Nor can we label them the villains of their own disaster. Take, for example, this New York Times photo of a red-shirted boy running through the streets of Port-au-Prince clutching a plastic bag. The caption underneath attempts to be objective: “Haitians fled gunshots that rang out in downtown Port-au-Prince Saturday. Tons of relief supplies had arrived for delivery.” But the headline further down the page says: “Looting Flares Where Order Breaks Down.”

“So was the kid looting?” asks Natalie Hopkinson on The Root. Who are we to judge? She proceeds to describe media coverage from Hurricane Katrina where hungry, desperate white survivors were “finding” food, while hungry, desperate black survivors were “looting” for food. How long will our coverage continue to exploit and discriminate against people, simply because they are black and poor?

Dany Laferrière, a Canadian author with Haitian roots, survived the earthquake at a hotel in Port-au-Prince. He wanted out of the country immediately, not simply to escape disaster, but also to flee from the racist conversation embedded in it. He has grown weary of the language of a “Haitian curse,” a “pact with the devil,” “refugees” in their own country, and “pillaging” for survival.

“It would be better to speak of the incredible energy I saw,” Laferrière told Le Monde, “from women and men who, with courage and dignity, help each other. Even though their town is partially destroyed and their state is without leadership, the people remain, work and live.”

These people cling to the hope of survival in the most desperate times. Who are we to condemn?


  1. Thank you for your perspective, seeing through what the media doesn't take time to see. I pray for the Haitian people. They have such a long road ahead.

  2. Lisa, you're absolutely right. I don't think any of us can ever appreciate the intense desperation of that situation and therefore cannot sit as judge from our comfortable heated homes with fully stocked refrigerators. The saying goes, "There but for the grace of God..."

    Right now, I pray for the Grace of God to descend upon the people of Haiti who suffered through another earthquake today.