Friday, September 02, 2005

Looting and finding, natural and unnatural

Over the past couple of days, I take it that those of use who have access to AP photos on the web have become acquainted with the distinction between looting:




and finding:



As insult added to the grievous injuries suffered in New Orleans, this would be sad and deplorable enough were it just symptomatic of media discourse, a distortion of tragic reality. These images, with their by-now-infamous captions, however, are more than an ideological screen, but serve as a fairly direct expression of the material situation itself -- flows of supplies, transport, medicine, life chances, all are organized around this racist imaginary. One has a hard time believing that the federal government's unimaginably buffoonish response to a disaster of this magnitude would be tolerated were it happening in, say, the Hamptons.

I'm not sure how much solace to take in this, but at least the germ of a different story seemed to be getting through in television coverage this morning. Several news outlets had survivors at the convention center talking quite pointedly about how self-organized bands of "looters" had been the most immediate relief agency for their communities. I'm sure that by this afternoon, though, we'll be back to lumping survival tactics, random panic violence, and rape and arson into the same undifferentiated and menacing black mass.

I suppose for the moment, we just get angry and sad and send money to the usual places. But there has to be some kind of political accounting for this -- by which I mean not just the short-term "political" horizon of election cycles, but a whole mode of organizing cities as modes of life that has roots hundreds of years deep. In everthing but proximate cause, New Orleans is a human-engineered disaster, from the hubris of the Army Corps of Engineers to the federal starvation budgets that doomed that hubris to an early encounter with fate, and from the casual racism and class oppression of land use (who lives on low ground in the coastal South, almost universally?), to the police-state apartheid that's always characterized the "multicultural" city.

Right now, I'm just hoping, I presume with everyone else, that as many people survive as possible. Somewhere down the road, though, that principle of survival (and its most immediate face is in reality a certain form of "looting") must become the wedge that opens up these questions beyond the scope of immediate catastrophe, with as much force as might be necessary.

There are no natural disasters in a racist class society.