Four Decades Plus One

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 Port-au-Prince January 17, 2010In the just over four decades since Martin Luther King was murdered, it seems as if, were he to be resurrected, he would—after a brief acclimatization to the technological changes that had occurred—simply be able to pick up right where he’d left off. Because very little has changed. The illegal surveillance under which the FBI kept him throughout his career now extends to all Americans—and has been made legal. It is unlikely that he would draw comfort from the notion that, though America spying on Americans is legal, other countries spying on their citizens is officially frowned upon.[1]

The blog post, MLK: The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment by Juan Cole (Informed Comment), recounts the principles for which Martin Luther King actually stood. Though the yearly coverage of his day deals primarily with his work on civil rights, he actually turned up his efforts in his final years and broadened his efforts to stand up for everyone, regardless of race. His last days were spent fighting for the poor and against the widening chasm between the rich and poor because just getting them civil rights was not enough if their voices would continue to be ignored.

“But I say to you, my friends, as I move to my conclusion, there are certain things in our nation and in the world which I am proud to be maladjusted and which I hope all men of good-will will be maladjusted until the good societies realize. I say very honestly that I never intend to become adjusted to segregation and discrimination.

“I never intend to become adjusted to religious bigotry.

I never intend to adjust myself to economic conditions that will take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. (Emphasis added.)”

Imagine what King would have thought of Haiti—and be sure he would have thought about Haiti before the earthquake. The Haitians were eating sand pies during the food crisis caused by speculation in 2008 and they had never really recovered. They were the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere for years; now they are nearly non-existent. And yet, despite their desperate poverty—of which we in our comfortable lives could never conceive—the Western media has no compunction about using judgmental terminology to describe their behavior just days after their country was destroyed. In many places, there is nothing left: No water, no shelter, no food, no fire, no survivors. And yet, even sources that are ordinarily very even-handed adopt the terminology of the ruling classes to describe these desperate people universally as “looters”. The photo essay, Haiti six days later (Big Picture Blog), includes the following captions:

Looters fight for products at a business area […] A mob of Haitians reach out as goods are thrown from a nearby shop […] Looters fight for goods outside a grocery store […] A Haitian police officer points a rifle at a man during a looting spree […] U.N. peacekeepers patrolling the capital said popular anger is rising and warned authorities and aid organizations to increase security to guard against looting […] Looters run during a police assault […] A Haitian national policeman takes position during riots with looters […] Looters steal a bag of another looter who lies dead, shot by the police […] A man with a knife and other looters fight for goods taken from a destroyed store […] The man fired warning shots into the air to prevent looters from ransacking his shop”

That kind of leaves a negative impression of the Haitian people, doesn’t it? It’s not exactly intentional, but neither is it accidental. It is subliminal and subconscious and is the accepted way of dealing with people so far down the food chain from us and our rulers. It is propaganda…and only days after the greatest disaster to befall a country accustomed to both natural and human disasters, our sympathy already falls away and our language hardens.

The people in the picture weren’t all armed, but they were all black and they were universally judged to be engaged in criminal activity. What does it even mean to be looting in a country that has no infrastructure, no water supplies, no food? What are people to do to survive? Patiently wait for food to be doled out by their beneficent masters when it’s just sitting in ruined stores rotting before it can be used? What would you do?

Fully half of the images were of people fighting and getting beaten back by police. Why? Why focus on this wholly predictable consequence of a desperate people made even more desperate? Martin Luther King would know why. We are being prepared for the inevitable failure of the people to succumb to the new leadership that will likely be imposed on this ruined country. We will be told that they are ungrateful criminals, undeserving of our goodwill (just like the Iraqis). We will be told that they—once again—need the good strong hand of an Uncle Sam to show them the way.

No, it is doubtful that MLK would be impressed by the progress indicated by the U.S. having adorned itself with a black president; instead he would be focused laser-like on the real problem of a world still run by those bent on preserving and promulgating “economic conditions that […] take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few.”

[1] See the article, Congress takes a bold stand against surveillance abuses by Glenn Greenwald (Salon.com), for more background information. In the context of Google’s recent principled stance against China (after spending years capitulating to their demands for draconian censorship), the U.S. Congress is standing on the principle that China should not be electronically spying on its citizens. Its stance on the U.S. spying on its own citizens was quite different, extending even to granting amnesty to the Network and Comms companies that helped the U.S. spy on its citizens illegally. Now that it’s legal, they’ve been granted retroactive amnesty (with the full support of Mr. Barack Obama).

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4 Replies
by marco -

When asked whether things won’t just get worse in Haiti until troops are on the ground, Bill Clinton said (cited from Haiti police battle to keep streets safe:

“When you think about people who lost everything, except what they’re carrying on their backs, who haven’t not only eaten, probably haven’t slept in four days… and when the sun goes down, it’s totally dark and they spend all night lying, wandering around tripping over bodies living and dead − I think they’ve behaved quite well.”

Couldn’t agree with you more, Bill.

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by marco -

Brother Jim Boyden from the Jesuit Mission near Port au Prince:

“I wanna get this out because I have not seen a whole lot of … the media … with the picture that I’ve seen … the little things that I’ve seen in the media …they’re covering pictures of the Haitians that are looting and gunfire and burning and crime. I have led medical brigades to the garbage dumps of Guatemala for the last six years. I do many, many, many. And, they’re oftentimes chaotic and people are fighting to see the doctor and they’re pushing each other forward. What I saw yesterday, the Haitians that were here…triaged themselves. There was a person here with a compound fracture … everyone made sure that he saw the doctor first. They were orderly, they were appreciative, they were grateful and they are right now, about the most honorable people that I can possibly imagine. I have never seen patients act as respectful to a doctor and I’ve never seen a crowd of people act as orderly and trying to help out perfect strangers. I’ve never seen that. If you go to an American hospital on a Friday night in the emergency room, people are scrambling to see a doctor and yelling at each other to try to see the doctor first … and these Haitian people are noble.

“[…]

“Let me say one other quick thing: I arrived in the country on November 1st to start working in a school. My first impression when I first came here, I said to my home pastor, I said, ‘I hope at some point I can get to a love for these Haitians that is not based on pity.’ That was in November; for the last three days, when I would think that the Haitians would deserve all the pity they can have, I have no pity for them, I only have respect and admiration and has just completely changed my view. I no longer have pity for the people, I just have respect and admiration and they’re noble. (Emphasis in original.)”

There’s no link because I transcribed the text directly from the podcast.

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Unfortunately, the heroes of the mainstream media—as documented in this post, In the midst of looting chaos by Anderson Cooper (AC360)—still gleefully represent the apparently tiny minority that aren’t behaving in a noble fashion.

What’s amazing is that, while rioting over food and water when you haven’t seen either in nearly a week is completely understandable, most Haitians are apparently not doing that. That’s an amazing and uplifting story, Anderson Cooper. Report that instead of your staged heroism with a blood-covered boy.

Similarly, the article, Haiti earthquake: police admit gangs have taken over Port-au-Prince by Bruno Waterfield (London Telegraph) also emphasizes the negative, though they start off claiming that all of Port-of-Prince is apparently lost and end by admitting that the recently sprung gang leaders seem to be fighting over one slum.

by marco -

In Haiti, Words Can Kill by Rebecca Solnit (TomDispatch)

“After years of interviewing survivors of disasters, and reading first-hand accounts and sociological studies from such disasters as the London Blitz and the Mexico City earthquake of 1985, I don’t believe in looting. Two things go on in disasters. The great majority of what happens you could call emergency requisitioning. Someone who could be you, someone in the kind of desperate circumstances I outlined above, takes necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative. Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.

“Necessity is a defense for breaking the law in the United States and other countries, though it’s usually applied more to, say, confiscating the car keys of a drunk driver than feeding hungry children. Taking things you don’t need is theft under any circumstances. It is, says the disaster sociologist Enrico Quarantelli, who has been studying the subject for more than half a century, vanishingly rare in most disasters.

“[…]

“The media are another matter. They tend to arrive obsessed with property (and the headlines that assaults on property can make). Media outlets often call everything looting and thereby incite hostility toward the sufferers as well as a hysterical overreaction on the part of the armed authorities. Or sometimes the journalists on the ground do a good job and the editors back in their safe offices cook up the crazy photo captions and the wrongheaded interpretations and emphases.

“They also deploy the word panic wrongly. Panic among ordinary people in crisis is profoundly uncommon. The media will call a crowd of people running from certain death a panicking mob, even though running is the only sensible thing to do. In Haiti, they continue to report that food is being withheld from distribution for fear of “stampedes.” Do they think Haitians are cattle?

“The belief that people in disaster (particularly poor and nonwhite people) are cattle or animals or just crazy and untrustworthy regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control – the American military calls it “security” – rather than relief. A British-accented voiceover on CNN calls people sprinting to where supplies are being dumped from a helicopter a “stampede” and adds that this delivery “risks sparking chaos.” The chaos already exists, and you can’t blame it on these people desperate for food and water. Or you can, and in doing so help convince your audience that they’re unworthy and untrustworthy.”

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