Katrina, and Now Gustav: Remembering the “Looters” and Those Who “Found Food”

I just figured out why I can’t go to sleep.

With Hurricane Gustav bearing down on the coast of Louisiana, I have been thinking a lot about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. We actually had students at Hunter College in the fall semester of 2005 who were escaping the horror of New Orleans and needed a school to attend for one or two semesters. I often wonder what happened to them.

And sometimes I still flash on the news footage of bodies floating through the streets of New Orleans, human detritus of a social system that can decorate a New York skyline with dramatic skyscrapers but can’t fix a levee.

But I will always be haunted by some of the images and captions in the Katrina coverage that revealed some of our most insidious attitudes about race and class.

Do you remember how some people were described by major news organizations as “looters” and others as having “found food.” Do you remember exactly who were called “looters” and who “found food?”

Sometimes our blindness is astounding: We are thrilled to celebrate major victories against racism, sexism, homophobia and other hates. And then, full of self-congratulation for all the progress we have made,  we demonize people struggling to survive and turn others into tenacious heroes.


10 thoughts on “Katrina, and Now Gustav: Remembering the “Looters” and Those Who “Found Food”

  1. Dear Ron: I think you misunderstood me. I even think we agree more than you think. I of course now how crucial it is to quickly establish order. And I know how hard it is to do.

    But in the only media space that is mine — Media and Mayhem — I hold to a standard of civility that would 1) never allow me to be insulting and mean spirited in my writing and 2) certainly doesn’t leave room for you or any other a reader to be mean and , as you did, call me an idiot. Your comment was too much of a personal attack for me to publish.

    So why am I even bothering to respond? Frankly, I thought your anger was sincere, I respect your opinion, and you made some good points.

    But you spoke to me in a disrespectful and mean-spirited way that none of us — not you, not me, not anyone — should use ever use to speak to anyone else.


  2. In response to your last paragraph, I agree, we do not “practice what we preach”.

    It’s a wonderful thing for a person to say that they believe in equal opportunity and unity of the races in a public forum/setting. However, what really counts is how we incorporate these words into actions; actions we take when noone and everyone is watching. I think this is where many of us fall short.
    For every step we take forward, we take a large step back when we do not demand action that supports our words.

  3. The sad thing is that people are led to believe that America is a place where class doesn’t exist. People either don’t know, don’t want to know or don’t care to know that America is a stratified society, where in fact poverty does exist.

    It’s sickening to know that a certain amount of law enforcement was sent to New Orleans to control the “looting” issue, rather than help the people. Though, that’s not to say that every law enforcer was assigned that task.

    Let’s hope this time things are different.

  4. America is in absolute denial!! We chose to celebrate victories against racism, sexism and the like because the word “POVERTY” is blasphemous. We chose to ignore the impoverished the same way we do “Debt”…After all, it’s the American way. Never speak the dirty “p” word.

    Which reminds me of Michelle Obama’s speech and her homage to Horatio Algiers…. The myth that seldom works for the many and perpetuates greed and individualism to the few…

    Well, I am at a loss of words on the matter.

  5. I agree, natural disasters such as Katrina bring out our true faces which remain hidden behind masks we put on that publicly dismiss and reject racism, class and other hates.

  6. You actually posted your response to mine, which I was not expecting. Therefore, I will amend my rather sharp, probably not the most responsible comments.
    Drop the first sentence completely. Start with:
    In scenes of chaos like Katrina the VERY FIRST ORDER OF BUSINESS IS ESTABLISHING CONTROL. Sounds harsh? How about the American Red Cross getting shot at while trying to deliver food. Water not being able to be delivered because the vehicles were held up at gun point and robbed. The most innocent people (elderly, the very young, and the physically crippled) were neglected because thugs were running wild robbing stores of guns, jewelry, & electronics. Half the story was never told because it was too gruesome. If food and water could have been delivered safely some of those problems (I’m not saying all of them) could have been averted. I am not some militant, religious, ultraconservative nut. I am a complete moderate on all levels; I just don’t believe that lawlessness should go unpunished. The Race Card can not be used when the very criminals we speak of are doing these acts to their own creed, race, and community.

  7. Oh yeah, sorry if I sounded too much like a dick. You can post what I put or not, I’m certainly not ‘commanding you’ to do anything, it is your site. I was a Young Democrat in college, and I’ve given money to groups like Greenpeace & the big cat wildlife foundation (but certainly Not PETA) so I’m in the middle….. But yes, I am definitely right of center to the focal point of your blog. Bye the way…. yes, I do work; I am a director of my company who has about 300 employees and I never sleep, and I never quit working…. For real.

  8. I just recieved an interesting comment about my post that raises some interesting and legitimate questions. I would have been printing their post had it been stated with basic civility.

    But I actually want to thank the person for pointing out the information, and want to refer anyone interested to:


    In fact, the issue of how the “looting” and “finding” was more complicated than I implied and the link above, as well as some interesting posts at Snopes, explain that.

  9. Steve,

    Sorry if my post offended. I respect your decision to remove it, this being your blog and all.

    I guess what I was getting at, and this is sort of a hot button for me, is that all too often people assume racism when in fact, none exists – or at least no real evidence of it exists – or, as in this case, a little investigation will reveal the truth.

    It is my experience that the first person to even mention race in a given situation is, in fact, the racist. As an example:

    I live in Dallas and recently during a city council meeting, a commissioner referred to the department that processes traffic tickets as a ‘black hole’, meaning that paperwork was constantly being lost and many things were falling through the cracks.

    Another councilman immediately launched into a tirade, demanding that they refer to that department as a ‘white hole’ and insisting that use of the term ‘black hole’ was racist.

    The first councilman didn’t bring up race at all – it wasn’t even remotely on the table as an issue. He was simply referring to the inefficiency of the department. The second councilman viewed it through his race colored glasses and revealed that in fact, he is the racist. He walks around with a chip on his shoulder and clearly holds a grudge against those not of his race. That is the very definition of racism.

  10. And I should add: The fact that this happens so often everywhere has basically caused many of us to become jaded with respect to the racism issue.

    The second councilman above: I’ve heard this kind of stuff from him and others so often over the years that I no longer care. He could claim to have found a burning cross in his front yard and I wouldn’t want to hear it from him. Nothing that crosses his lips holds any water as far as I’m concerned.

    That’s unfortunate, because he might one day have a legitimate claim. But he and others like him have destroyed their credibility with false accusations of racism.

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