‘we don’t need soldiers … there’s no war here’

That’s from al Jazeera; here’s the Guardian‘s account:

The US military’s takeover of emergency operations in Haiti has triggered a diplomatic row with countries and aid agencies furious at having flights redirected.

Brazil and France lodged an official ­protest with Washington after US military aircraft were given priority at Port-au-Prince’s congested airport, forcing many non-US flights to divert to the Dominican Republic.

Brasilia warned it would not ­relinquish command of UN forces in Haiti, and Paris complained the airport had become a US “annexe”, exposing a brewing power struggle amid the global relief effort. The Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières also complained about diverted flights.


Frustration over aid bottlenecks among donors became tinged by national rivalry as it became clear the US was taking ownership of the crisis. A vanguard of more than 1,000 US troops was on the ground and 12,000 were expected in the region by today, including marines aboard the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson which anchored offshore as a “floating airport”.

The Haitian government, paralysed by the destruction of the presidential palace and ministries, signed a memorandum of understanding formally transferring control of Toussaint L’Ouverture airport to the US. Former president Bill Clinton said he will travel to Haiti today to meet with government officials and deliver much-needed emergency supplies.


The Red Cross and Médecins Sans Frontières complained about flights with medical staff and equipment which were redirected to the Dominican Republic. “We are all going crazy,” said Nan Buzard, of the American Red Cross.

The Obama administration has enlisted former presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton to spearhead relief efforts. In a series of interviews both men deflected right-wing accusations that the White House was seeking political advantage from the disaster. “I’d say now is not the time to focus on politics,” Bush said, as he sat beside his predecessor. “You’ve got children who’ve lost parents. People wondering where they’re going to be able to drink water.”


The militarisation of the response is of course reminiscent of the Katrina disaster (you might recall Bush had something to do with that). Dave Eggers’ book Zeitoun puts a human face on what happened in New Orleans by telling the story of one Syrian American resident. Abdulrahman Zeitoun remained in the city after his family (and most other residents) left, hoping to protect his property and their business. In the chaos, he managed to pull many survivors to safety in his canoe. When six armed officers arrive at his house, he thought that help had come at last. Instead, he was arrested on suspicion of terrorism (he was Syrian, after all) and then detained in Guantanamo-type conditions, without his family’s knowledge. On the one hand, the authorities had ignored and neglected New Orleans’ safety for years; on the other, when disaster struck, they approached the catastrophe through a military paradigm.

In New Orleans, just as today, the justification for sending the military was the supposed lawlessness of the survivors. You’ll remember that, in the first days after Katrina, the news then was also dominated by reports of looting. Here’s Rebecca Solnit from  the Guardian:

The story, as the mainstream media presented it at the time, was about marauding hordes of looters, rapists and murderers swarming through the streets. The descriptions were pretty clearly focused on African-Americans, the great majority left behind in the evacuation of the city (which was then two-thirds black anyway).

There were supposed to be a lot of murder victims and murderers in the Superdome, the sports stadium the city opened up as a refuge of last resort. The rumours were believed so fervently that they were used to turn New Orleans into a prison city, with supplies and would-be rescuers prevented from entering and the victims prevented from evacuating. The belief that a Hobbesian war of all-against-all had broken loose justified treating the place as a crime zone or even a hostile country rather than a place in which grandmothers and toddlers were stranded in hideous conditions, desperately in need of food, water, shelter and medical attention.

Louisiana’s governor at the time, Kathleen Blanco, announced as she dispatched National Guard troops: “I have one message for these hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.” She and the city’s mayor had called off the rescue efforts to focus on protecting private property – with lethal force if necessary. The sheriff of the suburb across the Crescent City Connection bridge from downtown New Orleans turned back stranded tourists and locals at gunpoint. “As we approached the bridge,” wrote two stranded paramedics, “armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads.”

Katrina was a fairly terrible natural disaster. But it turned into a horrific social catastrophe because of the response of the people in power, spurred on by their willingness to believe a hysterical, rumour-mongering media. (Journalists on the ground were often fiercely empathic and right on the mark, but those at a remove were all too willing to believe the usual tsunami of cliches about disaster and human nature.)

The story that few can wrap their minds around is that ordinary people mostly behaved well – there were six bodies in the Superdome, including four natural deaths and a suicide, not the hundreds that the federal government expected when it sent massive refrigerator trucks to collect the corpses. On the other hand, people in power behaved appallingly, panicking, spreading rumours, and themselves showing an eagerness to kill and a pathological lack of empathy.

Amusingly, the New Orleans Police Department stripped a Cadillac dealership of its cars, some of which were found as far away as Texas. Less amusingly, they shot a couple of unarmed – and, of course, black – family groups on the Danziger Bridge shortly after the storm in the only such incident to receive much press coverage. A middle-aged mother had her forearm blown off; a mentally disabled 40-year-old on his way to his brother’s dental office was shot five times in the back and died, and a teenager was also killed.

Truth, the first casualty of war, is pretty imperilled in disasters, too. One group of suburban white men who believed the rumours or just anticipated that in the absence of authority we all become monsters became monsters themselves, even as they fantasised they were preserving order. These men in Algiers Point across the river from the city of New Orleans gathered an arsenal and launched their own little murder spree, killing several black men and injuring and threatening others.

They were the real rampaging gangs, and they were not shy about what they did – they boasted of it to videographers and have talked openly about it since. And with confidence, since there have to date been no legal repercussions. They claimed to be defending their property and their neighbourhood, but their most vocal surviving victim, Donnell Herrington, was an armoured truck driver trying to evacuate after he had stayed behind to take care of his grandparents. Herrington, who rescued those grandparents and dozens of neighbours by boat from their flooded apartment complex, then tried to find an evacuation point in Algiers for himself, and was shot twice at close range with a shotgun and nearly bled to death before neighbours got him to the hospital. The vigilantes shot him because he was black, and because they could get away with it, and because they were inflamed by the news accounts.

In an interesting interview with the US CampusProgress magazine, the sociologist Kathleen Tierney points out that there’s an academic body of research into the reporting of natural disasters. She says:

If you go back to the 1950s and you look at some of those writings, a lot of it’s about disaster myths—what people say happens in disasters versus what really happens. What these researchers discovered was that the media—even way back in the 1950s and 1960s—approached huge disasters with certain frames. When the media reports on disasters, they’re inevitably going to focus on the dramatic and antisocial, even if it’s one percent of the population committing these acts. And even back then, the looting myth always came to the fore of media reports. […] There is an institutionalized racism in the way these poor black disaster victims are treated. The victims of Katrina were treated with so much presumption, as if you could assume they were going to loot, because they were black. Just like we know that the people in Haiti are bad because they’re black. Black men especially are demonized. During Katrina, the media picked up on every rumor—whether it was raped 4-year-olds in the Superdome or people shooting each other. Actually, for a paper me and a couple of my graduate students wrote called “Metaphors Matter,” we found some transcripts of TV programs in which members of the media expressed regret. They were saying, “We really blew it during Katrina; we acted on all of these rumors.” I myself was on Jim Lehrer’s show, where they were asking about the looting [in Katrina], and I got into it with a police officer, and he ended up agreeing with me that it was a myth. It’s not real. I thought the media would have learned something after Katrina, but evidently they haven’t. Here we go again.

Here we go again, indeed.

Consider this account (h/t, Lenin’s Tomb), headlined ‘Hatian Violence Hampers Earthquake Relief Efforts’. That spin comes from US Southern Command Lieutenant General Ken Keen, who says ‘[looting] is a concern and we are going to have to address it.’ There’s also a description of Haitian police firing on looters and killing someone. But then comes this:

The American Red Cross set up a land bridge between Haiti and the Dominican Republic and is flying supplies into Santo Domingo and transporting them to Port-au-Prince, a journey that takes about 10 to 12 hours, said Nadia Pontif, a Red Cross spokeswoman, in a telephone interview.

About seven truckloads of supplies, which include tarps, cooking utensils, blankets, food and water, arrived in Port-au- Prince this morning are being distributed from a camp set up outside the airport, Pontif said.

“We haven’t had any security issues at all,” said Abi Weaver, an American Red Cross spokeswoman, in a telephone interview.

This is not to suggest that all Haitians are behaving like angels. Doubtless, there is some criminality. But as Tierney asks:

why are people so quick to demonize people who are living in abject poverty, people whose everyday life is a disaster? And now that they’ve experienced a new catastrophe, why are we focusing on this? It’s incomprehensible to me. The way that highfalutin academics talk about it is that there are changes in societal norms about property in very, very severe disasters. For example, I was watching CNN, and there was a CNN reporter that was talking about a Haitian hotel that brought a hose out for people to take water from if they came by. Were those people looting water? I’d say no. The norms changed. What if people are together in a group and they decide that they need to go get some rice. Is it looting to get rice and feed your family in desperate situations? No. It’s a new norm developing in the midst of a very extreme situation.

Indeed, there seems to be considerable evidence that, in the face of an appalling catastrophe, Haitians are actually co-operating to help each other survive. See, for example, this account:

In the absence of any visible relief effort in the city, the help came from small groups of Haitians working together. Citizens turned into aid workers and rescuers. Lone doctors roamed the streets, offering assistance.

The Red Cross estimates that 45,000 to 50,000 people were killed in Tuesday’s earthquake, with some three million others left homeless and in need of food and water.

At the crumbling national cathedral, a dozen men and women crowded around a man swinging a pickaxe to pry open the space for a dusty, near-dead looking woman to squeeze through and escape.

The night of the quake, a group of friends pulled bricks out from under a collapsed home, clearing a narrow zig-zagging path towards the sound of a child crying out beneath the rubble.

Two buildings over, Joseph Matherenne cried as he directed the faint light of his cell phone’s screen over the bloody corpse of his 23-year-old brother. His body was draped over the rubble of the office where he worked as a video technician. Unlike most of the bodies in the street, there was no blanket to cover his face.

Central Port-Au-Prince resembles a war zone. Some buildings are standing, unharmed. Those that were damaged tended to collapse completely, spilling into the street on top of cars and telephone poles.

In the day following the quake, there was no widespread violence. Guns, knives and theft weren’t seen on the streets, lined only with family after family carrying their belongings. They voiced their anger and frustration with sad songs that echoed throughout the night, not their fists.

If in New Orleans, the militarisation of the rescue effort fostered neo-liberal profiteering, in Haiti the stakes are much higher. Peter Hallward argues:

Ever since the US invaded and occupied the country in 1915, every serious political attempt to allow Haiti’s people to move (in former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s phrase) “from absolute misery to a dignified poverty” has been violently and deliberately blocked by the US government and some of its allies.Aristide’s own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country. [snip]

The international community has been effectively ruling Haiti since the 2004 coup. The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission’s mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this “investment” towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international “aid”.

With so much suffering, it’s tempting just to forget about politics. But as has been said so often, this is not a natural disaster but the result of decades of poverty and exploitation. We’ve seen over and over again what a US occupation means for Haiti: more of business as usual. And that means that the catastrophes will continue.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. Thanks for the piece. It left me utterly outraged.

    How can anybody justify the inevitable Haitian death toll due to that US military presence (and private contactors, as Jeremy Scahill points out: http://bit.ly/7X2Hoi)?

    The ABC coverage of Haiti has been particularly repugnant. Their journalism consists of regurgitating any press releases proffered to them by the US military.

    Sharif Kouddous is on the ground in Haiti with Democracy Now!. This was his [short] report on Twitter about 6 hours ago:

    Ppl in Leogane need food desperately.UN won’t come until ‘security is confirmed’ What they refer to I have no idea http://twitpic.com/yog2d

  2. Ugh. The media is such a powerful tool but I can’t decide if it’s more harmful than helpful in catastrophe. If it’s not grief pornography then it’s fear mongering.

    I found those excerpts about looting really interesting – and disturbing. I want to know how those rumours actually start. They were going around – locally at least – during the Vic fires as well, and turned out to be untrue. As far as we could tell, the only ‘looters’ were the media.

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