Wednesday, October 12, 2005

When is "looting" not looting?

We have heard reports of "looting" after the disasters of Hurricane Katrina, in New Orleans, and the recent earthquake in Islamabad, Pakistan.

I wonder if there is a time when looting is not actually looting, when circumstances require that people take whatever means necessary to get food and water for their children when governments fail to provide immediately relief in a crisis.

The first story below is about parents in earthquake-ravaged Pakistan, taking goods from collapsed stores to feed their children. Shop owners tried to prevent it, but were overwhelmed by the desperate people in need of goods.

The second story below is a first-hand account of people in the Katrina aftermath. They report that store owners locked their doors and fled town, leaving survivors with no access to food, drinkable water, baby formula, diapers and medication. Police officers, instead of opening the doors and distributing the needed goods, actually threatened, chased and shot at citizens trying to feed their children and care for the elderly.

We do not violate the basic tenets of capitalism and the free-market by opening our warehouses to the needy in times of crisis. In fact, I think we used to do this. I think we used to care for the needy. We were once a great nation of wealthy, middle-class and poor people who all had an equal shot and could be guaranteed our nation would do nothing to harm us.

That isn't true anymore.

Our police forces should not be adding to the hardship of the neediest, they should be helping them survive. Our governmental policies should not be draconian, they should be aggressively helpful. Our laws should not punish those who are dying of thirst, but rather those failing to provide the water we already own!

If your baby is dying of thirst, do you think you should be arrested or called a looter for taking a bottle of water from an abandoned retail outlet?

What kind of civilization have we become that our security forces protect property but do not assist citizens?

I was happy to see that the government of Pakistan was able to provide rapid assistance to its citizens in need; that the Pakistani Government accepted help from other nations who wanted to assist. Maybe the United States government could learn how to run a country by watching the actions of developing, second-world nations.

Pakistan is not without its challenges and failures after the earthquake; but, early footage showed a dramatically more effective response to their disaster than the United States government's to Katrina.

Everywhere else in the world, people know that a small, ineffective government is the sign of a small, ineffective people. They know that Americans are a small-minded, ineffective, frightened nation of obese illiterates unable to help themselves even though in possession of the majority of the world's resources.

Maybe we should start thinking big, and stop allowing the billionaries to gut what is rightfully ours: the great government of a great nation of a great people!

Looting Breaks Out in Wake of Deadly Quake
By SADAQAT JAN, Associated Press Writer
Mon Oct 10, 7:34 AM ET

Shopkeepers clashed with looters Monday, and hungry families huddled under tents while waiting for relief supplies after Pakistan's worst earthquake razed entire villages and buried roads in rubble. Death toll estimates ranged from 20,000 to 30,000.

British rescuers on Monday unearthed a man trapped in rubble for 54 hours.

Eight U.S. military helicopters from Afghanistan arrived in Islamabad with provisions, and Washington pledged up to $50 million in relief and reconstruction aid, U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said.

"The magnitude of this disaster is utterly overwhelming," Crocker said. "We have under way the beginning of a very major relief effort."

The United Nations said more than 2.5 million people were left homeless by Saturday's monster 7.6-magnitude quake, and doctors warned of an outbreak of disease unless more relief arrives soon.

With landslides blocking roads to many of the worst-hit areas, Pakistan's army was flying food, water and medicine into the disaster zone. International relief efforts cranked into action, and an American plane full of relief supplies landed at an air base near Pakistan's capital on Monday.

Most of the dead were in Pakistan's mountainous north. India reported more than 800 deaths; Afghanistan reported four.

In the shattered streets of Muzaffarabad, where at least 11,000 people died, an Associated Press reporter saw shopkeepers scuffle with people trying to break into businesses. They beat each other with sticks and threw stones, and some people suffered head wounds. No police were nearby.

Residents of Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistan's portion of divided Kashmir, said looters also targeted deserted homes. Survivors lacked food and water, and there was little sign of any official coordination of relief in the devastated city of 600,000.

An eight-member team of British rescuers using a sniffer dog, drills, chain saws and crowbars pulled a 20-year-old tailor from the rubble on Monday afternoon, 54 hours after a two-story building collapsed over him and dozens of others.

The man, Tariq, was wide-eyed and covered in dust when he emerged, and he begged for water.

"I haven't eaten in three days, but I'm not hungry," said Tariq, who suffered a leg injury and was carried away on a door serving as a stretcher. He had been trapped beneath concrete and wooden beams, and a dead body lay on either side of him.

About 2,000 people huddled around campfires through the cold night on a soccer field on the city's university campus, where most buildings had collapsed and hundreds were feared buried in classrooms and dormitories. Soldiers burrowed into the concrete with shovels and iron bars.

"I don't think anybody is alive in this pile of rubble," rescue worker Uzair Khan said. "But we have not lost hope."

On the soccer field, Mohammed Ullah Khan, 50, said a few biscuits handed out by relief workers was all he had to eat for three days. His wife, who suffered a fractured leg, was wrapped in a yellow quilt beside him.

Their three-story home had collapsed in the quake. His family of 10 survived because they were on the top floor, which crashed to the ground. "My children are now on a hillside, under the open sky, with nothing to eat," he said.

A doctor, Iqbal Khan, said there was a serious risk of diseases such as diarrhea and pneumonia if drinking water and other relief supplies do not arrive quickly. "These people feel as if there is no one to take care of them," he said.

The city had no electricity, and people collected water from a mountain stream. Shops and the city's military hospital had collapsed.

Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf said the earthquake was the country's worst on record and appealed for urgent help, particularly cargo helicopters to reach remote areas.

President Bush on Sunday promised cash and said he had told Musharraf "we want to help in any way we can."

U.S. forces in Afghanistan prepared to send five Chinook transport helicopters and three Blackhawk helicopters to Pakistan on Monday to help ferry relief supplies.

"Pakistan is one of our closest allies in the war on terror and we want to help them in this time of crisis," said Sgt. Marina Evans, a U.S. military spokeswoman in Kabul. "The terrorists make us out as the infidels, but this is not true, and we hope this mission will show that."

India, a longtime rival of Pakistan, offered help in a gesture of cooperation. The nuclear-armed neighbors have been pursuing peace after fighting three wars since independence from British rule in 1947, two of them over the Kashmir region.

Other international aid, including emergency rescue workers, began to flow in. Planes arrived from Turkey, Britain, Japan and the United Arab Emirates. Russia, China and Germany also offered assistance.

Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz said his country's death toll was 19,396 and was expected to rise.

Senior officials in Pakistan's portion of Kashmir put the death toll much higher. The top elected official in the region, Sardar Sikandar Hayat, said that more than 25,000 people had died there with "countless" injured. Tariq Mahmood, the province's communications minister, put the toll at over 30,000.

Troops "have not started relief work in remote villages where people are still buried in the rubble, and in some areas nobody is present to organize funerals for the dead," Mahmood said.

The quake was felt across a wide swath of South Asia, with damage spanning at least 250 miles, from Jalalabad in Afghanistan to Srinagar in northern Indian territory.

In Geneva, the United Nations urgently appealed for donations, including for at least 200,000 winterized tents.

On the Indian side of the militarized Kashmir border — where at least 800 have died - hundreds of Kashmiris spent Sunday night outside in the cold after rumors of another temblor. Hundreds of mosques announced warnings of a further quake over loudspeakers; none was reported.

The following is from the very partisan and entertaining

Hurricane Katrina-Our Experiences

by Larry Bradshaw, Lorrie Beth Slonsky

The following is a message from Tobias Wolff to his father, Robert Paul Wolff, professor in the Afro-American Studies Department at UMass Amherst, and contains an eyewitness account of two friends of Tobias who were trapped in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreen's store at the corner of Royal and Iberville streets remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing. The milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90- degree heat. The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers, and prescriptions and fled the City.

Outside Walgreen's windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry.

The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the windows at Walgreen's gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices, and bottle water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters. We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home yesterday (Saturday). We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreen's in the French Quarter.

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed,were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded. Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water.

On Day 2, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like ourselves, and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter from Katrina. Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources including the National Guard and scores of buses were pouring in to the City. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible because none of us had seen them.

We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the City. Those who did not have the requisite $45.00 for a ticket were subsidized by those who did have extra money. We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food, and clothes we had.

We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute the arrived to the City limits, they were commandeered by the military.

By day 4 our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was dangerously abysmal. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked their doors, telling us that the "officials" told us to report to the convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the City, we finally encountered the National Guard. The Guards told us we would not be allowed into the Superdome as the City's primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole.

The guards further told us that the City's only other shelter, the Convention Center, was also descending into chaos and squalor and that the police were not allowing anyone else in. Quite naturally, we asked, "If we can't go to the only 2 shelters in the City, what was our alternative?"

The guards told us that that was our problem, and no they did not have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile "law enforcement". We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told the same thing, that we were on our own, and no they did not have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and would constitute a highly visible embarrassment to the City officials. The police told us that we could not stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the City.

The crowed cheered and began to move.

We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation and wrong information and was he sure that there were buses waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, "I swear to you that the buses are there."

We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched pasted the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news.

Families immediately grabbed their few belongings and quickly our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and others people in wheelchairs. We marched the 2-3 miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the Bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it did not dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, 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. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions. As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and of the commander's assurances. The sheriffs informed us there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans.

Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet to be seen buses.

All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the City on foot.

Meanwhile, the only two City shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New Orleans had become.

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.

Now secure with the two necessities, food and water; cooperation, community, and creativity flowered. We organized a clean up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas, and other scraps. We even organized a food recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was a process we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself only. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. When these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

If the relief organizations had saturated the City with food and water in the first 2 or 3 days, the desperation, the frustration and the ugliness would not have set in. Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people. From a woman with a battery powered radio we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the City. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway? The officials responded they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us" had an ominous tone to it.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking City) was correct. Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, "Get off the fucking freeway". A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated or congealed into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of "victims" they saw "mob" or "riot". We felt safety in numbers. Our "we must stay together" was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of 8 people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

The next days, our group of 8 walked most of the day, made contact with New Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search and rescue team. We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.

We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We 8 were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being evacuated on a coast guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas.

There the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses did not have air-conditioners. In the dark, hundreds if us were forced to share two filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) we were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.

Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet, no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly, disabled as they sat for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we were not carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heart-felt reception given to us by the ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome. Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept, and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost. --posted September 14, 2005

All articles reprinted without permission.

Dick Mac Recommends:

George Orwell

No comments: