O’Reilly-izing the Face of Haiti: Racism & Photographs from the Disaster

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Frederic Podoux/Getty Images

We are on the brink…so we are told and so we will see as the photographs roll in from Haiti, images of death, destruction, survival, conflict, and despair.  

We are ready, as they will paint a whole people as thugs and thieves and we will consume these images with a shake of the head. These descriptions will come from all sources, whether believed to be “left” or “right,” “objective” or Fox.

But we remember Katrina. We remember the power of the photograph and the greater power of seeing behind the image. Experiencing the visual content in light of the context.

In the stunning photograph above, three rescuers and their prize, a living, surviving, three-month-old infant, walk away from the place in which the infant was found. No smiles, no cheers for the rescue. Only distant determination and tears.  That infant is held incidentally with a 100-count box of latex gloves as her saviors stride from the rubble. The look on their faces a reflection of the grief and destruction around them, forcing questions:

What did they just see? Who did they leave behind? What will happen to this child?

They are victims in a sea of victims yet we are forced to see dignity and pain abide, strength for those who should not have to be this strong. Pain for those who dissolve yet keep walking.

There are thousands of photos coming from Haiti, many showing the unbelievable destruction and depths of despair as human remains in rigor, exposed, and splayed in jumbled heaps litter the streets. We catch glimpses of death as equalizer, death as squalor, death as simply overwhelming.

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Julie Jacobson/AP

These photos are visual clues, jabbing eyes far removed and forgetting of the last momentous media display of black suffering, itself a reminder of American narcissism as we forget Darfur, Congo, Rwanda.

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Alan Chin/BAGnewsNotes

But I want to talk about what is to come in Haiti photographs. What’s already here, even on sites like Huffington Post. It is and will be the meme of black looting and violence…something started by Fox News and perpetrated by nearly everyone.

Is it “looting” to take food from a demolished building when your family is starving and no help has come? As the BAG’s latest post finds:

I think media has got to be very careful in using the term “looting” in the midst of an overwhelming humanitarian crisis, especially given how much that term calls to mind generations of violent protests and riots over civil rights. (One of The BAG’s most widely circulated posts — Outside the Crawfish Shak — had to do with exactly this, as media headed down the same path in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)

Compare these two paragraphs from the same AP story, “Struggle to aid Haitians as fears of unrest rise,” dated Friday, for example. The article’s second paragraph is followed by the eighth:

 

Pockets of looting flared across the capital. Small bands of young men and teenagers with machetes roaming downtown streets helped themselves to whatever they could find in wrecked homes.

   “People who have not been eating or drinking for almost 50 hours and are already in a very poor situation,” U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said in Geneva. “If they see a truck with something, or if they see a supermarket which has collapsed, they just rush to get something to eat.”

Looking at this photo and caption from MSNBC (which specifically states that the “looters” are fighting over food), what I’m wondering is:

Is it “looting” if people are starving and desperate, and have no other recourse but to “steal” food? And then, what are the racial dynamics of using the term “looting” — instead of “stealing,” or just “taking” — particularly when the photo specifically features young black men?

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Olivier Laban Mattei / AFP – Getty Images



Is it a very familiar scenario seen in the wake of Katrina:

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AP/Bill Feig. Metairie, La.  August. 30, 2005



Be prepared, it’s coming. “It” is the view perpetrated by the likes of Bill O’Reilly, especially during his interview with Sophie Delanunay, Executive Director of Medicins san Frontieres (this is a loose transcript):

O’Reilly: Did you get hassled? Did Doctors without Borders personnel get hassled in Haiti operating those hospitals?

Delaunay: Not particularly. There is a very well acceptance by the population….

O’Reilly: So they left you alone?

Delaunay: Well, we are working with Haitian people and we are working in some unstable areas as well….and the population of the patients we are treating are also suffering…

O’Reilly: But did the gangsters leave you alone? or did they try to extort money from…

Delaunay: Of course [they left us alone]…

O’Reilly: No, not, “of course.” I’ve been to Haiti and those people are rough people.  They shake you down if they can.

Delanunay: No we didn’t experience these kind of problems and at the moment our core priorities are to provide medical emergency….

O’Reilly: Look, I give a lot of money to Doctors without Borders, you folks do very, very fine work. I’m trying to get the level of difficulty that you have operating in a place where there’s no central authority…there’s just simply no authority there.

Delaunay: The main difficulty for us operating in this kind of environment is that we are kind of subsidizing the Ministry of Health. Because there aren’t enough meals…the national health staff is not paid properly…these are the kinds of problems…

O’Reilly: But you haven’t been shaken down by the gangsters. They haven’t come in and stolen your supplies…

Delaunay: No, we haven’t.

See the O’Reilly’s tortured attempt here (around the 4:00 mark):

We all know what Rush Limbaugh has said on the subject.

It’s coming, the marginalization of deep human tragedy, the avenue of attack on Obama, the claim he’s “throwing good money after bad,” that he is compulsively acting to help where there is no solution, the implication that the earthquake is some great cleansing agent.

We saw it with Katrina, we will see it with Haiti. It’s already here and it won’t go away. And it will come from allies like Huffington Post and MSNBC as well as from Fox News.  

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Not all descriptions of stealing or violence or lawlessness will be unfair. But fairness dictates constant reminders of context, of the depth of this catastrophe and the dignity of those who ask for our help. It’s up to us to keep our eyes open and awareness intact.

8 comments

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    • ksh01 on January 17, 2010 at 5:55 pm
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    BAGnews has been extensively covering Haiti.

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  1. very well done. and thanks for posting it at the orange too… I gave you rec’s there.

    Man, this has been driving me crazy! It’s not just fox or o’reilly. Its so relentless it has to be intentional. Deliberate. gah.

  2. … for posting this here … saw it over at the Orange and rec’d it as well.  Important essay.

  3. When we had Wilma in Cancun, there were lots of photos of people on the street carrying groceries in deep water.  These people, who were Mexican mostly, were labeled as “looters.”  And the meme was how “lawless” things had become.  There wasn’t enough food or water or any electricity or refrigeration, so people needed to get whatever food and water there was until the infrastructure was turned back on.  What wasn’t taken would of course spoil and rot.  End of story.

    “Looting,” if I may be so bold, is what happens when fat cat bankers run their bank into a ditch, it gets bailed out by the taxpayers, and they then give themselves 7 and 8 figure bonuses because their banks were so profitable.  

    Thanks for excellent analysis.

  4. …for this sad, honest, human diary.  It’s so sad when we cover these tragedies with false platitudes to make a political point.  O’Reilly wouldn’t let go.  He tried so hard to get the Doctors W/Out Borders woman to agree that the “looters” were scum and thieves.  Good for her for refusing to bite.

    And good for you for pointing this out.

  5. Wow, first, Thanks for such a compassionate essay.

    Wow, I cannot believe the extent to which Billo tried to demonize these suffering people & being so transparent in embarrassing his guest, one who it should be apparent, has not the time to feed his fat ego.

  6. …or who is still alive from your family.

    The corporate media has historically given African related peoples a DNA encoded desire to loot and riot.

    It is simply disgusting.

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