Demonizing looters puts property above people

Following Katrina, orders circulated to shoot looters. Post-Sandy, rhetoric dehumanizes looters again

Topics: New York Post, Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Katrina, Looters, Looting, Property, ,

Demonizing looters puts property above people "Looters will be crucified" reads sign in Rockaway (via Twitter user Tim Pool)

In the chaotic and deadly days that followed Hurricane Katrina, orders that circulated through the New Orleans Police Department sent a chilling message: Private property would be prioritized over human life. “Shoot looters,” “Take back the city,” “Do what you have to do,” were the mandates that led to the deaths of 11 civilians, according to an extensive ProPublica report.

According to the investigation, it remains unclear where the order first originated, but according to ProPublica, “current and former officers said the police orders – taken together with tough talk from top public officials broadcast over the airwaves — contributed to an atmosphere of confusion about how much force could be used to combat looting.”

Seven years later, another devastating hurricane has torn through the U.S., leaving tens of thousands homeless and many more in desperate need of food and basic supplies. “We can’t get a bottle of water,” a man from New York’s battered Rockaway Peninsula shouted at Mayor Michael Bloomberg as the mayor surveyed the wreckage. But after a few scattered reports, the specter of the demon looter has reemerged as fodder for firebrand pundits.

Writing in the New York Post Sunday, Heather Mac Donald — a vociferous defender of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program — used the fact of looting incidents since Sandy to decry all challenges to New York police. “The looting that besmirched New York’s otherwise admirable response to Hurricane Sandy carries a lesson for a trio of federal lawsuits now targeted at the NYPD. Let’s hope that the judge overseeing those suits deigns to take judicial notice,” she wrote, suggesting that increased theft statistics over the past week should nullify complaints of racist policing.

Last week in Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island, 20 arrests were made for looting at businesses like supermarkets and sneaker stores. A similar number of arrests have been made for looting in the Rockaways. There have also been reports of thefts in homes evacuated and left empty during the storm. The National Guard have been dispatched throughout New Jersey and New York to help defend properties from looting.

The police presence in Brooklyn’s Coney Island has been stepped up and light towers installed. Democratic City Councilwoman Christine Quinn, who is also running for mayor, said, “I would quite frankly say, you know, don’t even give them bail. Make them sit inside until the storm is totally gone and the power is over. That’ll teach you a lesson the next time the power goes out, because this is serious.” (To which political writer Corey Robin responded on his blog, “Good idea. And while we’re at it: how about all Wall Street looters be held without bail until capitalism is over too?”)

Needless to say the term “looting” is weighed with moralistic judgment — it is reserved, as the Post’s Mac Donald would have it, for the “loathsome”; in New Orleans, looters did not deserve to live. During the London riots, looters were regularly described as senseless animals;  a six-month prison sentence was doled out to a young person who stole bottled water.

Following reports on the treatment of looters during Katrina, Rebecca Solnit noted that what gets called “looting” is often to her better characterized as “foraging or requisitioning.” Instead of joining Solnit in her reframing — which risks drawing problematic lines between “good looting” and “bad looting”– I’d simply argue that the demonization of looters has again and again illustrated where priorities lie during disasters (which, in turn, shows where priorities lie all the time). And I’d echo another of Solnit’s basic points on the issue: Media frenzy over looting “regularly justifies spending far too much energy and far too many resources on control — the American military calls it ‘security’ — rather than relief.”

The media spin on Sandy’s “looters” is not simply reserved for the bile-fueled pages of the New York Post. ABC News headlined a report, “Looters prey on Sandy’s hardest hit.” The story noted that looting incidents had taken place in some of the city’s worst-hit neighborhoods, but failed to consider that looters themselves might be local to these very neighborhoods — the most likely scenario, given transit outages — not marauders seeking to worsen tragedy. Indeed, the piece cites an alleged looter who told the New York Daily News, while taking a TV from Rent-a-Center in Coney Island, “Look, they’ve been looting our wallets for too long … It’s about time we start taking this sh— back.” The cognitive dissonance is notable: ABC’s headline says looters prey on storm victims, a looter talks about reappropriating goods from the wealthy.

No doubt, individuals who have had their homes destroyed in the storm and then robbed will feel a doubly sharp sting. But the moralistic outrage with which looting is decried does not reflect concern for these victims — indeed the victims listed in the ABC story are an Ann Taylor and a Brookstone store; the Post wrote that “scum” stole from a Radio Shack and 99-cent store among other businesses. This sort of frenzied concern for property over people just seven years ago created conditions under which a “shoot looters on site” order could circulate with no clear origin and be followed.

Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 14
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Pilot"

    One of our first exposures to uncomfortable “Girls” sex comes early, in the pilot episode, when Hannah and Adam “get feisty” (a phrase Hannah hates) on the couch. The pair is about to go at it doggy-style when Adam nearly inserts his penis in “the wrong hole,” and after Hannah corrects him, she awkwardly explains her lack of desire to have anal sex in too many words. “Hey, let’s play the quiet game,” Adam says, thrusting. And so the romance begins.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Elijah, "It's About Time"

    In an act of “betrayal” that messes up each of their relationships with Hannah, Marnie and Elijah open Season 2 with some more couch sex, which is almost unbearable to watch. Elijah, who is trying to explore the “hetero side” of his bisexuality, can’t maintain his erection, and the entire affair ends in very uncomfortable silence.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Charlie, "Vagina Panic"

    Poor Charlie. While he and Marnie have their fair share of uncomfortable sex over the course of their relationship, one of the saddest moments (aside from Marnie breaking up with him during intercourse) is when Marnie encourages him to penetrate her from behind so she doesn’t have to look at him. “This feels so good,” Charlie says. “We have to go slow.” Poor sucker.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and camp friend Matt, "Hannah's Diary"

    We’d be remiss not to mention Shoshanna’s effort to lose her virginity to an old camp friend, who tells her how “weird” it is that he “loves to eat pussy” moments before she admits she’s never “done it” before. At least it paves the way for the uncomfortable sex we later get to watch her have with Ray?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Hard Being Easy"

    On the heels of trying (unsuccessfully) to determine the status of her early relationship with Adam, Hannah walks by her future boyfriend’s bedroom to find him masturbating alone, in one of the strangest scenes of the first season. As Adam jerks off and refuses to let Hannah participate beyond telling him how much she likes watching, we see some serious (and odd) character development ... which ends with Hannah taking a hundred-dollar bill from Adam’s wallet, for cab fare and pizza (as well as her services).

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Booth Jonathan, "Bad Friend"

    Oh, Booth Jonathan -- the little man who “knows how to do things.” After he turns Marnie on enough to make her masturbate in the bathroom at the gallery where she works, Booth finally seals the deal in a mortifying and nearly painful to watch sex scene that tells us pretty much everything we need to know about how much Marnie is willing to fake it.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Tad and Loreen, "The Return"

    The only sex scene in the series not to feature one of the main characters, Hannah’s parents’ showertime anniversary celebration is easily one of the most cringe-worthy moments of the show’s first season. Even Hannah’s mother, Loreen, observes how embarrassing the situation is, which ends with her husband, Tad, slipping out of the shower and falling naked and unconscious on the bathroom floor.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and the pharmacist, "The Return"

    Tad and Loreen aren’t the only ones to get some during Hannah’s first season trip home to Michigan. The show’s protagonist finds herself in bed with a former high school classmate, who doesn’t exactly enjoy it when Hannah puts one of her fingers near his anus. “I’m tight like a baby, right?” Hannah asks at one point. Time to press pause.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Role-Play"

    While it’s not quite a full-on, all-out sex scene, Hannah and Adam’s attempt at role play in Season 3 is certainly an intimate encounter to behold (or not). Hannah dons a blond wig and gets a little too into her role, giving a melodramatic performance that ends with a passerby punching Adam in the face. So there’s that.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Shoshanna and Ray, "Together"

    As Shoshanna and Ray near the end of their relationship, we can see their sexual chemistry getting worse and worse. It’s no more evident than when Ray is penetrating a clothed and visibly horrified Shoshanna from behind, who ends the encounter by asking if her partner will just “get out of me.”

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Frank, "Video Games"

    Hannah, Jessa’s 19-year-old stepbrother, a graveyard and too much chatting. Need we say more about how uncomfortable this sex is to watch?

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Marnie and Desi, "Iowa"

    Who gets her butt motorboated? Is this a real thing? Aside from the questionable logistics and reality of Marnie and Desi’s analingus scene, there’s also the awkward moment when Marnie confuses her partner’s declaration of love for licking her butthole with love for her. Oh, Marnie.

    13 of "Girls'" most cringeworthy sex scenes

    Hannah and Adam, "Vagina Panic"

    There is too much in this scene to dissect: fantasies of an 11-year-old girl with a Cabbage Patch lunchbox, excessive references to that little girl as a “slut” and Adam ripping off a condom to ejaculate on Hannah’s chest. No wonder it ends with Hannah saying she almost came.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>