Please Don’t Superdome Haiti (update)

By Michelle Chen Jan 16, 2010

For those who know how race and media intersect in times of crisis, the earthquake in Haiti has probably sent a bump through your pop-cultural seismograph. Now it’s becoming a flashpoint. Following an initial wave of sympathy, the corporate media has turned an alarmed eye to the increasingly desperate masses. We see unruly mobs, bodies piled in the streets (we hear of corpses being used as human "barricades"). The insinuations and direct reporting of violence flirt with the popular imagination and evoke memories of America’s most spectacular prime-time tragedy–Katrina. The AP reports that the U.S. may consider stepping up its "security role," while its humanitarian effort continues to hobble amid transportation delays, logistical chaos and dubious political machinations. Announcing plans to expand the U.S. ground deployment, Adm. Mike Mullen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Friday, "The initial intent is to strategically place some of our soldiers so that they can help with that relief distribution. And then, obviously, we’re all focused on the security piece as well," (That "security piece" has been a pretty huge chunk of America’s entanglement with Haiti throughout the 20th century, punctuated by military interventions and occupation. Six years after the last U.S.-backed coup, maybe the Pentagon has a hankering for another extended stay.) In the eyes of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, delivering help to people requires exerting control:

Gates said the primary goal was to distribute aid as quickly as possible "so that people don’t, in their desperation, turn to violence." He suggested the U.S. was aware of perceptions of its profile in the ravaged country. "I think that if we, particularly given the role that we will have in delivering food and water and medical help to people, my guess is the reaction will be one of relief at seeing Americans providing this kind of help," Gates told reporters. Military officials said they were trying to stave off banditry and lawlessness by rushing relief supplies including desperately needed water where it will be most effective, and also where it can be distributed in ways least likely to cause rioting or looting. Gates said early airdrops of aid were ruled out because they might have done more harm than good. "It seems to me that without having any structure on the ground in terms of distribution, that an airdrop is simply going to lead to riots as people try and go after that stuff," he said. "It seems to me that’s a formula for contributing to chaos rather than preventing it."

As the White House wrings its hands over how to keep a tight grip on its aid mission, AirAmerica’s Jack Rice wonders about the role of the media in shaping, and dehumanizing, public perceptions of the tragedy:

Why is it that we don’t hesitate to show a photo of dead bodies if it takes place in Africa, Asia or Latin America? Would we be willing to do the same thing if this happened in Boston, Los Angeles, Minneapolis? Would we be willing to do it if it were dead American soldiers piled up in Afghanistan? My guess is no!

Shades of Katrina emanate from the descriptions of "anarchy" engulfing the streets. Remember the Superdome, the "looting," the alleged explosion of mayhem? The media conjured images of death and destruction with voyueristic zeal, while curating the stories to fit a prevailing narrative of savagery and social breakdown. Sharp criticism eventually emerged, too late, to debunk the initial portrayals of lawlessness as distortions, colored by latent anxieties about how black people might act in the absence of white domination. But for those initial days after the hurricane, a media feeding frenzy projected white middle-class America’s fears onto a forsaken city, constructed as pathetic and threatening at once. Jaqueline Bacon wrote in the media criticism magazine Extra! in 2005:

For some members of the media, the victims of the hurricane were seemingly foreign—or perhaps not quite human. Allen Breed’s New Orleans report for the Cincinnati Post (9/3/05) described “naked babies wail[ing] for food as men get drunk on stolen liquor” and a crowd whose “almost feral intensity” prevented delivery of water to victims by helicopter. (Breed did include a quote from a man who indicated that the decision to airdrop food was “insulting, demeaning.”) The New York Daily News (9/2/05) proclaimed officials “must do whatever it takes to curb the hardcore, armed, violent felons who are making it impossible to save the city,” who are “a very different breed from desperate citizens who are trying to get food and water.” Given that this “different breed” was largely a figment of media imaginations—later investigations showed that there was no more violence in New Orleans after Katrina than in any typical week (Seattle Times, 9/26/05; see page 9)—this kind of editorializing suggested that it is, in fact, the regular residents of the city who are inherently “other”—foreign, primitive and dangerous. As the Daily News put it: “Anarchy, Mogadishu-style, is just around the corner if they’re not stopped.” Other pundits dehumanized the inner-city victims of the hurricane. Writing in the National Review Online blog the Corner (8/29/05), Jonah Goldberg advised those in the Superdome (which he described as a “Mad Max/Thunderdome/Waterworld/Lord of the Flies horror show”) on how to survive: “Hoard weapons, grow gills and learn to communicate with serpents,” “find the biggest guy you can and when he’s not expecting it beat him senseless,” and “protect any female who agrees to participate without question in your plans to repopulate the Earth with a race of gilled supermen.”

In the wake of the storm, author Tim Wise reflected on the barrage of since-discredited tales of violence, rape and gunfire:

the media, feeling no need to find witnesses or to verify claims of black deviance (because, after all, what’s not to believe?) simply went along. The result? Rescue efforts were delayed because rescue workers had been scared for their lives by a press that led them to think New Orleans was a war zone; the Governor and Mayor actually told law enforcement to stop saving lives and start arresting and shooting lawbreakers on sight; and the public, which rarely needs reasons to think the worst of poor black people, found its stereotypes confirmed. Not only whites, it should be pointed out, but black folks too, like Mayor Nagin and his crony police chief Eddie Compass, both of whom apparently think so little of their own people that they too assumed the stories were true, in spite of no evidence, and repeated the charges on national TV.

The recent rants of Rush Limbaugh and Pat Robertson (whose vile bloviating featured prominently in the Katrina coverage as well) may seem patently idiotic. But could such viewpoints seep into policy decisions? Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights, a longtime advocate for Haiti and Katrina survivor, has some tips for the Pentagon on how to "prevent chaos" as U.S. boots hit the streets of Port-au-Prince:

Do not allow US military in Haiti to point their guns at Haitians. Hungry Haitians are not the enemy. Decisions have already been made which will militarize the humanitarian relief–but do not allow the victims to be cast as criminals. Do not demonize the people.

The government’s reluctance to airdrop supplies may be grounded in a valid security concerns. But you’ve got to wonder: are the hints of a potential sustained military presence a rebranded attempt to "stabilize" Haiti once again through occupation? Could a too-hesitant emergency response hurt the long-term recovery effort by breeding anger and resentment against foreign forces (which could possibly, as Jack Beatty suggested on NPR’s "On Point" on Friday, create a self-fulfilling prophecy of disorder, to be "fixed" by outsiders)? As with Katrina, the 24-hour news cycle’s response to the earthquake seems a few steps ahead of the gridlocked aid effort, and it’s yet unclear whether Washington’s tactical decisions will turn out to be prudent and effective. And certainly, the press, despite its capacity for rapid-fire news dispatches, is constrained in its ability to assess the ongoing emergency response. But as long as the world’s eyes are all on Haiti right now–and as long as the memories of Katrina’s media exploitation still linger–it behooves us as media consumers and members of the international community to take a step back and separate the grim reality out there, from the racialized spectacle lurking within our collective imagination. UPDATE, 1/19: The U.S. Air Force has reportedly now reversed course from its previous statements on air drops, which argued that dropping supplies directly to survivors would pose a security risk. Following a protocol that is common in Afghanistan, the military dropped tens of thousands of meal packets and bottles of water over the afflicted area on Monday. Image: Xinhua / Reuters