Friday, September 09, 2005

A Followup to Comments

Comments on my previous post call for a more indepth folloup - because they are on target. So let's develop it a bit more.

From Eschaton:

THERESA ROY, RESIDENT OF ST. GABRIEL: I'd rather have them here dead than alive. And at least they're not robbing you and you have to worry about feeding them.

From St. Louisans survive lawlessness in French Quarter:

A St. Louis lawyer and his wife spent most all of four days in a French Quarter hotel while the streets outside were filled with looters. Finally, they escaped New Orleans in the back of a pickup.

"There was mass looting going on, the Walgreens next to us was wiped out clean," said Scheer, 36, a self-employed lawyer. "We never once saw a National Guard presence anywhere in the Quarter. We had to walk by gangs of thugs on the sidewalks with lead pipes, golf clubs, pistols under their shirts. We tried to maintain tunnel vision."

From Workbench:

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.

A little background on this second quote:

Around 500 people stuck in downtown New Orleans after the storm banded together for self-preservation, making sure the oldest and youngest among them were taken care of before looking after their own needs.

When buses charted by the group to escape New Orleans never showed up, they camped out beside a police command center on Canal Street, believing it was the best place to get aid, protection, and information. They were told they could not stay there and should leave the city on foot over Highway 90, which crosses the Mississippi River from New Orleans to the suburb of Gretna, a city of 17,500 people.

As pointed out at Pandagon there are two competing naratives at work here. One posits anarchy and violence in the wake of the complete collapse of government in New Orleans - and note only in New Orleans (at least I haven't heard of looting elswhere). The shows people trying to save themselves in the wake of govenmental collapse:

Well, yesterday we talked about how the media exaggerated and spread unsubstantiated rumors that made it sound like a riot in New Orleans. And now that survivors are getting out and getting comfortable and telling their stories, it's looking like what could be predicted by the theory that good crowds produce good thinking is shaping up to be true. I point everyone to this Kos diary by two survivors that Steve Gilliard has highlighted. The people who wrote it tell a compelling story of good crowd rule--people leaning on each other, bouncing ideas off each other, protecting each other. But there's another side of it, which is that the predominant, negative view of crowds--that they are automatically prone to violence--caused the police and military routinely to overreact and disperse crowds, which was counterproductive.

You can see both themes competing with each other in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch article (linked to above):

A group of about 200 Monteleone guests decided to try to walk out of the city to the east, and got to the on-ramp at the Crescent Connection bridge, where they were met by Gretna, La., police with shotguns. "They told us the bridge was closed to foot traffic," Scheer said. "Some locals had joined us and became extremely unruly, threatening to rush the officers. They fired their shotguns into the air."

In one paragraph you have both. A group joins together for mutual aide, the police overreact and of course there are unruly locals. Here's another paragraph - one that really makes you think:

In an interview with UPI, Gretna Police Chief Arthur Lawson confirmed that his department shut down the bridge to pedestrians: "If we had opened the bridge, our city would have looked like New Orleans does now: looted, burned and pillaged."

The increasingly desperate group set up camp on the New Orleans side of the bridge, where they were seen by several media outlets, until they were chased off at gunpoint by Gretna police:

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.

Criminals or the Police... who do you think they felt they were more in danger from?

The point here is that is still time to counteract the perception of lawless anarchy. Most of the stories I am hearing follow a similar pattern. People in an extremely desperate situation band together to try and survive in the face of a neglectful government are treated as roving bands of criminals by the people who are supposed to help them. Reversion to anarchy and criminal thuggary in the face of disaster is a common theme in fiction and being in that situation, I suppose it's inevitable that this assumption rears it's ugly head. "We were hiding from possible criminal elements..." one thinks it would be hard to tell, in that situation, whether the group you see is just a collection of people trying to survive or something worse. Such is the power of the mob rule mythology.
I use the word mythology deliberately because a lot of these news reports and stories have a certain "just so" quality that serve no purpose other than to confirm preexisting stereotypes and seem to be nothing but boundry maintenence mechanisms (simplistically, boundry maintenece mechanisms create sharp ideological boundries between two groups - reinforcing a positive image of one group and a negative image of the other).