Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Looters, the Cops and the Media 10.12.2005

Subject: The Looters, the Cops and the Media Date: 10/12 7:56 AM

Hi all,
The other day I was sitting on the porch with the neighbors. Up comes a New Orleans policeman who lives in the neighborhood but works in the 7th Ward. Tough neighborhood. No doubt about it. He tells us some absolutely harrowing stories about the rescue operations he was on, and god bless him for doing it. He then says that he's dreading the return of "the denizens of the Lower Ninth Ward for their look and loot, I mean look and leave." He repeated that little witticism about three times. I had already decided that if he said it again I'd have to excuse myself. It was clear that he had a very generalized and negative view of all the citizens of the Ninth Ward, and the black citizens in particular.

Don't know how many horribly racist comments I've heard in the last six weeks. One was a man sitting on my couch, I didn't hear it, David told me later. Probably lucky as I would have come unglued. His comment? "Well at least we cleared all the n***** out of the Ninth Ward."

A black person from New Orleans isn't necessarily a looter or a criminal. Conversely not all looters were black people from New Orleans.

The policeman on our porch had made his generalized negative statement but was incensed that the media had aired tapes of cops looting during the first horrid week after the storm. He felt that they should have handed it over to the Internal Affairs people in the New Orleans Police Department. Why? Because having seen the tape, some people out there might, just might, form generalized negative views of our police force?

Two weeks after the storm, I called a friend of mine who's a cabbie. He was in Atlanta where he'd been waiting three days with 2000 other people for FEMA to show up. He was already mad. But then he said that the first thing he was buying when he got home was a camera phone. WHAT? A generator maybe. A camera phone? Yup, he said, with video. Why, I asked. "Because I saw the Westwego cops looting a grocery store, saw the Gretna cops looting an electronics store and taking out big screen TVs, I saw New Orleans cops looting a computer store and stacking laptops in the backs of their squad cars, and if I'd had a phone like yours I could have taken video and busted them. They're going to blame it on someone else." I asked him if he actually SAW this or had just heard it from someone. He said he'd been sitting in his cab when he saw all three incidents and he was very upset when he told me. This man is, by and large, a very conservative guy. He's not given to anti-police force sentiments.

Not all looters are cops. Not all cops are looters.

A guy we know has a brother who has a boat. He and his boat were all over the city helping rescue people stuck in houses with water up to the roof. At one point, when the rescues were coming to an end, he was asked by a BBC crew to take them around the city on the boat. He did so. He returned and there was another press crew. They asked him to "take us where the bodies are." He said no. He was appalled.

Not all media/press people are sensationalist seeking. And not all sensational footage was sought out.

Unfortunately for two weeks after the storm, almost all footage included pictures of young black people looting and lugging TV's out through the chest high water in a city with no power. Absolutely that happened. A friend of mine saw looters in the Quarter looting Mardi Gras beads from a store. Real morons. There is no doubt at all that some people went completely nuts and vandalized and looted just because they could. I've also heard reports of two guys wading through the flood waters, one with an ATM bungied to his back, the other with a poker machine tied to his. Horrendous.

But the fact is that it was a very small minority of people who were looting. New Orleans prior to the storm was 80% black. Not all of those people were busy looting. Most were busy trying to get to a safe place. The black population of New Orleans is being painted with a very wide brush these days, and it's not a flattering picture.

By now all of you have seen the awful footage of New Orleans cops beating up an elderly man in the Quarter the other night. The cops were white, the elderly man was black. After that they pinned a news producer up against a car and cussed at him. Wonderful. The charges against the elderly man can't be substantiated. The cops have plead not guilty but were charged. These cops were out of control, but once again, as in the case of the black population, the police department of New Orleans is being painted with a very wide brush. Not all of them are racist brutes and looters blaming the crime on the local black population. The majority of them have been on duty for 6 weeks with little or no time off and are living on cruise ships since their houses are gone. Oh yeah, and the Police Chief just resigned and about 100 of them are just missing.

Some of the media types here have been just awful. Many of them looking for the Pulitzer Prize. They miss the extraordinary miracles in the ordinary progress of people making their way back to a semblance of normalcy. They want sensationalism, tragedy, bodies, looting. Some have been very compassionate in their reporting. Others, unfortunately have been busy helping to paint my city with a very wide brush. As a result the rest of the world is seeing New Orleans as a very violent place, with violent thieving citizens and violent thieving police. Our long held reputation for corruption is seemingly corroborated by all this negative coverage.

Some of the reports have been outright nonsense and I have never seen a retraction or a correction anywhere. As Machiavelli said, perception is everything. Right now everyone from news directors to cops to citizens black and white need to understand that. Those who have lost their civility need to be charged with whatever crime they committed and punished. News directors could help by not playing the violent footage in a continuous loop and maybe airing some of the remarkable stories I hear every day about people refusing to let this city die by rebuilding their homes and their businesses. We cannot afford to sweep any of the negative stuff under the rug. In some cases, it's a good thing camera crews were there or some of this outlandish behavior would still be happening but hidden. Our dirty laundry is hanging out there for the world to see and we have to let the world see us wash it clean. We don't need censorship. We need balanced coverage and personal responsibility for our actions by those of us here trying to rebuild. Everyone here is stressed out to one degree or another. Not an excuse for anything, just an explanation.

What the police did in the Quarter the other night was outrageous. What the looters did was outrageous. I wish the news directors didn't just LOOK for the outrageous. What you're seeing is a very generalized and negative view of New Orleans after the storm. The tension can be felt in the air and it's going to become incendiary if we don't start using smaller paint brushes.

Please know that what you're seeing on the news isn't always all there is.
Love and Light,
Bec and David
NOTE 10.12.2006
This was written six weeks after the storm.

Today the perceptions made by that footage remain entrenched in many people's minds around the country. That is unfortunate.

It's also unfortunate that our legal system is broken---too many records lost, too few police, too many criminals with guns, and now, I fear, too many scared citizens with guns as the crime rate moves up one week, down the next.

Crime here is a problem that has to be addressed, I just wish that that wasn't all that made it out to the world in terms of reporting.


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