Chile: "Looters" Running Amok? Not Really

All Muslims who fly planes into buildings are “terrorists” while white people who do the same are simply committing suicide. Likewise, all racial and ethnic minorities who forage for survival after natural disasters are “looters” while white people are simply seeking aid. That’s mainstream media for you.

An 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile on Saturday morning with tsunami warnings blaring across the Pacific. The death toll is lower than for Haiti, but several million people are displaced from their homes. What is the top story in the mainstream media? Soledad O’ Brien on CNN says that “looters are leaving the biggest aftershocks” in Chile. Troops have been mobilized to stop the looting, in a typical securitization of response to a natural disaster. From the news coverage, one would think that looters are running wild in Chile, but the Christian Science Monitor refutes these hyperbolic media exaggerations.

Mainstream media, led by the Associated Press, needs to stop using the term “looters” to paint a broad stroke over people of color, most of whom are looking for food. It’s not looting in most scenarios; it is survival appropriation. Katrina, Haiti, and now Chile are all examples of how media discourse is shaping our perception of people of color in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is all about the onslaught of brown and black anarchy that needs to be controlled by the men in uniform.

Lack of empathy is the biggest aftershock. While the United Nations is cracking down on irresponsible media coverage, one of these so-called “looters” has been killed and others tear-gassed. Characterizing someone as an unwanted thug helps to erase and then eradicate sympathy for them and their existence. How many lives have to be lost before people are recognized as merely human beings, with no caste nor creed, let alone the need for proper documentation in order to have basic human rights? This is not to say that there aren’t some people committing crimes in some parts of Chile. What’s heart-breaking is that poor people of color are branded as “looters” while the privatization of Chile is not viewed as looting at all.

I was personally attacked by an Associated Press reporter yesterday who thought it was his place to tell me — someone who has lived and endured natural disasters, including losing loved ones, in a tropical island country for 15 years — that “looting” was a reality after natural disasters like earthquakes. He offered up a story about how his grandparents in Guatemala were afraid of “looters” in 1976 and that I was wrong for asserting that “all people in Chile are not looters.” Is that the best thing the Associated Press can say in its defense? Drudge up remote archaic incidents to characterize an entire group of people as looters? Wow.

I don’t generally speak in broad meta-narrative terms, but I am sure that, just like all Muslims are not terrorists, labeling a particular group of people as “looters” is not precise and accurate. Looting is actually what happens daily on Wall Street. Funny, you would never hear AIG referred to as “looters” in the mainstream corporate media.

Photo Credit:Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile

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