Thursday, September 08, 2005

Looting Mob. What Mob?


I don't normally do this, but I was unable to pick a paragraph more important than other paragraphs, so I will just paste the whole thing here because I think it is very important (you'll still have to click on the link in order to follow the internal links). From Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon:

Mob rule

Two narratives appear to be emerging about what happened in the aftermath of Katrina when a state of virtual anarchy reigned and mob rule essentially took over where there was a leadership vaccum. I think that basic background is universally agreed on, but what's interesting is that two competing ideas of what "mob rule" really means are out there. Or, the word "mob" is needlessly inflammatory, so it would be better to say crowd rule.

Mad Max fantasies aside, I think it's safe to say that in times of emergency, people really do group together. Nothing creates a group identity faster than being in the same struggle for survival as thousands of other people. But there are two narratives out there about what happens when people group together, and setting aside race and class prejudice for a moment, I think one reason the media went immediately to "angry, violent mob" to describe New Orleans and particularly the crowds at the Superdome and the Convention Center was that people are predisposed to think of crowd rule as something that is inherently violent.

These questions came up on Morning Sedition today because they were interviewing James Surowiecki, who was arguing that contrary to popular belief, crowd-think can be a very good thing and that groups often are more thoughtful than individuals. His arguments were quite convincing, particularly if you are a person who finds themselves in crowded situations frequently, like most urban dwellers do. The critical elements for good crowd think were in abundance--diversity amongst the individuals in the crowd and a desire to achieve a common good--so it follows, from what I could tell of Surowiecki's ideas that the crowd rule in New Orleans was geared up to be generally positive, and not the scenes of criminal debauchery the media dwelled on.

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.

The critical issue in the aftermath is to spread the word as best we can that most people banded together and saved each other. The vast majority of people. We've got a "Heroes of Katrina" sidebar to highlight certain individuals, but the most important thing to remember is these individuals should be the representatives of New Orleans to the nation, not the random looter or often aprocryphal stories of crime in the Convention Center. There are so many heroes of Katrina that one could never document them all, even if you did nothing but collect stories all day and night. From the Kos diary:

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and the police struggling to help the "victims" of the Hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed,were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the City. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

Think of this when you hear the situation described as an "insurgency" or "anarchy" or "mob rule". Especially when it comes from someone who is trying to mislead you into believing that New Orleanians are particularly violent or hateful people.

Update: Here is the full account:
Hurricane Katrina - Our Experiences By Paramedics Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky

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