Today’s View : Permission to loot

Nov. 18, 2013

Davao Today

Every disaster, ideally, presents an opportunity to learn – to respond better, to treat fellow human beings better. Observing how people react, and behave in these contexts offer insights as to how we can make better citizens of ourselves, both individually and as a collective.

One thing that struck me after typhoon Yolanda hit was that the calling of media of some of the typhoon survivors as looters was immediately called out by many in social networking sites. The general sentiment was, if it was a matter of survival, then it wasn’t looting. An article on this topic written by Haitian-American professor Guy-Uriel Charles quickly went viral. Charles described the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti that killed hundreds of thousands of people, and the desperation that drove many to take things that weren’t theirs. We cannot make the moral judgment of calling people who are faced with no food, no shelter, no infrastructure, an unresponsive government as looters, with its criminal connotation.

This explanation is effective only insofar as it tugs at our heartstrings and easily wins sympathy. However, does it win understanding? What are we to do with reports of people who, instead of carrying away food, carry away appliances? Is it enough to maintain a moralist stand, as others have done, by admonishing Leyte residents thru their statuses to “just don’t get the TVs!” or something similar?

In philosopher Slavoj Zizek’s analysis of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, such media reports were still “pathological” and “racist”, even if the reports of looting and raping were eventually proven true. Such reports (and even pronouncements of certain politicos) are, more often than not, made to underscore the expected or even inherent lawlessness of destitute people. These pronouncements find ardent listeners among those who see the breakdown of order to make complete, inevitable sense: poor people are dangerous, they turn into unruly mobs, and the like. The result is, instead of urging for aid, they urge for additional police and even for declaring martial law.

This is what Zizek calls lying in the guise of truth: even if the mob truly became unruly, the reports and responses are lies if they are motivated by pathological (racist, stereotyping, discriminatory) reasons.

At the moment, residents of Yolanda-stricken areas, whether they have “looted” or not, are enjoying a reprieve of sorts. Most netizens are still on their side, and martial law has thankfully not been declared.

However, it remains to be seen how this will play out, especially in the public arena, for I am reminded that not too long ago, similarly desperate actions were met with much less sympathy. I refer here to the spate of violence that included pitched street battles that erupted in Quezon City in July of this year after the city government attempted to demolish several informal settlements, including that of San Roque.

At the very least, the San Roque demolition issue was a polarizing one. But, going by the pulse of social media, the violence from the side of the settlers was immediately almost universally condemned. Actress Bianca Gonzales was hailed as a middle-class heroine, her tweet about babied squatters (that got retweeted almost two thousand times) receiving more (approving) attention than her subsequent dialogue with urban poor groups. An article in a local blog, written by a certain Ilda, that pitted “fed-up, decent Filipinos” against “arrogant squatters” went viral. I’m not saying that this was necessarily a well-written piece (in my opinion, it’s not), but that it received more than eighteen thousand likes from Facebook users must mean that it somehow resonated with a large number of citizens, regardless of how well (or badly) it was written.

A major argument of those belonging to this side of the fence was that they are middle-class and proud of it; they praised hardworking, tax-paying virtue in contrast with lower-class mendicancy. Those poor squatters aren’t really poor anyway (they have TVs and cell phones, after all), or if they were, it was because they didn’t apply themselves, didn’t work hard enough, and why don’t they all just return to the provinces from which they came.

This reflects the schizophrenia the public (especially those with access to social media) seems to suffer from when confronted with illegal acts committed by those from outside their own class. I wonder how many of those who agreed with Ilda’s article have likewise agreed with Guy-Uriel Charles’?

The swift netizen defense of alleged Yolanda looters establishes that violence is permissible in the name of survival. But, we have to ask, survival under what conditions? Survival according to whose standards?

The answer to the first seems to be that violence is permissible under conditions over which people have no control, such as natural disasters. The victims of Yolanda may loot because they had no control over the catastrophe that hit them. On the other hand, the urban poor may not defend their homes because they chose to stay there, instead of accepting offers of relocation or returning to the provinces. The victims of Yolanda may steal because they did not ask to be in the storm’s path, but the urban poor may not because it is their choice to stay poor, to spend on drink instead of food, to start reproducing too early instead of staying in school. The illegality of the actions of the victims of Yolanda may be condoned because they are pitiful, but the illegality of the actions of the residents of San Roque are to be condemned because they are, in Bianca’s words, being  babied.

Survival here is only what takes place after a profound catastrophic event, without which life would have gone on as usual. Survival here is confined only to the most basic needs – food and water – which is why the reported stealing of non-basic needs was just too puzzling and thus had to stop. The struggle to survive here occurs in the context of being cut off from resources and services that one would normally expect to be available.

In short, the appreciation of the situation of survival is that it is an exceptional and temporary situation, an appreciation that fits squarely in middle- and upper-class experience.

I suspect that this is why, now that we can relate in the wake of Yolanda, we deign to sympathize with them and allow them to act illegally. Whereas, other instances of violence carried out by the lower class are met with derision and the indignant emphasis on the difference between them and us.

I’m afraid that at the end of the day this has become another way by which the poor are made to live not on their own terms but on those of the rich. Like a clueless and condescending Marie Antoinette, we say let them loot, but just this once, and just please don’t take the TVs. (

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