Theft As Redistribution In A Time of Crisis

(Editors’ Note: It is our profound pleasure to announce that Roqayah Chamseddine has decided to join The South Lawn as a co-editor and writer to Douglas and Bryan. There’s other big changes in the offing so keep your eyes peeled!)

In parts of Texas, floods have overwhelmed entire streets to the point that houses are seemingly bobbing in gushing streams. An estimated 450,000 people, at the very least, will be needing some form of disaster assistance after Harvey made landfall —touching down twice near the Texas-Louisiana border. The destruction of dozens of small cities has been catastrophic, with the governor of Texas estimating the costs to be somewhere around $180 billion. Homeowners are also scrambling to find a way to deal with rebuilding their lives, and coming to terms with the agonising reality that their policies likely won’t cover damages. In addition, an overlooked result of Harvey has been a climbing death toll, which currently stands at 45. The hurricane has unleashed hell on countless families, and yet focus has once again shifted to the media’s most prized and sensationalist concern: looting.

In the midst of what can best be described as a small apocalypse, ABC News anchor Tom Llamas reported looters to the police and then notified Twitter—because there can be no frenzied public reproach without the spectacle. The response to Llamas was quick and tempestuous, but unyielding execration from a few good people isn’t nearly enough to rid the world of this pitiless attitude of those who so intensely hate the poor. Too many people are quick to froth at the mouth at the very thought of someone stealing; a loaf of bread, a half-empty till, a television screen. As 50 inches of rainwater drowned out streets and highways people still managed to feign concern for grocery stores that would soon be littered with rotted products.

Poverty is a sentence, and much of society would rather the poor serve out their terms with little noise—do not beg, do not take, and do not entertain the idea of making demands for more than whatever pittance the State will offer you. It’s no wonder then that even with a torrential hell playing out in the background that people are aroused by the images of armed men guarding convenience stores from looters. The racialized caricature of the modern-day thief, pictured carrying a television screen, and sneakers, stealing from little ol’ Mom n’ Pop, is an ever-present image. It’s a picture of chaos; of shattered glass, and fire; of a hyper-militarized police response that drowns out streets with pepper spray. Hell for the upper class isn’t a world in which the poor are forced into living under bridges, but one in which the poor take, and demand more than charity with as much zeal and intensity as the rich steal from the working class. Hell isn’t the water rising, but the doors of a convenience store being forced open, and people running out with arms full of food.

In Houston, where the impact of hurricane Harvey will hit low income communities the hardest, poverty is on the rise. In Harris County, where 25 to 30 percent of homes were flooded, estimates that are likely to rise in the coming weeks, 39 percent of census tracts are considered “high poverty”, according to a report from the Kinder Institute:

The figure is staggering for two reasons. First, it’s almost double the national rate. Second, the figure has grown quickly, more than quadrupling since 1980. To be clear, the number of high-poverty tracts is growing nationally, too. But they’re not growing nearly as fast as they are here. […] The middle class — which once dominated the western half of Houston’s Inner Loop — has been supplanted from that area by the upper-class. Meanwhile, the middle-class regions that were in place between Houston’s two beltways are largely gone too, replaced by high-poverty areas.

It’s no wonder then that Jim McIngvale, also known as ‘Mattress Mack’, the salesman who opened his two Houston-area furniture stores to those impacted by the flood, was praised as a hero. In an interview with Local 12, McIngvale said that he gave people shelter “because that’s the way I was raised up. I was taught that it’s better to give than receive. Although I’m a capitalist, I’m probably more of a social worker at heart.” When asked if the store was still opened for business, McIngvale didn’t hesitate to confirm that it was. The mattress magnate is now a token of sorts, epitomizing capitalist charity. He is what the ruling class wants us to believe is capitalism unsullied.

But imagine for a moment if Mattress Mack hadn’t opened his doors, and people broke in and grabbed those mattresses for themselves. This isn’t a Joel Osteen situation, where a church waited until a media firestorm forced its doors open, but a scenario involving a piece of private property functioning solely as a business. How would the media handle this situation? We can look to how they’ve covered previous cases of ‘looting’, especially Hurricane Katrina, where race played a central role in who was classified as a thief and who was described as ‘a scavenger’.

The media will have us believe that mobs are using the cover of a hurricane in order to invade homes and steal, and the state of Texas isn’t far behind in spreading similar propaganda. Despite nearly half a million people in need of some form of disaster relief, Texas prosecutors have been charging alleged looters without delay, some of whom could potentially be facing life sentences. Things are no different in Florida, where the Miami Police Department tweets out this smug nonsense while Hurricane Irma, a storm whose power and intensity has virtually no equal on record, bears down on a state whose evacuations in the face of the storm have been disorganized and haphazard at best. This is unconscionable if unsurprising.

The bosses have legalized theft for themselves, and when the water begins to dissipate from the streets of Houston and Miami we will see more of it—you will see it from the prison industry, the housing industry, the medical industry, and the financial industry. While the petty thieves sit in their cells, the greater ones will turn the worst floods in American history into profit-making endeavors.