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Note, however, that just as you need to distinguish looters taking advantage of the breakdown of order from “looters” grabbing survival necessities at a moment when the cash economy has disappeared, you also must distinguish vigilantes engaged in racially motivated murders from “vigilantes” patrolling their neighborhoods at a moment when the police have disappeared. The former is a form of crime. The latter is another example of the mutual aid that Solnit celebrates, even if she doesn’t recognize it as such. It may be true, as she writes, that some armed civilians in the New Orleans neighborhood of Algiers Point murdered people. That does not mean they all did.
According to press accounts, the Algiers Point patrols began in response to a real crime—a carjacking—and were aimed at preventing trouble, not causing it. “Other residents who had stayed during the storm were armed and taking turns checking on neighbors, some of them elderly, who remained in their houses,” the New Orleans Times-Picayune reported at the time. “It was decided that everyone would keep an eye on his block, sharing essential supplies.” Think back to Solnit’s description of the 1906 quake. The sentries’ self-organization is closer to the spirit of the Oyster Loaf, the Chat Noir, and the House of Mirth than to that of the troops who occupied San Francisco.
A similar myopia marked the mainstream media’s coverage of crime in Haiti. We were treated to reports that Haitians had been killed “execution-style” and left in the street, where passers-by nonchalantly let them rot. Such stories take on a different flavor if you know that in parts of Haiti where police protection is effectively absent, such exhibitions are a longstanding community practice; the dead men are criminals caught in the act, and they are being displayed as a warning to other would-be crooks. You needn’t approve of such tactics to recognize that they reflect social problems that predated the quake, not a dog-eat-dog chaos that appeared only after it.
While riots are rare after disasters, there is another sort of opportunistic violence that often appears in a crisis, when influential institutions attempt to grab yet more power and resources. After the earthquake of 1906, for example, the committee overseeing the reconstruction of San Francisco attempted to seize Chinatown and relocate its residents. More recently, the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington unleashed a host of new police powers. Just last year, swine flu fears provided cover for Russia and China to erect trade barriers and for Egypt’s Islamic government to destroy the livelihood of the country’s Christian pig farmers.
Yet the same ruptures that allow those power grabs from above can also unleash people-power rebellions from below. At such times, the grassroots cooperation that emerges after a disaster does not disperse but expands into other spheres. The classic example is the quake that hit Mexico City in 1985. Neighbors mobilized to block bulldozers; workers extracted back pay from employers attempting to skip out on their debts; residents whose sewage systems had been destroyed won the right to use composting latrines; barrios persuaded the government to adopt their homegrown reconstruction proposals rather than ideas dreamed up by distant planners. As civil society came alive, it “created something like an alternative government,” the Mexican writer Gustavo Esteva tells Solnit. “Suddenly we saw that the people themselves were having real agency. In the late 1980s they were doing marvelous things.” It’s as though someone took the “disaster capitalism” invoked by the left-wing polemicist Naomi Klein and stood it on its head.
Speaking of Klein: In the aftermath of Katrina, one of her articles invoked those Mexico City rebellions. Yet to judge from some statements that Solnit cites, Klein doesn’t seem to have absorbed the appropriate lessons. While promoting her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, for example, Klein declared that in disasters “we no longer know who or where we are. We become like children, we look for daddies.” Such sentiments, Solnit says, are “the apparent product of assumptions rather than research.”
For all that, there’s a danger in taking too utopian a view of society during a disaster, and not just because it seems insensitive to celebrate anything associated with so much death and destruction. If you aren’t careful, that train of thought can lead you to dubious conclusions.
As Solnit notes, the 1906 earthquake came while the philosopher William James was composing his famous essay on “The Moral Equivalent of War.” The cooperation he saw in the devastated city helped shape his ideas about the ways the martial instinct might be transformed into something more constructive than destructive. But James’ alternative was driven by centralization and compulsion; he proposed “instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature.” James believed a world without war would still require “martial virtues” as “the enduring cement,” arguing that “intrepidity, contempt of softness, surrender of private interest, obedience to command, must still remain the rock upon which states are built.” This is the national greatness conservatism of the left, and it is no less ugly to anyone who prefers small, concrete affiliations forged freely from below over big, abstract schemes imposed from on high. Yet Solnit cites James warmly.
Solnit’s disaster utopianism doesn’t have to lead to the Jamesian vision. That same quake inspired the young Dorothy Day, who drew on her positive memories of the event—“while the crisis lasted,” she later wrote, “people loved one another”—when founding the decentralist Catholic Worker movement. While James’ essay directly influenced the creation of the Civilian Conservation Corps, Day opposed the New Deal, which she saw as “the taking over by the state of all those services which could be built up by mutual aid.” Solnit quotes that statement, but she doesn’t acknowledge the enormous gulf between Day’s vision of voluntary action and James’ willingness to impose a collective purpose by force.
If an appreciation for the little platoons that emerge in an emergency can devolve into a more authoritarian ideal, it’s also true that the collective fervors that take hold in wartime carry traces of that smaller sort of social harmony. If 9/11 sparked a nationalist fever, a historical moment so mad that even a phrase as innocuous as “French fries” could come under suspicion, it also set off a surge of solidarity and cooperation of the kind that inspired Day. In one of the best sections of her book, Solnit revisits New York’s reaction to Al Qaeda’s attacks, from the spontaneous flotilla of boats that evacuated hundreds of thousands of people from Manhattan to the volunteers who converged on the city to help the rescue effort. When people invoke the spirit that befell the country after September 11, they are—or should be—referring to these warm-hearted, enthusiastic acts of assistance along with everything else.
In that period right after the attacks, as Americans rushed to aid both neighbors and strangers, even the most navel-gazing elements of the media managed to see what was happening. While those ships carried those thousands of New Yorkers to safety, not a single reporter that I’m aware of thought it pertinent to ask a captain, “Has anybody offered you any help with crowd control of these thousands of desperate people?”
Managing Editor Jesse Walker (email@example.com) is the
Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America
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