Media

CNN's Plea from Haiti: Send Cops to Contain This Peaceful Crowd!

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Those tales of mass violence in Haiti are looking increasingly dubious by the day. Here's Sasha Kramer, director of the Haitian nonprofit SOIL, describing the conditions she's seen after the quake:

Since we arrived in Port au Prince, everyone has told us that you cannot go into the area around the palace because of violence and insecurity. I was in awe as we walked into downtown, among the flattened buildings, in the shadow of the fallen palace, among the swarms of displaced people there was calm and solidarity.

We wound our way through the camp asking for injured people who needed to get to the hospital. Despite everyone telling us that as soon as we did this we would be mobbed by people, I was amazed as we approached each tent people gently pointed us towards their neighbors, guiding us to those who were suffering the most. We picked up five badly injured people and drove towards an area where Ellie and Berto had passed a woman earlier. When they saw her she was lying on the side of the road with a broken leg screaming for help. They were on foot and could not help her at the time, so we went back to try to find her. Incredibly, we found her relatively quickly at the top of a hill of shattered houses. The sun was setting and the community helped to carry her down the hill on a refrigerator door, tough looking guys smiled in our direction calling out, "Bonswa, Cherie," (Good evening, Dear) and "Kouraj" (Courage)….

Half way through the surgery we heard a clamor outside and ran out to see what it was. A large yellow truck was parked in front of the gate and unloading hundreds of bags of food over our fence. The hungry crowd had already begun to gather and in the dark it was hard to decide how to best distribute the food. Knowing that we could not sleep in the house with all of this food and so many starving people in the neighborhood, our friend Amber (who is experienced in food distribution) snapped into action and began to get everyone in the crowd into a line that stretched down the road. We braced ourselves for the fighting that we had heard would come, but in a miraculous display of restraint and compassion people lined up to get the food and one by one the bags were handed out without a single serious incident.

Such reports have been echoed by other people on the ground, such as The Guardian's Inigo Gilmore. It also matches the usual behavior witnessed after natural and technological disasters, in which mutual aid flowers while violence and theft are almost unheard-of. Even on those rare occasions that rioting does break out, there's much more spontaneous order than disorder.

Unfortunately, in Haiti as in New Orleans, the fear of crazed crowds has fed a centralized, militarized response to the crisis, erecting barriers between the needy and outside assistance. With U.S. troops in control of the Port-au-Prince airport, for example, the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have had flights redirected to the Dominican Republic.

To be clear: I'm not claiming there's no grassroots violence in Haiti. Just that, in another parallel with Katrina, those rumors of unruliness seem to have been grossly exaggerated. That may be because so much of the media report what they expect to see even when a completely different story is unfolding under their nose. Watch this bizarre report on CNN, in which Ivan Watson describes "chaotic crowds" while the camera shows crowds that are calm and patient. At one point Watson announces that we're watching a "chaotic scramble" onto a rescue ship. This is illustrated by a group of people carefully, methodically passing a baby onto the boat. Then, while more refugees peacefully load their luggage in the background, the reporter asks the shipowner his burning question: "Has anybody offered you any help with crowd control of these thousands of desperate people?"