When They Want To Kill A Dog They Say Its Crazy Roger Benham

23 Feb 2010 — On our first night in Haiti, we arrived in Bon Repos quite late. We took a bus that broke down south of Port-au-Prince, and Claude's relatives and friends came out in a convoy of about six cars and trucks and picked us up. We were hauling about a thousand pounds of medical supplies. The convoy drove us through Port-au-Prince and into Bon Repos. We got there just after dark. The first team was not that far away from where we were staying — about maybe 2.5 kilometers. I contacted them through text messaging because cellphone voice calls weren't working very well. One of Claude's relatives offered to drive me over to the orphanage where the first team was. The first team texted back, "No. Don't travel after dark — it's not safe." Claude's cousin, Kiko, said, "It's not a problem for me to travel after dark."

Neighborhood self-organizing

So he drove me over to the orphanage. And on the way, there's no one on the street. We came to a place where there were cinderblocks that had been arranged in the street in such a way that you had to almost stop the car and then drive in a zig-zag pattern. Kiko said, "Oh yeah, people do this after dark. They put these barricades in the road to slow you down."

Then when we got to the turn-off for the orphanage, there was a barricade that was completely blocking the side road. The barricade was made of bricks and cinderblocks and tires. I asked if I should get out and move the tires so we could drive up the street. Kiko said, "No, I'd better go out and do that." As soon as he moved the tires, these four men came out and they got into an argument. Then Kiko got back in the car and we drove through the barricade. He said, "Well, they put that barricade up because everyone's sleeping in the street. They said we can drive through but please don't come back this way."

I said, "I know a back way, so we won't drive out." So we drove up the street. This was about nine-thirty at night. We barely could fit through because everyone was sleeping outside. Aftershocks were still occurring regularly at this time. No one wanted to sleep inside their houses, and the only place left to sleep was in the street. If you walk down a typical street in Port-au-Prince there's not much in the way of a sidewalk and there are no vacant lots. There's walls everywhere - everything is walled where there's not buildings.

I remember hearing about these barricades on the news before I went down, but the U.S. media had been talking about the barricades as if they were bandit barricades forcing you to slow down your car so that you could be accosted. Or upon coming to a barricade you can't go any further down the street so you'd have to stop and then you can be robbed. That's not why people were building barricades! They were building barricades to stop cars from running over their children who were sleeping in the street! Or to slow cars down so that they wouldn't be driving down the street at fifty or eighty kilometers an hour throwing dust up everywhere - dust that was settling all over the people that were sleeping in the street because they had nowhere else to go!

The media presented an image of lawlessness and people trying to take advantage of the situation, when it was neighborhood self-organizing in the absence of any public safety to protect their families who were just trying to sleep.

Taking a walk outside

I had a friend from Washington, DC, a nurse named Scott Weinstein, and the last day that I was in Haiti, we walked through downtown Port-au-Prince to check in with different medical facilities. We'd been doing that all along, looking for places where we could be useful. Scott had met some doctors and nurses on his flight down who were working at the General Hospital, which is the main hospital in Port-au-Prince. So we went there.

But first we walked all over downtown Port-au-Prince for about four and a half hours. We walked through the hardest hit areas of the earthquake. This was on a Sunday, a big market day, so people were out selling things. A lot of people make their income by selling things in the street markets. Even though the middle of the city was flattened, life was still very much going on. Very very busy street, lots of people out. We saw one other blanc, an older man out with his Haitian girlfriend. Other than him, we were the only two blancs walking around for the four and a half hours we were in downtown Port-au-Prince, which was teeming with people.

Only one thing seemed remotely like a dicey situation. Twice we were walking through this one very congested area with a lot of people out on the street and twice people tried to sell us drugs, thinking we were looking for drugs. Which happens in Hartford, Connecticut to me all the time. It's not like Port-au-Prince is this dangerous place where everyone's going to get assaulted. People were surprised to see us walking on the street, but people were very friendly, and we talked to many people. One person even gave us free food from their market stall. We tried to pay for it but it wasn't worth their while to negotiate how much it would cost.

Militarized aid

We got back to the General Hospital, where Scott had a meeting with the hospital director. He got a job there, and he's still working there now. The hospital buildings were destroyed or compromised, so they set up in the courtyard — it is a walled courtyard with all of these tents set up. The hospital is mainly staffed by Americans, Norwegians, and other internationals. It is surrounded by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne who are tightly controlling who can come in and who can go out. They have their M-4 carbines and their machine guns set up, and there's a long line of Haitian folks outside waiting to get in.

Scott and I were standing outside of the director's office after the meeting, and when we turned around there were four soldiers there with their M-4s. We hadn't seen any other armed soldiers inside the compound yet. Then we saw behind the soldiers was a dolly with food trays in it — it was meal time. Someone was pushing this cart around distributing meals to the patients. So Scott said to one of the soldiers, "Are you guys guarding the food?"

And this soldier said, "Yes. Before there were some snatch-and-grabs, but now everyone knows the Americans are guarding the food and that doesn't happen anymore."

It was ridiculous! You're inside a walled compound, in a walled courtyard. This is food that is going to patients, and the reason they're there is because they've had operations — they're amputees, they're lying in bed, there's screaming going on in some cases because there's not enough pain medication. Some surgeries are being performed with local anesthetic, or in some cases no anesthetic at all. It is ludicrous that resources are being committed to the concern that one of these patients would somehow hobble up, steal the food, then run to a corner of a compound which is completely surrounded with a wall with paratroopers and machine guns on top of it.

Number one, why would that that would be a problem? If they're inside the compound then they're a patient or they're a family member taking care of a patient. They need the food. Number two, would that even happen without them being stopped by someone else? It's just ludicrous, but it is symptomatic of this narrative that we heard that food couldn't be distributed because it would cause a riot, or aid can't be provided without sufficient security; "If we provide help, just the strongest people are going to get to it — the only way we can do it is if we have a platoon of soldiers with machine guns."

The fact that this happened inside the heavily-guarded hospital compound, and that everyone there was very security-conscious, after Scott and I had just spent four and a half hours walking through the hardest-hit areas of the city and been given free food by survivors of the earthquake is just ludicrous. It just shows how the security concerns were not necessary.

The color of violence

There is this idea that is presented in the media that Haiti is a very dangerous place. In some cases that's true, but the United States is much more dangerous. Someone said to me that Haitians sometimes are the victims of street violence, but foreigners practically never are. Even in dangerous places in the United States, the violence doesn't happen to strangers. The violence happens to people who happen to be involved in turf struggles or crime within that area.

The Dominican Republic has a higher rate of violent crime than Haiti does, and that was before the earthquake. After the earthquake, from all the indications — including a quote I heard from one of the US generals there — the violence in Port au Prince was less than it was before the quake. After disasters, people help each other and the level of overall everyday violence goes down. Every time a disaster happens, self-help follows, but there's this pre-made media narrative that clicks into place — we saw it in New Orleans after Katrina and we saw it in Port-au-Prince after this earthquake — that when people of color are involved the media narrative is, "There's roving gangs of violent looters, they're raping and stealing, they're taking advantage and killing people."

It turns out that what's actually the case is that people are helping each other and organizing in their communities. But what this myth does is it delays lifesaving supplies and treatment while security measures are taken.

The next time a disaster happens, we need to identify right away if that pre-manufactured narrative is coming into play again. There was the incident of the Medicins Sans Frontieres / Doctors Without Borders mobile hospital being diverted in their planes to the Dominican Republic rather than landing in Port-au-Prince in the week after the earthquake because the runway was giving priority to getting the 82nd Airborne military assets onto the ground. After Katrina, we saw rescue operations suspended after a couple of days, and Governor Landrieu ordered the police and National Guard units to switch to shooting looters. This continually happens when people of color are involved in a natural disaster.

If you remember the flooding that happened in the Midwest in June 2008, you didn't hear any stories about this. Even though the area impacted was huge, I don't recall hearing one national story about there being gangs of white looters going around raping and killing people. And without that media narrative, aid wasn't dependent on having well-armed military units guarding every single medical team or relief team.

It's very frustrating to me to see this being played out in Haiti again after seeing it play out in New Orleans in 2005. It turned out in New Orleans that the violence was perpetrated by law enforcement and security who were hyped-up on these stories that every young black man in New Orleans was a potential looter. People were killed — they were shot. There was very little violence carried out by civilians, but the people who were shot and killed were mainly young black men who other people were thinking were looters — and they weren't. They were just walking down the street.

I haven't heard very much of that happening in Port-au-Prince, although a Haitian radio reporter Grace worked closely with reported that many of the 4,000 prisoners freed from the National Penitentiary by the earthquake were hunted down and killed by the police, using the dossiers that were used to capture them in the first place and their mug shots to find them.

I know of a documented instance of a Haitian citizen being dropped off by Haitian police in front of a mob, and then the mob killed him and burned his body. They were put up to it by the police! The police dumped him off and according to the U.S. media said that this guy had been looting. They didn't want to deal with the guy, so they had the crowd do it. If the police hadn't incited that, then there wouldn't have been that violence. All the other reports of violence by citizens that I can track down in Port-au-Prince just turned out to be rumors. They got repeated and repeated, but when you finally went back to the source you found that there was not actually any violence.

Working without security

One of the motivating factors for us to send people to Haiti was that we felt that we could work without security in unsecured areas, just working together with doctors from Port-au-Prince. There's nothing particularly brave or heroic about that because there's no reason to think that you need security after a disaster.

Unless otherwise stated, the content of this page is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License