Everyone Shut Up Already About "Looting" in Miami After Hurricane Irma

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If you steal three pairs of shoes from Foot Locker, a worldwide retail chain that made a $664 million profit in 2016, Florida's news stations will broadcast images of you stealing things on TV, Fox News will call you a menace to society, and people will tweet about how you ought to be shot to death.

If you run a company that steals billions in Medicaid funds from sick, defenseless people, Florida will elect you governor.

As Hurricane Irma's outer bands lashed South Florida, a few small groups of locals were videotaped breaking into sneaker stores and carrying out boxes of shoes. Professionals filmed some of the clips: Local 10 filmed a group of thieves in Fort Lauderdale, which led to the arrests of a few suspects. Local authorities said 37 people — total, in a county of 2.7 million had been arrested for "looting" in Miami post-Irma as of Wednesday morning. WSVN also filmed thieves breaking into a different shoe store in Miami, which City of Miami Police then used to arrest suspects.

These are crimes, yes, and it should go without saying that you shouldn't smash windows and steal Jordans from Foot Locker.

But in the grand scheme of things, these are minor crimes. Yet local TV stations and Fox News have teamed up to blow the alleged Hurricane Irma "looting" epidemic out of proportion, just like they always do after natural disasters. (Many of these same criticisms about overhyping minor crimes by minorities while ignoring massive white-collar crimes such as Gov. Rick Scott's firm's Medicaid heist, of course, can be launched at local news channels year-round. But the media's breathless, round-the-clock updates on a tiny group of looters in Miami is ridiculous even in that context.)

In fact, it appears news stations such as Local 10 have learned absolutely nothing in the decade since images of black so-called looters were blasted all over TV during the horror show that was Hurricane Katrina, while news crews showed white people doing the exact same things and claimed they were "looking for supplies." In the 12 years since the storm, local news crews have not found an ounce of empathy for poor people stuck in hurricanes: TV news takes have not evolved past "look at these black people unable to control themselves when society breaks down even for a minute." (New Times is also guilty of this at times.)
Again: Looting is a crime. It's bad. Don't steal.

But wealthy people with sports cars don't run around looting Bass Pro Shops for high-end fishing rods. Local media never take a second to pause and ask why someone would feel compelled to steal a pair of sneakers to wear or perhaps sell online for a few extra bucks. No one questions whether we ought to live in a country where being born poor means you need to steal shoes during a hurricane. There is never an hourlong followup about the fact that most "looters" live in bleak poverty and are trapped on the wrong end of an economic system that has created the least equal society in American history. Effect is completely divorced from cause, symptom separated from sickness.

That kind of reporting is also an exercise in selective outrage: The same level of media-driven anger has not been hurled at the airline industry, which has goosed federal law into making it legal to price-gouge for airline tickets during a natural disaster. Until they got caught, airlines were brazenly charging anywhere from $1,000 to $3,000 for short flights from Miami to Atlanta to flee the hurricane's wrath. Price-gouging is a far more insidious form of theft — it represents the rich stealing from the poor, not vice versa. Where are the TV reports shaming the execs or middle managers at Delta who illegally profited from Irma?

But instead, the Orlando Sentinel's op-ed page last week published an unconscionable column about how great price-gouging is, which was written by someone with the reading comprehension of a recently concussed third-grader. (The author, incidentally, was from the same group of bozos who got caught admitting that Florida's public utilities were trying to trick voters into giving up their rights to home solar panels.)

In fact, Attorney General Pam Bondi's office said it had received more than 8,000 price-gouging complaints by Saturday night, according to the Sun Sentinel. That number has certainly climbed since the weekend, which means the looter-to-price-gouger ratio in Florida likely favors the latter by a gulf the size of the hurricane's wind field.

Because the images Local 10 unearthed depict black thieves, the clips made it onto Fox News. Fox this week reached into its magic hat of reactionary blockheads and rolled out Florida's Dan Bongino, an anthropomorphic bottle of creatine with an anger disorder. (Bongino's other claim to fame was getting clowned by Politico reporter Marc Caputo after Caputo recorded him screaming profanities during a failed run for Congress in Fort Myers.)

"Apparently... discussing looting now makes you a racist," Bongino proudly told Tucker Carlson, acting as if he was the first person in America to tell poor black people it's not legal to steal things.

As Fox News segments tend to do, the Bongino clip laundered images of Miami looters into racist meme fodder for alt-right neo-Nazis and white supremacists online, who proudly exclaimed the looting videos show black people can't be trusted to govern themselves or should be shot before they can ever pick up a rock to smash a window at the Finish Line. Overhyped reports of looting feed a hungry right-wing machine that just finished creating a completely false narrative about "widespread looting" during Hurricane Harvey.
The issue is not whether it ought to be legal to steal things from stores — it shouldn't be. The problem is that the world would be better off without constant images of these kinds of ultimately inconsequential crimes without any context about why they continue happening. Foot Locker's insurance can cover a broken window and a few stolen pairs of Nike Flyknits in the meantime.

Correction: This piece previously misidentified the city in which Local 10's footage was shot.
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Jerry Iannelli is a former staff writer for Miami New Times from 2015 to March 2020. He graduated with honors from Temple University. He then earned a master's degree in journalism from Columbia University.

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