“Young girl watches military & police convoys patrol the locked-down streets of her town, as government agents performed house-to-house searches during a manhunt.”


“Prior to the bombing and manhunt in Boston last week, Bruce Schneier pointed to an interesting interview with Rebecca Solnit, author of the book: A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster. She talks of a concept called elite panic:

“The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster — Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke — proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable.


Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface — that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic. But there’s also an elite fear — going back to the 19th century — that there will be urban insurrection. It’s a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the ’85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.”

There’s no denying the importance and value of investigating and capturing the perpetrators of the bombing, and I do not do so here, but elite panic seems to have been at play in Boston. The lockdown—technically voluntary, but tell that to the guy in the tank (HT: Bovard)—treated the public variously as suspects, sources of interference, or targets for display of governmental authority.”

Christmas Eve arson attempt, Occupy Sandy Donation Center, 520 Clinton


“Last night, at approximately 4am, a fire erupted at the main entrance to the Church of St. Luke & St. Matthew causing serious damage to the building. The location has been an important and well-known hub for Hurricane relief in Brooklyn; fortunately no one was injured. Hopefully, a thorough FDNY investigation will determine the fire’s cause. This calamity comes at a terrible time, just two days before Christmas. Our hearts go out to the entire congregation as well as Father Chris Ballard and Father Michael Sniffen, and we stand ready to support the St. Luke and St. Matthew community in their time of need.”


Fire-bombed entrance to St. Luke-St. Matthew Church


“The gas canisters were at the church ready to be donated to Sandy victims, Ballard told 1010 WINS’ Eileen Lehpamer. Ballard said the suspected arsonist “poured gas in front of the entryways and then lit the doors on fire.” Since superstorm Sandy hit, the church has been a hub for volunteers helping out in the relief effort. Occupy Sandy volunteers have used the church to store goods for residents in need. Three volunteers were sleeping inside the church at the time the fire broke out, Dardashtian reported. “Luckily, we had people here to catch it in time and got the call in real quick,” a volunteer named Sparky told CBS. “Since about a week after the storm, we’ve been using this location as a main distribution hub sending cleaning supplies, immediate aid, first aid supplies, non-perishable foods,” Sparky said. “Basically, any needs the communities have reported to us, we’ve put them through an Amazon and We Pay wedding registry and sent them out to the field.” Volunteers also collected Christmas gifts ready for kids affected by Sandy that were stored in the basement of the church. “Yesterday, we had a huge wrapping party and they’re all in garbage bags so hopefully they’re all ok. There was no fire down there,” Sparky said. Investigators are on the scene looking into the cause of the fire. “The fire in our hearts for love and peace and justice is far more powerful than any physical fire in the world,” Sniffen said.


Review of Paradise Built in Hell: Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster
by Kevin Young  /  January 04, 2010

Murder, rape, looting, cutthroat competition, and above all, “panic”: such are the responses typically attributed to the public in the aftermath of earthquakes, floods, fires, and other disasters. The assumption that an unrestrained public will erupt in an orgy of looting, violence, and selfish or irrational behavior is deeply-embedded in elite thinking and mainstream commentary. Rebecca Solnit’s magnificent new book thoroughly disproves this assumption through in-depth descriptions of five major disasters of the past century and supporting evidence from many others. In fact, Solnit shows that the reality is precisely the opposite: human beings overwhelmingly tend to display calmness, generosity, thoughtfulness, and a willingness to sacrifice for the greater good in times of disaster. In the process new social bonds and communities form, revealing the extraordinary human potential for solidarity and collective action that lies dormant in everyday life. “Disaster,” Solnit writes, “is when the shackles of conventional belief and role fall away and the possibilities open up” (p. 97). Conversely, the government elites and organizational bureaucracies in charge of safeguarding the public often tend to compound the “natural” aspects of disaster through their clumsy and disdainful responses. These conclusions are based largely on Solnit’s own interviews and archival research, but also draw support from the work of a long line of “disaster sociologists” who, despite their pathbreaking research and the fact that they represent a virtual consensus within the field of sociology, continue to be ignored by most government officials and bureaucrats as well as the corporate press [1].

The evidence of human solidarity and cooperation in the aftermath of disasters is indeed quite remarkable. After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and the devastating fire that ensued, San Franciscans set up public kitchens and food distribution centers, while some small business owners gave away food or lent cars and other equipment to improvised community organizations. The Mexico City earthquake of 1985 gave rise to powerful new grassroots organizations and trade unions that would fight for housing and workers’ rights in the years that followed, helping to undermine Mexico’s one-party dictatorship. The citizen response to 9/11 likewise refuted the common myths of mass panic and selfish behavior: not only was the Trade Center evacuation quite orderly, but many risked their lives to help evacuate their fellow employees. Boat-owners helped evacuate people from Manhattan, thousands in New York and around the country donated blood, supplies, or time to help relief and clean-up efforts, and even many from nearby Wall Street, the epicenter of capitalist individualism, rushed to help however they could. Racism and other social divisions can also break down in the aftermath of disasters, as Solnit demonstrates with her descriptions of white-Chinese interactions following the San Francisco earthquake and the moments of inter-ethnic and inter-class solidarity after the 1917 Halifax harbor ship explosion. These histories all stand in stark contrast to the conventional images of a crazed public reverting to savage individualism in the midst of disasters.

Not only do most people exhibit calmness, generosity, and even heroism in times of crisis, but their responses are typically more effective than those of the government bureaucracies which supposedly exist to protect the population. While large bureaucratic organizations are often incapable of improvising in response to crisis, emergent “communities” of citizens are better able to develop effective means of communication and coordinated action. Solnit points out that the only partially-effective response in the midst of the 9/11 attacks came from the passengers aboard United Flight 93, not from the military and government command structure that displayed extraordinary incompetence, negligence, and inefficiency before and on September 11th. Thousands of ordinary people working in the World Trade Center also evacuated the two towers after they were hit, in an extremely orderly and often-selfless manner. Similarly, in the aftermath of almost all the disasters described, groups of ordinary people set up improvised soup kitchens, shelters, and other mutual aid centers with no help from authorities. Those authorities, in contrast, almost always either operated inefficiently or showed ruthless disdain for the suffering of the victims.

In fact, disaster sociologists have inverted the conventional view in another way: the elites who supposedly watch over us all as benevolent protectors are the ones who panic in times of crisis. As Solnit notes, “It is often the few in power rather than the many without who behave viciously in disaster” (p. 90). This pattern is clear from the book’s case studies. In San Francisco in 1906, the US military was deployed with “shoot to kill” orders that probably resulted in between 50 and 500 extra deaths (p. 35). After Hurricane Katrina, in a long string of brutal crimes that are only beginning to come to light, the local police shot unarmed civilians and refused to treat wounded black residents of New Orleans; small gangs of white racists gunned down black men walking on the streets (later proudly comparing it to “pheasant season in South Dakota” on camera, knowing that local police supported them); and altruistic boat-owners who raced to the rescue were prevented from entering residential areas to help evacuate trapped residents (see the chapter on “Murderers”) [2]. Elite panic—and racist panic, in the case of New Orleans—is thus the primary cause of the “second wave of disaster” that often follows earthquakes, floods, or storms (p. 8).

There are several reasons behind elite panic. Many elites and bureaucrats (like racists) may sincerely believe that their or their organizations’ intervention is essential to safeguarding peace and order in the aftermath of a disaster. But their panic is also inseparable from their own self interest, reflecting their need to justify the ongoing concentration of power in their hands. If the public is permitted to take control, and it succeeds, the bureaucracy and hierarchy on which elite power is based will be exposed as illegitimate. This principle holds true for the everyday functioning of society, but is especially true in times of disaster, when bureaucratic organizations like FEMA or the military are expected to perform with competence and agility to protect the public. Solnit notes that in disaster, “They are being tested most harshly at what they do least well” (p. 152). These fears are justified: the past century featured many dictators and oligarchic regimes who met their downfall in large part as the result of their inability or unwillingness to address crises (e.g., Nicaragua’s Somoza following the 1972 earthquake, Mexico’s PRI dictatorship following the 1985 quake, Bush II following Katrina). Addressing, or appearing to address, the crisis in its aftermath while at the same time reining in citizens’ attempts at independent organization—both of which President Bush did successfully after 9/11—can preserve or strengthen the regime, but failing in one or both regards can precipitate regime downfall—as Bush learned after Katrina and his administration’s foreign policy “failure” in Iraq.

Solnit rightly emphasizes the central role of the corporate media in propagating disaster myths that justify intensified hierarchy, militarization, and repression. The best example is again Katrina, when respected press outlets like CNN reported “rampaging gangs” and widespread “looting” in New Orleans based on little or no evidence, often mischaracterizing the necessary requisitioning of emergency food and medicine from flooded stores as “theft” (especially when black men were photographed doing it). They uncritically reported the comments of the New Orleans mayor and police chief, who disingenuously told stories of “hooligans killing people” and “little babies getting raped” inside the Superdome sports complex in which thousands had taken shelter (pp. 236-37). In the media narratives that followed both Katrina and 9/11, the heroes were males, usually uniformed professionals, while the thousands of women and ordinary civilians who saved countless lives remained unsung. The corporate press’s coverage of Katrina, 9/11, and other disasters is thus a microcosm of its more general tendency to promote fear, individualism, chauvinism, and a host of other destructive hallmarks of “Hobbesian behavior” among the public (p. 93).

Solnit’s double contribution is in exposing this process of mythmaking while also recovering the stories of ordinary people and the extraordinary possibilities they represent. She is interested not just in the immediate aftermath of disasters, but also with “larger questions about how human beings behave in the absence of coercive authority and what kind of societies are possible” (p. 81). Her anarchist or socialist-libertarian leanings are clear: Solnit wants the kind of society where people have control over their labor and the products of that labor, where work is meaningful and allows for human creativity, where everyone’s basic needs are met, and where power is decentralized and vested in local groupings of socially-connected and community-minded people. She is ultimately concerned with disasters for what they suggest about the everyday, arguing that “to recognize and realize these desires and these possibilities in ordinary times…without crisis or pressure is the great contemporary task of being human” (pp. 307, 113). Obviously there is no magic recipe for doing so, though she does suggest that religious and activist groups can help foster the spirit of “beloved community” at the heart of strong grassroots movements and meaningful human existence in general.

Yet while Solnit’s writing is unabashedly political, her values never get in the way of a scrupulous fidelity to the historical facts: her use of firsthand accounts and her synthesis of disaster research prove that such scenarios are possible. In this regard her work follows in the tradition not only of the disaster sociologists but of labor and business historians who have demonstrated the viability of non-bureaucratic forms of industrial organization in England and the US prior to 1900; as these scholars have proven, less-hierarchical forms of industrial production were eliminated in the nineteenth century not due to any inherent inefficiency but because of the power of factory owners and ascendant corporations who promoted the factory model and specific forms of technology in large part as a way of better controlling the workforce and raising profits [3]. Proving that more desirable alternatives are indeed possible—that there is nothing in human nature that consigns humanity to the misery, hierarchy, and oppression that characterizes so much of our current world—is no small contribution in a time when many in this country and around the world are so disillusioned that, as Solnit notes, they “do not even hope for a better society” (p. 9). Convincing the excluded majority that alternatives are possible is also a key step in the process that scholars of social movements have called “cognitive liberation”: in order to participate in a movement for change, cynical people must first become convinced that the current order is not inevitable [4].

I have just one minor quibble with the book. While I strongly agree with Solnit’s premise that bureaucracy and hierarchy are not necessary for human welfare, and with her more specific criticisms of how state bureaucracies fail in times of disaster, I think that anarchist-minded critics in today’s world need to be more explicit in distinguishing between their objectives and those of corporate elites, most of whom would be very happy to see “less government” in many areas of society. For instance, Solnit quotes with apparent approval the Czechoslovakian leader Václav Havel as saying that the state realm should be “limited only to that which cannot be performed by anyone else, such as legislation, national defense and security, the enforcement of justice, etc.” (p. 146). Criticisms of bureaucratic or oppressive states have often been manipulated by corporate interests to justify the privatization of public goods and other neoliberal policies, with disastrous consequences—Havel’s Eastern Europe being a prime example. In similar fashion, elites around the world have co-opted indigenous discourses of autonomy to shirk their tax obligations to poorer regions. The Zapatistas whom Solnit discusses briefly have always insisted on the state’s continued material obligations to autonomous communities in Mexico (a point she fails to mention); as the Zapatistas and other indigenous movements around the world have understood, autonomy does not absolve the state of those obligations. I am sure Solnit would agree that for the time being the state must be held to certain responsibilities like providing social services to the general population and supplying material resources in times of disaster: she is very critical of the wave of privatization that followed Katrina, for example. Recognition of the need for a temporary state presence as a protection from concentrated and unaccountable private power is not inconsistent with Solnit’s argument in favor of decentralized decision-making or with the anarchist/Marxist belief in the desirability of states’ dissolution in the long run. But in a political culture like that of the United States where the right-wing, neo-libertarian vilification of “government” has become so widespread—while remaining almost silent with regard to the corporate interests that are far less democratic and do far more to undermine democracy—this caveat needs to be enunciated more explicitly.

This small reservation aside, A Paradise Built in Hell is an inspiring model of politically-engaged scholarship that blends moral passion, academic sophistication, and readability (arguably the three greatest virtues of all historical and political writing). Rarely does a book combine these traits so masterfully. Its usefulness is apparent on multiple levels: it is a must-read for all government officials, especially those in charge of disaster preparedness (even if most higher-level officials are unlikely to willingly delegate greater power to ordinary citizens); a powerful denunciation of elite crimes and media complicity; and an inspiring set of historical case studies for progressive-minded people who have become too cynical and dejected to bother with activism and organizing. The book “speaks truth to power,” but far more importantly it uncovers truth for use by the powerless—they who must labor to construct paradise while those in power steer us toward hell.

[1] For a prominent recent example of this work see Lee Clarke and Caron Chess, “Elites and Panic: More to Fear than Fear Itself,” Social Forces 87, no. 2 (2008): 993-1014.
[2] See “Katrina’s Hidden Race War: In Aftermath of Storm, White Vigilante Groups Shot 11 African Americans in New Orleans,” Democracy Now! 19 December 2008.
[3] For example, see Dan Clawson’s Bureaucracy and the Labor Process: The Transformation of U.S. Industry, 1860-1920 (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1980); Charles Sable and Jonathan Zeitlin, “Historical Alternatives to Mass Production: Politics, Markets, and Technology in Nineteenth-Century Industrialization,”Past and Present 108 (August 1985): 133-76; and William G. Roy, Socializing Capital: The Rise of the Large Industrial Corporation in America (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1997).
[4] See Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: How They Succeed, Why They Fail(New York: Pantheon, 1977), 3-4, and Doug McAdam, Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).


“In this book, Solnit briefly quotes Victor Turner, an anthropologist whose theories of human social drama might have placed her research on disaster aftermath in further perspective.  This deserves further elucidation.  Victor Turner was a renegade structural-functionalist thinker who argued that, under certain conditions, social structures (such as hierarchies of dominance/ subordination) were abandoned by the general population and social states of “communitas,” spontaneous, immediate, and equal togetherness.  “Communitas,” in turn, is a valuable element of “antistructure,” the abandonment, if perhaps temporary, of aspects of social structure.  Turner usually characterized “communitas” as being a byproduct of marginal events in social life: rites of passage from childhood to adulthood, or festivals, or sacred occasions.  Solnit broadens this category a bit — “communitas,” she implies, has been and is a byproduct of disaster relief. Now, the political aspect of “communitas” is not easily recognized as meaningful, which is no doubt why the marxists do not read Victor Turner often.  Communitas, as Turner points out, “is made evident or accessible…only through its juxtaposition to, or hybridization with, aspects of social structure” (from page 127 of The Ritual Process).  Both before and after disaster and disaster relief, human society is guided by social structure, and by the ideologies and disciplines that hold it in place.  The question Solnit prompts for the student of social change, then, is one of whether disasters can catalyze changes in the social structure through the process of coming-together that attends disaster relief.  This is the potential of communitas in action that Solnit highlights so well.”

The Uses of Disaster: Notes on Bad Weather and Good Government
by Rebecca Solnit / September 9, 2005

At stake in stories of disaster is what version of human nature we will accept, and at stake in that choice is how will we govern, and how we will cope with future disasters. By now, more than a week after New Orleans has been destroyed, we have heard the stories of poor, mostly black people who were out of control. We were told of riots and babies being murdered, of instances of cannibalism. And we were provided an image of authority, of control –  of power as a necessary counter not to threats to human life but to unauthorized shopping, as though free TVs were the core of the crisis. This place is going to look like Little Somalia, Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told the Army Times. We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control. New Orleans, of course, has long been a violent place. Its homicide rate is among the highest in the nation. The Associated Press reports that last year university researchers conducted an experiment in which police fired 700 blank rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood in a single afternoon. No one called to report the gunfire. That is a real disaster. As I write this, however, it is becoming clear that many of the stories of post-disaster Hobbesian carnage were little more than rumor. I live in the N.O. area and got back into my house on Saturday, one resident wrote to Harry Shearer’s website. We know that the looting was blown out of proportion and that much of it was just people getting food and water, or batteries and other emergency supplies. That is not to say that some actual looting did not go on. There was, indeed, some of that. But it was pretty isolated. As was the shooting and other violence in the streets.

As the water subsides and the truth filters out, we may be left with another version of human nature. I have heard innumerable stories of rescue, aid, and care by doctors, neighbors, strangers, and volunteers who arrived on their own boats, and in helicopters, buses, and trucks – stories substantiated by real names and real faces. So far, citizens across the country have offered at least 200,000 beds in their homes to refugees from Katrina’s chaos on hurricanehousing.org, and unprecedented amounts have been donated to the Red Cross and other charities for hurricane victims. The greatest looter in this crisis may be twenty-year-old Jabbar Gibson, who appropriated a school bus and evacuated about seventy of his New Orleans neighbors to Houston.

Disasters are almost by definition about the failure of authority, in part because the powers that be are supposed to protect us from them, in part also because the thousand dispersed needs of a disaster overwhelm even the best governments, and because the government version of governing often arrives at the point of a gun. But the authorities don’t usually fail so spectacularly. Failure at this level requires sustained effort. The deepening of the divide between the haves and have nots, the stripping away of social services, the defunding of the infrastructure, mean that this disaster – not of weather but of policy – has been more or less what was intended to happen, if not so starkly in plain sight. The most hellish image in New Orleans was not the battering waves of Lake Pontchartrain or even the homeless children wandering on raised highways. It was the forgotten thousands crammed into the fetid depths of the Superdome. And what most news outlets failed to report was that those infernos were not designed by the people within, nor did they represent the spontaneous eruption of nature red in tooth and claw. They were created by the authorities. The people within were not allowed to leave. The Convention Center and the Superdome became open prisons. They won’t let them walk out, reported Fox News anchor Shepard Smith, in a radical departure from the script. They got locked in there. And anyone who walks up out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there’s hope. Over there, there’s electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it. It’s a fact. Jesse Jackson compared the Superdome to the hull of a slave ship. People were turned back at the Gretna bridge by armed authorities, men who fired warning shots over the growing crowd. Men in control. Lorrie Beth Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw, paramedics in New Orleans for a conference, wrote in an email report (now posted at CounterPunch) that they saw hundreds of stranded tourists thus turned back. All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot. That was not anarchy, nor was it civil society.

This is the disaster our society has been working to realize for a quarter century, ever since Ronald Reagan rode into town on promises of massive tax cuts. Many of the stories we hear about sudden natural disasters are about the brutally selfish human nature of the survivors, predicated on the notion that survival is, like the marketplace, a matter of competition, not cooperation. Cooperation flourishes anyway. (Slonsky and Bradshaw were part of a large group that had set up a civilized, independent camp.) And when we look back at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure, social services, and opportunities that would have significantly decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also, when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.

David Graeber in conversation with Rebecca Solnit  /  May 1, 2012

DG: So we’re in this weird situation where the only really effective thing done in the last thirty years on a global level has been to convince us that no other economic system could ever be possible. Now suddenly the one we’ve got is completely falling apart and everybody is like “Oh no, what are we going to do now? Nothing else is possible, what are we going to do?” And so this is the quandary of our time. For a while, the utopian thing was out but it seems like we need to get back to it because the hopelessness can’t hold out forever when right before our eyes it’s falling apart.


RS: I feel like it’s back in a lot of different ways. When I started working on disasters, one of the things that I ran into immediately was the assumption that the real disaster is the absence of the authoritarianism of the state. The assumption that in the absence of the system that has collapsed in Katrina or 9/11 or the bombing of Britain or what have you, we’ll fall apart somehow. We’ll fall apart morally, we’ll become rabid wolves, ripping each other up and raping and pillaging or, in the favorite word for Katrina, “looting.” Or we’ll fall apart in another way if we’re not wolves—we’re sheep, we’re going to stampede and panic and fall apart. There was an assumption that aerial bombing of civilians in World War II would cause fragile, working-class people to basically have nervous breakdowns and it would paralyze the state. That was the logic of aerial bombing. In fact, it doesn’t happen at all, but the logic behind aerial bombing has never stopped, even though it never demoralizes, terrorizes, or paralyzes a population. But the assumption in disaster is essentially the rationale of an authoritarian state about why we need an authoritarian state—because we’re basically savage, competitive, hostile, chaotic creatures. And why we are and they aren’t and that they should run everything is an assumption I don’t quite understand. But at the same time, it was always really interesting looking at disasters. In fact, the opposite is true: everyday life is a disaster, and disaster can liberate us. In response to what you were saying about the greater concern with controlling us than Iraq during the Iraq War, I felt like in a way all the post-9/11 stuff the Bush administration did was about shutting down that incredible moment when right next to Wall Street… One of the amazing things about Occupy when I finally went there is that everyone talked about Wall Street—it’s closer to Ground Zero than it is to Wall Street. And it felt like it was ten years and six days after the event, it picked up where we had left off. Because when then Twin Towers collapsed, nobody trampled each other, nobody panicked, all that savage social Darwinism you were promised didn’t happen. People aided each other in kind of extraordinary ways: a quadriplegic accountant was carried down sixty-nine stories by his coworkers who didn’t do any accounting for what he owed them on the way. And then you have these amazing things: people established this kind of free circulation of goods, the commissaries that were supplying Ground Zero, and the displaced people, and things like that. You suddenly had this—you know, we had the Oakland Commune last year, we had the Paris Commune… it was like the New York Commune, there was this moment in which relations were completely different, both at a practical level but also at an emotional level. Everybody says everybody made eye contact, they cared about how you were, boundaries came down. And that was terrifying to the Bush administration and to Wall Street, which was essentially Al Qaeda’s target. And they had to get us back to business—remember that campaign, America Open For Business and all that other stuff? This is a long way around saying that what actually happens in disasters is that they demonstrate that people are actually very good at being communists in the sense that they instantly abandon capitalism, that they love these relationships of mutual aid, because the astonishing thing about disasters is that people are often weirdly joyous in them, because they’ve recovered a sense of agency, a sense of power, etc.

“Rough structures were built around the outdoor gutter kitchens using whatever was available: cloth, shutters, roofing, or corrugated metal. Photos of the city from April and May of 1906 show innumerable pop ups, ramshackle eateries with ironic names like “The Palace Hotel” and “The Appetite Killery.” Communities emerged around these kitchens with mottos such as “Make the best of it. Forget the rest of it.”

interview by Astra Taylor / Fall 2009

AT: One of the most interesting ideas in the book is the concept of “elite panic”—the way that elites, during disasters and their aftermath, imagine that the public is not only in danger but also a source of danger. You show in case after case how elites respond in destructive ways, from withholding essential information, to blocking citizen relief efforts, to protecting property instead of people. As you write in the book, “there are grounds for fear of a coherent insurgent public, not just an overwrought, savage one.”

RS: The term “elite panic” was coined by Caron Chess and Lee Clarke of Rutgers. From the beginning of the field in the 1950s to the present, the major sociologists of disaster—Charles Fritz, Enrico Quarantelli, Kathleen Tierney, and Lee Clarke—proceeding in the most cautious, methodical, and clearly attempting-to-be-politically-neutral way of social scientists, arrived via their research at this enormous confidence in human nature and deep critique of institutional authority. It’s quite remarkable. Elites tend to believe in a venal, selfish, and essentially monstrous version of human nature, which I sometimes think is their own human nature. I mean, people don’t become incredibly wealthy and powerful by being angelic, necessarily. They believe that only their power keeps the rest of us in line and that when it somehow shrinks away, our seething violence will rise to the surface—that was very clear in Katrina. Timothy Garton Ash and Maureen Dowd and all these other people immediately jumped on the bandwagon and started writing commentaries based on the assumption that the rumors of mass violence during Katrina were true. A lot of people have never understood that the rumors were dispelled and that those things didn’t actually happen; it’s tragic. But there’s also an elite fear—going back to the 19th century—that there will be urban insurrection. It’s a valid fear. I see these moments of crisis as moments of popular power and positive social change. The major example in my book is Mexico City, where the ’85 earthquake prompted public disaffection with the one-party system and, therefore, the rebirth of civil society.

AT: So on the one hand there are people responding in these moments of crisis and organizing themselves, helping each other, and, on the other, there are power elites, who sometimes, though not always, sabotage grassroots efforts because, as you say at one point, the very existence of such efforts is taken to represent the failure of authorities to rise to the occasion—it’s better to quash such efforts than to appear incompetent. The way you explore the various motivations of the official power structure for sabotaging people’s attempts to self-organize was a very interesting element of the book.

RS: Not all authorities respond the same way. But you can see what you’re talking about happening right after the 1906 earthquake. San Franciscans formed these community street kitchens. You weren’t allowed to have a fire indoors because the risk of setting your house, and thereby your neighborhood, on fire was too great—if you had a house, that is. People responded with enormous humor and resourcefulness by creating these kitchens to feed the neighborhood. Butchers, dairymen, bakers, etcetera were giving away food for free. It was like a Paris Commune dream of a mutual-aid society. At a certain point, authorities decided that these kitchens would encourage freeloading and became obsessed with the fear that people would double dip. So they set up this kind of ration system and turned a horizontal model of mutual aid—where I’m helping you but you’re helping me—into a vertical model of charity where I have and you lack and I am giving to you. Common Ground, the radical organization for community rebuilding, 100 years later in New Orleans chooses as its motto: “Solidarity not charity.”

“Resident of Watertown, MA, photographs a man in combat fatigues pointing a rifle at him from the turret of his military Humvee. Everyone in the town was a potential threat that day, as police & military performed house-to-house searches for terrorists.”

by Padma Viswanathan / August 7th, 2009

RS: The panicked military of 1906 essentially burned down a lot of San Francisco and shot an unknown number of people as looters – one estimate says as many as 500. Who shoots people for minor property crimes, who thinks property is that sacred a basis of civilization? Who fucking cares when people are dying? The answer is the people in power, often, because the 1906 earthquake and Katrina 99 years later have a lot in common. . ‘Elite panic’ is a term coined by disaster sociologists Caron Chess and Lee Clarke to describe the way that elites freak out in crises (while the general public generally does not). Because they have so much power, their fears are magnified into policy, institutional violence, response or its lack–all the things you see in 1906 (when the mayor of San Francisco issued a shoot-to-kill proclamation for property crimes and some of the wealthy feared, as they often do and maybe should do in crisis, that disaster would unfold as revolution, with the roles of the powerful delegitimized and civil society recharged). For me the insurrectionary possibilities of disaster are what make them really interesting and sometimes positive–Mexico City’s big 1985 earthquake brought a lot of positive, populist, anti-institutional social change.

PV: Built in to your essay is the fact that a state of disaster is temporary, as are the societal changes that come with it. You talk a little, in the sections on the Mexico City earthquake and the Nicaraguan revolution, about conditions that can help to make change permanent, and also talk, in the section on 9/11, on what happens when a government seizes hold of elite panic and uses it to advance a pre-existing agenda. Where do you see the possibilities for structural change in the USA, a country so large and so diverse? Is there anything to be done to counter that negative perception of the mob, particularly given that those worst affected by any natural disaster are the poor, who are vulnerable, and the non-white, in part because they are disproportionately poor?

RS: Well, I’m a big fan of the vigor of civil society, political engagement, and public life in many parts of Latin America and really interested to watch the Latinoization of parts of this country. Many places  have become more lively and engaged or are becoming so. In his study of the Chicago heat wave, Eric Klinenberg points out that the vitality or lack of your neighborhood had a lot to do with whether you lived or died. You also see in the US a lot of localities taking more sane and inclusive approaches to disaster preparedness and planning (if not in some of the pandemic plans the Bush Administration put forward). And a lot of enthusiasm for public space, farmer’s markets, the idea of community–but we still build car-based sprawl and what I think of as the northern Protestant tradition of privatization of the social is still a major force. I think that fear of the mob, the expectation that people, particularly poor and nonwhite people become mobs almost automatically in the absence of coercive authority, is inculcated by the media, the movies, and politicians. I hope that my book will do something to make it clear they’re spreading destructive distortions about how most people actually behave and make visible some of the remarkably brave, altruistic, and resourceful ways people often act in crisis and disaster. We are entering a new era of populism and, finally, a turning away–not enough, but some–from adulation and deference to the rich and to the corporations. Nothing may come of it–but much could if people whose work it is to offer new ideas and tools seize the moment. And the poor have often been subversive just because they don’t always believe their own depiction as brutes and loafers and leeches, and this new economy is making lots more poor or recognize their fellowship with the insecurity of the poor, the portion of the population for whom the system does not work. Maybe even the era of identifying with the rich is over.

A volunteer sorts through donations at The Church of St. Luke and St. Matthew in Brooklyn. (Photo provided by the church.)

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The Civilizing Power of Disaster
Where was all the chaos, looting, and mass-panic during Hurricane Sandy?
by Katy Waldman  /  Nov. 6, 2012

The roll call of small mitzvahs and impromptu cooperation surrounding Sandy keeps expanding. Asked about conditions in post-hurricane New York, a Quora contributor mentioned the restaurants handing out free bread and coffee; the taxi drivers accepting whatever passengers have in the way of cash; the motorists waving walkers across the roads. In addition to rainwater, cities struck hard by Monday’s gale seem to be awash in the milk of human kindness.

Which prompted us cynical souls to ask: What’s going on? Conventional wisdom, supported by media narratives and Hollywood disaster flicks, says that emergencies bring out the worst in us. The 1977 New York City blackout still haunts our collective memory: Anarchy reigned, fires blazed, and looters and vandals ran amok. So where were the riots last week? Where was the mass panic? Why did so many people seem to rise to the occasion, instead of descending to some modern version of the Heart of Darkness? Researchers in disaster science have again and again debunked the idea that catastrophe causes social breakdown and releases the ugliest parts of human nature. Research from the past several decades demonstrates, as one report (pdf) put it, “that panic is not a problem in disasters; that rather than helplessly awaiting outside aid, members of the public behave proactively and prosocially to assist one another; that community residents themselves perform many critical disaster tasks, such as searching for and rescuing victims; and that both social cohesiveness and informal mechanisms of social control increase during disasters, resulting in a lower incidence of deviant behavior.” People become their best selves when crisis strikes.

The history of modern disasters entails a parallel history of people suddenly exhibiting communal, altruistic impulses. There were not enough lifeboats to save all 2,207 on board the Titanic. And yet, as a 2001 study confirmed, women and children, despite being physically weaker than men, were more likely to survive—suggesting that, in a nightmare scenario of scarce resources, many people chose sacrifice over self-interest. Likewise, a NIST report on theevacuation patterns of office workers in the World Trade Center during the Sept. 11 attacks told a story of order, cooperation, and selflessness, not mayhem or panic.

A growing body of research suggests that large-scale emergencies loosen social mores just enough to open up new spaces for human resilience, imagination, and compassion. Rebecca Solnit, author of A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster, coined the term “disaster utopia” to describe how people band together after a crisis, suspending conflicts or differences to help one another. She cites the provisional, fleeting society that cropped up in the wake of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and firestorm, which destroyed more than 28,000 homes, businesses, and municipal buildings. Gathered in Golden Gate Park, the newly homeless started soup kitchens and stitched together sheets to build refugee tents. They sang for each other and got married at far higher rates than usual. A strange, almost joyous liberation animated the city, one that survivors would remember with nostalgia, just as the Polish émigrés Solnit interviewed half-longed for the bad old days under a vicious Communist regime, because the harsh conditions forged such close communities of resistance. “Imagine a society,” Solnit writes, “where the fate that faces [people], no matter how grim, is far less so for being shared, where much once considered impossible, both good and bad, is now possible or present, and where the moment is so pressing that old complaints and worries fall away, where people feel important, purposeful, at the center of the world.”

Why do we behave so well when our normal social structures vanish? Maybe we’re grateful that the crisis left us alive. Maybe doing good works gives us a sense of control or agency. Or maybe being kind just makes us happy. One of the oddest and trickiest parts of Solnit’s thesis holds that people are not only more generous to one another in the wake of disaster, but that they are happier, too. Or, to be more precise, they experience “an emotion graver than happiness but deeply positive,” a kind of fulfillment that comes with recapturing what Solnit describes as humankind’s natural state. She argues that Westerners have internalized certain value systems—capitalism, individualism—that in some ways contradict our social wiring. Disruptive events recalibrate us to a “default setting,” which is “altruistic, communitarian [and] resourceful.” Solnit does not seek to minimize the grief and suffering crises can cause. Yet she believes that dealing with extreme situations helps us access a satisfying depth of feeling. Perhaps that’s one reason why people farther from a disaster often are more terrified by it. (Another explanation may be that onlookers can spare the emotional bandwidth for fear, while those at the epicenter simply do what they must.)

But meanwhile, the disaster myths persist. We expect anarchy when an emergency hits and get confused when civilization doesn’t come apart at the seams. Part of the blame lies with the media. Sociologists Kathleen Tierney, Christine Bevc, and Erica Kuligowski have outlined “reporting conventions that lead media organizations … to focus on dramatic, unusual, and exceptional behavior, which can lead audiences to believe such behavior is common and typical.”* Anomaly or not, a theft caught on tape makes for more compelling viewing than endless footage of rain. What’s more, they argue, news outlets narrate disasters through a “looting frame.” They intersperse relevant details with boilerplate commentary like “the National Guard has been brought into [name of community] to keep the peace”—implying that, without the National Guard, scofflaws would be running rampant. Such bias became especially evident in the days and weeks following Hurricane Katrina. And it took an even uglier turn when it merged with the media’s penchant for criminalizing minorities. In August 2005, newspapers published images of African-Americans “looting goods,” while white people doing the exact same thing were seen as “finding supplies.” According to the researchers, reporters poured all their energy into uncovering “the putative lawless behavior of certain categories and types of people—specifically young black males—to the exclusion of other behaviors in which these disaster victims may have engaged,” thereby “producing a profile of looters … that overlooked whatever prosocial, altruistic behaviors such groups may have undertaken.”

In one sense, then, emergencies do bring out the worst in some of us. They spook the people who have the most to lose if society changes shape. Disaster scientists have christened this phenomenon elite panic: “fear of social disorder; fear of poor, minorities and immigrants; obsession with looting and property crime; willingness to resort to deadly force; and actions taken on the basis of rumor.” While public, disaster-zone panic is mostly an illusion, elite panic manifests in the “command-and-control” measures a government often takes after a natural disaster, including shoot-to-kill orders and the deployment of heavily-armed “relief” forces. President Bush dispatched hundreds of troops in camouflaged battle gear to supervise post-Katrina New Orleans. Rather than convey food and water to victims, these assault rifle-bearing soldiers stood guard at street intersections and prevented the sick and needy from leaving. The storm had devastated Louisiana physically, but elite panic turned it into a cauldron of suspicion, wasted human resources and reactionary violence. It laid bare the costs of our disaster myths. Luckily, though, the New York and New Jersey communities hit hardest by Sandy are hewing closer to Rebecca Solnit’s vision. As power slowly returns to the East Coast and people rebuild their damaged homes, we’ll celebrate our lives going back to normal. It would be nice if we could hold onto a bit of utopia, too.

Ocean Bay Community Center in Arverne, Queens {photo: Michael Kirby Smith}

Community Center Says It Has Been Told to Cease Its Storm Relief Program
by Colin Moynihan  /  December 30, 2012

People began showing up at the Ocean Bay Community Center in Arverne, Queens, on Sunday morning, braving the harsh cold to collect numbered tickets from a tall, dreadlocked man named Jamal Skrine. As he handed the tickets out, Mr. Skrine told the recipients to return later to pick up food and supplies. The center was told by the New York City Housing Authority, which owns the building, to close for cleaning and transition “back to a community center space.” In the center’s gymnasium, volunteers were preparing for what had become a daily routine in the days after Hurricane Sandy, stacking tables with donated items, including cranberry juice, peanut butter and cleaning products. In the afternoon, those with tickets lined up outside and waited for the doors to open. “A lot of people are still suffering,” Karen Joe, 43, said as she waited, adding that she had just been scrubbing mold off her walls. More than two months after the hurricane, hundreds of people still rely on the relief program at the center, said Aria Doe, the executive director of a group that runs after-school programs there.

It was Ms. Doe who started the relief program after the storm. So far, she said, about half a million dollars’ worth of food, diapers and other items donated by people and organizations from as far away as Japan and Norway have been distributed, while doctors and other health care workers have provided free medical care. But just before Christmas, Ms. Doe said, officials from the New York City Housing Authority, which owns the building, told her to stop the relief efforts before the end of the year so that the center could be cleaned, and turn over supplies to city-run relief operations. In an e-mailed statement housing authority officials said that their agency and the Department of Youth and Community Development, which contracted with Ms. Doe’s group to run the after-school programs, wanted academic and community services to resume. “We need to inspect the center in order to begin necessary cleanup and remediation work so that we can transition the facility back to a community center space,” the officials wrote, adding that on Monday they planned to meet with people from the center “to discuss the cleaning process and next steps in restoring services.”

The hurricane caused extensive damage in Far Rockaway. On Sunday, heaps of debris could still be seen on corners, and some businesses remained shut down. The boarded-up windows of a McDonald’s on Beach Channel Drive had messages telling potential thieves that the place had already been ransacked. Ms. Doe said many of the people who showed up at the center had lost jobs because of the storm or had troubles even before that. The closest city-run relief centers, she said, were more than a dozen blocks away, near areas frequented by gangs. “We have so many elderly or infirm people,” Ms. Doe said. “They need a place that is close.” Ms. Doe said that volunteers would scrub the center over the next few days. Afterward, she said, she would get an official from the Environmental Protection Agency to certify that the premises were clean, a measure she hoped would satisfy the housing authority.

In January, she said, she would resume the after-school programs. Though she expected the need for relief supplies to diminish, she said, there was still a demand and she wanted to continue providing them while running the other programs. Just after 2 p.m. Mr. Skrine opened the doors and began ushering in those who had been waiting. Inside the gymnasium they filed past tables and accepted plastic bags containing, among other items, vitamins, soap, canned soup, fiber bars and wool blankets. Down the hall, in the clinic, an emergency medical technician offered flu shots. Nearby, in a kitchen, several men prepared rice and beans, salad and beef stew. And in the hall outside her office, Ms. Doe spoke with volunteers as she planned the scrubbing operation. “Get the mops out,” she said. “We’re going to be cleaning tonight.”

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