Love And Hope In The Ruins

Love And Hope In The Ruins
By Grace Lee Boggs
Michigan Citizen, Jan 23, 2010

While following the earthquake in Haiti on TV, I was also reading Rebecca Solnit’s new book, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster (Viking 2009). As a result,

  • I was not only saddened by the huge numbers of dead and wounded.
  • I wondered how many of the Americans sending money to Haiti are aware of the role of the U.S. in making it the poorest country in our hemisphere; how the U.S. helped bleed Haiti economically after it freed itself, repeatedly invaded, supported abusive dictators and toppled popularly elected officials, turned it from a country growing enough rice to feed itself into one dependent on imported rice produced by U.S. agribusiness. Weeks before the earthquake Bill Clinton had escorted capitalists from all over the world to Port-au-Prince, promising them enormous profits from exploiting the cheap labor of poor Haitians. He is still scheming to return with that agenda.
  • But I was also very aware of the help the Haitian people were giving each other as they dug in the rubble for survivors, by the lack of looting, by how patiently youngsters waited in the hot sun for desperately needed water and food.

In A Paradise Built in Hell Solnit tells us that this is how ordinary people have always responded to disaster. This is how the people of San Francisco responded to the 1906 earthquake, how those of Halifax responded to the 1917 harbor explosion of a munitions ship which killed 1500, how the British responded to World War II German air raids, and how the people of Mexico City to the 1985 earthquake.

In these disasters boundaries fell away and a new caring for each other emerged. When the superstructure crumbled, the best in human beings emerged. While the crisis lasted, people loved each other. For those whose lives were already hard, life took on new meaning. They experienced an evolution in their humanity.

Sociological studies of disasters have confirmed this insight into the possibilities that disasters offer for the creation of a new society.

However, instead of recognizing this new and evolving humanity, the power structure promotes a view of savages who loot and rape when law and order break down. For example, after Katrina devastated New Orleans, the press led rescue workers to view New Orleans as a war zone; the Governor and Mayor actually told law enforcement to stop saving lives and start arresting and shooting lawbreakers on sight; and the public, which didn’t need more reasons to think the worst of poor black people, found its stereotypes confirmed.

This is because those who rise to the top in competitive societies see the public not as allies but as threats. So, according to Defense Secretary Gates, the primary goal last week of the U.S., aware of how it is perceived in the ravaged country, was “to distribute aid as quickly as possible so that people don’t, in their desperation, turn to violence.”

A movement activist herself, Rebecca Solnit writes books and articles that help us to see today’s changing reality with new eyes, hearts and minds. After a Boggs Center tour of the city, she wrote “Detroit Arcadia” which we have shared with hundreds of visiting activists, reporters and filmmakers. It includes this passage:

“It is here, where European settlement began in the region, that we may be seeing the first signs of an unsettling of the very premises of colonial expansion, an unsettling that may bring a complex new human and natural ecology into being.

“This is the long-term hope Detroit offers us: the hope that we can reclaim what we paved over and poisoned, that nature will welcome us home—not with the landscape that was here when we arrived, perhaps, but with land that is alive, lush, and varied all the same. Detroit is a harsh place of poverty, deprivation, and a fair amount of crime, but it is also a stronghold of possibility.” (Harpers, Summer 2007)



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