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Six Feet High and Risin’

 

Beside the fact that the closing guitar riff from Led Zeppelin’s song “When the Levee Breaks” keeps running through my head, there is the very real possibility (as mentioned by the editors of Counterpunch in its August 31, 2005 edition) that the unfolding tragedy in New Orleans and Mississippi may wake up the people of the United States to the fact that the only people in the world who seem to be doing exceptionally well are those who run the energy industry. No matter what happens in Iraq, they make more and more money. No matter what happens in Louisiana, they make more and more money. No matter what the people think and say as they fill up their vehicles at the gas pumps, they make more and more money.

How much more money are they Making? Well, let’s see: On July 31, 2005 ExxonMobil reported a second quarter profits that were a forty percent increase over its second quarter profits of the year before; Shell saw a similar percentage increase (43%0, and Chevron saw an 11% increase. All of these profits were in spite of no increased production of oil. Indeed, both Shell and Chevron saw a fall in production from the second quarter of 2004. Meanwhile, the recently passed energy bill gave away millions upon millions of tax cuts and incentives to these very same corporations.

The topic of conversation on the Asheville city bus today was two-fold. Iraq and Katrina. Young and old, black-skinned and white-skinned, male and female, it didn’t matter. Being closer to the areas hit by Katrina than those in the US’s media centers, there is a very real sense of tragedy here. Indeed, many of these folks got hit by last year’s round robin of hurricanes and many of them have people in Mississippi and Louisiana. One older African-American woman was telling a friend of hers (who looked like Johnny Cash in his later years) that her daughter was heading back to Iraq on September 2nd and that her son-in-law was already in Afghanistan. So, she continued, they were going to cook up both fish and chicken and he was invited to come on by. He said he would bring some beer for the adults and soda for her grandkids and those who didn’t drink the good stuff. Then, out of nowhere he said he wished that jerk in the White House would just get all of them troops out of Iraq and send them to Louisiana and Mississippi where they could do some good.. That comment did not meet with a single argument from anyone on the bus. Grandma, who will be watching her grandkids while their parents serve in Bush’s wars, pointed out that if there weren’t so many National Guard and reservists in Iraq and elsewhere, they would have been able to use them servicemen and women to get all of the poor people out of Louisiana before the levee broke.

“You notice,” piped in a twenty-something woman coming back from her job at Burger King, “that most of them rich people all got out. ” It weren’t,” she continued, “the casino owners in Biloxi who got killed. It was the people who clean them damn things.”

This was when the guy who looked like Johnny Cash broke back into the conversation: “That SOB Bush was never in no war. He don’t care about the soldiers, mostly ’cause they poor. I don’t wish his children would have to go over there ’cause I’m a Christian, but he needs to get all of them boys and girls back here now.”

The bus stopped to pick up a passenger at a stop by a gas station. I pointed out that the man who worked there was putting up a new price. Someone else joked that he might as well just keep his ladder out there by his sign because the prices were gonna’ keep on going up.

“After all,” continued the speaker, a young guy wearing a Braves baseball cap, “they were twenty cents cheaper the day before yesterday. My girlfriend and I just parked our damn car and decided we was gonna’ ride the bus for now.”

Of course, sooner or later the bus prices will go up because the semi-private company that runs the system won’t be able to afford its costs and we all know that in this great country the government doesn’t like to subsidize public transportation Only war and the corporations it serves.

I’d seen the guy who got on the bus at the gas station before. He is an old hippie guy who bent my ear one afternoon while I sat on a bench in downtown Asheville. A veteran of Vietnam, he noticed my US OUT OF IRAQ NOW pin on my daypack and told me that he agreed one hundred percent. Then he told me that the only reason the war was going the way it was was so that the people who make money off of war and oil could make as much money as possible. If they wanted to get rid of Saddam or whatever their excuse was, they could have done that in a week. Sooner or later, he continued, the American people would get tired of it and they would have to stop this pissant war. But until then, they were going to reap in the profits, no matter how many poor people got themselves killed.

“That,” he said, “is what happens when you got rich people who never been nothing but rich people running your country.”

What could I do but agree. And wonder when the levee that’s been protecting those people running the country is gonna’ break.

* * *

The television news coverage has become angrier in the past twenty four hours. Instead of their usual impassiveness or overwrought emotionalism, the talking heads and reporters on the three older networks (CBS, NBC, ABC) seem to be moving into the role of advocate for the victims of Katrina. The content and tone of their questions to FEMA and other federal government officials borders on genuine anger. Echoing those souls living on the edge of survival in New Orleans and elsewhere along the Gulf Coast, the news people are demanding answers about the government’s callous inability to perform many basic rescue operations.

Indeed, they have even begun to ask if this callousness is related to the economic class and skin color of the majority of those doing most of the suffering. After raising this question in an evening news special Thursday evening, one of the networks relayed the history of race and class in New Orleans, telling viewers that back in the flood of 1927, black citizens were forced to work shoring up the levees, causing several deaths.

“You actually used black people as sandbags back then,” Congressman Jefferson recalled from boyhood memories his father had once shared. “They took every dangerous job there was to try and beat the water back.” (ABC News Special, 9/1/2005)

Not only has this question been asked in relation to the terminology used to describe those taking goods from stores-ABC showed two photos of people doing exactly this, one was of a white skinned couple and another of some black-skinned folks: the caption under the former explained that the couple was hungry and had found some food in a store, the second described the black-skinned folks with groceries as looters-it has also been presented in relation as to how these people were not given means to leave the area before the storm.

While there was probably no specific intention to leave these people at the mercy of nature and predators, the very fact that no means was provided for them to get out of the storm’s path exhibits something deeper. It exhibits a class divide. Much like many other governmental mandates, these people were told to do something but were left without the means to do it. Only those residents with enough money to drive out or pay for some other means of transportation were actually able to leave the scene. Of course, the government fails to accept responsibility for this negligence, choosing instead to issue cheap promises backed up with nervous men with guns. Indeed, they probably don’t even understand that their failure to provide these people with a means to leave is a crime, so far removed are they from the world of those US residents who live one paycheck away from the homeless shelter.

The words of my fellow bus rider bear repeating.

“That,” he said, “is what happens when you got rich people who never been nothing but rich people running your country.”

RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s new collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at: ron05401@yahoo.com