On the two year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, George Bush stood in the middle of the still devastated Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and crowed, “This town is better today than it was yesterday, and its going to be better tomorrow than it is today.”
This is not because Bush failed to notice the boarded up homes, the overgrown empty lots, or the fact that most of the residents have not and will never return. It is not government neglect or mismanagement of funds. Speaking for a system that was built on slavery and genocide, that has white supremacy built into its structures, laws and culture, George Bush looked at all this and saw progress.
Survivors: “They was trying to wipe us out.”
Beginning the evening of August 29 and continuing for four more days the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita included sessions on the abuse of prisoners, police brutality, lack of evacuation plans and neglect of the levees, environmental racism, labor and migrant rights, schools, gentrification, and displacement and other outrages.
Nkechi Taifa opened the indictment against the U.S. Government for Crimes Against Humanity by invoking the memory of Mamie Till whose son Emmett was brutally lynched by white men in Mississippi in 1955. Mamie Till courageously insisted that the casket of her 14-year-old son, Emmett, be opened up for the world to see. She displayed his battered and water-soaked body publicly, shocking the conscience of the world.
Two years after Katrina and Rita, Nkechi insisted that the barbarity and criminality of what was-and is continuing to be done-to Black people and others in and around New Orleans still needs to be opened up for the whole world to see.
For two and a half days over Katrina’s anniversary, I visited New Orleans. Through the Tribunal, at protests, in Cooper projects, and in the Lower Ninth Ward, I heard bitter stories
Of prisoners hurling fists, broom sticks and wheelchairs against the walls of their confinement amidst rising flood waters till they collapse in exhaustion. Guards long since gone. Lights out. Water, thick and putrid with sewage, rising to their necks in the pitch black.
That still haunt
Children swept out of the arms of parents. Elderly folks stranded in wheelchairs for days as maggots and waterbugs, soaked out of the building foundations, crawl all around and over them.
That flow from-and were enforced by-a system
“You know what hurt me?” asked an older woman from Cooper Projects, as two years later tears pile out of both eyes, “When we was going through all that water, that filth, that oil, all that to get over to that bridge I see nothing but FEMA cars police lights big Army helicopters sitting in that spot. Those people sitting there not trying to help us. They was looking at us die. Come on now! That hurts. That hurts I will die saying they was trying to wipe us out.”
Protest and Anger
On August 29, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of residents and activists from around the country held commemorative events and protests around the city. Robert Green held a public memorial in the Ninth Ward where his home had been swept off the ground in twenty feet of raging floodwater. His mother died there, and his granddaughter had slipped off the roof and disappeared into the water two years before. After being abandoned to die in the storm, the authorities refused to retrieve his mother’s body from the rooftop where she was clearly visible from a distance and weeks later Green had to go in and do it himself.
Later that day, up to a thousand residents, volunteers, and activists gathered at the levee wall where it had broken and marched through the Ninth Ward. Most of its residents have not returned because of obstacles thrown up by city, state and federal government. People marched through pouring rain to Congo Square some five miles into town.
Throughout the afternoon a Day of Presence, organized by Susan Taylor, editor of Essence magazine, brought together Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, poet Jessica Care Moore, and other Black leaders and artists in front of the Convention Center where tens of thousands had been stranded without food or water for days during the storm. This, however, is downtown. Everything is cleaned up here. A “David Duke for Governor” (a notorious Klan white-supremacist) bumper sticker taunted those who gathered.
For five days, the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pried open the crimes of the government before, during, and after Katrina with first-hand testimony from prisoners, witnesses of summary executions, victims of severe police brutality, folks still dispersed and living in trailers, people locked out of public housing and activists and experts from the ACLU, National Conference of Black Lawyers, Center for Constitutional Rights, NAACP, National Lawyers Guild, Louisiana Justice Institute, People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Malcolm X Grassroots Committee.
I spoke with Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, famous for her honest and angry testimony about surviving the storm in Spike Lee’s documentary, When the Levees Broke. She told me that she’s met people who were ready to kill themselves before they heard her testimony in the film. Hearing her speak the truth gave them the strength to keep struggling.
Housing and the Right to Return
One very sharp concentration of the system’s plans to “rebuild” New Orleans is the forced displacement of people, a refusal to rebuild privately owned housing, and the shuttering of public housing. Large housing projects in New Orleans, like St. Bernard, Lafitte, and C.J. Peete are completely shut down while several others, including Iberville and B.W. Cooper are mostly fenced off and unoccupied. These projects could house more than 5,000 families, and they comprise some of the least damaged housing in New Orleans post Katrina. The government used Hurricane Katrina to empty the projects and keep the people who lived there, most of them poor Black people, from returning to the city. One of these projects is going to be replaced by a golf course!
On August 31, residents of public housing, public housing advocates and others protested at the office of the executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), demanding an end to the destruction of public housing and the right of all New Orleans residents to return. In response, the HANO office closed for the day, police and National Guardsmen cordoned off the building, entered it and surrounded the Director’s office for several hours until protesters marched out of the building.
An encampment of homeless folks has sprung up across the street from Mayer Nagin’s office downtown demanding that housing be opened up to those who need it. Activists there told me that Mayor Nagin at one point offered to open up housing to the protesters, but they refused, choosing to continue sleeping in the park with others until housing is provided for everyone.
Two years after Katrina, the crimes against the people continue.
New Orleans population is less than two-thirds of what was before Katrina, yet estimates say there are now three times as many homeless people. While New Orleans moves to permanently shut down its four largest housing projects, nearby St. Bernard Parish passed a “whites only” law in the form of requiring that anyone who moves there must have a blood relative already living in the Parish, which is 93% white (the law is being challenged in court).
33,000 people are estimated to be still living in FEMA trailers, many of which are infested with dangerous levels of formaldehyde. A man who lives in a FEMA park with about 23 trailers housing 75 people told me that, of the adults, there is one woman who works26 miles away at a Wendy’s. The only town nearby is almost entirely white and the 1,500 or so people who live there don’t want the evacuees around. “My thirteen-year-old, he finished second in his class. But on awards day, they didn’t give him anything,” the man explains with pain in his voice. “He was very disappointed, you know? I know what it is. A thirteen year old don’t understand that.”
One thing that makes every resident of New Orleans I meet smile is the volunteers who have come through to rebuild. Over 14,000 volunteers, including students from over 200 colleges, have been part of rebuilding just with the Common Ground effort. They helped residents clear debris from their homes and yards in the Ninth Ward, they set up volunteer clinics and risked arrest to clean out and reopen schools-including the one Bush had the audacity to pose for a photo-op in.
Most of the volunteers have come not only from long distances, but also from very different walks of life. The ones I spoke with have been changed by the survivors they’ve met and from their close-up look at how this system treats those at the bottom. One told me, “When I was back in California there were a lot of things I worried about that really now this experience kind of gives me an appreciation for how little some of that matters.”
But despite the wonderful spirit of these volunteers, and despite the burning, fierce desire of the people of New Orleans to survive and rebuild, the system stands in the way at every turn. The system is shuttering housing when people need housing, moving jobs when people need work, creating a viciously two-tiered educational system when people need schools Everywhere you turn, the system is the problem not the solution.
There is a great challenge to everyone to step forward in political resistance, and to not let what is happening in New Orleans go down like this.