Class and race bias unmasked
by LeiLani Dowell and John Catalinotto
[This article summarizes some of the more extensive coverage found at www.workers.org -- the web site of Workers World newspaper]
As of Sept. 6 the immediate horror of the suffering of over 100,000 New Orleans residents, almost all African American and all poor, has come to a pause. The tasks remain of counting and identifying the estimated 10,000 dead and resettling 1.5 million Gulf Coast residents displaced by a combination of a natural disaster and the government`s criminal negligence.
Hurricane Katrina`s 200 km/hour winds struck land Aug. 28 and blew down Biloxi, Mississippi. They blew out windows and destroyed roofs all over New Orleans. A day later, after the worst seemed to be over, New Orleans` Lake Pontchartrain broke through a levee and flooded 80 percent of the city. Over 100,000 people were trapped in water from 2 to 7 meters high.
President George Bush and the other government officials claim they had no warning such a calamity could happen. These are all lies as blatant as the lie that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. New Orleans is mostly below sea level, nestled between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain. The threat has been known for decades.
As long ago as Dec. 1, 2001, the Houston Chronicle reported: "New Orleans is sinking. And its main buffer from a hurricane, the protective Mississippi River delta, is quickly eroding away, leaving the historic city perilously close to disaster. ...So vulnerable, in fact, that earlier this year the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) ranked the potential damage to New Orleans as among the three likeliest, most catastrophic disasters facing this country."
Who are the real looters?
The big business government in Washington has looted the delta region for decades, contributing to the erosion of the Mississippi River delta.
It looted public services for poor people while giving huge tax breaks to Big Oil in the region.
To pay for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it looted the money from infrastructure upgrades that would have prevented much of today`s death and destruction.
And then it looted the people a third time by completely ignoring their cries for help, failing to provide for evacuation, food, housing or clothing for the survivors until four days later, when many had already died and a health emergency had been called.
When Katrina was about to hit, the local city government issued an order to evacuate. It was left to each individual family and person to leave the city, get a place to stay, and provide for themselves. There was no organized evacuation with public transportation, no temporary housing. The mayor said they should go to the Super Dome, a sports arena.
New Orleans is almost 70 percent African American. About a quarter of its total population and a third of the Black population live under the poverty level. Most of these poor workers and unemployed had no automobile in which to leave the city, no place to go to, and no money for hotels. The result was over 100,000 people, maybe 90 percent African American, with no food, drinking water, sanitary facilities during a tropical summer, surrounded by polluted sewage and muck.
From the time the hurricane hit on Sunday, Aug. 28, until Friday, Sept. 2, virtually no food, water, or mass transportation was brought by FEMA into New Orleans. FEMA stopped the Red Cross from going in. People were left stranded in hospitals without electricity. Many died.
With no other way to get food and water, some of the residents broke into grocery stores and took these items, and also things like diapers and wipes for babies. In some cases they distributed these items to the neighborhood. The governor of Louisiana called this "looting" and wanted the police to "shoot to kill."
Bush stayed on his five-week-long vacation until Aug. 31. He then flew over the devastated area in Air Force One. He finally visited Biloxi, Mississippi, on Sept. 2. When told of the "looting," he said there should be "zero tolerance," which is the same as saying, "shoot to kill." And he ordered 40,000 National Guard and regular Army troops into the area. In the Bush administration´s world view, the only role of government is that of a repressive state.
Racism, a ruling class tool
On Aug. 31, two photos published on the Yahoo News website caught the attention of web bloggers. In both, people are wading through chest-deep waters with food in their hands. One caption describes the young Black man shown as "looting a grocery store," while the other describes the two white people as "finding bread and soda from a local grocery store."
Racism has always been a tool of the capitalist ruling class, wielded to keep the working class divided and to justify war, occupation and poverty. Now the state is using the racist view of Black people as "looters" to justify an outrageous lack of response on the part of the federal government to the needs of the most oppressed in the delta region…—before and after the hurricane…—as well as to force yet another occupation of troops onto a community of color.
During that week of flood in New Orleans, police and military operations against looters replaced rescue efforts in some areas. The Associated Press reported on Sept. 1 that "the number of officers called off the search-and-rescue mission [in order to go after looters] amounts to virtually the entire police force in New Orleans."
Not in decades has the U.S. population gotten such a clear lesson in the inequalities imposed by class and race. Anger over the racist policies of U.S. imperialism is not contained to the delta region. Across the country and the world, it has only intensified with each news account of the devastation. It is coupled with anger about the continued U.S. occupation of Iraq, anger which was brewing long before Katrina hit.
The people organize and fight
Disgusted with the government´s response to the crisis, community groups have mobilized to help those forced to evacuate the Gulf Coast. SHAPE in Houston, Texas, which stands for Self-Help for African People through Education, has been a center of political activity in the Black community since 1969. SHAPE has organized to help the 230,000 evacuees in Houston, distributing aid contributed by poor working class people who are in solidarity with the displaced people.
The anti-war movement, too, is helping survivors of Hurricane Katrina. A delegation from Camp Casey in Crawford, Tex.…—named after a GI killed in Iraq whose mother has become a focus of anti-war mobilization…—set up camp in Covington, La., across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans, to bring food and water to the people forced to flee the Gulf Coast.
Along with bringing direct relief, progressive organizations have expanded the struggle to demand more aid from the government. A Camp Casey in downtown Detroit gave the microphone to someone who had just come from New Orleans to stay with family members. When the group reached out to the Labor Day parade on Sept. 5, the hurricane survivor carried a sign calling for Cuban doctors to be allowed to help the displaced Gulf Coast population. On Sept. 2 Cuba had offered 1,100 fully equipped and trained doctors immediately and with no conditions, but the Bush administration has ignored the offer.
A number of organizations have called for coordinated national demonstrations on Sept. 12, preferably at federal buildings, to demand:
* Immediate relief…—food, medicine, water, clothing and emergency shelter for the people of the region.
* Extended unemployment benefits for all who have lost jobs, and a massive jobs and housing program for the near future.
* Money for hurricane relief, not war!
* End the military occupation of New Orleans! People trying to feed their families are not looters!
* An independent international investigation of the criminal negligence that caused this disaster.
Initiating endorsers include the Million Worker March Movement; Troops Out Now Coalition; Saladin Muhammed, Black Workers For Justice; Harlem Tenants Council; Chris Silvera, Chair, Teamsters National Black Caucus; Malik Rahim, Greencross, New Orleans; International Action Center; Cuba Solidarity New York; Rev. Lucius Walker, Pastors for Peace; Rev. Luis Barrios, Iglesia San Romero de Las Amà©ricas; and local leaders and activists from around the country. Protests are already planned in all the large cities and over 100 areas of the U.S. (See http://www.troopsoutnow.org/)