General: September 2005 Archives

what do you think?

The Times-Picayune headline and story appears only after almost a full month of reports that the New Orleans victims of hurricane Katrina had acted like murderers and animals.

As the fog of warlike conditions in Hurricane Katrina's aftermath has cleared, the vast majority of reported atrocities committed by evacuees have turned out to be false, or at least unsupported by any evidence, according to key military, law enforcement, medical and civilian officials in positions to know.

"I think 99 percent of it is bulls---," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Lachney, who played a key role in security and humanitarian work inside the Dome. "Don't get me wrong, bad things happened, but I didn't see any killing and raping and cutting of throats or anything. ... Ninety-nine percent of the people in the Dome were very well-behaved."

. . . .

Four weeks after the storm, few of the widely reported atrocities have been backed with evidence. The piles of bodies never materialized, and soldiers, police officers and rescue personnel on the front lines say that although anarchy reigned at times and people suffered unimaginable indignities, most of the worst crimes reported at the time never happened.

We should have known all along that racism would be a key part of the disaster response. What has surprised us most, the original reports or the news that they were spurious?

[image dated September 2, of crowd awaiting evacuation from the Superdome, by David J. Phillip from AP via Times-Picayune]

Chiquita Garner, left, of New Orleans, waits with her family outside the closed Greyhound terminal in Houston on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2005. Garner and her family had been evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina hit and have been living in the Houston Astrodome since. They were hoping another bus would come by despite the fact that the station had closed. [caption from the Associated Press]

The store of hurricane Katrina literature is already pretty vast, but it hasn't always been very, well, literate. John Weir didn't get to Houston until some time after the disaster in New Orleans which saw thousands of people flee to Texas and into the Astrodome, but he came away with a story about . . . home.

It's no longer breaking news, and in fact evacuees in the Astrodome itself have now been [re-evacuated?] in the face of a new hurricane threat, but his is the kind of intelligent, primary-source account we will need in order to understand what went so terribly wrong in Louisiana this month.


This is how Americans lose everything: in public, within range of TV anchors taping standup segments for the nightly news. A week after 23,000 people left the New Orleans Superdome and fled to Texas, I’m in Houston’s Astrodome with a media handler and five other journalists taking notes and aiming video cameras. There are still 3,000 people sleeping on army cots across the playing field of the Astrodome – a caravan of misplaced persons moving from dome to dome across the Gulf Coast. Reporters mill around them, watchfully ignored by the arena’s inhabitants until one of them decides or is persuaded to tell her story.

Two-thirds of the people in the Superdome were women, many of them young mothers, and the Astrodome is a makeshift city of stunned moms whose little kids, playing jacks and doing cartwheels, seem unable or unwilling to relate to the disaster except as a day off from school. Beds made up with gray wool blankets are covered with boxes of Huggies, along with copies of the Bible, paperback novels by John Steinbeck, and inspirational books: Walk on Dry Land, a 12-step self-help manual that has been fortuitously named. Whenever someone is reunited with a lost family member, a cowbell clangs.

Postings on the giant message board speak of hope, and, indeed, in the past few days, there have been celebrity visitors here. Oprah came with her camera crew. George and Barbara Bush, Sr. showed up last Monday, with Bill and Hillary Clinton and Illinois Senator Barack Obama. Each of the dignitaries responded according to his or her inclination. Mrs. Bush, a booster for Texas, welcomed the new arrivals to her home state. “So many of the people in the arena, here, you know,” she told the radio audience of American Public Media’s Markeptlace, “were underprivileged anyway, so this. . . ” She paused for emphasis, laughing slightly. “This is working very well for them.”

Just whom she meant by “them” – not to mention “underprivileged” – and how much of the life and future of New Orleans has been permanently lost by their displacement, was a question that everyone was addressing directly, yet also, somehow, in code. There was the problem of what to call the arrivals in Texas, hundreds of thousands of black people who had fled New Orleans, a city whose largest Parish, Orleans, had been 66% black, and a majority of whose black citizens lived below the poverty line, many of them holding jobs that did not require marketable skills in the information economy – busboys, warehouse workers, hotel maids.

They were being called refugees. They were being called evacuees. They were being called victims and survivors. In Houston, the relief workers and city functionaries had begun calling them neighbors and guests and, finally, residents. NBC news anchor Brian Williams, talking to Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, called them, defensively or apologetically, Americans, as if to distinguish them from the third world poor whose plights they suddenly if temporarily appeared to share.

They did not fit easily into the national narrative of opportunity and prosperity and the all-inclusive American melting pot. Moreover, the hurricane itself presented problems for the media and national government, restricting triumphant photo opportunities. There was the lack of a signature visual, as when the Twin Towers collapsed on 9/11. There was the lack of a unified band of Police officers and firefighters whose heroic rescue efforts could be praised and shared. Instead, the media leaked reports of members of the New Orleans Police Department abandoning the Superdome and the Convention Center, of officers looting homes and businesses, of the Police Department’s spokesperson himself committing suicide after spending a few days in the flooded city.

There was finally the complication of the people in the Superdome being, not assassinated by terrorists and mourned as American martyrs, but in fact still alive, still trapped in the ruined building days later, still needing government aid. This time the victims were twenty-three thousand working class black people, many without cars or ready cash or means of escape. They had spent their lives within drowning distance of a lake whose levees everybody seemed to know would collapse, and they were corralled into a giant sports dome while the rains came and the toilets overflowed, and media choppers flew overhead without the apparent intention of getting anybody out.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, while President Bush was keeping a rather aristocratic distance, members of America’s shadow government – celebrities, NBA jocks, movie stars – were everywhere, flying over the Superdome to assess the damage and then touching down in Mississippi and Louisiana and Texas to talk to survivors and offer leadership and support. For a period of two or three days it appeared in fact that Oprah was President. She said what many must have felt but none of the country’s national leaders had yet articulated. Visiting the Astrodome, speaking to those who had endured the ordeal at the Superdome, she said, “We owe these people an apology.”

The apology came on Thursday in the form of debit cards. The survivors of Hurricane Katrina were now being called “clients,” and they were being invited to apply for ATM cards that were issued by the Red Cross on a sliding scale depending on family size, good for anything from a few hundred dollars up to a couple thousand. Then FEMA announced it was issuing cards worth $2000 to anyone who qualified for aid.

In America, when all is lost, someone gives you paperwork, and then you stand in line. On Thursday morning in Houston, two weeks after the flood, there are two massive lines snaking around the front of the Reliant Center, the convention center facing the Astrodome. One line is for people wanting to apply for Red Cross debit cards; the other is for successful applicants, cleared for access, validated forms in hand. Twenty-five hundred people are out in the heat, some of them under umbrellas, some of them holding newspapers and cardboard boxes over their heads to shield themselves from the sun. They are wearing flipflops and sandals, shorts and t-shirts, and clutching whatever they own. People are in wheel chairs; the disabled lean on canes. One small red stand dispenses Coke.

I speak to a young woman named Trina who has fifteen dollars pinned to her shirt. She is carrying her clothes in two plastic Whole Foods bags, while her son drives his toy car across the Reliant Center windows, shouting, “Whee! Whee!” Trina was in the Superdome for four days. “The government sending all that money to Iraq,” she says, angrily. “Whatever money they give us ain’t going to replace everything we lost.”

Lainez Fisher, a beautiful sleek woman in her mid-twenties, is wearing a Marilyn Monroe knapsack on her back and a black scarf around her head. She was in the Superdome from Monday until Friday. “The military got the help, not us,” she says. “They treated us like animals.” Her sister Gretchen agrees. “No need for that,” she says. “Really no need.” Gretchen has a pit bull with eleven puppies that she shipped in a crate to Gonzales, Louisiana. Otherwise, she left New Orleans with the clothes on her back and her Betty Boop handbag. “Back in the day,” she says, “we used to run on those levees. We saw the holes. We knew they would collapse.”

I am introduced to a woman named Miss Claiborne. She spells it for me. “M-i-s-s,” she begins, then her last name. I ask her if it’s true that the Red Cross is giving out money. “They’re supposed to,” she says, loading the word “supposed” with the kind of skepticism and scorn that only certain middle-aged black women are able to achieve. She tells me, as do so many others, about living in the Superdome, about being treated like animals, fed like dogs, watching corpses rot, guarded by members of the National Guard who seemed interested only in protecting themselves. And then, thinking back before the Superdome and the flood’s damage, she remembers what else she lost. “I owned a home,” she says. “I owned a home.”

I can’t convey how slowly and proudly she says it, how hopeful and tragic it sounds, how terribly sad, the beautiful American word, “home.” Whose home? The ruined homes on the coast of Biloxi, the historical homes? The drenched housing of the New Orleans poor? The temporary shelters, the sports domes, the welcoming cities, the question, repeatedly asked, “Will you go home? Can you go home?” In Houston, a week after the hurricane, people can name what they lost, their homeland, their families, their security – “Everything,” so many tell me, “I lost everything” – but the question of exactly what it was worth, and to whom, is only beginning to be addressed.

[image of Rick Bowmer from the AP via Yahoo!]

A man in the crowd in front of Reliant Arena, lies passed out from the morning heat. He was taken away in an ambulance. Residents of the shelter were told they were being evacuated to Arkansas, due to Hurricane Rita [Times-Picayune caption dated September 21]

Anyone who has been looking at this site for the last month knows how much I've been concerned about local control of the reconstruction of lives and neighborhoods in New Orleans.

This afternoon, as Louisiana awaits the impact of another hurricane, the burden for these communities and those who would help them has become more overwhelming than ever.

I was happy to find out only a few minutes ago that Community Labor United, the people whose experience and projects seem to best describe such an initiative now have their own neat and very useful website.

[image by Eliot Kamenitz from the Times-Picayune]

where Dumaine crosses North Roman, central Treme after the flood, sometime late last week

The title of Jordan Flaherty's latest letter is "Shelter and Safety", but the context is racism, a racism exacerbated by the horrors of Hurricane Katrina, a racism which continues even today in "rescue" and "shelter" operations and which is built into the plans for tomorrow's New Orleans.

The sections I've excerpted below describe just a little of the desperate struggle of a poor, almost-powerless, displaced community to remain a community. [The entire text includes much more detail on the specific horrors of "Shelter and Safety" today in Louisiana, and I expect it will soon appear on leftturn].

Just north of the French Quarter . . . is the historic Treme neighborhood. Settled in the early 1800s, it’s known as the oldest free African-American community in the US. Residents fear for the post-reconstruction stability of communities like Treme. “There’s nothing some developers would like more than a ring of white neighborhoods around the French Quarter,” said one Treme resident recently. The widespread fear among organizers is that the exclusionary, “tourists only” atmosphere of the French Quarter will be multiplied and expanded across the city, and that many residents simply wont be able to return home.

. . . .

Diane "Momma D" Frenchcoat never evacuated out of her Treme home on North Dorgenois Street, and has been helping feed and support 50 families, coordinating a relief and rebuilding effort consisting of, at its peak, 30 volunteers known as the Soul Patrol.

. . . .

Asked about her plan, Momma D had these words, "Rescue. Return. Restore. Can you hear what I'm saying, baby? Listen to those words again. Rescue, return, restore. We want the young, able-bodied men who are still here to stay to help those in need. And the ones that have been evacuated, we want them to come home and help clean up and rebuild this city. How can the city demand that we evacuate our homes but then have thousands of people from across this country volunteering to do the things that we can do ourselves?"

Community organizers like Momma D in Treme and Malik Rahim, who has a similar network in the Algiers neighborhood, are the forces for relief and rebuilding that need our help. The biggest disaster was not a hurricane, but the dispersal of communities, and that's the disaster that needs to be addressed first.

Yesterday a friend told me through tears, “I just want to go back as if this never happened. I want to go back to my friends and my neighbors and my community.” Its our community that has brought us security. People I know in New Orleans don’t feel safer when they see Blackwater mercenaries on their block, but they do feel security from knowing their neighbors are watching out for them. And that's why the police and national guard and security companies on our streets haven’t brought us the security we’ve been looking for, and why discussions of razing neighborhoods makes us feel cold.

When we say we want our city back, we don’t mean the structures and the institutions, and we don’t mean “law and order,” we mean our community, the people we love. And that's the city we want to fight for.

[image by Ted Jackson from the Times Picayune]

NOLAroad trip.jpg
back at Duke, Sonny Byrd, David Hankla and Hans Buder

"It made no sense whatsoever that reporters were getting in and out of New Orleans, but the National Guard couldn't remove those people from the convention center," said Mr. Hankla, 20, a sophomore. "All we knew was that we were sick of being armchair humanitarians and that we intended to help get people out."

So he and two dorm mates, Sonny Byrd and Hans Buder, set out in Mr. Byrd's Hyundai sedan for a road trip and rescue mission. [read the whole story in the NYTimes]

That's the can-do spirit which seems missing in most of the country these days. It's also the spirit (and the devices) we used in ACT UP, especially in the early 90's: Sometimes you just have to figure out how to make your own credentials if you want to help people.

Hey, these dudes weren't arrested, and they even got media coverage - key in any action!

[image by John Loomis for the Times]

NOPD officers Danny Scanlan and Juan Lopez keep a watchful eye during patrol Thursday, Sept. 8, 2005 in New Orleans. [caption of the Times Picayune]

Jordan Flaherty continues to write from Louisiana, and on Friday he argued that the most serious damage done to New Orleans was not the consequence of the hurricane or even of the floods which followed the breaks in the levees. An excerpt follows.

But the worst damage is what is being done now, this confluence of forces barraging New Orleans and its Diaspora, what some local organizers have referred to as the Disaster Industrial Complex. This is the perfect storm created by an orgy of greed and opportunism engaged in by the jackals of disaster profiteering. The list of those who are gaining from our loss is large, and it includes everyone from the heavily armed thugs of Wackenhut Security and Blackwater USA to the often well-meaning but ineffective bureaucrats of Red Cross and FEMA, to the Scientology missionaries crowding the shelters, to journalists and disaster-gazers taking up a chunk of available housing, to the major multinationals such as Halliburton, working in concert with rich elites from uptown New Orleans seeking partners with which to exploit this tragedy.

These are the institutions and individuals poised to profit from this disaster, while the people of New Orleans face nothing but further dislocation and disempowerment.

. . . .

Whether its in the shelters or in the streets of New Orleans, this may go down as the most militarized “relief” effort in history. The Chicago police are camped out on a bar on Bourbon Street. Wackenhut security convoys are riding in and out of town. Israeli security patrol Audubon Place Uptown. White vigilante gangs patrol the West Bank, with tacit permission of local authorities. National Guard and Blackwater are on patrol throughout the city, along with DEA, INS, State police, New Orleans police, NYPD, and countless other agencies.

. . . .

This militarization of New Orleans stands in stark contradiction to the people’s efforts at reconstruction. The Common Ground Collective, in the Algiers area of New Orleans, has built a community health center and food distribution network serving, according to organizer Malik Rahim’s estimate, about 16,000 people in New Orleans Parish and surrounding areas such as Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes. “Have the police helped us?” asked one local organizer, “no, they’ve stood in our way at every turn.”

. . . .

Today I received a call from Royce Osborne, a local filmmaker who made the New Orleans classic film All On A Mardi Gras Day. Royce is also a community activist and one of the Mardi Gras Skeletons, another Black Mardi Gras tradition. Royce told me he’s aching to come back, and looking forward to Mardi Gras 2006. “If we see the Indians out on the streets in the next Mardi Gras, then I’ll know there’s hope for New Orleans,” he said.

[image by Michael Democker for the Times Picayune]

not everything's in the French Quarter

I obviously haven't seen everything being written about the reconstruction (or, gasp, "urban renewal") of New Orleans, but I know I haven't read a single word about who actually owns all those unique, traditional/vernacular style houses we've seen throughout the flooded older, poorer neighborhoods. I suspect they are mostly owner-occupied or rented from people who live in the neighborhood.

I certainly don't think Halliburton or the developers own them - yet. Why are we talking about these neighborhoods as if their ownership had evaporated, as if the governments which failed them can now decide their disposition in a vacuum?

[image of two shotgun houses from Ingolf Vogeler]

free at last

In a post I did one week ago I included a Times Picayune photograph of the blanket-wrapped body of Alcede Jackson lying on a bench on his front porch in New Orleans, and I included some strong lines from James W. Bailey. The NYTimes now reports that on Monday, almost two weeks after he died, the body was collected.

NEW ORLEANS, Sept. 12 - They collected Alcede Jackson on Monday, relieving him at long last of a duty in death he never requested in life: to be a poor man's Pietà for his broken city.

They collected Alcede Jackson, finally.

They took nearly two weeks to do it, making their way through streets in Uptown that were never underwater, to the worn white house at 4734 Laurel St. Mr. Jackson's body had been laid out on the front-porch bench - as though for an interminable outdoor wake - waiting to be transported to some semblance of dignity.

Anyone could see his body from the street, and many did. It cried out for retrieval, lying there under a baby-blue blanket mottled with cigarette burns, a bouquet of dead flowers resting nearby, as 90-degree days came and went.

The loudest cries, though, came from the epitaph, scrawled in large letters on the kind of yellow-green cardboard that seemed to glow in the dark and taped to the house above the body's head. This was what it said:


B - D Aug. 31, 2005

Rest in Peace

In the Loving Arms of Jesus

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son (Jesus) that whosoever believeth in Him, shall not perish but have everlasting life!" - John 3:16.

For nearly two weeks, this was what it said. And not just from the porch.

Law-enforcement officials and search-and-rescue teams had regularly visited this neighborhood since the first of the month. Newspaper and magazine reporters and photographers passed by the modest house on Laurel Street every day. In fact the entire world read about this front porch and the entire world watched the body of Alcede Jackson lying there uncollected, day after day.

The entire world now wants to know how that could have happened, and it won't be satisfied with Bush's touchy, reflexive denial that there was any racial component to the government's response to this disaster.

[image by Monica Almeida for the NYTimes]




Barry and I were a part of this afternoon's New Orleans Jazz Funeral March in Washington Square Park, where I managed to weave through an extraordinarily-diverse crowd to get a few decent images, even while encumbered by half of a sandwich board around my neck. My sign bore my simple conclusion:

The woman carrying on her shoulder a red velvet-lined case in which lay a shiny bent-up trumpet told me that some man she didn't know had handed it to her, asking if she would carry it in the procession. For me that was the defining moment of the march and protest.


When we left and headed toward the West Village we had to squeeze through the phalanx of police motor scooters which had trailed this very peaceful group around the park for an hour.


Seconds after I took a picture of this solitary flautist they swarmed into the open ground in front of him and faced the "mourners".

Then the real surprise: Barely ten feet beyond this disturbing display of obsessively-focused armed law enforcement we found ourselves parties to the familiar, repeated pitch, "smoke"? "smoke"?

Ahhh. Still maybe the people's park after all.

"Let the People Rebuild New Orleans"*

UPDATE: Community Labor United now has a website.

I've been looking at a lot of materials over for almost two weeks, and although many people have offered suggestions for directing money or other help to the people of New Orleans, I would like to suggest the importance of supporting the grassroots reconstruction of New Orleans by contributing whatever we can to:

The Peoples' Hurricane Fund organized by Community Labor United [see my post from one week ago, or this piece in The Nation for information]
For additional community resources and organizations over the long haul, see these New Orleans people:
The Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana,
The Justice Center and
Critical Resistence

the headline of Naomi Klein's September 8 piece in The Nation

An unidentified man sits in the flood water underneath the Interstate-10 in New Orleans, La., Monday, Sept. 5, 2005. [caption from Times Picayune]

I had forgotten to include a link to Rogers Cadenhead's blog, which had inspired it, when I set up my own post on "trying to escape while black" yesterday, so I'm using my oversight as an excuse for uploading the entire story (now also on Counterpunch) below.

Nothing you will read about the disaster in New Orleans is likely to be more useful in understanding what went on inside than this surprisingly restrained account from two visitors caught in a nightmare which really began only when the police and military showed up.

First By the Floods, Then By Martial Law


By Larry Bradshaw
and Lorrie Beth Slonsky

Two days after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, the Walgreens store at the corner of Royal and Iberville Streets in the city's historic French Quarter remained locked. The dairy display case was clearly visible through the widows. It was now 48 hours without electricity, running water, plumbing, and the milk, yogurt, and cheeses were beginning to spoil in the 90-degree heat.

The owners and managers had locked up the food, water, pampers and prescriptions, and fled the city. Outside Walgreens' windows, residents and tourists grew increasingly thirsty and hungry. The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized, and the windows at Walgreens gave way to the looters.

There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices and bottled water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead, they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters.

We were finally airlifted out of New Orleans two days ago and arrived home on Saturday. We have yet to see any of the TV coverage or look at a newspaper. We are willing to guess that there were no video images or front-page pictures of European or affluent white tourists looting the Walgreens in the French Quarter.

We also suspect the media will have been inundated with "hero" images of the National Guard, the troops and police struggling to help the "victims" of the hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.

The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, "stealing" boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

Most of these workers had lost their homes and had not heard from members of their families. Yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20 percent of New Orleans that was not under water.

On Day Two, there were approximately 500 of us left in the hotels in the French Quarter. We were a mix of foreign tourists, conference attendees like ourselves and locals who had checked into hotels for safety and shelter from Katrina.

Some of us had cell phone contact with family and friends outside of New Orleans. We were repeatedly told that all sorts of resources, including the National Guard and scores of buses, were pouring into the city. The buses and the other resources must have been invisible, because none of us had seen them.

We decided we had to save ourselves. So we pooled our money and came up with $25,000 to have ten buses come and take us out of the city. Those who didn't have the requisite $45 each were subsidized by those who did have extra money.

We waited for 48 hours for the buses, spending the last 12 hours standing outside, sharing the limited water, food and clothes we had. We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and newborn babies. We waited late into the night for the "imminent" arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived at the city limits, they were commandeered by the military.

By Day Four, our hotels had run out of fuel and water. Sanitation was dangerously bad. As the desperation and despair increased, street crime as well as water levels began to rise. The hotels turned us out and locked their doors, telling us that "officials" had told us to report to the convention center to wait for more buses. As we entered the center of the city, we finally encountered the National Guard.

The guard members told us we wouldn't be allowed into the Superdome, as the city's primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. They further told us that the city's only other shelter--the convention center--was also descending into chaos and squalor, and that the police weren't allowing anyone else in.

Quite naturally, we asked, "If we can't go to the only two shelters in the city, what was our alternative?" The guards told us that this was our problem--and no, they didn't have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile "law enforcement."

We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told the same thing--that we were on our own, and no, they didn't have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred.

We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The police told us that we couldn't stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp.

In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge to the south side of the Mississippi, where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.

The crowd cheered and began to move. We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation, so was he sure that there were buses waiting for us. The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, "I swear to you that the buses are there."

We organized ourselves, and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group, and asked where we were headed. We told them about the great news.

Families immediately grabbed their few belongings, and quickly, our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, as did people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and other people in wheelchairs. We marched the two to three miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the bridge. It now began to pour down rain, but it didn't dampen our enthusiasm.

As we approached the bridge, armed sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.

As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. We told them of our conversation with the police commander and the commander's assurances. The sheriffs informed us that there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.

Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and, in the end, decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway--on the center divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned that we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway, and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet-to-be-seen buses.

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 verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.

Meanwhile, the only two city shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery that New Orleans had become.

Our little encampment began to blossom. Someone stole a water delivery truck and brought it up to us. Let's hear it for looting! A mile or so down the freeway, an Army truck lost a couple of pallets of C-rations on a tight turn. We ferried the food back to our camp in shopping carts.

Now - secure with these two necessities, food and water - cooperation, community and creativity flowered. We organized a clean-up and hung garbage bags from the rebar poles. We made beds from wood pallets and cardboard. We designated a storm drain as the bathroom, and the kids built an elaborate enclosure for privacy out of plastic, broken umbrellas and other scraps. We even organized a food-recycling system where individuals could swap out parts of C-rations (applesauce for babies and candies for kids!).

This was something we saw repeatedly in the aftermath of Katrina. When individuals had to fight to find food or water, it meant looking out for yourself. You had to do whatever it took to find water for your kids or food for your parents. But when these basic needs were met, people began to look out for each other, working together and constructing a community.

If the relief organizations had saturated the city with food and water in the first two or three days, the desperation, frustration and ugliness would not have set in.

Flush with the necessities, we offered food and water to passing families and individuals. Many decided to stay and join us. Our encampment grew to 80 or 90 people.

From a woman with a battery-powered radio, we learned that the media was talking about us. Up in full view on the freeway, every relief and news organizations saw us on their way into the city. Officials were being asked what they were going to do about all those families living up on the freeway. The officials responded that they were going to take care of us. Some of us got a sinking feeling. "Taking care of us" had an ominous tone to it.

Unfortunately, our sinking feeling (along with the sinking city) was accurate. Just as dusk set in, a sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces and screamed, "Get off the fucking freeway." A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.

Once again, at gunpoint, we were forced off the freeway. All the law enforcement agencies appeared threatened when we congregated into groups of 20 or more. In every congregation of "victims," they saw "mob" or "riot." We felt safety in numbers. Our "we must stay together" attitude was impossible because the agencies would force us into small atomized groups.

In the pandemonium of having our camp raided and destroyed, we scattered once again. Reduced to a small group of eight people, in the dark, we sought refuge in an abandoned school bus, under the freeway on Cilo Street. We were hiding from possible criminal elements, but equally and definitely, we were hiding from the police and sheriffs with their martial law, curfew and shoot-to-kill policies.

The next day, our group of eight walked most of the day, made contact with the New Orleans Fire Department and were eventually airlifted out by an urban search-and-rescue team.

We were dropped off near the airport and managed to catch a ride with the National Guard. The two young guardsmen apologized for the limited response of the Louisiana guards. They explained that a large section of their unit was in Iraq and that meant they were shorthanded and were unable to complete all the tasks they were assigned.

We arrived at the airport on the day a massive airlift had begun. The airport had become another Superdome. We eight were caught in a press of humanity as flights were delayed for several hours while George Bush landed briefly at the airport for a photo op. After being evacuated on a Coast Guard cargo plane, we arrived in San Antonio, Texas.

There, the humiliation and dehumanization of the official relief effort continued. We were placed on buses and driven to a large field where we were forced to sit for hours and hours. Some of the buses didn't have air conditioners. In the dark, hundreds of us were forced to share two filthy overflowing porta-potties. Those who managed to make it out with any possessions (often a few belongings in tattered plastic bags) were subjected to two different dog-sniffing searches.

Most of us had not eaten all day because our C-rations had been confiscated at the airport--because the rations set off the metal detectors. Yet no food had been provided to the men, women, children, elderly and disabled, as we sat for hours waiting to be "medically screened" to make sure we weren't carrying any communicable diseases.

This official treatment was in sharp contrast to the warm, heartfelt reception given to us by ordinary Texans. We saw one airline worker give her shoes to someone who was barefoot. Strangers on the street offered us money and toiletries with words of welcome.

Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept and racist. There was more suffering than need be. Lives were lost that did not need to be lost.

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky are emergency medical services (EMS) workers from San Francisco and contributors to Socialist Worker. They were attending an EMS conference in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina struck. They spent most of the next week trapped by the flooding--and the martial law cordon around the city.

[image by Eric Gay for AP from Times Picayune]

A line of women in custody line up at a makeshift jail facility at the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, Friday, Sept. 9. The temporary holding facility holds those accused of a crime before they are sent to an operating jail. [Times Picayune caption dated September 10]

A line of men in custody line up after arriving from Jefferson Parish at a makeshift jail facility at the Union Passenger Terminal in New Orleans, Friday. The temporary facility holds those accused of a crime before being sent to an operating jail. [Times Picayune caption dated September 10]

A third letter from Jordan Flaherty:

Mourning For New Orleans

by Jordan Flaherty

Its been six days since I left New Orleans, and I miss
my home so much. I’m still in a daze, its hard to
hold a conversation or to think straight. People ask
if everyone I know is ok, and I don’t know what to
say. There are so many stories, so many rumors, so
many people dispersed around the US. So many of us
may never see each other again. I don’t think any of
us are ok right now.

One friend, a teacher, was searching the Astrodome
while holding up a sign, looking for his former
students. Another friend says she fears she’ll never
see New Orleans or her friends from there again.
Another friend found temporary comfort with family in
Houston and then got kicked out. A lot of friends are
working in shelters, providing assistance, medical
care, whatever they can. We are already spread across
so many states, trying to pick up the pieces of our

I can think of at least thirty people that I have no
idea where they are. In some cities it seems like
when people meet they give out their email address or
weblog or friendster or whatever. In New Orleans, a
lot of us only know each other only by first names.
There are so many people I would see at least once a
week that I don’t know how to get in touch with at
all. Even cel phones from the New Orleans area code
have been nonfunctioning for most of the last two

New Orleans is a word of mouth town. The way you
would find out about parties, secondlines, jazz
funerals and other events is from hearing about it
from friends. I always liked that about New Orleans.
In an increasingly disconnected world, New Orleans
felt different, more real and concrete. Now that
we aren’t seeing each other regularly, our elaborate
communication network has broken down.

But when people ask I just say, yes, as far as I know
everyone is ok. I can’t really bring myself to think
about it further than that.

Those with the least to begin with are the ones we
worry about most now. Families and Friends of
Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children is a grassroots
organization with a long history of fighting for New
Orleans’ most vulnerable. Since hurricane Katrina,
they have been on the front lines of relief,
spending time in the shelters, helping advocate for
the refugees of New Orleans, and trying to find out
what happened to both adults and children who were
locked up while New Orleans flooded.

There has been a lot of media hysteria regarding those
who were locked in New Orleans’ prisons during the
hurricane, stories that make it sound like a Hollywood
action film where murderers use a disaster to escape
and wreck havoc.

This is exactly wrong. The truth is that tales from
the imprisoned population of New Orleans are among the
most heartbreaking stories of the past week.

Families are still looking for loved ones lost in the
system. According to organizers with FFLIC, of
approximately 240 kids in state custody, as of a
couple of days ago only 6 or 7 parents had been able
to track down their children.

According to statistics compiled by the Juvenile
Justice Project of Louisiana, at least 78% of New
Orleans’ incarcerated youth were locked up for
nonviolent offenses. The detention center in Jefferson
Parish reports that 96% of the youth held there in
2000 were for nonviolent offenses. At least a third
of youth in prison have been sentenced to three or
more years for nonviolent offenses. In New
Orleans, 95% of the detained youth in 1999 were
African-American. Louisiana taxpayers spend
$96,713 to incarcerate a single child, and $4,724 to
educate a child in the public schools.

According to a report by Human Rights Watch, “the
state of Louisiana has one of the highest rates in
the country of children living in poverty and children
not in school or working. Large numbers of children,
especially black children, are suspended from school
each year, sometimes for the whole year. Approximately
1,500 Louisiana children are confined in secure
correctional facilities each year...In response to the
question,"what would you most like to change here?",
virtually every child at all of the facilities
responded that they would like the guards to stop
hitting them and that they would like more food.
Children consistently told us that they were hungry.”

Some people have been hurt to hear people of New
Orleans called refugees. This hurts me too, but it
hurts me more to feel that we have been treated as
refugees. In a way, the people of New Orleans were
refugees before hurricane Katrina ever came. We were
abandoned by a country that never needed us, unless they needed a cheap vacation of strip clubs and binge drinking and
cheap live music.

One of the things I love about New Orleans is that it
always feels like another country. Now we see that in
the eyes of the federal government we truly are
residents of another country. A poor, black country.
Instead of insisting that the displaced of New Orleans
are not refugees, we should use this as an opportunity
to look at why the idea of US refugees is so

The transformation of the people of New Orleans into
refugees is a large part of what has captured the
imagination of people from around the world,
especially those who are refugees themselves. I’ve
received emails from Ghana and Cuba and Peru and
Lebanon and Palestine. In New York City tonight, a
group of artists, initiated by Def Poetry Jam star and
Palestinian poet Suheir Hammad, organized a benefit
called Refugees For Refugees. That title beautifully
and poignantly captures the feelings this man-made
tragedy has generated around the world.

In her most recent poem, "On Refuge and Language",
Suheir writes:

I do not wish
To place words in living mouths
Or bury the dead dishonorably

I am not deaf to cries escaping shelters
That citizens are not refugees
Refugees are not Americans

I will not use language
One way or another
To accommodate my comfort

I will not look away

All I know is this

No peoples ever choose to claim status of dispossessed
No peoples want pity above compassion
No enslaved peoples ever called themselves slaves

What do we pledge allegiance to?

A government that leaves its old
To die of thirst surrounded by water
Is a foreign government

People who are streaming
Illiterate into paperwork
Have long ago been abandoned

I think of coded language
And all that words carry on their backs

I think of how it is always the poor
Who are tagged and boxed with labels
Not of their own choosing

I think of my grandparents
And how some called them refugees
Others called them non-existent
They called themselves landless
Which means homeless

Before the hurricane
No tents were prepared for the fleeing
Because Americans do not live in tents
Tents are for Haiti for Bosnia for Rwanda

Refugees are the rest of the world

Those left to defend their human decency
Against conditions the rich keep their animals from
Those who have too many children
Those who always have open hands and empty bellies
Those whose numbers are massive
Those who seek refuge
From nature’s currents and man's resources

Those who are forgotten in the mean times

Those who remember

Ahmad from Guinea makes my falafel sandwich and says
So this is your country

Yes Amadou this my country
And these my people

Evacuated as if criminal
Rescued by neighbors
Shot by soldiers

Adamant they belong

The rest of the world can now see
What I have seen

Do not look away

The rest of the world lives here too
In America

[images by Lisa Krantz from AP via Times Picayune]

the day before

UPDATE: "Five Days with Katrina" had moved and, thanks to Silvia Morales who told me where it went, the link below now works once again

I haven't seen anything like this site before now. This album, "Five Days with Katrina," is in the form of a five-day diary posted by someone who survived the New Orleans hurricane inside the French Quarter. There are almost two hundred extraordiary images accompanied by some fascinating captions.

I haven't gone through more than a few dozen myself yet, but wanted to broadcast the site right away. I have to say that the photographs of ancient deserted streets taken just before the storm hit are incredibly beautiful.

I don't know much about this wonderful witness, but his name is Alvaro R. Morales Villa.

[thanks to Vincent Fisher for the link]

None of this surprises me any more, although there was a time, less than two weeks ago, when I could still go about the day without these images of the horrors of our racism haunting me all day long and through much of the night.

Police Trapped Thousands in New Orleans

As the situation grew steadily worse in New Orleans last week, you might have wondered why people didn't just leave on foot. The Louisiana Superdome is less than two miles from a bridge that leads over the Mississippi River out of the city.

The answer: Any crowd that tried to do so was met by suburban police, some of whom fired guns to disperse the group and seized their water.

This is a short excerpt from a post by Rogers Cadenhead linked from Atrios, who headlined his own abreviated citing, "America's Worst Person," referring to Gretna, Louisiana police chief Arthur Lawson.

FOOTNOTE: See the identiy of the armed man in an LAT photograph I included in this post of mine. Even a week ago I was struck by the imagery I found in several photographs I found which included Gretna police interacting with New Orleans refugees.

Gretna police officer Ray Lassiegne stands guard over a busload of evacuees after they were picked up near the Greater New Orleans Bridge just south of New Orleans. [Los Angeles Times caption, image dated September 1]

My point is not to paint an entire town with the color of racism or just plain selfishness (in this case, criminal), nor is it to exclude individuals or communities elsewhere. We can all share in the blame, and we know it, even as we express our outrage.

[image by Robert Gauthier from the Los Angeles Times, via Newsday]

no dystopia here*

In an OPINION piece in Newsday this morning Patrick Moore writes about a subject which is extremely important to our understanding of both the reports of violence in a devastated New Orleans and the actual facts (not necessarily the same thing): drug and alcohol addiction. Even the most liberal elements of the media have largely avoided the subject of addiction and treatment in the poorest communities of the city.

Moore reminds us that, in addition to the parties already (morally) indicted, the guilt for this enormous tragedy must be shared by those who have addressed addiction and alcoholism as a criminal rather than a medical problem - for a hundred supposedly modern years in a supposedly modern nation.

For a week and a half I've watched many of my countrymen find ways to blame the people of New Orleans for their own "victimhood." Why did some people get it right away while others will go to their graves convinced that the folks remaining in the city got what they deserved? First it was about maintaining a smug distance from the dead and the sick and those who were trapped in their homes. Then it was condemning those who had to scavenge in order to survive in a world which had been abandoned by the more fortunate, and their were demands that "looters" be shot. Finally, it was about being absolutely assured that the thefts of durable goods and bodily violence only proved that the victims were fundamentally beasts feeding on each other in a Hobbesian jungle.

Moore shines some light on that putative dystopia in this excerpt from the article:

Storm waters dry up drugs
Without programs to treat addiction, it's no wonder the social fabric is torn to shreds

Many television viewers watching the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina last week found that their compassion soured as they watched the violence and looting in New Orleans. But what did those images really mean?

Disasters have a way of making hidden problems visible and, in this case, the effects of disproportionate addiction and alcoholism rates in poor, minority communities have been dramatically revealed. Already living in despair before the disaster, the looters were deprived of the "medicine" that made life bearable; violence was inevitable.

. . . .

When the president talks about "zero tolerance" for looters, he seems unable to recognize the conditions that produced their behavior. It's hard to imagine his drawing a connection between the violence of looting by desperate poor people living in addiction and his own economic policies. Yet, the brutality of his "compassionate conservatism" is evidenced by poverty levels rising under this administration while federal funding for drug treatment has gone down.

. . . .

The most successful rehabilitation programs are in-patient and last at least 30 days. During that time, patients are provided with counseling, medical care, psychiatric evaluation and job training. Transitional housing after treatment further enhances the chances of an addict staying sober and returning to a productive life.

This type of treatment is now mostly available only to the wealthy or those with private insurance. We need to widen the range of recipients. While rigorous treatment programs are expensive, experts agree that they are still far more cost-effective than law enforcement.

In America, the poor are disproportionately likely to be addicts and less likely to have effective treatment available to them. When these people are forced to come down hard, it's not surprising that some of them turn to violence. Law enforcement is not the answer. We need to reduce poverty in America and provide effective addiction treatment. We can no longer hide this problem or wait for the next crisis to deal with it.

the Newsday caption (undated) reads: Kevin Edwards, 42, his friend Daniel Mirenbe, 33, James Brown Jr., 50, who is brushing his teeth, and Dwayne Henderson, 36, sitting right, all refuse to leave their home.

[image by J. Conrad Williams Jr. for Newsday]

Joseph Williams attempts to leave New Orleans on Interstate 10. He has two flat tires on his trailer that is carrying half of everything he owns. [caption from Newsday dated September 5]

If tons of money end up going to restore New Orleans and protect it from floods in the future, I think we can be pretty certain they're not going to let those people come back. It's very interesting that the very best start for such a policy would be to force the poor out now, and that's exactly what they're doing. This is true regardless of the merits of arguments about the uninhabitability of the entire city.

In an email he sent to me today James W. Bailey used the familiar phrase, "right of return," in a context I had not found it before. I immediately Googled it and found it prominently placed within a piece by Lloyd Hart, the last part of which I'm excerpting here from the North Carolina Independent Media Center site.

There are several reasons why New Orleans should not be totally controlled by the federal government and completely evacuated. The first and foremost is that local population should be the ones hired into the cleanup and reconstruction process as it is their jobs in the City of New Orleans that have been destroyed. Local contractors and local construction personnel should be given the contracts that are dispersed and specifically in the City of New Orleans the Mayor's Office should be the office handling the dispersal of those contracts. As someone who worked on the Big dig in Boston I can tell you straight up you don't want Bechtel Corp. building your dikes and levees after the leaky tunnels they built for us in Boston.

If there are dry homes that have not been flooded and there are people living in them, they should not be evacuated and people who wish to return to those dry homes should be allowed to. A civil society can not repair and redevelop if there are no citizens with a long history of the community to do so. And because of the varying degrees of flooding many homes are less damaged than others and therefore repairable.

Everyone must be for warned that there are greedy developers already rubbing their hands together hoping to use the recent corrupt Supreme Court ruling of imminent domain which allows for transferring private property into the hands of private developers to turn the city into some bizarre Disneyland version of New Orleans that existed before the hurricane but without the middle, working class, and poor folks that created the wonderful expression of culture that turned the pain and suffering caused by slavery into the healing power of the music New Orleans has become as famous for. The music born in Africa, raised on the plantation fields of America by black slaves and through the 20 century, the music that has become the road to our collective salvation.

If any of those folks that have been evacuated and not just the homeowners but the tenants as well lose their right to return to where they lived before Hurricane Katrina because of some nefarious claim that the market must be allowed to shake out the unproductive population in the reconstruction process then you can be sure the music will truly die. Assassinated by white gentrification.

The gentrification that was already taking place in New Orleans must not be allowed to accelerate or restart at all simply because the white guys in White House have decided to take complete charge of the disaster because of the Reagan and Bush regimes deliberate undermining of all Federal departments that deal directly with the civil society in America creating the "Fuck You Government."

Just so you think about this a little. Another reason the white guys in the white house may want complete control of New Orleans may be to control and prevent the body count in the city from becoming the next stage of Bush Regime's worst P.R. nightmare. You know, just like in Iraq "We don't count the Civilian casualties."

And then a short while ago this showed up as the lead story on Reuters.
FEMA accused of censorship

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - When U.S. officials asked the media not to take pictures of those killed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, they were censoring a key part of the disaster story, free speech watchdogs said on Wednesday.

The move by the Federal Emergency Management Agency [FEMA] is in line with the Bush administration's ban on images of flag-draped U.S. military coffins returning from the Iraq war, media monitors said in separate telephone interviews.

"It's impossible for me to imagine how you report a story whose subject is death without allowing the public to see images of the subject of the story," said Larry Siems of the PEN American Center, an authors' group that defends free expression. [excerpt]

[image by J. Conrad Williams Jr. from Newsday]

The entire headline, taken from another blogger's post, reads:


Some people are very mad. Very, very mad. I see sense in all of it.

James W. Bailey* is from New Orleans. He sees a connection between two of today's big stories, and it's a connection we should all be able to recognize, on the day a powerful man is laid in the [dry] ground.

On his website Bailey shows a Washington Post photo of Bush standing on polished marble floors beside a flag-draped coffin resting on a plinth. At the foot of this monumental assemblage stands a huge bouquet of flowers professionally arranged (although part of their traditional function, disguising the odor of rotting flesh, had been rendered unnecessary by the attentions of an embalmer). Inside the fancy box is the body of William Rehnquist.

Below the Post image is a very different picture.

NOLAAlcede Jackson.jpg
The corpse of Alcede Jackson is reverently laid out on his front porch and abandoned with a blanket held down by slate and a epitath on a poster board. [caption of Times Picayune dated September 6 (text not included on Bailey's site)]

Bailey's site continues:

The corpse of Alcede Jackson is reverantly laid out on his front porch in New Orleans. President Bush and first lady Laura Bush were unable to attend Mr. Jackson's funeral. Some in New Orleans are suggesting, since he couldn't attend the funeral ceremonies for Mr. Jackson because of a pressing schedule engaged in the War on Terror, that the President should consider sending the surviving members of Mr. Jackson's family an American flag that has been flown over the Supreme Court Building. Although Mr. Jackson was not a rich white guy, and did not wear a black robe for a living, he did in fact wear black skin...and for all of his life.
No flag.

UPDATE: if you go to this link the first image you will see, according to the artist, was shot in the Lower 9th Ward in 1994, the area of the city that sustained some of the worst of the current flooding. Mr. Jackson, whose remains and memorial are pictured in the Times Picayune photo lived in the Lower 9th Ward

[if anyone has access to a larger image than the one I used here, please let me know, and I would like to see the entire text of the yellow sign]

[image by Ted Jackson from the plucky and courageous people of the Times Picayune]

Winslow Homer Hurricane, Bahamas 1898-99 watercolor 14.5" x 21"

I have two more stories which should be read more widely than they are likely to be. Like the tip on the previous post, both were sent to me by Steve Quester (who, as these things work, of course was himself tipped by his friends). The first is a description of an American state which was the target of a Category 4 hurricane last week; the second is a picture of a very different state which endured a Category 5 hurricane one year ago. Louisiana is an incalculable physical and human catastrophe; Cuba lost 20,000 homes, but no one died.

The Ugly Truth: Why we couldn't save the people of New Orleans by Errol Louis

Bubbling up from the flood that destroyed New Orleans are images, beamed around the world, of America's original and continuing sin: the shabby, contemptuous treatment this country metes out, decade after decade, to poor people in general and the descendants of African slaves in particular. The world sees New Orleans burning and dying today, but the televised anarchy - the shooting and looting, needless deaths, helpless rage and maddening governmental incompetence - was centuries in the making. [continued]

The Two Americas by Marjorie Cohn

Last September, a Category 5 hurricane battered the small island of Cuba with 160-mile-per-hour winds. More than 1.5 million Cubans were evacuated to higher ground ahead of the storm. Although the hurricane destroyed 20,000 houses, no one died.

What is Cuban President Fidel Castro's secret? According to Dr. Nelson Valdes, a sociology professor at the University of New Mexico, and specialist in Latin America, "the whole civil defense is embedded in the community to begin with. People know ahead of time where they are to go." [continued]

[image from theweathernotebook]

Algiers, Louisiana, 1993

This is a letter from a dry Algiers. No, not the sandy one. It's the New Orleans neighborhood just across the river from the watery parts.

This piece is copied in its entirety from ZNet.

[Note: Malik Rahim, a veteran of the Black Panther Party in New Orleans, for decades an organizer of public housing tenants both there and in San Francisco and a recent Green Party candidate for New Orleans City Council, lives in the Algiers neighborhood, the only part of New Orleans that is not flooded. They have no power, but the water is still good and the phones work. Their neighborhood could be sheltering and feeding at least 40,000 refugees, he says, but they are allowed to help no one. What he describes is nothing less than deliberate genocide against Black and poor people.]

New Orleans, Sept. 1, 2005 -- It's criminal. From what you're hearing, the people trapped in New Orleans are nothing but looters. We're told we should be more "neighborly." But nobody talked about being neighborly until after the people who could afford to leave -- left.

If you ain't got no money in America, you're on your own. People were told to go to the Superdome, but they have no food, no water there. And before they could get in, people had to stand in line for 4-5 hours in the rain because everybody was being searched one by one at the entrance.

I can understand the chaos that happened after the tsunami, because they had no warning, but here there was plenty of warning. In the three days before the hurricane hit, we knew it was coming and everyone could have been evacuated.

We have Amtrak here that could have carried everybody out of town. There were enough school buses that could have evacuated 20,000 people easily, but they just let them be flooded. My son watched 40 buses go underwater - they just wouldn't move them, afraid they'd be stolen.

People who could afford to leave were so afraid someone would steal what they own that they just let it all be flooded. They could have let a family without a vehicle borrow their extra car, but instead they left it behind to be destroyed.

There are gangs of white vigilantes near here riding around in pickup trucks, all of them armed, and any young Black they see who they figure doesn't belong in their community, they shoot him. I tell them, "Stop! You're going to start a riot."

When you see all the poor people with no place to go, feeling alone and helpless and angry, I say this is a consequence of HOPE VI. New Orleans took all the HUD money it could get to tear down public housing, and families and neighbors who'd relied on each other for generations were uprooted and torn apart.

Most of the people who are going through this now had already lost touch with the only community they'd ever known. Their community was torn down and they were scattered. They'd already lost their real homes, the only place where they knew everybody, and now the places they've been staying are destroyed.

But nobody cares. They're just lawless looters ... dangerous.

The hurricane hit at the end of the month, the time when poor people are most vulnerable. Food stamps don't buy enough but for about three weeks of the month, and by the end of the month everyone runs out. Now they have no way to get their food stamps or any money, so they just have to take what they can to survive.

Many people are getting sick and very weak. From the toxic water that people are walking through, little scratches and sores are turning into major wounds.

People whose homes and families were not destroyed went into the city right away with boats to bring the survivors out, but law enforcement told them they weren't needed. They are willing and able to rescue thousands, but they're not allowed to.

Every day countless volunteers are trying to help, but they're turned back. Almost all the rescue that's been done has been done by volunteers anyway.

My son and his family - his wife and kids, ages 1, 5 and 8 - were flooded out of their home when the levee broke. They had to swim out until they found an abandoned building with two rooms above water level.

There were 21 people in those two rooms for a day and a half. A guy in a boat who just said "I'm going to help regardless" rescued them and took them to Highway I-10 and dropped them there.

They sat on the freeway for about three hours, because someone said they'd be rescued and taken to the Superdome. Finally they just started walking, had to walk six and a half miles.

When they got to the Superdome, my son wasn't allowed in - I don't know why - so his wife and kids wouldn't go in. They kept walking, and they happened to run across a guy with a tow truck that they knew, and he gave them his own personal truck.

When they got here, they had no gas, so I had to punch a hole in my gas tank to give them some gas, and now I'm trapped. I'm getting around by bicycle.

People from Placquemine Parish were rescued on a ferry and dropped off on a dock near here. All day they were sitting on the dock in the hot sun with no food, no water. Many were in a daze; they've lost everything.

They were all sitting there surrounded by armed guards. We asked the guards could we bring them water and food. My mother and all the other church ladies were cooking for them, and we have plenty of good water.

But the guards said, "No. If you don't have enough water and food for everybody, you can't give anything." Finally the people were hauled off on school buses from other parishes.

You know Robert King Wilkerson (the only one of the Angola 3 political prisoners who's been released). He's been back in New Orleans working hard, organizing, helping people. Now nobody knows where he is. His house was destroyed. Knowing him, I think he's out trying to save lives, but I'm worried.

The people who could help are being shipped out. People who want to stay, who have the skills to save lives and rebuild are being forced to go to Houston.

It's not like New Orleans was caught off guard. This could have been prevented.

There's military right here in New Orleans, but for three days they weren't even mobilized. You'd think this was a Third World country.

I'm in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, the only part that isn't flooded. The water is good. Our parks and schools could easily hold 40,000 people, and they're not using any of it.

This is criminal. These people are dying for no other reason than the lack of organization.

Everything is needed, but we're still too disorganized. I'm asking people to go ahead and gather donations and relief supplies but to hold on to them for a few days until we have a way to put them to good use.

I'm challenging my party, the Green Party, to come down here and help us just as soon as things are a little more organized. The Republicans and Democrats didn't do anything to prevent this or plan for it and don't seem to care if everyone dies.


Malik's phone is working. He welcomes calls from old friends and anyone with questions or ideas for saving lives. To reach him, call the Bay View at (415) 671-0789.

[image from]

Two woman sitting in front of their home in New Orleans. They are not looking for another place to live even, though they have nothing to eat or drink. [caption from Newsday dated September 5]

As if the news from the past week wasn't sufficiently horrific already, we have to prepare ourselves for what still lies ahead.

I just saw a headline expressing alarm about what lies beneath the water. But the accompanying story is about much more than the bodies of people who have already succumbed to this natural and man-made disaster. The water itself holds still more peril for the entire Gulf region. This site has been doing an excellent job preparing us for the news we will be seeing for many years to come.

The real disaster may have only just begun.

[thanks to Peter, who left a comment on my previous post giving a link to this section of Politics in the Zeros]

[image by Conrad Williams Jr. from Newsday]

A 'Gay Parade' gets under way in the French Quarter of New Orleans. as a determined handful of hurricane survivors vowed to keep the spirit of New Orleans alive. The official parade was postponed because of the arrival of Hurricane Katrina six days ago. [caption from AFP]

New Orleans has a better chance of surviving if New Orleaneans are there to keep it going. Nobody should even think of leaving it all up to FEMA. Agence France Presse shows us today a little bit of how it's going to happen.

NEW ORLEANS, United States (AFP) - Music, Mardi Gras beads, costumes and confetti returned to the French Quarter as a determined handful of hurricane survivors vowed to keep the spirit of New Orleans alive.

Decked out in a red polka-dot tutu and purple parasol, Candice Jamieson, marched through the city's eerie abandoned streets, rattling a tambourine.

"We're having a decadence parade," said the 21-year-old student, referring to the annual gay pride march, usually a massive and raucous affair that rivals the city's famed Mardi Gras festivities.

"We're trying to bring up everyone's morale," Jamieson said moments before reaching out to catch beads tossed by the only populated balcony in Royal street.

"It's usually a lot bigger," Georgia Walker, 53, called down as she tossed more beads.

. . . .

Asked whether he thought some people might consider the parade in poor taste given that hundreds of survivors remained stranded and that rescue workers were harvesting the bodies of storm victims from streets and flooded homes, [Michael Skidmore] said the city was in desperate need of a little joy amid the carnage.

"We're going to make life better, even if they laugh at us, we want them to laugh," he said as his grass skirt flapped in the breeze.

Dancing in the streets is a traditional way of honoring the dead in the region, explained Diana Stray Dog as she held a pole flying a huge American flag against her shoulder.

"In New Orleans we celebrate death. When people die we go in the streets and sing," she said, adding that she was marching to return some life to the battered city.

"Amid all the tears and all the sorrow we have a big heart and it's not going to die."

One of a number of places sheltering the life which continues in the city, in defiance of the authorities' orders to leave, is Molly's at the Market, described in better times by one fan as "Our favorite watering hole in the quarter, full of dropouts, queers, freaks, and phds. Oh yeah, and a fabulous juke box."

A patron spends the afternoon at Molly's at the Market, one of at least two bars in New Orleans' French Quarter that has remained open after Hurricane Katrina despite a lack of electricity and running water on September 4, 2005. Many residents of New Orleans who live in the few areas on high ground that escaped flood waters say they will defy official requests for them to abandon their homes. [caption from Reuters]

UPDATE: For more on the "tribes" of the French Quarter, see this AP story, the stuff of tomorrow's legends.

[top image by Robert Sullivan from AFP, second image by Shannon Stapleton from Reuters, both via Yahoo!]

Lee Friedlander Sweet Emma Barrett, New Orleans 1958


I have no way of knowing how central this particular appeal may become, but it came to me through a friend and I share its anger and its emphasis on preserving a devasatated community intact. The call comes from some really good people, and I believe it should be broadcast widely. I decided not to wait for the promised formal press release.

Displaced New Orleans Community Demands Action, Accountability and Initiates A People’s Hurricane Fund

Not until the fifth day of the federal government’s
inept and inadequate emergency response to the
New Orleans’ disaster did George Bush even acknowledge
it was ‘unacceptable.’ ‘Unacceptable’ doesn’t begin to
describe the depth of the neglect, racism and classism
shown to the people of New Orleans. The government’s
actions and inactions were criminal. New Orleans, a
city whose population is almost 70% percent black, 40%
illiterate, and many are poor, was left day after day
to drown, to starve and to die of disease and thirst.

The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the
night, scattering across this country to become
homeless in countless other cities while federal
relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos,
hotels, chemical plants and the wealthy white
districts of New Orleans like the French Quarter and
the Garden District. We will not stand idly by while
this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our
homes with newly built mansions and condos in a
gentrified New Orleans.

Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition of the
progressive organizations throughout New Orleans, has
brought community members together for eight years to
discuss socio-economic issues. We have been
communicating with people from The Quality Education
as a Civil Right Campaign, the Algebra Project, the
Young People’s Project and the Louisiana Research
Institute for Community Empowerment. We are
preparing a press release and framing document that
will be out as a draft later today for comments.

Here is what we are calling for:

We are calling for all New Orleanians remaining in the
city to be evacuated immediately.

We are calling for information about where every
evacuee was taken.

We are calling for black and
progressive leadership to come together to meet in
Baton Rouge to initiate the formation of a
Community Oversight Committee of evacuees from all the
sites. This committee will demand to
oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations
collecting resources on behalf of our people.

We are calling for volunteers to enter the shelters
where our people are and to assist parents with
housing, food, water, health care and access to aid.
We are calling for teachers and educators to carve out
some time to come to evacuation sites and teach our

We are calling for city schools and universities near
evacuation sites to open their doors for our
children to go to school.

We are calling for health care workers and mental
health workers to come to evacuation sites to

We are calling for lawyers to investigate the wrongful
death of those who died, to protect the land of
the displaced, to investigate whether the levies broke
due to natural and other related matters.

We are calling for evacuees from our community to
actively participate in the rebuilding of New

We are calling for the addresses of all the relevant
list serves and press contacts to send our

We are in the process of setting up a central command
post in Jackson, MS, where we will have
phone lines, fax, email and a web page to centralize
information. We will need volunteers to staff this

We have set up a People’s Hurricane Fund that will be
directed and administered by New Orleanian evacuees.
The Young People’s Project, a 501(c)3 organization
formed by graduates of the Algebra Project, has agreed
to accept donations on behalf of this fund. Donations
can be mailed to:

The People’s Hurricane Fund c/o The Young People’s Project 99 Bishop Allen Drive Cambridge, MA 02139

If you have comments of how to proceed or need more
information, please email them to Curtis
Muhammad ([email protected]) and Becky
Belcore ([email protected]).

Thank you


[image from Masters of Photography]

Troy Tallent brings some blues back to the French Quarter, by playing for the few residents and police still in the neighborhood. Originally from Georgia, Troy came to New Orleans in 1987 and he hasn't left yet. [Los Angeles Times caption dated September 3]

HELP AT HAND: Nita LaGarde, 105, leaves New Orleans’ convention center with her nurse’s granddaughter Tanisha Blevin, 5. Before coming to the shelter, they huddled in an attic and on an interstate island. Helicopters evacuated the elderly, infirm and infants. About 1,000 people remain. [Los Angeles Times dated September 4]

I'm publishing a second letter from Jordan Flaherty this morning, once again copied in its entirety. The first section includes his thoughts on the the city, the second is in the form of a diary and the third is the beginnings of a prospectus for aiding the people of New Orleans.


by Jordan Flaherty

August 27 - September 3, 2005

Its been a day since I evacuated from New Orleans, my
home, the city I love. Today I saw Governor
Blanco proudly speak of troops coming in with orders
to shoot to kill. Is she trying to help New
Orleans, or has she declared war?

I feel like the world isn’t seeing the truth about the
city I love. People outside know about Jazz Fest
and Bourbon Street and beads, and now they know about
looters and armed gangs and helicopter

What's missing is the story of a city and people who
have created a culture of liberation and
resistance. A city where people have stood up against
centuries of racism and white supremacy.

This is the city where in 1892 Homer Plessy and the
Citizens Committee planned the direct action
that brought the first (unsuccessful) legal challenge
to the doctrine of “Separate but Equal.” This is
the city where in 1970 the New Orleans Black Panthers
held off the police from the desire housing
projects, and also formed one of the nations’ first
Black Panther chapters in prison. Where in 2005
teens at Frederick Douglas High School, one of the
most impoverished schools in the US, formed a
student activist group called Teens With Attitude to
fight for educational justice, and canvassed their
community to develop true community ownership of their

I didn’t really understand community until I moved to
New Orleans. Secondlines, the new orleans
tradition of roving street parties with a brass band,
began as a form of community insurance, and are
still used to benefit those needing aid. New Orleans
is a place where someone always wants to feed

Instead of demonizing this community, instead of
mistreating them and shooting them and stranding
them in refugee camps and displacing them across the
southern US, we need to give our love and
support to this community in their hour of crisis, and
then we need to let them lead the redevelopment
of New Orleans. As Naomi Klein has already pointed
out, the rebuilding money that will come in
doesn’t belong to the Red Cross or FEMA or Homeland
Security, the money belongs to the people of
New Orleans.


Many people have asked for more information about my
experience in the past week. I was one of
the fortunate ones. I had food and water and a solid
home. Below are notes from my week in the
disaster that was constructed out of greed, corruption
and neglect.

Saturday, August 27

I’m in New Orleans, and there’s word of a hurricane
approaching. I don’t consider leaving. Why?
Because I don’t have a car, and all the airlines and
car rental companies are sold out. Because the
last two hurricanes were false alarms, despite the
shrill and vacuous media alarms. Because I have
a sturdy, second floor apartment, food, water,
flashlights, and supplies. Because there is not much
of an evacuation plan. Friends of mine who evacuated
last time sat in their cars, moving 50 miles in 12

Sunday, August 28

As the storm approaches and grows larger, everyone I
know is calling. “Are you staying or going?
where are you staying? Are you bringing your pets?
What should I do?” Governor Blanco urges us
to “pray the hurricane down” to a level 2.

I relent to pressure somewhat and relocate to a more
sturdy location, an apartment complex built out
of an old can factory in the midcity neighborhood.
The building is five stories high, built of concrete
and brick. There are seven of us in the apartment,
with four cats.

Monday, August 29

Its morning, the storm is over, and we survey the
streets outside. There has been some flooding. A
few of us explore the neighborhood in boats, and we
see extensive damage, but overall we feel as if
New Orleans has once again escaped fate.

Later in the day, we hear some reports of much greater
flooding in destruction in the ninth ward and
lower ninth ward neighborhoods, New Orleans’ most
overexploited communities.

Tomorrow, we decide, the water will lower and we’ll
walk home. We expect power will start coming
on in a week or so.

There are many relaxed and friendly conversations,
especially on the roof. With all of the lights in the
city out, the night sky is beautiful. We lie on our
backs and watch shooting stars.

Tuesday, August 30

We wake up to discover that the water level has risen
several feet. Panic begins to set in among
some. We inventory our food and find that, if we
ration it tightly, we have enough for five days. As
we discuss it, we repeatedly say, “not that we’ll be
here that long, but if we had to...”

We continue to explore the area by boat, helping
people when possible. The atmosphere outside is
a sort of post-apocalyptic, threatening world of
obscure danger, where the streets are empty and the
future seems cloudy. The water is a repellent mix of
sewage, gas, oil, trash and worse.

We meet some of our neighbors. Most of the building
is empty. Of at least 250 apartments, there are
maybe 200 people in the building, about half white and
half Black. Many people, like us, are crowded 7 or 10
to an apartment. Like us, many people came here for
safety from the storm. Some have no food and water.
A few folks break open the building candy machine and
distribute the contents. We talk about breaking into
the cafe attached to the building and distributing the

We turn on a battery-powered tv and radio, and then
turn it off in disgust. No solid information, just
rumor and conjecture and fear. Throughout this time,
there is no reliable source of information,
compounding and multiplying the crisis.

The reporters and politicians talk 80% about looting
and 20% about flooding. I can’t understand how
anyone could blame someone for “looting” when they
just had their home destroyed by the neglect
and corruption of a country that doesn’t care about
them and never did.

Tomorrow, the news announces, the water level will
continue to rise, perhaps 12-15 feet. Governor
Blanco calls for a day of prayer.

Wednesday, August 31

White people in the building start whispering about
their fears of “them.” One woman complains of
people in the building “from the projects and hoarding
food.” There is talk of gangs in the streets,
shooting, robbing, and lawless anarchy. I feel like
there is a struggle in people’s minds between
compassion and panic, between empathy and fear.

However, we witness many folks traveling around in
boats, bringing food or giving lifts or sharing

But the overwhelming atmosphere is one of fear. People
fear they wont be able to leave, they fear
disease, hunger, and crime. There is talk of a
soldier shot in the head by looters, of bodies
floating in the ninth ward, flooding in Charity
Hospital, and huge masses (including police) emptying
WalMart and the electronic stores on Canal street.
There are fires visible in the distance. A
particularly large fire seems to be nearby - we think
its at the projects at Orleans and Claiborne.
Helicopters drop army MREs (Meal Ready to Eat) and
water, and people rush forward to grab as many as
they can.

After the third air drop, people in the building start
organizing a distribution system.

Across the street is a spot of land, and helicopters
begin landing there and loading people aboard.
Hundreds of people from the nearby hospital make their
way there, many wearing only flimsy gowns, waiting in
the sun. As more helicopters come, people start
arriving from every direction, straggling in, swimming
or coming by boat.

A helicopter hovers over our roof, and a soldier comes
down and announces that tomorrow everyone in the
building will be evacuated.

Across the street, at least two hundred people spend
the night huddled on a tiny patch of land, waiting for

Thursday, September 1

People in the building want out. They are lining up
on the roof to be picked up by helicopters - three
copters come early in the morning and take a total of
nine people. Seventy-five people spend the
next several hours waiting on the roof, but no more

Down in the parking garage, flooded with sewage, a
steady stream of boats takes people to various
locations, mostly to a nearby helicopter pickup point.

We hear stories of hundreds of people waiting for
evacuation nearby at Xavier University, a
historically Black college, and at other locations.

Our group fractures, people leaving at various times.

Two of us take a boat to a helicopter to a refugee
camp. If you ever wondered if the US government
would treat US refugees the same way they treat
Haitian refugees or Somali refugees, the answer is,
yes, if those refugees are poor, black, and from the

The individual soldiers and police are friendly and
polite - at least to me - but nobody seems to know
what's going on. As wave after wave of refugees
arrives, they are ushered behind the barricades
onto mud and dirt and sewage, while heavily armed
soldiers look on.

Many people sit on the side, not even trying to get on
a bus. Children, people in wheelchairs, and everyone
else sit in the sun by the side of the highway.

Everyone has a story to tell, of a home destroyed, of
swimming across town, of bodies and fights and
gunshots and looting and fear. The worst stories come
from the Superdome. I speak to one young man who
describes having to escape and swim up to midcity.

I‘m reminded of a moment I read about in the book
“Rising Tide,” about the Mississippi river flood of
1927. After the 1927 evacuation, a boatload of poor
black refugees is refused permission to get on
land “until they sing negro spirituals.” As a bus
arrives and a mass swarms forward and state police
and national guard do nothing to help, I feel like I’m
witnessing the modern equivalent of this dehumanizing

More refugees are arriving than are leaving. Three of
us walk out of the camp, considering trying to
hitchhike a ride from relief workers or press. We get
a ride from an Australian tv team who drive us to
Baton Rouge where we sit on the street and wait until
a relative arrives and gives us a ride to Houston.

While we sit on the street, everyone we meet is a
refugee from somewhere - Bay St Louis, Gulfport,
Slidell, Covington. Its after midnight, but the roads
are crowded. Everyone is going somewhere.

Friday, September 2

In Houston, I can’t sleep, although we drove through
the night. Governor Blanco announces that
she’s sending in more national guard troops, “These
troops are fresh back from Iraq, well trained,
experienced, battle tested and under my orders to
restore order in the streets. They have M-16s and
they are locked and loaded. These troops know how
to shoot and kill and they are more than willing
to do so if necessary and I expect they will.”


Many people have called and written to ask what they
can do. I don’t really have answers. I’m still
tired and angry and I don’t know if my home survived.

But, here's some thoughts:

1) Hold the politicians accountable. Hold the media
accountable. Defend Kanye West.

2) Support grassroots aid. A friend has compiled a
list at

3) Volunteer. The following is a call for volunteers
from Families and friends of Louisiana’s
Incarcerated Children, an excellent grassroots group:

Come and help us walk through the shelters,
find people, help folks apply for FEMA assistance,
figure out what needs they have, match folks up
with other members willing to take people in. We
especially need Black folks to help us as the racial
divide between relief workers and evacuees is stark.
Email us ASAP if you would like to help with this

[email protected],
[email protected]
[email protected]
[email protected]

4) Organize in your own community.

5) Add your apartment to the housing board at

6) Support grassroots, community control of

Don’t let New Orleans die.

More on Katrina, from independent sources, can be found on Znet.

[images from the Los Angeles Times, the first by LAT photographer Carolyn Cole, the second by the AP's Eric Gay]

A body floats outside the Superdome in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. [Los Angeles Times caption dated Friday]

How rich and white do you have to be to get the attention of your government?

These people are being treated like animals, and I'm not thinking of dog and cat animals. I mean rat animals! Where is the outrage? Where is the accountability? When do we start indicting?

This is an excerpt from a Reuters story posted earlier today, on the sixth day of the disaster in New Orleans:

As dusk fell on Friday evening, a woman's bloated and brutally distorted figure lay prostrate on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street in a poor neighborhood.

The black woman lay, arms flaccid, feet splayed, one shoe gone, her face distended from swelling and her chest swollen as gas filled her decaying corpse. Someone had covered her body in a plaid blanket in an anonymous gift offering some dignity.

A woman across the street shouted at photographers taking pictures of her, "She's been there for five days, since Monday." Then she approached to beg for bottled water, or anything at all that might help.

A convoy of five sport utility vehicles passed by, each packed with police training rifles with laser sights on the scant few residents out walking. They sped past the corpse without taking any notice.

If the police have been able to get there to protect property and search the victims who still survive, and if the media can get there to write about what's going on and to take pictures, why are these people still suffering and dying, and why are there bodies rotting in the midst of all this, on both dry land and flooded streets?

[image by James Nielsen from AFP/Getty Images via the Los Angeles Times]

Hundreds of people wait for evacuation buses on the side of Interstate 10 in New Orleans. Many of them were suffering from dehydration after hours of waiting in the heat. [Los Angeles Times caption, image dated August 31]

Gretna police officer Ray Lassiegne stands guard over a busload of evacuees after they were picked up near the Greater New Orleans Bridge just south of New Orleans. [Los Angeles Times caption, image dated September 1]

The following letter was forwarded to me by Steve Quester, who had just received it from a friend. Jordan Flaherty left a refugee camp today on the northern edge of New Orleans.

The first part of the letter is a frightening glimpse of the experience of thousands of hurricane survivors. The remainder is a picture of what they and all of us have lost, together with an indictment of those responsible. He closes with a call for a reconstruction which would honor a great city.

Flaherty is a white activist, originally from Brooklyn, who has lived in New Orleans for the last few years. He is an editor of Left Turn magazine.

Notes From Inside New Orleans

by Jordan Flaherty

Friday, September 2, 2005

I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I was staying in by boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants to examine the attitude of federal and state officials towards the victims of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.

In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them - Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17 miles of the camp.

I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation Army workers, National Guard, and state police, and although they were friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how many, where they would go to, or any other information. I spoke to the several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able to get any information from any federal or state officials on any of these questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local Fox affiliates complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess. One cameraman told me “as someone who’s been here in this camp for two days, the only information I can give you is this: get out by nightfall. You don’t want to be here at night.”

There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set up any sort of transparent and consistent system, for instance a line to get on buses, a way to register contact information or find family members, special needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment for possible disease exposure, nor even a single trash can.

To understand this tragedy, its important to look at New Orleans itself.

For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible, glorious, vital, city. A place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere else in the world. A 70% African-American city where resistance to white supremecy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid beauty. From jazz, blues and hiphop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, Parades, Beads, Jazz Funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights, New Orleans is a place of art and music and dance and sexuality and liberation unlike anywhere else in the world.

It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can take two hours because you stop and talk to someone on every porch, and where a community pulls together when someone is in need. It is a city of extended families and social networks filling the gaps left by city, state and federal goverments that have abdicated their responsibilty for the public welfare. It is a city where someone you walk past on the street not only asks how you are, they wait for an answer.

It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of New Orleans has a population of just over 500,000 and was expecting 300 murders this year, most of them centered on just a few, overwhelmingly black, neighborhoods. Police have been quoted as saying that they don’t need to search out the perpetrators, because usually a few days after a shooting, the attacker is shot in revenge.

There is an atmosphere of intense hostility and distrust between much of Black New Orleans and the N.O. Police Department. In recent months, officers have been accused of everything from drug running to corruption to theft. In seperate incidents, two New Orleans police officers were recently charged with rape (while in uniform), and there have been several high profile police killings of unarmed youth, including the murder of Jenard Thomas, which has inspired ongoing weekly protests for several months.

The city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders will not graduate in four years. Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per child’s education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest teacher salaries. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any given day. Far too many young black men from New Orleans end up enslaved in Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die in the prison. It is a city where industry has left, and most remaining jobs are are low-paying, transient, insecure jobs in the service economy.

Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster is one that was constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence.

Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at risk, to the treatment of the refugees to the the media portayal of the victims, this disaster is shaped by race.

Louisiana politics is famously corrupt, but with the tragedies of this week our political leaders have defined a new level of incompetence. As hurricane Katrina approached, our Governor urged us to “Pray the hurricane down” to a level two. Trapped in a building two days after the hurricane, we tuned our battery-operated radio into local radio and tv stations, hoping for vital news, and were told that our governor had called for a day of prayer. As rumors and panic began to rule, they was no source of solid dependable information. Tuesday night, politicians and reporters said the water level would rise another 12 feet - instead it stabilized. Rumors spread like wildfire, and the politicians and media only made it worse.

While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to get there were left behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and national media have spent the last week demonizing those left behind. As someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of this tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.

No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely closed stores in a desperate, starving city as a “looter,” but thats just what the media did over and over again. Sherrifs and politicians talked of having troops protect stores instead of perform rescue operations.

Images of New Orleans’ hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into black, out-of-control, criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime than the governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of damage and destroyed a city. This media focus is a tactic, just as the eighties focus on “welfare queens” and “super-predators” obscured the simultaneous and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan scams and mass layoffs, the hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a scapegoat to cover up much larger crimes.

City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since at least the mid-1800s, its been widely known the danger faced by flooding to New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this week’s events, was more about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated exactly the danger faced. Yet government officials have consistently refused to spend the money to protect this poor, overwhelmingly black, city. While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending danger to New Orleans and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the city, the Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or refused to fund New Orleans flood control, and ignored scientists warnings of increased hurricanes as a result of global warming. And, as the dangers rose with the floodlines, the lack of coordinated response dramatized vividly the callous disregard of our elected leaders.

The aftermath from the 1927 flood helped shape the elections of both a US President and a Governor, and ushered in the southern populist politics of Huey Long.

In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New Orleans. This money can either be spent to usher in a “New Deal” for the city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new schools, cultural programs and housing restoration, or the city can be “rebuilt and revitalized” to a shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more casinos, and with chain stores and theme parks replacing the former neighborhoods, cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.

Long before Katrina, New Orleans was hit by a hurricane of poverty, racism, disinvestment, de-industrialization and corruption. Simply the damage from this pre-Katrina hurricane will take billions to repair.

Now that the money is flowing in, and the world’s eyes are focused on Katrina, its vital that progressive-minded people take this opportunity to fight for a rebuilding with justice. New Orleans is a special place, and we need to fight for its rebirth.

[images from the Los Angeles Times, via Newsday, the first by Carolyn Cole, the second by Robert Gauthier]

outside the New Orleans convention center today

While still lying abed this morning I listened to the BBC World Service coverage of the New Orleans disaster. Unfortunately I did not get the name of the (American?) woman being interviewed in London who used Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray" as a very dramatic metaphor for our contemporary U.S.

The BBC guy asked her to explain what she meant when she said something like, "we're now looking at the picture of Dorian Gray which had been hidden in the attic." She meant that the world can now see the America we have hidden behind the image of prosperity, liberty, equality and well . . . yes, fraternity.

Poor Americans on television? Poor African-Americans on television? And we can all agree they're certainly not looking their Sunday best. How is that?

I believe the world knows much better than we do what has been going on here for decades, but now they have good pictures.

There was a related reference to this catastrophe's elements of race and class in a segment from another show this morning. Although I can't stand the Brian Lehrer Show, this morning I stayed around during the opening segment in order to hear The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel (whom Rush Limbaugh, taking childish delight in her given name, has blamed for the hurricane and everything else he sees wrong with America). Before her good sense could be "balanced" by someone from what is euphemistically referred to as a "Right-wing thinktank," vanden Heuvel pointed out that Americans haven't seen poor people on television for years, and now they are forced to do so, day after day. I would add (I don't recall if she said something similar herself) that they see these images now only because of events not unrelated to our long-time abandonment of these folks, the least powerful elements of a very cruel, capitalist society quite full of itself.

[image, a pool photo by David J. Phillip, from the NYTimes]

the author's home, before the flood

I have a stack of neglected newspapers on my right as I sit here at my laptop looking at the staggering reports of human tragedy flowing in from Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. I saved yesterday's NYTimes "House & Home" section for later, mostly because of this article [with another, very different picture] which appeared at the top of the front page. A few minutes ago, while looking for something else, I saw it for the third time on Tyler Green's site.* I decided I had to read it now, and I'm glad I did. In the midst of so much reason for despair, the writer, Frederick Starr, recalls a community which has been all but destroyed this week, but he also offers some hope for its survival.

My home is there, a West Indian-style plantation house built in 1826, standing as an ancient relic amid a maze of wooden houses a century younger. Some are classic bungalows, but most are distinctly New Orleans building types, with fanciful names like shotguns and camelbacks. I watch as a neighbor is rescued from his rooftop. Dazed, he has emerged from his attic, wriggling through a hole he hacked in the roof, swooped up by a Guardsman on a swinging rope. He is safe. Scores of others aren't. Bodies float through the streets of the Ninth Ward. Presumably they are from the diverse group that inhabits this deepest-dyed old New Orleans neighborhood: poorer blacks and whites, Creoles of color and a sprinkling of artists.

My neighbor Miss Marie is also one of the lucky ones. Born on the ground floor of what is now my house, she is 81, residing in a shotgun house that her husband, now deceased, built 60 years ago. She has spent most of her life within a perimeter of barely 30 yards. Both her speech and her cooking were formed right there. A painted plaster statue of the Virgin has protected her through all previous storms. But this time she pleaded with my friend John White to take her as he left town. Satellite photos show the shadow of her roof beneath the filthy water. Her house is gone, but John saved her life, driving to Atlanta, sleeping on benches at rest stops.

. . . .

We are just beginning to appreciate the human disaster occurring in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Hundreds, maybe thousands, have already perished. Hundreds of thousands will lose their homes and all their worldly possessions. Untold numbers of businesses will close their doors, throwing huge numbers of people out of work. New Orleans, its population already in decline, now faces economic and social collapse.

It also faces the loss of some of America's most notable historic architecture. Maybe not in the French Quarter, which may emerge relatively intact, or the Garden District, which was spared most of the flooding. The dangers lie in neighborhoods like Tremé and Mid-City, which extend along Bayou Road toward Lake Pontchartrain and are rich in 18th- and 19th-century homes, shops, churches and social halls. They have been badly hit by the violent winds or torrents of water. And so have hundreds of other important buildings and vernacular structures throughout the city and across the breadth of South Louisiana and the Gulf Coast.

. . . .

Louisiana, especially South Louisiana, is a living archive of American social and cultural history, and not just in its buildings. In no other state is the proportion of people born and raised within its borders so high. As a consequence, they are something that is ever more rare in a homogenized and suburbanized America: the living bearers and transmitters of their own history and culture. Katrina, and those fateful levee breaks in New Orleans, put this all at risk.

. . . .

Now [my own house] is under water. If it survives at all, it will need massive rehabilitation. Just as likely, it will go the way of Miss Marie's house and of hundreds of other pieces of the region's heritage.

But I do not intend to give up easily. Why? Because I am absolutely convinced that New Orleanians will not allow their city to become a ghost town. And I intend to be part of the renewal that springs from this determination.

Go to Green's site, "Modern Art Notes," for regular updates on cultural loss in the Gulf area, and suggestions on how to help, along with very helpful links.

[image from the NYTimes]

A blanket covers the body of a woman who died in a wheelchair, and another body is wrapped in a sheet Thursday at the convention center in New Orleans. [CNN caption]

If we actually were to be the victim of a major deliberate attack any time in the near future it's now certified that we have no plan, no defense, no means of recovery. This was just a big storm, a very big storm, but just a storm, and there's no radiation or poison weaponry involved, yet it's been five days and virtually no help of any kind has arrived for our good neighbors, the people of New Orleans. They're dying in the attics, on the roofs and in the hell of the "shelters."

This time even the major commercial media can't keep quiet about the incompetence of what passes for government today in our benighted land:

New Orleans hospitals desperate as food runs low

The Associated Press

Doctors at two desperately crippled hospitals in New Orleans called The Associated Press Thursday morning pleading for rescue, saying they were nearly out of food and power and had been forced to move patients to higher floors to escape looters.

"We have been trying to call the mayor's office, we have been trying to call the governor's office ... we have tried to use any inside pressure we can. We are turning to you. Please help us," said Dr. Norman McSwain, chief of trauma surgery at Charity Hospital, the larger of two public hospitals.

. . . .

Earlier, McSwain described horrific conditions in his hospital.

"There is no food in Charity Hospital. They're eating fruit bowl punch and that's all they've got to eat. There's minimal water," McSwain said.

"Most of their power is out. Much of the hospital is dark. The ICU (intensive care unit) is on the 12th floor, so the physicians and nurses are having to walk up floors to see the patients."

Dr. Lee Hamm, chairman of medicine at Tulane University, said he took a canoe from there to the two public hospitals, where he also works, to check conditions.

"The physicians and nurses are doing an incredible job, but there are patients laying on stretchers on the floor, the halls were dark, the stairwells are dark. Of course, there's no elevators. There's no communication with the outside world," he said.

"We're afraid that somehow these two hospitals have been left off ... that somehow somebody has either forgotten it or ignored it or something, because there is no evidence anything is being done."

Hamm said there was relief Wednesday as word traveled throughout University Hospital that the National Guard was coming to evacuate them, but the rescue never materialized.

"You can imagine how demoralizing that was," he said.

And here is the Reuters lead headline at this moment (try to get past the racist analogy and digest the substance of the story):

Bodies, gunfire and chaos in New Orleans' streets

NEW ORLEANS (Reuters) - Rotting bodies littered the flooded streets of New Orleans on Thursday and mounting violence threatened to turn into all-out anarchy as thousands of survivors of Hurricane Katrina pleaded to be evacuated, or even just fed.

The historic jazz city has fallen prey to armed looters since Katrina tore through and it now more closely resembles Haiti or another Third World trouble spot in a refugee crisis than one of America's most popular vacation centers.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco warned rioters and looters late on Thursday that National Guard troops were under her orders to "shoot and kill" if needed to restore order.

"These troops are battle-tested. They have M-16s and are locked and loaded," she said. "These troops know how to shoot and kill and I expect they will."

Police units, rescue teams and even hospital workers came under gunfire on Thursday and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin pleaded for urgent help in getting thousands of evacuees to safety. "This is a desperate SOS," he said.

People became increasingly frustrated at the slow pace of rescue and evacuation efforts a full three days after Katrina tore up the U.S. Gulf Coast.

Elderly people in wheelchairs braved flooded streets in search of help, and entire families were trapped on elevated highways without food or water in sweltering heat.

"We want help," people chanted at the city convention center, where thousands of evacuees were told to seek shelter only to find woefully inadequate supplies of food or water.

Several corpses lay in nearby streets. The body of one elderly woman was simply abandoned in her wheelchair, covered with just a blanket. Officials feared thousands of people were killed but they could still only guess at the death toll.

And all the suits and uniforms seem to be thinking about is how to put down "looting" by desperate people reduced to nothing. Fifty thousand troops have been promised, no, threatened, and they have orders to shoot, but still there is no sign of food, nor water, nor rescue, nor means of evacuation from the city, nor decent shelter once they get out.

We are truly fucked, and next time it won't be mostly just the poor, the old, the sick and the powerless.

[image, photographer uncredited, from CNN]

This page is an archive of entries in the General category from September 2005.

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