Revolution #58, August 27, 2006
Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: Bitter Truth About the Crimes in New Orleans
by Li Onesto
When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts by Director Spike Lee will be shown on HBO:
Acts I and II premiere Monday, August 21 at 9 pm (ET/PT), followed by Acts III and IV on Tuesday, August 22 at 9 pm.
All four acts will be seen Tuesday, August 29 (8 pm - midnight), the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
Spike Lee’s new documentary, When the Levees Broke – A Requiem in Four Acts, starts off with a whirl of images that flash between historical shots of Mardi Gras, funeral jazz bands, racists holding the Confederate flag, police brutality, and heart-wrenching footage of the devastation after Hurricane Katrina: completely destroyed homes, a man being pushed through the floods in a wheelchair, people on roofs crying out for help, spray-paint on houses tallying the dead inside. Louis Armstrong is singing, “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans when that’s where you left your heart.”
Then Act I begins right away to put the lie to Bush’s claim that no one had anticipated the break in the levees. In the days leading up to August 29, the day Katrina hit New Orleans, meteorologists as well as others were predicting a very serious Category 5 hurricane and saying that the city, which is six feet below sea level, should be evacuated.
But from the very beginning, the historical and everyday inequalities of life in the USA asserted themselves. While many were able to find ways to get out of the city, thousands of others lined up at the Superdome – which was seen as the place of last resort for those mainly poor, mainly Black residents who didn’t have the means to get out. And many thousands more, especially the elderly, sick, and disabled, were stuck in their homes.
And we learn that FEMA (which emerges as a major target of people’s anger throughout the movie) had already funded a study called PAM, which showed through computer-simulated models what would happen if a Category 5 hurricane hit New Orleans. The study predicted that 127,000 people who didn’t have access to vehicles, and many disabled and homeless, would not be able to get out of the city on their own.
Then we see what happened when Katrina hit on August 29. The footage is horrifically vivid and visceral – but one can only imagine what it was like to be sitting in a dark house, hearing, feeling and fearing the natural fury of such a force. One man describes manhole covers popping off all over as water quickly filled the streets.
Tens of thousands found themselves at the mercy of the storm. At this point there was little they could do except try to stay alive as torrents of rain and monstrous winds wreaked havoc all around them. The crime that would lead to many deaths and widespread suffering had already been committed – the government had failed to maintain the levees and evacuate the city. And this was only the beginning of the system’s criminal acts.
The floods rose above 20 feet in some places. Eighty percent of the city was under water. People were stuck for days on roofs in 100 degree heat with nothing to eat or drink.
Toward the end of Act I, we see Bush. Like the thousands of people who attended the preview in New Orleans on August 16, you feel compelled to BOO, at the very least. W says he understands the anxiety of the people on the ground and with his irrepressible smirk says, “I don’t think anyone anticipated the break in the levees.”
Right after this we hear from Terence Blanchard, who did the score for the movie and is a native of New Orleans. He says: “You have to worry about a country that can look at a vast number of mistakes that this administration has made that has directly affected people’s lives. You have to worry about a country that can look at all of that and still not see this guy for who he is. I know I’m going to get mail, I know I’m going to get ostracized, but you gotta say that because I’m worried about the country. When you look at an organization like FEMA that was passing the buck about how to just bring in normal stuff, water and food. How hard could that be? I still haven’t heard any answers that convinces me that it couldn’t have been done differently.”
Blocked Bridges and Buckshot
In Act II we see the scope of just how widely, cruelly, and consciously the government abandoned people in the aftermath of Katrina.
It was a combination of gun-in-your-face repression and wanton, murderous neglect.
We hear the infamous story of how people were blocked from trying to get to safety by crossing the bridge into Jefferson Parish. How the police lined up with shotguns. The elderly, the injured, those who had been abandoned by authorities on the interstate highway – were threatened at gunpoint and told to turn around.
A man lifts up his shirt. All over his body we see scars from healed holes where a scatter of buckshot had blasted his chest. There is a scar several inches long on his neck where his wound had required surgery. He says he was shot at by a white guy in a white t-shirt.
And then the footage of Governor Kathleen Blanco saying: “We are going to restore law and order... These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect that they will.”
We hear how the chief of police, Eddie Compass, spread wild rumors about babies being raped, helicopters being shot at. He admits on camera that he said things that weren’t true. He says, “I guess I heightened people’s fears...I erred on the side of caution.” In fact he created a dangerous hysteria by putting out wild lies that painted the masses like animals that needed to be hunted down.
What emerges is the manufacturing of a racist, vigilante atmosphere which gave cops and soldiers carte blanche to shoot on sight “looters” (i.e. people trying to survive) and a green light to white racists who came back to their neighborhoods fully packed because, as one man told Spike, “I wasn’t sure what I was going to find.”
Air Force One and Feragamos
Then comes – from what people have told me who attended the premiere in New Orleans – a part of the movie that got one of the biggest and loudest response, i.e. lots of BOOING. It’s the part where we see, hear, and get enraged at what Bush and Co. were doing in the immediate days after Katrina. It’s the part where we see in a very clear way the connection between the dying and suffering and what the Bush government did and did not do.
There are a series of quick cuts to interview clips. Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge and a professor at Tulane University, talks about the government’s slow response to the hurricane, how Bush went to San Diego to give a speech about Iraq and barely mentioned Katrina. Rev. Al Sharpton tells us that when Bush finally addressed the situation, he initially said he was “not informed.”
Then it cuts to actor Harry Belafonte, who says: “First of all, the government did know, had been amply warned by agencies, by people who are meteorologists, people who study weather patterns, that this catastrophe was headed towards the Gulf region, and that it had capacity to be bigger than anything else the region had ever experienced.” Later Belafonte adds, “There was information. Why the government of the United States, and particularly Bush, decided not to respond and not to pay attention to that, I think was based upon a host of reasons. First of all, the arrogance of power, huge arrogance on the part of the government. It didn't mean that much to other things that were capturing his attention, and that he thought was far more important. And when it finally did happen, he just thought that the people who were caught in this terrible tragedy were first of all socially of no importance, and certainly racially of no importance as well.”
At every point in this story we see how FEMA, headed by Michael Brown, miserably failed to meet even the most basic needs of the people who were fighting to survive.
Spike runs a repeating loop of Bush saying, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job.”
And then we see Bush in Air Force One, flying over New Orleans. From up on high, he's looking down below. From up on high, he can't smell the stench of death, hear the cries of parents separated from their children, or witness the tragedy of people losing their minds.
Calvin Mackie, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Tulane University, says: “How could it be that in a country that’s supposedly the richest country in the world, where the 82nd Airborne are prepared to be anywhere in the world in a day and a half, where we were in the region of Sri Lanka when the Tsunami hit, in less than two days, and here we are, day four, day five and the federal government had still not made it to New Orleans?”
Douglas Brinkley says: “In the Bush Administration, I mean, if you go through each one of them and say where were you when the Golden Hour came – Dick Cheney, fly fishing, Karl Rove, nowhere around, Chertoff, going to Atlanta on a disease prevention kick, Condoleezza Rice, shopping.”
And Dr. Michael Eric Dyson (author Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster) adds: “What was Dr. Condoleezza Rice doing that looked very poorly? She was at Feragamos buying shoes. I think a white patron came up to her, maybe a white woman and said, 'how dare you?' While people are down there drowning it was like the sandman hook, whoop, she got pulled off, brother. That was a mini-Apollo stage, and she wasn't hitting it, so they pulled her off the stage. Then she goes to Spamalot that night and when the cameras frame her familiar figure, once the lights come on and they see it's Dr. Condoleezza Rice, 'Boo' -- they began to boo her and then the next day she’s hitting tennis balls with Monica Seles at a club. So Blahniks, Broadway and balls are more important than black people.”
A Memory of Slavery
When the government finally did something about the tens of thousands who had been abandoned for days at the Superdome, the Convention Center and up on the interstate overpasses, it was done with the heartlessness of a cruel plantation owner.
One resident recalled: “With the evacuation scattering my family all over the United States I felt like it was an ancient memory as if we had been up on an auction block.”
Tens of thousands were scattered all over the country – to 44 different states with one-way tickets. People put on buses didn’t know where they were going. Families were separated. Children ripped away from their parents.
Michael Eric Dyson says, “Some people suggested that this was akin to slavery. ‘Oh no, you’re being hyperbolic. You’re just engaging in all forms of racial inflammatory rhetoric, calm down.' Well, the fact is, they were treating them like slaves in the ship, families were being separated, children were being taken from their mothers and fathers. Those who were more weary and those who were more likely to be vulnerable were separated from those who were stronger. Babies literally ripped out of the arms of their mothers and fathers. The separation of the evacuation where people lost sight and lost sound and lost sense of their loved ones.”
Then Act II ends with what is both the hardest part to watch and the most indicting in terms of just how much what happened in New Orleans was, as Spike put it, “a criminal act.”
For a full 78 seconds, we see photos of bodies – floating in water, lying on sidewalks, underneath debris, decomposing, mangled, left for days, left for months.
“George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People”
In Act III, we see Kanye West making his famous statement that “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” He tells Spike, “When I was up there I wasn’t concerned about record sales, I wasn’t concerned about sponsorships, about losing any sponsorships, which we did. But I was more concerned about if I was in these people’s shoes.”
And the movie reveals several other incidents that show just how angry people were at the government.
Dr. Ben Marble, a white ER physician, recounts how he was walking through his devastated neighborhood in Gulfport, Mississippi, when he came up to a roadblock. Dick Cheney was nearby doing a “I really do care” photo op. Marble says, “We had been hearing reports of what was going on in New Orleans and just how completely incompetent the response was to this disaster. I remember what he had said to Senator Leahy from Vermont on the floor of the Senate when he told him to go fuck himself, so I thought it would be poetic justice if I quoted the dick to the dick.” We see the video his friend took of him going right up to Cheney and yelling, “Go fuck yourself!”
Cheryl Livaudais, a white resident of Yscloskey in the St. Bernard Parish, also shares her sentiments about the Bush Administration. From what I’ve been told, Livaudais was a favorite figure in the movie among many who attended the premiere. People howled with bitter laughter when she said, “President Bush can kiss my ass. The United States government can kiss my ass. St. Bernard Parish can kiss my ass. Even though there’s not much left, but there’s enough to kiss.”
And Spike Lee underscores the outrageousness of what Barbara Bush said when she toured the Houston Astrodome. We see her lips move, hear her voice and read the words across the bottom of the screen: “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all wanna stay in Texas. Everybody is so overwhelmed by the hospitality and so many of the people in the arenas here, you know, were underprivileged anyway. This is working very well for them.”
Once again, you can’t help but be transported back to a scene from America’s ugly history of slavery. An arrogant, condescending, and ignorant plantation wife, talking about how good the slave owners treat their slaves.
After seeing When the Levees Broke, it struck me how the masses of people in New Orleans have gone through an experience very similar to what millions around the world have gone through because of wars perpetrated by the United States. Death, the total destruction of homes, families separated by evacuation and relocation, soldiers and cops with shoot-on-sight orders, and the mental anguish and heartbreak of having your whole life ripped apart and then confronting a government that does everything in its power to prevent you from coming back home.
Spike Lee interviews several people experiencing severe stress because of what they went through after Katrina, and it's a lot like the kind of post traumatic stress syndrome of people who have gone through a war. They can’t sleep, they have anxiety attacks, they find themselves suddenly weeping in the middle of the day.
In April 2006, I went to New Orleans to interview people and photograph the devastation. It was shocking to me just how little had been done to clean up and rebuild the neighborhoods, especially the Ninth Ward, but also throughout much of the city. I interviewed a young Black woman in the Ninth Ward who recounted how she swam for hours in the rising waters to try and find her fiancé. She told me that even now, she has a hard time, every single day, just dealing in any kind of way with water. She even has trouble washing her hands.
Act IV and Beyond
As the first anniversary of Katrina approaches, many parts of New Orleans are still uninhabitable ghost towns. A year has gone by and tens of thousands are still scattered all over the country, unable to come home and rebuild. The 2006 hurricane season started with the levees still not fully fixed. Insurance companies are refusing to pay. Government vouchers are being cut. FEMA is, as we hear several people explain, still a disaster, a joke, and a dirty, four letter word. And they are still finding bodies in the rubble.
In Act IV we see how land grabbers and other vultures see the destruction and misery in New Orleans as an opportunity to rip off land, and cash in on what they consider the most valuable resource in New Orleans – not the people, the rich culture or the historical significance – but oil and natural gas. We learn that 25 percent of all the natural gas produced in the U.S. and 20 percent of all the oil used domestically in the U.S. is produced off the shore of Louisiana. Douglas Brinkley points out, “The state of Louisiana has long been used as almost a colony, or as a place to extract resources by the rest of the United States,” and then says, “I’ve never seen such a time when the government turned its back on people in need to this degree. To have a people in such dire need, getting such little help from the federal government. I think it’s unprecedented.”
When the Levees Broke introduces us to close to 100 people in New Orleans, from different nationalities, from diverse backgrounds, and with a range of opinions. It also introduces us to a cast of criminal co-conspirators which includes George Bush and Co. as well as racism, poverty, and police brutality. This important movie provides an important stage for the people of New Orleans to speak bitterness and expose the many crimes that have been perpetrated by the workings of this system. The stories of horror, sorrow, frustration, and anger reveal the scale, depth and ongoing nature of these crimes. And from the most poor and oppressed in the Lower Ninth Ward, to the white working class neighborhood of St. Bernard Parish, to the doctors, engineers, and professors who are also trying to get their lives back together – we see a spirit of resistance and determination to speak out and fight against all the injustices the government has and is bringing down on the people.
And this movie, very importantly, underscores how the tragedy of Katrina was not fundamentally due to the forces of nature, but to the forces of the Bush government and the capitalist system more generally.
Musician Wynton Marsalis, a native of New Orleans, offers this insight: “I think that this is a great moment in American history because I feel that in this moment we see a lot of what’s wrong with us. It’s a signature moment. It’s like sometimes you walk past a mirror and you see yourself in a position you don’t like. Damn, I thought I was ten pounds overweight, I’m 50. But this is like you stayed in front the mirror and you couldn’t turn away from it. You stayed in that pose and everything in that pose shows us what’s wrong with us.”
And in the last few minutes of the movie, Cheryl Livaudais, a St. Bernard Parish resident, declares, “We need a different government. We need somebody in there who actually really and truly cares about the people, about their property, about their homes. Someone who really and truly cares.” Then she asks, “But who is that going to be?”
It was quite a bit after midnight when I arrived in New Orleans, nine months after Hurricane Katrina. I remember driving down N. Claiborne Avenue, heading into the lower Ninth Ward and seeing block after block of broken down, abandoned cars under the interstate 10 highway.” There was a strange emptiness to the city that, at one and the same time, seemed quiet but full of suppressed sounds. Turning off the main street into the neighborhood it was pitch dark, no electricity, no lights, no people to peek out of their front window to see who would be driving down the street at such an hour. At that moment it began to hit me – the immensity of what had happened to the residents of New Orleans and how how little the government had done to make it possible for people to come back and rebuild their homes and lives.
I found When the Levees Broke to be very stirring and powerful, and I appreciated the different insights and perspectives. There is exposure here that has been covered up and denied. There is testimony that indicts the Bush Regime as totally unfit to rule. And it revealed for me, even more, the truth of how the institutions of white supremacy and the ideas of racism are woven into the very workings of this system of U.S. capitalism.
Watching When the Levees Broke brought back a lot of memories from my trip to New Orleans. I too heard heartbreaking stories that made me want to both cry and yell out in anger. An older Black couple in the Ninth Ward, sleeping in their car at night and working on their house during the day. A young white guy in St. Bernard Parish, living in a FEMA trailer who couldn't get his medicine for epilepsy. A whole tent city of people living in the park looking for work. Immigrant laborers getting ripped off by contractors.
I also heard moving stories of how people struggled with all their might to keep their dignity, in the face of all the ways the government tried to steal their very humanity.
And I learned about the many ways people took matters into their own hands. How people came together to support each other. How in particular the youth organized to rescue people and get them food and water. The system demonized these youth and sent its armed enforces out to hunt them down.
The whole way the masses of people came together in the face of horrific devastation, made even worse by murderous government neglect and repression, shows not only the need but also the possibility of revolution. And from a revolutionary perspective, I can really appreciate the anger, defiance and resourcefulness of the youth, and their whole life experience with what this system is really all about. This is a potentially very positive and powerful force.
People all over the United States and the world need to see When the Levees Broke. This movie is an important contribution to getting at the whole truth of what happened after Hurricane Katrina and it should be part of a big conversation that needs to happen all across this country, among all kinds of people -- about what is represented by the events in New Orleans, who and what is responsible, and what the people need to do about it.
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