Revolution #60, September 10, 2006
Government's Post-Katrina Program:
Blaming the Victims and Murderous Neglect
On the one year anniversary of Katrina, a slew of political speeches, articles and editorials delivered a dangerous and insulting lie. It was a message that if anyone wants to “complain” about still being a victim, they should point the finger—not at the government, not at the Bush administration, and not at the system of capitalism—but at themselves.
Let’s look at the political and ideological dimensions of this.
First of all, what has happened to the hundreds of thousands of people the government abandoned in New Orleans, starting on August 29, 2005?
We all heard and saw the horrific pictures, tearful stories and horrifying reports in the immediate days and weeks after Katrina. Whole families wading in chest-high floods. Bodies floating in toxic water. Desperate pleas from scorching rooftops. Thousands of people, mostly Black, packed into a modern-day stadium slave ship. Soldiers and cops pointing guns, beating and killing people trying to survive. Heartless evacuations that separated families.
We saw the way the way White House officials blatantly ignored people’s suffering. How Condi went shopping for shoes. How Cheney was fly fishing. How Bush, when he finally went to New Orleans, five days after the hurricane, viewed the carnage from Air Force One—up where he couldn’t smell the stench of rotting bodies and see the misery of the people.
And what has happened in the year since Katrina? Even a brief summary is enough to indict the Bush administration for continuing the kind of wanton, callous neglect and Jim Crow practices so blatantly on display right after Katrina.
Hurricane Katrina hit land as a Category Four storm and did a lot of damage. But New Orleans was still largely standing when it moved on. It was the failure of the levees that caused 80 percent of the city to be flooded. This is why people drowned, hundreds of thousands had to be evacuated, and so many homes were destroyed.
The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina in which over 1,800 people died, is due to the complete failure of the system and in particular, the Bush Regime. It failed to prepare for such a natural disaster and in fact cut funds for maintenance of the levees—even though it was known that the levees were inadequate. It failed to do anything once it was clearly predicted that a potentially devastating hurricane was coming. And it failed to help people after the levees broke and thousands of people were trapped and whole swaths of the city were destroyed.
Suffering and Neglect Continue
The floods after Katrina destroyed or badly damaged an estimated 160,000 homes in neighborhoods throughout the New Orleans area—with mainly poor and Black areas, like the Ninth Ward, hit the hardest. 43,000 rental units have also been lost due to the storm and rents have increased by 39 percent this past year.
Before Katrina, over 5,000 families lived in public housing in New Orleans; 88% were households headed by women, nearly all African-American. Now, 4,000 families who were evacuated after Katrina are prevented from moving back in. In the face of the worst affordable housing shortage in New Orleans since the end of the Civil War, the federal government plans to bulldoze 5,000 apartments.
Much of the city still remains without electricity, gas and drinkable water. The government has done little, if anything, to clean up the neighborhoods that are now filled with toxic sludge and uninhabitable homes. On August 1, 2006, another Katrina victim was found in her home in New Orleans, buried under debris. The woman was the 28th person found dead since March 2006.
Before Katrina, 56,000 students were enrolled in over 100 public schools in New Orleans. At the end of the school year there were only 12,500. The local school board used to control over 115 schools—they now control four. The majority of the schools now open are charter schools.
The state’s biggest public health care provider, Charity Hospital, remains closed and there are no current plans to reopen it anytime soon. The two-tiered health care system where the uninsured and poor have little access to care has been greatly exacerbated. Some estimates say the city has lost half of its physicians.
There is no hospital at all in the city for psychiatric patients. Many people are experiencing post-traumatic stress—similar to what war survivors go through. The suicide rate has tripled from what it was a year ago but the city has lost half of its psychiatrists, social workers, psychologists and other mental health care workers. Mental health clinics remain closed. The main place for people with mental health problems is now jail and prison.
One million Gulf Coast residents fled or were evacuated because of Katrina. The population of New Orleans pre-Katrina was 485,000. It’s now only about half of this. Before, New Orleans was about two-thirds Black. Most of those evacuated were African-American and many speculate that a “rebuilt New Orleans” will no longer be a “Black city.”
There are over 250,000 people who were displaced after Katrina in Texas; 150,000 are in Houston alone, with 41 percent of these households reporting an income of less than $500 per month. Eighty-one percent are Black, 59 percent are still jobless; many have serious health problems.
The National Guard is now patrolling the streets of New Orleans while politicians and the media demonize the people, acting as if the biggest problem in the city is gangs and crime. All this when the government has done nothing to give people a way to come back, find jobs and live.
Spike Lee’s movie, When the Levees Broke, shows Louisiana Governor Blanco saying, right after Katrina, “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.” There was the Gretna Bridge incident where people tried to get to safety by crossing into Jefferson Parish, but were threatened and blocked by police lined up with shotguns.
And there was Barbara Bush saying, about the people living in horrible conditions in the Houston Astrodome: “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 arena here, you know, were under-privileged anyway. This is working very well for them.”
More recently, in one suburb, Sheriff Jack Strain told reporters that he was going to protect his jurisdiction from “thugs” and “trash” migrating from closed public housing projects in New Orleans. He went on to promise that every person who wore “dreadlocks or che-wee hairstyles” could expect to be stopped by law enforcement.
The System at Work
At every point in this story, of how the system has dealt with Katrina, what comes through is how this system is based on the expansion of profit and the protection of capitalist property. How to this system, human lives count for nothing. How racism and the institutions of white supremacy are woven into the very workings of U.S. capitalism and how this is consciously reinforced by those who rule.
The vast majority of all this suffering wasn't and isn’t necessary. Humanity has the ability to take care of the environment, to prepare for natural disasters when they do happen, and to do all this in a cooperative way. But the whole way that things are set up under capitalism means this doesn’t happen.
So now, a year later, tens of thousands are still living in pain, up against a system that sees devastation and dislocation as an opportunity to build a more profitable city and get rid of public housing and the “problem” of poor people.
The Bush Administration isn’t doing the things necessary to really help people move back to New Orleans and rebuild their lives because 1) this isn’t profitable and; 2) NOT doing this is in line with a conscious program for how to deal with certain sections of society.
Katrina revealed the total inability of the capitalist system to meet the needs of the people. And it also revealed the potential for people to do things a different way. Under extremely difficult conditions, people took initiative, stuck together, and found creative ways to try and survive. This was done in spite of and up against all the forces of dog-eat-dog capitalist society. And in this we can see what could be accomplished if society were set up in a whole different way.
A socialist state would have fundamentally different priorities, principles, and methods of organizing society and this would lead to very different results in the event of a disaster: The suffering of the people would be immediately addressed and lessened—not made worse. Profit and the almighty dollar would not be in command and the government would rely on and mobilize the people to solve problems together in every sphere. Scientists would be listened to and mobilized to help educate people to understand things like hurricanes—and in this process learn from the people. There would be broad, public debate and discussion over how to deal with things like hurricanes and how to implement preventative measures; and government money and resources would be allocated to deal with such problems. And the policy of a revolutionary socialist government would be to do away with all the institutions and legacies of national oppression.
Hurricanes and other natural disasters would still pose very serious challenges. But people and society as a whole would be in a fundamentally different situation to deal with this. People all over the country would be immediately organized to figure out how to get food, medicine, aid and transportation to people. Extraordinary measures would be taken to utilize all possible resources in society and the needs of all would be met, with first priority to those most urgently in need—the sick, wounded, and the poor.
Anniversary Ideological Attacks
So, now that we’ve seen all what the government has done and NOT done in the wake of Katrina. Now that we’ve seen the utter and colossal failure of the government to take responsibility for helping the victims of the storm. Now that we’ve seen how the government has not only failed to help people survive, move back and rebuild, but has actually contributed to people’s suffering. Let’s go back to where this article started: the barrage of ideological attacks which blame the people themselves if they have not taken “personal responsibility” for “getting back on their feet.”
In other words, Bill Cosby-type thinking, which blames the poor for the predicament that the system and the government has put them in, is being further developed and enhanced in the official summations of what has happened in the year after Katrina.
There are many, but here are two examples, one subtle, one blatant.
The New York Times ran a several-part series on New Orleans leading up to the anniversary, which in part profiled people moving back and rebuilding. A big message of this was: “Don’t worry—the people who are resourceful and determined are doing OK.” The read-between-the-lines message here being: “Those who are still suffering are lazy, living off government aid, probably into crime and probably Black.”
One article in the series profiles a white middle class couple who own their own company that brings in $50,000 a year. They own two homes so they are able to live in one while they rebuild the other. Another article compares people who fled to Atlanta with those who were evacuated to Houston—at one point saying that differences “date back to the storm itself, and whether people were willing or able to get out of its way.” Under the subhead, “Some Work as Others Wait” we learn that in Houston the mayor has been “pleading with able evacuees to go to work” and that there are more than 5,000 jobs available. But the people evacuated to Houston, who had been employed, had mostly worked at jobs that paid less than $15,000. And these kind of jobs aren’t as abundant in Houston. At the same time, people in Atlanta, many of whom had more professional- type jobs, we are told, “didn’t even bother to ask for help” and “self-navigated.”
The Times compares two different groups of people as if they are in equal situations and have equal opportunities—when in fact they face very different and very UNEQUAL situations and opportunities, which ends up implying that those who made it did so because they are somehow superior, while those who didn’t only have themselves to blame.
In fact, there is a whole range of people who are continuing to suffer—who have been abandoned by the government and are victims of a profit-driven system in which, for instance, companies refuse to pay flood insurance. This includes many middle class people and many white people. Many small businesses have been devastated. And many artists and musicians have been hit hard.
The system and in particular, the Bush administration, has failed to help hundreds of thousands of victims of Katrina. And Black people and poor people are the most severely affected due to the fact that they have less resources and also because of the conscious policies of the government.
Democracy Now! aired a story in which Pamela Lewis told about having guns shoved in her face when she tried to evacuate with her 86-year-old mother. She was relocated to a FEMA trailer park 100 miles away, fenced in by barbed-wire. She is still there and says, “It is a prison set-up. I’ve never been to the bottom of the barrel until I came here.” The trailer park is in a field literally in the middle of nowhere behind an Exxon Oil Refinery. And the only bus available for residents goes only to Wal-Mart. (“Big Easy to Big Empty—The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans,” Greg Palast, August 27, 2006)
Then there is the New York Times September 1 op-ed piece by Juan Williams titled, “Getting Past Katrina.” Williams employs the method of saying something is true because people believe what they have been told is true. He cites a poll that says in the US, two-thirds of Black people and three-quarters of white people believe that too many poor people are overly dependent on government aid. Then Williams asserts that there is good reason for people to hold this belief. And he goes on to argue that it’s pretty simple for people to get out of poverty. He has a basic four step program: finish high school, wait until you’re 20 to get married, wait until you’re married to have children, and take any job.
So here we have the all-too-familiar “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” message to the hundreds of thousands of poor and Black people whose suffering is so clearly the result of blatant and ongoing government neglect, discrimination and repression.
This “you’re not taking personal responsibility” attack on the masses is a deliberate attempt to evade and direct attention away from social reality and social responsibility, to ignore the real underlying causes and dynamics of why people are in the situation they’re in.
In the talk Conservatism, Christian Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Paternalism…Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton…Not All “Right” but All Wrong!, Bob Avakian speaks to the message that is being pushed by Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, and others who claim to speak for, or be friends of Black people. This message says that the reason Black people are in the situation they are in is they need to take “personal responsibility” for their lives. But were whole communities abandoned because the people living in them decided to fire themselves, and move all the jobs to places where people could be exploited even more ruthlessly? Did people decide to strip their communities of social services? And, he raises a point that I think is very germane here--that all this dovetails with a larger social and political program that has even genocidal implications for Black people. [The talk Conservatism, Christian Fundamentalism, Liberalism and Paternalism…Bill Cosby and Bill Clinton…Not All “Right” but All Wrong!, is available for download at revcom.us or at bobavakian.net.]
The Bush Regime’s Program for Black People
So, to review what we saw in the wake of Hurricane Katrina:
The people who were crowded into the worst housing and who could not afford to leave were overwhelmingly Black. Thousands of people, mainly Black, were penned into the Superdome like a modern-day slave ship. Black people in New Orleans demonized with lies in the media and their suffering heartlessly dismissed by people highly connected with the Bush Regime and members of the regime itself. Vicious cops and soldiers used force against Black people trying to survive. And now, a year later, the mostly Black people displaced by Katrina are still scattered all over the country, still suffering, still kept from moving back to New Orleans to rebuild their homes and lives.
All this brings into sharp focus the genocidal implications of the Bush Regime’s program for Black people. There is a genocidal element in this package that could easily come to the fore as the situation develops and people have to be very cognizant of that.
Bush is a continuation as well as a perverse extension of the capitalist system. His regime wants to achieve a very different social order in the U.S.—a combination of fascist religious dictatorship at home with an even more aggressive imperialist policy against the world. And as part of that, Bush and powerful Christian fascist forces have been building up a section of preachers within the Black community to be part of a political movement aiming to institute theocracy—a fascist religious dictatorship—over society. These Christian fascists aim to abolish the separation of church and state and want to force all of society to abide by their version of Biblical law. And we saw this at work in New Orleans after Katrina.
One example: What role did Pat Robertson play in relationship to New Orleans? Robertson, a powerful Christian fascist who is among Bush’s top backers, preaches that the prison system, where a million Black people are locked up, should be replaced with an even more vicious setup. He says that these prisoners put “the stain of sin on the land” and he preaches that society should adopt “the biblical model” where “the hard-core, habitual criminal was permanently removed from society through capital punishment.” And then there is William Bennett, a former cabinet official in the Reagan and Bush I administrations, and a major player in the Republican Party, who feels that he can and must float the idea that “if you wanted to reduce crime…you could abort every Black baby in this country.” Through conscious governmental policy as well as through the workings of capitalism, whole sections of Black people are considered “unemployable” people the system has no future for, people the system has no use for and would like to see “disappear.”
This was already the program in effect before Katrina. And so in this light, let’s look at Bush’s order that there be “zero tolerance” for “looters” in New Orleans. Look at Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, who said, “This place is going to look like Little Somalia, we’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.” Look at how the National Guard has been brought in now as a more-or-less permanent occupying force in New Orleans. All this is right in line with the logic and program expressed by Pat Robertson, which is a part of the political, social and ideological program of the Bush Regime. Look at the fact that one of Robertson’s so-called charities was listed by FEMA as one of the top three places where people were supposed to send donations after Katrina!
And look at the recent ACLU report that reveals that when Katrina struck, thousands of prisoners at the Orleans Parish Prison, including juveniles, were abandoned by the authorities—left in locked cells as the flood waters rose.
Look at the Republican Congressman who said that the flood was god’s attempt to get rid of public housing. Look at how the New Orleans chief of police and the media spread lies after Katrina that Black people were raping babies and killing people which incited backward white people to vigilante, Klan-type violence.
All this and the whole list of crimes carried out by the Bush Regime against hundreds of thousands of Black people in the wake of Katrina.
All this has genocidal implications and fits into Bush’s whole agenda and direction into which he is pushing society.
As the Revolution editorial on the anniversary of Katrina said:
“This whole murderous and disastrous course must be reversed, immediately. The people have a verdict to deliver on the crimes that have been and are being carried out by the Bush Regime in New Orleans: guilty of mass murder. And right now, the most powerful way this verdict can be delivered is by going ALL OUT to build for OCTOBER 5TH as a powerful expression on of the people’s determination to BRING THIS TO A HALT and DRIVE OUT THE BUSH REGIME.”
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