Obama and the System's WHITE-wash of Post-Katrina New Orleans

August 31, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


Ten years after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, Barack Obama gave a major speech in the Lower 9th Ward neighborhood in New Orleans. He crowed about the supposed triumph and greatness of America and what he claimed was incredible “progress” in New Orleans. In reality, his speech was a WHITE-wash of this system’s crimes in the wake of the flooding that followed the hurricane. And Obama painted a whole genocidal agenda that has been in effect in a concentrated way in New Orleans as “real progress.”

Whitewashing the Crimes of Ten Years Ago

Thousands of Black people were locked down in the New Orleans Superdome in conditions reminiscent of slave ships. Photo: AP

Speaking of the government’s response, Obama said, “What started out as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster—a failure of government to look out for its own citizens.”

No. This wasn’t a “failure” of government, this was a CRIME committed against Black and poor people. The government’s own agencies had for years warned that the levees in New Orleans were vulnerable in the event of a major hurricane and that this would disproportionately impact Black and poor people, yet it did nothing to fundamentally solve this problem. Then, in the immediate run up to Katrina, precisely a storm which could inflict this predicted damage, they did nothing to assist the evacuation of those most directly in the line of fire. Once the storm hit, the government ordered troops off of rescue missions designed to assist people who were stranded and sent them back in, instead, with orders to “shoot to kill” anyone caught “looting.” Finally, in the wake of the storm, the government seized on this devastation to permanently eject huge numbers of Black and poor people and to destroy the housing and services they would need to return and survive.

These are not “failures.” These are crimes.

“Real Progress” Towards What?!

After Katrina, then Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson declared, “New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

People made homeless by Katrina continue to live in tents under the bridge in January 2008. Photo: Revolution/revcom.us

This was not an “observation,” this was an agenda. And it got implemented. The population of the city is now about 385,000—about 80 percent of its pre-Katrina population. There are nearly 100,000 fewer Black people. Who are these missing people?

First of all there are the more than 1,000 people, mostly African-Americans, who died in Katrina. Then there are the many thousands of Black people who were evacuated and are still living somewhere else, many who want to come back but can’t. Many of their homes have been torn down—even a great many that were fixable.

And what is the situation for the Black people who remained in—or managed to return to—New Orleans? Over half of all Black men in New Orleans are unemployed! The rate of poverty for Black children has actually grown—from 44% when Katrina hit to more than 50% today. More than one-third of the Black residents of New Orleans now live below the poverty line, compared to about one in 10 whites. Meanwhile, New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any city in the country. Black people are now less than 60% of the city’s population but are 90% of its prison population. 99 percent of juveniles who are arrested are Black.

The Destruction of Public Housing

December 2007, a bulldozer at the B.W. Cooper public housing complex clawed through brick and mortar, tearing down the very homes community members fought to save and re-open. Photo (above): IndyMedia. Photo (below): Revolution/revcom.us

Obama said, “If Katrina was initially an example of what happens when government fails, the recovery has been an example of what’s possible when government works together...”

In fact this “recovery” and “rebuilding” of housing, education and medical care has been done in a way that has a close resemblance to ethnic cleansing. At the time of Katrina, more than 5,000 families, nearly all of them African-American, were living in New Orleans public housing. After the storm, despite mass protests, the city council voted unanimously to demolish 4,500 units of public housing. Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker brought together the whole package of the Bible Belt and the lynching belt when he said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did it.”

As it demolished this housing for poor people, the city promised to develop new “mixed income” projects and vouchers. This was a cruel joke. Over 16,000 families ended up on a wait-list for subsidized housing after their public housing was demolished and the last time new applications were accepted off this list was in 2009. As one stark example: B.W. Cooper was a group of public housing apartments that were home to 3,077 families before Katrina. After these were razed and replaced with “mixed income” small apartments, only 730 of these new units were offered at traditional public housing rents.

New Schools: Privatized Pipelines to Prison

Obama talked about rebuilding schools. He said, “Working together, we’ve transformed education in this city,” and said more kids are graduating and going to college. But what’s the real story here?

In 2010, Education Secretary Arne Duncan declared that Katrina was “the best thing that happened to the education system in New Orleans.” Chew on that one—mass death and destruction was “the best thing” that happened to New Orleans public schools!?

And look where this led: Within a few months after the storm, nearly 7,500 predominantly Black public school teachers and other public school employees were fired. Public schools with the best test scores and the least damage were given away to private companies to form charter schools, attended by students with better test scores whose parents had the ability to get them into those schools. Students with average test scores or learning disabilities had to attend deteriorating public schools. New Orleans became the first basically all-charter school system (91%) in the nation. One parent of a 6-year-old said about the changes, “They’re treating our school system like a business and our children like commodities.”

School policies are used to push some students out and into the criminal justice system—with some kids suspended and expelled, even arrested for very small infractions of the rules.

And this is being promoted as a model. A recent Chicago Tribune editorial yearned for a hurricane to strike Chicago so that it, too, could have a “reset” to do away with “restrictive mandates” from government and demands from teachers unions.

Before Katrina, Charity Hospital provided health services to more than 100,000 patients a year. It was the place where poor people could get care. But Katrina provided an opportunity for powerful forces to close the facility, never to reopen it. Photo: AP

No Charity for the People

Obama said, “Together, we’re doing more to make sure that everyone in this city has access to great health care.” In reality the government has been heartless toward the poor people of New Orleans.

Before Katrina, Charity Hospital was one of the oldest continually operating public hospitals in the country, founded as a hospital for the poor in 1736. It was seen as one of the most vital and successful; one of the best teaching hospitals in the country. It served 100,000 patients a year. It was the place where poor people went to get health care. But the storm provided an opportunity for powerful forces, including Louisiana State University, to close Charity Hospital and build an expensive new facility with government support. Charity Hospital was not really ruined by the storm and when it wasn’t reopened a CEO of the hospital was asked why and he said, “If we do, we will never get a new one.”

During Obama’s speech, a woman shouted something about “addressing the crisis in mental health.” Obama said, “I’ll get to that. Thank you, ma’am.” But all Obama had to say when he got to that was to tout Obamacare and promise improvements. In reality, mental health facilities have also been closed down in the years since Katrina and now, as many people have noted, the main mental health facility in New Orleans is the city jail and prison.

New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate per capita of any city in the country. Black people are now less than 60% of the city's population but are 90% of its prison population. 99 percent of juveniles who are arrested are Black. Here a Black man gets arrested on Bourbon Street after Katrina. Photo: AP

The Murdering New Orleans Police Department

Slipped amongst a larger list of things Obama claimed credit for was “delivering resources” to rebuild and strengthen the New Orleans police.

Strengthen the police? That is NOT a good thing! Let’s look just for a moment at the crimes these police committed in the aftermath of Katrina, in the years since and continuing today.

Days after Katrina, on September 4, 2005, James Brissette and Ronald Madison were murdered by New Orleans police as they were walking across the Danziger Bridge to get food at a grocery store. On September 2, 2005, 31-year-old Henry Glover was shot in the chest by a cop—his body found later in a burned out car. And the epidemic of police murder and brutality in New Orleans has never let up to this day.

After one of those Department of Justice “studies” that sometimes reveal part of the picture of police terror but never lead to any actual changes, they issued a report that found many instances where “NOPD officers used deadly force contrary to NOPD policy or law” and “a pattern of unreasonable less lethal force as well.” Officers used force against people “including persons in handcuffs, in circumstances that appeared not only unnecessary but deliberately retaliatory.” There have been in-custody deaths “so blatant and egregious that it appeared intentional in some respects.” There is a “pattern of stops, searches, and arrests that violate the Fourth Amendment. Detentions without reasonable suspicion are routine, and lead to unwarranted searches and arrests without probable cause.”

Do you know anyone else—any person or organization—that has managed to bring forth an actual PLAN for a radically different society, in all its dimensions, and a CONSTITUTION to codify all this? — A different world IS possible — Check out and order online the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal).

And there were cases of “force used against mentally ill persons where it appeared that no use of force was justified.” Maybe that’s what Obama meant when he said he was addressing mental health issues.


Today’s New Orleans—with 100,000 of its Black residents permanently exiled from the city, with a basically dismantled public school system, with the city’s hospital for the poor closed and surrounded by barbed wire, with dozens of dead bodies from the flood still unidentified because the government didn’t think it was worth funding a coroner to find out who they are and notify their loved ones ... all that, is this system’s idea of progress.

As we wrote last week: “Ten years ago, close to 100,000 people were left to try to survive in New Orleans facing extreme conditions in the wake of Hurricane Katrina... no clean water, no food, people stranded on rooftops or locked in prisons, people dying and bodies floating in the floodwaters. Abandoned people fought together to survive in life-threatening conditions. People around the country saw this happening and were outraged, and many tried to help. Yet, at every turn, they were met by the armed repression of this system’s brutal military, police, and racist vigilantes. All this gives a sense of both the need—and the potential—for a real revolution and a whole different kind of society than the profit-above-all system we live under.”

How long must we tolerate these and other crimes that still continue—when at this point in human history, the world does not have to be like this, and there is a way out through revolution and building a whole new society? Read the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America to concretely see how a new society can be built and all of society can be transformed to end oppression and exploitation.



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