Solidarity spoke to Joanna Dubinsky, a resident of the 9th Ward in New Orleans and a member of the US socialist organisation Solidarity. She plans to return to New Orleans to work with Community Labor United and the People’s Hurricane Fund in their struggle to build a socially and economically just city. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I evacuated with some friends the Saturday (27 August) before the hurricane hit. We left — not thinking it was necessarily the “big one” — but wanting to get out before the traffic. It wasn’t until Sunday morning, after we had left the city, that we realized the magnitude of the fast-moving storm.
What must be put into context is that New Orleans residents have lived through some pretty bad hurricanes. It wasn’t until Sunday that a mandatory evacuation was put into effect — the first time a mandatory evacuation had been enacted in the city —and it was put into place 24 hours before the storm hit.
My friends and I got out the only way anyone got out, through our own private means. Despite the fact that a direct hit to New Orleans from a hurricane 4 or higher is one of the most predictable mass catastrophes in the US — given the city’s precarious position below sea level — local, state and federal government had not developed a plan for public evacuation of the city. Since 9/11, the federal government recognised the need for this plan, yet had not developed it.
Disaster planning officials knew that 112,000 people in New Orleans are without any private form of transportation. In 2003, the New Orleans major newspaper, the Times Picayune, produced a five part series that predicted that this segment — upwards of 100,000 people — would likely face death in the event of direct hit of a category 5 hurricane. Yet city and public school buses flooded while residents were stuck in the city and the Superdome — the “shelter of last resort” — with no way out.
Iwatched the TV reports, like everyone else, and getting some indirect reports from friends stuck in the city. Although the media did show how the poor, predominantly black citizens of New Orleans had been abandoned, there were two ways the stranded were portrayed: either as totally helpless or as violent looters of consumer goods.
Even the term “loot” — the word often repeated, especially in reference to African Americans — suggests that most people were not looking for food, water, diapers or other necessary items. What isn’t portrayed is the way that people organised themselves so that they could survive. I keep on receiving more first hand accounts of the level of organising that took place and continues to take place in the city. I’m heading back on 19 September and hope to see and be part of this organising.
The Convention Center was one such site of organising not portrayed in the media. There were violence and murders, as the media reported, but I’ve received a report from someone there with her family, that this violence was isolated. She said: “there were young men with guns there, but they organised the crowd. They went to Canal Street and ‘looted’ and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out ‘the buses are coming’ the young men with guns organised the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back, just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first.”
There has been an outpouring of support for the victims. Initially there was also outrage at the federal response, but I think that has somewhat subsided. Part of this is due to the initial media coverage, which exuded frustration at the federal response. Journalists were embedded with the people, not the government and — like the people — were receiving no information.
On 12 September Fox News reporters — usually spin doctors for the Republican Party — called attention to the stranded thousands at the Convention Center, who had not received aid or any attention from the government officials. On location at the Convention Center, Geraldo Rivera cried while holding a dehydrated baby and — seeing no relief or evacuation on its way — urged the stranded thousands to march across the bridge into New Orleans’ West Bank. Fox correspondent Shepard Smith, also on location and equally distraught, told Rivera and the viewers that the people couldn’t march across the bridge — as they would be pushed back at gunpoint. And people all across the US could see this.
Of course, now the mainstream media downplays the social elements: funding for levees diverted to the war in Iraq; prior deployment of the Louisiana National Guard to Baghdad; lack of an evacuation plan for the poor, who primarily live in flood-prone areas; slow federal response with a focus on securing property over people; environmental degradation increasing the frequency and wrath of hurricanes and the vulnerability of the city. The emphasis is now that this was a “natural” disaster.
Media coverage has devolved into human interest stories about families across the US taking in “refugees”. I see this in Atlanta where I am now and elsewhere. Everyone wants to help and to feel warm and fuzzy about it. The attention span is short, and people want to believe the problem is solved.
The hard questions are becoming more difficult to ask —why did this happen? What does it mean to destroy a city and a community? Will these people — the Diaspora of New Orleans — have the right of return to their city, a right to their lives and shaping their city? What happens to New Orleanians if their flood ravaged homes — the homes that comprised tight-knit communities — are bull-dozed?
What becomes of New Orleans and its refugees is tied up in the many social causes of the catastrophe, as well as the government, corporate and community response. These reactions are not shaped in a vacuum — they operate within a social system that puts profits and the whims of the market above human lives. Social planning left to the market failed New Orleans. Allowing the market to decide New Orleans’ fate is the recipe for another disaster, and, of course, that is what we are faced with. It is also the recipe for cultural genocide and “racial-cleansing.”
Developers want to enact the plan they’ve had for years: a white-washed French Quarter Disneyland of a city. However, the heart of the city — the people of New Orleans — will not cede the city without a fight. As the well-heeled of New Orleans meet with government officials, corporate leaders, New Orleans community organizers and national Black leaders have come together to fight for the city.
Community Labor United (CLU), a long-standing community coalition, has established a People’s Hurricane Fund and met in Baton Rouge on 10 September to establish a strategy to organise refugees and demand the city be rebuilt in the interest of the people.
Community organisers and activists are spread out with the rest of the New Orleans diaspora in cities like Houston, Jackson, Baton Rouge, and Lake Charles. Some, like Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther and current Green Party activist managed to stay in the city (on the West Bank) and organise. Support for his “Common Ground” health clinic has come from trade unions and various leftists. While CLU’s demands are still being developed, central will be the right of return for refugees, as well as training and jobs for New Orleanians, and community input in all aspects of the reconstruction process.
The challenges are enormous. For one, New Orleans was a city in economic decline before the hurricane hit. Although an important port, the city serves more as a way-station for goods, raw materials, agricultural products, and oil passing through the Mississippi river corridor, than a place of manufacturing and production. Bush’s recent executive order to disregard prevailing wage rates guaranteed by the Davis-Bacon Act for federally-funded construction projects ensures that many jobs generated by the reconstruction efforts won’t be good living-wage jobs — exactly what New Orleans needs to bring back displaced residents and give them the chance to rebuild their lives and community.
The Disney-fication of historic New Orleans— what the tourist-industry businesses are chomping at the bit to develop — would provide the same low-wage jobs that ensured the cycle of poverty that existed before Katrina hit.
But there are also many possibilities. New Orleans’ unique culture, one of resistance to the homogenizing forces of world capitalism, could facilitate the community organizing that must happen to save New Orleans. I am hopeful that what makes New Orleans unique — what makes New Orleans unlike any city on this planet, which is really the culture of Black New Orleans — will help save it. But I think there are important roles for leftists and non-Black activists to play in supporting this effort. I hope the New Orleans left, and US and world left can rise to this occasion and help shape this unprecedented struggle that raises so many important challenges to the way capitalism shapes our lives.
It is interesting how so many people are making connections between the cost of this war, tax cuts for the rich, racism, and the lack of social planning that resulted in the catastrophe in New Orleans. People across the political spectrum are questioning the priorities of the government. Bush is at the lowest point in his career, and the destruction of New Orleans forced him — for the first time in five years — to admit that he was at fault and that the federal government had failed.
Usually, his administration tries to “spin” its way out of a mistake: i.e. if there are no weapons of mass destruction, the war is for “the liberation of Iarq”. But there was no way out of the situation in New Orleans —it could not be sugar-coated. In addition, a focus on race and class has come to the fore in a way that it hasn’t in years.
There is a lot of potential to create a real dialogue among broad layers of people in this country. There is also potential for organising, espectially among African Americans. I already see radicalisation — a nascent Black Nationalism — and the potential for much more. Only time will tell.