Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Gulfport and other Gulf cities have suffered extensive hurricane-related damage. However, the damage to New Orleans came from brutal negligence - a lack of planning and a stunningly slow response, created by a federal government that didnt care about the people of New Orleans, and still doesnt. Academic Cornel West has called it Hurricane Povertina. Poet Suheir Hammad has referred to the survivors of the rescue, others have referred to the displaced as victims of hurricane FEMA, or simply Michael Browns victims. The houses of New orleans were not hit by 35 foot tall waves or 200 mile winds. On the day after the hurricane, most of the city was in good shape, and many of us still in the city felt that New Orleans had once again come through battered and bruised but all right. Then, over the next few days, the levee broke and water rushed into the city, and relief rescue and repair efforts were far too little, far too late.
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.
New Orleans-based organizer Andrea Garland told me about the callous treatment shes seen in the shelters of the Covington, Louisiana area. The Red Cross has made at least 800 million dollars from fundraising, but people in this shelter cant get soap and are showering under a hose? Is that right?
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.
As I write this, Im sitting at the River Shelter in Baton Rouge, surrounded by National Guard, with a Virginia Police Command Center parked in front of me and a Scientologist Mission Center behind me, with news vans parked around, looking for comments on Bush's latest speech.
Within minutes, there were perhaps fifty police/military/security officers on the scene, and the driver of our car, an independent journalist still wounded and in shock from the accident, was arrested and led off in handcuffs. They told him, you hit a cop in New Orleans. Youre going to leave town in the trunk of a car. He was taken to the local Greyhound Station, which is functioning as a temporary city prison, and he was held for 22 hours. (He was released thanks to the efforts of various defense lawyers and media activists).
This militarization of New Orleans stands in stark contradiction to the peoples 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 Rahims 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, theyve stood in our way at every turn.
The community traditions of New Orleans have generally existed outside the police and white power structure of the city. For example, Mardi Gras Indians, one of the central cultural traditions of what's known as Black Mardi Gras, have always faced police repression. Earlier this year, as the Indians were parading on St. Josephs Night, scores of officers descended on the scene and disrupted the event, scaring the children present and arresting several of the performers.
Several weeks later, at a city council hearing on the incident, Tootie Montana, the chief of chiefs of the Mardi Gras Indians, spoke. At 82 years old, Tootie has been a Mardi Gras Indian Chief for five decades. He captivated the assembled crowd with details of a long history of police repression, tied into racial discrimination, beginning with a police crackdown at his very first Mardi Gras. Tootie ended his speech with the words, this has to stop. Those would be his last words. Tootie Monatana stepped back from the microphone and collapsed to the floor. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack shortly afterwards.
His funeral was a moving combination of cultural celebration and political demonstration. Thousands and thousands of people came out, dressed in all manner of costume, to commemorate the life of this brave fighter for freedom.
Longtime community activist Jerome Smith fired up the crowd, saying "This is about a life that has passed, but it is also about the struggle against institutionalized racism in our city." The link between New Orleans culture, especially the culture of Black Mardi Gras, and liberation was clear.
The white Mardi Gras Krewes of Rex and Momus are seen as the unofficial, backroom leadership of the city A central moment of Mardi Gras is when the Kings of Rex and Momus greet each other. According to The Wall Street Journal, it is the leadership of these Krewes that is currently living uptown, with a heliport and Israeli security team, planning their vision of the corporate reconstruction of the city.
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 hes 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 Ill know theres hope for New Orleans, he said.
Jordan Flaherty is an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. This is his fifth article from New Orleans. To see the other articles, go to http://www.leftturn.org. You can contact Jordan at NewOrleans@leftturn.org