Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Katrina reports: exploitation, racism, theft, and other little details.

The newspapers this morning are carrying pictures from the crime scene. Some of them are shocked that so little has been done to reconstruct and revitalise the city. I wonder if any of the reporters who are shocked ever flick on the television? Last Friday night, don't ask me why, I found myself watching a new US television comedy on Channel 4, in which the big laugh was the white father who was upset that his daughter was going out with a black guy. The canned audience could scarcely contain itself as he implied that the kid was probably a gangster, (before going on to dish out some homophobic abuse toward his own son). One has become used to casual racism presented as comedy on television screens (like the charming way in which 'American Dad' makes light of rape, torture and murder in Guantanamo), but there was nothing casual about this. And we've all seen the racism in US action films: Clint gazing down at the wounded black bank robber, Seagal busting up the black drug dealer or pimp, Tom Sizemore et al firing desperately at storms of dark-skinned people... add your own examples. A culture in which people are encouraged to view non-whites as a criminally culpable, decadent and dangerous underclass who must be policed, repressed, gunned down, whose suffering matters little, whose self-defense is an affront, who are lucky to be tolerated - that is the context in which people believed that starving, neglected people in New Orleans had shot at aid workers. When that particular story went out in the press, ITN interviewed a few bigots in nearby states who were simply agog at the reported behaviour of New Orleans blacks: "well, of course they ain't gon come help yew if you're shootin at em!"

A report (PDF) by the Advancement Project, the National Immigration Law Center and The New Orleans Workers Justice Coalition, discusses the racism, abuse, exploitation and violations of law that black and Latino workers encountered following the catastrophe. For instance:

In September, a labor broker arrived at the White Mountain Apache Nation reservation where Dan lived in Arizona and told him about work in New Orleans. He was told the pay was $14 to $16 an hour, the work was guaranteed, and he would have housing. The tribal government paid a labor broker $1,600 for gas and expenses, and some 80 Apaches climbed into vans to find work. In New Orleans, the labor broker disappeared. The Apaches, including Dan, were dropped off in front of a FEMA office, and were turned away. After several days of homelessness, the Apaches found City Park, an unlit makeshift campground, where Dan has been paying $300 a month to pitch a tent. For months, he would barely find enough construction work to scrape by. “Now I have a job. I drive a truck for a company that’s rebuilding the levees.” Dan works 18-hour shifts. Today he works from 6 a.m. to midnight, but the port-o-lets at the park are only open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. “So where do I brush my teeth?” Dan asks, clutching a toothbrush as he leaves the park to get to work.

That would have been around the time Bush was suspending minimum wage and safety laws so that the companies allied to him and the local Democratic political class could cash in.

Another by Save the Children discusses the horrible conditions and the threats to children's health from the transitional 'housing' that thousands are still forced to live in.

A third report by 142 US organisations and 32 individuals documents human rights abuses during and after Katrina.

The New Orleans Times-Picayune reports on how businesses have taken the opportunity to drastically inflate prices for everything in New Orleans, and while many areas of the Gulf Coast are being rebuilt rapidly, New Orleans is stagnating due to the curious 'inertia' of 'local community leaders' (they're busily privatising everything they can get their hands on and trying to sideline local people so that they can turn the place over to rich developers). Today, by the way, is the deadline for locals to gut and board up their destroyed homes before the city siezes them. If you're out of state for any wierd reason, the state is about to cancel your entitlement to the house you have worked and paid for. Meanwhile, the state has saved the insurance industry billions of dollars by siding against policyholders whose homes were destroyed by a surge.

Those are some of the details of the crime spree that is ongoing, but we need to understand what lies beneath it. New Orleans is still owned and run by a racist, quasi-aristocratic capitalist class, the descendants of slave-owners and segregationists. These people have stated over and over that they do not want the working class, especially the black working class, to return. Lance Hill of Tulane University tells the BBC:

"In the wake of the flood, a small group of powerful business leaders and developers - the old blue-blood elite - took it upon themselves to plan the city into the next 20-30 years."

The problem was that "virtually no African-Americans" had returned to the city when those plans were being formed, says Mr Hill, who describes himself as a white liberal.

There were proposals not to rebuild historically black neighbourhoods, which alarmed African-Americans, he says.

"African-Americans who were displaced became deeply suspicious that their homes were going to be bulldozed, their jobs taken away and their hospitals closed.

"There was a general fear that they were being locked out of the city," Mr Hill says.

He says he believes the intention was to exclude poor people. But because the city had been racially segregated for generations, the practical effect was to exclude blacks.

"If you want to eliminate a high concentration of poor African-Americans by eliminating a neighbourhood, you also eliminate working-class, middle-class, even wealthy blacks," he says.

"Class became race in New Orleans."

Of course, that blue-blood elite had ample warning of the disaster to come, and they were deeply involved in the pre-Katrina planning that mysteriously ommitted plans to assist the poor. Greg Palast reports on the expert who gave advance warnings of Katrina and was threatened for his efforts - by a state official who now works for Innovative Emergency Management. The Bush administration was also warned in advance and then made its curious sequence of decisions including the blockading of aid, the refusal to allow those trapped in the city, starving and dying of thirst, to leave, and then the imposition of martial law and the attempt at forcible eviction of those who remained. If they had been planning to use this catastrophe as an excuse to 'clean out public housing' as one Congressman cheerfully put it at the time, and thereby initiate the 'thirty-year plans' for the development of the city with its 'underclass', they could not have done much better than they have. The only thing that could possibly hinder them would be the resistance of survivors and the solidarity of American workers from across the country.