Race, Class and Katrina

When Katrina flooded New Orleans, the working-class poor, mostly African-Americans, were abandoned to their fate. ‘Relief’ later arrived in the form of military occupation, like Baghdad under water. Katrina turned the spotlight on US capitalism’s social disaster of class polarization, poverty and racism. Bush, writes LYNN WALSH, now faces a political storm.

When hurricane-force winds and floodwaters threatened to engulf the world-famous, historic city of New Orleans, most of the population fled north. But there was no effective evacuation plan for the 80,000 households, comprising around 200,000 people, who had no vehicles. The official ‘good Samaritan’, help-your-neighbor, policy was totally inadequate in the face of catastrophic flooding. The working-class poor, overwhelmingly African-American, including the elderly and the sick, residents of hospitals and care-homes, were (together with hapless overseas tourists) abandoned without water, food, medicines, electricity, or clear information about effective relief.

Thousands took refuge in the Superdome and the Convention Centre, the latter in particular becoming an unsanitary, dangerous prison for evacuees, lacking food, water or security. While some firefighters, police and other officials tried to rescue people and help evacuees, the authorities main concern was to ‘protect property’. People trapped in flooded buildings were not rescued for three or fours days, sometimes longer. Bodies were left in the streets.

In contrast to the incompetent and brutal role of the authorities, many workers were striving to help their neighbors. One account comes from an email circulated by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two paramedics who were attending a conference in New Orleans and were trapped by Katrina:

“What you will not see [in television coverage], but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans. The maintenance workers who used a fork lift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers, who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running…

“Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive… Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, ‘stealing’ boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hot-wire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded.

“Most of these workers had lost their homes, and had not heard from members of their families, yet they stayed and provided the only infrastructure for the 20% of New Orleans that was not under water”.

Looting was used as a pretext for a militaristic clamp down on the city. No doubt, in the absence of effective relief, a small lumpen layer of criminals and gang members exploited the chaos. Their main victims, as always, were working-class residents. But most ‘looting’ was out of necessity. Some groups, residents related, did their survival looting in an organized and collectivist fashion.

What was really criminal? The official response to the disaster in New Orleans and the Louisiana-Mississippi region, at city, state and especially federal level, was criminally inadequate and cruelly oppressive. As New Orleans flooded, Bush flew off to California to make another speech justifying the war in Iraq. It was five days before Bush appeared in Louisiana.

“I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees”, claimed Bush. Yet the record is clear: a series of reports, from government agencies and experts, warned that the levees could not withstand a force four or force five hurricane. Mark Fischetti, for example, wrote an article in Scientific American in 2001 “that described the very situation that was unfolding” at the end of August. “I was sick to my stomach”, he relates, “because I knew that a large-scale engineering project called Coast 2001 – developed in 1998 by scientists, army engineers, metropolitan planners, and Louisiana officials – might have helped save the city”. (Fischetti, “A Disaster Foretold,” International Herald Tribune, September 3)

But the funding was not forthcoming. On the contrary, funds were regularly diverted from flood defenses to ‘pork barrel’ projects, such as land reclamation for farming and new port facilities, sponsored by local politicians, mainly Democrats. Last year, the Army Corps of Engineers requested $105 million for New Orleans flood defenses, which Bush cut back to $40 million. Moreover, since the flooding, reports suggest that the levees on the New Orleans canals collapsed due to defective construction. Bush cut flood-defense spending as part of his drive to cut all spending on social and public infrastructure programs – in contrast to his massively increased spending on weaponry and war.

Incredibly, Bush praised the efforts of Michael Brown, head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which managed to demonstrate its bureaucratic incompetence in the first few hours. “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job”, Bush told him, shortly before Brown was forced to resign. By this time, everyone knew that Brown and other top FEMA officials were Bush placemen, with no experience of emergency planning. Their only qualification was being loyal political cronies.

Neither Bush nor Brown grasped the scale of the Katrina disaster. They were indifferent to the plight of the victims, especially those stranded in flooded houses and the hellish Convention Center. FEMA not only failed to bring rapid relief to Louisiana, but it threw up bureaucratic obstacles in front of organizations and individuals striving to bring help to the desperate evacuees. It was clear to all that the absorption of FEMA into the giant Homeland Security Department had led to civil relief objectives being downgraded in favor of plans to impose emergency military control on whole regions of the country.

As we go to press, the Mexican Gulf region has been hit by a second devastating hurricane, Rita. This has battered Texas and led to new flooding in New Orleans. There is mayhem on the Texas highways, and regional oil and gas production has been completely shut down. This will undoubtedly test the fragility of the US economy and open up more cracks in the Bush regime.

Military Occupation

When major forces moved into New Orleans, after four days’ critical delay, they mounted not a humanitarian relief operation, but a military occupation. The city was inundated with heavily-armed troops, National Guards, Federal agents, police and sheriffs – the city became ‘Baghdad under water’. There were no effective civil defense plans. Instead, the government implemented a Bush regime blueprint for martial law, a reflection of the militarization of the US government since 9/11.

Even before this intervention, the people stranded in New Orleans were treated more like criminals than disaster victims. Most of the people who took refuge in the Convention Center were prevented from leaving, even though there was no food or water, or protection from criminals and gang members. There were around twelve violent deaths.

Incredibly, a contingent of around 250 armed troops from the Louisiana National Guard was camped out in a section of the center. The guard commander has stated his forces would have been adequate to provide security. But they refused to intervene on the grounds they had no orders to do so. “The idea of helping with the convention center never came up. We were just preparing ourselves for the next mission”. (Haygood & Tyson, “It Was As If All of Us Were Already Pronounced Dead,” Washington Post, September 15)

At one point, the blatant racism of the police was demonstrated by the intervention of a police SWAT team – with the single goal of rescuing two white women, the wife and a relative of a New Orleans policeman. ‘Racists!’ people cried out in fury.

Reports of looting and crime (typically exaggerated) were used to justify the military occupation. Most of the so-called ‘looting’, however, consisted of desperate attempts by abandoned flood victims to get food and water, medicines, and other essential supplies. Some stores left their doors open, but in other cases, managers locked up and fled.

When workers tried to stick together in groups to protect themselves, law enforcement forces broke them up, always assuming there would be ‘mob violence’. The flood victims were criminalized, and many say they were just as afraid of the police as of gangsters.

People on foot were prevented from leaving the city. For instance, sheriffs prevented people evacuating themselves to the west bank city of Gretna. Ironically, people who stole vehicles were allowed to drive out.

When relief arrived, some of the forces then attempted to enforce a mandatory evacuation in the most brutal way. On one day, over 200 people were arrested and forcibly removed. Many were still extremely reluctant to leave, fearing their modest possessions would be looted. Their reluctance to comply with the evacuation order, moreover, reflected the extreme distrust of the city and other authorities, an expression of deep class and racial alienation. One man told the local Times-Picayune (September 8): “They’re trying to get this neighborhood for the rich people”.

When people were finally evacuated, they were subjected to humiliating searches. Many were put on buses or planes without being told their destinations.

Many of the law-enforcement officers regarded the evacuees as a crazed, dangerous mob, especially those who had been trapped in the Convention Center. But the reality was very different, as a contingent of the Arkansas National Guard, which arrived on September 9, found:

“Many of the guardsmen had recently returned from Iraq, and they arrived wearing helmets and full body armor, and shouldering rifles. To their surprise, they encountered virtually no violence – only a crowd of hot, frustrated, angry people desperate for food and water. ‘A lot of them said we should have been there earlier’, said Keithean Heath of the Arkansas Guards 39th Infantry Brigade.

“Military commanders had worried the crowd would rush Medevac helicopters. Instead, soldiers faced little interference as they moved to help frail and elderly people in wheelchairs in urgent need of care, women cradling tiny infants and others about to give birth. The soldiers set up food lines to hand out bottled water and packaged military meals, and people lined up to receive them… They counted as many as 16,000 people who got on the buses, an eerily quiet process”. (Haygood & Tyson, Washington Post, September 15)

“It was as if all of us were already pronounced dead”, said another young evacuee, who spent three terrible nights in the center. “As if somebody already had the body bags. Wasn’t nobody coming to get us?”

The Class Divide and Racism

Events focused the attention of the US and world media on New Orleans. Live television coverage, more intensive than ever in this era of cable and satellite, immediately exposed massive working-class poverty and racist oppression on a staggering scale. The mass circulation magazine, Newsweek (September 19) led with a front-cover feature on the ‘enduring shame’ of poverty and racism: “It takes a catastrophe like Katrina to strip away the old evasions, hypocrisies and not-so-benign neglect. It takes the sight of the United States with a big black eye – visible around the world – to help the rest of us begin to see again. For the moment, at least, Americans are ready to fix their restless gaze on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention”.

New Orleans has become the symbol of the social disaster produced by rampant, free-market US capitalism. No one can pretend that the atrocious conditions are unique to New Orleans.

Recent social and economic statistics show that conditions in Louisiana are symptomatic of countrywide trends. Even sections of the capitalist media have been shocked into sounding alarms about sharpening inequality, deepening poverty and entrenched racism. They have been forced to recognize that exposure of the US’s brutal class chasm will severely damage the international prestige of US capitalism. Another, mostly unspoken, message is that the class polarization and continued ghettoization of blacks and other people of color pose the danger of social revolt and mass movements against the system.

After falling slightly during the boom of the 1990s, US poverty levels have again been climbing, mainly due to the stagnation or decline of wages. In 2004, 12.7% of the population were living in poverty (higher than 1974, when it was 11.2%), a total of 37 million people. Poverty rates are much higher among African-Americans (nearly 25%) and Latinos (22%) and other minorities, than among American whites (8%). (As whites make up 72% of the population, however, there are in absolute terms many more poor whites than poor blacks or Latinos).

In New Orleans, 27.9% of the population are below the federal poverty line ($15,000 a year for a family of three). In 2000, over a fifth of households survived on incomes under $10,000 a year.

Over recent years in the US, only the incomes of the top 20% have increased, mainly from income from capital (shares, property, interest). The wages of low-paid workers, in particular, have declined. The minimum wage of $5.15 an hour has not been increased since 1997. Moreover, Bush immediately took advantage of the Katrina emergency to suspend the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act, which requires employers to pay the locally prevailing wage rates to workers on federally financed projects. This will further force down wages in the Gulf region.

While waking up to the existence of extreme poverty and inequality, however, most commentators offer no explanation for this phenomenon. It is treated as if it were merely the result of ignorance and neglect. In reality, the chasm of inequality is the result of a conscious policy carried out by the US ruling class, under both Republican and Democratic administrations since Reagan, to shift the distribution of wealth and income even further in the interests of the rich and super-rich. In 1965, the chief executives of big corporations made 24 times as much as the average worker; by 2003, they made 185 times as much.

Even now, Bush still plans to push through tax-cutting measures, for instance, the permanent abolition of estate tax, which would benefit about 500 super-rich families a year, but deprive the federal government of $750 billion of tax revenue over ten years. This is part of the drive to ‘starve the beast’ – that that is, the state – and force the federal government to make huge cuts in social programs. Under Bush’s current budget proposals, Medicaid for low-income families, social housing, and education projects would be cut even further. Such measures, if carried through, will inevitably increase poverty and deepen inequalities.

A Political Storm

Katrina has whipped up a political storm for the Bush regime. The image of a strong, decisive leader built up after 9/11 has been shattered. Bush’s lack of focus, indecisiveness, and especially lack of concern for the flood victims, have dealt a body blow to his credibility.

Bush was already being undermined politically by the deepening of the Iraq quagmire. During August, Cindy Sheehan’s protest helped crystallize a strengthening anti-war mood, with even former supporters of the war calling for US withdrawal.

Despite continued economic growth, there is rising discontent at the stagnation of living standards. The burden of housing and consumer debt (accentuated by the continued rise of interest rates) is beginning to have an effect on consumer spending. Even more serious, however, has been the continuous rise of petrol prices since last year’s hurricane season.

Then came Katrina. Even Republicans from Louisiana, Mississippi, and surrounding states joined the chorus of criticism of Bush over his bungling response. Many commentators are comparing Bush’s predicament with the turmoil that shook Nixon in the period before his forced resignation in 1974 under threat of impeachment.

When he was re-elected, Bush boasted that he had big political capital and he intended to use it. In fact, he has become a lame-duck president in the first year of his second term. His main asset is the weakness of the opposition. Democrats’ criticisms are muted by their own ties to big business and the political establishment. While denouncing Bush’s handling of the crisis, they offer no real alternative in terms of policies.

Leaders of the trade unions, moreover, who are mostly tied to the Democrats politically, have issued plenty of press statements, but they are proposing no initiatives to defend the interests of workers affected by the hurricane or to mobilize support for taking democratic control of reconstruction projects.

What affect will Katrina, and now hurricane Rita, have on the US economy overall? It is hard to predict at this stage. Some commentators argue that the massive reconstruction efforts now required will have a boosting effect on the national economy. In the past that was often true. But these are not normal times.

The price of oil was already approaching $70 a barrel before Katrina. The prolonged loss of 25% of US oil production and at least 10% of US refining capacity will inevitably have a serious impact on the economy. Higher pump prices mean consumers have less to spend on other things. Also, the closure of Mississippi ports is likely to have a significant impact on US agricultural exports. Devastating hurricane losses, with more to come, could provoke a crisis in the international insurance industry, which would impact on financial markets generally.

Bush has been forced to put his domestic program on hold. Congress was due to consider making more of his first-term tax cuts (notably estate tax) permanent. This was postponed on the grounds that it ‘would not look right’ when the poorest sections of workers in New Orleans were struggling for survival. The social cuts proposed in Bush’s 2005-06 budget, moreover, have also been delayed. As far as Bush is concerned, this is a postponement not a policy change. But whether or not he faces more determined opposition from the Democrats on these measures, opposition across the country will undoubtedly be strengthened in the aftermath of Katrina.

Hollow Superpower

The administration’s blundering, brutal response to the New Orleans catastrophe has delivered a heavy blow to the prestige of the Bush regime and of US imperialism itself. The planet’s most powerful state has been found to be far from invincible. US imperialism was already bogged down in an unwinnable war in Iraq. At the same time, growing dependency on continuous injections of foreign capital to finance its huge payments’ deficit demonstrates a serious economic over-stretch. Now, the shameful handling of Katrina has shocked even the friends of US imperialism around the world.

“We are appalled at what we saw”, commented Sumiko Tan, a columnist for The Straits Times, Singapore. “Death and destruction from natural disaster is par for the course. But the pictures of dead people left uncollected on the streets, armed looters ransacking shops, survivors desperate to be rescued, racial divisions – these were truly out of sync with what we’d imagined the land of the free to be… If America becomes so unglued when bad things happen in its own backyard, how can it fulfill its role as leader of the world?” (Quoted by Thomas Friedman, “Singapore and Katrina,” International Herald Tribune, September 15)

A government official in the Philippines, Paulynn Sicam, who studied in the US, commented in angry tones: “It’s so heartbreaking to see how helpless America has become. You’re not strong anymore. You can’t even save your own countrymen and there you are, out there trying to control the world… Why are people hungry? The first thing you do, you feed them… The other thing that bothers me is how capitalism continues its merry way in the light of a disaster like this, with gas prices going up sky high. It’s so opportunist. Is this America? Is this the American way?” (International Herald Tribune, September 5)

Around the world, people watched TV coverage of New Orleans with disbelief and horror. “I didn’t see that many whites on television”, said a hotel manager in Pattani, Thailand. “What you saw was the helpless, the infirm, the poor and the old – mostly blacks, the underclass. It is quite a powerful image on television”.

Not surprisingly, regimes in conflict with US imperialism issued statements expressing schadenfreude, delight at the problems facing the Bush regime. The mismanagement and mishandling of Katrina, commented Iran Focus, “clearly showed that others can, at any given time, create a devastated war zone in any part of the US”. “How could the White House”, asked the spokesman of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard corps, “which is impotent in the face of a storm and a natural disaster, enter a military conflict with the powerful Islamic Republic of Iran?” (Al Jazeera, September 12)

The fallout from Katrina will undoubtedly have a major impact on US foreign policy. Just as the Bush regime is being forced to recognize the need for allies, the deadly shambles in Louisiana will make it more difficult for the US to secure support from even formerly friendly capitalist governments. Condoleezza Rice’s ideological campaign to build ‘legitimacy’ for US imperialism’s objectives is now a Katrina casualty.

Within the US, moreover, opposition to the continuation of the Iraq war will be enormously strengthened. Now, the overwhelming mood is that the country’s resources, both personnel (like the National Guard) and the $5 billion a month being spent on the war, should be used at home to provide security and improve conditions of life, especially for the poorest sections of society.

The weakening of US imperialism’s position is recognized, for instance, by Richard Haass, a former State Department strategist and neo-conservative hawk. He advocated an “imperial foreign policy”, urging the US to use its “surplus of power” to “extend its control” across the face of the globe. After Katrina, he writes: “The world’s only remaining superpower appeared to be anything but… A priority of this administration’s foreign policy is to promote democracy around the world [Haass means promote pro-US regimes, legitimized by elections]. But the attractiveness of the American model, and the ability of the United States to be an effective advocate for more democratic, capitalist societies, which had already been weakened by the disarray in Iraq, is now weaker still as a result of the disarray at home. It will be more difficult to make the case for free markets and more open societies if the results of such reforms come to be associated with the disorder seen in New Orleans”.

“Katrina”, says Haass, “will also have an impact on how citizens of the US view foreign policy… The aftermath of the catastrophe will inevitably increase political pressure on president Bush to begin to reduce the US involvement in Iraq and refocus US resources at home…” (“Storm Warning: How the Flood Compromises US Foreign Policy,” Slate, September 9)

Before, Haass argued that “imperial understretch”, not “overstretch”, was the “greater danger” for US imperialism. Now, hawks like Haass are being forced to eat their words.

A Turning Point

Some events illuminate a whole society. In a flash, Katrina revealed the true character of US capitalism: extreme class inequality and massive poverty in the world’s richest country. Continued racial segregation. A chronic running down of public services and social infrastructure. The cold indifference of the ruling class to the suffering of the working class, especially of the poorest and most vulnerable sections, who are blamed for their own fate. The rotten corruption and incompetence of the political establishment, both Republican and Democrat.

System change is long overdue. The social chaos provoked by Katrina, Rita and perhaps other hurricanes to come will lead many more people to question the economic anarchy and social immorality of capitalism and to seek a new form of society based on cooperation, solidarity and democracy. They will quickly realize that such a society is incompatible with the ownership of natural resources and the means of production and communication by a tiny, super-rich, property-owning elite. Explosive social events, moreover, will provoke a revival of struggle by workers and other layers that will accelerate the radicalization of consciousness. Such a shift, at first among the most thoughtful and active layers, will provide more fertile ground for the ideas of socialism in the next few years.

Whose Reconstruction?

Congress rapidly approved Bush’s request for $62 billion for immediate relief funding. Estimates for the total cost of rebuilding New Orleans and the devastated Louisiana-Mississippi region range from $200 billion to $300 billion, as much as the current cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Moreover, just as Iraq has proved the perfect war for Halliburton and other big corporate contractors (like Bechtel), Katrina promises to be the perfect storm. Already, huge contracts have been awarded for emergency repairs, temporary trailer homes, and so on. No doubt they are looking forward to another profits bonanza.

Halliburton, once headed by Cheney, who still receives annual sums in ‘deferred compensation’, made more than $10 billion in no-bid Iraqi war contracts during 2003-04. A joint House-Senate Minority Committee has recently revealed at least $1.4 billion in fraudulent overcharging and undocumented billing by Halliburton in Iraq. Public hearings have also exposed the corporation’s business practices: fraud, extortion, brutality, pilfering, and serving rotten food to US soldiers in the battle zone.

Reconstruction raises even bigger issues. In whose interests will the historic city of New Orleans be reconstructed: the majority of residents or the big corporations that currently dominate the French quarter and the business district?

“Yeah, this could be their dream come true”, says one New Orleans resident. “Get rid of all the poor African-Americans and turn the place into Disneyland”. Even before Katrina, big business was pushing in this direction. After the hurricane Ivan evacuation in September 2004, Mike Davis wrote:

“Over the last generation, City Hall and its entourage of powerful developers have relentlessly attempted to push the poorest segment of the population – blamed for the city’s high crime rate – across the Mississippi river. Historic black public-housing projects have been razed to make room for upper-income townhouses and a Wal-Mart. In other housing projects, residents are routinely evicted for offences as trivial as their children’s curfew violations. The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist theme-park New Orleans – one big Garden District – with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and prisons outside the city limits”. (“Poor, Black and Left Behind,” Mother Jones, September 24, 2004)

Right on cue, a Wall Street Journal editorial (September 6) called for “the entire stricken area” to be named “an enterprise zone for some period of time, which would offer both tax incentives and regulatory waivers to stimulate investment… There’s a danger here of tax breaks for floating casinos, but the greatest risk is spending $20bn or more solely on the priorities of local politicians”. Not that the New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, and other Democratic politicians are not business-friendly – but they may, the Wall Street Journal fears, come under pressure to meet at least some of the needs of the city’s working-class residents.

There are reports of some community groups coming together to demand the active participation of evacuees in the rebuilding of the city. It is vital that trade union and community organizations demand full compensation from the federal government for all their losses and democratic control over reconstruction projects. All evacuees and those who have lost their jobs should receive a living wage and free medical treatment.

Reconstruction requires a massive public works program, giving priority to the building of low-rent social housing, schools, hospitals, and other facilities that serve the working-class community. All workers involved in relief operations, rebuilding, etc, must receive a living wage with full benefits, and trade union rights. Relief and reconstruction funds must be placed under the control of oversight committees elected from the affected communities. The big oil and utility companies should not be allowed to profiteer – petrol, gas and electricity prices must be strictly controlled.

An action program for the working class in response to the disaster is outlined in a special issue of Justice, the paper of Socialist Alternative in the United States.

Socialism Today # 95, October 2005

0 Shares