The city of New Orleans lies in post-apocalyptic ruin. Hurricane Katrina has created the biggest refugee crisis since the US Civil War. It is a natural disaster. But the death, destruction and misery that followed in its wake was preventable. It was the poor, the old, the sick ? overwhelmingly African American ? who had no means to flee the storm that bore the brunt of the suffering.
28% of people in New Orleans live below the poverty line; 84% of those are black. The conservative Wall Street Journal printed an article entitled, ‘Evacuation was a model of efficiency – for those who had a car.’ For the over 100,000 poor residents without any access to cars, there were few options. If you were lucky you could catch one of the last buses out of town, leaving your belongings, friends, and community behind in order to end up sleeping on the street in some other city.
For those unable to escape, 50,000 people were trapped for days in a deadly heat at the overflowing Superdome and Convention Centre. “There’s nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C-rations. Nothing for the last four days,” reported NBC journalist Tony Zumbada. Desperate crowds were reduced to chanting, ?Help us! Help us!? in front of TV cameras, while others begged “Don’t leave us here to die.” No help came for four days.
When buses finally arrived to evacuate people (to another football stadium, the Astrodome, in not-so-nearby Houston, Texas), the effort was stopped to allow the Hyatt Hotel guests to be brought out first, ?much to the amazement of those who had been crammed in the Superdome since last Sunday. “How does this work” They (are) clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?? exclaimed Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in their line. The National Guard blocked him as other guardsmen helped the well-dressed guests with their luggage.? (Associated Press, 9/4/05)
In one editorial, Maureen Dowd wrote, ?Michael Brown, the blithering idiot in charge of FEMA – a job he trained for by running something called the International Arabian Horse Association – admitted he didn’t know until Thursday that there were 15,000 desperate, dehydrated, hungry, angry, dying victims of Katrina in the New Orleans Convention Center. Was he sacked instantly? No, our tone-deaf president hailed him in Mobile, Ala., yesterday: ?Brownie, you?re doing a heck of a job.?? (?United States of Shame?, NY Times, 9/3/05)
Even Tim Russert of NBC?s Meet the Press noted, ?And it?s not as if we didn’t know this was coming. There were studies after studies. There were tests after tests.? The water-pumping system ran on electricity, not generators, but electricity has been knocked out throughout the entire the Gulf Coast. This is the result of government spending for New Orleans anti-flood measures being cut from $147 million to $82 million in the past four years. One-third of Mississippi?s National Guard ? and the most experienced and trained in facing natural disasters ? were in Iraq. Those that remained were used to ?police? the utterly helpless, starving and dehydrated people imprisoned in New Orleans.
These events have graphically illustrated the reality of widespread poverty, racism, inequality, and social deprivation in America. There has been a massive polarisation of wealth within the US over the past 30 years, reaching levels unseen since the 1920s. During 2004, the number of Americans living in poverty rose for the fourth successive year, pushing up the number of poor from 35.9 million to 37 million.
US rapper Kanye West pointed out the racist media coverage, ?I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they?re looting. See a white family, it says they?re looking for food.? Most of the ?looting? that took place was desperate people taking vital essentials ? water, food, diapers ? in order to survive.
While the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s succeeded in winning legal equality for African Americans, the underlying system of capitalism remained intact. As Malcolm X warned, ?you can not have capitalism without racism.? The continuation of capitalism, and its economic crisis since the mid-1970s, has meant that not only has racism remained, but that the social conditions of African Americans have actually worsened. Katrina has shown that capitalism is a system of failure, designed not to protect or enrich people?s lives, but for the profit of the rich.
By Greg Bradshaw