Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina Aftermath: Much Worse than a State of Nature

We will all be hearing horrifying reports from the Superdome and Convention Centers for weeks to come. The worst and most terrifying stories to come out, in my opinion, are the stories of rapes and murders. The lack of food there, the lack of power, the force at gunpoint that kept people from leaving - all of this was the most preventable part of the entire tragedy, and it stands as a glaring example of the complete incompetence and callousness of the government, which set out to "shoot to kill" looters seeking supplies, but did nothing to protect people from violence in the designated shelters. It's also an example of the relative value placed on property vs. human beings, not just by the Bush administration, but by our present system of government.
I can understand that it would be difficult for police and military people to find people in floodwaters, I can imagine that it would be difficult to stop looters in the streets. But if they'd had enough leadership and inclination, it seems like either the National Guard, FEMA /or the local government could have avoided the horror that took over those two sports arenas during the night. What were the priorities? Why were babies and elderly people dying? Wouldn't it have been possible to fly fresh water, as well as doctors and medical supplies into the stadiums? Why didn't this happen? As we saw yesterday, FEMA banned the Red Cross from the city. They argued that if the Red Cross were in NOLA providing aid that it would encourage people to stay. As my Aunt pointed out, it's just like the illogical "abstinence" argument: "If you don't give people condoms they won't have sex." But once you tell people to go to the Superdome...shouldn't you be prepared for them? Shouldn't you get prepared for them? I wonder what it will be like in the Astrodome.....(already sounds better)
I shudder when I hear stories of what it was like there at night, and have been wondering about how the people might have organized for self protection. Then I read this report from Reuters. "We found a young girl raped and killed in the bathroom," one National Guard soldier told Reuters. "Then the crowd got the man and they beat him to death."
When another rape was going on in the Convention Center, as one crowd member went to the troops, according to witnesses, the National Guard responded by killing him:
"They killed a man here last night," Steve Banka, 28, told Reuters. "A young lady was being raped and stabbed. And the sounds of her screaming got to this man and so he ran out into the street to get help from troops, to try to flag down a passing truck of them, and he jumped up on the truck's windscreen and they shot him dead."
These stories, as they emerge, will reveal conditions in the refugee centers thar are like the stories of the worst prisons imaginable, where unsurprisingly, police seem to have made the situation worse.
Years ago, Big Black told me what it was like during the Attica riot when he worked security. He told me that he was terrifed, "Some of those men were killers and rapists," he said. During the riot, the Attica prisoners were able to band together and create security, because so many of them were political organizers and activists, whether outside or inside. In the convention center and the Superdome, caught in a massive disaster and hemmed in from the outside, kept from leaving by gunpoint, hurricane victims had no such preparation for self-organization.
I saw a comment on a conservative weblog called "outside the beltway" that the chaos in New Orleans happened because "people are people." I'm sure that many will see a Hobbesian view of "human nature" confirmed by this tragedy. But - if you are tempted to go in that direction, think about this: that was no "state of nature" in the Superdome or Convention Center. It was much worse. People weren't allowed to leave to go and find food. Instead, "looters" were shot for taking food and necessary supplies from abandoned grocery stores. While police were running around the city shooting at looters in the streets, they could have been establishing safety in the convention center and superdome, where people were just stored as if in a warehouse. If those people had been left alone entirely, without police at all, it's possible that leaders could have emerged, organized and found food and water for the others.
While a lot of the horror of New Orleans was directly caused by the particular incompetence and callousness of the Bush administration, I think much of this preventable disaster should be laid at the door of the entire system of capitalism and its police forces, who, regardless of who they are as individuals, are trained to value property and view poor people as animals in need of control.
I'll close with today's editorial from the New Orleans Times Picayune:

OUR OPINIONS: An open letter to the President
Dear Mr. President:

We heard you loud and clear Friday when you visited our devastated city and the Gulf Coast and said, "What is not working, we’re going to make it right."

Please forgive us if we wait to see proof of your promise before believing you. But we have good reason for our skepticism.

Bienville built New Orleans where he built it for one main reason: It’s accessible. The city between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain was easy to reach in 1718.

How much easier it is to access in 2005 now that there are interstates and bridges, airports and helipads, cruise ships, barges, buses and diesel-powered trucks.

Despite the city’s multiple points of entry, our nation’s bureaucrats spent days after last week’s hurricane wringing their hands, lamenting the fact that they could neither rescue the city’s stranded victims nor bring them food, water and medical supplies.

Meanwhile there were journalists, including some who work for The Times-Picayune, going in and out of the city via the Crescent City Connection. On Thursday morning, that crew saw a caravan of 13 Wal-Mart tractor trailers headed into town to bring food, water and supplies to a dying city.

Television reporters were doing live reports from downtown New Orleans streets. Harry Connick Jr. brought in some aid Thursday, and his efforts were the focus of a "Today" show story Friday morning.

Yet, the people trained to protect our nation, the people whose job it is to quickly bring in aid were absent. Those who should have been deploying troops were singing a sad song about how our city was impossible to reach.

We’re angry, Mr. President, and we’ll be angry long after our beloved city and surrounding parishes have been pumped dry. Our people deserved rescuing. Many who could have been were not. That’s to the government’s shame.

Mayor Ray Nagin did the right thing Sunday when he allowed those with no other alternative to seek shelter from the storm inside the Louisiana Superdome. We still don’t know what the death toll is, but one thing is certain: Had the Superdome not been opened, the city’s death toll would have been higher. The toll may even have been exponentially higher.

It was clear to us by late morning Monday that many people inside the Superdome would not be returning home. It should have been clear to our government, Mr. President. So why weren’t they evacuated out of the city immediately? We learned seven years ago, when Hurricane Georges threatened, that the Dome isn’t suitable as a long-term shelter. So what did state and national officials think would happen to tens of thousands of people trapped inside with no air conditioning, overflowing toilets and dwindling amounts of food, water and other essentials?

State Rep. Karen Carter was right Friday when she said the city didn’t have but two urgent needs: "Buses! And gas!" Every official at the Federal Emergency Management Agency should be fired, Director Michael Brown especially.

In a nationally televised interview Thursday night, he said his agency hadn’t known until that day that thousands of storm victims were stranded at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. He gave another nationally televised interview the next morning and said, "We’ve provided food to the people at the Convention Center so that they’ve gotten at least one, if not two meals, every single day."

Lies don’t get more bald-faced than that, Mr. President.

Yet, when you met with Mr. Brown Friday morning, you told him, "You’re doing a heck of a job."

That’s unbelievable.

There were thousands of people at the Convention Center because the riverfront is high ground. The fact that so many people had reached there on foot is proof that rescue vehicles could have gotten there, too.

We, who are from New Orleans, are no less American than those who live on the Great Plains or along the Atlantic Seaboard. We’re no less important than those from the Pacific Northwest or Appalachia. Our people deserved to be rescued.

No expense should have been spared. No excuses should have been voiced. Especially not one as preposterous as the claim that New Orleans couldn’t be reached.

Mr. President, we sincerely hope you fulfill your promise to make our beloved communities work right once again.

When you do, we will be the first to applaud.

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