Truth Rising: Tribunal on Katrina and Rita Convenes In New Orleans
by Darwin BondGraham
Friday, Aug. 31, 2007 at 2:06 PM
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August 29-September 2, 2007 the Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita convenes in New Orleans.
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William Tanner says he was just trying to help out . Days after hurricane Katrina and the levee breaches Tanner was driving around the Algiers neighborhood, otherwise known as the “West Bnk,” a section of New Orleans mostly spared severe flooding and storm damage but still coping with an emergency situation. One of Tanner’s first opportunities to lend a hand was on the 2nd of September. He stopped in front of an elementary school where the police had set up an emergency station and jump started a police car with cables from his trunk. The officers present were grateful. On the 4th came Tanner’s biggest chance to help out, or so he thought.
“I heard gun shots as I was driving past a row of apartments. A man came out in the street asking me for help. He said his brother was shot and needed medical care.” Tanner assisted the man, Kevin King, in putting King’s brother Henry King into the backseat of his car. “I drove them to the school where the police were because I knew we could get medical attention there.”
Instead of medical attention Tanner and the King brothers, accompanied by an uncle, were met with raised assault rifles and shouting officers. The police surrounded the three men paying scant attention to the wounded Henry King in the Tanner’s backseat. Thus began a several hour ordeal of physical assault, detention and harassment, one of countless episodes of human rights violations in post-Katrina New Orleans.
On this second commemoration of the Great Flood, Tanner testified before the International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita, recalling in detail this experience. Stating to the judges and conveners with absolute directness Tanner recalled that “on the 4th of September I saw hell on earth.” Tanner and King were cuffed, struck with rifle buts and kicked by the NOPD officers. One cop threatened the men that they would shoot their legs out and let “dogs nibble the wounds.” The police acted contemptuously to the men, covering their nametags, telling a police photographer not to photograph officers present. According to Tanner several hours passed and no paramedics or officers came to Henry King’s aid. The man was left to bleed in the backseat. Eventually the police drove the car somewhere off sight with Henry King still inside.
Tanner attributes his survival on that day to pure chance. A female officer who recognized him from two days before when he jump started a police car intervened and secured his release. Tanner, Kevin King and King’s uncle were free to go after several hours of brutal detention. “After that I was forced out of the city to Houston,” explains Tanner who wasn’t able to return for several months. According to Tanner, when he returned he searched for and found his car dumped down by the levee near the 2nd District Police Station. The vehicle had been totally torched. “When I came back with my camera to photograph it an old man who lived nearby came out and said to me, ‘that’s the car they burned that man alive in.’”
Tanner’s testimony is representative of much of the evidence being assembled before the International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita. Hosted by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, the Tribunal has brought forth a distinguished panel of conveners and judges who from August 29th to September 2nd will hear testimony and consider evidence against local governments, the State of Louisianan and the United States federal government.
According to the Tribunal’s conveners the charges include: (1) gross violation of human rights and racial discrimination, (2) violation of the right to return, resettlement and reintegration of internally displaced persons, (3) violation of the human right to life and dignity, (4) violation of the right to be free from torture and other cruel punishments, (5) violation of the rights to freedom of association, assembly and movement, (6) violation of the right to work and right to adequate healthcare and housing, (7) violation of the right to an adequate standard of living and education, (8) violation of the right to vote and participate in governance, (9) violation of the right to fair trial, liberty and security of the person and equal protection under the law, and, (10) violation of rights related to privacy, family life and missing relatives.
In other words, the Tribunal is set to establish for the record a near total break of the social contract (or whatever semblance of one that existed prior to the storm) with the people of the Gulf Coast, New Orleans’ black communities in particular. The Tribunal is out to assemble evidence of the negligence of government at all levels, and the massive human rights violations in nearly every sphere of life committed against those who are simply trying to survive the socially and politically determined disasters called Katrina and Rita. Kali Akuno of People’s Hurricane describes the purpose of the Tribunal as a “critical step in the ongoing struggle for the right of return and a self determining reconstruction process.” Furthermore, Akuno states the wider objectives of the Tribunal beyond the Gulf Coast; “if the government gets away with these abuses - after the tragic consequences of deeply entrenched racism and classism horrified both national and international audiences - the gentrification and ethnic cleansing of communities throughout the US and world will only accelerate.” The national and global significance of the Tribunal is also represented by the conveners, a distinguished group including Workers Party President Louisa Hanoune of Algeria, US Rep. Cynthia McKinney, New York City Councilman Charles Barron, Socialist Party President Tiyani Mabasa of South Africa, and Edenice Santana de Jesus, CUT Trade Union Leader of Brazil.
On the Tribunal’s 3rd day the conveners, judges and audience heard testimony from Charice Marie Nelson, a New Orleans native, school teacher, and carrier of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. Ms. Nelson’s testimony emphasized the destruction of culture resulting from the displacement of black communities in the wake of Katrina. The assault on culture has been an under-reported aspect of the struggle even though it is as important as more widely popularized issues like affordable housing, police brutality and labor strife.
According to Nelson (herself a big queen and organizer of honorary Indian social events) the Mardi Gras Indians constitute a core part of black working class New Orleans culture. “It’s a living tradition. It’s organic. With people being dispersed it is very difficult to bring people back, communication is hard. We can’t get together like we normally do.” According to Nelson this is undermining the communal bonds of many neighborhoods because the Mardi Gras Indian tradition, like several other core cultural institutions including the second lines, is organized through oral histories, face to face contact and learning, and participatory engagement with one’s collective identity. Forced dispersal and chronic dislocation from the city and one’s old neighborhood is slowly destroying the culture and community of New Orleans’ black working class.
Nelson used her testimony to take issue with the discourse of rebuilding used in the literature of several influential post-Katrina planning groups, the Bring New Orleans Back Commission and the Unified New Orleans Plan. Both call for rebuilding culture centers and reinvesting in New Orleans’ cultural institutions. Nelson points out that both use images of Mardi Gras Indians, second lines, jazz and other organic aspects of black culture in their literature and promotional materials. However, Nelson notes that these and other powerful planning agencies and organizations along with government and the tourism industry speak of cultural institutions in “brick and mortar terms.” Nelson explains that “they talk about culture in terms of non-profit arts organizations, museums and buildings to house relics or host shows in, not in terms of the communities that produce the culture, the social and pleasure clubs, the Indian gangs and even the neighborhoods themselves.” Nelson says, “we [various black communities] weren’t recognized in the existing arts district of New Orleans before the storm and we’ve been written out of proposals for new expansions of this after the storm.” Nelson concluded her remarks poignantly; “our culture will not die out if it remains in our communities, but it will die if its put in non-profit institutions and museums. It will die out if its commodified and co-opted.” Contextualizing the importance of Nelson’s testimony the prosecutor for the cultural rights briefing rested her case by quoting Amilcar Cabral: “culture is the seed of resistance.”
The Tribunal which concludes Sunday, September 2nd includes briefings on dozens of issues including prisoner’s rights, women’s rights, misappropriation of relief funds, gentrification and housing rights, military occupation and mercenaries, and environmental racism. The judges will give verdict on this day regarding the 10 charges through a presentation of preliminary findings.
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