It Was Complete Fascism Those First Four Days: Katrina, Rita Tribunal Pushes Forward...
by Darwin BondGraham
Saturday, Sep. 01, 2007 at 8:52 PM
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On this final day before deliberation, the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita heard testimony from several more witnesses including Malik Rahim and a group of public housing residents from across the nation.
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Beginning the day with Rahim's testimony, the longtime activist and co-founder of the Common Ground Collective spoke to issues of police militarization, vigilantism and collective responses in the immediate aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
"It was complete fascism those first four days," Rahim explained to the judges and audience. Describing the conditions of Algiers and New Orleans as a whole, Rahim called the situation the worst in his life. "I've seen death row, been in shootouts with police, I've seen Iraq under the sanctions, nothing in my life prepared me for what happened." According to Rahim in the immediate aftermath of Katrina the local and national governments failed to secure the city's people or to provide resources for survival and evacuation. Police allowed white vigilante squads to roam the streets or seal off entire blocks using deadly force primarily against black men. Police, hired mercenary forces like Blackwater International, and the US military were themselves participants in much of the brutal suppression and violence directed indiscriminately at blacks. Those black men and families unfortunate enough to find themselves needing to travel through white neighborhoods or past concentrations of police and military forces encountered dangerous responses as the entire black population of the city had been branded as "looters" by the media. "By the end of that Wednesday [two days after the storm] all you had to do to kill a black was just kill him. If the cops came by you would just say he was a looter."
The situation in Algiers was particularly dangerous for New Orleans African American community because of the predominantly white neighborhoods in Algiers bordering poor black ones, and also because Algiers is adjacent to the majority white city of Gretna. As evidence Rahim and the prosecutor played segments from a documentary shot largely in the weeks following the disaster's onset. Entitled "Welcome to New Orleans," (http://www.welcometoneworleans.dk/credits.html) the filmmakers were able to capture footage of white vigilantes bragging around barbeque grills and in their homes about shooting black men in the streets. One vigilante brags, "it was like the first day of pheasant season in South Dakota." Rahim testified that he must see that man nearly everyday, his neighbor, and that no investigations or repercussions have resulted from his or any other vigilantes crimes during the week-long span of violence following Katrina. Rahim testified that he counted 20 bodies on the streets, victims of gunshot wounds. The vigilantes reportedly had parties every night at a local bar in Algiers to celebrate their days exploits.
Rahim explained that the Common Ground Collective was founded by whites and blacks to provide resources to anyone needing them. This primarily meant poor black families abandoned in the city by the government. The Collective remains an influential organization within the city two years after Katrina. In the initial days it provided healthcare, food, water, and transportation among many other services. "If Common Ground had been founded by blacks they would have killed us," Rahim says. In fact, the police visited the group in an attempted raid at Rahim's home in Algiers after concluding that the organization must be a criminal outfit looting and selling goods. "When the cops came by they saw a bunch of young whites. They thought they had the wrong house." The raid fizzled and the Collective continued with its work.
Rahim drove home the point that the situation in New Orleans unfolded as it did because the government abandoned the people. Compounding this, according to Rahim, is that "hurricane Katrina happened at the worst time to be poor in America, that is the end of the month." Rahim explained that the vast majority of looting was for food, water and other resources needed for survival. But even the spectacle of looters taking designer clothes and electronics, overblown as it was, had a rational basis. "They was takin' this and using it as barter. They figured 'if I could get this plasma TV and hang on to it, wherever I end up I could barter it and support my family for a while." At one point Rahim recalled an encounter with a New Orleans Fire Department officer who told him, "this is off the record, but the tap water in Algiers is safe to drink." Having heard no official indication most residents assumed that the water across the entire metro area was tainted with microbes and chemical toxins several days after the floods. When Rahim asked the firefighter why he wasn't telling everyone - as it made sense to inform the population that the water was potable - the officer replied that he had been given orders from on high not to release this information. In response to this Rahim incredulously shot back, "I'm glad they didn't order you to kill me." Rahim believes that the order was designed to pressure people out of the city, who otherwise would be more inclined to stay if they were aware of a clean water source.
Later in the day a panel of public housing residents from New Orleans and around the nation testified regarding their collective situation. Echoing Rahim's testimony about rescue and recovery efforts, Chantel Young exclaimed that, "the people in St. Bernard development [a large public housing site in the 7th Ward] saved themselves. The government forgot us." After saving themselves and getting to the 610 freeway bridge and out of the city the residents of St. Bernard, like other public housing tenants soon found themselves locked out of their homes by the federal government. Eventually the Department of Housing and Urban Development would announce their intentions to permanently keep the thousands of families locked out in order to tear down and redevelop the sites into smaller, less dense "mixed-income" apartment complexes.
The public housing residents testifying before the tribunal spent much of their time combating the stereotypical notions of who a public housing tenant is and what the "projects" are like. Lisa Burris, a resident of New York and organizer with Public Housing Residents of the Lower East Side explained that in her talks with various audiences she usually asks people what sorts of images come to mind when she says the word "project." "People usually say poor, ghetto, crime, lazy, jobless, etc." According to Burris and other panelists this image is far to simplistic and inaccurate. Many residents work, however, their jobs pay wages to meager to afford market rate housing. Furthermore, because most residents are women, many of them single mothers, it is nearly impossible to raise a family and pay rent on one low-income salary.
Sharon Jasper, another St. Bernard development resident described her home in glowing terms. Raised in the development since she was six, the elder miss Jasper explained that within her development many tenants were actively engaged in community building and political organizing. "Coming up I lived a very healthy life. Now looking back in y life I see that the system has really failed poor working class people. They have taken our pride, dignity, respect."
All of the public housing panelist agreed that there exist a concerted effort within the federal government and many local housing agencies, assisted by real estate developers and conservative constituencies to demolish traditional public housing and to replace it with private market rate housing. Jr. Fleming, a public housing resident and organizers from Chicago with the Coalition to Protect Public Housing explained the significance of this in terms of New Orleans and the nation: "So goes New Orleans, so goes America." Much of the other testimony given during the Tribunal has affirmed this exact point. The violations of human rights along the Gulf Coast following Katrina and Rita, the bungled recovery effort, and way that powerful interests have used the disasters as opportunities to impose structural adjustments on the political and social order of the region - including the dismantlement and privatization of public housing, public healthcare, public schools - is just the most pernicious example of the problems facing many communities in the US and globally.