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(Who!?) Don’t like black people
George Bush don’t like black people
George Bush don’t like black people
George Bush don’t like ’em
–“George Bush Doesn’t Care About Black People,” The Legendary K.O.

The Reconstruction period gave us the infamous New Orleans massacre in which white officials and an accompanying mob murdered African Americans and whites gathered to write a new constitution. The reconstruction after Katrina has produced the equivalent of another New Orleans massacre, this one more devastating than the first because it involves nothing less than the deliberate actions of the Bush Administration.

Images of Katrina

Hurricane came through, fucked us up round here
Government acting like it’s bad luck down here
All I know is that you better bring some trucks round here
Wonder why I got my middle finger up round here.

August 29, 2005– the day Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans remains seared into our consciences.

A crowd of African American women huddle around a slumped figure with a white sheet draped over her shoulder. A woman in a head scarf and striped t-shirt extends a hand in comfort, trying to assure the exhausted and overheated victim all will be OK. Behind her another woman holds her hands to her mouth in a mixture of shock and grief while a man near tears watches with two boys whose faces betray their anxiety and confusion. A second photograph: a large man holding a tiny baby over the shoulder of his football jersey pulls back a blanket to reveal the corpse of an old man as thin as a concentration camp victim slumped in a chaise lounge. Behind him lies the Superdome crowd that became a symbol for this disaster. To the side of the picture a woman walks towards the camera as she shouts at the photographer in frustration. There are no white faces anywhere. A third picture: an African American woman with her dress draped over her shoulder swims through water colored like a stained glass window by oil, dragging an overnight bag and bottles of water. (from The Strange Death of Liberal America)

Two years later come new images, equally devastating and equally searing. Only these images do not have us glued to the television screen. They do not have mobs of reporters asking, “How can this happen in America?” Like the people still living in their FEMA trailers, we have become emotionally numbed while those charged with the task of rebuilding New Orleans hide behind a belief that the task is too big for government, the same government that helped rebuild Europe after World War II, the same government that conquered the Great Depression.

A ground level shot is dominated by purple football helmets, their distorted shapes a testimony to the storm’s fury, lying in weeds behind the limp remains of a chain-link fence the once marked a practice field. The floor of a high school gym is piled high with dun-colored rubble and thick glass crystals that resemble ice cubes scattered beneath a scoreboard and still intact US flag hanging on the wall. A row of crook-necked metal standards that once held backboards dominates a playground so overgrown that it resembles an abandoned farm field instead of a place where kids once tried out cross-overs and imagined playing in the NBA.

What is missing is people. Cameras take us down deserted streets of devastated houses and empty slabs. Photographers who showed us too many pictures of the horrors of the Superdome now drive the city searching for signs of life. Two years ago there were heroes with stories for reporters to tell. Now there are no heroes only survivors. People who returned sit holed up in reclaimed homes they guard with shotguns and the hair-trigger emotions of those who have seen Hell and don’t want to go back.

The Statistics of Katrina

People lives on the line you declining to help
Since you taking so much time we surviving ourself
Just me and my pets, and my kids, and my spouse, trapped
In my own house looking for a way out

In 2005 the statistics told the grim story. The number of lives lost. The number of homes destroyed. The number of people displaced. The number of acres under water.

As they did in 2005, the statistics of 2007 again tell a reprehensible story. The Brookings Institution notes in a special two-year anniversary report on Katrina recovery:

In the past year, progress has slowed, especially in the city, as critical public infrastructure—schools, law enforcement, and health care—remains weak.

The complete report contains some sobering data.

  • Basic services-including schools, libraries, public transportation, and childcare-remain at less than half of the original capacity in New Orleans, and only two thirds of all licensed hospitals are open in the region.
  • Just 45 percent of the city’s schools are now open.
  • As of August 6, 2007, only 22 percent of total applicants to the Road Home program had gone to closing, and the average benefit per applicant has fallen by more than $12,000 to about $68,700
  • The unemployment rate climbed back up to 5.1 percent in June 2007, above the state and national rates.

Yet the Brookings report tells only part of the story, saying little about the state of New Orleans black population. For that we need to go to additional data. Last fall, The Kaiser family Foundation conducted an extensive interview study of post-Katrina recovery sending a team of 41 interviewers into the city where they documented the physical condition of nearly 17,000 housing locations and completed interviews with 1,504 randomly chosen adults. The study found huge disparities between the condition of black and white residents. According to the report:

  • More than half (55%) of blacks in the parish said that they face worse treatment and opportunities than whites as part of the rebuilding process.
  • Nearly half of African Americans (47 percent) described their own personal financial situation as worse now than before August 2005, compared to a third of whites (32 percent) in the parish.
  • African Americans were also three times as likely as whites – 29 percent compared to 9 percent – to have experienced some employment challenge since the storm.
  • African Americans were nearly twice as likely as whites to say they lost a family member or close friend as a result of Katrina (28 percent versus 15 percent of whites).

The Realities of Katrina

If FEMA really comes through in an emergency
But nobody seem to have a sense of urgency

You have to read between the lines of these studies and do a bit more research to find the important information. For example, one story few are reporting concerns the dramatic shift in New Orleans’ population. The Census Bureau reported that in 2005 blacks made up more than two-thirds of the population of Orleans Parish (67.5%). The Kaiser survey disclosed:

Slightly more than half (53 percent) of adults in Orleans Parish were black.

In other words, a city that once had a huge black majority now has a very narrow one. This fulfills the prophecy of former Bush Administration Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Alphonso Jackson:

New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.

Obviously this has political implications since it provides Republicans with a better chance at capturing the city than before Katrina. Greg Palast in his new DVD, Big Easy to Big Empty, tells a grim tale of this demographic and political shift. Palast notes:

There are still 89,000 families still imprisoned in FEMA’s aluminum Guantanamo – the mobile home gulag where Katrina’s survivors remained barred from returning to the Big Easy.

In an interview with Air America’s Richard Greene Palast charged:

The Republican Party had a demographic problem which has been washed away and they ain’t letting it back.

A city which for generations was defined by a vigorous African American culture that arguably gave America some of its most distinctive intellectual and cultural flavors–what Wynton Marsalis termed “America’s Soul Kitchen,” has disappeared. What the Klan and the segregationists tried to accomplish over a century and a half has been realized in just two years.

The Smoking Guns of the Ninth Ward

Making a killing off the price of gas
He would have been up in Connecticut twice as fast
After all that we’ve been through nothing’s changed.

The real key to understanding what has happened to New Orleans since Katrina lies in the infamous Ninth Ward, a black area of the city that was one of the poorest and most heavily devastated. The Lower Ninth was also a place of great community pride where families owned their own homes and nurtured neighborhood institutions.

Time magazine’s Katrina anniversary coverage has an online interactive map that tells the story in graphic terms. Colors that give New Orleans the appearance of a patchwork quilt show the dramatic population change in the Lower Ninth Ward. A feature shows which levees gave way, illustrating why the Lower Ninth suffered the most and why some residents still believe the white elite deliberately broke the levees to save their own homes and businesses, a charge that has been given wide circulation by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan.

In the upscale Gardens area (where former plantations once were split and sold to wealthy whites) the levies held and the flooding was minor, but the Lower Ninth suffered multiple levy failures on three sides that poured water into the low-lying neighborhood. On Time‘s map, the location of the Holy Cross neighborhood marks the Lower Ninth. Today the population of the Gardens, the French Quarter and much of the higher ground around the central city has rebounded close to 2005 levels. On the other hand, the Lower Ninth is swathed in a grim pallor that shows the area has become virtually deserted.

Now all the data begin to make a powerful moral statement. Let’s begin with rebuilding. Clearly the lack of population in the Lower Ninth shows that virtually none of the so-called Road Home funds whose miserable performance is singled out in the Brookings’ study have gone to that area. One reason is that most of the homeowners did not carry flood insurance or any kind of homeowner’s insurance so they don’t qualify. For many the cost was prohibitive.

A second reason people have not moved back is the lack of infrastructure cited in the Kaiser report. The few residents who have returned find themselves living in an area with little or no health care, schools, transportation and even basic necessities such as places to shop.

Most ominously, as I reported earlier this year, the breakdown of community has given New Orleans the dubious distinction of having the highest murder rate in America–even more than Murderdelphia. The Lower Ninth may be the most dangerous place to live in this country for it has become a virtual free-fire zone that rivals anything in Iraq. The Iraq analogy is essential to understanding what has happened to the Lower Ninth, for like Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the area was crippled by the lack of basic services. Unlike Iraq, few seem to care about the Lower Ninth.

Picture one of those fading towns that Hollywood and the makers of spaghetti westerns used to employ as stock settings for gun play. The winds blow through the open windows of deserted houses with yards overgrown with weeds, only instead of tumbleweeds rolling down the empty streets are stray bits of trash that still remain untouched since August 29, 2005. When darkness descends predators prowl unhindered, their wanderings punctuated not by howls but by the staccato beat of automatic weapons.

The third and least publicized reason for people not returning to the Lower Ninth is that many of them are either not able to or not being allowed to. The Louisiana Justice Institute states:

Some 250,000 people are yet displaced throughout the nation, unable to return because they have no homes, no jobs nor the financial means to rebuild.

Even more despicable has been the fate of the city’s public housing projects which were barricaded and surrounded by chain link fences with barbed wire to prevent people from returning. They still sit abandoned. There is also the bizarre “Good Neighbor” project. Common Ground Relief reports:

Thousands of residents—many of whom are elderly and disabled—are facing the possibility of having their homes taken by the City if they do not keep their lots clean and their lawns cut. “Enough is enough,” says Common Ground Director, Brandon Darby. “The so-called Good Neighbor Program is not about being neighborly. It’s about taking private property from homeowners in an unjust, unconstitutional manner.”

Now we come to the future of the Lower Ninth. The rebuilding plan issued this January by city authorities states that rebuilding priority will be given to those areas that can show substantial recovery. It’s a policy that like so much about post-Katrina New Orleans stands rational thinking and morality on its head. This is William Graham Sumner’s philosophy of don’t coddle the weak in its most inhumane extreme.

Those areas that cannot meet the criteria will be condemned by eminent domain and the land sold to the highest bidder. In the Lower Ninth and across the Internet rumors flow of plans to abandon the Lower Ninth and turn it over to developers who want to put in casinos and condos.

It was representative Barney Frank who put a label on this in January of this year:

What I believe is, at this point, you’re not talking about incompetence, you’re talking about values … when in a calculated way you refuse to do anything for well over a year after the disaster…The policy, I think, is ethnic cleansing by inaction.

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin followed this with his suggestion at a dinner sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association that the slow recovery is part of a plan to change the racial makeup and political leadership of his and other cities. Frank and Nagin received much criticism for their remarks, but they spoke an essential truth. Interestingly none other than Sports Illustrated employed the similar words in a story in its new issue about the aftermath of Katrina.

When city planners speak of “a smaller footprint” to be served by a drastically reduced tax base, they envision cutting loose much of the city east of the Industrial Canal — and in that many black New Orleanians hear “ethnic cleansing” or see a Trojan horse for an opportunistic landgrab.

While these are interesting charges, is what is occurring in New Orleans really “ethnic cleansing” in terms of international law? First used in the former Yugoslavia (the term is a literal translation from Serbo-Croatian/Croato-Serbian), the term has been the subject of much discussion in the international community. Probably the most concise definition was written by Drazen Petrovic in the European journal of International Law. In “Ethnic Cleansing: An Attempt at Methodology” Petrovic proposes the following description of the goal of what he terms “ethnic cleansing policy:”

The long-term goal could be the creation of living conditions that would make the return of the displaced community impossible, and ultimately lead to the change of ethnic structure of population in the region according to the concept of territorial unity and ethnic exclusivity.

The key phrase “the creation of living conditions that would make the return of the displaced community impossible” certainly seems to describe what is currently occurring in New Orleans. Even if one disagrees, the Bush New Orleans policy also touches on various other principles governing the treatment of what the Administration itself termed “refugees.”Principle 28 of the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights “Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” states:

Competent authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to establish conditions, as well as provide the means, which allow internally displaced persons to return voluntarily, in safety and with dignity, to their homes or places of habitual residence, or to resettle voluntarily in another part of the country.

Clearly that principle has been violated with Katrina. In fact so have several other guiding principles including Principle 7:

The authorities undertaking such displacement shall ensure, to the greatest practicable extent, that proper accommodation is provided to the displaced persons, that such displacements are effected in satisfactory conditions of safety, nutrition, health and hygiene, and that members of the same family are not separated.

Yet as the New York Times reports:

For thousands of evacuees like Ms. Cole, going home to New Orleans has become a vague and receding dream. Living in bleak circumstances, they cannot afford to go back, or have nothing to go back to. Over the two years since Hurricane Katrina hit, the shock of evacuation has hardened into the grim limbo of exile.

New Orleans as RepublicanWorld

Come down George, c’mon come down
Come down George, c’mon come down
Come down George, c’mon come down.

The rebuilding of New Orleans is creating something I never thought I would see in this country, something that resembles an nightmare so awful that my mind wretches at the thought. New Orleans is becoming a racial Disneyworld, a tourist attraction in which those few black people allowed to stay perform for the benefit of the white tourists. They sing, they dance, they play jazz, recreating Satchmo, Buddy Bolden and Sidney Bechet the way folks at Disneyworld walk around dressed as Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck. They perform for Mardi Gras. And, of course they are cast in the roles Hollywood always reserved for them–cooks and domestics. In New Orleans white America seems on the verge of something that has been a hidden agenda for quite some time–the wholesale eliminate of the inner-city, the black “slums,” the “ghetto.”

But more than that the city is becoming a a theme park celebrating for how the Republicans would remake America. First there are the hefty “private sector” contracts which have gone to the usual offenders such as Halliburton. Then there is education. The Republicans have stated for years they want to replace the public education system. In New Orleans they have succeeded. Brookings noted:

Some 25 new charter schools have opened in Orleans Parish, making Orleans Parish the only city in the country with majority chartered public schools.

There always was a part of New Orleans that was a theme park for white folks to explore black culture–or a caricature of it depending on where you went in the city. Then the tourists would return to their red-lined neighborhoods and congratulate themselves on their tolerance. White culture has always had this thing about sampling black culture, something rap artists stand on its head by sampling white records.

The city as theme park seems the blueprint for the new New Orleans. Meanwhile the real culture that enriched and sustained New Orleans as one of the most diverse cities in the world will be gone. And America will have tacitly accomplished something those people tried long ago with the New Orleans Massacre. This time there will be no bullets, no blood, no bodies, only the lost souls displaced from their homes, families, friends, and neighbors forever.

What You Can Do

Call your congressional and state representatives and the White House to demand the immediate restoration and betterment of New Orleans, Gulf Port, Biloxi and the entire Gulf Coast region. The toll-free number for the congressional switchboard is: (888) 226-0627. You can also write your Representatives and Senators.

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