by Andrew Pollack / October 2005 issue of Socialist Action newspaper
The waters had barely begun to recede when the vultures were spotted overhead in the hurricane zone and in the halls of Capitol Hill. Contractors, lobbyists, CEOs prepared to swoop down and tear off a piece of profit from the flesh of the dead and dying. Within days of Katrina some of the biggest and swiftest had already alighted on their prey.
Two weeks after the hurricane, George Bush gave a speech supposedly to lay out his plans for rebuilding the region, but in reality urging on the vultures. It was another crafty Karl Rove production: coming on the heels of an alleged apology for his earlier bumbling, the speech was full of high-sounding phrases but included not a single new promise of aid.
Bush weighed in heavily on the role of “entrepreneurship” and tax breaks in restoring the
hurricane zone, and called for more volunteering and private donations.
The Washington Post and New York Times immediately put in headlines his supposed promise to pay the costs of rebuilding, but the text of his speech shows the only promise made was that the federal government will pay the majority of costs of repairing public
infrastructure in the disaster zone, from roads and bridges to schools and water systems—which is about the bare minimum anyone would expect, even the mealy-mouthed Democrats who whine for a few billion more.
There were no promises to rebuild houses or apartment buildings, to provide jobs, to repair hospitals—in short no spending promises beyond what is clearly and by law already under federal jurisdiction or which can’t be avoided without erasing the faint glimmer of support he’s got left in the electorate. Fortunately, the victims of Hurricane Katrina—victims also of those in high office who magnified the hurricane’s damage—are already organizing to drive away the birds of prey and to fight for what they need to rebuild their lives and their communities.
The Black community responds
As soon as the hurricane hit, working people in the Gulf region, especially the Black majority, began to organize spontaneously to rescue and support each other. The first organized relief and reconstruction effort to get national attention was that of Community Labor United. CLU is a coalition of progressive organizations in New Orleans formed in 1998, whose mission is to build organizational unity and support efforts that address poverty, racism, and education
and whose leaders include SNCC and labor union veterans.
CLU stated soon after the hurricane: “The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants and the wealthy white districts of New Orleans like the French Quarter and the Garden District. We
will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans.
CLU called for “black and progressive leadership to come together to meet in Baton Rouge to initiate the formation of a Community Oversight Committee of evacuees from all the sites. This committee will demand to oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations collecting resources on behalf of our people.”
CLU also put out a call to activists and organizations across the country to work on a “people’s campaign” of community redevelopment. Organizing efforts will take place across hundreds of temporary shelters. And the end goal of these efforts is summarized in the demand for “decision-making power in the long-term redevelopment of New Orleans.” Implicit in this stance is the notion that corporations and the rich, not working people, should pay for such redevelopment.
In a similar manner, on Sept. 14, Ernest L. Johnson, president of the Louisiana NAACP, called for Katrina evacuees “to take control of their own destinies by forming Shelter Committees.” Residents were encouraged to use these committees to handle resource
distribution, information gathering and dissemination, and agitating for better treatment from government agencies. Johnson said that the NAACP is attempting to “explain the process for bringing participatory democracy to the shelter system.”
“Young men with guns”
The base on which such committees can build was shown in the sense of community displayed immediately after the hurricane, when spontaneous organizing occurred among residents throughout the flooded area. They did whatever was needed to keep each other alive. Many of the “looters” demonized in the media were in fact young people who would break into stores, grab food, water, and other essentials, and then travel through their neighborhoods by boat—distributing them to everyone they could find. Others, including local
emergency medical technicians, focused on health care needs and set up first-aid stations.
The numbers involved in self-rescue efforts were so large that often the police had to stand aside. A participant in such efforts said, “Police take the supplies they want first, then they guard it [the store] as other people go in, and that’s where I get all of my things.”
New Orleans activist Jordan Flaherty quotes a report from a convention center evacuee who said, “Yes, there were young men with guns there, but they organized the crowd. They went to Canal Street and ‘looted,’ and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out ‘the buses are coming,’ the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back, just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first.” But buses never came.
Another widely-quoted evacuee report, by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, paramedics from Service Employees International Union Local 790, described how several hundred people organized themselves during their exodus in the face of cop threats: “We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action.” The cops
fired over their heads to try to disperse them, but they stayed together and built an encampment on an expressway until they could figure out their final exit plan.
New groups were formed in various neighborhoods to clean the streets where water had receded and to administer first aid. One group picked a name, the “Red Shirts,” and a uniform to match and established regular 12-hour shifts. Others cleared streets of debris and built public stockpiles of food, water, tools, clothes, etc. One resident described the functioning of his local group this way: “Nobody is giving orders. There are enough people that know what
needs to be done and we talk it over.”
What the bosses are doing
The same corporations that got no-bid contracts in Iraq, such as Halliburton, the Shaw Group, Bechtel, and Fluor, and that lied, stole, and cheated the government out of billions, have already gotten contracts under the same no-limit, no-oversight terms. To facilitate their theft Bush killed the prevailing wage throughout the region, so that now these companies can hire all the labor they want at as close to the minimum wage as the market will bear.
Meanwhile corporations across the economic spectrum are rushing to cash in, no matter how tenuous their connection to the catastrophe. As the Washington Post put it, “Bolstered by the shift in political winds from Hurricane Katrina, U.S. corporations are pressing lawmakers to approve a range of issues that have languished on Capitol Hill, some of which have little
to do with hurricane relief.”
Major U.S. airlines are asking Congress to suspend federal jet-fuel taxes and more time to pay into pension plans. Oil and gas companies want drilling rights in new parts of the Gulf Coast and in Alaska. Insurance companies want the ability to use tax-free funds to create a multibillion-dollar industry fund to cover future claims from natural disasters.
Shipbuilders such as Northrop Grumman Corp. want billions to help rebuild shipyards in Mississippi. Republicans in Congress have stepped up calls for tax breaks for corporations and the rich to stimulate the economy as a way of recouping lost tax revenue. Democrats have focused more on calling for aid to the region, but their proposed bills are a drop in the
bucket compared to what’s needed.
The Democrats have their share of vultures as well, most notably Clinton’s head of FEMA, James Witt, who is advising Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco of Louisiana but is also helping his corporate clients get hurricane zone contracts. Even before the hurricane, Louisiana Democrats like Mary Landrieu won large sums for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects aimed not at flood control but at increasing barge traffic for their friends (and no doubt campaign donors) in the shipping business.
Opposed visions for reconstruction
There are two places the necessary billions for reconstruction can be found, and two directly opposed visions of how they should be spent. On the one hand, they can be squeezed from working people through higher prices and taxes, which get funneled to corporations that will, in turn, remake the cities in their image. That could mean an attempt to revive tourism and gambling, as well as essential port and refining facilities (but with even greater freedom to
exploit labor there). It might also mean a new emphasis on biotechnology, more NASA and military facilities, and other high-tech ventures.
Either scenario will give short shrift to the needs of the region’s workers, especially its Black community, which has already endured decades of gentrification and displacement from manufacturing and farming to either low-paying service sector jobs or chronic unemployment.
On the other hand is the vision of a worker and Black-led reconstruction, which would prioritize building homes, apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, and cultural institutions. This would be done by public works jobs, with affirmative action for the region’s residents, especially Blacks and other oppressed minorities, and it would be financed by higher taxes on the region’s businesses and banks and on rich families and corporations nationwide—if need be by nationalizing recalcitrant companies, especially the gas and oil companies.
After all, for two centuries the wealthy and the corporations, starting with agribusiness and Big Oil and more recently national entertainment conglomerates, have been siphoning billions in profits out of the region, while leaving it underdeveloped compared to the rest of the country.
Which vision will prevail? One factor in assessing the struggle between them is the fear felt by even some bourgeois politicians and media figures at the mass reaction to the government’s handling of the hurricane, a fear impelling them to mouth cheap rhetoric about a “new New Deal.”
It’s important to remember that the New Deal itself was just a frightened reaction of the capitalist rulers to the massive struggles of workers and oppressed people of that era, such as the great wave of sit-down strikes in 1936-37, and the swelling ranks of socialist and communist parties. So without a revival of mass struggle now, nothing even remotely
approaching the size of the New Deal will come about. Yet even the New Deal came up woefully short in bringing about an end to the Depression.
New York’s conservative Daily News called in a lead editorial for a “New Deal for New Orleans,” and advocated a WPA-type project to rebuild the area, urging, for instance, the training of regional residents in hazardous material handling skills, as well as in carpentry and other construction jobs. The Daily News also warned that spending of “this magnitude must be beyond corruption and devoid of bureaucratic bungling. Which means that an agency other than FEMA must be in charge.” The News has its own anti-big-government reasons for raising this point, but it does raise the essential question: who will be in charge of reconstruction?
For committees in each shelter
The call by the CLU and the Louisiana NAACP contain the most important element for deciding this question in favor of working people and the Black community. Every shelter, and every neighborhood in the disaster region, should have its own elected committee. Through such committees residents can decide on the day-to-day running of shelters and can formulate demands about needed resources.
They can also organize discussions about their long-term wants and needs and communicate those decisions to an elected national committee, uniting residents of all the shelters around the country. Workers at factories, offices, hospitals, schools, and other workplaces still operating in the region—or who are in touch with other displaced workers from the same workplaces—should form their own committees with the same national connections—along with local labor unions and union halls engaged in relief. And in this they could be joined by elected representatives of antiwar organizations, Black community groups, environmental activists, and others around the country.
Bush’s canceling of the prevailing wage laws for hurricane zone contractors, and the administration’s plans to waive affirmative-action rules, also present a mobilizing opportunity that the AFL-CIO and Change to Win must now address. Such protests could be held
alongside the CLU, NAACP, and whatever victims’ committees are formed by then, demanding all work in the region be done through public hiring at prevailing union wages, under the joint supervision of the unions and community groups, and under expanded affirmative action policies and with preferential hiring for evacuees.
Special attention must also be paid to the needs of the hundreds of thousands of immigrant workers, many undocumented, in the region. Not only have they been trapped in the worst jobs, and thus have the least resources to fall back on now, but since the hurricane they have faced increased fear of deportation. Immigration vans have been patrolling the streets, and
FEMA has been discriminating against non-citizens and people without Social Security numbers in granting aid.
Finally, there is the evidence of the victims’ own eyes. A New Orleans resident who stayed behind told an Indymedia reporter that “the first week after Katrina, for all practical purposes, capital property relations disappeared in New Orleans.”
Working people can see what is possible when the rich and their state vanish and we organize to fill the vacuum. The challenge today, now that the bosses are trying to fill that vacuum themselves and restore normal property relations, is to deepen our organizing, extend our ties of support and solidarity, and concretize our demands for a program of Black and worker-led reconstruction.