Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
September 18, 2005

Photo by Jordan Flaherty New Orleans was not devastated by a hurricane. From my travels around New Orleans and surrounding areas, its clear that very little damage was done to my city by hurricane Katrina.

Bay St. Louis, Biloxi, Gulfport and other Gulf cities have suffered extensive hurricane-related damage. However, the damage to New Orleans came from brutal negligence - a lack of planning and a stunningly slow response, created by a federal government that didn’t care about the people of New Orleans, and still doesn’t. Academic Cornel West has called it Hurricane Povertina. Poet Suheir Hammad has referred to the “survivors of the rescue,” others have referred to the displaced as “victims of hurricane FEMA,” or simply “Michael Brown’s victims.” The houses of New orleans were not hit by 35 foot tall waves or 200 mile winds. On the day after the hurricane, most of the city was in good shape, and many of us still in the city felt that New Orleans had once again come through battered and bruised but all right. Then, over the next few days, the levee broke and water rushed into the city, and relief rescue and repair efforts were far too little, far too late.

But the worst damage is what is being done now, this confluence of forces barraging New Orleans and its Diaspora, what some local organizers have referred to as the Disaster Industrial Complex. This is the perfect storm created by an orgy of greed and opportunism engaged in by the jackals of disaster profiteering. The list of those who are gaining from our loss is large, and it includes everyone from the heavily armed thugs of Wackenhut Security and Blackwater USA to the often well-meaning but ineffective bureaucrats of Red Cross and FEMA, to the Scientology missionaries crowding the shelters, to journalists and disaster-gazers taking up a chunk of available housing, to the major multinationals such as Halliburton, working in concert with rich elites from uptown New Orleans seeking partners with which to exploit this tragedy. These are the institutions and individuals poised to profit from this disaster, while the people of New Orleans face nothing but further dislocation and disempowerment.

New Orleans-based organizer Andrea Garland told me about the callous treatment she’s seen in the shelters of the Covington, Louisiana area. “The Red Cross has made at least 800 million dollars from fundraising, but people in this shelter can’t get soap and are showering under a hose? Is that right?”

I spoke last night to journalist and organizer Rosa Clemente about the harrowing sights she’s seen in shelters from Baton Rouge to Houston. Aside from the aforementioned team of Scientology missionaries, she also saw a national guard soldier point a gun at a five year old, as well as being briefly placed under arrest herself. She spoke of stores around the area of the shelters that have signs saying that shelter residents are not welcome, and she said that people in the shelters are completely cut off from news about the outside world. “There are three tvs for three thousand people. We asked everyone we spoke with in the shelter what they thought about Kanye West’s remarks, and none of them had heard of it!”

Whether its in the shelters or in the streets of New Orleans, this may go down as the most militarized “relief” effort in history. The Chicago police are camped out on a bar on Bourbon Street. Wackenhut security convoys are riding in and out of town. Israeli security patrol Audubon Place Uptown. White vigilante gangs patrol the West Bank, with tacit permission of local authorities. National Guard and Blackwater are on patrol throughout the city, along with DEA, INS, State police, New Orleans police, NYPD, and countless other agencies.

As I write this, I’m sitting at the River Shelter in Baton Rouge, surrounded by National Guard, with a Virginia “Police Command Center” parked in front of me and a Scientologist Mission Center behind me, with news vans parked around, looking for comments on Bush's latest speech.

A couple days ago I was in a car accident in uptown New Orleans, at the corner of Magazine and Nashville. The driver of the other car was a police officer. Within minutes, there were perhaps fifty police/military/security officers on the scene, and the driver of our car, an independent journalist still wounded and in shock from the accident, was arrested and led off in handcuffs. They told him, “you hit a cop in New Orleans. You’re going to leave town in the trunk of a car.” He was taken to the local Greyhound Station, which is functioning as a temporary city prison, and he was held for 22 hours. (He was released thanks to the efforts of various defense lawyers and media activists).

This militarization of New Orleans stands in stark contradiction to the people’s efforts at reconstruction. The Common Ground Collective, in the Algiers area of New Orleans, has built a community health center and food distribution network serving, according to organizer Malik Rahim’s estimate, about 16,000 people in New Orleans Parish and surrounding areas such as Plaquemines and Jefferson Parishes. “Have the police helped us?” asked one local organizer, “no, they’ve stood in our way at every turn.”

The community traditions of New Orleans have generally existed outside the police and white power structure of the city. For example, Mardi Gras Indians, one of the central cultural traditions of what's known as Black Mardi Gras, have always faced police repression. Earlier this year, as the Indians were parading on St. Joseph’s Night, scores of officers descended on the scene and disrupted the event, scaring the children present and arresting several of the performers.

Several weeks later, at a city council hearing on the incident, Tootie Montana, the chief of chiefs of the Mardi Gras Indians, spoke. At 82 years old, Tootie has been a Mardi Gras Indian Chief for five decades. He captivated the assembled crowd with details of a long history of police repression, tied into racial discrimination, beginning with a police crackdown at his very first Mardi Gras. Tootie ended his speech with the words, “this has to stop.” Those would be his last words. Tootie Monatana stepped back from the microphone and collapsed to the floor. He was pronounced dead of a heart attack shortly afterwards.

His funeral was a moving combination of cultural celebration and political demonstration. Thousands and thousands of people came out, dressed in all manner of costume, to commemorate the life of this brave fighter for freedom. Longtime community activist Jerome Smith fired up the crowd, saying "This is about a life that has passed, but it is also about the struggle against institutionalized racism in our city." The link between New Orleans culture, especially the culture of Black Mardi Gras, and liberation was clear.

White Mardi Gras is organized by "Krewes," organizations descended from 19th century secret societies. The white Mardi Gras Krewes of Rex, Momus and Comus are seen as the unofficial, backroom leadership of the city. In 1992, the city ordered the all-white Krewes to integrate, and Momus and Comus stopped having parades, rather than integrate. However, they still have lavish, invitation-only, Balls. A central moment of Mardi Gras is when the King of Rex goes to the Comus Ball to greet the king of Comus. According to The Wall Street Journal, it is the leadership of these Krewe’s that is currently living uptown, with a heliport and Israeli security team, planning their vision of the corporate reconstruction of the city.

Today I received a call from Royce Osborn, a local filmmaker who made the New Orleans classic film All On A Mardi Gras Day. Royce is also a community activist and one of the Mardi Gras Skeletons, another Black Mardi Gras tradition. Royce told me he’s aching to come back, and looking forward to Mardi Gras 2006. “If we see the Indians out on the streets in the next Mardi Gras, then I’ll know there’s hope for New Orleans,” he said.