Glossary of the Struggle for New Orleans

Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
March 21, 2006

The flooding of New Orleans has become a defining event across the political spectrum. For concerned people around the world it has become a vivid symbol of the Bush Administration’s misplaced priorities, for developers and corporate profiteers it has been an opportunity to remake the city in their vision and for Gulf Coast residents it has been a continuing catastrophe.

The promise of hundreds of billions of dollars flowing into the Gulf as well as the struggle for political power has created a perfect storm of exploitation. Just as prisons and the military attract an industry that both sustains and profits from their existence, so the modern disaster has its own parasites that survive and prosper only due to the suffering of others. The intermixing of multinational corporations, Bush administration cronies, developers, think tanks, relief organizations, religious institutions and local elites have combined in an orgy of greed and opportunism to form a Disaster Industrial Complex.

As of this writing, five months after Katrina, hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians are still dispersed around the US. Most have had limited or no access to their homes, and feel the city and developers are deliberately attempting to keep them out. "If that's the plan, then it's backfiring," Tanya Harris, a lower ninth ward resident told the New York Times in early December. "I'm not seeing that laid-back New Orleans character right now. I'm seeing a fighting spirit. I mean, my grandmother would chain herself to that property before she allowed the city to take it.”

Below is a quick guide to some of the players on both sides of this struggle.

    Army Corps of Engineers – Will they be held accountable? Investigations into the failures of the levees have found serious evidence of negligence and incompetence on the part of the Corps.

    Blackwater Security - Notorious for their role in Iraq, Blackwater was among the first disaster profiteers to come into New Orleans. Deputized by the governor, they were free to shoot to kill with no consequences. Along with Wackenhut and other private security firms, including an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International, they represent the new alternative to relief and reconstruction: security first, relief later. "This is a trend. You're going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations,” one Blackwater employee told journalist Jeremy Scahill.

    Churches - In line with the Bush administration’s goal of privatizing social services and increasing the social role of religious institutions, churches and other religious charities—from Salvation Army to Scientologists—have played a central role in the relief efforts. Some have been benevolent, but the overall effort has contributed to the re-positioning of relief as a nongovernmental function.

    Common Ground Collective - While many people fled the city, and others around the world were overwhelmed by shock and sadness, former New Orleans Black Panther Malik Rahim refused to leave, and invited concerned individuals from around the US to join him in fighting for New Orleans. Within a month the newly-formed Common Ground Collective had a distribution network reaching 16,000 people in the New Orleans area, and a free health clinic serving hundreds of patients, many who had not seen a doctor in years or even decades. By November, they had issued a mass call out for volunteers, with at least three hundred mostly young and white activists coming through on the week of Thanksgiving, and hundreds more arriving in the weeks that followed.

    Community Labor United/ Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund - In the first days after the disaster, progressives around the world responded to the call put out by the eight year old coalition, Community Labor United. “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.” Their high profile and deliberative pace has brought criticism. However, PHRF has united a wide coalition with the potential and desire to lead a principled, radical struggle for reconstruction with justice.

    Congressional Black Congress - Amidst the dismal responses of elected officials, including Louisiana’s hopeless political class, the Congressional Black Congress put forward a legislative proposal for the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast that is actually worthy of support. Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney was key in inviting local organizers such Dyan French Cole (“Mama D”) and Ishmael Muhammad to speak at congressional hearings in December, and she even came to New Orleans to join in a protest march to the white-flight suburb of Gretna.

    Congress of New Urbanism - Brought in by Mississippi’s Republican Governor to brainstorm strategies for reconstruction of Mississippi's Gulf Coast, the Urban Land Institute has been called an “architectural cult” by author Mike Davis, who says they have become an “accomplice to the Republicans' evil social experiment on the Gulf Coast.”

    Contractors - The rebuilding of New Orleans is a huge task; in garbage hauling alone, the city needs to dispose of 22 million tons, according to state estimates, about 15 times the debris removed after the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, very little of the funding for this work has gone into creating good paying jobs for New Orleans residents. Instead, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon legal protections for workers and gave the rebuilding contracts to his political allies, opening the door to low wages, exploitative working conditions and an influx of workers from everywhere but New Orleans.

    Entergy - Although its parent company reported profits of hundreds of millions of dollars nationally, Entergy, the power company for New Orleans residents, allowed its Louisiana affiliate to go bankrupt. At a town hall meeting in early November, homeowner Dennis Scott spoke for many New Orleanians when he said, "I know you have financial problems, but whatever happened to contingency planning? We're talking about a Fortune 500 company here…. Entergy, you need to be—I hate to say it—shot."

    Families and Friends Of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children - As a radical, people-of-color-led organization on the front lines of the disaster, FFLIC was everywhere at once: helping unite families in shelters, providing direct relief to prisoners and their families, and initiating Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a coalition dedicated to keeping the issues of poor people and those victimized by the prison industrial complex central in the reconstruction of New Orleans.

    FEMA - The incompetence of FEMA and obvious cronyism of Michael Brown helped crystallize opposition nationally to the Bush administration, showing clearly, as Kanye West said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” Despite personnel and policy changes, they remain a focus of anger and a symbol of ineptitude.

    Governor Kathleen Blanco - Although she was elected in part because of Democratic votes from New Orleans’ Black communities, Blanco showed her true colors in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, sending in National Guard troops with the words, “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded... These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”

    Labor Movement - The labor movement pledged hundreds of thousands of dollars towards relief, and AFL-CIO president John Sweeney came to speak at a November rally in Baton Rouge. Individual union locals, such as SEIU-1199 Ohio pledged money to radical organizations like the People’s Hurricane Fund. Union organizers and activists came down to struggle with grassroots groups. Louisiana unions co-founded New Opportunities for Action and Hope (NOAH), a coalition to fight legislatively for justice in reconstruction. But the movement as a whole seemed unaware of the potential of this struggle; with the financial and political support of the labor movement, progressive organizers in New Orleans could create a union city deep in the traditionally non-union south. But, so far, labor has remained mostly on the sidelines.

    Latino Health Outreach Project (L-HOP) – As thousands of Latino day laborers arrived in New Orleans, they were welcomed by hostile and racist local politicians and radio personalities, exploitative employers, and a city little to no infrastructure geared towards Spanish-speaking immigrants. Started with no funding or institutional support by a handful of medical volunteers and activists affiliated with Common Ground, L-HOP immediately began to fill the gap, providing medical services, legal support and organizing resources.

    Loyola Law Clinic - Staffed by student volunteers and progressive lawyers, such as Loyola Law professor and clinic director Bill Quigley, the Loyola Law Clinic has been a vital force in the legal struggles around the city of New Orleans, most notably working with the Grassroots Legal Network and winning a court order stopping evictions of absent tenants for 45 days, and another court order halting demolitions in the lower ninth ward.

    Mardi Gras Krewes - The white Krewes of Rex and Momus are seen as the unofficial, backroom leadership of New Orleans. A central moment of Mardi Gras occurs when the Kings of Rex and Momus greet each other. According to The Wall Street Journal, the leadership of these Krewe’s remained uptown during the flooding of New Orleans, with a heliport and Israeli security team, planning their vision of the corporate reconstruction of the city.

    Mayor C. Ray Nagin - A former corporate executive elected with 40% of the Black vote and 80% of the white vote, Nagin has placed himself firmly on the side of developers and corporations. His “blue-ribbon commission” on rebuilding New Orleans is weighted with corporate executives and has only one community leader.

    Military - The Pentagon has requested $6.6 billion dollars for hurricane reconstruction; $2 billion of that is a direct corporate payout to defense contractor Northrup Grumman who operates a Southern Louisiana shipyard. The rest is to pay for National Guard reservists and repairs to nearby military bases. The Navy said it will later ask for an additional $800 million for Northrup. During the days after the storm while the people of New Orleans were at their most desperate, the military sent recruiters into the shelters. National guard troops patrolled the city for months, bringing little in the way of real relief. Bush has proposed giving the military a bigger role in future disasters.

    New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (NO-HEAT) - A housing justice coalition including members of Common Ground, People’s Hurricane Fund and New Orleans antiwar group C3, NO-HEAT is “dedicated to resisting the mass evictions of poor and working class people in New Orleans and fighting the illegal dismantling of public housing. It will mobilize to aid fellow residents whose housing is being threatened. NO-HEAT will use legal strategies, protest, direct action, and petition of the government to fight individual battles for housing and to wage war on the policies that are being designed to rebuild New Orleans as a ‘sanitized’ and pale imitation of itself.” NO-HEAT has already won important victories for tenants, and has potential to be a vital organization in the fight for justice in New Orleans.

    Pres Kabacoff - A major power broker in New Orleans, real estate developer Pres Kabacoff sits on Mayor Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back Commission. NPR and other corporate media portrayed him as a liberal visionary out to create a Paris on the Mississippi. The truth is that Kabacoff represents the worst of New Orleans' local disaster profiteers. It is Kabacoff who, in 2001, famously demolished affordable housing in the St. Thomas projects in New Orleans' Lower Garden District and replaced it with luxury condos and a Wal-Mart. "New Orleans has never recovered from what Kabacoff did," says one housing activist. "It was a classic bait and switch. He told the city he was going to revitalize the area, and ended up changing the rules in the middle of the game and holding the city for ransom. He made a ton of money, the rich got more housing, and the poor got dispersed around the city." This year, Kabacoff has had his eyes on razing the Iberville housing projects, a site of low-income housing near the French Quarter. While Iberville residents were in their homes, they were able to fight Kabacoff's plans. Now that many are still gone, their homes (which were not flooded) are in serious danger from Kabacoff and other developers seeking to take advantage of this tragedy to "remake the city."

    Red Cross - In the weeks after Katrina, Red Cross raised hundreds of millions of dollars in donations from around the world. However, slow response time and widespread reports of racism and discrimination in Red Cross shelters have damaged Red Cross’ reputation. According to Jodie Escobedo, a doctor from California who volunteered in the Baton Rouge shelters, “Red Cross personnel...have managed to get themselves into positions of power where their prejudices result in the hoarding of supplies, vilification of the needy and substandard treatment of volunteers and refugees alike... At the River Center Shelter, the Red Cross hoarded hygiene supplies and basic necessities on a giant loading dock while kids could not go to school because they had no pants or shoes, babies drank from dirty baby bottles, people slept on the floor and donated clothes sat inaccessible.” In the first days after the hurricane, while people were suffering inside the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center, Red Cross was nowhere to be found – they were under orders from FEMA to not provide relief to people in the city, so people would be encouraged to leave.

    Urban Land Institute - Brought in to advise the Mayor’s Bring Back New Orleans Commission, the Urban Land Institute (ULI) immediately drew criticism from New Orleans residents. One New Orleans activist calls ULI a “pro-profit think-tank for the real estate industry.” According to their website, “ULI members control, own or enhance the value of more than 80% of the US commercial property market.” With the release of their report in mid-November, including recommendations to leave vast, mostly poor areas of the city undeveloped, they gave their stamp of approval to a vision of New Orleans rebuilt for corporations and developers first.