Post-Katrina conference at UCLA: Experts say Katrina not over

CC Campbell-Rock
Date Published: 
November 16, 2005

More than 30 justice advocates, legal experts and community organizers met this week at UCLA Law School to discuss the sociopolitical impact of Hurricane Katrina and to come up with strategies to address the underlying causes of the shameful treatment of Katrina refugees and of some Californians, too.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger clearly did not pI out the welcome mat for victims 0: the greatest disaster in American history, Out mat won't stop more than 14,000 Katrina refugees from seeking higher ground in California. According to the Governor's Office of Emergency Services, nearly 6,000 in Los Angeles, 1,490 in San Diego, 1,074 in Alameda County, and several hundred others are spread out across the state.

"Katrina refocused attention on racial inequality, and now is the time to make effective changes. Virtually every problem and process revealed in the sociopolitical dimensions of the Katrina catastrophe is also present in southern California," said Cheryl Harris, the UCLA law professor who spearheaded the conference, called "Hurricane Katrina: From the Gulf Coast to the West Coast - A Cross Regional Consultation. "

"Race, poverty, environmental hazards, labor law and low wage workers, immigration, public benefits, criminal justice, education, Native nations, housing and community economic development are all implicated in the crisis in the Gulf Coast and in this region," Harris added.

She accused politicians, including President George Bush, of looking the other way while Americans drowned, died and lost everything they owned. "Why were people left to die? Who is accountable?"

Harris sees parallels in the way Black New Orleanians were treated and the treatment of Blacks in Southern California. "The same companies that have contracts for magnitude of the wrongs done and rebuilding New Orleans are the same companies that have contracts to make sure homeless people do not interfere with economic development. There are many parallels and many differences, but they're all motivated by money."

Harris urged audience members not to let the losses go unrecognized and unaddressed. "Katrina is not over. The same malfunctions that caused the suffering are the same here."

Patty Ferguson, a first nation activist, spoke of the damage Katrina wreaked on her 660-member Point-au-Chene tribe. Her relatives in neighboring St. Bernard Parish were told "No" by FEMA, when they asked for trailers after Hurricane Rita.

Many had long ago left Point-au-Chene because the wetlands, which once protected them from floods, continued to vanish. They got about 9 feet of water in their homes, even though Rita was 180 miles away.

"Point-au-Chene is deteriorating because oil companies continue to exploit the land. They are not interested in us. We're only 660 Indians."

Ferguson added that while levees are set to be completed in 2020 in the community next to them, "They're whites and they will have levees, but we don't have a levee," nor are any planned for the nation side of Point-au-Chene.

Heart-wrenching accounts of personal devastation were given by the Gulf Coast panelists, who, in spite of being upper-middle class, were not immune from the catastrophe.

"I'm learning a lot about trust and faith," said Wendy Scott, a university professor. "Those who believe in a higher being will recognize this disaster as a revelation - from an act of God to the failure of men. What is revealed is the failure to deal with the social and economic conditions in New Orleans." Scott and her minister husband lost their church and their home. They plan to return to New Orleans in January, when, she said, the real work begins.

"New Orleans is a unique place. The intangibles make it a good place to live. It is very spiritual, and the music and food makes it very attractive. But the materialism, racism and class divisions makes it a bad place to live.

"Slavery still matters in New Orleans. It still influences the social and political. Crime, poverty, education (or the lack thereof), incarceration of young Black men are the tangibles that make the city undesirable. Blacks are at the bottom, holding up a small middle class and the remnants of the Southern aristocracy.

"There are some people who will still stand in our face and say racism had nothing to do with the evacuation of Blacks." Scott added that media reports of whites being evacuated from St. Bernard and Jefferson Parishes can't be used to say racism doesn't exist.

"Black people built the Ninth Ward; it belongs to them. And we want it back," she said.
The homelessness of thousands made Martha Kegel's organization, Unity for the Homeless, even more relevant than before Katrina. Unity for the Homeless services now include locating housing for displaced Katrina victims. Kegel said the number of homeless people in New Orleans continued to grow, even before the hurricane.

"This is the result of years of tax cuts to the rich, instead of investments in jobs and housing. Our government funded pork projects instead of fixing levees. This current disaster is the result of Bush appointing cronies to important positions."

Kegel, an attorney who formerly worked for the ACLU, said people fast their lives because local, state and federal bureaucrats failed to do their jobs.
"The head of the city's department of Homeland Security held a predisaster drill in June and planned the use of school buses and city buses should a disaster occur, but the plan was never put into action.

"The feds knew that 120,000 had no way to get out," she continued. "Where were the airplanes, trains and buses?" Kegel said the responsible agencies knew the levees were inadequate but did nothing to address the problem.

"The feds played a huge role in why this happened," added Kegel. "Thousands are missing, and the authorities are just now admitting that many bodies are missing. Not to mention the thousands who were left to die in the Superdome and on the 1-10 or in a cesspool of humane waste. Eleven weeks later, the feds have done nothing."
HUD actually threatened to take away all of Unity's funding, she continued. Because of the massive evacuation, HUD thought the agency wouldn't need the money. HUD apparently didn't count on people moving back to the city.

"We have thousands who need housing now, and others need a place to live before they can return to New Orleans. We need housing with long-term financing for the poor and low income people and people with disabilities," the activist-attorney said.

Affectionately called the "Mayor of Central City," Barbara LacenKeller, a community organizer and director of the Central City Initiative, spoke of the "hidden agenda" of some who don't want Blacks to return to New Orleans. "There is an 'Operation Comeback,' but who do they want to come back?" she asked.

Operation Comeback is actually a private organization of whites, founded by former City Councilmember and right-wing Republican Peggy Wilson, a publicist by trade, whose agenda was and remains the return of whites to New Orleans from suburbia and the wresting of control of the city's body politic from Black leadership.

This would be accomplished by building a white voting bloc that would replace Black elected officials with whites. Since Katrina hit, that dream could well become a reality. Currently, the once predominately Black city is now predominately white.

"Katrina showed the world how unjust and inhumane the United States is to people of color. New Orleans will go down in history as a model for gross injustice,' Lacen~Keller added.

"We lost everything in Katrina. Almost every night I close my eyes and I remember the smells and sights of myoid, raggedy city," said environmental justice professor Beverly Wright, Ph.D., who runs the Deep South Environmental Justice Center at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Wright painted a picture of a New Orleans, a city with a 72 percent African American population, where the mayor, fire chief, police chief and former school board were governed by Blacks. New Orleans, she said, had a relatively large, stable Black middle class and three historically Black colleges and universities.

But for all of the Black political control, the city still remained largely poor and Black. "Our major industry is tourism," the social scientist said, "which provides low wages and low·paying jobs."

"There were several major fights going on" for control over New Orleans before Katrina hit, fueled by racial divisiveness and racism, she explained.

"We were fighting gentrification which came through HUD's Hope VI. We call it Hopeless VI. By destroying the St. Thomas (housing development) and not putting adequate housing back, they distributed Negroes to all the other public housing projects. You don't have to be a genius to figure out what happened next. Crime shot up.

"Then we were fighting the residency requirement which, if abolished, would be like saying, 'Let's bring in more red necks,'" Wright said of efforts by whites to remove the city's residency law that required city workers, especially police officers, to live in New Orleans in order to move up in the ranks. Those who lived outside of the city before the law was enacted were grandfathered in.

"In education, we were fighting the state's efforts to take the public schools away from the elected school board and put the schools in the hands of private interests. My white colleagues failed to understand any of these battles. They would say, about education, for example, 'We just want to give poor black children a good education: And now we're fighting the expansion of charter schools at the expense of educating our children under a board that the people elect. We were fighting and beginning to see a crack in the dam, and then Katrina."

The university professor sent a warning to all who would try to disenfranchise Black New Orleanians and prevent them from returning: "This is the warning we want to give to everyone who thinks we don't want to come back. We are reclaiming our land. At least 500 people are meeting every Monday in Baton Rouge. We will be back," Wright concluded.

The self-described 'poet and troublemaker' Jabiru Hill, an attorney and director of a social justice organization based in Mississippi, gave the audience a reality check on poverty and disfranchisement, saying that the poor and Blacks were abandoned by government long before Katrina.

"Long before Aug. 29, most were never gainfully employed, housed or properly fed. Long before Aug. 29, we witnessed the day to day suffering of children and the masses, which almost always must do without.

"To live in the real world is to understand how the money was distributed," Hill continued.

After Katrina and Rita hit. the Red Cross came in and passed East Biloxi by and went straight to the white enclave of D'Iberville and distributed food, healthcare and other goods and services.

Hill said the injustice of the Red Cross acts could be clearly seen in the disparities of the distribution points. "The Red Cross took up residence in a rundown, ramshackle building in East Biloxi, where poor Blacks live. In D'Iberville, the Red Cross building was pristine. There, the agency provided mobile healthcare and food. D'Iberville is where whites live, where development begins."

"The debris still has not been moved from East Biloxi. The insurance man will not go in to bring you the denial letter in his pocket, because the decisions were made without you (Black homeowners). What is going on in East Biloxi is land snatching by raiding developers who have seized the opportunity to gentrify Black communities.

"We had to be there to see the Red Cross staff call the police on immigrants.

"We are witnessing the ethnic cleansing of 2005. We have been betrayed by those who canvassed our neighborhoods and made promises to get elected, then did nothing."

Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, an internationally recognized human and civil rights attorney, shared the realities of a city trying to rebound from a disaster, whose magnitude has yet to

be fully recognized. .

"There is still no electricity in 50 percent of homes. There are 5001,000 evictions in the courts. More New Orleanians live in Houston than in New Orleans, and 510,000 homes are damaged, whose owners had no flood insurance.

"The people of New Orleans don't want charity; they want solidarity," Quigley said. "If you've come to help me, you're wasting your time, but if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then you're welcomed," he told those who may want to volunteer in relief efforts.

Quigley said that in order to help New Orleans, people must first be re-educated about what occurred. "I was on the inside of a hospital with no food, no computers, no electricity and 8 feet of water," he said. Quigley's wife, Debbie, is a registered nurse who refused to leave her patients. So Quigley stayed with her to help, also.

"The media focused on negatives. There were stories about people shooting at rescue workers and destroying buildings. We heard people shooting guns. People were breaking windows. But they were shooting guns in the air, to get the attention of the rescuers. People were breaking windows to get air. People were looting, but they were trying to get food, water and other means of survival. So we must first be re-educated to the reality of what people had to do to save their own lives."

Quigley spoke directly to the law school students present when he said, "Nobody does social justice alone. Liberation is a give and take. I'm not giving away my heart; I'm finding the way to justice and love.

"Liberation theory says you must flip the world and look from the bottom up. I've been to Haiti 13 times. The world looks different from the bottom up. I was trying to make Haiti like New Orleans. Now New Orleans looks like Haiti. We say human rights are important, but we act as if property rights are the most important of all. Remember, not charity but solidarity."

Community organizer Curtis Muhammad, the director of the New Orleans-based Community Labor United, a founding member of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund & Oversight Committee and a founding member of SNCC, said, "It's hard to believe that there was a unanimous decision between local, state and federal governments to kill Black people. We've never had a unanimous agreement, not through slavery, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Movement.

"If we had a million dollars and asked you to go and prosecute Bush and the others for murder, you would do it. But we ain't got no money," he told the law students. "So we're hiring you pro-bono."

Muhammad told the story of the 1927 flood in New Orleans and recommended that everyone read the book, "The Rising Tide." "New Orleans is 13 feet before sea level," he continued. "We live in a bowl."

"Nobody told us about that. We learned only 40 years later that five members of the Boston Club (an elite group of white business owners) decided to break the levees to spare the white community of flooding, when threatened by a major hurricane."

"Katrina didn't do this to us. Katrina went the other way. Katrina was 70 miles up the road, when the levees broke. Katrina didn't break those levees," Muhammad explained. He blamed government officials who didn't heed the warnings of the national director of the weather service for allowing thousands to die.

"Even with that information, they locked down 100,000 people (in the Superdome and Convention Center and their homes). There were no trains, no planes and no buses. Day 1, the water poured in. Day 3, emergency vehicles came to get people who weren't Brack and poor. They came in the shelters to get white folks.

"Day four, we said we were going to leave, and the police and National Guard said to get back. I would love to indict Bush for murder. We're hiring y'all as our lawyers. We charge genocide. We want you to do the research and prove it," Muhammad told students.


CC Campbell-Rock is a native New Orleanian, veteran journalist and Katrina evacuee. She is currently living in northern California. Email her at campbellrock2003 [at] yahoo [dot] com.