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Workers Vanguard No. 877

29 September 2006

New Orleans Racist Atrocity—One Year After

Race, Class and the Fight for a Workers America

Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

We print below two presentations, edited for publication, given at a New York Spartacist League forum held September 16. The talks are by guest speaker Ruth, a New Orleans resident who was working as a nurse at the time of Hurricane Katrina, and Barry James, a longtime cadre of the Spartacist League.

Ruth: New Orleans and New York have both just passed anniversaries of our respective urban tragedies and lives lost. There was a ton of books, movies, documentaries out, including Spike Lee’s, on New Orleans. I read and watched as many of them as I could stand to. They were all very good in conveying the visuals and the voices of the tragedy in New Orleans.

One thing that was missing completely, or was only touched on, I would like to drive home. You might have had the impression that the Feds were dithering and doing nothing for those four days that the people were on the rooftops. The Feds were not “dithering.” Well, maybe Bush and Brown were dithering. The Army was cordoning off New Orleans. The National Guard, the cops—every level of law enforcement that wasn’t themselves deserting or out looting—was putting up a blockade around the city.

It seems the first thing they teach in Law Enforcement 101 is to get control of the situation. This means preventing civilians from rescuing anybody. So people should die rather than be rescued by civilians. If you remember the Oakland, California, pancaking of the expressway many years ago by an earthquake, the people from the neighborhood, being human beings, who are just naturally inclined to help others in distress, came out and began pulling people out of cars. The first thing the cops did when they got there was to put a stop to this. The same thing that happened in New Orleans.

What happened was that the press, which I like to call the prostitute press, had repeated and spread these lies that New Orleans had broken down into chaos after the storm, that looters and killers were out raping women and children, slitting throats, murdering, pillaging, shooting down helicopters that were there to help them, breaking into hospitals for drugs. You didn’t have to ask what color these supposed rapists and killers were. It was assumed they were black. Nobody had to confirm if in fact any of this was actually going on. It became the reason for not going to the rescue: “You can’t go in there to rescue people, they’re just a bunch of murderers and rapists.”

After it was all over and these were all found to be vicious, racist, murderous lies, nobody stepped up and took it back. Nobody retracted it. Everybody just went on about his way. There’s a black Democratic mayor, Ray Nagin, and his police chief, who had assisted in spreading this panic. After the fact, the mayor fired the police chief for making him look so bad by spreading these stories. Another reason for the firing was the police chief was apparently bent on prosecuting or pursuing the police who had done a massive amount of looting.

One of the more notorious examples was that they emptied Sewell Cadillac of every last Cadillac, and also the vintage Corvette collection. When we got back to town in October there were still cops driving around in these Cadillacs. And this issue has been so thoroughly whitewashed, there had to have been very high-level people involved, because it’s been completely laid to rest. And now Sewell Cadillac makes a joke about it. They have billboards around town advertising their Cadillacs that say: “Driven by New Orleans’ Finest.” I’m not kidding. I couldn’t make this stuff up.

And by the way, the looting trials have come up. They’re handing out 12- to 15-year sentences to looters. Let me tell you who the “looters” were. The 20,000 people you saw sweltering in the Convention Center, the reason they didn’t die of thirst in the three, four, five days they were standing there was, the way one person put it, “because of the young people with their cars.” “Young people with their cars” went off to the Wal-Mart, competed with the local police forces for the goods and brought back water to the people who were waiting. Those were the “looters.” Obviously there were a few people running around with televisions; nothing on the order of what the cops did.

FEMA, Cops Block Rescue Efforts

Back to the blockade. As soon as the hurricane hit, from all over the country came armadas, caravans, flotillas, people to the rescue. People towing boats, private helicopter companies, medical mobile vans, crews of doctors, crews of nurses, fleets of ambulances, ice trucks, Red Cross vehicles, food, water, blankets, cots. Humane Society people with vans full of cages. More than you can imagine, pouring in from all over the country. Stopped at the border. Not allowed to get in.

When one of the Memorial Hospital physicians managed to get out after his horrific few days in the hospital, bringing some patients out with him, he found on the causeway fleets of ambulances lined up, just sitting there. And he says, “What are you doing here?” “We’re here to rescue patients.” “How long have you been here?” “Three days.” The Feds wouldn’t let them in.

Methodist Hospital in New Orleans East—a primarily, maybe 90 percent black area—is part of a nationwide chain of for-profit hospitals. The nationwide chain sent in helicopters, sent in buses to evacuate their patients. FEMA confiscated the helicopters. Ochsner Hospital had its own helicopter and was making plans to get their sickest patients out by helicopter. FEMA confiscated their helicopter. Methodist Hospital went out and got another fleet of helicopters after their first ones were stolen by the Feds, and managed this time to evade them. (The first time they didn’t understand that they had to evade them to get into town.) And they evacuated their own patients.

So the Feds weren’t just “dithering.” They weren’t doing nothing. They were doing something. They were doing what they do.

Things were pretty chaotic, and as it turned out there was a way into the city—across the causeway and down River Road to uptown New Orleans. That is the way that the few rescuers who did get in managed to make it, along with Sean Penn the movie star, the Wal-Mart trucks, the television crews, news cameras and the subsequent footage that wound up turning the tide when the rest of the world saw the plight that people were in.

Memorial Hospital, owned by Tenet Corporation, is the hospital uptown where a doctor and two nurses have been arrested for murder. I get questions about this. A lot of patients died at Memorial Hospital, and they were indeed killed. Not by their heroic caregivers—killed by the Feds. Killed by the bourgeois state. A recent series in the New Orleans Times-Picayune interviews a bunch of the people who stayed throughout, and the stories they tell are hair-raising. There was a fellow whose mother was a patient. He had hired a sitter to stay with her, he was evacuating. “You stay with her, hell or high water.” The last cell-phone message the sitter got out to the son was, “Come and get us, people are dying, the nurses are scared, help us.”

So this guy, who’s just an ordinary guy, manages to join up on the causeway with a flotilla of other average, ordinary guys who came with their boats of every description—you name it, rowboats, canoes, motorboats, yachts. He told them what he knew about his mother and Memorial Hospital. They teamed up and they managed to get through and begin evacuating people from two points at Memorial Hospital, the front door and the back door.

Before long, the cops—I use this generically, a lot of the law enforcement agencies were working together, borrowing each others’ forces—came to the front door and spoke to the doctor in charge and said, “You have to shut down this rescue operation. The sun is going down, it’s getting dark, and we can’t guarantee your safety.” “We can’t guarantee your safety”! The doctor tells the story: “I stood at the front door and I talked to the cops and I agreed with them and I engaged them and we went on in a long conversation, while quietly out the back door the rescue operation continued.” Five hundred people were evacuated from that hospital by private means, private citizens. By the time the Feds finally came in there was a very small number left to be rescued. That’s a private hospital.

Charity Hospital, downtown, didn’t have any rescuers coming. They were farther into the city, and nobody was there but poor black patients without means. The doctor in charge there—his name was Ben Deboisblanc, a good New Orleans name—told the story. Patients were dying after the power failure, as they were at Memorial. Temperatures outside were 95 degrees, inside the building they were easily 105. He had one unreliable telephone line out and a battery-powered radio that worked some of the time. That was it for contact with the outside world. At one point he heard over his radio, “Charity Hospital has been evacuated.” The staff were crushed. They thought, “Oh my god, they think we’re evacuated, they’re never going to come for us.”

So they managed to get hold of some national news organization and explained their plight: “We’re here, nobody’s rescuing us.” This national news organization lines up a private helicopter company to go to Charity Hospital. They never made it. We can only assume they met the same fate as the other helicopters that were sent in. So the staff at Charity had to evacuate their patients in anything that would float, across the street, one by one to Tulane Hospital, up to their roof to wait for rescue. More people died on the roof.

Yet another physician was interviewed by the Discovery Channel. He’d been at the Superdome and he’d been at the Convention Center, treating patients as best as he could, having no water, no food, no medications, no supplies. He was asked by the interviewer, “Did you treat or see any gunshot wounds?” “No.” “Any stabbings?” “No.” “Any trauma of any kind?” “No.” I think you remember the stories. There was one suicide, some people died in their wheelchairs. But basically the hysteria was nothing but hysteria.

When the National Guard finally came—this would have been Friday or Saturday, after the hurricane hit on Monday—they finally came to save the people at the Convention Center. What is the first thing that they did? Well, what is the first thing that you would do if you were a bourgeois state going to save people who’ve not had water or food, who are dying in their wheelchairs? Well, of course, you would search them for weapons. They searched 19,000 people at the Convention Center and came up with 16 weapons. At the Superdome, they searched 39,000 people and confiscated 50 weapons. Can you imagine the time it took to search those people? Shaking them down?

The tide was turned when the national news coverage embarrassed the bourgeois state into doing something.

Rulers to Black People: Stay Out

I’d like to fast-forward to the present time to make the one other point that I would like to drive home, about the recovery. A lot of people have asked me, why are you rebuilding? I’ve got this T-shirt I made up, “We’re Rebuilding and Don’t Try to Stop Us.” A lot of people and forces and entities are trying to stop us.

I wrote several letters to Workers Vanguard over the past year about the extraordinary, naked lengths to which the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois forces have gone to keep black people from returning. This was an unprecedented situation. It’s never happened before that a modern city got completely evacuated. There was nobody there but law enforcement. At this moment, a light bulb went on over the head of the bourgeoisie. Rubbing its hands, it said, “Oh boy, this is our chance. We can keep the black people from coming back.” “Black people/criminals”—all the same in their minds.

Well, I’m happy to report a year later that these forces have lost some ground. By hook and by crook and willy-nilly, people have come back. Over half the population is back, and a lot more are nearby, poised to come home. People love New Orleans. You know how people love New York, you can’t get them to live anywhere else? They just love New York? Well, New Orleans is another city like that.

So there are people living, like in my neighborhood, where there’s a bunch of FEMA trailers that are not hooked up to electricity. There are people staying with their brother in St. Charles Parish, they’re staying with their cousin in Slidell, they’re staying on the West Bank with friends, they’re staying part-time in their FEMA trailer and part-time somewhere else. They’re nearby, they voted in the April election. They want to find a way home, so they’re positioning themselves to come back.

The position of the racist powers that be originally was, “Okay, we don’t want anything repopulated” in New Orleans East, Gentilly, Mid-City, Central City, certainly the Ninth Ward, Gert Town—all but basically the unflooded and wealthy 20 percent along the river. “We don’t want any of it repopulated, it’s too low. Take it for a given that we’re not going to fix the canal walls.” And that was the line they drew and where they wanted it. Nagin, the mayor, is kind of a weather vane. He blows whichever way the weather is, but basically, he’ll tell you, he’s the candidate of capital. He dithered, and the dithering was to the benefit of people like me. It was a big struggle but we finally got electricity—took us five months. It took us ten months and we finally got mail.

But now, I think the bottom line is, the ruling class has kind of drawn a line, saying, “Okay, those people are already here, we can’t stop them, they’re already rebuilding, they’re grandfathered in, they got their apartments. But we’re really drawing the line in these few places: people are not coming back to the projects, people are not coming back to the Ninth Ward, and we are not rebuilding Charity Hospital.” So that’s their line in the sand that they have drawn, and they are going to fight to the death—not their own death, somebody else’s death. So, the line has moved.

The Ninth Ward

I’ve got to say something about the Ninth Ward, because people do ask me, “Well, isn’t it just going to flood again?” Well, why should it? Fix the canal walls! An article in Time magazine [28 August] that criticizes New Orleanians for not getting their act together and conforming to the “smaller footprint” that is being dictated, says, “91% of Americans live in places at a moderate-to-high risk of earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, high-winds damage or terrorism, according to an estimate calculated for Time by the Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.”

Sure, New Orleans is below or at sea level. All the ports in the world are—that’s why they are built there [laughter]. But who is it who just decided, “We’re not going to let people back in New Orleans”? The urban planners are furious that the rebuilding is going on willy-nilly and that their plans have not been put into effect yet. Here’s Time magazine: “Worst of all, Mayor Ray Nagin and the city council are still not talking honestly about the fact that New Orleans will have to occupy a much smaller footprint in the future. It simply can’t provide city services across its old boundaries, and its old boundaries cannot realistically be defended against a major storm anytime soon.” Who accepts this? Who decided this?

Everybody except the black people in the Ninth Ward, and a few others of us, accepts that “you can’t rebuild the Ninth Ward.” Nobody is saying that you can’t rebuild Lakeview. Lakeview was flooded just as badly as the Ninth Ward, just as deep, washed away just as many homes. But there’s a few differences. Everybody’s kids in Lakeview are in private schools, they’ve got money. The Ninth Ward is the working poor. They are two-thirds of the workers at Harrah’s Casino, which has benefits. They are the dock workers, they are the schoolteachers, they are the bus drivers, they are the chefs, the cooks, the musicians.

But they’re poor—they’re the working poor. But here’s the interesting point: the Ninth Ward has a higher elevation than Lakeview. More of its houses are already built up on piers. People who have been to New Orleans have seen these shotgun houses built up on piers because of historic flooding. The Ninth Ward has a higher rate of home ownership and a higher rate of home insurance. The difference is, Lakeview is 99-point-something percent white, and the Ninth Ward is 99-point-something percent black. So, for all the forces like Nagin, etc. who say that this is not a race issue—you do the math. Charity Hospital clientele is overwhelmingly black. Projects, maybe 98 percent black. Bus ridership is being slashed. Who rides the buses? Ninety-five percent black.

The Ninth Ward is the only place that has been totally denied electricity and, for the most part, water. So they can’t even gut and rebuild. They’re just totally denied the means to do so. So that’s the Ninth Ward that “everybody” agrees—everybody in the bourgeoisie agrees—should not be rebuilt.

Crony Capitalism

The Democratic and Republican politicians have had the same program on this. They’re behind the Louisiana Recovery Authority and the “Bring New Orleans Back Commission,” which are holding up the billions of dollars of aid that were voted finally by Congress. Congressional trips come down and say, “What happened to all the billions of dollars we sent you? We still see miles of devastation.” Well, the money is in the hands of FEMA. And it’s now in the hands of the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and their conditions for releasing it to the homeowners and the people who want to rebuild is, “You have to come up with a plan.” Each and every neighborhood has to come up with a plan that is acceptable to the Louisiana Recovery Authority. And urban planning basically means, “What part of your territory do you agree will not be repopulated?” That is the question, the condition and the premise of the urban plan.

The head of the Louisiana Recovery Authority is Norman Francis. I think he’s a Democrat. He’s president of Xavier University and the black cover for all of this. Some of the Spartacist comrades were in the room at an NAACP meeting in New Orleans not long ago where Norman Francis got up and said, “You can’t just be handing out this money willy-nilly to these people.” And people were getting up from the audience saying, “Well, wait a minute—you’re putting up way too many obstacles. Have you tried to go through the application process to get this money? Do you know how hard it is?” And Norman Francis stood there and told them, “You can’t just be giving it out—if you went to a bank and you wanted a lot of money, you wouldn’t expect to get all that money without a lot of paperwork, now would you?”

Bush came to town shortly thereafter. And Norman Francis got a private audience with him. This is Norman Francis’s account: “We’ve got to quicken up the pace on the money, but I told the president directly, that if we’re putting $10.2 billion out on the street, then we’d better make sure we do it right. There are plenty of hustlers out there that will be ready to take it” [Times-Picayune, 29 August]. This is a variation on an old theme. Remember when welfare recipients were given coupons and food stamps, because “if you give them cash, they’ll go out and spend it on liquor and fast cars and lottery tickets. So you can’t just be handing money out to people.”

Well, where is the money going? They already handed out the money in Mississippi. Louisianans are saying, “How come we can’t have ours?” It went to Northrop Grumman, it went to Belfor, it went to Halliburton’s sub-sub-sub-sub-subcontractors who, by the way, disappear on payday when the Mexican and migrant workers show up for their pay. So that money’s already been passed out.

The Spartacist League has been coming down, talking to people. Barry interviewed the longshoreman, if you remember the article in Workers Vanguard [No. 868, 12 April]. The longshoremen who rescued people by boat also told the story of having to duck and hide from the cops who were trying to prevent him from doing so. The comrades have been going to the hiring halls, have been getting out on the campuses and selling Workers Vanguard, putting out the only program, putting out the only words that are correctly characterizing this situation and calling it what it is: a racist atrocity. And the SL is the only group putting forward a program that would make any difference and have the chance to change this situation. Because band-aids aren’t going to work. Democrats and Republicans—not a dime’s worth of difference. So thanks to the Spartacist League for making it an issue, not only in New Orleans, but everywhere else. This word has to be spread all over the place. And the SL is doing it.

Break with the Democrats! For a Revolutionary Workers Party!

Barry James, Spartacist League: The continuing racist atrocity that is New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina exposes the naked class- and race-hatred of the American ruling class for the working class and dispossessed. It is truly repugnant that Bush, one year later, could return to New Orleans and call for the return of “soul” and for the “saints to come marching back,” along with his tone-deaf nostalgia, to once again sit on the racist patrician Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s porch and look out over the Gulf. Not for nothing did Nina Simone sing and rage against the Jim Crow South—“Mississippi Goddam”! If Katrina has removed the fig leaf of Bush’s last shred of credibility, it’s the task of the revolutionary Marxists of the Spartacist League to place the blame no less squarely on the Democratic Party and the capitalist system itself.

Nothing that happened then or since was an accident or acts of some isolated criminals, though criminals they are. The forced displacement and dispersal of black New Orleanians must be reversed. In many cases, the displaced do not have the means to return. There are no jobs, no housing, no schools and no health care. By every measure—police brutality, incarceration rates, education, hospital care—New Orleans before the storm was a place of brutal exploitation and oppression, worse statistically but not dissimilar to other American cities with large black populations.

We place no faith in illusory appeals to the capitalist state or any capitalist party to change the priorities of the capitalist system. An urgent necessity is a class-conscious and combative labor movement. Such a movement requires the ouster of the pro-Democratic Party labor tops. The reality of black oppression will not change short of proletarian socialist revolution. We are for black liberation through socialist revolution and a socialist planned economy.

The response to Katrina by the government at all levels was profoundly racist and anti-working-class. To the extent working-class and poor whites got the shaft—and they did—it only underscores that attacks on the working class are wrapped in the envelope of raw racism. This is how this racist ruling class treats what it deems a surplus population. It was not an idle rant of a neocon when a Louisiana Congressman said that Katrina and God had done what the New Orleans ruling elite could not: drive out the residents of New Orleans housing projects.

Business and real estate interests and politicians of both parties saw in Katrina an opportunity to shrink the city to an adult Disneyland on the Mississippi. The government’s deadly delay and downright obstruction in assisting the victims of the hurricane is in stark contrast to the speed with which the crony capitalist looters of Iraq infamy have swooped in to extract massive profits in New Orleans. And the black Democratic political layer in New Orleans, very often drawn from the Creoles, are widely viewed as the junior partners of New Orleans business interests and in full accord with the plan to push out poor black people. Our job is to fan the flames of class hatred and sear into the consciousness of the working class the horrific magnitude of racist oppression and the desperate necessity for class struggle against capitalism and its ultimate overthrow.

Here’s what a black longshoreman involved in rescue work in the immediate aftermath told me. He said rescuers in helicopters were “passing over the poor, black people that they left stranded on rooftops, in attics, on streets.... It was common citizens who did the right thing. They commandeered some boats, went out there and started gallantly and frantically rescuing people.” He added, “At the time of a tragedy, there was segregation.... ‘All for one and one for all’? That didn’t exist here” [see “We All Gave, but We Received Nothing,” WV No. 868, 14 April].

Recall the two pictures, virtually the same yet with distinctly different captions. In one instance, a black person is supposedly “looting”; in the other, a white is availing himself of life’s necessities in harsh conditions. When I asked this longshoreman about media reports of looting, here’s what he told me. He said that he spent 24 hours straight rescuing people, seeing floating bodies of babies, children and adults. A producer for the Oprah show sticks a mike in his face and asks him what he’s been doing. Longshoreman: I commandeered some boats to rescue people. Producer: What do you mean commandeered? Longshoreman: I stole them.

FEMA and the federal, city and state governments ignored, created and exacerbated by their prevarication a beyond-desperate situation. For two days, water from broken levees poured into the city before any significant action was taken to stem that tide, while tens of thousands of poor and black people were trapped without any means of escape. Then they blamed the victims, heaping scorn and demonizing an entire population that could not evacuate.

The big players in the white elite are determining how to rebuild the city. These are dominated by real estate interests who are widely viewed as having decisive influence over Mayor Ray Nagin, who was re-elected with the white vote and supported Bush’s election in 2000. One of these real estate investors is James Reiss, the chair of the Regional Transit Authority and responsible for the buses that were not used to evacuate stranded residents. The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was more attentive to animals than any government agencies were to people.

The Prelude and the Storm

It has long been the plan to rid the city of public housing projects and poor residents. The plan is to abandon whole parts of the city and justify it in terms of ecology and science. Low-lying poor neighborhoods, known as the backswamps, would be returned to parks or retention ponds to protect the property holdings of the rich. The view of the ruling elite is that they want the black entertainers but not the black working or plebeian class.

The whole tack of the “Bring New Orleans Back” commission is to rebuild the city “with better services and fewer poor people.” Because of vocal opposition to the plan that called for a moratorium on rebuilding in certain areas, Nagin initially backed off supporting the proposal. The real estate developers are counting on capitalist market forces—no insurance coverage, racist redlining and refusal to refinance mortgages, aided by new FEMA flood maps—to make the dispersal irreversible. Likewise, the Louisiana Recovery Authority believes that economic factors will shrink the city. Governor [Kathleen Babineaux] Blanco, a Democrat, who’s reflecting the ambient racist hostility of the rest of Louisiana toward New Orleans, has engineered a state takeover of the schools, most of which remain closed. The bulk of the rest have been made into restricted charter schools. Like Bush, she has sponsored tax breaks for the oil companies in the name of economic recovery.

It would be naive not to assume a crass political motive for Washington’s rejection of funds for Louisiana. New Orleans was a black majority, Democratic stronghold that often decided the balance of power in statewide elections. With the dispersal of so much of the black population, Louisiana as a whole might well shift to the Republican column. The attack on black voting rights has been a sustained theme of the Bush administration.

A model for gentrification may be River Garden, a supposed public/private, mixed-income, Clinton-era development, which replaced the demolished St. Thomas housing project. Again, Katrina was a perfect storm to enable the real estate interests to acquire prime real estate near the central business district and adjacent to the French Quarter. On June 14, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans approved a plan to demolish four public housing projects within three years. Of the 49,000 public housing residents before Katrina, only 1,000 are back in New Orleans. Ominously, New Orleans passed an ordinance requiring the gutting, mold remediation and boarding up of houses by August 29. If owners didn’t comply, the city threatened to perform the job and place a lien on the property. Remember that 80 percent of New Orleans, or some 250,000 dwellings, were flooded. In this way the city may accomplish, using eminent domain, what the New Orleans commission wanted to do all along.

Thousands of unionized jobs have been lost with the closure of Charity Hospital, the virtual elimination of the public school system and the gutting of the large United Teachers of New Orleans, and the shrinking of bus routes driven by members of the Amalgamated Transit Union. Katrina has become a pretext for government-supported union-busting. FEMA originated under Jimmy Carter and was planned by Reagan as an agency that would run concentration camps for government-designated “undesirables” in the event of a so-called national emergency. Thus it should come as no surprise that, at a nearly empty FEMA trailer park in Morgan City, residents were prohibited from talking to the press without the presence of a FEMA representative!

If you visited New Orleans today, you’d be struck by how utterly destroyed and without city services whole swaths of the city are. The failure to rebuild, or make it possible for people to rebuild, in this lost year is part of the mechanism by which black people have been kept out of the city. As Douglas Brinkley, author of The Great Deluge [2006], put it: “The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate—the inaction is the action.”

Capitalism is a profit-driven system. From the standpoint of meeting human need, it’s irrational. The Netherlands’ complex of flood-control levees was strengthened in 1953 after a storm killed hundreds. So the technology and pumping systems exist. The racist American ruling class does not have the intention or the will to do it. Contrast this to the tiny Cuban deformed workers state and its meager resources exacerbated by imperialist blockade. Though located in hurricane alley, it manages, through social organization, to spare its population the tribulations visited upon the black population of New Orleans. In the storm’s aftermath, Bush rejected the offer of aid from Cuba—hurricane-hardened medical doctors and rescue teams.

“Doing Katrina Time”

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) National Prison Project has issued a report on the inhuman abuse meted out to prisoners in the hurricane at Orleans Parish Prison (OPP). It is a devastating window on the capitalist system of injustice. The ACLU believes that the prisons can be reformed, even as they demonstrate in this report that all attempts at reform have been rebuffed in practice. This flows from their (and our reformist opponents’) view of the capitalist state as a neutral body that can be pressured to serve the interests of the working class and oppressed. For Marxists, the capitalist state—which at its core consists of the cops, the military, the prison system and the courts—is the instrument for organized violence to ensure the rule of the capitalists over the proletariat. Down through history, it has been shown that the working class cannot reform the bourgeois state and use it in its own interests but must smash it and create its own state.

Before Katrina, the OPP held 6,500 prisoners. In the U.S., a country with the highest national incarceration rate in the world and where 12 percent of all black males in their late 20s are in prison, New Orleans had the highest incarceration rate of any large city. Orleans Parish is almost 67 percent black, but 90 percent of the inmates are black. Sixty percent of the OPP detainees were men and women who were jailed for traffic or parking violations, public drunkenness or failure to pay a fine. Most of the detainees were pre-trial, meaning they had never been convicted of anything. Moreover, at the time of the storm some significant number were enrolled in school, drug or alcohol treatment or GED programs as a condition of probation. Immigrant prisoners who had been rounded up in la migra raids faced the same hellish conditions. One attorney for them said: “It’s easier to visit my clients on death row than it is to visit an INS detainee at Orleans Parish Prison.”

The brutality before the storm in this place was legend. Women shackled during labor, juveniles punched and kicked in the face, mental patients in five-point restraints dying of dehydration. The daily racist brutality and dehumanization generated many lawsuits. Here you have the proper analog for the notorious American-run facility in Iraq, Abu Ghraib.

When the levees broke, the prisoners were put in lockdown and maced for asking to be let out of their cells. Women had to climb to the third level of bunks to escape the water. They had to urinate and defecate over the sides of their beds. Prisoners spent days in toxic waters as the prison guards left them to die. Detainees then opened the jail gates. Some prisoners managed to pound their way out to a rooftop, where they hung a banner: “HELP NO FOOD DYING.” There were three boats to evacuate 7,000 people. Waiting for evacuation, the prisoners were bunched together like cattle and forced to stand in water up to their necks.

When the prisoners finally made it to the I-10 overpass, their ordeal was not over. They were placed in rows and seated back to back. The guards used taser guns on them if they stretched. They were forced to urinate and defecate on their clothes where they sat while SWAT teams called them racist epithets, crackheads, whores and bitches. Juvenile detainees were maced for asking for water in the broiling sun. So hellish were the conditions that some detainees were relieved to arrive at the notorious Angola state prison, a former slave plantation—not so former.

The flooded OPP opened quickly after the storm despite health concerns. The OPP was too profitable an enterprise to be out of commission long. The city of New Orleans was paying the OPP roughly $100,000 per day for housing prisoners. Federal prisoners, including so-called illegal immigrants, are even more profitable and were returned to the prison quickly. The prompt return of the prison population was a source not only of income for the prison but also of prison labor, really akin to the pervasive prison labor system that flourished in the South after Reconstruction. The current sheriff wants to make prisoners available for work ordinarily done by city workers. The prisoners personally receive effectively no wages. Many prisoners await trial to this day for minor offenses. It’s called doing Katrina time.

This penal servitude is both an affront and another threat to labor in the South. The return of the chain gang shows the link between black and labor rights. The need to organize and unionize the South will be a monumental battle. Prisoners are powerless. ILA longshoremen and Avondale shipyard workers are not. Unlocking that power through the fight for a class-struggle opposition to the pro-capitalist labor bureaucrats, advancing the consciousness of the working class, is the task of the revolutionary party. Either the South will be organized through social struggle—which can only be achieved if the labor movement consciously addresses black oppression—or the features of the South will become increasingly dominant across the land.

“End of Racism” Mythology

Katrina’s aftermath did not generate massive nationwide social protest at all, and certainly not the necessary protest by the labor movement, due to the accommodation of its leadership to the racist, capitalist status quo. Even as Katrina exposed the realities of race and class and their inevitable intertwining in capitalist America, there is in the air the so-called “end of racism” ideology that seeks to blunt the hard truth of racist oppression. In a CNN poll after the hurricane, only 12 percent of whites thought race was a factor in the government’s virtually nonexistent response in the immediate aftermath of Katrina. Five times that many blacks thought race was decisive. This split reflects a similar gulf in consciousness evident after the O.J. Simpson verdict in 1995.

Mayor Nagin can be heard on the radio fulminating that the mistreatment by the government was due to being poor, not to being black. This is also the line of the NAACP, one of whose youthful supporters told us that racism was not the main issue, class was. While Nagin is simply toeing the line out of Washington, there clearly is an adaptation to it from mainstream black organizations, local politicians and ostensible leftists. The question of class is fundamental in capitalist America; this is not in contradiction to the centrality of black oppression to American capitalism.

At a New Orleans AFL-CIO Labor Day picnic, on the other hand, we found that black workers were more clear-eyed and vocal about the treatment meted out to black New Orleanians. This may be because not a few of them spent days on the roofs of their flooded homes waiting to be rescued. One black longshoreman told us, “They wouldn’t have done this to any other city.” In fact, the attacks on the working class and the population as a whole are presaged and “justified” by the gutting of advances and the diminution of the rights of black people.

The demise of the Soviet Union has spawned bourgeois triumphalism. The destruction of the USSR was a historic defeat for the proletariat that has thrown back consciousness and allowed the imperialist bourgeoisies to step up attacks domestically and internationally. The pernicious false consciousness that the “playing field has been leveled” must be combatted at every turn.

It’s a sign of the times that we are obliged to make the case for the strategic centrality of the black question in the struggle for workers revolution in this country. One measure of how bad things are in America is that former President Clinton was dubbed the first black president, though he had ostentatiously returned to Little Rock during his 1992 campaign to oversee the execution of a brain-damaged black man and proudly ended “welfare as we know it.” The rise of a mealy-mouthed black Democratic politician, Barack Obama, is seen to be representative of a “color-blind” America.

This so-called end of racism is related to and intimately linked to the bourgeois triumphalism attendant on the demise of the Soviet Union that was supposed to mean the “end of history” and the “death of communism.” This points to the relationship between black oppression and the Russian question. Put another way, the achievement of substantial legal equality for black people, beginning after World War II, was also heavily motivated by U.S. imperialism’s felt need to look good internationally—not least in its competition with the Soviet Union in the Third World.

The civil rights movement represented a major social upheaval which broke up the reactionary Cold War consensus. Struggles against women’s oppression and anti-gay bigotry were able to exploit openings created by the civil rights movement, which broke the back of Jim Crow in the American South. The civil rights struggles fed burgeoning protest against the Vietnam War and opened the door to some significant labor struggles in the U.S. The civil rights movement is not a distant, remote factor. Not least, today’s “culture wars” are being fought against some holdovers from this period. And the ruling class is intent on reversing the gains of the civil rights movement, however minimal they may be now, to widen and deepen the wedge of attack against the working class.

Black and Red

America’s rulers foster racial divisions in the North and South in order to obscure the divisions between the classes that are fundamental to capitalist society and to head off united working-class struggle. The special oppression of black people as a race-color caste is a cornerstone of American capitalism. The mass of the black population is kept at the bottom of this capitalist society. At the same time, doubly oppressed black workers form a strategic component of the American proletariat. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will play a leading role in the struggle to emancipate the black masses and all working people by sweeping away the entire system of capitalist exploitation.

We fight for revolutionary integration. We understand that the struggle for integration of black people into American society on the basis of full economic, social and political equality can only be realized through a proletarian revolution that uproots the capitalist system and ushers in an egalitarian socialist society.

We seek to mobilize the labor movement to fight every manifestation of racist rollback without defending the miserable status quo. We fight for open admissions and free higher education for all. We demand a massive public works program in New Orleans at union wages with union protection. We fight for quality integrated housing and schools and for free, quality health care for all.

When the civil rights movement swept into the North, the bankruptcy of the liberal perspective of its leaders was quickly revealed as it collided head on with the cold, hard realities of American capitalism. The pro-Democratic Party pressure politics of the civil rights leaders meant inevitably an acceptance of the terms of oppression. As we said in one of our founding documents [“Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966)]:

“The vast majority of black people—both North and South—are today workers who, along with the rest of the American working class, must sell their labor power in order to secure the necessities of life to those who buy labor power in order to make a profit…. Ultimately their road to freedom lies only through struggle with the rest of the working class to abolish capitalism and establish in its place an egalitarian, socialist society.”

The loss of unionized industrial jobs, which was accelerated by the deindustrialization of the Northeast and Midwest beginning in the 1970s, has been accompanied by a massive increase in homelessness and disease in the inner cities. Crucially, there has been skyrocketing incarceration of young black (and Hispanic) men carried out largely through the “war on drugs.” This war on the ghetto masses, which we see being played out by the National Guard occupation in New Orleans right now, is part of an all-sided intensification of state repression, capped by the speedup on death row (“legal lynching”) and by “extralegal” street executions in the ghettos and barrios by the cops. After the drive to eliminate welfare picked up speed in the 1980s, we called this “Genocide U.S.A.” These ominous developments make all the more urgent what we said in “Black and Red”:

“The fight for full employment at decent wages is not just the key to better housing, schools, etc., but a fundamental and necessary defense. If Black people are forced out of any economic role and become lumpenized as a group they will be in a position to be used as a scapegoat and could be totally wiped out during a future social crisis—just as the Jews in Germany were—without affecting the economy. The fight must be fought now to maintain Negroes as part of the working class.”

Katrina and the Democratic Party Vultures

The one-year anniversary events in New Orleans saw the Democratic Party politicians descending like vultures. The Democratic Party is giving voice to concerns that Katrina, evoking scenes of a Third World country, is injurious to America’s international reputation. This is not to say the Democrats will do one whit more for black people. Katrina was a public relations debacle for a superpower seeking to project its military might in the service of “freedom.”

Democratic governor Blanco is best remembered for her callous response to the survivors of the flooding. Promoting the false image of wanton marauding and “looting,” she warned that the National Guard troops being deployed were battle-hardened veterans of the war in Iraq, whose weapons were “locked and loaded,” and said they would be prepared to “shoot and kill.”

The shell game through which the Democratic Party—the historic party of the Confederate slavocracy—is portrayed as the “friend” of blacks and labor has been essential to preserving the rule of racist American capitalism. The U.S. is ruled by the dictatorship of a single class, the bourgeoisie, alternately administered by the Democrats and Republicans, two wings of the same property party. It was U.S. imperialism’s Democratic Party that first prosecuted the bloody counterrevolutionary war in Vietnam and initially oversaw the capitalist state’s physical annihilation of the Black Panther Party. The Democratic Party supported the invasion of Afghanistan and the “war on terror,” which they maintain they can conduct more effectively and vigorously than the Republicans. This “war on terror” national unity is a deadly threat to immigrants, blacks and labor and means the shredding of democratic rights domestically and the projection of imperialist military might abroad. If some Democrats today are opposing the Iraq war (like ex-Marine Congressman Jack Murtha), it is for the express purpose of deploying U.S. forces elsewhere in the “war on terror.” Actually, it is because the Democrats sell themselves as the friends of labor and blacks that they are in many cases the preferred party for the bourgeoisie to use to mobilize for war.

On certain social questions like abortion and gay marriage, some Democrats meekly support more enlightened positions. The main difference between them and the Republicans is that while the Republicans unabashedly enforce the interests of big business, the Democrats lie and do the same thing. When the Transport Workers Union [TWU] struck in December, one of the most important unions in the country waged some much-needed class struggle. Gubernatorial candidate Eliot Spitzer got the injunctions to criminalize them. Hillary Clinton is a proponent of the union-busting Taylor Law. Yet both these Democratic pols are supported by the TWU’s Toussaint leadership and are considered “friends of labor.”

Some of you may have seen the powerful documentary by Spike Lee, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. The interviews and footage are an indelible record of a racist travesty. Lee is quoted as saying that “what happened in New Orleans was a criminal act...the levees were a Band-Aid here.... Somebody needs to go to jail.” Though Lee is not heard in the documentary, his point of view emerges in the steady parade of black politicians (Ray Nagin, former mayor of New Orleans Marc Morial and Al Sharpton among them) who are given a pass and allowed to preen as crusaders for justice for black people.

During “Giuliani time,” the New York police pumped 41 rounds at Amadou Diallo in the vestibule of his own apartment building. Sharpton channeled indignation at this police terror into the false hope of using the “independent” Civilian Complaint Review Board to right police misconduct. Such boards make cosmetic changes in order to perpetuate what is a police state in the ghettos and barrios.

Ray Nagin is in the line of black Democratic mayors that includes former Philadelphia mayor Wilson Goode. On 13 May 1985, Goode and his administration in collaboration with Reagan’s federal government burned to death eleven members of the black MOVE commune, including five children. Nagin, at the behest of New Orleans’ business interests, delayed evacuation. He knew from the very beginning that at least one-fifth of the population would not be able to leave. He isolated himself away from his command center during the storm and hid in a hotel, in a bunker, when a small group of people stranded at the Superdome marched to his hotel to ask for provisions. And that’s not the half of it. Now he has the unmitigated chutzpah to say:

“I think the opportunity has presented itself for me to kind of go down in history as the mayor that guided the city of New Orleans through an incredible rebuild cycle, and really eliminated a lot of the pre-Katrina problems that we had with blight, with crime, with the public-school system.”

Organize the South!

With their legalistic, pro-Democratic policies, the AFL-CIO leaders are incapable of undertaking the kind of militant mass organizing drive needed to unionize workers throughout the South, where the racist cops and KKK lynchers have been instrumental in keeping unions out. The AFL-CIO is investing $700 million of its pension fund for affordable housing and hospitals in New Orleans. Change to Win, the other coalition, is assisting with workers’ centers. All well and good—but the purpose of unions is to mobilize the workers in struggle against the capitalists. It’s necessary to unleash the social power of the working class, beginning with existing beachheads of integrated union power in the South—from the mainly black longshoremen in the southeastern and Gulf ports to shipyard workers and Teamsters truckers.

The fundamental starting point for a serious union organizing drive must be the understanding that this capitalist society is divided between two hostile classes—the workers who have to sell their labor power and the capitalists who own the means of production—whose interests are irreconcilably opposed. The labor bureaucracy openly supports the capitalist system and is duly rewarded for this with certain social and political privileges. The union tops stand for collaboration with the bosses, not class struggle against them.

The harsh anti-labor laws and practices in the South today are rooted in the black chattel slavery of the Old South before the Civil War. The re-establishment of legalized racial segregation following the betrayal of Radical Reconstruction by the Northern bourgeoisie in league with the Southern landed aristocracy entailed the suppression of any attempt to organize labor, white as well as black. The anti-union “right to work” laws, which are extant all across the South, were passed after the Second World War and have perpetuated the South as the main regional bastion of social and political reaction in the United States. These laws are an outgrowth of an entrenched apparatus of oppression—the post-Civil War “Black Codes,” “anti-vagrancy laws,” the sharecropping system of debt peonage and prison chain gangs.

In the 1990s, New Orleans Avondale shipyard workers were thwarted in their attempt to form a union for six years by repeated management appeals to the bosses’ courts. Unions can only be built and defended and unionization extended across the South in class struggle against the employer and the apparatus of the capitalist state. Given the heavy weight of “right to work” laws across the South, making a dent even in one locale will be difficult. What will break the back of these laws will be generalized social struggle across the region, if not the country.

Some 30,000 immigrants have moved into the Gulf Coast since the storm, and they are subject to frequent ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] raids that are called “Operation Community Shield.” Much of the gutting of houses and clearing of trees has been performed by immigrant Mexican laborers who sleep in tents or in the moldy structures they work in daily. They have no access to health care and their health and safety is of no concern to their employers. In October 2005, Nagin ranted that New Orleans was being “overrun by Mexican workers.” Similarly, in a January statement calling for a spring Katrina protest for the “right of return,” Jesse Jackson echoed this chauvinist sentiment: “Why must people here look at people coming in from out of the country to do the work? That is humiliating. There are no jobs that cannot be done by the people who once lived here.” Feeding off this, in early October the NAACP and the AFL-CIO held a joint press conference to denounce business owners who were hiring non-union workers from out of state. The answer to non-union labor is to unionize all workers regardless of where they are from.

It is particularly important to combat anti-immigrant chauvinism in the working class and especially among black workers, while the immigrant-derived proletariat must grasp that anti-black racism remains the touchstone of social reaction in this country. Our team at the AFL-CIO picnic reported the following: “An older black woman jumped into my argument with a white woman who argued that racism wasn’t really an issue in what had happened; we convinced her to back down and say we had a point. However, then the white woman and the black woman agreed that the problem facing them now is that immigrants are coming in and taking all the jobs, and I had to argue hard with both of them.”

A number of lawsuits have been filed on behalf of these mainly Hispanic workers fighting against the contractors’ refusal to pay overtime or any wages at all. These piecemeal efforts, however admirable and supportable, only underscore the necessity for labor to fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants. This is a crucial part of mobilizing the power of labor in struggle to organize the South. Effective resistance to the immiseration of American working people requires unity in struggle between the trade unions and the black, Hispanic and Asian poor.

The role of a Leninist vanguard party must be to advance the consciousness of the working class. There is another tradition in Louisiana, one of black and labor power. The largest slave revolt in U.S. history, inspired by the Haitian revolution, took place in Louisiana in 1811. Some of the first black troops to fight on the side of the Union in the Civil War were raised from the free black population of New Orleans. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, the Deacons for Defense and Justice organized a group of black veterans in Bogalusa and Jonesboro and used armed self-defense to protect CORE voter registration workers. The Spartacist League publicized the Deacons’ critical role in defending black rights against the racist nightriders.

And there is the strategic port of New Orleans which, while heavily impacted by containerization, is a reservoir of union strength with an important history. When the longshore union locals first affiliated to the International Longshoremen’s Association [ILA], there was a segregated union structure, which was maintained. The ILA locals on the Gulf were not integrated until 1983. However, on the Southern waterfront the primarily black unions are dominant. In 1968, when Martin Luther King was assassinated, the black ILA in New Orleans called a three-day protest strike and the white longshoremen announced they weren’t going to work without their black brothers. In 1972, Louisiana students demanded an anti-racist boycott of Rhodesian chrome and ILA dock workers refused to unload a ship. Several years later, in 1977, black and white longshoremen in New Orleans staged a militant wildcat strike that shut down all shipping in the port, while the ILA international struck only containerized cargo.

Finish the Civil War!

It’s been noted that to this day Haiti and Haitians have never been forgiven by the imperialist ruling classes for the slave revolt led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. The past is not really past in the U.S. either when it comes to the struggle for black freedom and the Civil War. There is in Katrina’s aftermath—in the racist contempt and dispersal of its black working class and dispossessed—more than an echo of the racist Redemption campaign of the former slave aristocracy against Radical Reconstruction.

Reconstruction went through several phases in Louisiana, and it’s a rich and intricate history. I want to highlight the last period. One historian of the period, Ted Tunnell, put it: “The history of New Orleans was the story of its strategic location near the mouth of the greatest river system on the North American continent” [Crucible of Reconstruction, 1984]. Thus it was that in April of 1862 Union warships slipped past Confederate forts and fought the Confederate fleet guarding the city. The Union Army advanced overland and took over New Orleans on May 1. The North controlled the South’s largest city from that day forward and Reconstruction was underway.

New Orleans was a metropolis in the midst of a Louisiana plantation and village culture. There was a modest base of immigrants and yeoman farmers (with no slaves), the largest free black population in the South, if not the country, and some sugar planters who came to believe their profit interests might be better served by the North. The Union Army under the leadership of Generals Banks and Butler were the armed force that made it possible for Reconstruction to unfold. Within this mix there was an intense and volatile contention of ideas and clash of forces about the extent and meaning of black freedom and, importantly, black suffrage. Moreover, these forces profoundly influenced Lincoln himself.

The free blacks, or gens de couleur, were not of one mind, reflecting their intermediate position in society. They were light-skinned descendants of French settlers or wealthy mulatto immigrants from Haiti. They were bricklayers, cigar makers, carpenters and shoemakers. They were markedly better off than the slave, but their rights were constricted. But from this layer came some of the first black soldiers to fight for the Union Army, a fact related to their (uniquely) already having had their own militia. At the time, some held the view that their fate was “indissolubly bound up with that of the Negro race,” and that “we have no rights which we can reckon safe while the same are denied to the field hands on the sugar plantations.” Because Reconstruction began early and the slaves were given their freedom, it came to pass that black men were in the uniform of the Union Army. And as one black New Orleanian paper put it at the time: “From the day that bayonets were placed in the hands of the blacks…. This war has broken the chains of the slave, and it is written in the heavens that from this war shall grow the seeds of the political enfranchisement of the oppressed race.”

The radical unionists and the unity of free blacks and freed slaves placed enormous pressure on Lincoln to grant suffrage to the freedmen. The emancipated slave had entered the political arena. The Radical Reconstruction Louisiana constitution abolished slavery and led to black suffrage and blacks holding office.

The planter aristocracy refused to make their peace with this state of affairs. In September 1874, the (Klan-like) White League routed the Metropolitan Police and black militia of the Reconstruction governor. In 1891 an obelisk monument to this race terror was built to honor the Battle of Canal Street, later the Battle of Liberty Place. There was affixed an inscription in praise of the victory of white supremacy. This incident couldn’t have more contemporary relevance. It speaks to what we call the unfinished business of the Civil War. And to this day, the American South is a low-wage bastion and a reservoir of social backwardness to the detriment of the entire working class.

The period known as Radical Reconstruction (of course it was not limited to Louisiana) was the most egalitarian period in U.S. history. It was finally brought to a close when the Northern capitalists looked at the devastated South and saw an opportunity—not for building a radical democracy but for exploiting Southern resources, and the freedmen, profitably. The Compromise of 1877 sealed this betrayal of black freedom and, with the withdrawal of the Union Army from the South, a new system of racist exploitation was established by restricting the rights of freedmen across the board. In 1896, the Supreme Court codified “separate but equal” segregation as the law of the land in Plessy v. Ferguson. Plessy was a black New Orleanian who refused to vacate his seat on a railway car. The Jim Crow system thus came to infect the whole country.

America has evolved tumultuously from a slave republic, through the Civil War and the abolition of chattel slavery. Yet we live with that legacy of slavery. The struggle against black oppression and for working-class liberation will go forward together in this country or not at all. For the working class to become an instrumentality of its own liberation, it must become a class-for-itself. It must oppose every manifestation of oppression and consciously fight the special oppression of black people. To quote Marx at the time of the Civil War: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” The ultimate reconstruction in this county will come with a socialist revolution led by the multiracial proletariat.

The Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, seeks to impart the consciousness of this black centrality to the working class. We seek to forge in struggle the revolutionary workers party that will lead the American workers revolution, which alone can provide a decent life for all through a socialist planned economy. If you want a future without imperialist war, racist oppression and capitalist exploitation, we would ask you to join us. Finish the Civil War!


Workers Vanguard No. 877

WV 877

29 September 2006


New Orleans Racist Atrocity—One Year After

Race, Class and the Fight for a Workers America

Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!


Darfur: Colonialism's Murderous Legacy

No to UN/Imperialist Intervention in Sudan!


Defend Striking Teachers in Oaxaca, Mexico!


Capitalism: Wages Falling, Profits Rising

(Quote of the Week)


On Global Warming



Letters Policy


September 15 Oakland Rally

PDC: For a Class-Struggle Defense to Free Mumia!

"Labor Action Committee": No Labor, No Action


Workers Vanguard Subscription Drive


The Russian Revolution of 1917

From the Kornilov Coup to the October Revolution

Part One

(Young Spartacus pages)


For Free Abortion on Demand, Including for Teens!

Coming of Age in the U.S.A.—Sex, Fear and Religious Reaction

(Young Spartacus pages)


Join the Labor Black Leagues!