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Workers Vanguard No. 921

26 September 2008

Three Years After Katrina Racist Atrocity

New Orleans Still in Ruins

The abandonment of masses of overwhelmingly black and poor people in the Gulf Coast by America’s capitalist rulers in the face of Hurricane Katrina three years ago is a crime that must be seared into the memory of working people. The people left to die, the many others who to this day cannot return to their city, were not victims of a “natural disaster” but of a capitalist economic system that upholds profit over human life. This reality of American capitalism was brought home once again shortly before Hurricane Gustav hit the Gulf Coast and Ike swept through southern Texas. On August 13, a judge threw out murder and attempted murder charges against seven New Orleans cops who in 2005 shot down desperate New Orleans residents trying to cross a bridge to food and safety, killing two people.

As Hurricane Gustav approached a still gutted and devastated New Orleans, people too dispossessed, elderly and sick to flee the threat were treated again to a combination of capitalist brutality and racist contempt. Since the beleaguered residents understandably had little trust in a government that left them to die three years ago, the evacuations were made “mandatory” and accompanied by dusk-to-dawn curfews with threats of arrest on sight. Just as in 2005, when Hurricane Katrina pounded the Gulf Coast, racist hysteria was whipped up as all types of law enforcement, in roughly a one-to-one ratio with residents, occupied the streets of New Orleans cluttered with roadblocks and Humvees. This included National Guard troops who have not been demobilized since 2005. Black Democratic mayor Ray Nagin ranted, “Anybody who is caught looting in the city of New Orleans will go directly to Angola,” one of America’s most notorious prisons. “God bless you if you’re there,” he warned. Meanwhile, in New York City, the capitalist rulers’ “preparedness” included opening the New York Mercantile Exchange early to allow extra time for Gulf oil speculators to position themselves to profiteer.

Many of New Orleans’ evacuated poor residents were holed up in abandoned warehouses, getting a “sickening reminder of Katrina,” as a New York Times editorial (21 September) put it. The editorial noted:

“Evacuees said they had had no idea where they were going; bus drivers would not tell them. When they arrived, there were not enough portable toilets, and no showers. For five days there was no way to bathe, except with bottled water in filthy outdoor toilets. Privacy in the vast open space—1,000 people to a warehouse, shoulder-to-shoulder on cots—was nonexistent. The mood among evacuees was grim, surrounded as they were by police officers and the National Guard, with no visitors or reporters allowed.”

After Gustav passed, residents had to fight to be allowed to return, defying a government that treated them as if the storm were another opportunity to purge more of New Orleans’ black population. Now the returnees struggle alongside Texas victims of Hurricane Ike for food stamps, tarps and tents.

The oil magnates and the rest of the capitalist rulers and their bureaucrats breathed a huge, collective sigh of relief that Gustav fizzled. They knew they had lucked out. The levees on the West Bank area of New Orleans where this year’s storm hit had not been tested by Katrina. Old, shoddily built levees, neglected for decades, still leak, and much of the repair work has been done hurriedly and remains incomplete. In April, a local news station reported that two years ago a resident had found newspaper stuffed in an expansion joint of a St. Bernard flood wall that has yet to be repaired. There are 325 miles of repairs that need to be made; the Army Corps of Engineers projects are only 20 percent complete, not expected to be finished until 2011. There are unfinished flood walls along the Harvey Canal south of the city. Gaps in walls have been filled in with earth and sand.

As he toured other parts of the Gulf Coast hit by Gustav, George Bush didn’t dare set foot in New Orleans, while McCain, owner of (at least) seven homes, modulated the partying down at the Republican National Convention. More recently, in the wake of Ike, Bush has been buzzing around Texas urging individual donors to avoid “disaster fatigue,” while the government bails out Wall Street parasites. But cutbacks and neglect of infrastructure and social services are Democratic as well as Republican policy. Over two decades of neglect of the flood control system around New Orleans prior to Katrina included the eight years of the Clinton administration, during which the federal government ran a budget surplus for several years.

Since 2005, 57 percent of New Orleans’ black population has not been able to return, and the number of homeless has doubled. In May, Mayor Nagin declared that the homeless of New Orleans should be given “one way” tickets out of town. Affordable rental housing has been wiped out, the public housing that existed has been bulldozed, bus service cut by 80 percent, public health facilities closed—many of the basic necessities that supported the population are being phased out. Some 75,000 trailers poisoned with the toxic chemical formaldehyde were issued to Katrina evacuees, and the government has yet to come up with any disaster plan for housing future storm victims. Today, nearly 7,000 families live in FEMA trailers in metropolitan New Orleans, and those who have been evicted have nowhere to go.

City ordinances banning “multifamily dwellings” and moratoriums on “mixed income” developments are aimed at keeping blacks and Latinos out. Confederate flags, KKK crosses on lawns, house burnings, cops and Jim Crow “zoning” laws all greet families trying to resettle. After the firing of all public school teachers and staff, more than half of the schools have been privatized, in effect destroying the public education system, which was already one of the most decrepit in the country. “Nonprofit” organizations, foundations and businesses have been recreating the city as a playground for wealthy white tourists. Referring to the many schemes laid out for the battered city, New Orleans poet Kalamu Ya Salaam said, “It wasn’t a blank slate, it was a cemetery. People were killed, and they’re building on top of their bones.”

Tens of thousands of immigrants have come to the Gulf Coast area since 2005. Many were too afraid of arrest to board buses to escape the recent storms. The Red Cross announced that they would be “impartial” to government raids of shelters—i.e., they would not oppose anti-immigrant raids by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.). Others fled on their own because of the police buildup and nightly curfews.

For all workers who struggle to survive in the Gulf region, prevailing wage laws have been thrown out the window and pay is poverty scale. These workers should be a force for revitalization of the Gulf Coast. There must be a struggle for union jobs at union wage scales for all, with health care, housing and all other necessities. What is needed at minimum is a massive program of federally funded public works to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the devastated Gulf Coast, stretching now to inundated Galveston, Texas, and northward to Houston. This must be linked to a fight to unionize the increasing numbers of unorganized workers. In the “right to work” South, where the racist legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation has always served to head off labor struggle, the struggle for unionization must center on the fight for black rights as well as the rights of immigrant workers. Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! Organize the unorganized!

Such a perspective requires a political fight against the pro-capitalist labor tops who chain working people and the oppressed to the capitalist class enemy, especially through support to the Democratic Party. To unleash the social power of this country’s multiracial proletariat, there needs to be a fight to replace the labor bureaucracy with a leadership committed to mobilizing labor’s power independently of the capitalist state and politicians and in the interests of all the exploited and oppressed.

Contrast the havoc wreaked along the Gulf Coast and Texas with the Cuban bureaucratically deformed workers state, where capitalist rule was overthrown in 1960-61. By the time Gustav and Ike had swept through Cuba, the government had evacuated over 2.5 million people, or over 21 percent of the entire island’s population. No one was killed during Gustav, though four people died during Ike. (In the U.S., total deaths from both storms were over 100 people.) In Cuba, despite its relative poverty, intensified by over four decades of U.S. imperialist economic embargo, the government routinely moves large numbers of people to safe areas of the island during major hurricanes. The government provides early, accurate scientific forecasting, educates and mobilizes the population, and holds detailed post-disaster assessments. Every year there are dress rehearsals, and each community has arrangements in place for shelters, transport, additional food and medical backup. Some 3,000 health professionals make up a mobile disaster response team that has provided aid not only internally but also to disaster survivors internationally.

Cuba has suffered catastrophic property and crop damage this year, requiring massive rehabilitation. The Cuban government had asked the U.S. government to consider lifting its 46-year-old trade embargo for at least six months to allow it to buy materials for reconstruction, but Washington has refused to change its policy on the embargo, imposed on Cuba since 1962 under the Democratic Kennedy administration. The Bush administration offered time-limited aid as long as it bypassed the government, and Democrat Barack Obama agreed, stating: “Make no mistake—the embargo must remain.” We call for an end to U.S. imperialism’s embargo against Cuba, a blatant act of war. Defend the Cuban Revolution!

In Haiti, four storms in three weeks killed over 300 people. Haiti languishes in ruin. It has been a victim of the U.S. and other capitalist powers since winning independence in the 1791-1804 Haitian Revolution. The Bush administration in 2000 slashed foreign aid, even blocking previously approved loans from the Inter-American Development Bank for improvements in education, roads, health care and the water supply, plunging what was already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and one of the most malnourished populations in the world into even greater poverty. Now after this summer’s storms, cemetery workers trudge through the coastal town of Gonaïves fetching the bloated corpses emerging from the muck daily.

Speaking about Katrina back in 2005, Obama declared that “the ineptitude was color-blind.” Despite differences over particular tactics, the Republicans and Democrats are united in defending the capitalist system. Obama could only get away with his lying pronouncement in a period of relatively low social and working-class struggle. The fight for black freedom is a strategic task for a proletarian revolution in the U.S. A class-conscious labor movement under revolutionary leadership must and will take up the fight for black liberation as an inseparable part of the struggle for the emancipation of workers from capitalist exploitation. We fight for a third American revolution, a socialist revolution, to complete the unfinished tasks of the Civil War.

Across the U.S., systematic deindustrialization and lack of investment have resulted in a rotting infrastructure: bridges collapse in the Midwest, power grids fail and levees burst all along the Mississippi and its swollen tributaries. The bold engineering that characterized an earlier, ascendant American capitalism is long gone and is utterly unimaginable for the decaying shells of urban centers today alongside stretches of empty, crumbling factories. The country’s capitalist rulers have looted basic industry, and their drive for ever-greater profits means depraved indifference to the lives of those they exploit.

The situation cries out for a socialist planned economy, in which natural resources and the technological and productive forces of society would be marshaled on behalf of human needs, not profit. The Spartacist League is dedicated to building a Leninist vanguard party that will lead the working class to sweep away this cruel economic system and replace it with working-class rule. As we wrote in a statement on the New Orleans racist atrocity (reprinted in WV No. 854, 16 September 2005): “This anarchic, irrational profit-driven system cannot even provide for the safety and welfare of the population—the system must go.”


Workers Vanguard No. 921

WV 921

26 September 2008


Wall Street Nightmare Stalks Working People

Break with the Democrats, Republicans—For a Revolutionary Workers Party!

For a Socialist Planned Economy!


Three Years After Katrina Racist Atrocity New Orleans Still in Ruins


Why Trotskyists Said “Stop Solidarność Counterrevolution!”



Proletarian Road to Black Freedom

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We Said “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!”

Charlie Wilson’s War Was the ISO’s War


Boston: 1970s Fight for School Integration

As Racist Mobs Rampaged, Liberals and Reformists Knifed Busing

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