Workers Vanguard No. 868

14 April 2006


Report from New Orleans

Seven Months After Katrina: Racist Atrocity Continues

A Workers Vanguard reporter recently spent a week in New Orleans. This article is based on his reports and interviews.

Seven months after Hurricane Katrina, when multiple levee breaks flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, vast swaths of the city are still in darkness and as many as 300,000 people remain displaced. Aside from the veneer of the French Quarter and the well-heeled affectation of the Garden District, New Orleans feels like a Third World country, as black longshoremen and Avondale shipyard workers told Workers Vanguard. The U.S. rulers—the true looters and criminals—express their contempt for the black and working-class residents, who infuse this storied city with its lifeblood, by throwing up massive obstacles to their return home.

On April 1, upwards of 5,000 people joined a New Orleans protest called by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition for the “right to return, a protected vote, and reconstruction.” They marched over the Mississippi River bridge where last September black people fleeing the floodwaters were stopped at gunpoint by racist Jefferson Parish and Gretna police authorities. The protesters demanded that the thousands of still-displaced New Orleanians be able to vote (in satellite locations) in the April 22 municipal elections. White racist candidates have crawled out of the woodwork, sensing that their time has come to “take back” the city.

The black people of New Orleans rightly perceive an attack on their democratic right to vote. The poll tax and literacy tests of Jim Crow-era elections find their present-day equivalents in the abandonment and dispersal of the black population. The spectre of Florida in 2000, when Bush stole the presidency in part by disenfranchising black voters, was invoked at the protest. One marcher expressed the concerns of many: “They want to return. Some just don’t have the means to do so. I pay taxes, I work, I raised children, I’m not a criminal” (New Orleans Times-Picayune, 2 April).

The protest was meant to bolster Democratic Party candidates, with speakers including former black Democratic mayor and National Urban League president Marc Morial, Al Sharpton and Bill Cosby. NAACP signs sarcastically read: “Iraq Has Fairer Elections.” Many wore T-shirts for black mayor Ray Nagin, who recently acceded to demands by the largely white community in the Algiers section that no FEMA trailer parks be placed near their sanctuary. Hailed from the podium was Mitch Landrieu, lieutenant governor of Louisiana and brother of U.S. Senator Mary Landrieu, a proponent of the mainly white charter schools that have mushroomed here as public education is abandoned.

While the callous indifference of the Bush gang is obvious to all, the pathetic state of the levees and the flood control system, which contributed to the Gulf Coast disaster, is a bipartisan responsibility. The more than two decades of neglect of this vital infrastructure included the eight years of the Democratic Clinton administration. The Democrats and Republicans both uphold the capitalist system in which the ruling class gorges on profits while workers’ jobs and pensions disappear, necessary social programs are starved for funds, and ghetto residents are considered a “surplus” population. This same profit-driven system leads to imperialist depredations abroad, such as the murderous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. As we wrote shortly after Hurricane Katrina in “New Orleans: Racist Atrocity” (WV No. 854, 16 September 2005; reprinted in Black History and the Class Struggle No. 19, March 2006):

“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. What is urgently required is to build a workers party that can lead a workers revolution to rip power from the hands of the capitalist class and its political agents, right-wing Republican and liberal Democrat alike.”

The Legacy of Slavery

The pristine condition of the Robert E. Lee monument in New Orleans stands in stark contrast to the devastation of the black communities. The legacy of slavery is inescapable here—it’s impossible to describe the city without reference to the Civil War and the defeat of Reconstruction. In capitalist America, built on a foundation of black oppression rooted in chattel slavery, the ruling class and its political front men, white and black, are determining how many black people can return to New Orleans.

The abandonment and belated evacuation of the majority of the black population last year was a racist atrocity. The continuing racist atrocity is the enforced dispersal of the population. The black population of New Orleans has been branded criminals, looters and lazy people who watch soap operas all day. There are new code words, like the call for a city with a “smaller footprint.” Hardcore racists are preening in the streets, shouting racist epithets at black workers from their cars. And in the continuing cop rampage against the black population, on April 4 a black woman was assaulted and pepper-sprayed by a group of mainly white cops after they stopped her car.

When Bush visited the Garden District’s wealthy enclave in January, he hyped the return of infrastructure. This was but the continuation of his depraved indifference to the disaster, as revealed in Congressional hearings and on videotape. There is no infrastructure across whole stretches of the city. Up to 120,000 homes remain as they were when the water receded. There are precious few FEMA trailers in Orleans Parish and fewer still with utility hookups. The public school system is largely shut down, with the concomitant destruction of some 7,000 union jobs. Health care for the working poor is virtually nonexistent, with the utterly callous and gratuitous closing down of Charity Hospital and the layoff of its staff just one example. The U.S. postal system has only begun a modicum of mail delivery.

As hurricane season approaches, the levee system has not been restored. There is simply no commitment to build levees to withstand Category Five storms. Recently, the Army Corps of Engineers acknowledged a major design flaw in the construction of existing levees that could lead to their failure. No one trusts the government on this score, as this is the land of the drive-by levee inspection.

A high percentage of displaced blacks have no means to return and nothing to return to. The “Bring New Orleans Back” commission supported by Mayor Nagin requires neighborhoods to reach a critical population mass; otherwise former residents will be forced to sell their property. In this capitalist society, where property rights are supposedly sacred, black New Orleanians have no rights the government is bound to respect. This is surely heaven for the real estate speculators, to hell with the rest.

On April 4, 80 residents of the St. Bernard Housing Development project had had enough and marched back into their homes, pushing aside Housing Authority and city cops. Two months ago, a tall steel fence was put around the project, whose first floor units had been damaged by the flood. One long-term resident told WV: “We want to come home. This is our home. They’re not going to pretend to us that they are concerned about us. HUD is not concerned about us. I think they want to tear it down and make it private sector. Whatever they want to do with it, it don’t include black poor people.”

Immigrants and Labor

In the lead-up to the April 1 protest, Jesse Jackson complained about immigrant workers rebuilding New Orleans: “Why must people here look at people coming in from out of the country to do the work? That is humiliating” (Associated Press, 30 January). However, this kind of rhetoric was toned down on April 1, as Democratic politicians were prominently featured in nationwide protests against a Republican bill that would further criminalize immigrants. While Democrats as well as Republicans are supporting various “guest worker” bills, we oppose this new form of indentured servitude (see “Full Citizenship Rights for All Immigrants!” WV No. 867, 31 March).

There is more than a little anti-immigrant chauvinism along the Gulf Coast. One bricklayers’ union official complained that “they” don’t join unions. On one level this is simply false, since immigrant workers have become key components of a number of union organizing drives and labor battles. It is the labor tops who have failed to aggressively undertake the unionization of foreign-born workers and to organize in the face of “right-to-work” laws in the South.

In our article following Hurricane Katrina we outlined what the labor movement should fight for: “The masses of displaced people must be provided with jobs—union jobs at union wage scales, with health care, housing, clothing and all other necessities…. What is needed at the minimum is a massive program of federally funded public works to rebuild New Orleans and the rest of the devastated Gulf Coast.” Racism and anti-immigrant chauvinism undermine the unity in struggle necessary to fight for what’s needed against the capitalist rulers. The labor movement must defend immigrant workers, demanding full citizenship rights for all those who have made it to the U.S. At the same time, the immigrant-derived proletariat must grasp that anti-black racism remains the touchstone of social reaction in this country.

The Gulf Coast Latin American Association reports that 30,000 Latinos have moved into the area since the storm. For the most part, they live in tents or abandoned buildings or in the very buildings they are gutting. Many have left their families behind. They are brutally exploited and very vulnerable to disease, with little access to medical care. As part of Homeland Security’s “Operation Community Shield,” there are recurrent raids on immigrant workers. They are even pounced on when they emerge from the only mobile clinic in New Orleans that treats them.

Meanwhile, the Port of New Orleans has returned to almost 100 percent operating capacity. It’s just not an option for the capitalists to allow this port to be closed for any extended period. Even Gulf Coast oil production isn’t as significant as this port, which in terms of tonnage moved is the largest in the U.S. and the fifth-largest in the world. In a 1 September 2005 article on the Stratfor Web site titled “New Orleans: A Geopolitical Prize,” George Friedman noted that the New Orleans port complex is where “bulk commodities of agriculture go out to the world and the bulk commodities of industrialism come in.”

This gives port workers like longshoremen enormous potential social power. To unleash labor’s power, there must be a fight to replace the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy with a leadership committed to the independence of the working class from the capitalist state and its political parties. We need a workers party to lead all the exploited and the oppressed in the struggle for a workers government.