September 2005   
Hurricane Shows Race and Class Decide
Who Lives and Dies in Capitalist America

Man driven from his home by Hurricane Katrina carries unconscious boy past
National Guardsmen sealing off the Superdome in New Orleans, September 1.

(Michael Appleton/New York Daily News)

SEPTEMBER 5 – The New Orleans disaster was man-made. It was the product of a government that defends only the property and interests of the ruling class, and refused to make preparations for a catastrophe that everyone knew was coming. The horrendous suffering and still-unknown death toll reaching into the thousands was determined by class and race: the rich and white got out in their SUVs, while the poor and black, without cars and money and credit cards, were left to fend for themselves against the inundation.

The destruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina is being called the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. But the devastation of New Orleans was not natural, nor just the result of callous, criminal neglect – it was mass murder by the racist rulers of capitalist America. The real response to this outrage is not to call on criminals in power to improve preparations for the next disaster, but to fight for socialist revolution to bring down the system that perpetuates war, racism and poverty.

The numbers left stranded were staggering, well over 100,000 trapped on rooftops, camped out on Interstate Highway 10, jammed into the filthy, sweltering Superdome and the chaos of the Convention Center. From Day One, television images showed the desperate black families, without food and water, the crying hungry babies, the old and infirm in wheelchairs expiring from dehydration and heatstroke. What the TV didn’t show were rings of police who kept the survivors trapped in these hellholes, preventing them from leaving.

Eighty percent of this city of 500,000 has been submerged in a flood of biblical proportions. But the government’s concern was not to protect the population, two-thirds of which is black. There were no plans – none – to evacuate the 35 percent of the population that was too old or too poor to be able to move. There were no plans to evacuate patients from public hospitals, where the destitute are treated, although wealthy private hospitals hired helicopters and buses. By Wednesday, police were ordered to stop searching for survivors and to focus on stopping looting.

Only on the fifth day were buses brought in to evacuate the victims. This took place just as President Bush whisked through New Orleans, avoiding any areas where he might encounter angry survivors. State Police and National Guard SWAT teams bristling with weapons rode through the city atop armored personnel carriers, acting like they were in occupied Iraq. In fact, the occupation of New Orleans resembled nothing so much as the U.S. takeover of Baghdad. While the government (including Louisiana state and New Orleans city officials) and the media kept braying about “looting,” which was mainly the desperate population scavenging for food and drink, the authorities stood by and did nothing, day after day.

How the Racist Media Portray New Orleans Disaster

The hue and cry over looting is a classic racist ploy. A set of two nearly identical AP pictures is circulating on the Internet: the caption of one shows a white couple wading through water after “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store,” while the second shows a young black man “after looting a grocery store.” Other photos show New Orleans police officers joining in the “free for all” and National Guard soldiers in uniform “shopping” for supplies in storm-battered Wal-Mart stores. Meanwhile, Bush’s capitalist buddies at Enron and Halliburton have been looting the entire country, siphoning off millions in fictitious billing and destroying billions of dollars of workers’ pensions!

Millions around the globe saw searing pictures of crowds of poor and black flood victims crying out “Help, help, help,” while columns of buses were parked on the highways ten miles away.  The New Orleans Times-Picayune (4 September) reported:

“Witnesses said a small riot broke out Wednesday when refugees saw rescuers in big trucks carting off white tourists by the dozens, leaving many black people to fend for themselves. ‘You should have seen them gathering up white folks,’ said Kim Jackson, 39. ‘They had a big 18-wheeler with the National Guard walking alongside them. ... But they got us here like dogs’.”

Now a political firestorm has broken out in Washington over the “slow pace” of the government’s response. Black Democrats and even some Southern Republicans blasted the Bush White House. But at bottom, it’s not about speed, or priorities, or even money. It’s about an inhuman system of exploitation in which the owners of capital grow rich off the labor of the toilers who from the time of chattel slavery have been considered “expendable” by the arrogant boss man.

“No One Can Say They Didn’t See It Coming”

As the 145-mile-an-hour winds of Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast on Monday morning, August 29, it was classified as a Category 4 storm, lower than the Category 5 storm that had been predicted. The eye of the storm passed east of New Orleans instead of hitting the city directly as feared. Yet by Monday evening, the low-lying areas north and east of the high ground along the Mississippi River embankment and the tourist destination of the French Quarter were under water. Incredibly, federal engineers did not realize that there had been a major breach of the flood barriers until they read about it on Internet web logs the next morning!

Later, the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), Michael Brown, a Bush political appointee who previously ran the International Arabian Horse Association, said FEMA didn’t know about more than 15,000 thirsty, starving, dying flood survivors in the New Orleans Convention Center until Thursday, after days of reporting on TV.

“No one can say they didn't see it coming,” wrote the New Orleans Times-Picayune (30 August), in an article on how “Feds’ Disaster Planning Shifts Away From Preparedness.” For years, Gulf Coast officials had been warning about the dire need for hurricane protection, including building up levees and repairing barrier islands. In early 2001, FEMA issued a report listing the three most likely disasters as a massive earthquake in San Francisco, a hurricane hitting New Orleans and a terrorist attack on New York City. “The New Orleans hurricane scenario may be the deadliest of all,” wrote the Houston Chronicle (1 December 2001) in an article titled, “Keeping Its Head Above Water: New Orleans Faces Doomsday Scenario.”

The next year, National Public Radio (20 September 2002) broadcast a major piece on the danger of a hurricane hitting New Orleans. It interviewed Walter Maestri, in charge of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, who said they had held an exercise to estimate the effects of a Category 5 storm. After it was over, he wrote on the simulation map, “KYAGB: Kiss Your Ass Goodbye. It was body bag time. We think 40,000 people could lose their lives.” Despite the warnings, nothing was done. Last year, Maestri told the New Orleans Times-Picayune (8 June 2004): “It appears that the money has been moved in the president’s budget to handle homeland security and the war in Iraq, and I suppose that’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.”

Following the 11 September 2001 attack on NYC’s World Trade Center, the federal government drastically curtailed planning for natural disasters to focus on “terrorism.” FEMA was absorbed into the Homeland Security Department. NBC-TV (2 September) reported that last year an exercise was held on a hypothetical “Hurricane Pam” which was almost an exact preview of what happened in Katrina: 120-mph winds, massive storm surges, 20 feet of water in New Orleans, 80 percent of the buildings damaged, hundreds of thousands stranded, refugees on rooftops, gunfire slowing rescue operations. A Louisiana State University hurricane expert, Ivor van Heerden, said that U.S. Army “Corps of Engineers people in the back of the room giggled” when the researchers presented the information.

Partial detail from June 2002 Times-Picayune diagram of  New Orleans levees. Note that break occurred at lowest point of floodwall on 17th Street canal.

Speaking with ABC-TV’s Diane Sawyer, president Bush claimed that “I don’t think anyone anticipated the breach of the levees.” Like Condoleezza Rice’s claim about 9-11 that “I don't think anybody could have predicted that these people would take an airplane and slam it into the World Trade Center,” this is a bald-faced lie. Repeated studies showed that the floodwalls would be breached by any powerful storm. Plans to raise the barriers higher were delayed as the administration slashed flood control programs for New Orleans by 60 percent last year. As a map in a five-part Times-Picayune (23-27 June 2002) series shows, the place on the 17th Street Canal where the floodwall was breached is precisely where it was the lowest, barely 10 feet above sea level. Katrina produced surges much higher than that in Lake Pontchartrain.

So they knew exactly what would happen in a major storm, and did nothing to prevent catastrophic damage. As far as protecting the population is concerned, the only preparation was New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s call two days before the storm hit to evacuate the city. Yet the same Times-Picayune series reported that “100,000 people without transportation will be especially threatened” if New Orleans were hit by “the Big One.” In spite of this, neither the city, state or federal governments did anything to dispatch the 2,000 buses that would be needed to get such a huge population out of harm’s way. They consciously left the poor, overwhelmingly black population there to die. It was a classic capitalist “solution” going back to the Georgia slave-era proverb: “Every man for himself, and the devil take the hindmost.”

In the aftermath, the survivors of Hurricane Katrina have been held prisoner in the flooded city. It should not be forgotten that Louisiana is Klan country. In addition to the shotgun-wielding cops ringing the sports arenas, when exhausted black New Orleans residents trudged over the Crescent City Connection, trying to get out by crossing the bridges west to Jefferson Parish, the only escape route was cut off by officials with guns and dogs. Jefferson is a white flight suburb, a hotbed of racist reaction which in 1989 elected fascist David Duke, the neo-Nazi “Klan in a suit,” to the state legislature. The racist blockade preventing survivors from reaching the West Bank of the Mississippi shows again that the Louisiana disaster was political, not “natural.”

The horror of New Orleans has deeply shaken the country. Complacent liberals act as if they have suddenly seen the face of hell, “right here in River City.” Even some of the servile bourgeois media, who acted as shameless PR men and women for the Pentagon when they were “embedded” with the imperialist invaders in Iraq, showed apocalyptic scenes from New Orleans as Bush was proclaiming that FEMA head “Brownie” was “doing a heck of a job.” A round-up by the New York Times (4 September) commented:
“New Orleans, Flannery O’Connor once wrote, is a place where the devil’s existence is freely recognized.

“But not this devil. Not the devil of bloated bodies floating in muddy waters washing lazily over submerged pickups and campers, of corpses being eaten by rats as they decomposed on city streets, of people dying in wheelchairs outside the convention center as friends poured water over their heads to try to keep them alive.”

Mayor Nagin, a “maverick” bourgeois politico, warned “if I don’t get the help I need this city is going to blow up and this is going to be a national disgrace.”

Suddenly, the press is reporting that what was exposed in New Orleans was not just a broken levee, but a “cleavage of race and class, at once familiar and startlingly new, laid bare in a setting where they suddenly amounted to matters of life and death,” as Times reporter Jason DeParle wrote. With the images of impoverished black people staring viewers in the face, the voice of the capitalist “establishment” discovered that “28% of people in New Orleans live in poverty,” more than triple the national average, and “of those, 84% are black.” New Orleans looked like Port-au-Prince, Haiti, they said, or Somalia. Or it could become like Los Angeles in 1992, after the acquittal by a lily-white jury of the white cops who beat black motorist Rodney King. Or like Newark, Detroit or Washington, which all burned in the “race riots” (actually, ghetto upheavals) of the 1960s. Or more recently, Cincinnati in the spring of 2001.

DeParle’s article was titled, “What Happens to a Race Deferred,” a reference to black writer Langston Hughes’ 1951 poem presaging the civil rights movement, “Lenox Avenue Mural: Harlem,” which began:

“What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore –
and then run? ...
“Maybe it just sags,
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?”

Now that the Big One has hit, the ruling class is worried that the Big Easy could blow.

Black Liberation Through Socialist Revolution!

As has frequently happened through the ages, a natural phenomenon, Hurricane Katrina, laid bare the fault lines between the classes in a rotting, decaying society. We noted in our special issue on the Asian tsunami disaster (“Capitalist Tidal Wave of Death,” The Internationalist No. 20, January-February 2005) that the vast majority of the quarter million who perished in that calamity died because they were poor and vulnerable, forced to live in precarious conditions on the edge of a punishing sea. In New Orleans today, black poor and working people resided in the basin below sea level where the canals were breached. They live from paycheck to paycheck, from disability, social security and welfare checks, and couldn’t leave because the hurricane hit before the end of the month when the check comes. Even if they had a car, many did not have $40 to buy a tank of gas, so they stayed to face the wrath of Katrina, and several thousand died.

Hurricane Katrina survivor confronts soldier demanding answers to why food has not come for him and everyone at the New Orleans Convention Center Friday, September 2. 
(Photo:  Richard Alan/The Advocate)

The fury of the hurricane survivors against the government, as one TV newscaster remarked, is that of people who don’t just feel “neglected” since August 29. They toil under the burden of several hundred years of slavery, almost a century of Jim Crow segregation, and a grinding poverty that has never let up. The thousands crammed into the stinking New Orleans Superdome, who never could have afforded the $90 a seat tickets when it was a sports arena, felt like they were in the hold of a slave ship, as Jesse Jackson remarked. Of course, black Democrat Jackson then turns around and tells the grandchildren of slaves the lie that “the hands that picked cotton will pick a president” ... by voting for Dixiecrats like Bill Clinton. Clinton is helping Bush do political damage control and touring with George Bush I calling for charity contributions, swindling working people while providing a juicy tax break for the capitalists.

Slavery was the economic foundation on which U.S. capitalism was built, and its effects still permeate American society. All the more so in New Orleans, which was annexed by the United States from France in the 1803 Louisiana Purchase, greatly extending the sway of the slavocracy. In the early 19th century, New Orleans was a center of the slave trade. Controlling it was crucial to U.S. rulers, because the products of slave labor were shipped down the Mississippi and exported through the port of New Orleans. Back then, the black population was kept in shacks in the bottom lands that lie below sea level, while the grand mansions of the white aristocracy lined St. Charles Avenue. The relatively large number of free blacks gave rise to the multicultural heritage that is to this day the trademark of New Orleans, the city that was the birthplace of jazz music and home of the Mardi Gras. But in the rich cultural mix, black people were always on the bottom economically, and geographically. The state is a paradise of plunder and corruption for oil and agribusiness companies, together with Democrat and Republican politicians who feed at the trough. Their wealth and power are based on ruthless exploitation of the black and white laboring poor.

The St. Petersburg Times (4 September) writes that “many black people in New Orleans, believed the city purposefully broke the levy that flooded their neighborhood so the famous French Quarter and white areas of town could be spared.” They may think that because the capitalist rulers of New Orleans did it before. During the Mississippi River flood in the spring of 1927, the business community decided to dynamite the levee at Poydras, just below the city, flooding out St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes and ruining small farmers. For this the bankers enlisted the support of Republican president Calvin Coolidge, who named a commission headed by Herbert Hoover. Throughout the Mississippi Delta, blacks by the thousands were press-ganged to shore up the levees, forcibly held in work camps under armed guard, beset by Klan night-riders. When a black worker refused to submit to this slave labor, he was shot by a cop, triggering a strike and unrest in the camps (John Barry, Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America [Simon & Schuster, 1997]).

Victims of Hurricane Katrina argue with National Guard trying to board buses to leave
New Orleans Superdome, Thursday, September 1.
(Photo: Willie J. Allen/AP)

The victims of Hurricane Katrina are enraged because they know it doesn’t have to be this way. In a society organized for human needs rather than for the profits sweated out of the misery of the masses, natural disasters can be prepared for and their effect mitigated. Just across the Caribbean in Cuba, where capitalism was abolished after the Revolution of 1959, hurricanes are an annual affair, yet few are killed by them. In 2001, when Hurricane Michelle, a Category 4 storm, lashed the island with 125-mph winds, 700,000 people were evacuated and five died. In September 2004, while Hurricane Jeanne killed up to 4,000 people in U.S.-occupied Haiti, the even stronger Category 5 Hurricane Ivan pummeled western Cuba, but nobody was killed, even though the storm destroyed up to 20,000 homes. This feat was achieved by evacuating 1.9 million people, housing three-quarters of them in other people’s homes, while the remainder found refuge in 2,500 shelters; 1,725 kitchens, staffed by food workers from Havana, were set up by the government to feed the evacuees.

This shows what can be accomplished by a collectivized economy where such urgent tasks of meeting human needs are not blocked by capitalist private property, even though the government of Fidel Castro is a bureaucratic regime. Today, Cuba has offered to send teams of doctors, experienced in disaster relief, to New Orleans. The U.S. government, which has economically blockaded the island for 45 years in its frenzy to strangle the revolution, has refused to acknowledge the offer. Meanwhile, Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, a bourgeois nationalist allied with Castro’s Cuba who has been a thorn in the side of the Bush regime, has offered to provide $1 million in disaster aid and cheap heating oil to poor communities in the U.S. through the Citgo chain of refineries and gas stations that it owns. Revolutionaries defend the Cuban deformed workers state and Venezuela against U.S. imperialism, and call for their offers of aid to be accepted.

The capitalist rulers’ response to Hurricane Katrina is part and parcel of the racist oppression that is endemic in the United States and has been escalating in the wake of the U.S. invasion/occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. This is part of the reason why it is vital to fight in defense of the Iraqi and Afghan peoples and for the defeat of U.S. imperialism. While dead bodies are stacked in hospital corridors and at airport counters and float through the flooded streets of New Orleans, the medical examiner in Tucson, Arizona is using a refrigerated tractor-trailer to hold the overflow of bodies of immigrant workers who died in the desert after crossing the border from Mexico in search of a better life. More than 200 “illegal immigrants” have been killed in this way in Arizona alone during the past year, while anti-immigrant fascists set up “Minutemen” vigilante patrols to hunt them down. Meanwhile, racist politicians rail that undocumented immigrants must not be given any flood relief – that is, they can work and die, but not get what they need to live. The fight for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and for workers defense squads to smash the racist vigilantes is crucial for the entire working class.

Much of the left in the United States has joined with liberals in clamoring for the federal government to provide “money for refugees, not for war.” They write that the government could use “eminent domain in a way that actually benefits people,” by using college dormitories, convention centers and hotels to house hurricane evacuees. “Only massive immediate Federal intervention can relieve the situation,” says the International Action Committee (linked to the Workers World Party) in a September 1 statement. Noting that thousands of Louisiana and Mississippi National Guard troops are currently in Iraq, along with their Humvees, refuelers and generators, the IAC says: “They should be at home helping their neighbors recover from this disaster, not in Iraq maintaining an illegal occupation.” Such appeals for the government’s armed forces to serve the people create dangerous illusions in the forces of racist repression and the capitalist state they represent.

Louisiana State Police in armored car roll by Hurricane Katrina evacuees waiting
for food and water, Friday, September 2.
(Photo: Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle)

In fact, the National Guard troops are being brought back from Iraq, and they are now patrolling New Orleans like they did in Baghdad only a few weeks ago. “They have M-16s and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot to kill... and I expect they will,” announced Governor Kathleen Blanco. Revolutionary communists would certainly not stand in the way of troops actually providing aid or helping rescue survivors. We support demands that decent facilities be opened for the use of the survivors, which will be a major issue in months to come as the “rebuilding” of New Orleans will undoubtedly be dragged out. But we tell the truth, that the capitalists’ army and police exist to repress the workers, black and poor people, and to protect the rich and powerful. Reformists beg the government of the class enemy to “do the right thing.” Revolutionaries seek to mobilize the black, poor and working people to act independently in their own class interests against the state power of their oppressors.

The wrenching dislocation that Hurricane Katrina has set off could have profound revolutionary consequences, if a revolutionary leadership is forged to lead the struggles of the oppressed. The tens of thousands of suddenly homeless black poor and working people ought to march on Washington itself, on a class-struggle program counterposed to the segregationist nationalism of Farrakhan et al. The sight of thousands of unemployed homeless camped out on the ellipse and the mall in full view of Bush’s White House and the Capitol, recalling the hunger marches of the early 1930s, would send shivers down the spine of the ruling class. Demands should be raised for massive public works, at full union-scale wages and under workers control, to rebuild New Orleans in the interests of those who live and work in it, not the capitalist oil corporations, agribusinesses and tourist industry who have run Louisiana as their private fiefdom, in the process sinking its biggest city below the waters of Lake Pontchartrain and bringing doom to its inhabitants.

House speaker Republican Dennis Hastert opposed spending billions to rebuild New Orleans, a city which he said could instead be “bulldozed” into oblivion. This expresses the racist disdain of the right-wing yahoos who, even as they use the 9-11 World Trade Center attack as a battle cry for their terrorist “war on terror,” would like to “cut off New York City and let it float out to sea.” Their visceral fear and hostility is directed against the black, Latino, Asian, immigrant poor and working people who live in the urban centers and have the economic and social power to bring the rulers of U.S. capitalism to their knees. A magnificent city can be rebuilt in New Orleans. It is not true that this is impossible because much of the city is below sea level – just look at Amsterdam. But for that to happen a revolutionary workers party must be built, one that is internationalist to its core, to lead the necessary revolution in this country and around the world. Black workers would play a vanguard role in making such a party a champion and tribune of all the oppressed.

The agony of New Orleans has shown once again that black oppression is central to all politics in the United States. The civil rights movement, which stayed within the “bourgeois-democratic” framework, achieved only limited gains, and even those are constantly being undermined. It could not liberate black people from the poverty and racism inherent in the system of capitalist wage slavery. As Karl Marx wrote at the time of the Civil War, the second American Revolution, that abolished chattel slavery: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black skin it is branded.” Today, fighting for revolutionary integrationism against the racists who lock up minorities in segregated ghettos and barrios, the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International call for all the oppressed to join the struggle for black liberation through socialist revolution. n

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com