The following article was originally published in Proletarian Revolution No. 76 (Winter 2006)

The Battle Over New Orleans:

Katrina Survivors Still Under Attack

Four and a half months after Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast and devastated New Orleans and large areas of Louisiana and Mississippi, the survivors – who were cold-bloodedly abandoned by Federal, state and local officials during the week-long horror of the storm and the flooding that followed – are still under attack. New Orleans is in shambles: immense stretches of it are still without water or electricity, hospitals and schools remain shut, whole neighborhoods are uninhabitable. Promises to rebuild have become empty lies. Only 20 percent of the city’s residents have returned, and those are mostly white and wealthy. The word “Katrina” has come to mean the deliberate racial and class cleansing of a major Black city.

Katrina was a national and international scandal because the death and destruction were man-made, caused by a series of criminal, racist and anti-working-class acts of commission and neglect by the Federal and local authorities. Over 1300 people died, and a quarter of a million homes were destroyed. As we wrote in Proletarian Revolution No. 75: “The result in New Orleans was a ‘perfect storm’ of all the ugly features of American capitalism, and it led to perhaps the greatest single act of racist mass murder ever to take place in this country.”

That storm is not over. Once the continuous media coverage ended, the crimes committed before and during Katrina got swept under the rug. George W. Bush’s main concern, after all, was the public relations blow he suffered, not the horrors the victims underwent. New outrages are being committed daily. For example, displaced evacuees across the country are threatened with eviction from the trailers and run-down motel rooms the government parked them in. Although billions of dollars were promised, aid for Katrina victims has been meager, and many of the poorest never saw any at all. And every effort is being made to prevent much of the poor, Black and working-class population of New Orleans from returning.

Katrina washed away much of the veneer covering the true nature of this racist capitalist society. It starkly revealed how Black workers and poor people are still the main targets, not of nature but of capitalism. The naked grasp for profits by capitalists and their kept politicians, white and Black, shows once again that only a socialist revolution that ends the rule of capitalism for good can create a society that meets the human needs of all.

To that end, supporters of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) have actively intervened in conferences and actions in Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans. We fought for demands concerning full employment at decent wages, massive public works and racial equality, among others. (See below for a fuller description of our work and proposals.)

The “Cleansing” of New Orleans

In New Orleans, Federal, state and local officials openly state their plans to gentrify the city while partially rebuilding it – without half of its Black population. Most outrageously, Bush’s Housing and Urban Development secretary, Alphonse Jackson, stated after the hurricane:

“Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time. New Orleans is not going to be as Black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

The entire New Orleans public school system was dismantled and converted into privatized charter schools in mid-October. The first school didn’t re-open until the end of November. Most New Orleans schools will not re-open at all this school year, and those that do will be in the wealthier areas. While 60,000 children attended New Orleans public schools before Katrina, it is estimated that the school system will serve 10,000 students or fewer this year. With no schools to go to, most families of Katrina survivors with children cannot even think about returning to New Orleans any time soon.

The government’s hypocrisy is even greater when it comes to housing. The lack of homes is the main barrier to most people’s return, and Mayor Nagin pretends that it is a problem local authorities are helpless to deal with. At a “town hall meeting” in Houston November 27 attended by hundreds of displaced Katrina victims, the only answer he had was to suggest that the survivors apply for mobile homes being offered by FEMA and then set them up in villages inside the city. The Housing Authority of New Orleans even gave a no-bid contract to Vacant Property Security, Inc. to put steel doors on public housing apartments so residents cannot return or even retrieve their belongings.

Since the 1980’s, under a succession of Democratic mayors and with the cooperation of the Clinton and both Bush Administrations, the public housing stock has been cut in half. Now, if the authorities have their way, they will carry out the outrageous boast by Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker, who celebrated Katrina: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

Nagin, the most prominent of a number of Black politicians involved, provides cover for the racist attacks. At the Houston meeting, Nagin claimed that his main purpose was to urge people to return to New Orleans. When skeptical evacuees asked whether the Lower Ninth Ward (an overwhelmingly Black poverty-stricken area) would be rebuilt, Nagin said yes. The very next day, a public hearing was held in New Orleans on the reconstruction plan by the Urban Land Institute, which proposes that a vast area covering entire Black neighborhoods be “re-evaluated as potential sites for mass buyouts and future green space.” Nagin’s own “Bring New Orleans Back Commission,” dominated by business elites and real estate tycoons, commissioned the plan. Nagin waffled at the hearing, this time saying his intention was to “ultimately” rebuild all of New Orleans.

More recently, Representative Baker, who admired “God’s work” in cleaning out New Orleans, decided to give his deity a further hand. To the applause of liberals as well as conservatives, Democrats as well as Republicans, this ardent “free market” reactionary proposed a massive government expenditure – up to $80 billion – to “restore” housing there. Under the guise of public aid, this would finance private housing through a massive government giveaway to private corporate developers. No doubt their checks will be sent more quickly than FEMA’s payments to Katrina victims.

The Urban Land Institute cynically tries to justify its own racist plan by saying “it would not be practical in the short term” to redevelop neighborhoods “that lack adequate levee protection.” But the reason for this is that the authorities will not commit to rebuilding the levees to withstand all hurricanes and floods, including maximum-strength Category 5 hurricanes. The Bush Administration has already rejected proposals to rebuild the Louisiana barrier islands and wetlands, which reduce a hurricane’s power as it approaches. Along with proper levees, this is the only way to really protect the region.

Even the dead have not escaped disgraceful treatment at the hands of authorities. First the government manipulated the body count, delaying a full search of the city and pre-emptively releasing an official death figure in the 900’s before further victims were found. The “official” count still stood at just 1,053 by the end of November, an absurdly low figure. More than 6,600 people are still reported missing. Further, up to 200 bodies had not been identified by the end of November because DNA testing had not even begun. The government continues to victimize the poor of New Orleans in death as it did in life.

On every issue vital to their lives – housing, financial aid, schools, hospitals, jobs and rebuilding the levees – the Federal, state and local governments have handed the Katrina survivors nothing but a stream of confusing and contradictory decisions. This is not an accident, nor just a case of massive bureaucratic incompetence, though there is certainly plenty of that. There is a pattern to the official confusion and hypocrisy: they make no commitments that might give Katrina victims any confidence about rebuilding their lives, certainly not in New Orleans. That the ruling class is eager to commit far vaster funds to wage its imperialist wars rather than to rebuild and safeguard a major city – with hundreds of thousands of people living in and near it – shows the true priorities of the capitalist system.

The Survivors’ Demands

In response to the authorities’ harassment and neglect, Katrina survivors have begun to organize themselves. In addition to local conferences, on December 9 a State of Emergency Conference and Survivors General Assembly drew several hundred people to Jackson, Mississippi. Survivors presented their stories, which ranged from tragic to horrific. Many expressed their outrage, and some broke down while telling their stories. A march in New Orleans the next day, of about 1000 people, centered around the survivors’ right to return to the battered city.

LRP supporters actively participated in both the conference and the march. At a youth speakout before the conference, one LRPer took the floor and pointed out the power of the survivors, noting that when they get organized and can spread their experiences and views widely they have the potential to blow the class struggle wide open in America. He cited the power of the interracial working class, referring to the Philadelphia transit strike and the potential New York City transit strike. His intervention drew widespread applause and led to the sales and distribution of dozens of copies of Proletarian Revolution.

The conference issued a declaration demanding that “local, state and Federal government make conditions possible for our immediate return.” Specific points included temporary housing, an end to price gouging and evictions, hiring of local residents to do the rebuilding work, immediate debt relief, quality public education and childcare, and quality affordable health care and free prescriptions. The assembly also demanded that the government immediately clean up air, water and soil to make it safe and healthy for people to return home, and provide funds for all families to be reunited – concretely, that the databases of FEMA, Red Cross and other organizations with people’s records be made public. It insisted on accountability over the tens of billions of FEMA and other funds raised for the survivors and rebuilding.

In our interventions, the LRPers stressed a concrete set of demands: the right to return with a permanent job and training at union wages, the use of these jobs for massive public works to rebuild the city, a halt to all evictions and foreclosures with a moratorium on payments starting now. We also pushed the call for mass action, beginning with coordinated protests in each of the major survivors’ cities, culminating with a massive march on either Washington or New Orleans.

In all our conversations and discussions, we spelled out that capitalism was the cause of the Katrina disaster. We linked racism to capitalism, and said that only the power of the working class could win a fight to rebuild New Orleans. We showed the parallel between the deaths in New Orleans and the murderous war in Iraq, and argued that a proletarian revolution is needed to get rid of capitalism so that wars and man-made disasters will not happen again.

Organize Katrina Survivors and Victims!

It is absolutely vital to the struggle against all the racist attacks – against Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and all people of color – that everyone under attack must fight against allowing the racist capitalist system to divide and conquer them. The mostly Black Katrina survivors and Black organizations must stand up for the rights of immigrant Katrina survivors and immigrant workers, documented or “illegal,” just as immigrant workers and Latino organizations must stand up against the racist attacks on Black people. Union workers of all races must demand that their leaders mobilize the power of their unions to defend the rights of all workers and oppressed people. We urge Katrina survivors to form their own organizations to take forward the struggle for their demands. They must also resist the ruling class’s attempts to pit survivors against oppressed and exploited immigrant clean-up workers. Instead they should defend the immigrants’ rights and support their struggles.

Our central point is that the survivors – together with other superexploited workers, many of them immigrants, who have been brought to the devastated regions to work at sub-minimum wage levels – have an opportunity to spark the class struggle nationwide. If they join together in effective organizations and create a public fight, they have the moral authority, based on the visible atrocities they went through, to be widely heard. They can gain the attention of workers, especially oppressed workers, across the country. Their example can inspire others, and we believe that their struggle would prove that the oppression and attacks that working people face are due to the capitalist system.

Indeed, the survivors’ immediate demands speak to needs that working-class people face all over the country. But their specific needs are so enormous that they will have to be fought for by the mass organizations of the working class – trade unions, civil rights groups and immigrant organizations. The real power of the working class lies in its centrality in production and in the production of profits: by striking, by withholding their profit-producing labor, workers can force the capitalist ruling class to act. Katrina survivors’ organizations should call demonstrations and demand that unions, Black and Latino community organizations and politicians mobilize support.

The Danger of Misleadership

The survivors’ conference was politically influenced by several Black nationalist currents which promoted Black business success stories. In effect, they are trying to transform a struggle based on the needs of large numbers of poor working-class people into a get-rich, small-business mirage.

Few survivors have any illusions left in President Bush, Kathleen Blanco (the Democratic governor of Louisiana) or Mayor Nagin. But other Democratic politicians and some religious figures are playing a cleverer game. Minister Louis Farrakhan and other Black nationalists have switched from pushing free enterprise ideology and a stress on Black “atonement” (of all things!) to a militant-sounding populist line over Katrina. Using the rhetoric of “poor people versus the rich,” they actually seek to bury the class struggle. Their outlook points to the greater expansion of Black capitalism in America, a dead-end trap for the overwhelming majority of Black people.

Likewise, Rev. Jesse Jackson has often captured the imagination of radicalized militants and undermined their struggles, sending them back into the Democratic Party (and its electoral pitfalls) – which since the 1930’s has served as the graveyard of movements for justice and equality. Jackson and his Operation Push use militancy to get more access to white-dominated big business for Black merchants and would-be franchise-holders – but not for the needs of the besieged Black masses.

As always, truth has to be proven in practice. Inside and alongside the organizations engaged in the struggle, revolutionaries will fight to convince our fellow workers to avoid the traps set by leaders who are committed to preserving the capitalist social system. We will fight their efforts to accept the system’s divide-and-conquer strategy. This, we believe, is the way to expose and ditch the false leaders and to create independent fighting working-class organizations. The common struggle against American capitalism and imperialism will bring together workers of all colors against this common enemy – provided that revolutionaries do our job of fighting to create an interracialist and internationalist proletarian revolutionary party to lead the masses of the dispossessed.