More Katrina Shame

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 9/15/05

Remember all those stories of mayhem, murder and rape in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center? The tales of sexually abused corpses being found in the restrooms. It never happened. There are no corpses. The mental images of such mayhem, however, were compelling. In their wake, pundits called for a military occupation of New Orleans. And for the first time since the civil war, we all stood by dumbfounded as an entire American city was illegally put under military control – ostensibly to hold the cannibals at bay.

The Gretna Posse

Likewise, remember all those stories about armed gangs opening fire on rescue aircraft? Well, according to the FAA, these attacks were also myths. There were, however, armed gangs. The most notorious of which wore the uniform of the Gretna (Jefferson Parish) Sheriff’s Department. The Gretna posse posted themselves on the Highway 90 bridge connecting their dry unflooded community with New Orleans. There, for days, they opened fire, shooting over the heads of flood survivors trying to evacuate by foot out of New Orleans. According to paramedics, the good ol’ Gretna boys even made at least one incursion across the bridge into New Orleans, attacking and disbursing flood evacuees awaiting evacuation in a makeshift camp on the median of the Ponchartrain Expressway – seizing their “looted” food and water.

I suppose the Gretna Sheriff’s attack on evacuees could be written off simply as just one more episode in Louisiana’s long racist history. But it seems more complicated than that. Jefferson Parish, of which Gretna is a part, is about one third black. And some of the evacuees who they turned back were white. They were, however, allowing evacuees in cars to cross the bridge. So maybe it’s about class. Maybe they were turning poor folks back since they weren’t worthy of sanctuary on Gretna’s hallowed ground. But I still think the real story is about more than social class.

Police officers are trained professionals, supposedly capable of working under extreme pressure, and they are supposed to offer the first line of support when disaster strikes. No doubt there will be plenty of forensic sociology going on to see what made them snap – what turned the supposed good guys into some of the gnarliest devils this awful tragedy has sired.

The Fear Factor

I think it’s fear. As individuals and as an organization they were shitting their pants with fear. They believed the hype. New Orleans descended into chaos. And now the cannibal vampire zombies were marching over the bridge to decimate Jefferson Parish. And, according to witnesses, they turned people – old people, nursing home residents, children, and of course women and men (who have just as much of a right to live as do more vulnerable populations) back into the desperate straights of New Orleans.

Of course this fear is the bastard child of a racist society. That’s why whites were so quick to believe that the predominantly black city across the canal had descended into a violent self-destructive chaos. Ultimately, the blame must lie with a media culture that was quick to play the race card, and churn out unsubstantiated stories of mass mayhem in black neighborhoods of New Orleans.

As evacuees are finally settling in to the relative safety of their new digs, they’re coming forward with thousands of stories of selfless bravery, sacrifice and countless communities pulling together to help each other and to save lives. I’m sure there were rapes, murders and thefts as well. But that shouldn’t have been the story of the day and it shouldn’t have set the tempo for the ensuing media coverage which eclipsed the far more numerous stories of heroism.  

Property Over People

Once the seed of fear was planted, it spread like an out of control virus. Officials predictably gave the order to suspend life-saving search and rescue operations and instead focus on stopping “looting” and restoring “order.” When historians revisit the great flood of New Orleans, this will be the great shame – the order to value property over human life. To value the property of the wealthy over the lives of the poor.

One week after Katrina hit, New Orleans was under military occupation. The National Guard was not there to help when people were clinging to roofs. But they were there, along with regular Army troops and mercenaries from the Blackwater Corporation, to point guns in the faces of New Orleans residents who just survived a week of hell. As this story goes to press, there are reports of troops, freshly back from urban combat in Iraq, kicking in doors in New Orleans to evict survivors from their own homes. These mostly young and inexperienced troops, almost all of whom lack the professional training required of urban police officers, are, like the Gretna Sheriff’s Deputies, scared shitless. Their training and their experience equips them to secure hostile territory as invaders fighting an insurgency in war-torn Iraq. In New Orleans, they’re using war jargon, with one Guardsman who returned from Iraq explaining to Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman, that his mission was to “clear” buildings from “enemies” or “hostile people.” New Orleans residents who are refusing to vacate their mostly undamaged houses report troops raiding their homes during the middle of night, threatening them at gunpoint. It’s the fear thing again, coupled with an unclear mission.

It’s also illegal. The Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 makes it illegal for U.S. regular military personnel (who are now working along with National Guard) to engage in domestic law enforcement activities. They can fix bridges, rescue people, feed people, but not point weapons at citizens. There are a number of reasons for this. The most obvious is that electorates in democracies should control the military – not be controlled by the military.

Other Shame

The militarization of an American city is not the only assault on our democracy to occur last week. While we were all focused on the Gulf Coast, a federal appeals court ruled that the president can order the indefinite incommunicado detention of American citizens without them being charged with a crime. The ruling was made in the case of U.S. citizen José Padilla, who the Bush administration claims is associated with al Qaeda. The administration argued, get this, that they couldn’t try Padilla because he might be found innocent. The legal argument was that if found innocent, he could go on to threaten the United States. The actual ruling was written by Judge Michael Luttig, who pundits believe is on Bush’s short list for nomination as a Supreme Court justice. That would be right in line with the Bush team’s interviewing Judge John Roberts for a Supreme Court slot while he was hearing a case concerning whether or not Guantanamo visitors had POW rights. Roberts ruled, no, and was subsequently nominated for the Supreme Court. With Hurricane Katrina dominating the news, his confirmation hearing, like Luttig’s decision, are going by more or less unnoticed. This season’s biggest disaster is yet to come.


ęCopyright 2005

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