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Synthesis/Regeneration 39   (Winter 2006)

Black Struggles for Justice

Hurricane Katrina: The Black Nation’s 9/11!

by Saladin Muhammad

The magnitude of the destruction and human suffering caused by Hurricane Katrina to the people and communities of the Gulf Coast Region, while not the result of an act of “terror,” is directly a result of a profit-driven system of capitalist exploitation reinforced by the national oppression of African-American people in the US South, a region where the majority of Black people live and where the conditions of oppression, poverty and underdevelopment are most concentrated.

As anti-imperialists and activists engage in work to build support for the Gulf Coast survivors, we must have an analysis and political context for properly understanding the reasons for this crisis and the contradictions surrounding its aftermath. The response to this human tragedy must be more than a humanitarian response in order to deal with the magnitude and complexity of issues, international political ramifications, the legal aspects, and the various levels of local, regional, national and international coalition and network building and mobilizing that must take place to build a powerful movement for social justice.

There is much talk about how to define the main social impact of Katrina: Whether it is mainly a major disaster for Black people or for working class and poor people in general. This attempt to separate race from class when dealing with issues where those workers affected are majority African-American is no accident. It seeks to divide the character and content of the working class responses.

Thus, it is important to define the race and class character of the crisis and to call on the larger working class to unite with its most oppressed section— the African-American working class which is also the predominant basis of an oppressed nation and nationality historically denied real democratic rights and subjugated by US imperialism.

The government’s failure to correct this danger, known far in advance, that led to the continuously unfolding massive human tragedy, helps all to see the racist nature of the US capitalist system and how the system of African-American national oppression is in violation of human rights and guilty of crimes against humanity.

African-American national oppression

African-American national oppression was/is a major factor contributing to the magnitude of the disaster caused by Katrina. As more than 90% of Black people throughout the US are workers, African-American national oppression places its primary emphasis on the exploitation and oppression of Black workers and their communities. More than two-thirds of New Orleans’ inhabitants were African-American. In the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood that was one of the hardest hit, more than 98% were Black.

The slow US federal and state government responses to natural disasters like Hurricanes Katrina and Floyd in North Carolina in September 1999 that greatly impacted predominately African-American working class communities, make clear that the value of Black and working class life is subordinate to capitalist property and profits.

African-American national oppression was/is a major factor contributing to the magnitude of the disaster caused by Katrina.

The racist economic, social and political policies and practices of the US government and capitalist system shape society’s attitudes about the reasons for the historical oppression of African-Americans. It seeks to isolate, criminalize and scapegoat African-Americans as social pariahs.

The characterization of the Black working class in this way is a part of the continuous ideological shaping of white supremacy that gives white workers a sense of being part of another working class, different from the Black working class. This often leads many white workers to act against their class interests, discouraging them from uniting with the Black working class in struggling to seek common, equal and socially transformative resolutions to their class issues.

The media provided different descriptions of acts of desperation and survival by Blacks and whites in obtaining food and supplies following Katrina; an example is “looters” and “finders.” The police and National Guard were ordered to stop looking for survivors and to stop “lawlessness.” Bush’s statements about getting tough on “looters” made clear that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast were becoming areas of military occupation.

The refusal by thousands of mainly Black people to leave their homes was initially described by the media as the main problem related to the slow evacuation efforts—blaming the victims. No one initially mentioned the low wages, level of poverty and high rates of unemployment that prevented people from leaving.

After it took almost a week for the government evacuation effort to begin, leaving people to fend for themselves without electricity, food and water, it became shamefully clear and unavoidable for the media to hide that the government had made no provisions for a major evacuation. The acts of heroism by the people themselves in rescuing their neighbors, although not emphasized by the media, could be seen throughout its coverage.

The “looting” and “lawlessness” must be addressed and placed in proper context. When it became clear that there was no emergency evacuation plan in place—people waiting up to a week before any major evacuation effort began—people were forced to take desperate actions for survival, both until they got “rescued” and for their uncertain future as refugees with no resources or income. TVs, appliances, etc., become a form of capital and a means for trade during a crisis.

Some survivors were forced to “steal” cars to get their families out of the areas. Should this be considered a crime? No! Also, when people are oppressed, neglected and left to die, they often engage in spontaneous acts of rebellion, striking out against those who control wealth and power.

… the term “racism” without the context of national oppression and imperialism is grossly inadequate in describing the scope and depth of the impact of the US oppression of African-American people.

This is why the term “racism” without the context of national oppression and imperialism is grossly inadequate in describing the scope and depth of the impact of the US oppression of African-American people. It often fails to point out the impact that African-American national oppression has on influencing the standard of living and social conditions of the general working class regardless of race, especially in areas where Black workers make up a majority or large minority of the population.

US imperialism on the domestic front

Not only did the US federal and state governments place the working class of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast in danger, including failing to develop a planned emergency response to the crisis, it has also refused the aid of other countries like Cuba and Venezuela that have offered to send hundreds of doctors, tons of medical supplies and fuel to help the people in the Gulf Coast Region.

… the US federal and state governments … refused the aid of other countries like Cuba and Venezuela…

US imperialism has thus decided that it has the sole right to decide if the majority African-American and working class people and communities in the Gulf Coast Region have the human and political right to survive or not. This is clearly an international human rights question where the demand for self-determination must be applied as part of the resolution.

Though food, water and transportation trickled in, the government made sure the oil industry was taken care of fast. Over 10 major refineries were knocked out of commission in the Gulf region, but many of them were back operating within the week. Bush released federal oil reserves, but oil companies jacked up gas prices to a criminal level. Environmental safeguards were loosened for gasoline producers to allow more pollution. All this while the four largest oil companies had profits of nearly $100 billion in the last 18 months. Why isn’t this labeled as corporate “lawlessness?”

The African-American working class majority of New Orleans and parts of the Gulf Coast have been “evacuated” to other cities several hundred and in some cases thousands of miles away from their communities. Many feel that their communities will never be restored and that they won’t be returning home.

Though food, water and transportation trickled in, the government made sure the oil industry was taken care of fast.

They have good reason to feel this way, as some majority African-American communities have already begun to experience gentrification—moving Black and poor people out of the inner cities and replacing them with more affluent and predominantly middle and upper class whites.

Many reports and scientific papers warned that unbridled development along the coast had done away with millions of acres of wetlands that buffered coastal communities from storms. Thus, this disaster and the racist and capitalist circumstances surrounding its occurrence and aftermath raise the issue of “ethnic cleansing.”

Many African-Americans in particular will experience problems related to the loss of identification documents in the flood and fall into a similar status as undocumented and immigrant workers that come from Latin America and the Caribbean. Their residential and citizenship status will be challenged in most cases when it comes time to get disaster relief subsistence. The racist nature of US capitalism often makes this reality of being a refugee and undocumented worker within one’s “own” country a unique reality for African-Americans and other oppressed nationalities, especially during times of natural and social crisis.

We should expect the US to use this disaster to increase restrictions on forced economic immigration. It is therefore important that African-Americans and Latinos unite in challenging the refusal of survivor’s assistance on the basis of the lack of documentation or citizenship status. Forging this unity is an important part of a larger and more difficult and absolutely essential process of building international solidarity and working class unity against US imperialism. This is why it’s so important for Black workers and their organizations to play a leading role in shaping the class as well as national character of the struggle for justice around this disaster. The future of New Orleans will be decided by the US corporate class, the white power structure, unless there is an organized and combined African-American and working class struggle led by the African-American working class majority in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Such a struggle must take the popular form of a combined struggle for African American self-determination and worker power, and must have an international component.

Katrina disaster exposes impact of Iraq

The Katrina disaster exposes how the US imperialist war in Iraq and throughout the Middle East, including billions in support for Israel’s occupation of Palestine, is directly connected to the human tragedy in the Gulf Coast Region.

Vital resources that had been allocated by the Bush administration to fix the substandard levees in New Orleans and the erosion of marshlands along the coast that caused the region to experience such enormous flooding and massive loss of lives were cut and shifted to the war budget.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have consciously refused to adequately maintain or strengthen the levees that protect New Orleans.

Both Republican and Democratic administrations have consciously refused to adequately maintain or strengthen the levees that protect New Orleans. Hurricane and flood control have received the steepest federal funding reductions in New Orleans history—down 44.2% since 2001. The emergency management chief for Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, told The Times-Picayune in 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 is the price we pay.” Requests for an additional $250 million for Army Corps of Engineers’ levee work in the delta went unmet.

There were over 15,000 National Guards from the Gulf Coast Region in Afghanistan and Iraq fighting unjust wars. Their equipment, including generators, water purification systems and other needed life support and disaster preparedness supplies, were overseas as well.

As was also the case during the Vietnam and Korean wars, the US tried to conceal the racist treatment of African-Americans on the home front. In both of these wars, the racist treatment of African-Americans in the US led to rebellions in the military and drew many former veterans into the civil rights and African-American liberation movements when they returned home.

It is important that this connection be raised and exposed to help African-Americans better understand the more immediate relationship to the wars abroad and the national and working class oppression of African-Americans in the US. This will not only serve to strengthen the current US anti-war movement, it will strengthen the US and international anti-imperialist movement.

Lessons from North Carolina’s Hurricane Floyd

The coalitions and movement that develop to aid the survivors of this disaster must understand how it differs from other disasters throughout US history. When one analyzes the responses to Hurricane Floyd, labeled the “Flood of the Century” that impacted 30 counties in Eastern North Carolina in September 1999, we see at least one major difference that defines how people’s aid must be organized.

With Floyd, the evacuation of thousands of survivors to distant cities and states did not occur. People were moved and went on their own to neighboring towns and communities, thus making it easier to build a survivors’ organization and movement in the area made up of representatives of the various towns and communities that were impacted.

There was a decision to define people as “survivors” and not “victims” as one way of helping to empower them and to discourage a “victim’s consciousness” which made many feel they had no right to challenge the abuses of FEMA and the state. The children were teased at schools that their clothes and food were “handouts” from charity. Many began to deny they were survivors of the hurricane.

There was the need for a survivor’s slogan—Social Justice, Not Charity—to promote aid as a human right. This is why it’s so important that this movement have a strong cultural component.

The largest camp housing Floyd survivors was set up on a toxic waste dump which had not been inspected ahead of time and was located behind a women’s prison. Survivors felt they had no right to complain and also feared that if they did, they would be put out of the FEMA camp with no place else to go.

The survivors’ organization was not a “support” or emergency “relief” organization per se, even though it participated in “relief” activities such as food and clothing distribution centers. Survivors’ committees were organized in 15 sites throughout eastern NC and a survivors’ summit was organized to bring survivor communities together to hammer out a survivors’ manifesto of demands to serve as their program for recovery and reconstruction.

The state of NC had established a Floyd relief fund that had several hundred million dollars of federal money and private “donations.” The survivors’ organization demanded that the fund address key needs and ensure that the cut-off period did not leave survivors to fall through the cracks.

The survivors’ organization and support coalitions in the areas organized reconstruction brigades of people who came in from other cities to help repair and rebuild damaged homes. Legal clinics were set up to deal with the massive insurance fraud and real estate speculators who were trying to get people to sell their homes for little or nothing to get desperately needed money. Volunteer doctors and medical people set up screening and emergency support clinics that wrote subscriptions for medicine, and college students and educators set up schools and day care in the camp areas. A people’s transportation service was set up to take people to work, to look for work and to shop for clothes and other items. There were discussions about setting up survivor worker-run businesses to help create employment such as paint crews, home repair and survivor taxi service, but they never materialized.

It is very important to draw the trade unions into this movement, the Gulf Coast-wide coalition and national support network. They should be encouraged to contribute directly to the survivors- and people-driven support coalition in the region, not to the Red Cross or government agencies. The identity of the working class efforts will not be projected by the contributions made to these agencies.

It is important that workers see that trade unions have a broader concern and commitment to the needs of the working class and not just their immediate members. They can play an important role in supporting those evacuated to their cities, especially outside of the South. The unions can help in adopting families and shelters in their areas. They must also play a leading role in helping to combat the racist attempts by the media, white supremacists, the religious right and others to alienate those evacuated to their cities by educating their members and getting them actively involved in support efforts.

During Floyd, survivors … from … the oldest historically Black town in North Carolina … organized to demand that their city council convene itself even though the town had been destroyed.

The Black Workers for Justice set up a distribution center at its Workers Center in Rocky Mount, NC, but had to struggle to demand it be recognized as an official center so that it could receive food and supplies from distribution warehouses that were set up by FEMA.

Most of the FEMA-designated distribution centers were the big white area churches, some Black churches, YMCAs and OICs. The white paternalistic and missionary character of a major portion of the establishment-designated “formal” relief efforts was overwhelming.

Disaster relief efforts must be carried out as a political struggle

We learned that during times of disaster, the state and federal government declarations of a “state of emergency” allow local governmental powers to be suspended or placed under the direct command of the state government. During Floyd, survivors, particularly from the Town of Princeville, the oldest historically Black town in North Carolina and some say in the US, organized to demand that their city council convene itself even though the town had been destroyed.

This was a struggle for self-determination within the context of the struggle for reconstruction. The Princeville city council held weekly open meetings where activists organized transportation to bring survivors by cars and church buses to the meetings to have input into decisions.

The movement in the Gulf Coast Region has major concerns that require the organization, politics and leadership of the African-American liberation movement as a central component to help unite a broad, multi-national, multi-racial and international campaign for social justice and reconstruction.

The dispersed masses from the region have to be organized and reconnected by a representative body that acts as a kind of provisional government to deal with questions regarding the future of their communities, the blatant neglect of the US government in placing them in danger, the failure of the government to have a planned and speedy evacuation, the denial of aid from other countries and the use of the police and National Guard as military occupation forces, among other concerns.

Some of the demands that must be included in this movement are:

The political movement must be organized nationally. The progressive organizations of every political tendency and humanitarian expression should be able to support this movement. However, it is very important and politically necessary, to give it its proper anti-imperialist character, that it be led by a national Black united front, in terms of shaping and putting forward its main political demands and representing it at the national and international levels.

The political movement must … be led by a national Black united front …

We must be careful while ensuring the presence of the African-American working class and liberation movement forces, not to narrow the scope and content of the struggle around a particular ideological perspective. A mass movement must be built that the African American liberation movement works inside of and influences in a more conscious anti-imperialist direction.

There must be an effort to isolate and out-organize opportunist elements using this disaster to win favor and reposition themselves within the Democratic and Republican Parties or with sections of the corporate class by promoting their image as saviors.

This means discouraging efforts to create sole dependence on cult-of-personality saviors or liberal and paternalist groups, however well-meaning, to solve the problems for the people or to speak on their behalf. This is also why it’s so important to have Black working class leadership at the national and local levels of the anti war and Millions More Movements.

We must work to make this tragedy and the struggle for Gulf Coast justice a major projection of the anti-war movement and its demonstrations, not only in the US but internationally. Survivors must speak at anti-war demonstrations and activities in other countries.

Likewise, the major African-American and working class mobilizations must project this disaster and struggle for justice as a major demand for the African-American liberation movement. The US Congressional Black Caucus must help to make this struggle a congressional centerpiece for measuring the treatment of African-American majority and working class communities, including immigrant workers.

The main tasks of the Gulf Coast struggle for justice should be to isolate and indict US imperialism, to gain concrete international support and ongoing recognition for the plight of the African-American people, to bring mass and international pressure on the US to win justice for the Gulf Coast survivors, and to force US imperialism to retreat in its war on the Middle East. The African-American liberation movement and anti-imperialist forces must take up the main tasks to carry out this strategy.

Saladin Muhammad is Chairperson of Black Workers For Justice, a worker and community-based organization in North Carolina and an International Rep with the United Electrical Workers Union (UE). This September 5, 2005 statement is available at http://freedomarchives.org/mailman/listinfo/news_freedomarchives.org

[21 feb 06]

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