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News :: Human Rights
People of Gulf Coast demand answers
08 Sep 2005
“The demand for self-determination as it applies to recovery and reconstruction is not only a demand for African Amer i cans, it is also a working-class and gender demand, as self-determination aims to improve and change conditions for all who are impacted by national oppression,” said Saladin Muhammad of Black Workers for Justice
As gov’t cover-up deepens
People of Gulf Coast demand answers

By LeiLani Dowell

Barbara Bush, accompanied by former presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, visited hurricane relief centers in Houston on Sept. 5. When interviewed about the experience on American Public Media’s “Marketplace” program, she offered callous statements about the misery the people there were undergoing.

She said, according to Editor & Publisher, “referring to the poor who had lost everything back home and evacuated, ‘This is working very well for them. ... So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.” (Editor & Publisher, Sept. 5)

The response from former First Lady Barbara Bush epitomizes the response of government officials across the board to the continuing crisis for the people of the delta region. Despite the evident desperation of the people of the Delta, the response to the disaster on the part of government officials continues to be sluggish and indifferent to the needs of the people.

One episode highlights this indifference. On Aug. 30, two Navy helicopter pilots assigned to deliver food and water to military installations along the Gulf Coast completed their mission, and then picked up a radio transmission from the Coast Guard asking for help with rescue efforts.

Unable to contact their superiors for permission, they headed over to the area. They picked up folks stranded on roofs and inside their houses, including two blind people who had been unable to climb to the roof of their house. Throughout that day they rescued 110 people.

Expecting a hero’s welcome, the two pilots—Lt. David Shand and Lt. Matt Udkow—returned to base, where instead they received a reprimand for straying from their initial assignment. Udkow, who associates say was “especially vocal about voicing his disagreement to his superiors,” was reassigned to supervise a kennel on base for pets of service members.

The New York Times of Sept. 7 says that “the episode illustrates how the rescue effort in the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina had to compete with the military’s other, more mundane logistical needs.”

Pentagon birds of prey descend

However, even with mounting national and international criticism, the government still deems it acceptable to write off the people of the Delta for being poor and overwhelmingly Black.

The Washington Post reports that 1 million people will be homeless for months as a result of Katrina. Clean-up efforts in the region are expected to take months as well. The draining of the water in New Orleans is expected to create another environmental disaster by killing everything in nearby waters, including in delicate wetlands and key maritime spawning grounds.

The Associated Press reports that evacuees are placing a strain on social programs in various states—programs that had already been stretched thin by budget cuts to feed the war budget.

Meanwhile, one of the few options being offered to Black youth at relief centers is the same that has been offered for decades in communities of color—that of joining the military.

An appeal sent via email from community organizers in the Houston Astrodome reads, “The National Guard [here] has engaged in ad hoc recruiting in recent days. [On] Sept. 7 the U.S. military is conducting a Job Fair in the Astrodome in a blatant effort to exploit the despair of masses of Americans evacuated from the Gulf Coast.”

The other option offered regularly by the state—that of prison—continues in New Orleans. A photograph on the New York Times web site on Sept. 6 showed a line of overwhelmingly Black men at a “temporary prison ... set up at a Grey hound bus terminal in New Orleans.”

No consideration has been made for the fact that many have been separated from their families and loved ones—in large part due to military evacuation plans. Stories in both the Los Angeles Times and the Detroit Free Press tell of infants and children being shipped to one part of the country while their parents were sent to another. A plan to move some evacuees from the Houston Astrodome onto cruise ships had to be postponed when many demanded to stay to continue looking for loved ones.

A mandatory evacuation has been ordered for New Orleans. Mayor Ray Nagin cites the environmental crisis that is abounding there, where any number of toxic chemicals from homes and factories have mixed with human waste.

“Mr. Nagin urged stragglers to leave immediately, saying he did not want possible explosions and disease to increase a death toll that Lt. David Benelli, president of the Police Association of New Orleans, said could reach 2,000 to 20,000.” (New York Times)

Along with this is talk of forceably removing people from their homes, even of denying clean water to the people remaining.

However, what is not being discussed is the undoubtedly growing lack of faith in government officials who did little to nothing in the first place, not to mention soldiers with their guns trained on the people. It becomes completely understandable, with each new report of the government’s preoccupation with protecting property and the wealthy, that some might want to take their chances rather than put themselves in such unsympathetic hands.

What is also strikingly absent from media accounts is any attempt on the part of government officials to connect with community leaders and grassroots organizations to get their input and participation in the process.

Many organizations and individuals have issued demands that are not being responded to by the government. One of those organizations is Community Labor United, a New Orleans coalition of labor and community activists. It is calling for “the formation of the New Orleans
Peo ple’s Committee composed of hurri cane survivors from each of the shelters, which will: demand to oversee FEMA, the Red Cross and other organizations collect ing resources on behalf of the Black community of New Orleans; demand decision-making power in the long-term redevelopment of New Orleans; [and] issue a national call for volunteers to assist with hous ing, health care, edu cation and legal matters for the duration of the displacement.”

Saladin Muhammad of Black Workers for Justice says, “Some of us ... who participated in the recovery and reconstruction campaign following Hurricane Floyd know the importance of political forces linked to the African American liberation movement playing a major and leading role in organizing a people’s response to catastrophes of this nature.

“The demand for self-determination as it applies to recovery and reconstruction is not only a demand for African Amer i cans, it is also a working-class and gender demand, as self-determination aims to improve and change conditions for all who are impacted by national oppression.”

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