As I was driving to work last week I scanned my radio dial, listening to the mostly commercial radio stations on Los Angelesâ€™ FM spectrum. Within a few seconds of listening to each station (English and Spanish language alike), it was clear that everyone was fundraising for the victims of Hurricane Katrina. Everyone. Having seen the victims up close and personal on their TV screens and in their newspapers, in frenzied tones, desperate to believe in the soothing salve of charity, eager to â€œtake actionâ€ in face of so much suffering, it seems as though Americans have concluded that the only way to help a suffering people is through money, lots of it, more than you can afford, more than any one else deserves. Corporations, celebrities, right wing and left wing institutions, high school kids and cops are scrambling to fund-raise.
The Red Cross is reporting that it has already received more than half a billion dollars in donations for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, even more than was donated for last yearâ€™s Tsunami victims, and more than for the victims of September 11^th 2001. This overwhelming support for the people of Louisiana and Mississippi is heart warming. But at the risk of seeming callous I ask, is it really wise to throw millions of dollars at charities? Without political action, will it really help the Katrina survivors? And how will other causes be affected?
It was the governmentâ€™s responsibility to ensure that a hurricane wouldnâ€™t result in this type of disaster. The government failed. It was the governmentâ€™s responsibility to ensure that an emergency response to such a disaster would save as many lives as possible. The government failed. Now, it is the governmentâ€™s responsibility to ensure that all the survivors are taken care of, financially and other wise. It seems as though, by simply donating millions of dollars to certain large charities like the Red Cross we are assuming continued government failure. Those charities will need time and extra staff to even process all the money before they can begin distributing resources. Instead of the frenetic rush to raise money, should we not pour that energy into at least demanding that the government divert any and all resources from the Iraq war to the Katrina victims?
The donations would at best provide a salve, not a cure. Many Americans did not even know the extent to which poverty in Louisiana and Mississippi flourished along racial lines. Mindless fundraising is an easy way out of the guilt that we feel at the racist and classist conditions that poor blacks have been living in, and the disaster that they have now endured. If enough money is raised, Americans can go back to a numb existence of forgetting the injustices they have been forced to face these past few weeks.
Last week Bush used emergency powers to suspend the 1931 Davis-Bacon Act in the affected states. This means that contractors who rebuild the flooded areas using federal assistance can pay their workers less than the prevailing wage, thereby ensuring continued poverty and undercutting unions. It was precisely the poor population of New Orleans who could not afford to own cars that were stuck behind to suffer and die during the flooding. By suspending this law Bush ensures continued poverty among those who return to rebuild. Where is the public outcry demanding that our tax dollars enrich rather than impoverish the construction workers, likely to be residents of New Orleans?
A city that was already struggling against the forces of gentrification, it is likely that the â€œnewâ€ New Orleans will more rapidly become a commercial haven of casinos, mansions and corporate brand names. The political organizations that have vowed to fight these threats need our backing and dollars, perhaps even more than Red Cross, already flush with more cash than it can handle. Community Labor United is a coalition of labor and grassroots groups based in New Orleans who are expecting to fight overwhelming political pressure from government and corporations. They have set up a Peopleâ€™s Hurricane Fund that will be â€œdirected and administered by New Orleanian evacuees.â€ Another worthy organization is the Peopleâ€™s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a grassroots group struggling against racism, who are attempting to regroup their scattered staff and volunteers in order to continue their work.
In his recent piece for The Black Commentator, Glen Ford says, â€œCharity is fine. Rights are better.â€ What is needed in the coming weeks and months is serious political action to ensure that Katrina victims will have the right to return to their homes, have their homes rebuilt if necessary, have decent jobs and other resources. Will any of us participate in that fight once we are done emptying our bank accounts into the Red Cross? Or will we feel that we have done â€œenoughâ€ through our donations?
Most Americans will have given their fill of tax exempted donations to charities this year for the Katrina survivors. But while hundreds of thousands of the hurricane survivors have been displaced, how many of us think of the already-homeless in the US? In Los Angeles County alone there are almost 100,000 homeless people, most of whom rarely merit the attention of the media and the public. Local non-profits who provide services for the homeless will be hard hit this year with most donations being diverted to hurricane relief, and with â€œdonor fatigueâ€ setting in earlier than usual. Many non-profits offer services that the government fails to provide. Barely recovering from the impact of last yearâ€™s Tsunami donation frenzy, non-profits across the country who provide a safety-net for millions, will be denied grants, will cancel fundraisers, will accept losses in their direct mail campaigns, and will even have to close their doors.
But as many in the non-profit world have learned the hard way, fund raising without political action is never a solution. Rather than ensure the closure of grassroots organizations nationwide by diverting our personal financial resources to the â€˜cause of the moment,â€™ we need to become politically active and make demands on our government to ensure that the thousands of survivors of Katrina, and the millions of others who suffer daily from homelessness, starvation, poor education, poor healthcare, etc, get what they deserve. After all, itâ€™s our tax money, our people, our government, and our right.
– Catherine Saillant, â€œLocal Charities Fear a Drop in Their Fundraising,â€ Los Angeles Times, September 10, 2005. – Glen Ford, â€œNew Orleans Population has the Right of Return,â€ BlackCommentator.com, September 8, 2005. – More information about Community Labor United can be found at www.qecr.org
Sonali Kolhatkar is host and producer of Uprising, a popular prime-time radio program on KPFK, Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles. She is also the Co-Director of the Afghan Womenâ€™s Mission, a non-profit organization that works in solidarity with the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA).