avatar
Of Disasters, Natural and Otherwise


[September 2, 2005] 

The city I called home for ten years is dying: a slow, agonizing, all-too-terribly public death, before the eyes of the nation and the world.

It is dying, as are far too many of its people, because our national leaders only have the stomach, or the talent (or both) for killing, as in Iraq or Afghanistan, but not for rebuilding eroding levees, nor rescuing people, as is desperately needed now. Fallujah? Oh yeah, we can do that. We can drop bombs and break things. New Orleans? Well, now wait a minute, we can’t go in there. It might be dangerous.

And while New Orleans will certainly be re-born, let there be no doubt of her imminent demise at present. The Birthplace of Jazz, home of the nation’s best food, most amazing architecture and many of its kindest people is headed for the status of a graveyard, in which will be buried not only tens of thousands of human souls, but businesses, entire neighborhoods, even a culture. Gone.

If you thought New Orleans was haunted before Hurricane Katrina, stick around. The dead will soon own every inch of it.

Children and old folks are perishing on national television; on streets I have walked a thousand times. People from the poorest sections of New Orleans are hanging on by the slimmest of threads: people from communities I have been in hundreds of times. People I know.

Bodies are floating in the streets; others are laid out on dry land, covered by blankets to provide them with what little dignity one can salvage in times such as this. Babies are dying of thirst; the elderly for lack of medicine.

Yet Congress took four days to come back from their vacation to arrange for an emergency aid bill. People who rushed back to work late one night not too long ago so they could save the life of Terry Schiavo–who couldn’t even feel pain–because life is so precious to them, couldn’t manage to hustle it back to D.C. for four days to help save the dying in New Orleans, who unlike Schiavo can indeed feel their own pain: every ache, every infection, every single bit of it. People who, unlike Schiavo are mostly poor and mostly black, and who provide less political capital one supposes for the so-called pro-life movement, than the persistently vegetative or the run-of the-mill fetus.

And even when they did return, they only allocated a little more than $10 billion to relief efforts. Ten billion dollars: merely a fraction of what our nation has spent to bomb and strafe and occupy Iraq, and a mere drop of piss in the ocean compared to what this nation forked over to bail out the Savings and Loan industry when it was looted by rich white guys.

Oh, and speaking of white people and looting.

To hear an awful lot of folks tell it–like several on forum boards like the one at nola.com–looting is a black thing, what with supposed gangs of armed men roaming the streets of the city, stealing big screen TVs and guns, all due to their savagery, their lack of values, their moral depravity. Apparently, in their world, white people don’t loot. Not the S&L bandits, not Ken Lay and his buddies at Enron, not the crooks at Halliburton: never. Only the black and poor, and this they know because Fox News, and for that matter CNN, the networks and most every other media outlet told them so, by way of image after image of looters demonstrating a so-called break with civilized norms of behavior.

In the chat rooms you can spend only a few minutes before being assaulted by yet another bloodthirsty know-nothing, calling for the shooting of looters on sight. And not only those stealing so-called luxury items, but even food, water, diapers, medicine or clothes to replace the soaked and largely ruined rags remaining on their backs.

But anyone who can’t understand why someone would break into a store and take things in the midst of this kind of tragedy clearly isn’t trapped in the middle of it. They are the ones who had the means to get out of the flood zone before the hurricane hit. How nice for them.

And now they sit back, comfortable, wherever they may be, in an air conditioned room, filling up chat boards with vicious diatribes, in which they seem to take an almost sadistic pleasure at referring to looters as “sub-human scum,” “cockroaches,” “vermin,” “animals,” “slime,” and any number of other creative and dehumanizing slurs. Others openly call for the building of a separation wall between Orleans Parish and the much whiter Jefferson Parish, if and when the area is reconstructed, so as to “keep the animals out” of the areas with “decent people.”

The media’s role in stoking this kind of bigotry and hysteria has been prodigious. It hasn’t been enough to simply note that looting has taken place. Rather, reporters are discussing the activity as if it were some coordinated attack, planned by gangs even prior to the storm. As one CNN reporter put it, the citizens of New Orleans were apparently, “looking for any reason to break windows,” while gasbag Bill O’Reilly actually wondered aloud if the “criminal element” had made a conscious decision to rebuff evacuation orders, all so they could stick around and loot.

This is what we choose to believe, some of us, apparently: that people we call animals, whose humanity we refuse to recognize even in the midst of tragedy, actually conspire to stick around in a rotting cesspool, all so they can score some candy bars from the Rite-Aid, or Nikes from Foot Locker.

We choose to believe that folks look for any reason to break windows, as if doing so to get water or diapers for your kid, who is sitting on an overpass, possibly dying of dehydration, isn’t a damned good reason to loot. As if any of us wouldn’t do the same were we in such desperate conditions. I would kill for my children. Do you hear me? Kill for them, if push came to shove. So would any parent. So excuse me if I can’t get bent over people trying to get Huggies wipes and insulin.

And while there is every reason to suspect whites are looting in heavily damaged parts of the metropolitan area where they predominate, the television coverage, by virtue of being concentrated in downtown New Orleans–an area that is three-fourths or more African American on a normal day, and which is probably 90 percent black now, given that most whites living downtown had the means to evacuate–gives the impression to the weak-minded who don’t understand the laws of statistical probability, that looting and blackness are inextricably linked at the hip.

Then, as if this weren’t bad enough, photos widely circulated on Yahoo.com with captions yesterday, presented an image of a black man with a garbage bag full of God knows what, side by side with a picture of two white folks wading through waist-deep water with bags of food in their hands: the captions? The black man, according to the news, had “just looted” a store. The white man and woman had “found” food from a flooded store. White people find things. Black people steal things. Got it?

In another photo, taken in an outlying area, one white man and one black man are pictured: the former is walking away from a clearly looted store, looking through his stash, while the latter is jumping through the store’s broken front window. But instead of labeling the shot, as “two looters standing outside a ransacked business establishment,” AP tells us that the white man is “looking through his shopping bag.” White people shop. Black people steal things. Got it?

Food and water, as was made obvious in news footage this afternoon, is sitting in storage at the Convention Center. The same Convention center outside of which people are, as I write this, taking their last breath. And yet, when a local seafood merchant, along with others of the hungry tried to get into the Center’s kitchen and prepare some of that food for the starving, the National Guard pulled guns on them and threatened to blow their brains out if they didn’t leave. Such is the state of American compassion.

Speaker of the House Denny Hastert, himself a representative from a state whose largest city burned to the ground once because some old lady’s cow tipped over a lantern or some such shit, said today that he didn’t think it made much sense to rebuild New Orleans, seeing as how it’s under sea level and all. Such is the state of American compassion.

This year, despite all of the expert opinion and computer models suggesting that a catastrophe of this magnitude was likely, the President and Congress slashed tens of millions of dollars from the Corps of Engineer’s efforts to strengthen and fortify the levees around New Orleans, including the one that gave way on Monday, ultimately triggering this apocalyptic nightmare. Such is the state of American compassion.

And on Nola.com, there is this, from someone going by the nickname rachelcal, as she discusses looting:

“TO ALL POLICE AND MILITARY POLICE:

PLEASE KILL THESE INCENSIVE (sic) FOOLS! KILL THEM ALL! WE DON’T NEED THEM ON THIS PLANET ANYMORE…THEY DON’T DO US ANY GOOD.

THANKS FOR ALL YOUR HELP…

GOD BLESS AMERICA.

Or this, from someone nicknamed aronan:

“If I had my way, the National Guard would round these pieces of garbage up, make THEM clean up the mess Katrina left for us, and then machine gun the whole lot of them into the Gulf.

The only good looter is a DEAD one. There are no exceptions.”

And then, from Jim Hassenger:

“My city is destroyed and what is left the bastards are looting…I don’t like living here with this disease anymore. I HATE YOU from the bottom of my heart. It’s times like these I have to fight racist thoughts.”

After reading the lunatic ravings of Mr. Hassenger, I glanced up at the TV to notice the commercial being run between coverage of the disaster: a 30-second clip from the Club for Growth, calling for, what else? Permanent repeal of the estate tax: a tax paid only by the wealthiest 2 percent of Americans, and even then, only when they inherit large amounts of wealth from someone else upon the death of the original owner.

Tax cuts for the rich, because, you see, they are horribly burdened. They are drowning, one might say, put upon by the federal government in ways one can’t possibly imagine. The commercial over, reality set back in, as the footage of those whose experience with drowning seems just a bit more visceral filled the screen again. Poor people dying. Rich people castigating them for trying to survive, all the while seeking to stuff their own pockets with yet more cash.

Such is the state of American compassion.

We dropped several hundred thousand packets of food to the people of Afghanistan, even as we bombed them back to the Pleistocene era. Indeed, we patted ourselves on the back for the magnanimity ostensibly evidenced by such generosity. And yet, in New Orleans we drop nothing but vicious admonitions to poor and desperate people, about how looting is wrong. We drop nothing but cliched and empty platitudes, like “help is on the way,” and “hold on, we’re coming to the rescue.”

Meanwhile, the President on at least two occasions that I saw today, said that it was important to help people “in this part of the world.”

THIS PART OF THE WORLD!?!? This is your country! You even carried that state, though admittedly with no help from the teeming masses in the streets of New Orleans. Did they not tell you, as you flew overhead from a safe distance, that this was an American city? Did they not tell you, when you left your precious dude ranch to go first to San Diego for a fundraiser, that the town that had been devastated was in the United States? Had you known would you have come quicker?

I know it’s tough. This is a tragedy you can’t exploit for political gain, the way you did with 9-11. There is no enemy to bomb, no Arab to blame, no muscle you can flex. There is no pile of rubble upon which you can stand, and shout in to a bullhorn some rambling, putrid inanity about taking the battle to the evil forces that brought forth this destruction.

But one thing you said back then finally makes sense to me, in a way it never did before. In the battle to save the people of New Orleans, you are either with us, or against us. And it is crystal clear what side you’re on.

Leave a comment