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Authorities justified crackdown by...
Portraying the victims as "criminals"

September 9, 2005 | Pages 8 and 9

LEE SUSTAR looks at the ugly reality of racism in the federal and local government response to the hurricane disaster.

HOW DO you cover up for mass murder by negligence? Shoot and kill more people, call them "looters," and trumpet their deaths as a sign of progress.


EARLY ON during the catastrophe, Yahoo released two similar photos of residents wading through waist-deep water--but with very different captions.

A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday, August 30, 2005.

Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store after Hurricane Katrina came through the area in New Orleans, Louisiana.

That's how the New Orleans Police Department, the National Guard and other law enforcement agencies responded to criticism for their abandonment of tens of thousands of African Americans in the hellholes known as the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center. Those who fled to those locations in search of shelter and evacuation found themselves prisoners instead--in conditions that Rev. Jesse Jackson likened to a slave ship.

New Orleans cops and Louisiana state troopers sped around with machine guns in armored personnel carriers to make a show of force--even as the situation deteriorated.

Correll Williams, a 19-year-old meat cutter, told Britain's Observer newspaper that people inside the Superdome "had to wrap dead people in white sheets and throw them outside while the police stood by and did nothing." At the Convention Center, he said, "The police were in boats watching us. They were just laughing at us. Five of them to a boat, not trying to help nobody. Helicopters were riding by, just looking at us. They weren't helping. We were pulling people along on bits of wood, and the National Guard would come driving by in their empty military trucks."

Looting became the all-purpose pretext for the threat--and use--of deadly force by police, even though tens of thousands had no choice but to take what they could from stores simply in order to survive. The television journalists who moralized about people stealing television sets instead of food couldn't grasp that these poor people--who had already lost their few possessions--often grabbed what they could in the hopes of selling it to make survival a bit easier.

Media focus on the presence of criminals--inevitable in an impoverished city polarized by race and class--had the effect of shifting attention from the incalculably greater crime of failing to provide emergency aid. "On streets where gun battles, fistfights, holdups, carjackings and marauding mobs of looters had held sway through the week, the mere sight of troops in camouflage battle gear and with assault rifles gave a sense of relief to many of the thousands of stranded survivors who had endured days of appalling terror and suffering," declared the New York Times.

Yet the role of the National Guard wasn't about providing aid. To be sure, the Guard troops aren't the same as the New Orleans police, who have a notorious history of racism, brutality and corruption. Many of the part-time soldiers of the Guard come from the working-class communities affected by the hurricane. Some were eager to use the Guard's resources to help those in desperate need.

Nevertheless, the guard also reflects Louisiana's legacy of Deep South racism, which played out horrifically at the Convention Center and the Superdome. And even in a humanitarian crisis, the Guard remains--short of a troop mutiny--a hierarchical military organization designed to preserve a racist and grossly unequal social order. Governors deploy the National Guard in the aftermath of disasters primarily to protect private property. Anything more is a gesture to appear to be responsive to voters.

The Guard's role in humanitarian assistance at home is akin to that of U.S. troops handing out candy to schoolchildren in Iraq--a public relations effort to mask the use of lethal force to achieve political aims. When the authorities deemed it necessary, African Americans in New Orleans were accorded the same treatment as Arabs in Iraq.

That's why Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, a Democrat, announced September 2 that 300 troops from the Arkansas National Guard would be deployed in the city. "These troops are fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced, battle-tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets," she said. "They have M-16s, and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will."

The National Guard's role at the Superdome was, in part, to make sure the Blacks were kept their assigned place in the filth and squalor. The troops prevented them crossing over to the nearby Hyatt, where guests at the upscale hotel got food and water supplied from other Hyatts across the South as early as Tuesday, August 30--three days before the Superdome received any supplies. On Friday, September 2, the guard held off people from the Superdome as busses evacuated some 700 guests and employees--most of them white--from the Hyatt.

Moreover, the racist rhetoric used to justify U.S. imperial military adventures abroad came easily to the lips of Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force, in charge of restoring "order" in New Orleans. "This place is going to look like Little Somalia," he told the Army Times. "We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control."

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