The following article appears in Proletarian Revolution No. 75 (Fall 2005).
September 18, 2005
People everywhere were shocked by the destruction wrought across America’s Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. But horror turned to outrage as days went by while tens of thousands of mostly Black working-class and poor storm victims in New Orleans were abandoned by a government that didn’t give a damn about their fate.
They were crammed into the Superdome and Convention Center like slaves in the bellies of slave ships. They sat on roofs and watched helicopters fly by, often without offering help. They huddled in attics amid rising flood waters. They cradled loved ones in their arms as they died from dehydration or lack of medical care. For days they were forced to survive amid squalor and death, denied food and water.
As this horror was broadcast to the world, President Bush and his administration did virtually nothing for days. The media whipped up a racist frenzy over stories of armed Blacks taking over the city. In response, New Orleans’ Democratic mayor, Ray Nagin, while appealing for state and federal aid, ordered police to stop helping relief efforts and prioritize fighting “looters” – largely people desperately seeking food, water and other vital supplies. Louisiana’s Democratic governor, Kathleen Blanco, stopped aid from entering the city until she had amassed an invasion force of National Guardsmen with orders to shoot to kill.
For the capitalists’ politicians, protecting business interests was more important that saving lives. Only a massive public outcry forced political leaders to act. When they finally did, it was to combine belated relief efforts with attempts to blame and criminalize the survivors – and cover up the scandal with endless press conferences and photo opportunities.
The Gulf Coast catastrophe was a man-made disaster. Vicious racial oppression and class exploitation turned New Orleans into a death trap for the poor in general and for Black people in particular. Relief has been little and late for poor whites as well, both in smaller cities and towns as well as rural areas receiving little or no media coverage. And thousands of undocumented Mexican, Central American and Asian immigrant workers are receiving no governmental assistance at all.
The facts are undeniable. The Katrina disaster was a massive crime committed by the capitalist ruling class against the most vulnerable sections of the working class and poor.
Hurricanes in the Gulf are a natural and frequent phenomenon, but the flooding that destroyed New Orleans was widely predicted and totally preventable. Successive federal, state and local governments – Republican and Democratic – refused to spend the money on the levees, sea gates and pumping stations needed to save the city and its people. They preferred to line the pockets of capitalists and pray that New Orleans would survive.
Faced with an inevitable catastrophe, the governor and mayor developed an evacuation “plan” that was utterly indifferent to the fate of the poor. Those who had cars and money for gasoline were able to evacuate and survive; the poor were abandoned to face hideous conditions and in many cases death. As local officials made clear to residents before the hurricane, those who could not find their own way to evacuate the city would be “on their own.” By the time the flood struck, the fate of most of its victims was sealed.
Then countless more were left to die by a shocking refusal to provide emergency services. Some emergency responders were unavailable and unprepared because thousands of National Guardsmen and their crucial equipment had been deployed to Iraq; relief efforts were clearly hampered by corruption and bureaucratic infighting and buck-passing. But the biggest factor preventing aid was the vile contempt held by all levels of authority for the poor, and especially for Black people – added to the fear of a Black-led urban uprising.
Not only did state and federal authorities then abandon them for days without even sending relief; they sent relief away! Arguing (ridiculously) that the city had fallen under the control of armed and rampaging Black gangs, the state and federal authorities refused to allow aid into the city before it was under military occupation. They blocked volunteer rescuers and even the Red Cross from entering the city, turned back deliveries of food and water, and sent convoys of empty buses away from the city. (Hundreds of buses were just left in parking lots.) Meanwhile, untold numbers drowned in the rising flood waters, and died for lack of food, water, medical assistance and protection. Their bodies were left to rot in the putrid water or be eaten by rats on dry land.
When the National Guard finally did enter the city, they did so like a conquering army and acted with outrageous racism. Whites were evacuated first, with Guardsmen even helping them with their luggage. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands at the Superdome and Convention Center were rounded up at gunpoint. Under the guise of searching them for weapons, the National Guard forced them to divide into lines with men on one side and women and children on the other; families were broken up and dispersed across the country. The line-ups echoed what slave traders did to their captives and what the Nazis did in concentration camps.
One of the most scandalous episodes occurred when hundreds of people tried to cross a highway bridge over the Mississippi River to reach neighboring Jefferson Parish. They were met by a line of sheriffs who fired over the heads of the crowd to disperse it. The cops told them that “the West Bank [of the Mississippi] was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their city.” These were code words: poor Black people were presumed to be potential criminals and were not to be allowed out of New Orleans under any conditions. (The incident was first reported in Socialist Worker, Sept. 9.)
Cops halting a march over the bridge revived memories of Selma, Alabama in 1965, where 600 marchers led by Martin Luther King, Jr. were attacked by police with tear gas and billy clubs as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge to get to Montgomery, the state capitol. Forty years after the height of the civil rights movement, Black working-class Americans are still treated as third-class citizens by the racist police.
The Black revolt of the 1960’s changed much of the face of the South. However, Katrina uncovered a fact already known by many, Black and white: the old violent racism persists right under the surface. The armed police power of white-dominated suburban parishes was far more quickly mobilized to repel waves of desperate Black families fleeing the floods than was any force trying to aid them. While many whites in the South and elsewhere were genuinely moved by the plight of the thousands of Black victims, there were enough “law and order” vermin there to continue the long tradition of murderous Southern inhospitality.
In its history the United States has seen massacres of American Indians and the horrors of slavery, race riots and Klan lynchings. The government’s response to the hurricane’s aftermath was not quite as overt. It was not a conspiracy to wipe out people who were poor and Black. But the same conditions of capitalist exploitation and racism that trapped tens of thousands in the New Orleans flood entrap millions in cities across the country. A plausible fear of working-class rebellion combines with racism in the minds of cops and politicians. The result in New Orleans was a “perfect storm” of all the ugly features of American capitalism, and it led to perhaps the greatest single act of racist mass murder ever to take place in this country.
For most people, the Gulf Coast catastrophe is a shocking human disaster. But for this country’s cold-blooded ruling class it is primarily a disaster in public relations. While the authorities are now belatedly sending some temporary relief to the hurricane survivors, their greatest concern is to save face for the richest and most powerful ruling class in world history. The fact that we live under a brutal capitalist system waging war against Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the entire working class has been cruelly exposed.
The immediate struggle to survive by those most directly affected by the hurricane continues. Private companies like Halliburton and Bechtel, which have already profited from the invasion of Iraq and been caught trying to steal millions more in the process, have already moved in like vultures to make a killing from rebuilding projects. The working-class, poor and oppressed victims of the hurricane will need to organize to fight for housing, financial support and jobs, and should receive the active support of workers and all fighters for justice. And the most politically conscious workers and youth have a special duty: to make sure that the political lessons of this tragedy are fully understood – in order to show the way to the overthrow of this rotten system once and for all.
This country’s murderous ruling class cannot be allowed to get back to business as usual. The very best capitalism can offer is a brief return to everyday misery at home and bloody wars abroad – before it drags us all into worse. We have seen how the capitalist system, and its Republican and Democratic parties, are the enemies of the working class and poor, and particularly of people of color. We cannot afford to get trapped in electoralist and other diversions by reformist, populist politicians who will claim to be able to fix the system. The Gulf Coast catastrophe must be made the spark for massive struggles against deepening racism, exploitation and poverty. Out of those struggles there must grow a new political leadership, and an internationalist, working-class revolutionary political party dedicated to the only solution to the ever worsening nightmare of life under capitalism: working-class revolution to sweep away that system and build a socialist society of freedom and abundance cleansed of exploitation and racism.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) head Michael Brown, Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff and President Bush all claimed that no one imagined a disaster like the flooding of New Orleans. Even Bill Clinton rushed to their side, repeating the same lie.
In fact, the danger of a hurricane triggering a flood that would submerge and destroy New Orleans had been recognized for decades. After a deadly flood in 1995, Congress passed the Southeast Louisiana Urban Flood Control Project (SELA). Some work was funded shoring up levees and building pumping stations, but the federal and state governments, Republican and Democratic, refused to fund the massive and urgent construction that was necessary to prevent a disaster. Funds were also diverted into the tourist business and private pockets.
By 2001, a FEMA report identified a hurricane-triggered flood of New Orleans as among the three worst-case disasters that could strike the U.S., along with an earthquake hitting San Francisco and terrorists attacking New York City. As the New Orleans Times-Picayune warned the following year:
A major hurricane could decimate the region, but flooding from even a moderate storm could kill thousands. It’s just a matter of time ... Evacuation is the most certain route to safety, but it may be a nightmare. And 100,000 without transportation will be left behind ... struggling to survive. Some will be housed at the Superdome ... Others will end up in last-minute emergency refuges that will offer minimal safety. But many will simply be on their own ... Thousands will drown while trapped in homes or cars by rising waters. Others will be washed away or crushed by debris. Survivors will end up trapped on roofs, in buildings or on high ground surrounded by water, with no means of escape and little food or fresh water, perhaps for several days. (June 24, 2002)
This didn’t stop the Bush Administration, however, from massively cutting the funding of the New Orleans projects while initiating an orgy of tax cuts for the rich. As the Times-Picayune summed up, “federal budget cuts have all but stopped major work on the New Orleans area’s east bank hurricane levees ... [which] won’t be finished for at least another decade.” Walter Maestri, the head of emergency management for Jefferson Parish, explained: “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’s the price we pay. Nobody locally is happy that the levees can’t be finished, and we are doing everything we can to make the case that this is a security issue for us.” To no avail.
Much attention will focus on the murderous cuts Bush made to New Orleans flood protection. But governments for decades have refused to fund the necessary work. Money for Lake Pontchartrain levees and drainage in New Orleans got cut under Clinton as well as Bush, according to a series of reports in early September in the Chicago Tribune. Thus past neglect of New Orleans paved the way for Bush to seal the city’s fate.
The disrepair of the New Orleans levees and pumps, along with the Louisiana wetlands that helped protect the city, is not just a matter of capitalist greed but a product of the system’s historical decay. Since the end of the post-World War II boom, capitalist profits have stagnated, and the ruling class has tried every possible method to keep them from falling, squeezing workers’ wages and benefits while demanding speed-up and longer hours. The capitalists have also degraded the natural environment, polluting air, water and soil, violating and eliminating regulations designed to moderate the worst effects of their industry. With real profits eroding, they can little afford to invest in precautions that safeguard masses and are ever more inclined to take even greater risks. Thus the destruction of New Orleans is one of the worst disasters to result from decades of environmental degradation, but it will hardly be the last.
American capitalists normally mask the cruel injustices of their rule at home with imperialist patriotic bombast, saving their worst crimes for the poor of the “Third World.” While their policies allowed the destruction of New Orleans at the cost of thousands of lives, the U.S. military continues to lay waste to the entire country of Iraq, including razing cities like Fallujah last fall, at the cost of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi dead. (And this was on top of twelve years of U.N. economic sanctions, which, with Saddam Hussein’s help, starved hundreds of thousands before that.) Even in the “Third World,” however, when natural disasters strike, the imperialists often choose to send aid to conceal their day-to-day role in economically pillaging those countries. Thus even for this blood-soaked ruling class, the response to an emergency in an American city was particularly shocking.
The most apparent criminal failure to save the people of New Orleans was the White House’s. With all the resources of his superpower state, Bush smirked and did effectively nothing. But local officials are no less guilty. The catastrophe in New Orleans was a bipartisan crime.
For two days after the hurricane, as images of tens of thousands of people stranded in a flooded city were beamed around the world, Bush remained on his five-week vacation, playing golf and even flying to attend a fund-raiser. A stark contrast to his interrupting his previous vacation to rush to Washington to try to “save the life” of a single brain-dead white person – Terry Schiavo, who was being removed from hospital life-support. (This act catered to the “right-to-life” movement, whose real aim is to enforce the subordination of women.)
When he was finally forced to realize the extent of the crisis, pious statements of “concern” aside, his first reaction was to blame the victims. Seizing on racist descriptions of a city that was allegedly under the control of armed and raging Blacks, Bush’s first act was to send soldiers – not to provide relief, but to defend private property.
And when he finally deigned to visit the devastated areas, it was all for show, not aid. Carloads of Secret Service agents screened every victim he met with metal detectors; wherever his august presence passed, helicopter flights were banned, thus further delaying the delivery of food and supplies.
Meanwhile, FEMA’s response was a shocking display of inadequate resources and incompetence borne of racist and anti-working-class contempt. As soon as he was elected, Bush’s administration sought to cutback on FEMA’s task of helping the victims of natural disasters. The first person tapped to head FEMA, Joe Allbaugh, was not an emergency management expert but one of Bush’s campaign managers. Allbaugh’s priority was to cut back on FEMA’s relief services, which he described as having become an “oversized entitlement program” like welfare. Allbaugh’s goal was greatly helped by the post-September 11 absorption of FEMA into the newly created Department of Homeland Security; its attention turned further away from natural disasters and toward strengthening police-state powers under the guise of fighting terrorism.
Allbaugh soon left his position to become a lobbyist for companies profiting from the war in Iraq, and now is busy securing multi-million dollar contracts for firms profiting from the destruction in the Gulf Coast. Indeed to this end, in response to Hurricane Katrina, Allbaugh arrived in Louisiana before his replacement, his old college roommate, Michael Brown. As has become widely known, Brown’s appointment showed the complete disdain the Bush administration had for FEMA’s purported goal of disaster relief – Brown’s previous experience was overseeing horseshows, and he was even forced to resign from that job! Brown waited five hours after the hurricane struck Louisiana before requesting that FEMA send an expanded force of relief workers, gave them two more days to get there, and then included in their tasks the responsibility to “convey a positive image of disaster operations to the general public.”
With the complete failure of local authorities and FEMA to respond to the unfolding tragedy, the White House refused to mobilize its powers to save the stranded and dying. Instead President Bush went on a public relations tour of staged photo opportunities and insulting speeches. When he finally made it to Louisiana and dared to step off Airforce One, Bush immediately congratulated his buddy “Brownie” for doing “a heck of a job.” While tens of thousands of people were fighting for their lives in New Orleans, Bush fondly reminisced about partying in the city during his college days and looked forward to sitting on the porch of arch-racist Mississippi Senator Trent Lott’s rebuilt mansion.
Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice remained on vacation in New York, taking in a Broadway play and spending thousands of dollars on shoes at a Fifth Avenue boutique. She was eventually forced to return to Washington to help the White House’s public relations disaster control, arguing that race couldn’t possibly have been a factor in not getting relief to New Orleans. Vice President Cheney stayed on vacation even longer.
Bush’s mother, the former First Lady, also seized the opportunity to spit on the hurricane survivors with ruling-class arrogance. In a radio interview following a visit to hurricane evacuees who had been taken to the Astrodome in Texas, she worried: “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality.” Not satisfied with this racist idiocy, she continued to explain that since “so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”
Days into the crisis, New Orleans’ Mayor Nagin seemed to voice the frustration of millions when he blasted the inaction of the state and federal governments and demanded they “get off [their] asses and do something” to address the crisis. But Nagin, along with Louisiana Governor Blanco, with forewarning of a disaster and with the power to seize all the city and state resources to safely evacuate residents, didn’t care enough about the poorer residents to make sure they were evacuated.
Not only did planners acknowledge that perhaps hundreds of thousands would be trapped in the city unable to evacuate for lack of assistance, but city and state officials had seen it first hand only a year before when hurricane Ivan bore down on New Orleans. The day before the hurricane hit, the Times-Picayune wrote of the “large group ... mostly concentrated in poorer neighborhoods” who wanted to evacuate but could not. Elsewhere, in an article entitled “Poor, Black and Left Behind,” journalist Mike Davis described the evacuation as looking “sinisterly like [arch-racist politician] Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent white people fled the Big Easy in their SUV’s, while the old and car-less – mainly Black – were left behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.”
Still, Nagin and Blanco didn’t change their plans. Not long before Hurricane Katrina struck, Nagin joined City Council President Oliver Thomas, Red Cross Director Kay Wilkins and others in preparing a public service announcement whose basic message the Times-Picayune summed up: “In the event of a major hurricane, you’re on your own.” The paper added, “In scripted appearances being recorded now, officials ... drive home the word that the city does not have the resources to move out of harm’s way an estimated 134,000 people without transportation.” (July 24, 2005.)
But of course their excuse is a lie. The Mayor had the power to mobilize all forms of public transportation and did not. The world has seen the tragic images of hundreds of school buses flooded in New Orleans when they could have been used for evacuations long before the flood struck. But Nagin had already agreed with Governor Blanco that they would not evacuate the city’s poor.
Further, Nagin didn’t even bother to prepare sufficient shelter for those trapped. He told people to go to the Louisiana Superdome, which predictably lost power, running water and all sanitary facilities. And despite the Superdome’s previous designation as a mass shelter, no supplies were stockpiled. Over twenty thousand people were kept there for four days without food, drinking water, fresh clothing or medications. That was a cold-blooded decision: they didn’t want such relief to attract more evacuees to the crowded shelters. Rather than provide food for the living, they stockpiled ten thousand body bags for the inevitable dead.
With New Orleans flooded, FEMA dragging its feet and seemingly the entire Bush Administration on vacation, the power to help save those trapped in New Orleans (as well as the devastated across the state) shifted to the Louisiana’s Governor Blanco. But her response was no less criminal. A day after Hurricane Katrina hit, when action was called for, her response was to urge a state-wide day of prayer! But worse was yet to come.
Blanco and all the authorities joined the media in pushing racist descriptions of New Orleans being under the control of gangs of armed, marauding Black thugs. In response, the National Guard forces under her control were ordered to seal off the city until reinforcements could arrive. Red Cross trucks full of food and water, medical assistance and convoys of buses were prevented from entering the city.
Lieutenant General H. Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau provided a particularly blunt description of the authorities’ viewpoint to a Pentagon news conference. Ignoring the absence of rescue efforts, he asserted that:
The most contentious issues were lawlessness in the streets, and particularly a potentially very dangerous volatile situation in the Convention Center where tens of thousands of people literally occupied that on their own. We had people that were evacuated from hotels, and tourists that were lumped together with some street thugs and some gang members ... it was a potentially very dangerous situation. (June 24, 2002)
In plain language, he was worried about middle-class whites being “lumped together” with poor and working-class Blacks. But witnesses at the convention center, and hours upon hours of videotape, told a different story. NBC journalist Tony Zumbada, for example, reported from the Convention Center:
They are just left behind. There’s nothing offered to them, no water, no ice, no C-rations. Nothing for the last four days. They were told to go to the Convention Center. They did. They’ve been behaving. The attitude there is unbelievable, how organized they are, how supportive they are of each other. They have not started any melees, any riots, nothing.
They just want food and support. And what I saw there, I’ve never seen in this country. And we need to really look at the situation in this Convention Center. It’s getting very, very crazy in there and very dangerous. And somebody needs to come down with a lot of food, a lot of water. There’s no hostility there, so they don’t need to be bringing any guns or anything like that. They need support.
But guns they were ordered to bring – by the thousand. Governor Blanco held a press conference to brag of having received National Guard reinforcements “fresh back from Iraq, well trained, experienced, battle tested and under my orders to restore order in the streets ... 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.” What she had ordered was not a relief operation, but an invasion.
The newspaper Army Times (Sept. 2) ran an article entitled “Troops Begin Combat Operations in New Orleans,” describing the National Guard’s plan to “fight the insurgency in the city” while carrying out relief operations. It quoted Brigadier General Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force, promising to make New Orleans “look like Little Somalia.” “We’re going to go out and take this city back,” he promised. “This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”
At the conclusion of the mission, Lt. Gen. Blum bragged how the National Guard force “stormed the convention center and took it down” and how, surprisingly, “there was absolutely no opposition, complete cooperation ... no violent resistance, no one injured ... we did not have to fire a shot.” No wonder! The fantasy of an “insurgency” in the city was even more imaginary than Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.
At the end of his press conference, Blum was asked one final question: whether the need to build up an invasion force of National Guard was “one reason it took until Friday to get aid in?” “That is not only fair, it is accurate,” he replied. “You’ve concisely stated exactly what was needed, and I told you why. We took the time to build the right force. The outcome was superb.”
Hurricane Katrina has swept away the last of the post-September 11 patriotic blather of America being united and free. The vicious exploitation and racist oppression this capitalist society is based on, and the murderous profiteers and politicians who rule over it, have been exposed.
For some time to come, Republicans and Democrats will continue to scandalize one another with accusations and counter-accusations over who is responsible for the monumental failures at every stage of this disaster. The ensuing investigations will continue for as long as possible and will further prove that both capitalist parties are to blame, just as they have both, in their different ways, always served this racist capitalist system.
But beyond the headlines and behind the scenes, in corporate boardrooms and politicians’ offices, a debate is already raging over how the ruling class can stabilize its rule amid the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In time, the capitalists will have to turn from the neo-liberal free-market anarchy of wholesale privatization and tax cuts that has served recently to boost profits; now this strategy has become so destabilizing that it sank a major American city and threatens to trigger massive struggles. A section of the ruling class sees the need to pursue policies that strengthen their state power – not just to act domestically and internationally with their military, but also to allow the government to intervene economically.
For example, the shifting of a sizable portion of American industry to the “Third World” has taken advantage of cheap labor. But it has also weakened the domestic economy’s industrial base. Here and elsewhere, the capitalists will need a government that more strongly directs investment. As the economy continues to decline, government will also be called on to prop up bankrupt industries whose collapse would threaten the system, as well as to discipline capitalist excesses in order to better keep down the working class. And certainly in the short term, they will need a political leadership that can adequately fake concern for the masses’ plight where the Bush Administration has so miserably failed.
From the right, Colin Powell is already positioning himself to possibly try to save the Republican Party by offering it a Black and apparently more “compassionate” military face to front for it. Behind him, both inside and outside Republican ranks, more extreme right-wing demagogues are jockeying for position. But the greater immediate threat to the masses comes from the left-leaning defenders of capitalism.
The Gulf catastrophe has the potential to spark huge class struggles in this country. But populist politicians who claim to “feel the people’s pain” and to stand against the “big corporate” interests maneuver to avoid struggles that genuinely threaten capitalist rule. Populism means much more than pushing popular demands. It means utilizing mass sentiments to blur the class line, in order to divert attacks on capitalism as a system. No matter how radical or militant their rhetoric, the populists’ goal is to turn active struggles sooner or later into passive electoral reformism.
Leaders of the Democratic Party’s right wing like Hillary Clinton have voiced some criticisms of Bush’s response to the hurricane, but they represent fundamentally the same policies of imperialist war abroad and austerity at home. They have been careful not to challenge Bush in any way that might further destabilize the ruling class.
But others are posturing to their left. Before the hurricane struck, some were already trying to take advantage of the growing anti-war sentiment and rising working-class anger at high prices and falling wages – while working to keep such sentiments safely within the limits of electoralism. Vice-Presidential candidate John Edwards, for example, switched from supporting the invasion of Iraq and “staying the course” to calling for setting a date for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. In response to the hurricane, he has revived his populist theme of “Two Americas” – rich and poor – with the aim of bringing them together through patriotism.
Outside of the party’s top circles, any number of would-be “progressives” are pushing for the Democrats to adopt more radical policies. Some, like the Nation magazine, are calling for a “New New Deal” – state economic intervention and public works like that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt used to revive capitalist profits and contain the huge class struggles during the depression of the 1930’s.
Further to the left are “socialist” groups which formally oppose the Democrats but try to be popular by concentrating their fire on the Republicans: slogans like “Bush lies, people die” inevitably raise illusions in the supposedly oppositional Democrats. Similarly in the anti-war movement, they raise nationalist slogans around the war like “Money for New Orleans, Not for War” – thus dressing opposition to the war in America-First nationalism. All these efforts lead away from mass struggle and to eventual electoral support either for the Democrats or some reformist alternative.
One example: on September 8, Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon laws requiring clean-up and reconstruction contractors to pay workers at least the prevailing wage rates and benefits. This dealt another blow to workers, in the interest of profits for Bush’s fellow capitalists – the real looters! AFL-CIO head John Sweeney denounced Bush’s move, but his only action was to appeal to Congress to reverse the “short-sighted” decision. Even when faced with outrage upon outrage, the labor leaders will not call mass action: they are afraid to upset the capitalist system that feeds their privileges.
Minister Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam likewise calls for aid and comfort for the victims of Katrina, but not struggle against the system that victimized them. He is calling a “Millions More Movement” rally in Washington on October 15. Unlike his “Million Man March” ten years ago, this time women and gays will be invited. (See Farrakhan No Answer to Racism in PR 50.) But he is again calling for “atonement” rather than struggle. And plenty of Democratic politicians will be there to offer themselves as the way forward. If the official leadership is allowed to get its way, the rally will be another diversion of the struggle for Black liberation, a safety valve for the justified and explosive anger of the Black masses.
The working class and oppressed need their own political party, and elections can definitely be used to rally attention to issues and encourage further mass struggle. But encouraging support for the capitalist Democrats or their reformist shadows like the Green Party only undermines the growing sense of class hostility to the capitalists and their politicians among workers and diverts workers from struggle and toward electoralism. This is precisely what happened in the lead-up to the last presidential election, as we show in our article on the anti-war struggle [“What Is Wrong with the Anti-War Movement?” in Proletarian Revolution No. 75].
The same cannot be allowed to happen to the struggles which have the potential to arise in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Key to avoiding this fate is for the most class-conscious workers and youth coming together to build a working-class political party with a theory and program that can take the lead in advancing the most immediate struggles and link them to the only alternative to worsening life under capitalism: socialist revolution.
The aftermath of natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina brings to the fore urgent human needs on a huge scale: food, water, housing, financial support and reconstruction. But again, under the rule of the capitalists’ one true god, private profit, a struggle is required every step of the way just to secure those demands for the most immediate victims. And wars expose a nation’s class divisions and injustices like nothing else, as capitalist politicians rally the workers and poor to sacrifice their lives on the battlefield and their wages and living conditions at home. Disaffection grows as more and more ask themselves: What are we fighting for? What are the rich sacrificing?
Not surprisingly then, throughout history natural disasters and wars have often sparked revolutionary upheavals. For one historical example, the experience of the great Russian famine of 1891, in which the Tsar abandoned millions of peasants to starvation, radicalized a generation of workers, youth and intellectuals. Mass struggles against Tsarist rule grew steadily, culminating in a revolutionary uprising in 1905, the dress rehearsal for the triumphant socialist revolution of 1917.
Now the U.S. ruling class is confronted with a storm of its own. Anger at rising prices and falling wages was already combining with increasing opposition to the bloody quagmire that the U.S.’s occupation of Iraq has become well before Hurricane Katrina struck. Now the deadly consequences of American capitalism’s grinding exploitation and poverty, and racism’s cruel concentration of capitalism’s worst effects upon people of color, is front-page news. A sense of injustice is widespread, but by far the strongest among Blacks, Latinos and immigrants. A single act of racist police brutality could set off a firestorm of protest in any major city. A creeping sense of the need to fight back against economic attacks is growing among workers. While not as apparent today, a single strike could also spark a massive fightback. The Katrina events have served to undermine the authority of not just establishment politicians but also the union and community leaders who are capitalism’s last line of defense.
The potential for an outbreak of working-class struggle in this country has not been so great in years. The capitalists have been fighting a one-sided class war against the working class, as our hands have been tied behind our back by union and community leaders who channel every attempt to fight back into the dead-end of electoralism. The opportunity must be seized to begin the fightback. The populist claim that it is only a matter of rich against poor, of “the people” against “big business,” is meant to preempt the development of class consciousness and a growing challenge to capitalism. In contrast, we revolutionaries put forward a program of demands and mass action to do just that, beginning now with the needs of the immediate victims of Hurricane Katrina.
While we mourn those killed in the Gulf Coast catastrophe, the struggle of hundreds of thousands of homeless, jobless and displaced hurricane survivors is only just beginning. While the federal government is publicizing the billions in relief it is sending to the Gulf Coast, much of it is lining the pockets of profiteering contractors. Washington is sending relief with the aim, not of truly helping the hurricane victims, but of covering up its own crimes, and will no doubt try to abandon the survivors at the first opportunity.
Only an organized struggle by the survivors can avoid this. Workers everywhere, particularly in trade unions and community groups, should fight for their organizations to do all they can to support the survivors. Aid donations are helpful, but most important will be supporting and encouraging the survivors’ struggles for relief and justice against a government which will surely abandon them again. Such organization and struggle has many precedents. For example, after the 1985 earthquake that hit Mexico City, many working-class victims organized protests and won demands for houses to be built for the poor and other concessions. The struggles by the survivors of Hurricane Katrina will have to go a lot further.
It is crucial that the hurricane’s survivors, dispersed in towns and cities across the country, organize to fight for their interests. Meetings must be held to form survivors’ committees that debate and vote on demands to raise and elect a leadership. Such committees must open themselves to the tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants from the Gulf Coast who are being denied any government assistance and who also have to fight for their rights and interests. That would provide a fantastic example of internationalist and anti-racist struggle for the rest of the workers’ movement. And the various committees should link up to form a nationwide organization to coordinate the struggle.
With such organization, the survivors will be able to have their own voice and feel their power, and that alone would scare the hell out of the ruling class. Indeed, at the Houston Astrodome the formation of a Survivors Leadership Group has been announced. It has already won demands, including improved daycare and specialized care for the elderly. While we lack much information about this particular group, its organization and successes show the potential for such struggles. Unions should be forced to make their offices and resources available for use by hurricane survivors’ committees – and to mobilize their own members for unified actions.
Essential will be the development of a clear program of demands for the survivors’ committees to fight for. Only they will be in the best position to formulate such demands, but some demands are apparent: full unemployment benefits (not just one-time, disorganized FEMA promises), quality emergency housing, food, clothing, medical care, childcare and education. When the committees demands are not immediately met, they must respond by organizing demonstrations and inviting the broadest possible participation.
As rebuilding efforts begin in New Orleans and across the Gulf Coast, survivors will have to fight for the rebuilding to be done in the interests of the working class and poor. One crucial fight will be for their own “Right of Return,” the right of all those who wish to return to New Orleans to be provided quality housing as close to the city as possible until they can go back. Already real estate agents are pursuing evacuated New Orleans residents like ambulance chasers, trying to take advantage of their desperate situations to get them to sell their properties cheap. And local capitalists and politicians have long dreamed of driving the poorest, particularly Blacks, from the city; they now look upon rebuilding efforts as an opportunity to launch a massive gentrification project to keep the poor out of the city for good. Under these circumstances it is quite likely that many of the workers and poor of the city will have to literally fight for the right to return. The fight for the government to pay for the building of quality housing for every single working-class and poor New Orleans resident who lost their home will be crucial.
Hurricane survivors want not just handouts but jobs, and the survivors should fight for the greatest possible number of jobs to be filled by displaced residents, receiving whatever training is necessary free of charge. Such a struggle would give the survivors all the more reason to join trade unions in opposing Bush’s suspension of the Davis-Bacon Act.
In just trying to survive the hurricane and evacuate New Orleans, Black survivors faced threats of deadly racism from National Guardsmen and police. All evacuees, including those holding legal gun permits, were disarmed before evacuating. Meanwhile, racist whites have been lining up outside of gun stores in fear of incoming Blacks. Dispersed mostly throughout the South, where the Klan and other gangs feed off the region’s vicious racism, Black people displaced by the hurricane face the particular threat of racist attack. Survivors’ committees should affirm their right to armed self-defense and organize for it.
The Gulf Coast catastrophe, and particularly the murderous effects of racist capitalism in causing so much death and destruction in New Orleans, have revealed the crises of poverty, exploitation and oppression across the country. Likewise, the struggles of the survivors of Hurricane Katrina can be an inspiration to the rest of the working class. The needs of the Katrina survivors are starkly clear, but similar demands are needed by all workers: massive public works, including rebuilding rotting infrastructure (the New Orleans levees and pumps are just a fraction of what is needed); jobs for all at a living wage; housing, health care and education. Revolutionaries will fight to link all these vital struggles, and will popularize the need for general strikes to unite the working class and shut the system down to win our demands.
Hurricane Katrina has revealed with tragic and deadly clarity how capitalism directs economic activity toward private profit at the expense of the most urgent human needs. Moreover, the flooding of New Orleans pales in comparison to the human misery and environmental destruction wrought across the world by imperialist superexploitation and war. Indeed, capitalism threatens the very existence of life on the planet, through everything from pollution-fueled global warming to the potential for nuclear war. The hurricane was just one glaring, concentrated example of daily life under capitalism: in which thousands starve and die anonymous deaths, including those from preventable diseases, because they cannot afford basic medical care; in which millions languish in prisons because poverty fuels crime while the police and the courts target the poor and particularly people of color; and in which scores die miserably either directly at the hands of imperialism or under the jackboot of its local enforcers.
A socialist society run in the interests of the vast masses of humanity, and not a tiny elite class of profiteers, is the only alternative. It is not pie-in-the-sky dreaming or just a “smarter” way of running things; it is the logical conclusion of capitalism’s development. Capitalism has itself laid the basis for transcending the misery to which it condemns humanity. It long ago built up the economic productive forces – industry, technology and a globalized economy – to the point where the potential exists to produce an abundance of all need resources. But that potential remains trapped by capitalism’s pursuit of profit.
To redirect society’s productive forces toward producing in the interests of the majority, control of the economy will have to be seized from the capitalists. The state power, which has cops and soldiers to defend its rule, will have to be smashed in a revolution that puts the majority, the workers and oppressed, in control. This cannot be achieved in one country – it will take revolutions across the world to prevent sabotage and attack by the capitalists and to unleash the productive potential of the world economy.
By planning economic production in the interests of the masses of humanity, workers’ states would do so much more than just improve their immediate living conditions. Class society first arose in history as a result of a scarcity of necessary goods. The struggle to control small surpluses of food, for example, saw society divide into a tiny elite who enjoyed the profits of rule over an exploited majority. Scarcity continues to underpin capitalist class society, driving nationalism and racism as the way capitalist forces rally support in a fight of all against all for dwindling resources. By producing an abundance of necessary goods for all, workers’ states would undermine the very basis for the existence of classes. Necessary work would be divided equally among all. And the introduction of labor-saving technology, instead of creating unemployment as it does under capitalism, would be used to shorten the work-week and free workers’ lives for greater leisure. In such ways the basis would be laid to the development of a society free of all forms of exploitation and oppression.
Moreover, capitalism has created the class with the potential to overthrow it: the working class. With no way to survive without working for and being exploited by the capitalists, the working class has no fundamental interest in maintaining the system. Drawn from across the world and forced into cooperation and labor in their jobs, the working class can turn this organization against the capitalists in collective struggle. Strikes and other forms of mass struggle can not only defend and even win temporary improvements in the masses’ conditions, they show workers their real power. General strikes by the entire working class in particular raise the question of re-starting the economy under the working class’s control and direction. Through the experience of such struggles, more and more workers can come to revolutionary socialist conclusions – if there is a proletarian revolutionary party leadership present to help show the way. The League for the Revolutionary Party is dedicated to bringing together the most class-conscious workers and youth to move the building of this party forward.