It wasn’t Hurricane Katrina that destroyed New Orleans. This natural disaster just completed for the ruling class what they started decades ago. The process began long before the flood and it will threaten many other American cities if working people do not begin to fight back.
Through the centuries, New Orleans was built up into a thriving social edifice. Workers came from up and down the Mississippi and were exploited on the docks and assembly lines. Nevertheless, their workplaces, their neighborhoods, their relationships, and their homes were the breeding grounds of a rich culture that would define the American ethos. When industry was automated in New Orleans, like in other industrial centers many of the workers who had built up the city were left stranded and shunted aside because they were no longer necessary to produce corporate profits. Many clung to their homes tenaciously and refused to leave as much of their social infrastructure was obliterated.
Hurricane Katrina accelerated this process. Official society decided long ago that it no longer needed large numbers of Black workers in the city, so when the Hurricane hit they seized upon it as an opportunity to cleanse the city of what they saw to be its “surplus population.” That’s why the struggle that Katrina refugees are waging to rebuild their city is emblematic of the kind of struggle that many workers will find ourselves waging in crumbling industrial cities from Newark to Detroit to Gary.
The Rise and Fall of Chocolate City
Although their labor on Southern plantations had produced the wealth necessary to power American capitalism, with a few exceptions Black folks were generally excluded from the industrial expansion that swept America after the Civil War. Exploited for generations as sharecroppers and low-wage laborers, Black workers eventually fought and struggled their way into jobs in major American industries. Many migrated to industrial cities such as Detroit and Chicago. In New Orleans they sought work in factories, oil refineries, and the port which was a crucial international shipping point servicing growing industries up and down the Midwest.
This growing Black working class seized the opportunity presented by official society’s need to staff labor-intensive assembly line production. They mobilized on and off the job to demand equal pay and access to core production jobs. The Civil Rights and Black Power movements represented hundreds of thousands of Black workers who began to assert their desire to control these workplaces that had been built upon their backs and their neighborhoods. In many industrial cities such as New Orleans they shook the racist establishment to the core.
Amidst the possibilities of more urban uprisings and concerns that the international image of American Democracy and the credibility of official society were collapsing, moves were made to quickly co-opt a sector of this movement and to consolidate a new set of elites who could govern an increasingly restless Black population. In majority Black cities such as New Orleans, a new Black middle class political machine of ward bosses, social workers, and administrators of local patronage networks was established. While the old regime of white terror continued to exist just miles outside of the city (and consolidated itself further in suburbs built by white flight), in places like New Orleans, Atlanta, and Detroit, Black mayors and police chiefs eventually came to power.
These were no Uncle Toms. They often spoke a language of Black pride and presented themselves as dripping in cultural authenticity. Their police forces continued to crack the heads of Black youth in the streets and they continued to smash strikes initiated by Black workers. However, unlike the white man of a fading era, they were able to use their body politics to diffuse criticism of the new regime. For some, they were Black Power realized. For others, they were a betrayal of what the movement of the 1960s and early 1970s was trying to achieve. People failed to be vigilant about maintaining their autonomous political power within the cross-class alliances of the civil rights and Black Power era.
Katrina represents a fundamental crisis for this middle class establishment. Many have asked why this “Rainbow Coalition” of Black city managers has been unable to stem the tide of social disintegration, educational chaos, poverty, crime, and pollution that has wrecked inner city areas in the past several decades. Why was it that tens of thousands of Black residents of New Orleans were living without the social infrastructure necessary to support a basic dignified life, long before Katrina hit? Is this because Black leaders like mayor Ray Nagin are simply tokens whose hands have been tied by a white power structure that controls them from behind the scenes at the state and federal level? Is it because the working poor are especially out of control and jeopardizing the civilizing mission of the talented tenth? Is it because of drugs, or bad morals, or single mothers, or because a vengeful God is angry?
In the wake of Katrina, all of these suggestions were put forward to explain the situation in New Orleans. All of them fail to explain what happened there and what is happening in our cities across the country. In reality, the Rainbow Coalition of Black mayors and police chiefs came to power in the 1970s just as the ruling class began to destroy the industrial base located in the cities leading to economic collapse.
The reasons for this are complex, but it can be said they have their roots in the failures of the American labor movement in the 20th century. The CIO wave of organizing opened up possibilities for working people to gain economic and political control of society. However, these were compromised and eventually beaten back by a new union bureaucracy that formed a partnership with capital and the state. With working people disarmed, it prepared the way for capital disinvestment.
At the same time the CIO movement promised to overcome the systematic racism that blocked Black workers from unions and smash a white unionism that made peace with Jim Crow. Battles in the south were particularly fierce, but in the north equally so. Through the 1940s to the 1970s, from A. Philip Randolph’s march on Washington to the League of Revolutionary Black Workers, civil rights and Black Power took place in the community and at the same time in the workplace. The failure to maintain leverage over the bureaucracy and to successfully destroy barriers to equal treatment people of color working people fatally comprised these movements.
With automation, speedup and eventual disinvestment and de-industrialization a result, a large unemployed population began to emerge in cities. With automation, employers could produce the same amount with only a fraction of the workers, and from the ruling class’s point of view large segments of the Black urban population were no longer needed.
Because the rulers of the city realized that they could not simply remove all their Black former employees (that would lead to massive resistance here and abroad), they instead tried to contain them. Because these folks were no longer needed as workers they would not need to be educated, housed, or properly kept alive like barnyard animals in order to be exploited for maximum profit. As a result, the new Black middle class became the prison wardens and state administrators of a large sector of Black youth and men shunted from dysfunctional schools to prisons to an early death while the city’s social infrastructure began to collapse.
Many unemployed and underemployed youth tried to fight back. From Detroit to Newark, the cry rang out: “The City is the Black Man’s Land.” Young people mobilized in Black Power rebellions and organizations like the Black Panthers. But these were soon crushed by the police or politically degenerated. The Rainbow Coalition de-mobilized any trends in this direction—much like the CIO movement—by diverting the rebellious energy of the 1960s into support for electoral candidates and ward bosses who were supposed to be able to direct patronage, money, and power into the communities.
They did a little bit of this, but mostly they presided over a regime of diminishing returns. New Orleans witnessed a slow undermining of any basis for a city in the first place. Rising unemployment brought rising crime, and some of this was organized into gang activity. Sometimes the ward bosses of the Rainbow Coalition had to collaborate with these elements in order to maintain control, and social life became increasingly difficult. All the while they pulled cheap gimmicks like naming public schools after historically important Black people to raise the kids’ self-esteem. They tried to keep people’s eyes off the fact that the schools themselves would be shut down or gutted, one by one, with the compliance of so-called Black leadership. Today, while the effects of Katrina continue, they have conferences about banning the n-word, attacking hip hop, and want to pass laws to have people pull their pants up.
Operation Ghost Town: The Occupation of New Orleans
Under normal conditions, all that official society would dare to do to the people of New Orleans would be to kill people softly. However, Katrina gave them another option. It presented a major pretext to get rid of large numbers of the Black working class that were no longer needed by the capitalists. People were shipped off to different cities like Atlanta and Houston, prevented from entering the towns around New Orleans by Jim Crow housing laws. The media—nothing but the propaganda arm of official society—began the usual racist rants by portraying the thousands of people who took things from stores to survive as looters. An untold number of dollars were spent on private mercenary forces to guard rich people.
Many journalists have documented the vast degree of “negligence” during and after the storm on the part of the Federal, state, and local governments. Suffice it to say here that certain facts stand out: the levees were well over a foot too short and the federal government failed to alert the local authorities that they had breached in time for them to launch an evacuation. The New Orleans emergency plan failed to account for the thousands of New Orleanians without cars. The facts indicate one of two possible situations. Either the state is failing miserably to keep its citizens safe (the very task it stakes its right to govern upon) or, this “negligence” is at least in part a deliberate carelessness, a way to accelerate the process of disintegration that had begun long before the storm.
It was terrifying yet revealing to watch how quickly the Rainbow Coalition collapsed during the storm. Refugees found themselves face to face with the ugly ghost of the Old South reborn in the white vigilantes in coalition with local police who fired at them as they tried to flee across bridges into the suburbs. After the federal government waited long enough for the city to be destroyed, they sent in National Guardsmen with shoot-to-kill orders and built the kind of massive military occupation usually reserved for the streets of Baghdad or Gaza City. The Rainbow Coalition did a few media stunts: Ray Nagin cried on TV and Kanye West whined that, “George Bush hates Black people.” But the reality of the matter is that the Black middle class was able to do absolutely nothing to stop the wholesale cleansing of New Orleans’ historic Black communities.
Bringing the Middle Class Economy to New Orleans
The occupation did not end when the floodwaters subsided. The military and the police kept many from returning to their city and their homes to rebuild. Public housing that wasn’t even damaged by the flood was boarded up, its residents kept out at gunpoint. This housing had the misfortune to be located on prime real estate next to the tourist districts that were somehow miraculously rebuilt in time for Mardi Gras.
The state government of Louisiana eventually decided to protect and authorize landlords to throw out all the belongings of refugees who could not return, while opportunists and vultures gouged rent prices and maintained an artificial housing shortage.
While pundits across the country attacked Katrina refugees for being lazy leeches on Federal aid, Black workers were actively discouraged and prevented in many ways from returning to work in New Orleans. With housing still scarce in the city, many were told they would lose their FEMA trailers if they got jobs in the city.
George Bush suspended many labor laws including the requirement that workers in the construction trades be documented. On the surface this was presented as an attempt to rebuild the city as rapidly as possible. In fact it was just the opposite. Predatory contractors hired thousands of undocumented Latino migrant workers onto construction sites in the city at drastically low wages. In many cases they were essentially “rent-a-slaves” kept in poor housing and then refused pay when they finished their jobs.
This is not at all a matter of Latinos “stealing” Black folks’ jobs. In reality official society doesn’t give a damn about Latino or Black people and has no intention of having permanent jobs in New Orleans in the first place. That’s why they are employing a transient population they can more easily expel when they are finished rebuilding the few things they actually want rebuilt, namely the port, military bases, universities, white collar businesses, oil pipelines, and casinos. The service sector and highly automated heavy industries that must remain require few permanent long-term workers and therefore official society is only interested in rebuilding a tiny residential city. The number of workers they need in reconstruction work is larger than the number of residences they will actually be constructing so therefore these jobs cannot be given to anyone they would ever consider allowing to stay in the city.
This is also evident in the fact that the school administration fired thousands of public school employees, in a direct assault on one of the few remaining public sector unions, the teachers’ union. The administration is now replacing the teachers with corporate run charter schools with overcrowded classrooms. It appears the government believes that such a separate and unequal education will be good enough for youth to learn how to do the only thing they will be doing in the Big Easy: cleaning semen and stale beer off of French Quarter floors.
If New Orleans really were to be rebuilt into a thriving, human city populated by citizens rather than ghosts there would be more than enough jobs available in rebuilding social infrastructure. This work could provide a good wage not only for every returning New Orleanian refugee but many immigrants as well.
However, the ruling class wants a city of ghosts and a nation of refugees. Oprah chafed when those displaced by Katrina were called “refugees” crying, “but they’re Americans!” Nevertheless, the future the rulers have in mind for New Orleans is a Third World one. Like many Caribbean nations, it will be shackled to the poor man’s game of resource extraction and tourism, a supply city and pleasure island for the national and global elite who live elsewhere.
In reality, this is a future faced by many American cities. Katrina simply accelerated a process of disintegration of social infrastructure that is evident in the bullet ridden, boarded up homes of Detroit and the Supermax prisons that have replaced the steel mills of Youngstown, Ohio. And this is not simply a future faced by Black folks; in various ways it is hitting white workers across the rust belt as well, with violence and drugs spreading in the shadows of abandoned smokestacks.
Moreover, this process is accelerating with rapid ecological degeneration. Tour boat operators in the Louisiana swamp may callously remark, “that’s what people get for living below sea level, it’s just one more example of human arrogance and Katrina was nature’s way of teaching us a lesson.” The reality is when New Orleans was built it was protected by miles of precious swamp ecosystems which have since been destroyed by oil pipelines, salt water shipping canals, and other infrastructure that was designed to benefit people living elsewhere. This destruction of the Gulf Coast is only accelerating with global warming and rising sea levels. New Orleans, like many cities, is not suffering from a vague “human arrogance” but rather from the very specific arrogance of elite economic planners who simply do not care if their vision of “development” dumps millions of human beings and nature into a toxic cesspool.
Emerging from History’s Floodwaters
So, given this bleak scenario, what is to be done? A provisional answer to this question is offered by the heroic efforts of everyday New Orleanians who have struggled to rebuild their city against the wishes of the landlords, the bosses, the police, and the politicians. While the feds were stalling and then shooting, a rescue operation proceeded as everyday people appropriated boats, water, food, and clothing, taking from stores where necessary. Many helped out their neighbors rescuing children and old folks. Later on, unemployed workers used their skills to begin rebuilding with no support from the state. Community members have forcefully occupied public housing, renovating and reopening their old homes without the state’s approval. Others opened up a medical clinic and began helping folks under the shadow of military helicopters. People are struggling to rebuild houses and neighborhoods that the government would like to leave as permanent piles of rubble.
These efforts are inspiring yet they face major obstacles. The levees in New Orleans are still too small. The flood-management pumping systems are likely to malfunction in any future Katrina-sized storm. Federal and private aid have been delayed by bureaucratic red tape while entire neighborhoods continue to decay. Ultimately the residents of New Orleans have a right to the material resources and infrastructure that the state is denying them. They helped produce the wealth of America and they have a right to seize it and use it to rebuild the kind of city they want to live in. This alone will secure Katrina refugees their right to return to their homes.
But the whole history of American industrial cities from the early 20th century to today indicates that the government will not hand over these resources unless a massive grassroots movement mobilizes to do it with or without them. Given the sheer power of the forces aligned against the displaced citizens of New Orleans, such a movement would have to be national (and international) in order to succeed.
Fortunately, we are not without historical precedents that shine a light on the way forward. Where communities are now facing an outright attack on education, we might learn something from the community-controlled free schools built by Black folks in the Reconstruction era after the Civil War. With the ever-present armed attacks and police brutality against New Orleanians after Katrina, we might take heed of the 1950s and 60s examples of the Deacons for Defense or Robert F. Williams of the Monroe, NC, chapter of the NAACP. These were two organizations that took seriously the question of armed self-defense in the face of white supremacist violence from both white vigilantes and the official police force. In addition, we cannot afford to forget that those industries that provide the greatest profits to capitalism are also its weakest points. The 1934 dockworkers’ strike on the West Coast brought major gains for laborers and remind us today of the strategic importance for organizing of the ports and other points of production that do remain in New Orleans’ own backyard. These steps, and many more, are yet to be taken.
Meanwhile, workers elsewhere should not simply act out of charity. Our own future is wrapped up in this struggle, and our solidarity with New Orleans is a test of our ability to conceive a world besides the one in which our children will be shunted from one prison-school to another as we become permanent economic refugees. In the aftermath of the storm, many Black folks saw Katrina as a sign that the existence of our communities in America cannot be taken for granted. But if that’s the case, why have Black workers, and workers of all races, in other cities not initiated solidarity strikes to force the federal government to stop blocking the reconstruction efforts? Why have the unemployed not rushed the streets, asserting that an injury to one city is an injury to all? Ultimately, the American working class must see that unless we act now our own future is reflected in the floodwaters of New Orleans.