[News] The Secret History of Hurricane Katrina

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Aug 28 10:19:23 EDT 2009


Mother Jones

Secret History of Hurricane Katrina

Ridgeway | Fri August 28, 2009 4:00 AM PST

Confronted with images of corpses floating in the 
blackened floodwaters or baking in the sun on 
abandoned highways, there aren't too many people 
left who see what happened following Hurricane 
Katrina as a purely "natural" disaster. The 
dominant narratives that have emerged, in the 
four years since the storm, are of a gross human 
tragedy, compounded by social inequities and 
government ineptitude­a crisis subsequently 
in every way possible for political and financial gain.

But there's an even harsher truth, one some New 
Orleans residents learned in the very first days 
but which is only beginning to become clear to 
the rest of us: What took place in this 
devastated American city was no less than a war, 
in which victims whose only crimes were poverty 
and blackness were treated as enemies of the state.

It started immediately after the storm and flood 
hit, when civilian aid was scarce­but private 
security forces already had boots on the ground. 
Some, like Blackwater (which has since redubbed 
itself Xe), were under federal contract, while a 
host of others answered to wealthy residents and 
businessmen who had departed well before Katrina 
and needed help protecting their property from 
the suffering masses left behind. According 
Jeremy Scahill's 
in The Nation, Blackwater set up an HQ in 
downtown New Orleans. Armed as they would be in 
Iraq, with automatic rifles, guns strapped to 
legs, and pockets overflowing with ammo, 
Blackwater contractors drove around in SUVs and 
unmarked cars with no license plates.

"When asked what authority they were operating 
under,'' Scahill reported, "one guy said, 'We're 
on contract with the Department of Homeland 
Security.' Then, pointing to one of his comrades, 
he said, 'He was even deputized by the governor 
of the state of Louisiana. We can make arrests 
and use lethal force if we deem it necessary.' 
The man then held up the gold Louisiana law 
enforcement badge he wore around his neck.''

The Blackwater operators described their mission 
in New Orleans as "securing neighborhoods," as if 
they were talking about Sadr City. When National 
Guard troops descended on the city, the Army 
Times described their role as fighting "the 
insurgency in the city." Brigadier Gen. Gary 
Jones, who commanded the Louisiana National 
Guard's Joint Task Force, told the paper, "This 
place is going to look like Little Somalia. We're 
going to go out and take this city back. This 
will be a combat operation to get this city under control."

Ten days after the storm, the New York Times 
that although the city was calm with no signs of 
looting (though it acknowledged this had taken 
place previously), "New Orleans has turned into 
an armed camp, patrolled by thousands of local, 
state, and federal law enforcement officers, as 
well as National Guard troops and active-duty 
soldiers." The local police superintendent 
ordered all weapons, including legally registered 
firearms, confiscated from civilians. But as the 
Times noted, that order didn't "apply to hundreds 
of security guards hired by businesses and some 
wealthy individuals to protect property
openly carry M-16's and other assault rifles." 
Scahill spoke to Michael Montgomery, the chief of 
security for one wealthy businessman who said his 
men came under fire from "black gangbangers" near 
the Ninth Ward. Armed with AR-15s and Glocks, 
Montgomery and his men "unleashed a barrage of 
bullets in the general direction of the alleged 
shooters on the overpass. 'After that, all I 
heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting 
stopped. That was it. Enough said.'"

Malik Rahim, a Vietnam veteran and longtime 
community activist, was one of the organizers of 
the Common Ground Collective, which quickly began 
dispensing basic aid and medical care in the 
first days after the hurricane. But far from 
aiding the relief workers, Rahim told me this 
week, the police and troops who began patrolling 
the streets treated them as criminals or 
"insurgents." African American men caught outside 
also ran the risk of crossing paths with roving 
vigilante patrols who shot at will, he says. In 
this dangerous environment, Common Ground began 
to rely on white volunteers to move through a 
city that had simply become too perilous for blacks.

In July, the local television station WDSU 
a home video, taken shortly after the storm hit, 
of a local man, Paul Gleason, who bragged to two 
police officers about shooting looters in the Algiers section of New Orleans.

"Did you have any problems with looters," [sic] asked an officer.

"Not anymore," said Gleason.

"Not anymore?"

"They're all dead," said Gleason.

The officer asked, "What happened?"

"We shot them," said Gleason.

"How many did you shoot?


"Thirty-eight people? What did you do with the bodies?"

"We gave them to the Coast Guard," said Gleason.

Gleason told his story with a cup of red wine in 
one hand and riding a tractor from Blaine Kern's Mardi Gras World.

Although the government's aid efforts were in 
chaos, those involved in the self-generated 
community rescue and relief efforts were often 
seen as a threat. Even so, Common Ground, founded 
in the days after Katrina hit, eventually managed 
to serve more than half a million people, 
operating feeding stations, opening free health 
and legal clinics, and later rebuilding homes and 
planting trees. But they "never got a dime" from 
the federal government, says Rahim. The feds did, 
however, recruit one of Common Ground's founders, 
Brandon Darby, as an informant, later 
him to infiltrate groups planning actions at the 
2008 Republican National Convention.

And while the government couldn't seem to keep 
people from dying on rooftops or abandoned 
highways, it wasted no time building a temporary jail in New Orleans.
Burl Cain, the warden of the notorious Angola 
Prison, a former slave plantation that's now home 
to 5,000 inmates, was rushed down to the city to 
oversee "Camp Greyhound" in the city's bus 
to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, the jail "was 
constructed by inmates from Angola and Dixon 
state prisons and was outfitted with everything a 
stranded law enforcer could want, including 
top-of-the-line recreational vehicles to live in 
and electrical power, courtesy of a yellow Amtrak 
locomotive. There are computers to check 
suspects' backgrounds and a mug shot 
station­complete with heights marked in black on 
the wall that serves as the backdrop."

In the virtual martial law imposed in New Orleans 
after Katrina, the war on the poor sometimes even 
spilled over into the war on terror. In his 
latest book Zeitoun, published in July, Dave 
Eggers tells the story of a local Syrian 
immigrant who stayed in New Orleans to protect 
his properties and ended up organizing makeshift 
relief efforts and rescuing people in a canoe. He 
continued right up until he was arrested by a 
group of unidentified, heavily armed men in 
uniform, thrown into Camp Greyhound, and 
questioned as a suspected terrorist. In an 
with Salon, Eggers said:

Zeitoun was among thousands of people who were 
doing "Katrina time" after the storm. There was a 
complete suspension of all legal processes and 
there were no hearings, no courts for months and 
months and not enough folks in the judicial 
system really seemed all that concerned about it. 
Some human-rights activists and some attorneys, 
but otherwise it seemed to be the cost of doing 
business. It really could have only happened at 
that time; 2005 was just the exact meeting place 
of the Bush-era philosophy towards law 
enforcement and incarceration, their philosophy 
toward habeas corpus and their neglect and 
indifference to the plight of New Orleanians.

Through all the time that the federal and local 
governments, in concert with wealthy New 
Orleanians, were pitching their battle, there was 
virtually no one fighting on the other side. 
Reviewing the "available evidence" a month after 
Katrina, the New York Times concluded that "the 
most alarming stories that coursed through the 
city appear to be little more than figments of 
frightened imaginations." The reports of 
residents firing at National Guard helicopters, 
of tourists being robbed and raped on Bourbon 
Street, and of murderous rampages in the 
out to be false.

Since then it has become increasingly clear that 
the truth of what happened in New 
Orleans­vigilantism and racially tinged violence, 
a military response that supplanted a humanitarian one­is equally sinister.

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