I have a Katrina survivor in one of my classes.
Today we were discussing “disposable people” and how it has become common place for corporations to simply move people off the land they want. When these people are considered disposable, they can be moved by execution, air strike, fire, etc. Their lives are less worthy than the land beneath them. Their humanity is unquestionably unobserved by those whose eyes have simply fixated on profit over people.
In the case of corporate greed natural disasters have unnatural results. I saw this in my own neighborhood when the only storage unit in the entire sector burned to the ground. Several elderly African Americans stood outside the ruins in tears while the European American owner of a new trendy breakfast cafe was quoted as saying “Good. That place was an eyesore and it is not the kind of place we want in our neighborhood.” Apparently the owner of Bridges thought her then-1-2 year residence in “our neighborhood” trumped the lifetimes of the families who had lived in the neighborhood and stored their cherished items at the storage unit for generations. She was unmoved by the crying grandmothers just a crosswalk away. Within the year, the storage unit had been replaced by a Mega-Nike store. Within five years the African Americans had all but moved out. The loss, meant that black owned businesses – from the hair stylists to the African Art owners- surrounding Bridges also closed and the empty or decaying buildings left behind where scooped up and gentrified. After all, those are the kinds of businesses “we” want in “our” neighborhood; the kind that don’t discriminate on the surface, whose trendy atmosphere includes liberal discussions about equality, but who seldom serve people of color nor make them feel welcome.
Unlike the fire in my neighborhood, I am not entirely comfortable with calling Katrina a natural disaster. The levies were known to be unstable. The weather reports had all claimed they would not hold. Yet people were left unaware, without transportation nor extensive warning, to die. Interestingly, these people were mostly African American, immigrants, elderly, infirm, and differently-abled. Like those grandmothers in my neighborhood much of corporate America, or at least Halliburton, saw their tears and began rejoicing about replacing them with the people and things “we want in our neighborhood.”
As the country turns from shock to judgment, I cannot help but think of the ways in which domestic policy and foreign policy for MNCs is based on a simple colonial model. Remember colonialism at its most basic was people moving into other people’s countries, pushing them out through force, and replacing them with cookie cutter versions of the fatherland (gender intended) with the added benefit of slavery or indentured servitude. Gentrification is the same thing on a local scale minus the slavery. In the case of rebuilding, if Halliburton runs the rebuild and displaced workers from Louisiana are forced to beg for day work . . . maybe it isn’t minus indenture.
After all, when you threaten people trying to escape a flood with weapons, whether you are the police who lined up on Danziger Bridge to stop people from walking out of the disaster with bullets, or famous actors who accompany their helpful boat rescues with vigilantism predicated on racial stereotypes perpetuated by the media, can you really say that there wasn’t a colonial mindset running amuck?
My student told her story of surviving Katrina today. She too made the connection between the global and the local. She said that government sanctioned apathy begins at home. She talked about people being blamed for “choosing” to stay behind even as her own story shows she did every thing she could to leave and is still paying the price for being left behind. She also drew a connection between the turn to victim-blaming and the way this country treats the poor, the homeless, and the sick in general. If citizens of this country as so expendable, then how much easier is it for a xenophobic nationalistic leadership and the MNCs that represent them to expend with people in other nations.
There is one more thing she said, I think we all need to know:
FEMA is currently requesting that aid recipients prove they were New Orleans residents during Katrina. Those who cannot prove it, say there paperwork washed away in a flood for instance, will have to pay back the money FEMA has given them.
This is the most recent tactic in ensuring the 9th ward becomes “the kind of business we want in our neighborhood.”
My class concluded that we would take a lesson from SITRATERCO, the worker’s union for Chiquita workers in Honduras, by telling the stories we know to everyone who will listen and to each other. We will remember the names and the details of those who suffered and those who persecuted. We will speak their stories no matter what. What will you do?