Less than half a mile away, at the New Orleans Convention Center, Sadique Jabbar’s first meal Friday was a bag of Cheetos someone gave her around 11 a.m.
“You know the only reason we’ve been fed?” Jabbar said. “Some men out of prison have been breaking into buildings, getting food for us and bringing it back here.”
–San Francisco Chronicle, 9/3/2005
New Orleans has always had a reputation as a cruel, dangerous place, from a large underclass sensationalized by the stereotypes of white Southerners, a mystique of voodoo and heartbreak, and a tradition of callous plantation aristocracy that somehow infected wealthy tourists from all over.
But I also found a silver lining of heart among the people. Loitering with no money at all ten years ago, a man of about forty panhandled me saying he needed food. I said I had no cash and didn’t know when I would eat next. “Then come with me!” he said. I followed him for seven blocks as he hussled people for change and got kicked out of every business we entered (they knew him). Eventually he had two bucks, bought a chili cheese dog and split it with me.
After the deluge, every day I would walk past the newspaper racks in Oakland and the word “Anarchy!” would cry out from at least one of the daily papers. Unfortunately, what they were referring to was hysterical coverage claiming that while the police in New Orleans were too busy amid the disaster and the military had, um, not arrived yet, all the remaining people had turned on each other in an outbreak of murder, rape and robbery. Which is of course exactly what people like to tell Anarchists will happen if the government were “turned off” (and what racists say will happen if African-Americans are allowed to run their own affairs).
Of course anarchists respond by saying humans are biologically social, and can coordinate and cooperate with each other. “Mutual aid” means that an economy can be based on the practice of people identifying the interests of a whole community as their own. But the imposition of a world run from the top down deprives us of the opportunity to live that way, as the way we relate to each other is dictated by hierarchies and abstract market theories.
And in the end it was the anarchists who get to say “I told you so.” After a few days, even the corporate press told stories of people helping each other survive. Not only did the alternative web media carry these stories, but also many astonishing reports of law enforcement and other government people actually preventing and obstructing spontaneous acts of mutual aid, and deterring people from even helping themselves.
Snapshots of Genocide
Two paramedics in town for a convention, stranded in the wake of hurricane Katrina gave their account of self-organization and abandonment in the disaster zone, after venturing out after a couple days holed up in a French Quarter hotel.
. . .The much-promised federal, state and local aid never materialized and the windows at Walgreen’s gave way to the looters. There was an alternative. The cops could have broken one small window and distributed the nuts, fruit juices, and bottle water in an organized and systematic manner. But they did not. Instead they spent hours playing cat and mouse, temporarily chasing away the looters. . .
We created a priority boarding area for the sick, elderly and new born babies. We waited late into the night for the “imminent” arrival of the buses. The buses never arrived. We later learned that the minute they arrived to the City limits, they were commandeered by the military. . .
We questioned why we couldn’t cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the 6-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their City. These were code words for if you are poor and black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River and you were not getting out of New Orleans… 1
Even the Red Cross was blocked from entering the disaster area. From the Red Cross website (in the first few days):
The state Homeland Security Department had requested — and continues to request — that the American Red Cross not come back into New Orleans following the hurricane. Our presence would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come into the city. 2
Another survivor described his experience:
A lot of those young men lost their minds because the helicopters would fly over us and they wouldn’t stop. We’d do SOS on the flashlights, we’d do everything. And it came to a point. It really did come to a point where these young men were really so frustrated that they did start shooting. They weren’t trying to hit the helicopters. Maybe they weren’t seeing. Maybe if they heard this gunfire they will stop then. But that didn’t help us. Nothing like that helped us. . .
Finally, I got to Canal Street with all of my people that I had saved from back there. There was a whole group of us. I — I don’t want them arresting nobody else — I broke the window in an RTA bus. I never learned how to drive a bus in my life. I got in that bus. I loaded all those people in wheelchairs and then everything else into that bus and (sobbing) and we drove (crying) and we drove. 3
There’s more; go to Indymedia New Orleans for stories and links to everything. But speaking of shooting, did some people attack other people because, as the liberal media says, poor, marginalized, underprivileged people do that because of their frustration and resentment towards society, or because humans always burst into sociopathic extremism when not guarded by the government, or because some people go insane when living in black water filled with sewage and bodies for days with no food or water in the heat?
Perhaps in order to have insight and objective knowledge about these questions, we should perform a simple scientific experiment, providing a control group for the New Orleans public policy research just carried out by the federal government. First, we’ll need twenty five thousand wealthy white people, FEMA officials, Haliburton management, Republican party hacks, and so forth. Then we flood their houses with six feet of black water. Then we herd them into a stadium and leave them to themselves with no food or water, and overflowing toilets, while armed people keep them in. Then we watch what happens with those cameras used to televise sports events. Perhaps we could get a grant for this from the mega-billion dollar corporate relief budget.
Even if mutual aid, cooperation and ingenuity naturally arise in a disaster, many people will revert to the way society trained them. The solution is to be ready for community to fill the void where government fails.
In Berkeley/Oakland, prepare for the big one; and anywhere, be ready for martial law or fascist coup, biological/chemical/nuclear attack, another hurricane (they’re only getting bigger and more frequent), a tsunami, or even a meteor. Not only by stockpiling canned food, drinking water and batteries, but also by talking to your neighbors, including the ‘normal’ ones, about what to do when the bottom drops.
How will medical emergencies be handled? The East Bay hospitals are ON the Hayward Fault. What to do about cops and robbers- keep them out of the hood or deal with them on our terms? Does anyone have a satellite phone?
Whatever your semantics, I hope you’ll still find this misquote something In Slingshot 1989 inspiring, “Chaos Is not Anarchy, but it is the raw material from which Anarchy can be forged.”
1. from ‘Get Off The Fucking Freeway: The Sinking State Loots its Own Survivors’ by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky
2. www.redcross.org/faq/0,1096,0_682_4524,00.html #4524
3. from transcript of video interview with Neville posted at Baton Rouge, WAFB.