After Katrina: keeping our eyes on the prize

Share with your friends


“To survive,” said one Black woman at the December 9 national conference of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition (PHRF) in Jackson, Mississippi, “you have to get up every day with a purpose.”

I traveled from New York to attend the conference with my colleague Nellie Wong of San Francisco, who was representing Radical Women. The next day, we marched and rallied in New Orleans. We spent three days talking with hurricane survivors and activists from across the country, mostly African American, all fiercely determined to be in on the reconstruction of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.

The greatest danger is that the crisis of discrimination against people with dark skin that Katrina exposed so thoroughly will be swept under the rug, and the lives of those hit hardest will never be made whole. Their demands for relief and the right to return and rebuild at union wages reverberate everywhere.

“There should have been a freeze on all wages and prices at the beginning, because businesses are gouging us,” said a young Latino man in the crowd at the rally. His grandparents were born in New Orleans. An electrician, he couldn’t find work when he returned because employers are hiring and abusing undocumented workers with no union protection. He finally found a job cleaning sewers for minimum wage.

A priest from the Mary Queen of Vietnam church couldn’t get the city to turn the electricity back on, because, he was told, the fleeing Vietnamese “were not going to return.” An abominable Catch-22.

Gulf residents know that the racist, aristocratic status quo in Louisiana is never going to solve their problems, because it feeds on impoverishment and on racial and anti-immigrant bigotry.
From listening to people who went south to help and to people who went north as evacuees, I came to believe that this kind of north/south exchange could be key in spurring a national, Black-led civil rights struggle — one that the country desperately needs.

An African American survivor who now lives in New York City was critical of the rally because of its domination by Black nationalists whose politics and organizing, she said, are too narrow. She’s right. Women were barely mentioned, gays and Vietnamese immigrants were ignored; supportive white young people drifted away from the rally, feeling unwelcome. What’s needed is a racially inclusive united front that isn’t afraid to name capitalism as the enemy.

The role of the labor movement is pivotal. In New Orleans, local transit authorities are trying to break the bus drivers’ union. They want workers to reapply for their jobs without union protection, using FEMA as a pretext to ignore the union contract. Local activists are fighting this and trying to get national labor leaders to take a stand. If bus company management gets away with this, it will undermine the rights of union workers in every city and town hit by disaster.

In Seattle, the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women work with the Puget Sound Katrina Relief and Reconstruction Committee. Locals 19 and 52 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and Teamsters Local 174 took the lead in organizing this group, which collaborates with the longshore union in Baton Rouge. Dedicated to providing support for survivors’ political and relief demands, this broadly based labor and community group is a model for other cities.

During the Jackson conference, a single mother of four described how survivors are being pitted against other poor people in the far-flung communities where they are staying, at a time when social services are being reduced wholesale.

But what if the opposite were happening? Imagine a bold alliance of poor communities everywhere, with Katrina survivors the catalyst for a national movement to win a transformed society. At the conference, a possible start was made, with a draft “Agreement and Commitment to Work in a United Front for Justice and Community Based Reconstruction of the Gulf South” presented for organizations to consider. Another conference and march is scheduled for New Orleans over Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday in January.

Necessity has a way of providing the leadership for what’s needed — in this case, a new, anti-capitalist civil rights movement. Its first job? Reclaim New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for the working people and artists whose blood, sweat and talent made this area flower.

New York City Freedom Socialist Party organizer Stephen Durham also attended the national conference in South Carolina this past fall called by the PHRF.

Share with your friends