The October 2005 Edition of Street Spirit

A publication of the American Friends Service Committee


National AFSC AFSC Economic Justice BOSS Website



In this issue:

The Aristocracy and the Disaster

In Katrina's Wake, Oakland Batters Homeless

A Perfect Storm of Racism

Katrina: Ongoing Human Disaster

FCNL Speaks Out on Katrina

Kerry's Kids: Health Care for Poor Children

Fresh Start Gives Kindness Awards

The Dying Gift of Sharon Ostman

A 500-Year-Old War on the Poor

37 Million Live in Poverty in US

Julia Vinograd: Poet Laureate of Berkeley Streets

Innovative Plans for Homeless Housing

Disabled Woman on a Long Road Back Home

Photographer's Eye for the Dignity of People

Poor Leonard On Prejudice

The Flower Lady

October Poetry of the Streets


September 2005

August 2005

July 2005

June 2005

May 2005

April 2005

March 2005

February 2005

Street Spirit is published by American Friends Service Committee.

All works are copyrighted by the authors.

The views expressed in Street Spirit are those of the individual authors alone, and not necessarily that of the American Friends Service Committee.

Katrina: A Perfect Storm of Classism and Racism

by Carol Harvey

"Relief Not Racism." A sign at an Oakland rally held in protest of the federal government's slow response to Hurricane Katrina. David Bacon photo

"We must... come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not."
-- Howard Dean, Democratic Party Chair

The televised news from New Orleans was horribly real and really horrible. We saw poor people, mostly African Americans, wading hip-deep in rushing water. Elderly women gripping walkers trudged down the freeway. Disabled folks in wheelchairs slumped dying or dead. A sign on a covered corpse read, "Here lies Vera. God help us!" It was a plea for divine aid when humans didn't send it. The sign restored her identity and rescued Vera from the anonymous death of the countless who drowned.

St. Bernard Parish, a patchwork of marshes, refineries and rundown houses, populated by the poor, lies across the Mississippi from New Orleans near Bourbon Street. On August 29, rescuers discovered the bloated bodies of 32 elders in St Rita's nursing home in Chalmette, St. Barnard Parish, with signs of desperate attempts to keep the water out. Homicide charges were brought against owners Mable Mangano and Salvador Mangano Sr, who allegedly ignored evacuation warnings.

A few Canadian Mounties from Vancouver showed up in two days, but the Louisiana National Guard was evacuated outside the Parish, which received no government assistance in the initial days following Hurricane Katrina.

Bush's covert elitism, classism, and racism were revealed. The narrow TV lens shrunk the unimaginable destruction. People huddled for days on rooftops or freeway overpasses above rushing floods, without food or water, waving signs saying, "Save us."

Racism and classism

As Bush delayed sending the National Guard before hundreds of victims died, many black and white leaders agreed: Racism and classism factored into Katrina's displacements and deaths.
Rev. Al Sharpton called the government's lack of response "inexcusable," saying that when a less violent hurricane hit Palm Beach, Jeb Bush alerted the National Guard before the storm struck.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean told one of the country's largest black religious groups, the National Baptist Convention, "We must... come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not."
Youth rapper Kanye West's agonized words startled a Katrina benefit national TV audience: "It's been five days [waiting for federal help]... America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible."

Class war destroys safety net

The very reason that the underfunded Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) made such a disorganized, late response to desperate calls for help is itself based in the Bush Class War. Under Bush, our nation has suffered the systematic defunding of social programs, entitlements and security to the economically challenged, guaranteeing a long-term increase in poverty and homelessness.

Bush gutted public works projects, federal housing, anti-poverty programs, and programs for energy, environment, education, health care, unemployment, safety, and FEMA. He pumped the money into his Iraq war, contrived for oil and war profiteering. When FEMA was essential in a dire national emergency, it wasn't there.

Intentional 'malign neglect'

Bush has publicly proclaimed that his "base" is the world's corporate rich. The elitism of the rich betrays their "disconnect" from the "lower economic classes." When multimillionaire Bush paused from golf, he told drowning residents of New Orleans to "be patient," and referred to gas price hikes from storm-damaged Gulf Coast derricks.

Repairing to her estate, Barbara Bush opined, "Everyone (Astrodome evacuees) is so overwhelmed by the (Texas) hospitality... The people in the arena here were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."

Was Bush's slow response deliberate? Seeing thousands cooking in the heat and squalor of the Superdome, my first thought was the gas chambers. Like the exterminated Jews, poor African Americans, lured by false promises of food and water, were confined by soldiers in an enclosure which quickly became a death trap. If you delay emergency assistance to a stroke or heart attack victim during the first critical moments, and allow conditions to run their course, you conduct an unprovable murder by "malign neglect."

On September 4, MSNBC's Tim Russert cited stories from the New Orleans Times-Picayune in 2002 that predicted Katrina in minute detail. It was only a matter of time before a hurricane could overtop the levees, leaving thousands drowned, crushed by debris, trapped in homes, cars, on high ground or roofs, dehydrated and hungry for days.

Knowing three years ago of this most accurately forecast disaster in American history, the Bush Administration defunded the Army Corps of Engineers levee reconstruction and wetland restoration, raising storm surges many feet. Bush's repeated denial of global warming highlights the irony that warmer Gulf waters heightened wind intensity and flooding.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco requested assistance two days before the hurricane struck. Evacuations were called, but the poor had no money to leave. Jefferson Parrish President Aaron Broussard told of an employee whose mother begged him for five days to "send somebody" to her St. Bernard nursing home, then drowned. "Nobody's coming to get us," Broussard sobbed. "I'm sick of the press conferences. For God sakes, shut up and send us somebody!"

On a local radio station, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin yelled in frustration, "Don't tell me 40,000 people are coming here! They're not here. It's too doggone late. Now get off your asses, and let's do something. Let's fix the biggest goddamn crisis in the history of this country."

Under Michael E. Brown, FEMA delayed for two crucial days; rejected Amtrak's help with evacuations; rebuffed experienced firefighters; rejected Wal-Mart supply trucks; prevented Coast Guard diesel fuel deliveries; halted food deliveries by the Red Cross; barred morticians; blocked a 500-boat citizen flotilla delivering aid; ignored a Navy ship, the Baton, with a 600-bed hospital; and turned away power generators.

President Bush acknowledged in a nationally televised speech on September 15 that he bore ultimate responsibility for this crisis. In dire emergencies, states and cities do not have vast federal resources.

Does letting people drown, or die in the absence of medical care, or wander in a toxic soup of bacteria at 45,000 times normal levels, amount to a culling process? Conspiracy theories or intention aside, profiteering wars have clearly caused mass deaths of Iraqi and American poor.

The Bush Administration shares some of the marks of totalitarian regimes treated so brilliantly by George Orwell in 1984. Among them are the destruction of democratic and Constitutional ideals. Problems are blamed on foreign scapegoats and the nation is unified by whipping the public into a frenzy of hatred directed outwards at Osama, Iraq, insurgents, and terrorists.
Rich and poor classes are strictly defined. The poor and homeless are made internal enemies -- scapegoated, isolated, and criminalized. Like Jews in Nazi Germany, homeless people in the United States carry "inferior" status, and are criminalized, banished from certain areas, and stereotyped as subhuman beings.

Corporate looting

One premier symbol of Corporate Classism was the Fugi blimp hanging overhead helping police spot "looters." While accusing poor flood victims of looting food and water, rich white men raid the Treasury by profiteering in war zones in Iraq and disaster zones in Louisiana, Social Security privatization, environmental pillaging, and gas gouging.

The Corporatocracy is making money from New Orleans' displaced and dead. In both Iraq and New Orleans, Bush's use of Dick Cheney's company, Halliburton, along with Kellogg-Brown-Root and Blackwater contractors, adds up to the looting of Americans' tax dollars via lucrative government contracts and billing for cost over-runs. Bush gave these companies contracts to assess New Orleans' power infrastructure prior to rebuilding, bypassing competitive bidding, supposedly for speed.

Homeless shelter as prison

The Superdome was, in essence, a large homeless shelter. San Francisco shelter dwellers, too, describe unclean and dangerous conditions, lice, cockroaches, rats, and criminal behavior. One man told me he took all his belongings with him to the bathroom at night, lest they be stolen. The staff act as guards, (sometimes armed), controlling and monitoring your entrance or egress from the facility.

On September 12, Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, convention attendees and paramedics from S.E.I.U Local 790, searched for water with several hundred others. Police advised them to cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where there were buses to take them out of the city.

At the bridge, armed Gretna Parish sheriffs blocked them, firing weapons over their heads. They sheltered from the rain under an overpass, built an encampment and waited for buses on elevated Ponchartrain Expressway for security. They stole a water truck, and picked up a pallet of dropped C-rations.

They cleaned up the area, hung garbage bags from rebar poles, made beds from cardboard and wood pallets, and used a storm drain for a toilet with a privacy enclosure fashioned from broken umbrellas and plastic. With basic needs met, they watched out for each other, worked together and made a community.

Unequal treatment for 'new' and 'old' homeless

Katrina may spread thousands of newly homeless persons across America as they escape to other cities and to the streets. Not yet seen as part of the old-guard homeless, they were at first called "refugees," until some complained that they are tax-paying citizens, not exiles. Evacuees were welcomed in San Francisco, where Laura Adelman of the S.F. Office of Emergency Services said the Red Cross and Catholic Charities will help upwards of 400 "cases" obtain hotel vouchers, housing, medical care and jobs.

Willie Warren of the Coalition on Homelessness reminded us of the homeless people already on the San Francisco streets. He said, "Look, it's cool you want to bring disaster refugees up here for a while into the housing because it is going to take a year or two or three for you to rebuild New Orleans. Nobody's got a problem with that. What takes precedence, rights or emergency?"

Warren said that countless homeless residents of San Francisco already "have been waiting on the list" seeking help and housing for anywhere from two to seven years. "You are using poor people against each other," he said. "When survival comes to town, ethics and morals take a vacation."

I asked Sister Bernie Galvin of Religious Witness With Homeless People about the higher status apparently afforded the newly homeless evacuees. She said: "Which desperate individuals should get the available San Francisco housing -- the San Franciscans who have long been on the waiting list for housing or those equally desperate individuals victimized by Katrina?" She said that this question invites our stepping into the trap of pitting one desperate group against another; to do so would be to dishonor the dignity of every person in each group.

Sister Galvin said, "The more appropriate question should be, 'Why is it that this wealthiest nation in the world is not able to simultaneously provide for the basic need for housing to both of these groups?'" Or going beyond that, a more basic question would be, 'Why is it that the Bush Administration prioritizes exorbitant funding for war and killing and gives immense tax cuts to the wealthiest 1% of this nation, thereby ensuring the deprivation of the most basic human needs to the poor people of our own nation?' These are the questions that we should be pondering at this time."

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