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From the Gulf to the Gulf: New Orleans Professor John Clark Testifies on the “Triple Crime of Katrina”

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John Clark, professor of philosophy and environmental studies, spoke at this weekend’s Bush crimes commission about systemic racism and the discrimination in the response to Hurricane Katrina. He says the Bush administration is guilty of not preparing for the disaster, inadequately responding, and botching the recovery process. [includes rush transcript]

  • John Clark, professor of philosophy and environmental studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. He’s been working with grassroots organizations in the city for the past 5 weeks.
  • Bush Crimes Commission

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We now go to more of the people who spoke at this weekend’s “People’s Tribunal” here in New York City, the Saturday program dominated by people talking about Hurricane Katrina. They spoke about the causes, the aftermath, the efforts to rebuild and the ongoing government negligence. This is John Clark, Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Loyola University in New Orleans.

JOHN CLARK: I was listening to local radio, and I heard Mayor Nagin on the radio. And he made the statement, quote, direct quote, “Hurricane Katrina did not discriminate.” That’s a very interesting statement. I think it shows a great — we could say it’s just a deception, but if he believes it, it shows a great ignorance of how society works, because we know, as Dr. Bullard and others have pointed out in their many decades of work, racism is built into our social system. Class oppression is built into our social system. So when a hurricane hits, it does discriminate. It automatically discriminates. It automatically produces very deep and severe problems for some people and perhaps moderate, sometimes severe problems for others, but not equal problems. And we see that in New Orleans.

One of our leading local news figures, Garland Robinette, perhaps the best-known news person in New Orleans, made this statement on the radio. He says, “If you’re looking for blame, look in the mirror.” He’s telling everybody in New Orleans or wherever they’re hearing him across the country to blame themselves. I think he was half-right. He was half-right, because by people’s inaction, by allowing the authorities to do what they’ve been doing for decades and centuries, we all do have blame. But the blame is not equal. Because some authorities have been entrusted with the responsibility of taking care of the problems of society and taking care of people’s needs. And they have failed abysmally in this responsibility and, I would say, criminally.

So I would ask us to look at what I would call the triple crime of Katrina. First, the ongoing criminal negligence in the lack of preparation for such an event. I have a lot of wonderful quotes which I’m going to skip, but environmental writers and other commentators have been telling us for decades, that this catastrophe was on the way and that actually we haven’t even seen the big catastrophe, what we call the big one. It’s still on the way. And we’re still not preparing for it.

Let me give you a couple of citations on this. It is well known that New Orleans has been on FEMA’s top three list of disaster sites, and publications ranging from Scientific American to the local newspaper have run major articles on the coming disaster. [inaudible] percent, funding for flood control in the area has been cut by 44.2%. In addition, it’s well known that wetlands have offered protection to the city from tropical storms and hurricanes. You’ve already heard about the loss of wetlands. We’re now losing probably about 30 miles — square miles per year of wetlands. We have lost as much as 40 square miles. Nothing has been done. Negligible efforts have been made to deal with this problem. So far, all the efforts have done is to reduce the amount of loss. But there is no restoration of our coastal wetlands. We still have 30 square miles per year of loss. We’re becoming more and more vulnerable every year to events such as Katrina.

The Corps of Engineers official, Lieutenant General Strock, stated before Congress, “Levees were never intended to protect against category four hurricanes such as Katrina.” So, the Corps of Engineers, one of the agencies entrusted with the responsibility of protecting us, says that what has been done has not even been intended to protect us from a catastrophe such as Katrina, much less, a more severe category four or a category five hurricane. So I think — there’s much more to say on this subject, but I think we have to conclude that the Bush administration is certainly guilty of the crime of failing to protect us from a predicted disaster, and in fact, cutting back on programs that might, in fact, have helped us meet this very disaster that just befell us.

The second area of the crime I won’t talk much about because you’ve seen a very moving film already on the lack of initial response to the disaster. I think if we want to look for an example of racism and discrimination in our society, nothing is more moving and profoundly devastating emotionally, I think, than to see the people in the Convention Center and elsewhere in New Orleans; the people on top of roofs with signs saying, “Help me, I haven’t had food or water for three days;” people saying, “I’m diabetic. I have a heart condition. I need medicine;” and nothing happening at the same time that hundreds of billions of dollars are being spent to fight an unjust war of aggression in Iraq and a war based on deception. I think increasingly the public will begin to see that these priorities are insane and criminal.

I work with grassroots groups that were delivering food to people during the initial weeks, really the third week after the disaster. And as we went to people’s houses, they said, “It’s great that you’re bringing us food and water. Can we have some ice?” At the same time, truckloads of ice were being driven back and forth across the country, as the daily newspaper pointed out, $385,000 was spent just on mileage to take ice from Alabama to Massachusetts, which is not exactly the way to get to Louisiana. And truck drivers were paid $54 an hour to wait to get instructions.

At the same time, grassroots groups like Mama Dee’s group in the Seventh Ward, the Soul Patrol, Common Ground in the Algiers neighborhood, people working in the Ninth Ward, were working with really nothing. With the vast wealth in this society, enormous amounts were wasted. And the people who are doing the grassroots work were left to pass the hat, ask outside volunteers to help and do whatever they could. And they were very, very effective in helping people in the city at that time.

Just very briefly, to get — since there is a number three, which is very important, crime number three: The absolutely abhorrent process that’s taken place during the recovery. First, the exclusion of citizens from the city. Many people wanted to go back to their houses. I had to go illegally back to my house two-and-a-half weeks after the hurricane. And it’s only because I was willing to stay and risk going back and forth through checkpoints, coming up with any story I could, that I was able to work there. I went through the second hurricane, Hurricane Rita, with three of the volunteers staying at my house. It’s only because we were there that we saved what I have, because of severe roof damage. Thousands of people were in that position in New Orleans. Thousands of people would have liked to go back and take care of their houses that were deteriorating, but they were excluded. This is a very large subject.

This — someone has already mentioned the subject of ethnic cleansing. I think we have to take that very seriously. In fact, there’s an interesting quote from the mayor. People have been kept out of the city first by explicit exclusion by the military after the militarization of the city. They have been kept out by not having jobs, by not having resources to rebuild, repair, and salvage what they have. They’ve been kept out by the fact that the school system has not started — the public school system — operating and has no plans even for the rest of the year to start most of the schools on the East Bank, which is the vast majority of the schools in New Orleans. It goes on and on.

There have been obstacles set up for people to return. At the same time, the government is subsidizing hotels and other means of staying out of the city. If some of the people in New Orleans who would like to get back could get the same resources to rebuild or repair their own houses and to work in their own communities as they are receiving to stay away, these communities would be in much less danger.

I have to convey one message, since the person I have been working with so much who we thought might be here and isn’t, Mama Dee, gave me one message to convey to people in New York. She said, “If you want to tell them anything about what we’re doing, it’s neighbors helping neighbors.” And I’ve seen magnificent things done. It’s not only our local neighbors, it’s neighbors from out of town. We’ve had hundreds of young people from all over the country, who have come to the Seventh Ward, the Ninth Ward to work with Common Ground and other projects to rebuild the city, to help the people in the communities have the opportunity to come back to their own communities. The struggle is between the people who are doing this grassroots work and need the support of all of you and everyone everywhere and the powers that be, the powers that created the disaster, since this is not a natural disaster. This is an unnatural disaster.

If the forces of nature could have operated, we would have had wetlands to protect us. If the forces of human community could have operated, we could have saved ourselves. And that’s what grassroots organization is about. That’s what federal bureaucracies are not about. That’s what capitalism is not about. That’s what our economic and political system are not about right now.

So, of course, the ultimate thing that people can do to help New Orleans is immediately either come to New Orleans and help us, send aid to grassroots groups, and put pressure on the government to institute policies that will help citizens get back into their own communities and not be cleansed out of them, particularly black citizens in New Orleans. And in the long term, what you can do is exactly the same thing that Mama Dee and Malik are doing with all the people who have involved with them in the Seventh Ward and Algiers, that is, create grassroots organizations, re-appropriate power at the level of the community and create a society in which people like Bush cannot be elected and in which there’s a real opposition to people like Bush.

AMY GOODMAN: John Clark, Professor of Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Loyola University in New Orleans. He was speaking at a People’s International Tribunal this weekend that was trying the Bush administration on issues from the Gulf to the Gulf, from Baghdad to the Bayou.

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