Audience at Aug. 29 opening session of International Tribunal
on Katrina and Rita. Wearing black cap is Million Worker March
Movement leader Clarence Thomas.
Fast forward to Aug.
29, 2007—while George W. Bush and Democratic presidential candidates
Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in New Orleans taking their photo-ops,
two significant events were taking place in other parts of this city. One
was a march in the morning of about 1,000 people from the Industrial Canal—site
of the broken levee in the lower 9th Ward—to Congo Square. The other
was the opening session of the International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita,
which was virtually boycotted by the national mainstream media.
The tribunal, initiated
by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), was supported by many
national and international organizations, and was attended by hundreds of
survivors of both hurricanes along with political and community activists
from around the country and the world.
The main purpose of this
people’s tribunal was to expose to the world a multitude of crimes against
humanity amounting to genocide carried out by the U.S. government on a local,
statewide and federal level against the survivors, then and now. The tribunal
ended on Sept. 2.
It has already been documented
that it wasn’t the rains and wind caused by Hurricane Katrina that destroyed
80 percent of New Orleans; it was the flooding from the broken levees, especially
in the largely African-American and poor lower 9th Ward, that resulted in
the highest numbers of deaths, unimaginable repression and massive forced
Two years later, while
billions of dollars have rapidly been directed to restoring the economy of
New Orleans—notably the industries related to tourism—the lower
9th Ward still resembles a weed-infested ghost town, as thousands of residents
struggle to rebuild and to return home.
Malik Rahim gives evidence on military occupation Sept. 1.
The goals of the tribunal
were to fully expose the human rights abuses committed by the U.S. government
and its agencies and operatives in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and
Rita; to attain national and international recognition as Internally Displaced
Persons (IDPs) for the all the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; to
attain comprehensive reparations for all Gulf Coast IDPs (including migrant
workers and communities); to strengthen the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Movement
and build a broad national and international movement in support of its aims
and demands; and to hold the rogue U.S. government accountable for its human
rights abuses and crimes against Gulf Coast IDPs.
On July 16, Bush, along
with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour
and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, were sent letters by the tribunal’s
prosecution team requesting their presence at the tribunal to face various
charges. Not only did they not show up for the tribunal; they never responded
to the letters.
The tribunal judges came
from Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, France, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the U.S.
The conveners traveled from Algeria, Brazil, South Africa and different U.S.
Opening the “casket”
on human rights violations
Nkechi Taifa, a tribunal
prosecutor from the Legacy Empowerment Center, officially opened up the first
day of the tribunal proceedings Aug. 30. She spoke eloquently about how “the
spirit of Emmett Till” was being felt at the tribunal. It was almost
50 years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina hit that Till, a 14-year-old
African-American youth from Chicago, was tortured and shot to death in Money,
Miss., by racists for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Left to right, Attorney Tracie Washington, Rosie M. Bias and
tribunal witness, Lillie Mae Stokes. Bias is Stokes' mother.
the late Mamie Till Mobley, demanded in 1955 that the casket of her murdered
son be opened for the world to see his horribly disfigured body. Taifa stated
that the tribunal is about “opening the casket”—the casket
in this case being the racist, anti-poor treatment that Katrina and Rita survivors
still face today.
The ten charges that
the prosecuting team would present at the tribunal with evidence and testimony
were gross violation of the human rights: (1) to be free from racial discrimination,
including discrimination based upon perceived immigration status; (2) to return,
including the resettlement and reintegration of internally displaced persons;
(3) to life, human dignity, and recognition as a person; (4) to be free from
torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment; (5)
to freedom of association and assembly and freedom of movement; (6) to work,
to adequate health care and adequate housing; (7) to an adequate standard
of living, freedom from poverty and right to education; (8) to vote, including
electoral rights and right to participate in governance; (9) to a fair trial,
to liberty, security of the person and equal protection under the law; and
(10) to privacy, family life, and missing relatives.
Roderick Dean testified
on prisoners’ rights abuses. His voice filled with emotion, Dean, who
was falsely arrested in New Orleans before Katrina, talked about the subhuman
treatment that he and other prisoners suffered when Katrina hit. Prisoners
were not allowed to leave their cells and had to wade through feces-contaminated
water; he and other prisoners were denied their medications; and prisoners
had to endure languishing on a bridge in 105-degree heat for days without
food, water or toilet facilities. Dean was released from jail in early December
2005 with no charges.
Charlene Smith, a child
nutritionist, was arrested and jailed for writing a bad check in Wal-Mart
because her mother and children needed items to survive after Katrina. Some
of her experiences in jail included being housed with 19 other women in one
cell, hearing a prisoner scream while being beaten by a guard and being denied
sanitary napkins and her medications.
Under the police brutality
session, Romell Madison, a Black dentist, spoke on how his brother Ronald
was shot five times in the back by white cops with assault rifles on the Danziger
Bridge. Last December, white cops were indicted for shooting and killing several
members of the Bartholomew family, including children, trying to flee the
flood waters across the same bridge.
Impact of Katrina
Mayaba Levanthal, from
the group Incite! Women of Color against Violence, gave testimony on how poor
women, especially single mothers, are more unlikely to be able to evacuate
during a hurricane because they don’t have the means to do so. She also
spoke on the failure to reopen public schools; the lack of shelters in the
midst of a rise of domestic violence and sexual assault; and how stress disproportionately
impacts Black and poor women, especially in New Orleans. An estimated 187,000
workers lost their jobs in New Orleans post-Katrina, and 50 percent of those
jobs belonged to women.
Stephanie Mingo, from
the St. Bernard section in New Orleans, gave testimony on her struggle to
survive after Katrina as a single mother of four and a grandmother. Her 89-year-old
mother died on a bridge waiting to be rescued. A food service technician,
Mingo stated that she still couldn’t get home because “she is
not one of the rich folks.” She stated that 90 percent of those living
in public housing before Katrina were women, young and elderly. Mingo went
on to say: “Thirty percent of your income goes towards living in public
housing. My rent is higher than my income. I am discriminated against because
I am a woman.” In tears, she kept repeating over and over again, “I
want to go home.”
vs. humanitarian aid
On Sept. 1, Malik Rahim,
executive director of Common Ground Collective in New Orleans, gave close
to two hours of riveting testimony on the racist military occupation of New
Orleans post-Katrina. This occupation included the National Guard, state and
local police, Blackwater mercenaries and local armed white vigilantes, all
working in concert with each other. Many of the National Guard had just returned
CGC is a grassroots,
multinational organization that provides free health care, clothing, tools
and much more to Katrina survivors. Rahim spoke on seeing dead bodies, of
Black men shot to death, in the streets. He recounted seeing military personnel
driving by survivors, rather than rescuing them.
Portions of a documentary
called “Welcome to New Orleans,” directed by a Danish filmmaker,
were shown at the tribunal. White vigilantes, with their guns drawn, “jokingly”
spoke on how they were “protecting their neighborhoods and their city
from Black men.” Rahim reminded the tribunal that this reign of racist
terror in New Orleans was sanctioned by Gov. Blanco, who publicly gave orders
to the National Guard to “shoot to kill” to restore “order”—a
codeword for protecting private property against “looters.”
On Aug. 31, Dale Warren
testified on the horror that she witnessed when the police forced her to stay
in New Orleans. She ended up in the Convention Center with thousands of others.
Lights and air conditioning were shut off. Dead bodies were found in the freezer
instead of food. Toilets were overflowing. On the fourth day, she witnessed
a man shot in the head by a national guardsman after he jumped on top of the
jeep in motion. The man had told her that he wanted to commit suicide. The
guardsman kept driving after the shooting.
Sobukwe Shukura, an Atlanta
representative of the National Network on Cuba, gave testimony on how the
U.S. government denied Cuba’s gesture to provide humanitarian aid to
Katrina survivors. This aid included close to 1,600 disaster-trained physicians
along with medicines and equipment. The U.S. also denied relief aid from the
Venezuelan government. The snubbing of this aid is further proof of how the
U.S. government put politics before saving the lives of poor people, especially
if they are African Americans.
Other tribunal sessions
focused on gentrification and housing rights, children’s rights, forced
dispersal, environmental racism, health care, cultural rights, Indigenous
rights, voting rights, labor and migrant rights, misappropriation of relief,
education rights and more.
Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer
from Mississippi and a Republic of New Afrika member, gave a powerful talk
summarizing the findings and putting the testimonies in a historical framework
of resisting racist repression. He asked the judges to consider all the testimonies
presented over the three days as nothing more than genocide. The final verdict
by the judges will be made public in the coming weeks.
For updated information
about the tribunal, go to www.katrinatribunal.org.
Next: A visit to Algiers and the lower 9th Ward with Common Ground Collective;
“neo-slaves”—immigrants in New Orleans; Indigenous rights.
of cultural resistance in New Orleans
5, 2007-- It has been two years since the tragedy along the Gulf Coast
was unfurled by the winds of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita and escalated by
state neglect. This year, the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund decided to put
the local, state and federal government on trial at an International Tribunal
on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
was given by many New Orleans residents attesting to the systematic racist
oppression, going back to the days of slavery; the great poverty that existed
there before the storms; the crumbling educational system; police brutality;
and more. Indeed, every feature of capitalist society was on full display
in New Orleans, and perhaps more intensely than in other areas.
the topics covered was the culture of New Orleans, how it is endangered and
now being co-opted and commodified by those who despise the culture of the
said that roots run deep in New Orleans; that a person is never separated
from her or his connections to the city. Perhaps this can be said for all
Black people who descend from Africans brought to the U.S. as chattel slaves,
because the roots of Black culture—nourished by the sweat, tears and
blood of African slaves and absorbed by the ground they tilled, kept and harvested—run
thick as tubers to the core of the Earth.
have been in New Orleans since before the city’s establishment in 1718
and the culture of Black people can be found in the cuisine, the speak and
has defined the music and dance of the city.
in most cities, especially in the South, Africans were allowed a space to
gather, socialize and play music, albeit only on Sundays. This place is still
known as Congo Square. A precursor to the banjo is on display in the square,
as well as many other instruments.
to the African American Registry: “Congo Square holds a special symbolic
importance to African-Americans. It is significant because of the role the
square played in New Orleans’ musical heritage and as a symbol of the
early African contributions to the origins of jazz and other American musical
forms. In the twenty-first century, standing in tribute to the accomplishments
of the tightly knit New Orleans musical community, Congo Square remains a
memorial to the artists who transformed their sound and exported it throughout
the traditions often misunderstood and that is in danger of being lost is
the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians. While never recognized as a cultural
tradition by the Arts District of New Orleans, it is at the same time exploited
as a draw for tourists.
Maria Harrison-Nelson, an educator for the Recovery School District, spoke
about that tradition and the threat imposed by denial of the right to return
of residents of the city. Harrison Nelson is a Big Queen in the Mardi Gras
Indian tradition, co-founder of the Mardi Gras Indian Hall of Fameand daughter
of Big Chief Donald Harrison Sr. of the Guardians of the Flame “krewe,”
who died in 1998.
about the tradition of the Mardi Gras Indians, “Tootie’s Last
Suit,” is about Allison “Tootie” Montana, who “masked”
or donned his suit for 52 years and died in City Council chambers while protesting
Gras itself is a tradition that can be traced back to European customs. In
fact, the name itself is French and means “Fat Tuesday.” (nola.com)
had always been separate celebrations, one for whites and one for Black people,
because of racism and the history of slavery.
of the Mardi Gras Indians and of “masking” grew out of a close
relation of Black slaves with Indigenous tribes and a desire to pay homage
to Native people for the assistance they gave to Black slaves in escaping
and evading recapture. (mardigrasneworleans.com) It is an attempt to blend
an homage with African traditions, and the people who carry on the tradition
do their own beadwork and make their own costumes.
that the tragedy of New Orleans before and after the storms in 2005 uncovers
the conditions of the poor and oppressed in U.S. society, it is painfully
obvious to those in power in New Orleans and the U.S. ruling class that the
city may become the rallying cry of the Black masses, along with Latin@s and
Indigenous peoples, for freedom from oppression and the system from which
that oppression springs.
was home of the largest slave revolt, led by Charles, a slave on the Deslondes
plantation. Nearly 500 slaves, inspired by the successful revolution in Haiti
in 1804, fought for freedom.
stands as a testament to the will and determination of oppressed people—in
its traditions, songs, dances, speak, ideals, hope, and as Amilcar Cabral
once stated, “seed of resistance.” One need look no further than
the traditions of New Orleans—how the culture was forged from expressions
of the enslaved, their desire for freedom and their resistance.
to deny the right of return—to make New Orleans a playground for the
rich—is not merely about the land. It is also an attempt to break up
communities and pockets of resistance to racist oppression. And it is playing
itself out in cities across the country. This is not simply natural migration,
but ethnic cleansing, and if not addressed for what it is by the broad movement,
then a dangerous period in history may give way to more intense oppression.
3. New Orleans housing protest: 'We
want to come home'
by Monica Moorehead
On Aug. 31, two dozen activists from across the country, along with New Orleans
public housing residents, entered the Housing Authority of New Orleans and
the Federal Housing and Urban Development offices in the Gentilly section
of New Orleans, protesting the lack of affordable public housing post-Katrina.
They conducted a stand-in, shutting down the main offices and outpost offices
across the city. Some of these same activists attended the International Tribunal
on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, where they testified Sept. 1 on the housing
crisis Katrina survivors still face and presented video footage of the takeover
the day before.