Eyewitness Reports to Hurricane Katrina Tribunal

1. Int’l tribunal on Katrina & Rita: We charge genocide

2, Tribunal defends Legacy of cultural resistance in New Orleans

3. New Orleans housing protest: 'We want to come home'

1. Int’l tribunal on Katrina & Rita: We charge genocide

By Monica Moorehead
New Orleans
Sept 5, 2007

Aug. 29 marked the second anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina began its reign of devastation along the Gulf Coast, especially Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Before many Gulf Coast residents could recover from Katrina, Hurricane Rita quickly followed, deepening the mass destruction and the suffering.

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 displacement.

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. cities.

Opening the “casket” on human rights violations

Left to right, Attorney Tracie Washington, Rosie M. Bias and tribunal witness, Lillie Mae Stokes.  Bias is Stokes' mother.

Left to right, Attorney Tracie Washington, Rosie M. Bias and tribunal witness, Lillie Mae Stokes. Bias is Stokes' mother.
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.

Emmett’s 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 on women

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.”

Military occupation 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 from Iraq.

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.


2. Tribunal defends Legacy of cultural resistance in New Orleans

By Larry Hales
New Orleans

Sept 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.

Testimony 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.

One of 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 oppressed.

It is 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.

Africans 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.

Unlike 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.

According 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 world.”

Mardi Gras

One of 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.

Cherice 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.

A movie 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 police brutality.

Mardi 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)

There had always been separate celebrations, one for whites and one for Black people, because of racism and the history of slavery.

The tradition 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.

Traditions of resistance

Given 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.

New Orleans 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.

The city 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.

The attempt 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'

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.

by Monica Moorehead


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