Hurricane Florence vortex: white supremacy, capitalism, environmental degradation

By Loan Tran
September 18, 2018

Durham, N.C. — The impact of Hurricane Florence, which made landfall in North Carolina on Sept. 15, is expected to linger for days due to record rainfall and flooding. As the storm continues to move inland, the coastal area of Eastern North Carolina — the poorest section of the state — will receive the most devastation. Though the state ordered an evacuation of nearly 1.5 million residents along the shore, many people simply could not afford to leave their homes, and jobs, and then pay for shelter, food and gas for transportation inland.

Communities in North Carolina being impacted most severely by the storm are rural, working-class, Black and Indigenous communities, especially in the eastern part of the state. North Carolina is still home to many members of the Occoneechee Band of the Saponi Nation, Cherokee and Lumbee, among other peoples. African Americans in Eastern North Carolina have lived in communities since their ancestors’ enslavement as workers in plantation cotton, tobacco and rice — and also since they formed “runaway” maroon communities in lowland swamps after self-liberating from slavery.

Many of these communities have fought tirelessly to retain ownership over their land despite the predatory and harmful actions carried out originally by European colonizers and later plantation owners. More recently, the communities are endangered by the multibillion-dollar hog farm industry with its massive contained animal feeding operations.

Eastern North Carolina is one of the top producers of pork products in the U.S., and the communities surrounding these enterprises bear the burden of this exploitation due to environmental regulations that protect corporations, but not people. Many residents are sick from the excessive hog waste that contaminates the air, drinking water and land. Flooding from Hurricane Florence will spread this toxic waste everywhere.

Also impacted by Hurricane Florence will be farmworkers, those in tobacco farming as well as on the hog farms. The Farm Labor Organizing Committee here has exposed the extremely harsh conditions that many migrant farmworkers work under, while living in subpar work camps. Due to the intense anti-migrant climate, begun by Obama-era deportations and promoted by the Trump administration, it is likely that migrant communities impacted by Hurricane Florence will be bureaucratically barred from hurricane relief efforts.

ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is now on the ground in Eastern N.C., confirmed by activist photos. Its public story is that the agency is there to “assist with hurricane recovery efforts;”  instead ICE is using the state of emergency to do surveillance, possible arrests and possible raids. Immigrant rights networks are activating to verify and record ICE activities and distribute “know your rights” information for those at risk.

Prior to the hurricane landfall, North Carolina’s Division of Prisons announced that no prison inmates would be evacuated. This means tens of thousands, as during previous hurricanes, could be trapped in their cages as waters rise from flooding, as predicted. Solidarity with prisons has been building locally, including a protest at Hyde Correctional “Institute,” which is located in a coastal swamp close to New Bern, which has been featured prominently in mainstream news as a city drowned by the storm.

Workers and oppressed people in North Carolina are facing a true capitalist disaster. The lack of supportive infrastructure for people in the eastern region, along with the state’s bowing down to the hog, tobacco and prison industries, demonstrates a complete disregard for the oppressed. A high concentration of unemployed people is callously dealt with through environmentally induced illness, prison or “natural” disasters.

Resistance to capitalist-made disaster

Recently, communities in Duplin County in Eastern North Carolina won a major settlement against the hog farming industry. But the $25 million award, though tremendous, will likely still be enough to deal with the chronic illness, land loss and other negative impacts of capitalism on the quality of life for residents. Now, even this insufficient settlement for residents is under threat, although a Duplin County solidarity network, which includes Workers World Party comrades, is working to ensure that residents will not be targeted and intimidated into relinquishing their settlement.

Other key organizations in the eastern region have done a tremendous amount of positive work battling the exploitative and entrenched conditions that exist under capitalism. Some of those organizations include the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee and the Coalition Against Racism. These have ensured that the question of environmental justice is not separated from systemic white supremacy, an issue so heavy and deeply persistent in more rural parts of North Carolina. In the wake of this storm, people from many of these groups, including Workers World Party, are travelling to Eastern North Carolina to help begin repairs and distribute resources.

In 2016, right around this time of year, Charlotte was rising up against police brutality in the aftermath of the shooting of Keith Lamont Scott, a Black man with disabilities. At the same time, Hurricane Matthew was hitting the coast of North Carolina. Then Gov. Pat McCrory ordered the National Guard to the coast — and at the same time spent $25 million to continue the litigation for HB2, an anti-trans, anti-worker bill in court.

That historic confluence of events reminds us that, as environmental disasters become more and more the norm, there is an intensified need for a strong network of fighters to build connections and solidarity across issues, geographies and identities.

There are many connections to be forged, for instance, between the people of North Carolina and the people of Puerto Rico, who are still fighting for the recovery and destiny of their island after the tremendous onslaught of Hurricane Maria that killed thousands and left thousands more homeless without food, water or medical care, while U.S. aid was murderously too little and too late. The island still needs massive resources for complete recovery; meanwhile, U.S. capitalist bosses are rushing in to seize every chance to prey and profit on a disaster they have helped create.

Unless we act to build solidarity now, we will not have viable solutions to what rapid climate change brings, as these storms surge into a deadly vortex of white supremacy, capitalism and environmental degradation.