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Katrina and the 2008 Elections - The African World By Bill Fletcher, Jr., BC Editorial Board

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The horror of the Katrina disaster did not unleash a mass upsurge. In witnessing the abandonment of hundreds of thousands of people, their dispersal into near anonymity around the country, and the efforts to demographically alter the Gulf Coast with the removal of the poor, the Black, the Brown and the Red, many of us awaited the explosion of outrage that we were sure would unfold. Yet it did not. The mass anger that one could cut with a knife did not evolve into a mass rising against the racist and neo-liberal policies that had condemned the people of the Gulf Coast to irrelevance.

Why no upsurge? It is anyone’s guess. I tend to think that the scale of the horror was traumatic. I also believe that the absence of a coherent leadership originating in the African American movement and prepared to issue a "call to arms" was a second factor.  In either case, as the weeks turned into months, and the months turned into years, and despite the great work of people on the ground in New Orleans and other parts of the Gulf Coast, the Katrina disaster slowly began to fade from national view. The disgust that so many people felt with the Bush administration turned into temporary amnesia as too many of us went on about our lives. When the 2007 fires spread in California and the Republicans suggested that a more cooperative governor in Louisiana would have brought about better results for the victims of Katrina (suggesting that California Governor Schwarzenegger was a role model), this turned our collective stomach, yet the movement still did not emerge.

The 2008 election represents what I believe to be our final moment to resurrect the Katrina disaster as a national concern. Former Senator Edwards, in announcing his campaign for the Presidency in New Orleans, provided an opening, yet his failure to truly connect race, class and gender has undermined his efforts to grab the full attention of the nation to what unfolded on the Gulf Coast, and what continues to unfold across the country.

Katrina is about neo-liberalism. It is about the siphoning off of funds from the public sector to the point that it has become brittle and unable to respond to disasters. It is about the reallocation of funds to another Gulf, i.e., the Persian/Arabian Gulf, to conduct an illegal war against Iraq and to prepare for another illegal war, in this case against Iran.  It is about the polarization of wealth in the USA, and as in evidence on the Gulf Coast, the ability of the rich to successfully seek safe haven and return to rebuild, whereas the working class has been largely dispossessed.

Katrina is about racism. It is about the racial cleansing of the Gulf Coast and the fact that those who suffered were treated as if they and their experiences were irrelevant. They were part of a black and brown mass that was largely irrelevant to the experiences of so-called mainstream USA.

In Minneapolis and the deadly 2007 bridge collapse, we can see that Katrina was not only about the Gulf Coast, but it concerned the impact of neo-liberalism on the entire infrastructure of this country and the regular people who depend upon it.

Despite Edwards’ campaign kickoff in New Orleans, almost no attention has gone into the continuing disaster on the Gulf Coast. There has been little discussion of the continued displacement of the evacuees, or the fact that New Orleans is being rebuilt in such a way as to almost guarantee that the poor and the Black have no place to return. Little discussion is taking place connecting the Iraq disaster and the Katrina disaster. Even politicians such as Senator Obama, who should know better, have been strangely silent on the matter of Katrina.

The electoral season is the moment to re-raise Katrina and we should do so with a vengeance. We should use this moment to grill politicians, whether they are running for president, senator, or mayor, on their views on Gulf Coast recovery. We need to know what stand they are taking not only on how to rightfully return the Gulf Coast residents to their homes, but also how to prevent and/or respond to such disasters from taking place in the future.

To do this, we need a leadership core that is prepared to press for a Katrina rising or a Katrina movement. This is not about charity. It concerns everything that the Katrina disaster represents for the present and future of the USA.  Using New Orleans as a symbol for one’s campaign is good, but insufficient. What is necessary is integrating the Katrina story into the message of any campaign that claims to be progressive. And that message needs to be one that contains some actual promises, certainly for the victims of Katrina, but also for those who are the present and future victims of what writer Naomi Klein so accurately describes as "disaster capitalism." Editorial Board member, Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a labor and international writer and activist, a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. Click here to contact Mr. Fletcher.

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December 13, 2007
Issue 257

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