Tuesday, August 25, 2020
August 25, 2020: Katrina at 15: The Aftermaths
[I can’t quite believe it, but this week marks the 15th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating landfall in New Orleans. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy the hurricane, its even more devastating aftermaths, and a few other contexts for this tragic and telling 21st century story.]
On what we still don’t talk about enough when it comes to the aftermaths of Katrina, and what we don’t really talk about at all.
Not too long after Katrina, I took part in a panel on Richard Wright at the American Literature Association conference (in Boston in May 2007). Also on that panel was Jason Stupp, then a graduate student at UConn (he’s now a faculty member at Alfred State College in the SUNY system), who presented a remarkable paper linking Wright’s Native Son and particularly the stereotypical constructions of Bigger Thomas by other characters and communities in that novel to a striking post-Katrina text: the divergent captions for two nearly identical Associated Press images of New Orleans residents wading through flood waters with supplies. The caption for an image of two white residents described them as “finding bread and soda from a local grocery store,” while the one for an image of a black resident said that he had been “looting a grocery store.” As the hyperlinked New York Times story illustrates, that discriminatory difference became for a time national news (with the photographer disputing any racial side to the captions, but I remain unconvinced), helping to contextualize other post-Katrina moments like Kanye West’s famous commentary (during a celebrity benefit effect for hurricane relief) that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
So we’ve collectively engaged at least a bit with the fundamental, frustrating roles—both symbolic and all too real—that race played in the aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina. But I’m still not sure we’ve done so enough, and my argument for that position can be boiled down to two words: Danziger Bridge. On September 4th, 2005, six days after Katrina’s landfall, at least five New Orleans police officers (three of them white, two of them African American) shot at a number of unarmed civilians on that bridge, killing two (one a 40-year-old mentally disabled man, Ronald Madison, who was shot in the back; the other 17-year-old James Brissette) and wounding four more, all of them African American. The cops then repeatedly and collectively lied about what had happened in an attempt to cover up the murders. The shooting and its many legal follow ups have received some journalistic and public attention over the years, but not nearly as much as is warranted by such an outrageous story, one that echoes the numerous police shootings of unarmed African Americans but amplifies it by a factor of at least six. We can debate terminology or semantics, but to my mind this was unquestionably a racist massacre (and no, I don’t think it matters that a couple of the cops were black—there’s a reason why “blue lives matter” is presented as an entirely distinct frame from “black lives matter,” after all).
So we still need to talk more about the role that race played in the horrific effects and aftermaths of Katrina. But there’s another, not unrelated but also distinct issue that if anything we’ve talked about even less: the controversial use of the U.S. military in an American city. That hyperlinked article makes the case that the federal government did not deploy the military to New Orleans (due to the Posse Comitatus Act), which may be technically correct; but the National Guard were deployed for months (as, that article notes, were private security forces employed by Blackwater), with an explicit goal of “fighting the insurgency in the city” (a direct quote from the Guard, per that hyperlinked Mother Jones article once more). Fighting an insurgency! In an American city! And one devastated by a still unfolding natural and man-made disaster! Sorry for all the exclamation points, but in this case I believe they are quite appropriate and necessary. In the 15 years since Katrina, the Guard’s and government’s roles in the city have been consistently framed as disaster relief, and obviously that was part of what they did; but it’s not all that they did, and indeed not how they framed their own mission at the time. That seems like a pretty significant American story, and one we most definitely need to talk about more.
Next KatrinaStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Katrina histories or contexts you’d highlight?