Jordan Flaherty

Did a White Sheriff and District Attorney Orchestrate a Race-Based Coup in a Northern Louisiana Town?

In Waterproof, a small northern Louisiana town near Natchez, Mississippi, the African American mayor and police chief assert that they have been forced from office and arrested as part of an illegal coup carried out by an alliance of white politicians and their followers. In a lawsuit filed last week, Police Chief Miles Jenkins asserts a wide-ranging conspiracy involving the area's district attorney and parish sheriff, along with several other members of the region's entrenched political power structure. These events come at a time of widespread and high-profile racist attacks against the US President and Black members of Congress nationwide, and in a state where white political corruption and violence have been and continue to be used as tools to suppress Black political representation.

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Jena Ignites a Movement

Six courageous families in the small Louisiana town of Jena sent out a call for justice that has now been amplified around the world. Yesterday's mass protests in Jena were unlike anything I have seen in my life, a beautiful and enormous outpouring of energy and outrage that may have the potential to ignite a movement.

The basic facts of the case are by now widely known. In this 85 percent white town, where the high school yard was segregated by race, a Black student asked to sit under a tree that had been reserved for white students only. The next day, three nooses hung from the tree. The white students who hung the nooses received only a mnor punishment, and more importantly, no one in the white power structure of LaSalle Parish, where Jena is located, seemed to take the nooses seriously as racial incident. There were no lectures to the students on the meaning of the nooses, or the legacy of racism, slavery and Jim Crow in the rural south. Instead, the Parish's district attorney told protesting Black students that he could take away their lives, "with a stroke of my pen." He then proceeded to attempt to do just that, charging six students with attempted murder after a schoolyard fight later that year.

In the nine months since their children were charged with attempted murder, the family members of the Jena Six organized meetings, hosted rallies, sent out press releases and letters and made phone calls -- whatever they could think of. They were determined to not let this stand. For months, they stood nearly alone, accompanied by solidarity visits from activists from nearby towns and cities in Louisiana and Texas. Many of their friends and neighbors were afraid to speak out, and some reported having their jobs threatened. One white couple who spoke out said they felt pressured to leave town. But, in the face of what seemed like overwhelming obstacles, and with no organizing experience or friends in high places, the people of Jena continued to struggle. After months of silence from the media and from mainstream civil rights organizations, the first media stories began appearing, which were widely forwarded by mail, and amplified by homemade videos. After Mychal Bell's conviction at the end of June, and stories on Democracy Now! and in the Final Call newspaper, support started growing exponentially, with hundreds of letters bringing tens of thousands of dollars in donations. By September, it became a movement that even the corporate media could not ignore.

At 5 a.m., the buses were already arriving. A full bus from Chicago emptied out, some people brushing their teeth as they stepped into the slightly cold pre-dawn air. They seemed exhausted, but also charged and energized. Next came buses from Baton Rouge, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. By 7 a.m., reports were coming in that hundreds of buses were lined up outside of town, some having been briefly prevented by State police from entering. Meanwhile, hundreds of people, from cars and buses and motorcycles, were pouring into Jena, while many thousands more were gathering in the streets outside the Jena courthouse. As simultaneous rallies began in the two locations, thousands of more people streamed into the city. By 9 a.m., there were, by some estimates, up to 50,000 people in this town of 2,500. Almost every business in town was shut down, many roads were closed by police checkpoints, and a sea of protest filled the city for miles.

This demonstration was not initiated by any one national organization, and there was little coordination between some of the major organizations involved. The initial call came from the families themselves, and most people had heard about the demonstration through local Black radio stations, especially on syndicated shows like the Michael Baisden and Steve Harvey shows, as well as through blogs and youtube (one activist-made youtube video, recommended by Baisden, has already been seen well over a million times) as well as on social networking sites like myspace. As Howard Witt has pointed out in the Chicago Tribune, "Jackson, Sharpton and other big-name civil rights figures, far from leading this movement, have had to scramble to catch up. So, too, has the national media, which has only recently noticed a story that has been agitating many black Americans for months."

This decentralization was beautiful, although sometimes chaotic. As thousands gathered at the rally at the ball field, which was sponsored by the NAACP, thousands more demonstrators marched from the courthouse to the Jena High School, and tens of thousands continued to arrive and fill the streets around downtown Jena. Because this movement was without central leadership, there were many agendas, and also some confusion, as people were unsure when the march began, or if there was a march, and also unsure about parallel events, such as an afternoon hiphop concert at the ball field, which was mostly attended by people from the local community. People seemed unconcerned about the lack of clarity, however, and marched on their own schedule, which led to a more democratic feel to the day, unlike the more controlled, and sometimes disempowering, marches that some mainstream groups have organized in the past.

The t-shirts on display reflected the lack of central control -- every community had made their own t-shirt, literally hundreds of variations on the theme of Free The Jena Six, many personalized to reflect their school or community. Hours of speakers delivered messages of solidarity and calls to action, from Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson to performers such as Mos Def and Sunni Patterson, while the enormous crowds marched and chanted, and also simply basked in a truly historic outpouring of activism. Participants varied from children and teens at their first demonstration to civil rights movement veterans. Many people who had never before been to a demonstration ended up organizing a delegation or booking a bus for this journey.

While the vast majority of the white community of Jena chose to stay either indoors or out of town, hundreds of Black Jena residents proudly displayed their "Free The Jena Six" shirts, and continued to gather in the ball field hours after most out of town visitors had left. White activists from across the US also largely stayed away from this historic event -- perhaps one to three percent of the crowd was white, in what amounts to a disturbing silence from the white left and liberals. This silence indicates that the US Left is divided by race in many of the same ways this country is.

Yesterday's march, however, was not about division. It was a generational moment -- the kind of watershed event that could signal a turning point in our movements. But what does the gigantic crowd in Jena mean? For some supporters, it felt like a fulfillment of those months that the families stood alone -- a moment where the world stood with them, and the power structure backed down. In the last week Mychal Bell's convictions have been overturned, and most of the other students saw their charges lessened. Yesterday was also a moment for grassroots independent media, who built this story, and kept it alive until the 24 hour news channels could no longer ignore it. It was a moment for historically black colleges and universities to shine; student activists organized bus convoys -- five or more buses arrived from many southern schools, which were quickly filled by a broad range of students.

Yesterday was a moment for the unaffiliated left, for people everywhere concerned about a criminal justice system that has locked up two million and keeps growing. It was a moment for those concerned about school systems in the U.S., and especially the policing of our schools, what activists have called the School to Prison Pipeline. It was a moment for those that feel that the U.S. has still not dealt with our history of slavery and Jim Crow, and our present realities of white supremacy. Perhaps that is where the power in yesterday's demonstration lies; if this undirected and uncontrolled outrage can be directed towards real societal change, if outrages like Jena can finally bring about the conversation on race in this country that we were promised after Katrina, if this united movement to support these six kids can show that we can unite for justice and win, then Jena will truly have been a victory.

As writer asked yesterday, "What would happen if every person who wore a t-shirt today or handed out a flyer or wrote a blog post woke up tomorrow and looked for the Mychal Bell in their own backyard? He, or she, won't be hard to find. What if our outrage, today directed at the small Louisiana town of Jena, extended to parallel injustices in Detroit or Cincinnati or Sacramento or Miami? What if we viewed this mobilization not as the end of a successful, innovative campaign, but as the moment that catalyzes us into broader and deeper action in every place where we are?" If this happens, we can say that it all began with six families in Jena, Louisiana, who refused to stay silent.

The Second Looting of New Orleans

A year and a half after New Orleans became an international symbol of governmental neglect and racism, the city remains in crisis. Students are still without books, healthcare is less available to poor people than ever, public housing is still closed, and infrastructure is still in desperate need of repair. In an open letter to funders and national nonprofits, a diverse array of New Orleanians declared, "From the perspective of the poorest and least powerful, it appears that the work of national allies on our behalf has either not happened, or if it has happened it has been a failure."

In a recent conversations with scores of New Orleans residents, including organizers, advocates, health care providers, educators, artists and media makers, I heard countless stories of diverted funding and unmet needs. While many stressed that they have had important positive experiences with national allies, few have received anything close to the funding, resources, or staff they need for their work, and in fact most are working unsustainable hours while living in a still-devastated city.

Research backs up the anecdotal reports. A January 2006 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy argued that the amount given to post-Katrina New Orleans was "small-potato giving for America's foundations, which collectively have $500-billion in assets." The article also asserted, "just as deplorable as the small sums poured into the region are the choices foundations have made about where the money should go." In other words, very little of the money had gone to organizations directed by or accountable to New Orleanians. One prominent New Orleans-born advocate and lobbyist called this phenomenon the "Halliburtization of the nonprofit sector."

A February report from New York City's Foundation Center points out that the Red Cross, which raised perhaps two billion dollars for Katrina relief despite widespread accusations of racism and mismanagement, "ranked as by far the largest named recipient of contributions from foundation and corporate donors in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita," receiving almost 35 percent of all aid. At the time of the report, another 35 percent of the money the foundations designated had not been spent. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, Salvation Army and United Way together made up another 13 percent. The rest was generally spread between other national relief organizations.

Community Responses

After nearly fifteen months of shuttered storefronts, a block of Black-owned businesses in New Orleans celebrated a rebirth this week. The street, on Bayou Road in the seventh ward neighborhood of New Orleans, is a hopeful sign in a city where 60 percent of the population remains displaced and many businesses are shutting down or moving. As recently as August, most of the area remained shuttered and empty. Now, almost every shop is open. The Community Book Center, a vital neighborhood gathering spot in the middle of the block, reopened this week, despite still having no front windows and a floor in major need of work. "Step carefully," Vera Warren-Williams, the owner, warned guests as they entered the store during the reopening celebration.

Neighborhood spaces like the Community Book Center have long been a vital part of New Orleans organizing, serving as a gathering place for people and ideas. The revitalization of Bayou Road is just one example community pulling together -- friends and strangers coming by to help gut houses, clear debris, cook food. Anything to help, as the people of New Orleans struggle together against incredible odds in a city that was already devastated by poverty and privatization and neglect pre-Katrina.

Although Community Book Center is a crucial resource, spaces like these have received little outside support.

Foundations, according to the Chronicle article, "seem to have been preoccupied with the issue of accountability. Many foundations wondered how they could be certain that grants to local groups would be well spent and, therefore, publicly accountable."

While those are reasonable concerns, many in New Orleans see a double standard in this view. The Chronicle writer goes on to state, "the question of accountability didn't seem to bother the large foundations that gave so generously to the Red Cross, which had a questionable record of competence to begin with and attracted even more criticism in the aftermath of Katrina over its unwise use of funds, high administrative costs, and lack of outreach to minorities."

Many feel that the message from major funders has been that New Orleanians cannot handle the money appropriately. "Twenty seven years running a business, and they don't trust us with money," Jennifer Turner of the Community Book Center, comments, when asked about her feeling towards national funders. "They think we're all stupid or corrupt."

In the aftermath of Katrina, the people of New Orleans were depicted in the media as "looters" and violent criminals, or as helplessly poor and ignorant. In other words, as anything but a trustable partner in the rebuilding of their city. Even today, many news stories about New Orleans post-Katrina focus on FEMA payments that were misused or obtained through fraud, rather than the bigger story of corporate fraud.

Many feel this media depiction, and the bias and racism that it in many cases reflected, is in part to blame for the reluctance of major funders to give money directly to the people most affected.

"They figure if they give poor people money they'll buy crack and cigarettes," People's Organizing Committee and People's Hurricane Relief Fund co-founder Curtis Muhammad summarized.

Money and Resources

At a small corner bar in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood, community activists and organizers from grassroots base-building organizations such as Critical Resistance, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition and Safe Streets/Strong Communities gathered to celebrate a victory. After a year of organizing, protesting and lobbying, Safe Streets won city funding for an independent monitor over the city's notoriously corrupt and violent police department.

The Safe Streets victory is the result of several years of struggle by many organizations and individuals. More importantly, it is a part of an overall effort grounded in, and led by, those most affected. While there has been some funding for base building organizations such as those listed above, it has been pennies compared to the hundreds of millions directed elsewhere.

For a region of the country that has been historically underfunded, these issues are nothing new. "I'm very much afraid of this ‘foundation complex,’� civil rights organizer Ella Baker said in 1963, referring to the changes happening then in the structure of grassroots movements.

In an article in an upcoming South End Press anthology about New Orleans post-Katrina, members of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence write, "Though hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs, university urban planning departments, and foundations have come through the city, they have paid little attention to the organizing led by people of color that existed before Katrina and that is struggling now more than ever."

Echoing this analysis, the Chronicle of Philanthropy article complains of a "long-term lack of concern and neglect that foundations that operate nationally and in the Gulf Coast region have shown for poor and minority Gulf Coast residents, even as some grant makers proudly strutted their awards to national antipoverty and antiracism programs."

The INCITE authors posit that successful organizing is rooted in the community and takes a long time to bear fruit. Mainstream funders don't appreciate this, and, "a look at who and what gets funding in New Orleans, from foundations to support work, reveals the priorities of these foundations and the entire nonprofit system. Organizations that represent their work through quick and quantifiable accomplishments are rewarded by the system. Foundations are not only drawn to them but are pressured by their own donors to fund them."

For many in the nonprofit field nationally, post-Katrina New Orleans has been an opportunity for career advancement. While local residents have been too overwhelmed by tragedy to apply for grants, a few well-placed national individuals and organizations have not hesitated to take their place in line. Although some have no relation to New Orleans, they often have previous relationships with the foundations, as well as resources that translate into easier access to funding, such as development staff, website designers, and professional promotional materials.

Systemic Failure

Foundations are not to blame for the continuing crisis in New Orleans, nor do they possess a special responsibility to help the city. However, many foundations have expressed a desire to support New Orleans' recovery, and funding is desperately needed on the ground. Because of this, their actions have taken on added scrutiny from people in New Orleans.

Foundations are an integral part of the current structure of U.S. nonprofits, a system that INCITE has called the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, to emphasize the intersecting, dependent and corporatized ways in which the system is constructed. It is a system in which organizations are frequently pitted against each other for funding, where organizers are discouraged from being active in their own community, and where accountability to and leadership from those most affected has become increasingly rare, and in many cases, the priorities of the "movement" are guided by those with money rather than being led by those most affected.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of Katrina for people concerned about social justice is that the structures of U.S. movements are in serious crisis. As the director of one base-building organization posed the question, "what's wrong with the 501c3 structure that everyone could come down for a five-day tour but no one could come to actually do the work for a month? What's wrong with a 501c3 structure where everyone is already so under resourced and then tied to projects and promised outcomes that the biggest disaster this nation has seen in decades occurs and no one can stop what they are working on to come down and help? What's wrong with the foundation world that they have to produce 207 fancy glossy interview reports to their board in order to shuffle a few thousand dollars our way?"

One thing that is clear is that the current paradigm simply doesn't work. Without community accountability, projects aimed to bring justice to that community are weaker and sometimes counterproductive.

Writing in the South End Press book, INCITE members argue that the structure of a non-accountable movement stopped organizations from responding more capably to the disaster when it happened, and that a movement more responsive to the local community would have been more effective. "Community organizing and community --based accountability are the things we have left when the systems have collapsed," they argue.

Many organizers told me that, in dealing with foundations, they were expected to be responsive to the foundations instead of to any concrete needs on the ground. "Its not just that you have to jump when they tell you to jump," the manager of one organization told me, "you also have to act like you wanted to jump anyway."

Again, these issues are not new - more than forty years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, complained, "I can't see a leader leading me nowhere if he's in New York and I'm down here catching hell."

"What's wrong with our movement and our organizations," the director of another grassroots organization asked me, "that they couldn't collaborate and coordinate and offer us some organized plan of assistance instead of asking us to do more and more to help them help us? What's wrong with funders that they couldn't coordinate, the way they ask us to, so that they could come down once, together, and not on 15 separate trips?"

Moving Forward

When asked for solutions, many in New Orleans called for allies to bring a deeper respect for the experiences of the people on the ground. Others expressed an overall need for movements to move away from reliance on foundations and large donors.

Several organizers highlighted the examples of positive experiences. "National Immigration Law Center (NILC) came here in a principled way, looking to hire someone local, and to support already existing local projects," Rosana Cruz, who works with NILC and the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, explained. "Advancement Project does litigation led by and in support of grassroots organizing campaigns. OXFAM is a major international organization, but they came in and worked responsibly with small organizations on they ground they had previous relationships with. And they made multi-year commitments. They didn't just come and dump money -- or worse, come and promise money then disappear, as some did."

"Ironically, many of the folks who have come through for us are Southern groups, who are themselves under resourced," the managing director of one organization told me. "Organizations like Project South and Southerners On New Ground (SONG) have been stronger allies than many larger national groups."

The Chronicle article asks foundations to play a role in "strengthening nonprofit organizations that serve low-income people and African-Americans, as well as other minorities ... America's foundations need to move from a policy of neglect of the nation's most vulnerable organizations to one of affirmative action, an approach that will mean changing the way many foundations do business."

"I would ask national organizing groups to send a staff person down for 6-12 months," begins the executive director of another organization, "I would also recommend all progressive and liberal foundations with Katrina money to do an analysis of funding and jointly release the results along with the plan for funding in 2007 and 2008."

Others listed specific needs they felt were unmet. "We need seed money, technical training and leadership development," explained Mayaba Liebenthal, an organizer active with the New Orleans chapters of Critical Resistance and INCITE."

The stakes are far beyond New Orleans. This is a struggle with national and international implications. If the people of New Orleans are supported in their struggle, it will be a victory against profiteering and privatization. Questions of race, class, gender, education, health care, food access, policing, housing, privatization, mental health and much more are on vivid display. "Everyone is here right now, or has come through," Curtis Mohammed comments, referring to the vast array of organizations and individuals who have visited the city. "If the movement continues to grow, New Orleans will be seen as a turning point." But, despite all of the resilience on display here, the people of New Orleans can't do it alone.

Rethinking New Orleans Schools

On Friday, July 21, 19 New Orleans public school students gathered to speak about their vision for improved city schools. They stood outside Sherwood Forest Elementary, a flooded and devastated public school in a still mostly desolate New Orleans East neighborhood.

In front of the assembled crowd, they opened the door to the school, showing hallways filled with trash and the unmistakable smell of mold and neglect. Aaron Danielson, a middle school student, told the assembled crowd, "People often think that kids want impossible things but we only want things that are essential, like good teachers, better books and enough supplies."

The students were part of Rethink, a project organized by education advocates that is aimed at bringing youth voices into evaluating and shaping the future of New Orleans' schools. The students told bleak stories of the problems facing their schools. "We have to share a desk, we have to share books," Shannon Taylor, 16, explained. "A friend graduated school, and she never owned a book sack, because the school never gave her books."

The kids and organizers of Rethink are just some of the voices in a wide-ranging cacophony taking place in New Orleans' schools, a struggle in which everyone seems to be speaking for what they claim are the best interests of New Orleans' children.

By highlighting the voices of city youth, the Rethink project has taken an important step towards reframing the debate and highlighting the severity of the issues faced. They also placed demands on school board officials for a continued role for youth in evaluating their own schools.

Battleground in a national fight over charter schools

Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a battleground in a national fight over competing visions for the future of urban education. Last September, with the city evacuated and all the schools closed, with no parents or students or teachers around, suddenly anything became possible. Instead of making gradual changes to an existing system, there was no system, and virtually no rules or limits on what could be changed. "It's almost a blank slate for whatever agenda people want to bring," confirms New Orleans-based education reform advocate Aesha Rasheed."

Days after New Orleans was flooded, the Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, D.C., was already advocating for vouchers and "market solutions" to the city's education problems. Late last year, President Bush announced the allocation of $488 million to help families displaced by Katrina place students in private schools. Critics viewed it as a back-door approach to get public funding for private schools and would essentially create the first national school voucher plan. Charter school advocates, opponents of teachers unions, and many national education activists on the right and left have joined the fray.

Before the storm and displacement, New Orleans had 128 public schools, 4,000 teachers and 60,000 students. The system was widely regarded as in crisis. Three quarters of eighth-graders failed to score at the basic level on state English assessments. In some schools, the high school military recruiting program was a mandatory class, mostly because funding wasn't available for other programs. Ten school superintendents in ten years had been fired or quit. Many parents, especially white parents, had pulled their kids out of the system -- almost half of the city's students were enrolled in private schools and parochial schools. Advocates accused the school system of functioning as little more than a warehousing program for Black youth.

The deeply rooted racial and class inequalities New Orleans faces date back to at least the Jim Crow era. Soon after New Orleans schools integrated after the historic Brown v. Board of education court decision, white parents began pulling their kids out of the public schools and with them much of the tax base that had funded these schools. For decades after, the schools steadily declined.

A blank slate for remaking schools

Now, the post-Katrina school system has already been radically reshaped. A mostly public school system prior to the storm has become a mostly charter system. While the city's private schools saw almost 90 percent of their students return in spring 2006, only 20 percent of public school students returned. A total of 25 schools have reopened with just four run by the local school board, 18 are charters, and three are run by the state. Most former public school students remain displaced.

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Dispatches From the Gulf Region

A slightly different version of this story first appeared in the Left Turn Magazine.

The continuing debacle of our criminal justice system here in New Orleans inspires in me a sense of indignation I thought was lost to cynicism long ago. Ursula Price, a staff investigator for the indigent defense organization A Fighting Chance, has met with several thousand hurricane survivors who were imprisoned at the time of the hurricane, and her stories chill me. "I grew up in a small town near Mississippi," she tells me. "We had the Klan marching down our main street, but I've never seen anything like this."

Safe Streets, Strong Communities, a New Orleans-based criminal justice reform coalition that Price also works with, has just released a report based on more than 100 recent interviews with prisoners who had been locked up before Katrina and are currently spread across 13 prisons and hundreds of miles. They found the average number of days people had been locked up without a trial was 385 days. One person had been locked up for 1,289 days. None of them have been convicted of any crime.

"I've been working in the system for the while. I do capital cases, and I've seen the worst that the criminal justice system has to offer," Price told me. "But even I am shocked that there has been so much disregard for the value of these peoples' lives, especially people who have not been proved to have done anything illegal."

As lawyers, advocates and former prisoners have stressed to me in interviews over the last couple of weeks, arrest is not the same as conviction. According to a pre-Katrina report from the Metropolitan Crime Commission, only 7 percent of those arrested were eventually convicted of a crime. The overwhelming majority of them spent at least a month behind bars before being released. Two out of three convictions were for simple drug possession.

Samuel Nicholas (his friends call him Nick) was imprisoned in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) on a misdemeanor charge and was due to be released August 31, 2005. Instead, after a harrowing journey of several months, he was released on February 1. Nick told me he still shudders when he thinks of those days in OPP.

"We heard boats leaving, and one of the guys said, 'Hey man, all the deputies gone,'" Nick relates. "We took it upon ourselves to try to survive. They left us in the gym for two days with nothing. Some of those guys stayed in a cell four or five days. People were hollering, 'Get me out, I don't want to drown, I don't want to die.' We were locked in with no ventilation, no water, nothing to eat. It's just the grace of god that a lot of us survived."

Benny Flowers, a friend of Nick's from the same Central City neighborhood, was on a work release program and locked in a different building in the sprawling OPP complex. In his building were, by his count, about 30 incarcerated youth, some as young as 14 years old. "I don't know why they left the children like that. Locked up, no food, no water. Why would you do that? They couldn't swim; most of them were scared to get into the water. We were on work release, so we didn't have much time left. We weren't trying to escape; we weren't worried about ourselves; we were worried about the children. The guards abandoned us, so we had to do it for ourselves. We made sure everyone was secured and taken care of. The deputies didn't do nothing. It was inmates taking care of inmates, old inmates taking care of young inmates. We had to do it for ourselves."

Benny Hitchens, another former inmate, was imprisoned for unpaid parking tickets. "They put us in a gym, about 200 of us, and they gave us three trash bags -- two for defecation and one for urination. That was all we had for 200 people for two days."

State Department of Corrections officers eventually brought them, and thousands of other inmates, to Hunts Prison, in rural Louisiana, where evacuees were kept in a field, day and night, with no shelter and little or no food and water. "They didn't do us no kind of justice," Flowers told me. "We woke up early in the morning with the dew all over us; then in the afternoon, we were burning up in the summer sun. There were about 5,000 of us in three yards."

Nick was taken from Hunts Prison to Oakdale Prison. "At Oakdale they had us on lockdown 23 hours; on Friday and Saturday it was 24 hours. We hadn't even been convicted yet. Here in New Orleans you're guilty 'til you're proven innocent. It's just the opposite of how it's supposed to be."

From reports that Price received, some prisoners had it worse than Oakdale. "Many prisoners were sent to Jena Prison, which had been previously shut down due to the abusiveness of the staff there. I have no idea why they thought it was acceptable to reopen it with the same staff. People were beaten, an entire room of men was forced to strip and jump up and down and make sexual gestures towards one another. I cannot describe to you the terror that the young men we spoke to conveyed to us."

According to the report from Safe Streets, Strong Communities, the incarcerated people they interviewed described their attorneys as "passive," "not interested" and "absent." Interviewers were told that "attorneys acted as functionaries for the court rather than advocates for the poor people they represented. The customs of the criminal court excused and often encouraged poor policing and wrongful arrests. The New Orleans Indigent Defender Program acted as a cog in this system rather than a check on its disfunction."

Before Katrina, the New Orleans public defender system was already dangerously overloaded, with 42 attorneys and six investigators. Today, New Orleans has six public defenders and one investigator. And these defenders are not necessarily full-time nor committed to their clients. All of these attorneys are allowed to take an unlimited number of additional cases for pay. In most cases, these attorneys have been reported to do a much more vigorous job on behalf of their paid clients.

"We have a system that was broken before Katrina," Price tells me, "that was then torn apart and is waiting to be rebuilt. Four thousand people are still in prison, waiting for this to be repaired. There's a young man, I speak to his mother every day, who has been in the hole since the storm, and is being abused daily. This boy is 19 years old and not very big, and he has no lawyer. His mother doesn't know what to do, and without her son having counsel, I don't know what to tell her."

Before the hurricane, according to the Safe Streets report, some detainees were brought to a magistrate court shortly after being arrested, "where a public defender was appointed solely for the purposes of this hearing." The assigned attorney did not do even the most cursory interview about the arrestee's ties to the community, charges, or any other information relevant to setting a bond.

Other interviewees were brought to a room where they faced a judge on a video screen. These individuals uniformly reported there was no defense lawyer present. The report states, "After appointment, [defense attorneys] by and large did not visit the crime scene, did not interview witnesses, did not check out alibis, did not procure expert assistance, did not review evidence, did not know the facts of the case, did not do any legal research and did not otherwise prepare for trial. With a few exceptions, attorneys with the Orleans Indigent Defender program never met with their clients to discuss their case. Appointed council did not take calls from the jail, did not respond to letters or other written correspondence, and generally did not take calls or make appointments with family members. [Defenders] frequently did not know the names of their clients."

"This ain't just started, it's been going on," Nick tells me. "I want to talk about it, but at the same time it hurts to talk about it. Someone's gotta start talking about it. It's not the judge, it's not the lawyers, it's the criminal justice system. Everybody who goes to jail isn't guilty. You got guys who were drunk in public treated like they committed murder."

I asked Price what has to happen to fix this system. "First, we establish who was left behind, collect their stories and substantiate them. Next, we're going to organize among the inmates and former inmates to change the system. The inmates are going to have a voice in what happens in our criminal justice system. If you ask anyone living in New Orleans, the police, the justice system may be the single most influential element in poor communities. It's what breaks up families; it's what keeps people poor."

How can people from around the United States help? "Education, health care, mental health -- all these issues that exist in the larger community exist among the prisoners, and no one is serving them. We need psychiatrists, doctors, teachers; we need all kinds of help," Price says.

"One thing I can't forget is those children," Flowers tells me. "Why would they leave those children behind? I'm trying to forget it, but I can't forget it."

Sitting across the table from Flowers, Nick is resolute. "I'm making this interview so that things get better," he tells me. "The prison system, the judicial system, the police. We got to make a change, and we all got to come together as a community to make this change. I want to stop all this harassment and brutality."

Crime and Corruption in New Orleans

People from New Orleans were not surprised to see last week's horrifying video of police beating an innocent 64-year-old man in the French Quarter. The only surprise is the increased attention the incident received -- though many news reports took pains to mention the "high levels of stress" New Orleans police are under.

Despite the attempts to explain away the officer's behavior, said incident fits into a well-defined pattern of police conduct in New Orleans. In the last year, seven young black men have been killed by New Orleans police, and none of the officers involved have been punished.

This year has seen mounting evidence of a police department out of control. Less than a week before Hurricane Katrina, on Wednesday, Aug. 24, Keith Griffin, a New Orleans police officer, was booked with aggravated rape and kidnapping. According to a Times-Picayune report, Griffin is accused of pulling over a bicyclist under the guise of a police stop in the early morning hours of July 11. The two-year veteran officer allegedly detained the woman, drove her to a remote spot along the Industrial Canal near Deslonde Street, then sexually assaulted her.

This is hardly an isolated incident. Another recent Times-Picayune article reported that in April, seven-year veteran officer Corey Johnson was booked with aggravated rape for allegedly forcing a woman to perform oral sex, after he identified himself as an officer in order to enter the woman's Treme home.

Another article states that "eight officers were arrested during a six-month stretch last year on charges that ranged from shoplifting to theft to conspiracy to rob a bank ... In April 2004, 16-year veteran James Adams was booked with aggravated kidnapping, extortion and malfeasance after he was accused of threatening to arrest a woman unless she agreed to have sex with him."

Police misconduct in this notoriously corrupt city goes back decades, and occasionally it explodes in scandal. In a September 2000 report, the Progressive Policy Institute discovered that a 1994 crackdown on police corruption led to 200 officers' dismissals -- plus, upwards of 60 criminal charges (including two murder convictions) among police officers. Investigators discovered that for six months in 1994, as many as 29 New Orleans police officers protected a cocaine supply warehouse containing 286 pounds of the drug. The FBI indicted 10 officers who had been paid nearly $100,000 by undercover agents. The investigation ended abruptly, after one officer successfully orchestrated the execution of a witness.

According to one community activist I recently spoke with, who is familiar with those investigations, "That crackdown just scratched the surface. They didn't even really begin to address the problems in the New Orleans police."

According to a 1998 report from Human Rights Watch, former officer Len Davis -- reportedly known in the Desire housing project as "Robocop" -- ordered the Oct. 13, 1994 murder of Kim Groves after he learned she had filed a brutality complaint against him. Federal agents had Davis under surveillance for alleged drug-dealing, and recorded Davis ordering the killing, apparently without realizing what they had heard until it was too late.

Davis mumbled to himself about the "30" he would be taking care of (the police code for homicide) and, in communicating with the killer, described Groves' standing on the street and demanded he "get that whore!"

Afterward, he confirmed the slaying by saying "N.A.T." -- police jargon for "necessary action taken." Community activists reported a chilling effect on potential witnesses and victims considering coming forward after Groves' murder.

The white-flight suburbs around New Orleans are, in many ways, worse. During the 1980s, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee famously ordered special scrutiny for any black people traveling in white sections of the parish. "It's obvious," Lee said, "that two young blacks driving a rinky-dink car in a predominantly white neighborhood ... They'll be stopped."

The New Orleans Gambit newsweekly reported that 1994, "after two black men died in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center within one week, Lee faced protests from the black community and responded by withdrawing his officers from a predominantly black neighborhood. 'To hell with them,' he'd said. 'I haven't heard one word of support from one black person.'"

The Gambit also reported in April of this year that in Jefferson Parish, officers were found to be using as target practice what critics referred to as "a blatantly racist caricature" of a black male. Sheriff Lee laughed when presented with the charges. "I'm looking at this thing that people say is offensive," he says. "I've looked at it, I don't find it offensive, and I have no interest in correcting it."

These accusations of "target practice" gained force a few weeks later with the May 31 killing of 16-year-old Antoine Colbert, who was behind the wheel of a stolen pickup truck with two other teens. One hundred-ten shots were fired into the truck, killing Colbert and injuring his passengers. In response to criticism from black ministers over the incident, Lee responded "They can kiss my ass."

As has been widely reported, the town of Gretna, across the Mississippi from New Orleans and part of Jefferson Parish, stationed officers on the bridge leading out of New Orleans blocking the main escape route for the tens of thousands suffering in the Superdome, Convention Center, and throughout the city.

As the L.A. Times reported on September 16, a little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans, trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city, the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief's move. "This wasn't just one man's decision," Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said Thursday. "The whole community backs it."

Arguably, the actions of the Gretna police were one of the biggest dangers to public safety to arise from this tragedy, perhaps second only to the criminally-neglected levees. Anyone that wants to focus on relief for the victims needs to focus on what exactly people from New Orleans are victims of: racism, corruption, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and neglect. That is why agencies and organizations such as Red Cross, FEMA, Scientologists, their hundreds of well-meaning volunteers are not really providing relief -- they aren't addressing the nature of the problem.

We call hurricanes and earthquakes "natural disasters," but the contours of these disasters are manmade. As recent earthquake and hurricane-related mass deaths in South Asia and Central America demonstrate, who lives and who dies is intricately related to issues of poverty and access. Whether the homes are built in safe areas, the soundness of the structures, the length of time it takes for relief to arrive, all of these are intricately tied to poverty. And yet the media generally ignores these issues, and repeats the message that nature doesn't discriminate. Because of this message, relief is misdirected, and when those receiving the relief aren't sufficiently grateful, the givers become resentful.

An article in last Sunday's New York Times reports on a community of displaced New Orleans residents in rural Oklahoma, where local residents are "glad to see them go." With each passing day, the Times reported, they could feel the sympathy draining away. The problem is the perception that this is a problem that could be fixed by a place to stay in another state, some hand-me-down clothes and a few meals. For many of us from New Orleans, what hurts the most is the loss of our community, and charity doesn't help to heal those wounds at all. Mayaba Benu, a community activist currently in the city, told me "I miss everyone. There's a lot of reporters here, a lot of contractors and FEMA folks, but not many people from New Orleans."

While thousands of out-of-state contractors line up for work, including hundreds of trash hauling trucks from around the U.S. lined up near City Park, the people of New Orleans are still being excluded from opportunities to take part in the reconstruction of their city. In fact, it seems to many that out-of-state workers are more welcomed than the New Orleans diaspora.

Jenka Soderberg, an Indymedia reporter and volunteer at the Common Ground Collective, reports from her experience at a New Orleans FEMA compound, "I went to the FEMA base camp for the city of New Orleans. It made me feel sick to my stomach. We walked around this absolutely surreal scene of hundreds of enormous air-conditioned tents, each one with the potential of housing 250 people -- whole city blocks of trailers with hot showers, huge banks of laundry machines, portajohns lined up 50 at a time, a big recreation tent, air-conditioned with a big-screen tv -- all of it for contractors and FEMA workers, none of it for the people of New Orleans."

Soderberg comments, "Thousands of New Orleans citizens could live there while they rebuilt and cleaned their homes in the city. But instead, due to the arrogance of a government bureaucracy that insists they are separate from the 'evacuees' ... these people are left homeless, like [a] poor man I talked to earlier, living under a tarp with his mother buried under the mud of their house. Why can't he live in their tents? It makes me so sad and mad to see so much desperate need, and then just blocks away, this huge abundance of resources not being used."

And with poor people out of the city, developers and corporations are grabbing what they can -- but there are no shoot-to-kill orders on these well-dressed looters. NPR and other media have portrayed developer Pres Kabacoff as a liberal visionary out to create a Paris on the Mississippi. The truth is that Kabacoff represents the worst of New Orleans' local disaster profiteers. It is Kabacoff who, in 2001, famously demolished affordable housing in the St.Thomas projects in New Orleans' Lower Garden District, and replaced it with luxury condos and a WalMart.

The people of New Orleans need a voice in this reconstruction. But what would community-controlled reconstruction look like? Organizers are starting to grapple with these issues.

Dan Etheridge works with the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities. He is currently organizing to create collaborations and build partnerships between community organizations and planning professionals -- not because it's benevolent, but because we will have a better city if the community has a say in its reconstruction.

He has organized an upcoming conference at Tulane University (tentatively slated for November), to bring together planners, architects, structural mitigation experts, geographers and other experts, along with grassroots community leaders from New Orleans, people such as Mardi Gras Indian representatives, ACORN, building unions, artists, teachers, public housing resident councils and Peoples Hurricane Fund representatives.

In a recent press conference outside Orleans Parish prison, Critical Resistance New Orleans organizer Tamika Middleton said Katrina's aftermath reflects the way we as a nation increasingly deal with social ills: police and imprison primarily poor, black communities for crimes that are reflections of poverty and desperation. Locking people up in this crisis is cruel mismanagement of city resources, and it counters the outpouring of the world's support for all survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

Back Inside New Orleans

I spent yesterday inside the city of New Orleans, speaking to a few of the last holdouts in the 9th Ward/Bywater neighborhood. Their stories paint a very different picture from what we've heard in the media. Instead of stories of gangs of criminals and police and soldiers keeping order, there were stories of collective action, everyone looking out for each other, communal responses.

The first few nights there was a large, free community barbecue at a neighborhood bar called The Country Club. People brought food and cooked and drank and went swimming (yes, there's a pool in the bar).

Emily Harris and Richie Kay, from Desire Street, traveled out on their boat and brought supplies and gave rides. They have been doing this almost every day since the hurricane struck. They estimate they have rescued at least 100 people. Harris doesn't want to leave. She is a carpenter and builder, and says, "I want to stay and rebuild. I love New Orleans."

Harris describes a community working together in the first days after the hurricane. She also describes a scene of abandonment and disappointment. "A lot of people came to the high ground at St. Claude Avenue. They really thought someone would come and rescue them, and they waited all day for something -- a boat, a helicopter, anything. There were helicopters in the sky, but none coming down."

So people started walking as a mass uptown to Canal Street. Along the way, youths would break into grocery stores, take the food and distribute it evenly among houses in the community.

"Then they reached Canal Street, and saw that there was still no one that wanted to rescue them. That's when people broke into the stores on Canal Street."

I asked Okra, who lives in a house off Piety Street, what the biggest problem has been. He said, "It's been the police -- they've lost the last restraints on their behavior they had, and gotten a license to go wild. They can do anything they want. I saw one cop beat a guy so hard that he almost took his ear off. And this was someone just trying to walk home."

Walking through the streets, I witnessed hundreds of soldiers patrolling the streets. Everyone I spoke to said that soldiers were coming to their house at least once a day, trying to convince them to leave, bringing stories of disease and quarantine and violence. I didn't see or speak to any soldiers involved in any clean-up or rebuilding.

There are surely reasons to leave -- I would not be living in the city at this point. I'm too attached to electricity and phone lines. But I can attest that those holdouts I spoke to are doing fine. They have enough food and water and have been very careful to avoid exposing themselves to the many health risks in the city.

I saw more city buses rolling through poor areas of town than I ever saw pre-hurricane. Unfortunately, these buses were filled with patrols of soldiers. What if the massive effort devoted to patrolling this city and chasing everyone out were diverted into beginning the rebuilding process?

Some neighborhoods are underwater still, and the water has turned into a sticky sludge of sewage and death that turns the stomach and breaks my heart. However, some neighborhoods are barely damaged at all, and if a large-scale effort were put into bringing back electricity and clearing the streets of debris, people could begin to move back in.

Certainly some people do not want to move back, but many of us do. We want to rebuild the city that we love. The People's Hurricane Fund, a grassroots, community-based group made up of New Orleans community organizers and allies from around the U.S., has already made one of their first demands a "right of return" for the displaced of New Orleans.

In the last week, I've traveled between Houston, Baton Rouge, Covington, Jackson and New Orleans and spoken to many of my former friends and neighbors. We feel shell-shocked. It used to be we would see each other in a coffee shop or a bar or on the street and talk and find out what we're doing. Those of us working for social justice felt a sense of community. We could share stories, combine efforts, and we never felt alone. Now we're alone and dispersed and we miss our homes and our communities, and we still don't know where so many of our loved ones even are.

It may be months before we start to get a clear picture of what happened in New Orleans. As people are dispersed around the country, reconstructing that story becomes even harder than reconstructing the city. Certain sites, like the Convention Center and Superdome, have become legendary, but despite the thousands of people who were there, it still is hard to find out exactly what happened.

According to one report that's been circulated, Denise Young, one of those trapped in the convention center told family members, "Yes, there were young men with guns there, but they organized the crowd. They went to Canal Street and 'looted,' and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out 'The buses are coming,' the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back, just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first."

But the buses never came. "Lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. Cops passing by, speeding off. We thought we were being left to die."

Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, paramedics from Service Employees International Union Local 790, reported on their experience downtown, after leaving a hotel they were staying at for a convention.

"We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told ... that we were on our own, and no they did not have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and would constitute a highly visible embarrassment to the city officials. The police told us that we could not stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.

"We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.

"Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet-to-be-seen buses.

"All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some were chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleanians were prevented and from self-evacuating the city on foot. Meanwhile, the only two city shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New Orleans had become."

Since I moved to New Orleans, I've been inspired and educated by the grassroots community organizing that is an integral part of the life of the city. It is this community infrastructure that is needed to step forward and fight for restructuring with justice.

The grassroots infrastructure of New Orleans is the infrastructure of secondlines and Black Mardi Gras: true community support. The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs organize New Orleans' legendary secondline parades -- roving street parties that happen almost every weekend. These societies were formed to provide insurance to the black community because black people could not buy insurance legally, and to this day the "social aid" is as important as the pleasure.

The only way that New Orleans will be reconstructed as even a shadow of its former self is if the people of New Orleans have direct control over that reconstruction. But, our community dislocation is only increasing. Every day, we are spread out further. People leave Houston for Oregon and Chicago. We are losing contact with each other, losing our community that has nurtured us.

While the world's attention is focused on New Orleans, in a time when its clear to most of the world that the federal government's greed and heartlessness has caused this tragedy, we have an opportunity to make a case for a people's restructuring, rather than a Halliburton restructuring.

Today, I met up with Andrea Garland, a community activist with Get Your Act On who is planning a bold direct action; she and several of her friends are moving back into their homes. They have generators and supplies, and they invite anyone who is willing to fight for New Orleans to move back in with them. Malik Rahim, a community activist in New Orleans' West Bank, is refusing to leave and is inviting others to join him. Community organizer Shana Sassoon, exiled in Houston, is planning a community mapping project to map out where our diaspora is being sent, to aid in our coming back together. Abram Himmelstein and Rachel Breulin of the Neighborhood Story Project are beginning the long task of documenting oral histories of our exile.

This is not just about New Orleans. This is about community and collaboration versus corporate profiteering. The struggle for New Orleans lives on.

Leaving New Orleans

I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I was staying in by boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants to examine the attitude of federal and state officials towards the victims of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.

In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90 percent black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going.

Once inside (we were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them -- Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come within 17 miles of the camp.

I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation Army workers, National Guard and state police, and although they were friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how many, where they would go, or any other information.

I spoke to the several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able to get any information from any federal or state officials on any of these questions, and all of them -- from Australian TV to local Fox affiliates -- complained of an unorganized, non-communicative mess. One cameraman told me, "As someone who's been here in this camp for two days, the only information I can give you is this: Get out by nightfall. You don't want to be here at night."

There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set up any sort of transparent and consistent system, for instance lines for the buses, ways to register contact information or find family members, special needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment for possible disease exposure, or even a single trash can.

To understand the dimensions of this tragedy, it's important to look at New Orleans itself.

For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed an incredible, glorious, vital city, a place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere else in the world. A 70 percent African-American city with a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid beauty. From jazz, blues and hip-hop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, parades, beads, jazz funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights, New Orleans is a place of art and music and dance and sexuality and liberation unlike anywhere else in the world.

It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can take two hours because you stop and talk to someone on every porch, and where a community pulls together when someone is in need. It is a city of extended families and social networks filling the gaps left by city, state and federal governments that have abdicated their responsibility for the public welfare. It is a city where someone you walk past on the street not only asks how you are, they wait for an answer.

It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of New Orleans has a population of just over 500,000 and was expecting 300 murders this year, most of them centered in just a few -- overwhelmingly black -- neighborhoods. Police have been quoted as saying that they don't need to search out the perpetrators, because usually a few days after a shooting, the attacker is shot in revenge.

There is an atmosphere of intense hostility and distrust between much of Black New Orleans and the New Orleans Police Department. In recent months, officers have been accused of everything from drug running to corruption to theft.

In separate incidents, two New Orleans police officers were recently charged with rape (while in uniform), and there have been several high-profile police killings of unarmed youth, including the murder of Jenard Thomas, which has inspired ongoing weekly protests for several months.

The city has a 40 percent illiteracy rate, and over 50 percent of black ninth-graders will not graduate in four years. Louisiana education spending comes to an average of $4,724 per child, and teacher salaries in the state rank 48th in the country. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any given day.

Far too many young black men from New Orleans end up in Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90 percent of inmates eventually die in the prison. It is a city abandoned by industry, with most remaining employment in low-paying, transient, insecure jobs in the service economy.

Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster is one that was constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence. Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at risk, to the treatment of the refugees to the media portrayal of the victims, this disaster has been shaped by race.

Louisiana politics is famously corrupt, but with the tragedies of this week our political leaders have defined a new level of incompetence. As hurricane Katrina approached, our governor urged us to "Pray the hurricane down" to a level two. Trapped in a building two days after the hurricane, we tuned our battery-operated radio into local radio and TV stations, hoping for vital news, and were told that our governor had called for a day of prayer.

As rumors and panic began to rule, there was no source of solid, dependable information. Tuesday night, politicians and reporters said the water level would rise another 12 feet -- instead it stabilized. Rumors spread like wildfire, and the politicians and media only made it worse.

While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to get there were left behind. Rubbing salt to the wound, the local and national media have spent the last week demonizing those left behind. As someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of this tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.

No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely closed stores in a desperate, starving city as a "looter," but that's just what the media did, over and over again. Sheriffs and politicians talked of having troops protect stores instead of performing rescue operations.

Images of New Orleans' hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into out-of-control black criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime than the governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of damage and destroyed a city.

This media focus is a tactic, and just as the focus in the 1980s on "welfare queens" and "super-predators" obscured the simultaneous and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan scams and mass layoffs, the hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a scapegoat to cover up much larger crimes.

City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since at least the mid-1800s, the danger of flooding to New Orleans has been widely known. The flood of 1927, which, like this week's events, was more about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, perfectly illustrated the potential disaster.

Yet government officials have consistently refused to spend the money to protect this poor, overwhelmingly black city. While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending danger to New Orleans and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the city, the Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or refused to fund New Orleans flood control and ignored scientists' warnings of more frequent hurricanes as a result of global warming. Then, as the dangers rose with the floodlines, the lack of a coordinated response vividly dramatized the callous disregard of our elected leaders.

The aftermath from the 1927 flood helped shape the elections of both a U.S. President and a governor, and ushered in the southern populist politics of Huey Long.

In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New Orleans. This money can be spent to usher in a "New Deal" for the city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new schools, cultural programs and housing restoration. Or the city can be "rebuilt and revitalized" to a shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more casinos, and with chain stores and theme parks replacing the former neighborhoods, cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.

Long before Katrina, New Orleans was hit by a hurricane of poverty, racism, disinvestment, deindustrialization and corruption. Simply repairing the damage from this pre-Katrina hurricane will take billions.

Now that the money is flowing in, and the world's eyes are focused on Katrina, it is vital for progressive-minded people take this opportunity to fight for a reconstruction with justice. New Orleans is a special place, and we need to fight for its rebirth.

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