on food and shelter

I could not believe my ears last night when I heard Ray Nagin, the mayor of New Orleans, threaten the people who live in his city–whom he is supposed to be serving, not the other way around, say:

“Anyone who is caught looting in the city …. will go directly to Angola,” Nagin said referring to the state penitentiary during a press conference at City Hall. “You will not have a temporary stay in the city; you will go directly to the big house.”

In the U.S. Angola is synonymous with modern-day slavery (well, theoretically, all U.S. prisons can be defined as such particularly for the ways in which the prison industrial complex targets people of color, but just go with me for a bit on this one). And, in fact, a recent article makes precisely this link to show us precisely how Angola is like a modern-day plantation:

This scene is not a glimpse of plantation days long gone by. It’s the present-day reality of thousands of prisoners at the maximum security Louisiana State Penitentiary, otherwise known as Angola. The block of land on which the prison sits is a composite of several slave plantations, bought up in the decades following the Civil War. Acre-wise, it is the largest prison in the United States. Eighty percent of its prisoners are African-American.

“Angola is disturbing every time I go there,” Tory Pegram, who coordinates the International Coalition to Free the Angola 3, told Truthout. “It’s not even really a metaphor for slavery. Slavery is what’s going on.”

Mwalimu Johnson, who spent 15 years as a prisoner at the penitentiary and now works as executive secretary of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana, concurred.

“I would truthfully say that Angola prison is a sophisticated plantation,” Johnson told Truthout. “‘Cotton is King’ still applies when it come to Angola.”

Angola is not alone. Sixteen percent of Louisiana prisoners are compelled to perform farm labor, as are 17 percent of Texas prisoners and a full 40 percent of Arkansas prisoners, according to the 2002 Corrections Yearbook, compiled by the Criminal Justice Institute. They are paid little to nothing for planting and picking the same crops harvested by slaves 150 years ago.

The U.S., as you know, was built on stolen land and cannot survive without forced labor, hence the need for such a system. God forbid Americans cannot run out to the stores and find products that are dirt cheap, products that they buy without ever thinking about whose labor was used to produce it or whose labor was used to sell it to them; in either scenario I wonder how difficult it is for those families to eat. In prison, at least in theory, they are fed, though I don’t know if you can call it food per se. But what happens to the prisoners in the midst of a hurricane, if Katrina is any example, is devastating.

But it is predominantly food that people seek when they “loot.” We know from Hurricane Katrina how the U.S. media used different words and different images to show the situation of people of color and white people trying to survive. White people “find” food; Black people “loot.” Clearly Mayor Nagin didn’t say anything about who would be going to prison–white or black people–but he didn’t say that people who are able to scramble to “find” food would be imprisoned. No, he said those who “loot” will be put in Angola. Welcome to the wonderful world of racist, American lingo. Or how about this report on the difference between “looting” and “finding”:

Emergency systems and disaster protocol must put life above law. And yet, when it comes to the lives of blacks and poor people in the aftermath of Katrina, “looting” is the leading headline.

President Bush has declared “zero tolerance” and pledged more troops to police the area. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has prioritized “law and order” over search and rescue. Exacting punishment instead of providing for basic needs is compounded by this disaster and the inhumanity of policies guided by this belief are laid bare. Black and poor residents of New Orleans are paying for this decision with their lives.

While the decision to arrest people for trying to survive seems misplaced, it could have something to do with the news coverage of Katrina. It has been saturated with descriptions of blacks chest-deep in water “looting” food, while referring to whites in virtually the same circumstances as survivors “finding” food.

Or perhaps it is because news stories of structural racism in the relief effort are few and far between. And almost none have raised critical life-and-death questions about how the evacuation process, search and rescue operations, relief distribution, law enforcement decisions and disaster policy are being determined by race.

Yes, the differences in language mirror the differences on the ground with respect to relief, preparation, support, solidarity, and language. The racism is structural and embedded in every part of society (one could easily look at the Israeli invasion of Lebanon on the heels of the 1st anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and see how Americans reported that Israelis “entered” Lebanon: countries bombing other countries to the stone age and back do not “enter”; they “invade.”).

I’m feeling annoyed, too, about the use of language related to “natural” disasters once again. Like the Israeli war on Lebanon in 2006 or its daily war on Palestinians, the Hurricane in Katrina was a man-made disaster. I never posted the original English of my article in Al Akhbar earlier this summer, so I will do it now (see below) to explain precisely why I am so disturbed by this rhetoric. Also, does the recent flooding in Bihar, India, the earthquake in southwest China, and the level of damage Hurricane Gustav has already inflicted in Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and elsewhere int he region not tell you something about climate change? We have refugees from wars, economic crises, and global warming now, some internally displaced, and others needing to cross borders to seek food and shelter. It’s always food and shelter first.

So I am thinking about these people who are hungry today. I’m using this fasting time of Ramadan, which started today, as did daylight savings, to consider what it feels like to be hungry every day for people who do not have the luxury of food and shelter whether in Gaza, New Orleans, or India. I like the feeling of being hungry and how it makes the brain pay attention to things like this–which one should think about daily, but one rarely does.

So here is my piece from الأخبار earlier this summer in English:

Suheir Hammad’s poem “on refuge and language,” written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in August 2005, alludes to an nakba as a way to imagine what was in store for internally displaced people of New Orleans:
“I think of my grandparents
And how some called them refugees
Others called them non-existent
They called themselves landless
Which means homeless
Before the hurricane
No tents were prepared for the fleeing
Because Americans do not live in tents
Tents are for Haiti for Bosnia for Rwanda
Refugees are the rest of the world”
These images of forced removal, of homelessness, reveal the striking similarity of people forced from their homes as a result of catastrophic events, catastrophes produced by man not by nature. In either context it is useful to consider historian Ilan Pappe’s suggestion that we challenge the term an nakba because catastrophes are merely events producing sudden disaster rather than man-made events. Whether one is considering the premeditation of Zionists to massacre and expel Palestinians or the deliberate malfeasance of the American government to rehabilitate the levees in New Orleans in anticipation of a hurricane, we must acknowledge that we are dealing with attempts to ethnically cleanse an area of its inhabitants based on both racism and white supremacy.
The allusions in Hammad’s poem resonate not only with events 60 years ago, but also with multiple Lebanese and Palestinian contexts in more recent years, including the Israeli war on Lebanon and Gaza in 2006–a war that began in Gaza and continues in various forms until today–and the Lebanese army’s destruction of Nahr el Bared refugee camp last summer. The parallels take different forms, but also coalesce in particular ways.
During the July 2006 war I helped to organize a trip for young Palestinians from Dheishe refugee camp to visit their villages in 1948. In one such village, Jerash, a partially destroyed and currently uninhabited village on a quiet hill, we could feel the vibrations of the bombing in Gaza under our feet while also watching the Israeli Occupation Forces planes fly over our heads on their way to Lebanon. I was also acutely aware that this fighting occurred on the cusp of the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Precisely one week prior to our trip to Jerash, when new homelessness and devastation rained on Gaza and Lebanon, the U.S. government’s Pentagon’s Defense Security Cooperation Agency gave the Israeli Occupation Forces $210 million worth of JP-8 fuel to cover the costs of its genocidal war rather than lend any financial or infrastructural support to the survivors of Katrina. One year after Hurricane Katrina, tens of thousands of people were still denied their right to return home and the little aid that FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) promised had still not been disbursed.  Three years later the population of New Orleans is two thirds of what it was before the hurricane.
In this region it is widely known that the U.S. gives unprecedented aid to Israel’s war machine, but we often don’t put this in the context of American genocidal policies that target people of color internally. Many communities in New Orleans, particularly in areas like the Lower Ninth Ward, understand their situation in relation to the U.S. neocolonial policies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. National Guard units that could have been deployed to assist with the evacuation of the city were killing innocent civilians in Iraq. Those in the National Guard who returned spoke of New Orleans as akin to the Green Zone in Iraq. Instead of helping they guarded evacuees who were kept behind barricades filled with mud and sewage. What little relief efforts that have emerged resemble American neocolonial policies in the region. Survivors are criminalized, marginalized, and forgotten. The same contractors mismanaging reconstruction and wreaking havoc in Iraq, among them Blackwater and the Israeli security company Instinctive Shooting International, came to New Orleans.
As we approach the three year anniversary of Katrina, we find that FEMA just closed its largest mobile housing unit area where survivors from New Orleans have been living in bleak conditions, still prevented from their right to return home.  Now they are homeless. The trailers they had been staying in temporarily look remarkably similar to the newest mobile units that the few Palestinians who have been allowed to return to Nahr el Bared live in. These small steel units may provide shelter for these communities, but exposure to the weather, extreme heat and extreme cold, as well as fitting large families into inhumanly small spaces make them unlivable. In both places, those fleeing were criminalized, denied the right to return to their destroyed homes, and abandoned by the institutions and organizations promising to rebuild their communities. In both contexts, the people attempting to rebuild their lives represent some of the most underserved and overexploited people within their respective contexts.
But in Nahr el Bared as in New Orleans there are groups of people from these communities who have resisted the authorities to claim  their right to return.  Organizations like Common Ground Relief mobilized rebuilding and relief efforts under the banner of “solidarity not charity.” This solidarity has been mainly in the form of local work as people in New Orleans, South Lebanon, and Nahr el Bared rebuild their lives. But a sister city project could be a productive way to build a larger movement that resists the neocolonial impulses of governments, corporations, and NGOs that either feed off the misery of the dispossessed or generally refrain from offering sustainable projects that instead focuses on the needs of those rebuilding their lives. A sister city project based on solidarity could forge connections across the lives of those who are subjected to what Naomi Klein calls “the disaster capitalism complex” by creating sustainable bonds and projects that are based on rebuilding people’s lives so that they can be strong enough to fight for the political objectives that matter most. Exchanging ideas about resistance cultures in New Orleans, South Lebanon, and Nahr el Bared could enable people in these communities to unite against governments like the U.S. intent on destroying people’s homes while refusing to build its own.

For those of you who are feeling like you want to be generous and do something to help people in New Orleans, here is what Common Ground Collective is requesting:

8/31 As Hurricane Gustav bears down on the Gulf Coast, Common Ground Relief is preparing for the worst. The levees have not been fully repaired, so widescale flooding could once again hit the city of New Orleans. Residents who were forced out of their homes in 2005 for a supposedly ‘temporary’ evacuation, and then found themselves kept out of their homes for 18 months or more, are understandably wary of the forced evacuation that is currently taking place. Common Ground Relief is committed to helping the people of the city survive this storm, no matter what happens.

But to do this, we need your help.

Here’s a basic list of what we need right now:
Generators: Diesel or Solar
Food, all kinds
Cooking Utensils (pots, pans, spoons, etc) for quantities of people
Hygiene Supplies
Volunteer Health Care Providers (doctors, nurse practitioners, para-medics,
herbalists, etc)
Emergency Health Clinic Type Equipment
Refrigerated Supply Van or a Refrigerated Truck & Trailer
Tyvek Suits
Wheel Barrows
Huge Tents to Set Up Distribution Centers, Temporary Medical Clinics, Office
Space, Living Quarters
Chain Saws
Safety Goggles
Heavy Duty Work Gloves



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