By Richard Muhammad
Dec 7 (KIN) Tamika Middleton, of Critical Resistance South, was unfazed by tense exchanges between Republican congressmen and survivors of Hurricane Katrina during a Dec. 6 special hearing in Washington, D.C. Trouble brewed when survivors stated flat out that what happened was genocide, aimed at killing poor Black people. The red-faced GOP leaders wanted kinder, gentler language and explanations for government failures, deaths and the unclear road ahead.
“I’m not surprised at the congressman's reaction. When it comes Black folks and racism in this country, people are every hesitant to call it what it is,” said the 22-year-old community organizer. “They don’t want to say what happened in New Orleans was racism. And it was indeed the murder of thousands of people from a particular community and people with a specific racial and ethnic identify.”
If Middletown and others in a coalition of New Orleans grassroots organizations have their way, the heat may just be starting.
Their aim is not to cause controversy but to have those most impacted by Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans have a say, a hand in, and some of the dollars used to rebuild the city. The coalition, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, is hosting a weekend of events designed to put the people who have been in the eye of storm in the center of activity. It includes a Dec. 8 youth speak out at Jackson State University and Dec. 9 Survivor’s Assembly in Jackson, Miss. The weekend culminates with a rally on Dec. 10, which is also Human Rights Day.
“The main thing to remember is that this weekend was organized around the principles that people themselves must deliberate and speak for themselves,” said Malcolm Suber, a longtime community activist and one of the planners of the People’s Assembly. He expects survivors to come from at least 15 states, though major concentrations of survivors are in Baton Rouge, Lafayette and Lake Charles in Louisiana, Jackson, Miss., Houston, Atlanta and Birmingham. He expects about 150 delegates and several thousand people for the rally.
The assembly’s purpose is to have survivors say what they want done and how reconstruction should move forward. Everything from jobs and housing to education, environmental hazards and legal battles will be on the agenda Dec. 9.
A major issue for assembly organizers is the right to return. The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund asserts that since residents were displaced by a natural disaster and forced to evacuate the city, they have a right to space they occupied – whether renters, homeowners, or homeless.
“If we were on a park bench, we have a right to that bench,” said Ishmael Muhammad, a lawyer with the Grassroots Legal Network, who lost property in the flooding after the levee broke and drowned the predominantly Black Ninth Ward.
Assembly organizers are mobilizing people and providing transportation for delegates to the assembly and has some 45 groups working together. The coalition has actively supported survivors. It has raised a little money, started organizing campaigns and fought some legal battles over housing in New Orleans.
“What we have seen is there is basically lawlessness with regard to landlords in the New Orleans area. We are seeing market forces at their worst,” said Atty. Judith Browne, co-director of the Advancement Project, a Washington, D.C.-based civil rights organization. “People are being evicted. We are seeing that at the same time they are facing evictions from hotels, because FEMA is not going to provide them with continued housing, they are being evicted back home.”
The Advancement Project, the Grassroots Legal Network and some other partners won a legal case that has stopped an estimated 15,000 people from evictions. In efforts to gentrify the city and with a demand for housing as businesses seek to rebuild the city, landlords were quickly evicting people. Under a pre-Katrina law, it only takes a three-day notice on a door to out tenants out. Landlords saw a chance to make money and were evicting 600 to 1,000 people a day, according to the attorneys.
Meanwhile tenants were scattered throughout the country and oblivious to any eviction notice, said Atty. Ishmael Muhammad, who is also working with the Advancement Project. The lawyers won a stay and now landlords must contact FEMA if unable to reach tenants. FEMA helps send notices to the tenants and the response period is 45 days, the lawyers said.
Ishmael Muhammad accuses city and federal officials of a false call for people to return. “If you are fighting with an insurance company over your destroyed home, you don’t have a place to stay, you don’t have money. You can’t come back,” he noted. Without jobs, homes, schools, or services people can’t return, Ishmael Muhammad said.
Housing isn’t the only issue. Activists accuse whites of moving to take over what was a predominantly Black school system in preparation for a new, improved, whiter Big Easy. There are immigrant workers rebuilding the city but not getting paid and a Ninth Ward that still looks like a disaster area, they add.
There are also environmental issues, according to Monique Hardy, co-director of Advocates For Environmental Human Rights. Sediment left by floodwaters left high levels of arsenic on streets and sidewalks near homes, but EPA is saying there isn’t a problem, she said. A lawsuit may be necessary to force a clean up that should have happened weeks ago, Hardy said.
Meanwhile, she is urging survivors to call EPA and demand the agency provide protective gear and equipment to avoid exposure to arsenic and toxic mould in homes. Her organizations and others have distributed respirator masks, coveralls, gloves and boot coverings. “Our supply is a drop in the bucket of demand and there should have been, weeks ago, a coordinated strategy by FEMA and other government agencies,” Hardy said.
For Tamika Middleton, the assembly is also about survivors coming together and not appealing to Congress to do anything. “It’s a chance to talk about the suffering in a different way and organize something for ourselves, be there for each other. And for us to come together in a way to do that work that is real to us, do work to benefit us and our community,” said the former Xavier student, who worked in New Orleans for five years until the water flooded Critical Resistance South’s offices.
“The genius and the voice of poor Black people is being called to be the leadership of the movement,” observed Curtis Muhammad, a longtime New Orleans organizer with Community Labor United. Preparations for the assembly are going well, despite “official interference,” such as posters torn down and leaflets destroyed, and potential donors discouraged, Muhammad said.
FEMA spent $60 billion in federal funding on oilrigs, affluent white neighborhoods, downtown and the French Quarter, he added. “Who wants poor Black people to be in charge of self governance, seeking their own future?” Curtis Muhammad asked. He estimates about 50,000 people, including those who live in New Orleans and others, who commute daily to work on their homes, are in the city. The other 450,000 Black residents remain scattered across the U.S., including Hawaii, Alaska and in Puerto Rico, he said.
With so many challenges, priorities must to be set by survivors and results are needed, said People’s Assembly organizers. “I don’t think the people around the country would favor billions of dollars in profits being given to people who have become experts in disaster relief and no real relief is actually going to the victims of Hurricane Katrina,” said activist Malcolm Suber.
Photo: Men at Oct. 15 Millions More Gathering show support for survivors of Hurricane Katrina. Photo by Richard Muhammad