In the big business media’s “two years after Katrina” coverage, there was one glaring omission — the story of the utter bankruptcy of the so-called Black leadership, in particular, the Black Democratic Party establishment. Nothing confirms that story better than the brief appearance in New Orleans on August 29 of President George W. Bush. As one resident of a FEMA trailer park aptly described the visit, “it was like the rapist being allowed to return to the scene of the crime with impunity.”
The absence of a mass protest against the President’s presence organized by those who profess to be his severest critics and with the most resources to do so verges on being a crime on par with the original crime itself. At a moment when the capitalist media, in a near self-congratulatory mood, gave unprecedented attention — certainly in the last year — to the social disaster, an invaluable opportunity to advance the interests of its victims was squandered. The Bush administration may have been granted the biggest free ride of its presidency. Only a pre-announced public visit to Baghdad, outside the Green Zone, greeted without organized mass protests would be a greater prize.
The ongoing scandal around the official body count should have been cause enough for organizing a mass action. In painfully revealing contrast to the aftermath of September 11, there is no longer any pretense being made about determining the exact number of those who died from the disaster. The figure of 1,464 seems comfortable to live with.
A close reading of the coverage did reveal, however, growing signs of hostility toward not only the White House but all levels of governance implicated in the avoidable disaster. The raised middle fingers and jeers that Bush’s handlers adroitly maneuvered him from witnessing are telling. Even the New York Times, certainly no voice of left inclinations — the exaggerations of Fox notwithstanding — took note of the increasingly seething resentment building from below.
What this healthy sentiment lacks is association, bringing it together in a mass form. Organized militant mass protests are exactly the salve that the thousands of walking wounded in New Orleans and environs need — an opportunity to emerge from their daily private battles with government, Road Home, the insurance companies ad nauseam to act collectively. This is the needed therapy for the mass Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that afflicts the area.
One of the most positive developments took place shortly after the President’s visit, specifically, an occupation of the office of the Housing Authority of New Orleans by evicted residents of some of the city’s public housing projects who are demanding a return to their former residences from which they’ve been locked out. Another event was the international tribunal that sat in judgment of the various levels of government on the basis of testimony from a diverse group of witnesses. The organizers of the tribunal hope to make Washington pay before the United Nations Human Rights Commission an even higher political price for its crimes. But however inspiring both events were, they are no substitute for mass action. Only if the organizers see them as building blocks for such will they be of lasting significance.
Most reprehensible was the charade carried out by Essence Magazine editor Susan Taylor. In what was billed as a “presence” in commemoration of the second anniversary of the disaster, only, at best, a few hundred persons partook in the event. Whether intentional or not, this non-event with all of the fanfare that preceded it helped to block any meaningful mass action from taking place. It also allowed official New Orleans to appear to be concerned with the plight of its victimized citizens; the Mayor was even seen shedding a tear or two.
No doubt the local Democratic Party establishment, headed by the Mayor, thought it appropriate to greet the President with civility with the hope that this would loosen up the coffers of the federal government. So ineffective is this present generation of the Black leadership that it has no sense of history, how the mass struggles of the Civil Rights Movement and afterwards made it possible for it to occupy the positions it does now. It has no awareness, for example, of the historic speech of President John F. Kennedy on June 11, 1963 who admitted that it was the “demonstrations,” “protests,” and “fires of frustration and discord burning in every city” that concentrated the minds of the ruling class to the plight of Black America.
One New Orleans resident told a reporter that the present situation in the city for many like him is similar to that of the Great Depression of the Thirties. This is perhaps a useful analogy because it was at that historic moment that the inadequacies of the earlier generation of labor leaders, specifically, those in the American Federation of Labor, were so terribly exposed. Its class collaborationist perspective of prior years proved to be thoroughly useless in addressing the crisis that workers then faced. The result is that they were bypassed by history — a new labor movement based on mass actions was required, what became the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
The November 2006 elections resulted in a qualitative advance for the Black Democratic Party establishment. Key figures occupy posts in the House of Representatives that could never have been imagined. The outcome is that this layer of individuals, many of whom have organic roots in the mass struggles of the sixties, are now stakeholders in the very structures that gave rise to the social disaster that unfolded in the wake of Katrina and continues until today. The fact that they failed to use their newfound influence to challenge the President’s presence in New Orleans should, therefore, come as no surprise.
If it wasn’t clear before now how irrelevant these individuals are to working-class Black America, the reality of New Orleans and environs should be enlightening. And like the old AFL misleadership going into the Depression, its performance or lack thereof will constitute, hopefully, the final nail in its coffin. Its funeral should be celebrated, the prerequisite for the birth of a new and more effective generation of fighters, many of whom will emerge from the flood-soaked mold-infested nooks and crannies of New Orleans.
August H. Nimtz is Professor of Political Science and African and African-American Studies at the University of Minnesota. His most recent book is Marx, Tocqueville, and Race in America. Both of his parents were evacuated from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.