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  • Tuesday, September 27, 2005


    Kill the Prisoners and Evict the Poor

    Two stories that caught my eye recently on Democracy Now seemed connected.

    The first concerned prisoners locked in their cells and left behind by the guards of jails in NOLA.
    CORRINE CAREY: The first thing that we did, we went down to investigate claims that we had been hearing that prisoners were abandoned in one of the facilities, Templeman III is the name of the building, and that some of the inmates had seen inmates left in their cells while they were on their way out, when they were finally evacuated Thursday and Friday of the week after the storm. So, the first thing that we did was we asked for a list of prisoners that were held at Orleans Parish Prison prior to the storm hitting, and then we also obtained a list from the Department of Corrections of all offenders that had been evacuated from New Orleans. We went through that list and came up with 517 people who were still unaccounted for. We're certainly not saying that those people drowned in the facility, but there are credible reports, consistent reports from inmates of being left in that facility in locked cells. And so, we'd like to know from the Orleans Sheriff and from the Department of Corrections what happened to those 517 people.

    AMY GOODMAN: What are some of the stories that you have heard in your questioning?

    CORRINE CAREY: Well, it's clear to us from talking to inmates in that facility, and other lawyers in Louisiana have talked to well over 1,000 prisoners at this point, that by Monday, when the storm hit, guards were no longer in the facility. The inmates were left to fend for themselves during the storm. The most disturbing thing is that the water began to rise in many of the buildings. Some inmates tell us that the water had come up to their chest level, and they were still in locked cells. Some other inmates helped them get out of those cells and escape the floodwaters to higher levels of the facility. They were also left there without any food or water for up to four days. There was no air circulation, and the toilets had started to back up. So the stench was unbearable for these prisoners. They started to break windows to let the air in, but also to let people outside know that there were still people in this building that had begun to flood.

    I don't care if every one of the prisoners left behind was a convicted murderer (and they weren't), leaving them in locked cells is unconscionable. I've heard (but have no source for) that some of those left in cells were actually arrested only the night before the hurricane but had not been arraigned.

    The second story was about the use of the damage in NOLA to perform a kind of "urban renewal" on poor areas of the city. Naomi Klein wrote a story for The Nation about this but this is from an interview with her on DN.

    AMY GOODMAN: Naomi Klein, let's begin with you. Lay out this story, what you have found, "“Purging the Poor."

    NAOMI KLEIN: Thanks, Amy. I guess listening to Juan's introduction; maybe what we're seeing is an attempt to turn New Orleans into New England. It's really an extremely radical vision, and I think the context of this is there's something about natural disasters that brings out a really dangerous apocalyptic side in the national psyche or in certain people in positions of power where there's this actual sense that these cataclysmic events are almost redemptive in their violence.

    And we started to hear this very early on after Katrina hit, where, not just from evangelical Christian sides, we started to hear, "maybe this is punishment for Mardi Gras and sodomites and we'’ve cleaned the city", but you hear it from the mayor, Ray Nagin, "for the first time New Orleans is free of crime and violence and we're going to keep it that way". There's almost a sense that free of people, the city has become this blank slate. In that context, this fantasy can be built from scratch.

    The buzzwords to listen for in terms of the reconstruction of New Orleans are "“smaller"”, "“safer"”. And the idea is that in the city, wealth really buys altitude, and so the effect of the flood was not at all democratic. The people who were able to buy land on high ground, their neighborhoods are relatively unscathed, and many of them never left or have been able to return. The people who were hit hardest were the people who we saw on television, you know, in the Superdome. These are the people who lived in the low-lying areas. So, the idea now is, okay, maybe we won't rebuild those areas at all, and when -- on September 15, when the mayor said that certain areas are able to be re-inhabited, this is before Rita presented itself as the threat that it, it was clear that the people re-populating New Orleans didn't look very much like the people who lived there before. It was overwhelmingly white, whereas the people still in shelters were overwhelmingly black. So, I think that the overall vision is massive land grabs, radical gentrification, and as Jeremy's piece makes clear, the gentrification is happening with privatized military force.

    JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, in your article, Naomi, you talk about the areas that have begun to be repopulated, and you mention the census figures on the racial breakdowns the French Quarter: 90% white, the Garden District: 89% white, Audubon: 86% white. And you talk about the attempts to -- the housing that was vacant in these neighborhoods that is not being used to settle some of those dislocated. Could you talk about that for a minute?

    NAOMI KLEIN: Yeah. I was really struck, Juan, that there's just been this general acceptance that because of this geographical quirk of New Orleans which is that the rich and white live on high ground, and the poor live in low-lying areas that of course, there is going to be this massive demographic shift in the city. There's been this acceptance that the people who were displaced to Houston and are now being displaced again and that have been scattered across the country will keep moving, because there's really nowhere for them to return to. This became accepted wisdom very, very quickly. I was doing some research about the fights over development before the hurricane, because one of the things that I have noticed in my research is these huge, cataclysmic events are often opportunities to exploit the dislocation that happens after a natural disaster to ram through very unpopular policies.

    From my personal knowledge, it is not a "geographical quirk" that white neighborhoods are located on high ground. Segregation along economic as well as racial ground is an intregal aspect of life in NOLA. And home buying has, in my experience, included evaluating the altitude of the home in relation to the rest of NOLA. The reason for this is obvious after any exceptionally heavy rainfall. The streets in lower elevation areas would flood just because the city pumps couldn't handle the rainfall. No hurricane necessary.

    This, then, is the seamy side of the American Dream for the poor: The social contract doesn't include you. Keep moving, you can be replaced. Your lives have no security. Perhaps you will do better if you can convince able members of your family to join the military. Plenty of work there with a steady paycheck.

    Cynical? You bet! A marvelous way to avoid implementing a mandatory draft. I will bet money that military recruiters are among the refugees as this is written. Just an extension of the poverty draft which is our government's de facto policy anyway. Yeah, buck up, refugees! Veterans of Iraq say NOLA is worse than Bagdad so why don't you go see for yourself?

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