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New Orleans — a black city left to die

This article is over 16 years, 4 months old
Hurricane Katrina has exposed the ugly truth of George Bush’s America. And people are angry, writes Jonathan Neale
Issue 1967

New Orleans will not be forgiven. It is a turning point in history. Today tens of millions of Americans hate George Bush with an endless, ragged, bleeding rage. I am one of them.

You need to understand three things. First, this comes after the majority of Americans have decided against the Iraq war — a shift that will probably make the continuation of that war impossible.

Second, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina lays bare the deep and utter corruption of not just Bush and the rich, but the whole of US society.

Third, and ultimately the most important, is climate change. This is all our futures, unless we fight. Really fight.

Iraq first. Cindy Sheehan’s vigil for her dead son outside Bush’s ranch exposed the president’s political weakness. He did not dare move her, or confront her.

White House attempts to dirty her name failed utterly, because the majority of Americans — 58 percent — say they support her. Some 800 towns held demonstrations to show that support. All this because, finally, most Americans are now against the war.

When Hurricane Katrina came, all over the US people spoke of Iraq. There were 3,000 National Guardsmen from Louisiana in Iraq, and 5,000 from Mississippi. They had almost all the heavy equipment, people said. We can invade there, they said, but we cannot help our own people.

Poor people said this, working class, black people. Frank Rich, the main columnist in the New York Times, said it too. This Monday he called Bush a heartless, greedy coward. He said this is the failure of Baghdad and Fallujah brought home. Journalists who have long hated Bush, but thus far feared him, are now going for the kill.

Beyond Iraq, there is the utter failure of the government’s humanity. There was no plan, people say. But there was. That was the plan, what they did. The US government does not do nation building.

Remember when they took Baghdad, and everyone thought they would have a plan, and they did nothing but secure the oil.

In New Orleans they had the same plan. Tell everyone to leave. Do nothing for those who could not. Secure the oil platforms and refineries. That is what the US government does. For 20 years, they have been withdrawing public services from their own people, and reacting to human need with heavily armed police SWAT teams.

New prison

One man in the Superdome stadium told a reporter he had been in jail, and it was better than where he was now. In prison you have a place to urinate and water to drink.

Another man pointed to the dead left in wheelchairs and on the ground. They treat us worse than dogs, he said. “I buried my dog.”

This is not an accident, or incompetence. The authorities had modelled exactly this disaster, were prepared for it. There were enough school buses in New Orleans to carry out every child in the city, and enough drivers. They were not used. They left the elderly too, in the nursing homes.

Many people with cars did not leave either, because they could not afford a hotel at the other end. They knew, Bush knew, everyone knew, that no government or public agency would pay for it, there would be no shelter for them to go to. Because this was America in 2005.

There are meals and water, now, finally, in the Houston Astrodome. There are no social benefits, though. Wal-Mart and McDonalds stopped paying wages at every place that closed.

Everyone in the world, everyone in the US, has seen American apartheid laid bare.

The authorities have tried to criminalise the black poor to justify their suffering — and that strategy has failed.

But we have also seen a deeper rottenness than Bush. In the first few days there were dozens of national figures who could have stepped forward.

The mayor, the governor, the chief of police, New York senator Hilary Clinton, and many more, could have appeared on TV and said Bush has failed, and I am now, here, ordering the buses, trucks, meals to come and help us.

They could have said to everyone — come to New Orleans. It would have worked. They could, any of them, have gone to the stadium, as the reporters did.

This is a failed state. And the people below will have to learn what they knew 30 years ago — how to organise.

Bush will be far less powerful now as people turn away in disgust. And with that weakness goes his power to push through the war in Iraq.

It could be a matter of months or three years, but he will now be forced to withdraw. New Orleans has eclipsed 9/11. His moral authority has gone.

But there is something that in the long run is even more important than the war and the bankruptcy of America — global warming.

Here is the greatest silence in the media. Cyclones and hurricanes in the Atlantic and the Pacific have been growing the last ten years. The Caribbean is hotter now than it has been in human history.

I’ve been reading about climate change, so I already knew the four most vulnerable places in the world were Bangladesh, the Nile Delta, the Netherlands and New Orleans.

I already knew how the US government had refused to build the flood defences for New Orleans. As the hurricane headed there, I sat in front of my TV waiting for what came.

So many people knew. That is part, I am sure, of why Bush and all his people denied what was happening. The week before Bush’s man at the United Nations insisted that secretary-general Kofi Annan remove from a list of UN principles the words “respect for nature”.

George Bush, Big Oil’s creature, has led the global resistance of the powerful to doing anything about climate change. Nature has now replied.


New Orleans shows us the key horror of what is to come. It is not floods, or storms, or cold or drought we have to fear. It is human society, the way we live now, capitalism, that we must fear.

That system transmutes disaster into mass death. Do not ask if New Orleans is about war, or government failure, or capitalism, or racism, or climate change. It is about all of them, because all of them come together.

The future will be the same. Global warming will create refugees, who will meet closed borders.

Racism will be whipped up to justify those borders. The machine guns will police them. The camps will stretch for miles and years.

The one million new climate refugees in the US join the 20 million climate refugees already in the world, above all from the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. Drought under capitalism will mean famine. Above all, global warming will mean war.

Demonstrations against global warming have been called for 3 December in London, Edinburgh and many American cities. In London we will march to the US embassy. It will only be the start. But this week is the turning point.

We must honour the dead with rage, for we live in a global New Orleans.

For more information on the demonstrations on 3 December and the national planning meeting on 1 October, go to the Campaign Against Climate Change website,

Jonathan Neale’s latest book What’s Wrong With America? is available from Bookmarks. Go to

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