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Greg Palast: MLK’s ‘Dream’ drowned in Hurricane Katrina

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JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. It also marks the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. And a new report found that African-American New Orleans residents continue to be disproportionately affected by high unemployment. Nearly half of them are unemployed. And, also, African-American households are earning 50 percent less than their white counterparts. Meanwhile, much of the city public education and housing has been privatized or demolished. That’s from the Katrina Pain Index of 2013 by Bill Quigley.

Now joining us to talk about this is Greg Palast. Greg Palast is a BBC investigative reporter, and he investigated for Democracy Now! the real causes behind Hurricane Katrina in a film called Big Easy to Big Empty.

Thank you for joining us, Greg.


DESVARIEUX: So, Greg, what is the connection between this 50th anniversary of the March on Washington and the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina?

PALAST: Plenty. For those who know Greg Palast is an investigative reporter–most people know that I uncovered that Katherine Harris knocked tens of thousands of people off the voter rolls of Florida in the 2000 election, thereby handing the election to George Bush. People were illegally called felons when their only crime was voting while black. It was an ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls.

When Martin Luther King stood up before the Washington Monument 50 years ago this week, he said, I have a dream that black folk in Alabama and Mississippi and in the South will be able to cast a ballot. Well, 50 years later, we’re still asking that question. Of course, we’ve eliminated the white sheets and the Ku Klux Klan as a threat. It’s now spreadsheets and ethnic ethnic cleansing.

Now, I did the investigation of the ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls of Florida. And, by the way, that spread to Louisiana and Georgia. But I also look at the ethnic cleansing of another town, New Orleans, for Democracy Now!. And what I found was just stunning. You have to put these two things together. You have to put the ethnic cleansing of the voter rolls of Florida together with the ethnic cleansing that happened and is going on in New Orleans and Louisiana, with Hurricane Katrina just a cover, an excuse. That’s all it is.

And what you take away from this is that King’s dream was announced 50 years ago, but eight years ago in New Orleans is when the dream drowned. And here’s what I mean. I’ve discovered that Louisiana State University’s Hurricane Center sent an emergency request to the White House more than a year before the levees broke, before Katrina, and Dr. Ivor van Heerden, the deputy of the Hurricane Center, contacted George Bush’s senior counsel at the White House. They had a long discussion. He said, New Orleans is going to drown–not maybe, not will. We don’t even need a hurricane. And, by the way, Hurricane Katrina never, never touched, never touched New Orleans. It went 30 miles east. It was simply a storm surge. And he said, we cannot handle even a storm surge in New Orleans. The levees are too low. The levees are built wrong. And not only that, but we have–but you built a canal for the oil companies which is bringing the Gulf of Mexico right to our doorstep. This city is going to drown unless you bring in the Army Corps of Engineers to correct this. But the Army Corps of Engineers, remember, in 2004 was in Iraq. They weren’t there for the American people. They were there, you know, to blow up bridges and then rebuild them over the Tigris River.

So what happened was is that all the warnings of Dr. van Heerden–and I got to tell you, it’s not like these were secret things. British television, where I work–I work for BBC TV–30 days before New Orleans drowned, just 30 days, van Heerden said on British television, this city could be underwater in a month. Exactly 30 days later it was underwater. This is not some shock and some surprise.

Now, what does this have to do with Martin Luther King and the rights of African-Americans to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and democracy? Okay, life and liberty was lost. If this was somewhere else, if this was not an African-American city, an overwhelmingly African-American city, it would have been protected. I’m speaking to you right now from near Westhampton Beach, which is where the movie stars go for the summer and the real estate brokers and the venture capitalists and financial vultures hang out for the summer. This area was wiped out by a hurricane twice, and both times the United States federal government evacuated people, took responsibility. No one’s ever hurt here in this rich beach area. Bill Clinton’s just down the road. He doesn’t even get his flip-flops wet when there’s a hurricane. And furthermore, every single house here–and when I say houses, I mean mansions–these beach mansions, every one of them was replaced by the federal government at the public cost, even with hundreds of truckloads of sand brought in so that the venture capitalists and the Democratic Party donors could get their tans.

What happened in New Orleans? I got to tell you, according to a United States federal court judgment, van Heerden was correct. There was something called the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet Canal which created, basically, a highway for the water surge from Katrina, a highway for that surge. It was insane. It was just an invitation for a tidal wave. There was never hurricane, but there was a tidal wave that hit New Orleans which knocked over those levees. It was the responsibility of the federal government.

And the only reason the federal government did that, by the way, built this stupid canal, which basically drowned New Orleans–it was a shotgun rifle, it was like a rifle barrel pointed right at the city–was because oil companies wanted to save time. They didn’t want to take the Mississippi River all the way to the Gulf, which winds all the way around. You know, old man river goes in all kinds of crazy curves. So they built a straight canal for the oil tankers, so that oil tankers could save a day or two on travel down to the Gulf. That’s what it was all about. So just oil tankers could save a day or two, the city of New Orleans drowned.

The federal courts determined that’s exactly what happened, that’s the science of it, and ordered the federal government to rebuild the homes of the African-Americans who lost their homes, because this was something that was done by the oil companies and the federal government. That’s a court ruling.

But the federal government, if it loses a court case, it cannot be required to pay unless Congress agrees and appropriates the money unless the president asks. Barack Obama never asked for a dime to rebuild the homes that were lost in the people’s city of New Orleans. Yes, you know, he rebuilt the homes of all the movie stars in Westhampton, but not a single home in the city of New Orleans. I want to repeat that. The federal government has never built, rebuilt any homes for the people in the city of New Orleans. They gave them formaldehyde-filled trailers, they spread them all over the country, and they drowned them. Not only were 2,000 people drowned by this horrific negligence, willful negligence of the federal government, when they knew in advance this would happen.

DESVARIEUX: Well, Greg, let’s talk about the reconstruction and the recovery effort in New Orleans, and specifically let’s talk about the African-American community and how they fared. What has it been like for them down there post-Katrina?

PALAST: Horrific. I got to tell you, look, this was–as far as the Caucasian and elite leadership of New Orleans–that’s both black and white. Remember that when we talk about–there’s no African-American community in New Orleans, just so you know. There is an elite black community, which is from the old Creole community, which includes, by the way, the old black slaveholders. There were a lot of black people who owned slaves in the New Orleans area before the Civil War. You have that old black elite and the old white elite.

And then you have the average African-American–worked those plantations and lived in places like the Lower Ninth Ward, which, by the way, had the highest concentration of African-American homeownership in America until Katrina. What happened was all these people were shipped out, put on buses, not even told where they were going, and sent to Texas, sent to Baltimore, sent all over, and sent to Florida, no way to return, no plan to return. People weren’t allowed to return to their own homes, not even allowed to put trailers on their own property. Not allowed.

So when we talk about New Orleans recovering in the sense of, like, it’s up to 70, 80 percent of its original pre-flood population, that’s not the same people. They’re gone. Half of the African-American population in New Orleans is gone forever, dispersed. They don’t have the money or the ability to get back. They don’t have their homes back. They don’t have the ability to get back.

And so in terms of work, almost all–almost all the work of reconstruction was done by people who came in from El Salvador and from Latin America, cheap labor. And then the technical labor came from the north. So, basically it was also carpetbag labor, and local African Americans lost their jobs.

In our film (which, by the way, if you go to, you can download it for free this week, Big Easy to Big Empty), you’ll see that we had a young black man who stood on a bridge for four days while helicopters flew over, ignoring him and the people he was with. A grandfather near him gave his last bottle of water to his grandchildren, and then he died of dehydration on that bridge. Then Stephen was put on a bus, separated from his family. He never saw his children and his wife for weeks. He had no idea where they were shipped off to. And then he was dumped in Texas. He ended up taking a job in Texas, and his job at the Marriott Hotel in New Orleans was taken over by immigrant workers who would be willing to work nonunion and at half his pay. So you had–basically, the construction work was done almost entirely by immigrant workers, as opposed to the black population which had lived there.

So, basically, the black population was cleansed out of the city and off the voter rolls, so that you actually–don’t forget, this is also another way to get rid of–to use a natural disaster as a cover to in effect cleans the voter rolls as well. The state went from a Democratic governor to Republican Bobby Jindal. Altogether, New Orleans went from a black city to a white and Latin American city. It’s a very different city than it was.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Well, thank you so much for joining us, Greg.

PALAST: You’re very welcome.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


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Greg Palast is the author of several New York Times bestsellers including The Best Democracy Money Can Buy and Armed Madhouse. He is known through his investigative reports for BBC Television, The Guardian, Democracy Now! and Rolling Stone. Palast’s film, The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Case of the Stolen Election is available on Amazon and Prime or at