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Jordan Flaherty: “New Orleans is a canary in a coal mine warning of what the rest of us could all be facing”

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DANYA NADAR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. My name is Danya, coming to you from Washington, DC. Currently it’s the six-year anniversary since Hurricane Katrina. And joining us to talk about it is Jordan Flaherty. Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and the author of the book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks for joining us.


NADAR: So tell us, tell us a little bit about what happened back then. And we’re going to speed up to where we are today, but give us a little bit of a context of how it was during the hurricane.

FLAHERTY: Well, something a lot of people don’t realize is that Hurricane Katrina didn’t really hit New Orleans direct on. It actually went to the east of New Orleans. And although it was a category 5 hurricane while it was in the Gulf, the winds and rain of Katrina only were about the strength of a category 3 in New Orleans. Despite that, the levees that were supposed to be strong enough for a category 3 storm were not strong enough for Hurricane Katrina and ended up giving way in several places all around the city, flooding 80 percent of the city, causing the entire city to be evacuated. And in many ways the city has never recovered from that point. Now, six years later, we still have more than 100,000 people that haven’t returned. The pre-Katrina population was 465,000; now there’s about 350,000 people. Eighty thousand jobs have not returned. There’s many neighborhoods that are still not back–much of the lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans East. The touristy areas which weren’t damaged, like the French Quarter, the central business district, the Garden District, are in great shape. And so it’s possible to visit New Orleans as a tourist and not see what’s missing. But it’s especially poor communities that have been left out, the communities that lived in public housing, which has now been torn down. The teachers who were fired as a group in the aftermath of the hurricane–the entire staff of the public school system was laid off. The teachers union, which was the largest union in the city and a middle-class African-American work base, that was completely wiped out. And we’re still dealing with the legacy of those changes.

NADAR: There’s also been the BP disaster that’s taken place in New Orleans. How has that impacted or how is that today? It’s been about a year since. So what’s happening right now?

FLAHERTY: Well, the BP drilling disaster happened in the Gulf. And in terms of psychologically, it was really damaging for the people of New Orleans, and economically to a certain extent. But the communities that were really hit hard were those communities on the Gulf Coast. Especially, there’s African-American communities, working-class white communities, Vietnamese communities, Native American communities. These communities, who for generations have been depending for their livelihood on the sea, on fishing, still, many of them have not received any economic payback, any, you know, payment for what they’ve lost. And those communities are still feeling it. And if you look at the BP drilling disaster, it’s the most visible sign of something that’s been going on for tens of years. So what we’ve had is the drilling companies have been given carte blanche to do what they want on the Gulf Coast. They’ve dug 10,000 miles of canals through the southern coast, bringing saltwater into the freshwater marshes, causing coastal erosion at the rate of a football field of land every 45 minutes. An area the size of Rhode Island has disappeared off the southern Louisiana coast, and that’s not coming back anytime soon. And that makes the entire state more vulnerable to hurricanes. And what’s really tragic in the aftermath of that BP drilling disaster is there was no real regulations that went to prevent oil companies from doing this in the future. So we’re still–.

NADAR: And currently?

FLAHERTY: Currently we’re still vulnerable. And it’s not just New Orleans, but anywhere that has drilling is vulnerable. And in general this administration has been very reluctant to put any sort of–and, you know, going back several administrations, any sort of regulations on any corporations–on banks, on oil companies, whatever. And I think New Orleans is sort of a canary in a coal mine for many of these things. It’s this warning of what the rest of us could all be facing.

NADAR: You mentioned unions earlier. You mentioned that there’s problems with the education system in New Orleans. Can you tell–talk to us a little bit about what’s happening over there?

FLAHERTY: Well, this is another great example of that canary in the coal mine situation. You know, teachers are under attack everywhere. Of course, you look at Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, the attack on the teachers’ union there. But in New Orleans, years before, we saw a preview of that, where, again, the largest union in the city, the largest source of middle-class black political power and civic representation, ceased to exist. And I think that firing of the teachers, of 7,000 teachers, really shows how this disaster was about race even outside of class, because this was a middle-class to upper middle-class base of workers that had their jobs taken away and had it made much more difficult for them to come back to the city. Another example: if you look at the Louisiana Road Home program, which was the major housing program to help people come home, first of all, that program only went to homeowners. So it excluded renters, it excluded poorer folks on that category. But even within that category of homeowners, on average, white homeowners received 40 percent more money than African-American homeowners, because the money payout was based partially on property values. And in general, property values in white neighborhoods were higher than in black neighborhoods. So, in general, white homeowners, even if you had a house that was the same size, the same square footage, built in the same year, the same amount of damage, the same amount of money it would cost to repair, the white homeowners received more money than black homeowners. And there was actually a recent lawsuit that was successful from greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center that challenged this. But I think that shows another of the ways in which this was really a racially differentiated disaster.

NADAR: Well, tell me a little bit more. Also you mentioned the Danziger case. So tie in what you were talking about about a racial disaster with regards to the Danziger case.

FLAHERTY: Well, I think that that’s a really key thing to look at if you’re looking at this post-Katrina period. One of the most important struggles has been over this issue of police violence in the city. New Orleans has one of the most corrupt and violent police forces in the country. And if you look at the very narrative of how we look at Katrina, in the first days, people felt sympathy for the people of New Orleans–trapped on the rooftops, at the Superdome, at the convention center. But then media coverage shifted, and suddenly people were looters and thugs and criminals. And that depiction, I think, in many ways did more damage to the city than the hurricane, that media depiction of African Americans as looters while white survivors were just survivors, were just foraging for food. That depiction really damaged how people view the people of New Orleans in an almost irreparable way. And police, I think, really acted on this in the aftermath of Katrina. So, for example, on September 2, just days after Hurricane Katrina, Henry Glover, an African-American man, was shot by a police sniper. Then other officers took his body when he still could have been taken for medical help and instead burned his body. Danny Brumfield Sr., a 45-year-old African-American man outside the convention center, saw emergency vehicles going by, nobody offering help, food, water. He went running up to officers to demand help. Officers in a police car swerved and hit him and then shot him in the back with a shotgun in front of scores of witnesses. The next day, September 4, a group of African-American civilians are walking across Danziger Bridge, which goes from the mostly African-American neighborhood of New Orleans East to the African-American neighborhood of Gentilly. A group of officers heard rumors or a radio report that someone had been shooting at officers nearby. They came rolling up, and without asking any questions just started firing at these civilians on the bridge. First, James Brissette, a 17-year-old African-American youth described as nerdy and studious by friends, is shot several times in the back by officers. Susan Bartholomew, a 38-year-old mother, is shot several times by officers, including–she’s on the ground, lying there bleeding; her 17-year-old daughter, Lesha Bartholomew, tries to shield her mother’s body with her own, crawling on top of her, and officers shoot Lesha several times. They continue in a hail of bullets as these–this African-American family is crouching behind the bridge, behind a barrier on the bridge. Then officers go up further on the bridge and shoot at Ronald Madison, a 40-year-old mentally challenged man with the mind of an eight year old, shoot him in the back. Another officer runs up and stomps on him and kicks him until he’s dead. Then they arrest his brother, Lance, and charge him with shooting at officers. Now, it’s a frightening, terrifying, upsetting incident, but what’s worse about it is that they almost got away with it. For several years, every check and balance that we have in our city failed us. The media refused to really investigate these stories of police violence after Katrina. The US attorney was not investigating. The district attorney’s office failed to bring charges. And the–you know, the coroner’s office, for the most part, went along with officers’ stories of these incidents. But it was these family members of the victims that worked for years to get the stories out and struggled against this wall of official silence to get the truth out–the Glover family, the Bartholomew family, the Madison family, these family members of these who had been shot and killed by officers. And now we finally had these stories come out. It happened partially because some journalists like A. C. Thompson, who is journalist with The Nation magazine, told this story in late 2008, more than three years after the storm–it was the first time some of these stories reached a national audience, Henry Glover’s story in particular. Then activists in New Orleans took the opportunity of that story coming out and went to the Justice Department, went to the Congressional Black Caucus, and pushed for investigation. And finally, in 2009 we have investigations. They went and confiscated officers’ computers and found how the Danziger officers had written and rewritten their versions of the event. They found how they had invented witnesses. They had planted evidence, including planting a gun. They had a series of secret meetings where they, you know, wrote and rewrote their version of what happened on that day. And we finally had trials of those officers. So the officers that shot Henry Glover and burned his body faced trial and were convicted. These officers on Danziger Bridge faced trial and just were convicted.

NADAR: Just were convicted, just a few weeks ago.

FLAHERTY: Just a couple of weeks ago. And this has completely changed the narrative, I think, of this post-Katrina period. You know, we now know, as former district attorney Eddie Jordan said, that the police officers of New Orleans actually committed more crimes than the people of New Orleans in this post Katrina period. One of the most powerful moments in the trial was when prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein, in response to defense attorneys’ comments that these officers who had killed people on Danziger Bridge were heroes, she said the real heroes are these family members who struggled for years to get their story out against a system that had failed them. And that’s, I think, the lesson of this trial and of these convictions, that these family members who struggled against this system that failed them were able to get success. And that’s not just important for these convictions of officers but for a wider struggle against police violence nationally. The Justice Department, one of the major changes under Obama is that it’s looking at these issues of police violence. It’s looking at police departments in Newark, in Denver, in Seattle. And this success in New Orleans has national implications for trials of police officers, for oversight of police departments. They’re looking at oversight of the New Orleans Police Department. And also, unprecedented in this country, you have activists from New Orleans, including these family members of police violence, have drawn up a consent decree for what they want to see on oversight of the Police Department, and they’re pushing the Justice Department to institute vast changes over hiring, firing, discipline, training of officers. And it’s a completely unique and incredible struggle led by people [incompr.] that there’s so much for people to learn from all around the country.

NADAR: And people especially from New Orleans who’ve struggled so much since the hurricane. Well, thanks for joining us, Jordan.

FLAHERTY: Thank you so much.

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

End of Transcript

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