The Global African: Hurricane Katrina: 10 years later

Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African, we’ll talk about Hurricane Katrina on the ten year anniversary of this historic storm. That’s today on The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Thanks for joining us. We’ll be right back.

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Until August 29, 2005, the date August 29 for many people of a certain generation represented the Chicano Moratorium against the Vietnam War of August 29, 1970. But in 2005, that all changed when a category 3 hurricane came in out of the Caribbean into the Gulf and laid waste to the Gulf Coast of the United States, including, but not limited to, New Orleans. More than 1,200 people were killed, levies burst, thousands and thousands of people were evacuated, in what some people described as a natural catastrophe. But deeper investigation demonstrated that it was far more than a natural catastrophe. It was in some respects a canary in a coal mine for the United States, demonstrating the actual impact of neoliberal economics and draining resources and ensuring that certain areas were completely unprepared for a disaster.

This segment of The Global African is going to take a look at what really happened and where the Gulf region is today.

We’re joined now by Tabitha Mustafa, who is a New Orleans-based activist and a program associate with the American Friends Service Committee.

Tabitha, thank you for joining us for The Global African.

TABITHA MUSTAFA: Thanks for having me.

FLETCHER: So ten years since the Katrina disaster, what does that this anniversary mean for you?

MUSTAFA: That there hasn’t really been much progress. I think we heard the mayor, we saw the presidents come down and talking about how resilient New Orleans is for taking punch after punch and coming back. But communities of color in particular shouldn’t have to take punch after punch to come back. The government should provide our communities with the resources that we need to survive. So the ten year anniversary of Katrina for me just shows me how little my government has done for me.

FLETCHER: Where were you on August 29, 2005?

MUSTAFA: I was in a little tiny hotel room in the middle of nowhere in northern Mississippi. My mom and I evacuated with the dog, and we got the last hotel room in this little place, and we rode it out there.

FLETCHER: How long did you end up there?

MUSTAFA: We actually didn’t stay there too long. The next morning we got up and we called family members trying to figure out where they were, if we could get in touch with some of them who weren’t–we actually weren’t able to locate my grandma at the time, but my cousin was in North Louisiana. So that was our next stop, Bastrop, Louisiana.

FLETCHER: When were you able to return to New Orleans?

MUSTAFA: I–let’s see. I returned a little bit earlier than the rest of my family. My mom stayed in North Louisiana with my grandmother because my mom was a public school teacher, and as I’m sure you know, Orleans Parish decided that they didn’t need about 7,500 black public school teachers in the city. So it was October when I returned to the area to go to school in Jefferson Parish. I stayed there with my dad.

And the city was lacking so much at that time, even toward the end of the semester in December. I was about 14 then. So my mom decided, look, there just aren’t enough resources here for me to stay and for me to see feel safe with you here. So she actually brought me back up to North Louisiana with her, where I finished out the year.

FLETCHER: For many people that were not there, I mean, there are so many questions that would come up and that people would want to know. But one of the things I’d like you to touch on has actually to do with something you just mentioned about the teachers and what happened after the storm. What was the basis that was used to get rid of the teachers? What happened?

MUSTAFA: I mean, the government said they simply couldn’t afford to take keep the teachers, but they were given a bunch of money from the government. So that just seemed like a ridiculous story to me. And when you think about it, these were black, middle class, predominantly women who kind of anchored the city, who worked in neighborhood schools that were named after black people like Benjamin Banneker and Ronald McNair. We saw all that change all at once. So when Milton Friedman wrote that op-ed encouraging people to privatize the city and seeing it as an opportunity, out with the old black public school teachers, in with the new white, young Teach For America teachers, out with the traditionally black public schools in New Orleans, in with the new privatized charters, like KIPP, all of what people knew was removed from the city and people were forced to start over in this new, privatized landscape where they might not be met with the types of resources that they need.

And they actually changed what it meant to be a failing school. Kathleen Blanco was the governor at that time. In order for the Recovery School District to take over the schools and make them state-run, they raised what failing was. So now a failing school is an 85 percent success rate. I think anybody who’s been to school before knows that 85 percent is probably a B, at worst a C. So it’s really interesting, all of the measures they went to in order to take these black public schools away from the people.

FLETCHER: What forms of resistance to this neoliberal reorganization of New Orleans emerged?

MUSTAFA: Well, we’ve seen a lot more activism with younger people. So the organization that I work for, American Friends Service Committee, we run a program called Piece by Piece in New Orleans that started up training here, and it’s for young arts-based activists to take a nonviolent approach to whatever form of repression they like to, but it’s usually anti-black oppression. And you’ve seen organizations like Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools pop up who are addressing the charterization of the school system here. VAYLA is addressing the lack of resources out in New Orleans East.

New Orleans East has a very large Vietnamese community, and we’ve seen strike after strike with the BP oil spill, with Katrina, just hit after hit that they’ve taken. But they’ve actually come together to combat that and say no, not here, not in our community. Think about a lot of the communities here had these green dots that were put on them, like, this isn’t going to come back, this is going to be just some green space, and people fought, said no, we’re going to use grassroots activism to say this is our neighborhood, we’re going to come back to it whether you want us here or not. And I think the grassroots activism has been the biggest success here in New Orleans post-Katrina, because that’s the reason a lot of communities, and communities of color in particular, are still here.

FLETCHER: So in the context of the Katrina disaster, where you have a situation where the president of the United States at the time, George W. Bush, effectively abdicated his responsibilities, where we’ve witnessed the neoliberal redesign of the Gulf Coast, including but not limited to New Orleans, one of the things that struck me was that the rest of the country was very generous, on the one hand, in terms of offering various kinds of support to the people of the Gulf Coast, but at the same time there was not a recognition that the Katrina disaster had much broader implications for the rest of the country. And I’m just curious, first of all, whether you agree with that. And then, second, what do you make of that?

MUSTAFA: I do think that people were very generous during Katrina. But I think the issue is that people look at Katrina as a natural disaster that happened on one day, and from that point on it was just the aftermath, when in fact I think you could use Katrina as a metaphor for the state of the black Global South.

I think if we start to look at the hurricane as more of a moment in time and less of a natural disaster, then we can really begin to see the implications of the lack of resources here in the city and of anti-black oppression and of white supremacy here in the city, but also in the country, because we see these things being replayed in different manners, but they’re pretty much the same thing in Ferguson, in Baltimore, anywhere where the Black Lives Matter movement has really taken force. I think in order to look at those other struggles, you have to first look at the negligence of the government and the effects of white supremacy on New Orleans in the post-Katrina era.

FLETCHER: Let me ask you one final question. You mentioned anti-black racism. But you earlier talked about the challenges faced by Vietnamese. And I’m curious about other populations. Did they have–were they similarly victimized by the Katrina disaster? And I mean that–not just simply the storm, but everything that you’ve just been talking about.

MUSTAFA: Yeah. I mean, the Vietnamese community in New Orleans is somewhat self-sustainable. So they were able to pool their money and they were able to come together and to get grants and resources, and they had the knowhow in order to make those things happen in a timely manner. I’m not going to say that the Vietnamese community is 100 percent back, but they had a lot of access to things that black New Orleanians did not. Did they still face someone trying to put a landfill right next to their neighborhood? Yeah, that did happen. And they used grassroots organizing to stop that from happening so they wouldn’t have the pollution going into their water system that they use to water their crops that they sustain themselves on. We didn’t see that happen in the black community, simply because we were hit too hard.

We had a lot of Latino immigrants come into the city to help rebuild, and then at the same time we had ICE trying to push them out. And so these are the people who rebuilt our city, yet somehow we don’t welcome them here, because they don’t have a piece of paper that says they have the right to be here. When you look at it, most of them have the right to be here, because we don’t technically have the right to be here to begin with. So there are people like the Houma Nation down in Houma, Louisiana, who are fighting to be recognized and who are seeing the wetlands and their barriers down in south Louisiana disappear by a football field every day, yet somehow there’s no one there to advocate for them.

So there are lots of resources, but communities of color, the Vietnamese community, the Native American community, the black community are not being able to gain access to those resources.

Here I think what surprises a lot of people is we also have a pretty decent sized Palestinian community, and they’re very strong and they’re very active, but in a similar way to the Vietnamese community they are somewhat insulated and are able to use their wealth to get themselves out of hard times. If the black community could find a way to do that here in New Orleans, I think that we would also be in a much better place.

FLETCHER: Tabitha Mustafa, thank you very much for joining us for The Global African.

MUSTAFA: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment. Take care.

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FLETCHER: We’re now joined by Sunni Patterson, who is a featured poet on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, BET’s Lyric Cafe, and many international stages, including the PANAFEST in Ghana, West Africa. Additionally, she has sung lead vocals on Kalamu ya Salaam for Hannibal Lokumbe.

Thank you very much for joining us for The Global African.

PATTERSON: Hi. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: The tenth anniversary of the Katrina disaster. I understand that you are originally from New Orleans.

PATTERSON: Yes, born and raised. Yes, indeed.

FLETCHER: Where were you on August 29, 2005?

PATTERSON: I made it–my family and I, my mother and father and nieces, we went to Houston. We made it to Houston on that day, on the 29th, because we were just like, ah, we’ll go ahead and leave, we have these days off, this kind of thing. Let’s go to Houston. My mother wanted to see my godmother, who had been ill with cancer. My uncle had just gotten a new house. You know, things like this. So it wasn’t really like a oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, let’s leave, let’s leave, let’s leave, based on just the hurricane, even though I have a cousin named Katrina and my mother said, if this storm is anything like your cousin, then we need to get the hell up out of Dodge, you know, this kind of thing.

But it still wasn’t the thought that this is going to be this huge storm.

FLETCHER: When were you told that you could not return to your home?

PATTERSON: You know, honestly, it wasn’t like we were verbally told this thing. We’re seeing the destruction. We knew that when we were just looking at the news, with being in Houston, once we got there, we just knew that we no longer had a home, because where so much of the bulk of so much was happening and where the city was hit the hardest was the area where we lived. So we were seeing this on the news. I was seeing signs of, like, just stores, and I’m seeing water reaching the height of these signs. And these are signs that you see from, like, the interstate. You know? So when we’re seeing water reaching the height of these signs and we’re knowing that these stores, I mean, in some cases, some, like, walking distance from our house, then nobody had to say that we couldn’t go back. It was just–you just knew, we just knew there was no home left.

FLETCHER: When you returned to New Orleans, what did you find? And what has been happening in New Orleans ever since?

PATTERSON: There’s a lot of new things, new people, new ways of doing.

Aside from just seeing things like this and you’re seeing different volunteers and people that have come from so many different places–and we still give thanks for all of these people, the volunteers that have come to help that have just become so much just woven into the fabric of New Orleans and of the culture in general. But then there are some who come for the time, whatever the time is, whether it’s a good time, whether it’s a bad time, whatever, whatever the time is, and then try to create and make–how do you say?–make another place out of New Orleans. So you have people who have come for the drink, for the food, for the experience, and then they stay. And then now they don’t like the experience, now they don’t like the music, now they don’t like what time the music is played, now they don’t like the fact that, oh, I thought that this stopped on a Tuesday, I thought that the music stopped on a Wednesday. Oh, so now we have to establish neighborhood associations to get rid of the music. Now we have to stop this. You know. It’s–so it’s all of these things that play a part, people that have another kind of interest in what disaster looks like, people that have another interest in what despair looks like. So you have a capitalization, of course, on culture.

FLETCHER: You mean people taking advantage of the disaster in order to move an agenda?

PATTERSON: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. That’s what I mean. There’s advantage being taken all over. When we’re talking about the culture, you’re talking about the music, you’re talking about the space, because we have to remember that we’re dealing with spaces in these areas. When you’re talking about homes, right, you’re talking about homes that have been passed down from generation to generation without a house deed or paper or something like this. So you’re dealing with trying to come back into a city, and it’s like, oh, but I live here. And then you have officials who are like, well, show me, show me that you live here. And you’re like, I didn’t–I mean, I don’t have the papers. My grandmother gave me this house. I grew up with my grandmother, my great-grandmother, and things like this. And people are like, no. So you’re dealing with the land grabbing. You’re dealing with being–advantage being taken, when we do have these oral traditions of how things are passed down and how things are given to our children and how legacy is looked at now.

FLETCHER: Well, I was going to say it seems like there’s a lot of people that are in effect being denied the right to ever return.

PATTERSON: Absolutely. Absolutely. Again, these are deliberate attempts when you’re looking at certain areas. I mean, you had people to say, God did what we could not do, which was clear out public housing.

FLETCHER: I remember the quote.

PATTERSON: Even when we’re talking about rent, you’re talking about the rising cost of rent, well, the salaries aren’t rising. So you have rent, say, pre-Katrina that might have been, say, something for $750. So if something was $750, now we’re seeing it at $1,200 to $1,500. So this is a big jump when we’re having this jump and we’re not having the pay grade of people jump along with it. So we’re talking about the rising cost of food, and salaries aren’t rising. You’re talking about the rising cost of clothes, your basic needs–food, clothes, and shelter. And all of these things are rising while the people’s ability or what the people pay to be able to pay for these things aren’t rising.

FLETCHER: I’m told that you’re going to read us a poem.

PATTERSON: Yeah. Absolutely.

FLETCHER: Alright.

PATTERSON: Question: how many more examples of destruction will it take for us to lift this veil of ignorance that drapes our faces? We place hands over years, eyes closed, mark mute, walk dead. Have to, because they shoot before we speak. But when you know the truth of what they do to those who refuse to believe in the lies they feed, now, it’s either we could crawl and give in, feeling helpless under the pressure, or we would remember, we would remember how to walk like warriors, how our feet are on the shoulders of giants, how we’ve conquered chaos before. We’ve compromised our identity far too long, and all at the hands of an oppressive entity that deliberately aims to kill and steal. They would use poison and steal or cotton and fields, take trillions of dollars, pollute all the water, destroy everything from Phoenix to Florida, then still find time to pimp your daughter or sodomize your son, turn two parents into one, and one is never enough in this world of too much. Oh, here is the classic equation. Divide up a family, multiply Mommy’s movements ’cause Daddy then move where no responsibility can ever find him, and in depression and bitterness subtract the encouragement. Then you watch the percentages fill up the prisons. You see we are master mathematicians, exponents of confusion. We be choosing death as if there are no other options left or right, up or down, shiftless vagabonds roaming around searching for something safe-seeking, never finding or recognizing the space inside, that soft, quiet sound that doesn’t compete with the crowd of voices or the violent volume. In here is the value of you. So now this is like a vowel. It’s standing in the midst of clanging consonants. It’s constant. It’s a kind reminder of the connection of us when so often, so often we have been picked apart, separated, and sorted as casual as laundry. After all, after all, now they say we should never mix the coloreds and the whites. Right?

Let us reflect on this mess we have made. We have rejected nature’s voice, all in search of material gain, donning the rags of the disastrously insane. My God, not this again, not the different name, same situation again, not the declare war all in the name of peace again and again and again and again and again and again. But then again, thanks be to God, there are them who can rouse us from our drowsiness, who save us from our haphazardness, who assist in realigning our energies with heavenly elements. And there are skeptics who will bark, will not actually go with their dreamer talk, as if every masterpiece didn’t first start from just a thought. If only we could see through the eyes of our hearts and go straight to the matter, eliminate the rhetoric, strip everything down to its natural essence–and it is there we will find the answer, the greatest, the only example, and by far the most revolutionary weapon we all have, and that is love.

Thank you.

FLETCHER: Thank you very, very much.

PATTERSON: Yes. Yes. Thank you. Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: Oh, thank you. Sunni Patterson, thank you so much for joining us on The Global African.

PATTERSON: Peace. Peace, indeed. Thank you for this.

FLETCHER: Alright.

FLETCHER: And thank you for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. We’ll be back next time. Take care.

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