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The Aftermath of Ugly

There’s a column from the Chicago Sun-Times that has had a top spot on Google News headlines for a couple days running. It’s a column about how Hurricane Katrina brought out the best in people, and details all the many people who headed there to help or organized clothing drives, fund-raisers etc. It then ends with a bizarre hairpin turn to tell people to stop criticizing Bush’s recovery plan because it’s all about hope.

I imagine that it has retained its top place in a forum that updates itself every 15 minutes, because the many people out there like me who are desperate to hear some good news, who want to get back to the “We all pulled together in the face of disaster” storyline in the face of the paralysis and chaos that we heard about in the week following the hurricane.

It’s good to remember that storyline—it’s true. There are thousands of people who jumped in and did, or tried to do, what needed to be done, and their praises should be sung to the heavens. There were also thousands of survivors who sacrificed to help each other, staying behind, going back, letting the sick get out first, etc.

But (you knew there was a but, didn’t you. I’m sorry. I really am), as much as I want to go there and stay there, as much as I want to let the poor battered subject alone, there is one of the uglier aspects of Katrina that I can’t leave without comment.

Katrina exposed the depths to which America has not cured itself of racism, and those depths were frightening to look at. A report by media reporter David Carr of The New York Times on Monday, Sept. 19, examined how along with its newfound willingness to question people in positions of authority, the media were also a little too willing to pass on unsubstantiated accounts of murders and especially rapes. This followed close on the heels of the Associated Press’s publishing of a picture of a black teenager with some food, with a caption calling him a looter and a nearly identical picture (from AFP) of a white couple saying they “found” food “in a grocery store.”

While it is clear that New Orleans post-Katrina was not entirely a model of law and order and politeness, the press’ confirmation and amplification of the usual urban-legends rumor mill added fuel to the fire of surrounding communities’ fears about an influx of refugees.

It’s hard to find an easy way to argue with those who see racism embedded in the lack of a disaster plan, and the lack of a quick mobilization. But it’s personal as well as systemic.

One of the stories that Carr says was confirmed is that the police in Gretna, La., turned back hundreds of fleeing refugees trying to walk across a bridge. The paramedics who wrote up that story told of being sent to that bridge (where the Gretna sheriffs fired guns at them) by the New Orleans police who claimed, nay promised, that buses would be waiting for them there. After being turned back, the group of hundreds camped on the freeway. “Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun at our faces, screaming, ‘Get off the fucking freeway,’ ” wrote Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky. “A helicopter arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up his truck with our food and water.”

Other first-person accounts of what happened once people did get out is just as disturbing. One person who tried to deliver donated food to a refugee camp in Oklahoma was told that the people coming wouldn’t be allowed to use the kitchens because they could start fires, and she couldn’t leave apples and milk because “It could cause a riot. You don’t understand the type of people that are about to come here. . . . ” A FEMA official has since rebutted that they were accepting food only in sealed packages for safety reasons—but that doesn’t negate what the person on the ground told the people trying to offer food.

Other news stories told of citizens in Baton Rouge making a run on gun stores, and businesses deciding to only accept cash.

Having refugees—traumatized, penniless and adrift—pouring into your community is often a little frightening. Civil wars have started over it in other parts of the world. My own family had a long and somewhat nerve-wracking discussion about our limits and our safety before posting an offer for temporary housing on one of the sites coordinating such offers.

But as Michael Tisserand, editor of New Orleans’ Gambit Weekly, has written in a column for the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, there is a split—“house refugees,” i.e., people who found someone to stay with, are primarily white. Shelter refugees are primarily black. And for a segregated, suburbanized nation that still too closely associates race with a range of perceived or real urban ills, the reaction to the arrival of people dispersed from a very black, very poor city has shades of school-busing backlash about it.

I hope that the racism was “only” in a government we already know to be interested exclusively in the needs of the elite, and “only” in a few wigged-out sheriffs and sheltered citizens. That would be ugly enough.

But I think the most practical thing to hope for is that just like the media have discovered poverty again in Katrina’s wake, that the baldness of the government’s lack of urgency about saving those who couldn’t leave and the depth of people’s distrust across racial lines will help the country shake off the notion that it has achieved color-blindness and get back to work.

—Miriam Axel-Lute

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