Sunday, September 04, 2005

'The Only Reason They Haven't Looted The Wal-Mart Is Because That's Where The Police Sleep'

I would like to be able to stop talking about this, but I just fucking can't. I spend all my time hunting online, watching CNN and crying and shouting at the television. It's not that this is the worst disaster that's ever happened, nor that the victims are any more 'important' than the victims of the Bhopal disaster, the Boxing Day tsunami, or any of the uncounted number of other catastrophes either directly caused or exacerbated by the forces who brought us the sodden corpse-strewn wreckage that was New Orleans.

But it is nonetheless tremendously and immediately important, for all kinds of reasons, not least for its having cracked open, unmistakably and irrevocably, the delusional discourse around race and class injustice in this country. I don't think we'll be able to go back from here, from the open and widespread acknowledgement that in America poor black people are institutionally considered beneath society's attention.

So that, after a somewhat ghoulish fashion, is a positive outcome. Watching even the hardened-sycophant media break down, often literally, in the face of such naked, depraved indifference provides some crumb of hope that this newborn consciousness will not simply be swept under the Oh What A Senseless Tragedy rug. This was a sensefull tragedy, and for once it's not only the left who think so.

What I just can't get past, though, is the continuous creeping hold of this campaign of criminalization. Even while the MSM find themselves in the novel position of shouting at politicians and even their own anchors to acknowledge the inhumanity of conditions in NO, they still dutifully retail the nebulous, hysterical vision of 'a city in chaos', ruled by 'lawless gangs' who 'attack those who come to rescue them'. Troops are conducting what are openly called 'combat operations' to put down, god help them, 'the insurgency in the city' (via WII).

And the poisonhearted right, of course, are doing their best to whip this up into a wholesale demonization of not just the victims themselves, but the kind of people the victims are. I.e., to reiterate, poor black people. Someone (someone, mind, who plans to be a doctor) sent around my healthpolicy listserv yesterday this piece of contaminated fascist filth, which is so corrupt that I can barely bring myself to link to it, let alone quote it.

At tweezer-grasped arm's length I vouchsafe you the summary that it blames this disaster on 'the welfare state', and explains the victims' failure to 'rise to the occasion' (i.e., be noble, humble, above-all-quiet sufferers who wait patiently for succour and receive it with becoming gratitude) by reference to the high proportion of 'criminals and welfare parasites...people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness.'

See? Now I've gone and quoted it. I feel dirty.

And the trouble is, it creeps down. 'Decent' liberals all over the place are, in the same breath, lamenting the fate of New Orleanians and cursing the lawless, ungrateful looters for their criminality. The narrative of a post-apocalyptic cityscape so surrendered to violence that it's impossible for rescuers to aid the innocent is swallowed without question, even when that narrative is constructed on endless repetition of the same tiny handful of concrete anecdotes--the hospital sniper, the shots reportedly fired at the Superdome helicopter (a claim disputed here by an FAA official), the rapes and beatings in the Superdome (which surely represent vastly more danger to those trapped inside than to any incoming rescue mission, and, one would think, more incentive than otherwise to get the victims out instanter)--embedded in a vast haze of evocative insinuation.

People don't ask who might benefit from the construction of such a narrative. They aren't bemused by the fact that talk of sending troops in to 'maintain security' began a full day before the media reports of widespread 'lawlessness' started to appear, media who were conspicuously closer to all the action than any government representatives, and who surely would have known a lot sooner what was going on in the city.

Cui bono the isolation and criminalization of the people remaining unrescued in New Orleans? Here's a clue. This one should give you chills: on Meet The Press this morning, the president of Jefferson Parish, LA, broke down in tears after telling Tim Russert how FEMA cut all their emergency communication lines yesterday, and the local sheriff had to reconnect them and post armed guards to keep them safe. Why, I wonder, would FEMA want to keep information from getting out of the disaster area? For that matter, why would FEMA refuse to allow the delivery of three trailer-trucks of water and 1,000 gallons of fuel to the same parish?

Why would FEMA keep 60 people imprisoned in a middle school in Marrero, LA? (Audio file of interview with one of the detained.) Why are the Red Cross banned from entering the city, but mercenaries given free passage?

You'll have seen where this is going. This isn't a rescue mission at all; it's a salvage mission. The primary, explicit aim of the government all along has been the safeguarding and restoration of property. Insofar as people could be rescued--or even fed--without detracting from that critical mission they have been, grudgingly, sporadically, incompletely. There are still an unknown number of people trapped in houses and on roofs all over the city, and no one seems much exercised to go after them.

Insofar as the people dared to raise a ruckus and demand aid, or god forbid interfere with property when aid was not forthcoming, they've had to be neutralized, whether by punishment, demonization, isolation or outright extermination. Contrary to the general impression, FEMA has been pretty damn efficient in the execution of its primary mission.

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