The Gulf Coast Catastrophe –
Racist Capitalism’s “Perfect Storm”

People everywhere were shocked by the destruction wrought across America’s Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina. But horror turned to outrage as days went by while tens of thousands of mostly Black working-class and poor storm victims in New Orleans were abandoned by a government that didn’t give a damn about their fate.

They were crammed into the Superdome and Convention Center like slaves in the bellies of slave ships. They sat on roofs and watched helicopters fly by without offering help. They huddled in attics amid rising flood waters. They cradled loved ones in their arms as they died from dehydration or lack of medical care. For days they were forced to survive amid squalor and death, denied food and water.

As this horror was broadcast to the world, President Bush arrogantly remained on vacation for two days. Then, when forced to acknowledge the crisis, he and his government continued to do virtually nothing for days more. The media whipped up a racist frenzy over stories of armed Blacks taking over the city. In response, New Orleans’ Democratic Mayor Ray Nagin, while appealing for state and federal aid, ordered police to stop helping relief efforts and prioritize fighting “looters.” Louisiana’s Democratic Governor, Kathleen Blanco, withheld aid until she had amassed an invasion force of National Guardsmen with orders to shoot to kill.

For the capitalists’ politicians, protecting business interests was more important that saving lives. Only a massive public outcry forced political leaders to act. When they finally did, it was to combine belated relief efforts with attempts to blame and criminalize the victims and cover up the scandal with endless press conferences and photo opportunities.

The Gulf Coast catastrophe was a man-made disaster. Capitalism’s vicious racial oppression and class exploitation turned New Orleans into a death trap for the poor in general, and for Black people in particular. Relief has been little and late for poor whites across the region as well, both in smaller cities and towns as well as rural areas receiving little or no media coverage. And many Mexican and Central American immigrant workers are receiving no assistance at all.

The facts are undeniable. The Katrina disaster was a massive crime committed by the capitalist ruling class against the most vulnerable sections of the working class and poor:

1. The Disaster Was Predicted and Preventable
Hurricanes in the Gulf are a natural and frequent phenomenon, but the flooding that destroyed New Orleans was widely predicted and totally preventable. Successive federal, state and local governments – Republican and Democratic – refused to spend the money on the levees, sea gates and pumping stations needed to save the city and its people. They preferred to line the pockets of rich capitalists and pray that New Orleans would survive.

2. The Evacuation Plan Meant Survival of the Richest
Faced with an inevitable catastrophe, the Governor of Louisiana and Mayor of New Orleans (again, both Democrats), developed an evacuation “plan” that was utterly indifferent to the fate of the poor. Those who had cars and money for gasoline were able to evacuate and survive; the poor were abandoned to face hideous conditions and in many cases death. As local officials made clear to residents before the hurricane, those who could not find their own way to evacuate the city would be “on their own.” By the time the flood struck, the fate of most of its victims was sealed.

3. It All Adds Up To Racist Mass Murder
Then countless more were left to die by a shocking refusal to provide emergency services. Some emergency responders were unavailable and unprepared because thousands of National Guardsmen and their crucial equipment had been deployed to Iraq; relief efforts were clearly hampered by corruption and bureaucratic infighting and buck-passing. But the biggest factor preventing aid was the vile contempt held by all levels of authority for the poor, and especially for Black people.

Not only did state and federal authorities then abandon them for days without even sending relief; they sent relief away! Arguing (ridiculously) that the city had fallen under the control of armed and rampaging Black gangs, the state and federal authorities refused to allow aid into the city before it was under military occupation. They blocked volunteer rescuers and even the Red Cross from entering the city, turned back deliveries of food and water, and sent convoys of empty buses away from the city. Meanwhile, untold numbers drowned in the rising flood waters, and died for lack of food, water, medical assistance and protection, their bodies left to rot in the putrid water or be eaten by rats on dry land.

When the National Guard finally did enter the city, they did so like a conquering army and acted with outrageous racism. Whites were evacuated first, with Guards even helping them with their luggage. Meanwhile, the tens of thousands of Black people at the Superdome and Convention Center were rounded-up at gunpoint. Under the guise of searching them for weapons, the National Guard forced to divide into lines with men on one side and women and children on the other, just as slave traders did when transporting their victims aboard slave ships and the Nazis did in concentration camps.

In its history the United States has seen massacres of American Indians and the horrors of slavery, race riots and Klan lynchings. The government’s response to the hurricane’s aftermath was not quite as overt. It was not a conspiracy. Rather, it was a “perfect storm” of all the racist and anti-working class features of American capitalism that resulted in perhaps the greatest single act of racist mass murder ever to take place in this country.

For most people, especially Blacks, the Gulf Coast catastrophe is a shocking human disaster. But for this country’s cold-blooded ruling class it is primarily a public relations disaster. While the authorities are now belatedly sending some temporary relief to the hurricane’s victims, their greatest concern is to save face for the rulers of the richest and most powerful ruling class in world history. The fact that we live under a brutal capitalist system waging war against Blacks, Latinos, immigrants and the entire working class has been cruelly exposed.

The immediate struggle to survive by those most directly affected by the hurricane continues. Private companies like Halliburton and Bechtel, which have already profited from the invasion of Iraq and been caught trying to steal millions more in the process, have already moved in like vultures to make a killing from rebuilding projects. The working-class, poor and oppressed victims of the hurricane will need to organize to fight for housing, financial support and jobs, and should receive the active support of workers and all fighters for justice. And the most politically conscious workers and youth have a special duty: to make sure that the political lessons of this tragedy are taught – in order to show the way to the overthrow of this rotten system once and for all.

This country’s murderous ruling class cannot be allowed to get back to business as usual. The very best capitalism can offer is a brief return to everyday misery at home and bloody wars abroad – before it drags us all into worse. We have seen how the capitalist system, and its Republican and Democratic parties, are the enemies of the working class and poor, and particularly of people of color. We cannot afford to get trapped in electoralist diversions by reformist, populist politicians who’ll claim to be able to fix the system. The Gulf Coast catastrophe must be made the spark for massive struggles against deepening racism, exploitation and poverty. Out of those struggles there must grow a new political leadership, and an internationalist, working-class revolutionary political party dedicated to the only solution to the ever worsening nightmare of life under capitalism: working-class revolution to sweep away capitalism and build a socialist society of freedom and abundance cleansed of exploitation and racism.