Surviving When the State Disappeared: Community vs. Katrina

Against the Current, No. 119, November/December 2005

Suzi Weissman interviews Mike Davis

Suzi Weissman interviewed author Mike Davis for her “Beneath the Surface” program on KPFK, Pacifica radio in Los Angeles.  The discussion was transcribed by Alice Taylor and edited for publication.

Suzi Weissman: On tonight’s program we continue looking at Katrina’s catastrophe—on the ground and in the larger implications for the ‘state of the state.’ The disaster exposed extreme cynicism, incompetence and sheer racism previously hidden or ignored.

We begin with Mike Davis, who returned to Southern California last night after more than a week in Louisiana and we’ll talk about what he saw, as well as his new book The Monster At Our Door: The Global Threat of Avian Flu—and the parallels are conspicuous and ominous—since prevention of mass death depends on a government prepared to deal with disaster.  Mike has also written Prisoners of the American Dream (Verso), Magical Urbanism, City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, Late Victorian Holocausts, Dead Cities, and a series of books for children including Pirates, Bats and Dragons and Land of the Lost Mammoths.

You’ve said (on Jon Wiener’s program last week) that this experience turned you into an anarchist.  Can you talk about what happens when there’s no state in terms of helping people—not in terms of repressing them-the way ordinary people step up and organize their own rescue and survival?

Mike Davis: Suzi, I spent four days inside of New Orleans; then I went for three days to Ville Platte.  Ville Platte is a blue collar Cajun community about three hours northwest of New Orleans.  There are about 10,000 people in Ville Platte, half Cajun, half people who might call themselves Black Cajun or Creole.  And after Katrina flooded New Orleans, hundreds of people from the Ville Platte area and from further south in Lafayette—fisherman, hunters—took their boats to New Orleans and began to rescue people who were stranded there.

At the same time thousands of people who fled New Orleans were welcomed into the homes of Ville Platte, again without any difference or cognizance paid to their race or their socioeconomic status.  And by the end of the first week, Ville Platte, which is a city as I said of about 10,000, had almost 8,000 refugees.  Now in the month that has followed this, Ville Platte still has hundreds of Katrina refugees and when I was there a few days ago waiting out Hurricane Rita, it was already receiving hundreds of refugees from Lafayette and from as far west as Texas—people fleeing Rita.

Through all this time, and despite the fact that the local directors of relief have been calling FEMA and the Red Cross day after day, they’ve seen absolutely no presence of the federal government.  The Red Cross after several weeks sent some bags of flour.  Anybody who knows Cajun cuisine knows that’s about the most useless thing you could send people.

However, during the three days I was in Ville Platte, there were numerous Halliburton trucks.  I have no idea what Halliburton’s doing down there, but you could see Halliburton everywhere when you couldn’t see the federal government and you couldn’t see the Red Cross.  The most important thing, I think, for people outside Louisiana to understand is that—in New Orleans itself, in some of its suburbs, in St. Barnard’s and in Plaquemines Parish, which are almost totally destroyed, and in Ville Platte and in other towns that have taken in refugees—people have yet to see FEMA, have yet to see small business administration, have yet to see any sign of the federal government.

SW: Americans are famous for helping themselves to get through and help where the state is absent, but they also turn to private charities like the Red Cross.  But what’s interesting as you say, is that the Red Cross was as bureaucratic and incompetent as FEMA in this regard.

MD: No, it’s an absolute puzzle to people in Ville Platte why the Red Cross—and the airports are packed right now with Red Cross volunteers going home, the Red Cross is all over Baton Rouge—why they had never seen the Red Cross.  The only agency, I must say the only outside agency that everybody’s warm to, particularly in the city of New Orleans—is the Salvation Army, which is everywhere handing out ham sandwiches and water.

But when I went to the refugee center—I’m sorry, I shouldn’t use that word, I should use the word evacuee.  In Ville Platte, people talk about “our company,” they talk about their guests, they don’t talk about refugees or evacuees; they talk about “company.”

The people who’ve come there, whether they come from the lower ninth ward, or from white suburbs, or Texas—are treated exactly like company.  And I’m going to tell you that the main danger in facing Hurricane Rita in Ville Platte wash the danger of overeating all the Hurricane Gumbo and Jambalaya that they’ve dished out.

I’d spoken to Jennifer Vedreen.  Jennifer’s the woman who was in flood for two days when I talked to her. She’s the Black Creole, one of the community leaders in Ville Platte and has the most gorgeous smile in all of Louisiana, and I asked her, “What’s the secret of your leadership down here and how do you make decisions and how do you organize?” And she just laughed at me and says, “We don’t have leadership, we don’t have decision-making,” she says, “We just know how to cooperate.”

I was staying with a close friend and his family, a former student of mine, Anthony Fontenot.  Now they’re Sunday dinner family; what they call their immediate family is 40 people.  When they have a wedding 800 people come.

People in this part of the country know how to organize things spontaneously; they’re a bit like the old Industrial Workers of the World.  They need no condescending leaders.  The community can organize the relief.  This is important to think about because right now, there are all these calls for militarizing future relief, toward turning to some savior, some Rudi Giuliani type.

What’s important to understand is what works on the ground is community; what works on the ground is cooperation.  And the real unsung heroes of this are working-class people in southern Louisiana, Black and white, who came to the aid—not only to their neighbors—but to the people in New Orleans, despite all the criminal stereotypes and the image.

In New Orleans itself, the heroes were people like the Green Party, former members of the Black Panther Party, and the person who in some ways is most memorable to me, a woman named Elaine in her late forties.  In a couple of streets, Black working-class streets in the lower garden district that has long been the object of gentrifiers and developers who would love to turn this area into condominiums, she saved several dozen people.

She literally built an ark in her front yard, turned her driveway into an outdoor living room, marched across the city looking for ice to store the insulin of the diabetic neighbor, and kept several dozen people together despite incredible police harassment.  There are people like that all over New Orleans and all over southern Louisiana.

SW: You mentioned that Halliburton is there.  This has already become the stuff of comic strip jokes now, that the no-bid contracts of Halliburton and Fluor and others, Bechtel are there.  Who allows them to come in and how does the community decide to direct its own reconstruction?

MD: Well everybody in Louisiana is of course suspicious of federal government, which has been absent in some cases still for weeks yet was immediately able to turn over billions of dollars of no-bid contracts to Halliburton, to the Shaw group, to mercenaries and to treat New Orleans and southern Louisiana as if it were on the Tigris and not on the Mississippi.

I should also add that this isn’t simply a failure of leadership or bureaucracy, or simply the result of the evisceration of FEMA by the Bush administration.  A lot of the neglect that we’ve seen, and a lot of the decisions that led to the deaths of hundreds of people, were in fact deliberate decisions, and they occurred on all levels.  They occurred on city and state levels, as well as the federal level.

There were 350 city buses parked in New Orleans where they ended up actually being flooded, parked out on the levee; 350 city buses and 250 drivers, not counting hundreds of school buses.  And of course everybody wonders why those buses weren’t used to evacuate people from the city; in fact, many local people tried to hot-wire the buses.  A few got out, others are scattered all over the city piled up against trees.

We sometimes forget that New Orleans has an Amtrak station.  Mayor Nagin himself and his so-called Homeland Security director have admitted that they didn’t deliberately leave large stockpiles of food, water, portable toilets and so on at the New Orleans Superdome because they didn’t want people, quote, “to get too comfortable.”  They were afraid of the people at the Superdome and the Convention center.

SW: It seems—Barbara Bush’s comments in Houston were of the same variety—that there’s this really paranoid class consciousness of the people at the top, who seem to feel that they’re besieged by poor and Black people who at any moment are about to take over

MD: This was an automatic fear, without any confirmed evidence that this reported anarchy, this zombie-like violence, that George Romero-esque scene in downtown New Orleans was really taking place.

The Times-Picayune, the daily paper in New Orleans, this afternoon came out with a breaking story that they’ve now identified a single potential victim of homicide in the convention center and in the New Orleans Superdome.  At one point they were talking about dozens of people being murdered in there.

Nobody was murdered in the Superdome.  They died of natural causes, and there was one overdose and a suicide.  There’s one potential murder in the convention center.  These frightening scenes of sitting under the rule of marauding street gangs contributed to the fact that there was so much police brutality, and overreaction by the troops who were sent in by the city.

SW: But is there any sense, at any level of government, some congratulation or awe at the ability of people like the heroes in Ville Platte, whom you mention, to pull together, cooperate and organize on the ground and to do what the government hasn’t done?

MD: It’s certainly a vindication of blue-collar people, and a vindication of grassroots and participatory democracy, but the point is that nothing is more feared at this moment than democratic participation in the reconstruction efforts, and the rebuilding of the city on the basis of its planned shrinkage.  One of the most sinister and disturbing things right now in New Orleans or Baton Rouge, or wherever you go, is the universal acceptance that a city that a month ago that was 70% Black, will become 50% Black in the future.  Fifty to 150 thousand of its residents will never return to the city.

SW: I don’t know if you were able to see yesterday’s L.A. Times article by Richard Rodriguez, who believes because of the relaxed labor laws, and the population transfer—the actual ethnic cleansing of the city—that undocumented Latinos will come in to do the construction, and that they’ll stay, changing the demographic landscape all over the Gulf Coast.

MD: Well there are of course a lot of Latino immigrants in Greater New Orleans—particularly Hondurans—but I thought Rodriguez’s article was actually odious and suspect in its intent.  There are tens of thousands of working-class people on the spot, ready to reconstruct the city if jobs existed.  In fact, quite a contrast, you can stand right on the city line, and in Old Metairie, which is the suburb just across the canal from New Orleans, there are loads of people at work—Black, white, Latino, skilled laborers, unskilled laborers cleaning the streets—- while nothing’s happening on the New Orleans side.

The bigger point is that everybody is rushing to this region, not just to New Orleans but to the whole Gulf Coast, and bringing all kinds of visions and pipe dreams, and utopias—everything from the most sinister master plans for turning New Orleans into a theme park caricature of itself, to all kinds of well-meaning designs for new urbanism.  But in my mind none of it should be supported until the fundamental principle is established that the people of New Orleans and of Southern Louisiana have to choose their own destiny.

There can’t be any master planning or reconstruction without their participation—particularly because what’s being talked about is the abandonment of old neighborhoods, the planned shrinkage of the city.  Now one of the big issues is that the city has an election in February.  Will the people who are dispersed across the country be given absentee ballots?  Will they vote?

I think your listeners probably know that the political calculus here is quite extraordinary.  Louisiana is a state where Black democratic voters in New Orleans often hold the balance of power in state elections.

Senate elections in particular are very close, and Karl Rove, who knows the electoral calculus in every single Congressional district in the country, realizes that if say, 10 or 15 thousand active Black democrats did not return to New Orleans, than Louisiana changes from a pink state into a solidly red state like Mississippi.

There is a very broad consensus amongst different elites—including elites who normally don’t get along and who will fight over the details of reconstruction—that the expulsion of 100-150,000 talented African Americans, poor African Americans from New Orleans, is a good thing.  And this is the ethnic cleansing we have to fight against.

We have to insist on the right of everyone who has lived in New Orleans before this disaster, and all the people in rural, southern Louisiana, to be able to make these decisions, to be the participants in rebuilding…before we have any idea of appointing reconstruction Czars, or committees of twelve, or Fountainhead-type architects to head this.

SW: What do people on the ground, the heroes that you’ve talked about, have to say about being able to exert some sort of influence?  We’ve seen of course the formation of Community Labor United, who have come up with a series of demands, including the right of return and allowing local people to be in charge of reconstruction and have their vocies heard in how it will be rebuilt.  Do you see this becoming large enough to have some impact?

MD: The point is that people on the ground are weakened because the city, in my opinion, has been artificially kept closed for too long, discouraging people to return.  People are dispersed, and what is absolutely vital is for labor and for the Black Congressional Caucus, for traditional civil rights groups, to weigh in and support the demands raised by the grassroots people in New Orleans.

New Orleans, as I’m sure many listeners know, has a young but very exciting Green Party that will try and contest the elections in February.  But the longer the city is closed, the more control that the city’s old and new elites can exercise over reconstruction, the more difficult it will become to organize against this master planning of the city that will take place at some point.

This is another reason why I have to be cautious even with well-meaning people, like the so-called new urbanists, Andres Suwanee, architects who want to come in with visions of a glittering utopian New Orleans.  People in Louisiana know how to live well.  All they need are jobs and some resources and they all can teach us about what it means to live well and to put values of community and friendship and family ahead of acquisitive individualism.

SW: Not to mention good music and good food!

MD: Absolutely.

SW: Hurricane Katrina revealed that natural disasters have lots of human accomplices.  Before Katrina flooded the Gulf Coast, this “natural” menace of Avian flu was beginning to surface and you’re one of the prime people who’ve been writing about how dangerous H5N1, which has already killed dozens of people in Asia and has forced the mass slaughter of chickens.

Since 1997, this is “the chief bioterrorist,” as you say “in our midst,” poised to explode to become a sequel of the 1918-1919 flu pandemic.  Could you talk about how your book, The Monster at Our Door, discusses the global threat of Avian flu and draws the connections between urbanization and the parallels that are intensified by human-induced climate change.

MD: Let me point out that New Orleans is the worst case scenario in terms of how this country would handle and be able to respond, not just to the Avian flu pandemic, but to any large-scale epidemic.  What you saw in New Orleans were the inequalities of the health system, magnified.  Tulane Hospital: the patients get evacuated by helicopter; Charity Hospital: people are left to drown and die. The shortage of hospital rooms, the failure of coordination between federal and state and local employees.

Where I was in Ville Platte, basic medicine was being provided by two radical Colombians and one Mexican doctor who had been evacuated from Tulane.  They filled the breach in this town that had been filled with several thousand refugees.

So to the extent that the hurricane disasters are trial runs for what could happen nationally in the face of avian flu, it really was the worst case scenario.  With Avian flu, the decisive factor has been globalization of the livestock industry and the commercial poultry industry, combined with urbanization, combined with the growth of mega-slums across the world, combined with air travel.

It’s changed the ecology of influenza, just as it’s changed the ecology of other older or emergent diseases.

But instead of building—as Laurie Garrett pointed out a few years ago in her Pulitzer prize-winning book, The Coming Plague—a global public health structure to deal with the globalization of disease, what’s happened instead, particularly in the poor countries, but also in the United States, has been the dismantling of existing public health institutions and the downsizing of hospitals and frontline medical resources.

SW: You also talk in your book about urbanized chicken populations; the “Tysonization,” I guess, of the raising of chicken, but you also explain in a really poignant way why, for example, people in Thailand didn’t want to admit that their chickens might be sick.  The government wiped out their crop and compensated them so poorly that people couldn’t survive—until of course it hit human populations and then it could no longer be kept secret.

MD: Well, my book in a nutshell is why the Bush administration has spent billions of dollars on largely hypothetical threats of bioterrorism like anthrax and Ebola fever but left Americans on one hand the most ill-prepared of any population of a rich country; and on the other hand have refused the almost trivial amounts of aid to Vietnam—which is the real front line right now—to establish an adequate surveillance system.

What’s most important in Southeast Asia: Family farmers won’t disclose the existence of Avian flu unless they know they can get some compensation for their chickens.

Chickens are often their principal capital or equity, and what Vietnam has been begging for—for well over a year and a half—is self-containing modern lab facilities and a subsidy program to compensate peasants who have to kill their flocks.  And it’s been for the want of absolute trivial amounts of aid that’s put the entire earth in danger of pandemic.

The greatest known mortality event in world history is the 1918 flu. It killed 50-100 million people in a 24-week period.

SW: I think you write that your mother’s little sister succumbed from it?

MD: No, my mother’s little brother died from it.

SW: And my own grandmother had it and survived, but she always told the stories and every time we had the sniffles she was frightened to death.

MD: I think half the people listening to this may not know it, but probably had an ancestor, one of the 600,000 Americans who died of flu in literally a three-month period.

SW: But it’s a different period presumably; we have a larger role for the federal government even though it’s been dismantled.

MD: It’s a worse period.  Worse.  The truth is that right now the government has so little anti-viral medicine and a vaccine which at the very most, if it works, will protect only half a million people.  We’re thrown back to exactly the same policies in a country that is less prepared to deal with quarantine, to deal with the scale of emergency.

Remember in 1918 Americans were at war—they were actually a little more stoic about deadly diseases.  The only thing standing between Americans and the pandemic—at least for the next year or two—are the methods of 1918, which in turn are basically the same methods of quarantine and so on that Italian city-states were using in the Renaissance to combat the Bubonic plague.

Eighty, ninety years of medicine and all the advances right now don’t mean anything—largely because of decisions made or not made by the Bush administration…Right now (in two years from now we may be better protected), if pandemic flu hits this winter, Americans are unprotected, and as Business Week pointed out recently, several million people or more would die.

SW: Is there anything that you can see that you could leave us with that would be hopeful in terms of both rebuilding the gulf coast and fighting a global pandemic that’s sooner or later sure to come?

MD: Well, I came back from New Orleans mainly feeling ashamed of myself that I had ever doubted the abilities of ordinary blue-collar Americans to become the salt of the earth, and I met some of the most extraordinary people that I’ve met in a lifetime.  But the point I want to emphasize is this: in a couple of weeks, in a month or two, the news media will begin to forget about Katrina and about New Orleans.

It’s enormously important that people continue their solidarity to the efforts to fight the master plan, ethnic cleansing of New Orleans, or to continue the environmental disaster that corporate oil companies have wreaked upon the people of southern Louisiana.  We need to continue supporting them; we cannot let this issue die.

ATC 119, November-December 2005