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‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places
‘Problem’ populations, ‘problem’ places

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2.2 Welfare and law enforcement

The conservative focus on, and allegations of, widespread crime and social disorder were contradicted by other eyewitness accounts. In the extract that follows, two white paramedics from San Francisco talk about their experiences in trying to escape from the flooding in New Orleans across a bridge connecting the mainly black New Orleans City to the largely white suburbs of Jefferson Parish.

Extract 1

As we entered the center of the city, we finally encountered the National Guard. The guard members told us we wouldn't be allowed into the Superdome [a sports arena], as the city's primary shelter had descended into a humanitarian and health hellhole. They further told us that the city's only other shelter – the convention center – was also descending into chaos and squalor, and that the police weren't allowing anyone else in.

Quite naturally, we asked, ‘If we can't go to the only two shelters in the city, what was our alternative?’ The guards told us that this was our problem – and no, they didn't have extra water to give to us. This would be the start of our numerous encounters with callous and hostile ‘law enforcement.’

We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told the same thing – that we were on our own … We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The police told us that we couldn't stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp.

In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge to the south side of the Mississippi, where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.

The crowd cheered and began to move. We called everyone back and explained to the commander that there had been lots of misinformation … The commander turned to the crowd and stated emphatically, ‘I swear to you that the buses are there.’

We organized ourselves, and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we marched past the convention center, many locals saw our determined and optimistic group …

Families immediately grabbed their few belongings, and quickly, our numbers doubled and then doubled again. Babies in strollers now joined us, as did people using crutches, elderly clasping walkers and other people in wheelchairs. We marched the two to three miles to the freeway and up the steep incline to the bridge. …

As we approached the bridge, armed sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.

As the crowd scattered and dissipated, a few of us inched forward and managed to engage some of the sheriffs in conversation. … The sheriffs informed us that there were no buses waiting. The commander had lied to us to get us to move.

We questioned why we couldn't cross the bridge anyway, especially as there was little traffic on the six-lane highway. They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdomes in their city. These were code words for: if you are poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans.

All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away – some chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleaners were prevented and prohibited from self-evacuating the city on foot.

Bradshaw and Slonsky, 2005, pp. 4, 5

What emerges from this account is the sharp collision in the aftermath of the hurricane between the rapidly increasing welfare needs of an already largely impoverished population and the predominant concerns of the police and other government agencies with crime prevention and controlling the population affected by flooding (Figure 4). The sense of injustice felt by people fleeing the floods, with few personal belongings and in urgent need of food, fresh water and shelter, was compounded by the response of the police which was primarily concerned with preventing this largely black, working-class and poor population from entering the more affluent and ‘whiter’ suburbs around New Orleans. However, it would be mistaken to suggest that crime was not a real issue, even though we need to be aware of the sensationalised reportage of much of it. The floods did give rise to looting and to other criminal behaviour, but one might reflect that some forms of these could be interpreted as desperate attempts to find food, water and shelter in appalling conditions. In some respects, the aftermath of Katrina and the story offered here provide yet another example of how poverty, ‘disorderly’ behaviour and criminal activity come to be seen as closely interlinked. There are other important issues highlighted in this account. One of these is the failure of the state to provide for the afflicted sections of the New Orleans population. Another is the organised response from the people themselves. Contrary to representations of poor people as ‘passive’ and ‘idle’, many of those most adversely affected by Katrina were not prepared, or were unable, to sit out the disaster until the government chose to respond. Instead, they mobilised collectively to find safety and protest against the injustices they suffered.

Figure 4 Images of armed police on patrol in New Orleans contrast sharply with other images showing victims of the floods struggling to cope with the devastation wrought by Katrina
Copyright ©
top left: Copyright Dave Martin/AP/PA Photos; top right: Copyright © Jason Reed/Reuters/Corbis; bottom left: Copyright © Michael Ainsworth/Dallas Morning News/Corbis; bottom right: Copyright © Michael Ainsworth/ Dallas Morning News/Corbis;
Figure 4 Images of armed police on patrol in New Orleans contrast sharply with other images showing victims of the floods struggling to cope with the devastation wrought by Katrina

In terms of evidence, Bradshaw and Slonsky (2005) offer an important eyewitness report highlighting some of the growing social tensions in New Orleans following Katrina. This kind of report not only provides alternative sources of evidence to that available in the mainstream media, it also provides rich insights from which we can develop greater understanding of the impacts of disasters such as hurricanes on different groups of people. Such eyewitness accounts offer some sense of the immediacy of the disaster, as well as how this impacted on the personal lives of those concerned, in ways that official government reports and statistics are often unable to deliver. They also show that there are different, often contradictory, stories and interpretations of events in the aftermath of the flooding. Through these we can begin to get some idea of the political controversies that Katrina sparked. These conflicting accounts were also played out on the web-based alternative media and in television documentaries. One such television documentary was When the Levees Broke. Produced in 2006 by the African American political film director Spike Lee, this documentary focused on the experiences of poor black people in New Orleans. Television footage and films of the kind produced by Lee show us not only the availability of other forms of evidence of the impacts of the Katrina disaster but also how such accounts are contested. When the Levees Broke generated controversy for its damning portrayal of the Bush Government and its attack on sensationalised and selective stories about crime during the aftermath of the disaster.

The disaster has also generated critical commentary from social science researchers on key aspects of contemporary US society that some would prefer to remain hidden from view. These include the gross social inequalities that are to be found across urban America, as well as the failures of government policy before, during and after Katrina to meet the most basic requirements of many millions of American citizens (see SSRC, 2007). It touched a raw nerve around questions of ‘race’ and class, inequalities between rich and poor, the role of government, and global climate change. In the words of New York Times journalist David Brooks, hurricanes such as Katrina ‘wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities’ (September 2005, quoted in Strolovitch et al., 2005, p. 1). In these respects, the disaster illustrates wider issues of social inequality, discrimination, marginalisation and poverty. Katrina provided an opportunity for long-standing US-wide political controversies to be re-energised, and within days of the disaster different interpretations of its underlying causes, who or what was to blame, and what was required to rebuild New Orleans were resounding in the media and in political debates (Peck, 2006).