Whose City Is It?:
The Struggle for New Orleans Before, During, and After Katrina

By Jay Arena
New Orleans WDN

“We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Congressmen Richard Baker, Baton Rouge on the “positive” side of Hurricane Katrina

The struggle to rebuild New Orleans is a continuation of the struggle before Katrina to preserve the city as a home for hundreds of thousands of mainly African-American workers. Just as before Katrina the capitalists were trying to clear public housing out of the city, now they are palling to rebuild a shrunken city without most of those who had lived there.  And just as before Katrina activists wer fighting to preserve affordable housing, now they are fighting to rebuild the city for all who lived there, not just for the rich.

During Katrina- Who was left behind?

    New Orleans, a city of approximately 450,000 is almost 70% African American, and the working class is overwhelmingly Black. While all working class people suffered, the Black working class faced the most horrendous conditions. Due to the structure of racist capitalism Black working class families were the ones most likely to not have cars or even minimal cash resources to evacuate. Therefore, they overwhelmingly filled the hell-holes at the Superdome and the Convention Center. There, they were treated like criminals, where, under the guise of security and weapons searches, the police and military divided refugees up into lines men and women, just as the Nazi’s did at the concentration camps.
    When some families were able to escape the Superdome or Convention Center, they were often confronted, as reported in the riveting story by emergency medical service workers Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Slonsky, by neighboring Jefferson Parish sheriffs and Gretna city cops who barred them from passing over the Crescent City Connection Bridge and exiting the city. Bradshaw and Slonsky reported that,

As [a group of about 200 mostly Black people] 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 into various directions…We questioned [the sheriffs] why we couldn’t cross the bridge…They responded that the West Bank was not going to become New Orleans, and there would be no Superdome in their city. These were code words for: if your poor and Black, you are not crossing the Mississippi River, and you are not getting out of New Orleans. 

The cops had turned New Orleans into a Warsaw ghetto for poor and Black working class people.

Katrina: the Latest Capitalist Storm to Hit New Orleans

   Katrina, and the callous, racist treatment meted out to working people during this catastrophe, was not an exception. Rather, it is the latest in a series of man-made capitalist disasters that working class people, particularly the Black working class, have confronted over the last generation in New Orleans. Any serious, pro-working class rebuilding plan for New Orleans must understand this history.  A real recovery plan for New Orleans must not only deal with the destruction wrought by Katrina, but the twenty-five year capitalist-austerity and privatization drive as well.

Public Housing and the Race and Class Cleansing of New Orleans

    One of the most devastating storms that have buffeted the working class, especially thee Black working class in New Orleans over the last fifteen years, has been the destruction of public housing. In the early 1980s New Orleans had over 14,000 public housing apartments, that was home to over 60,000 people, almost all African Americans. The response of the local and national authorities to tenant demands for improved public housing was to destroy it. Since the early 1990s, local Democratic elected officials such, as former Mayor Morial (now head of the Urban League), working closely with first the Democratic Clinton, and then Republican Bush, administrations, have slashed the number of apartments by over half, to less than 6,000.
  The location of the former developments is important for understanding the destruction Katrina heaped on poor families. For example, the former St. Thomas development, which at one time had been home to over 1,500 Black and white working class families was located along the river, about a mile from the Convention Center, where flooding did not occur or quickly receded. In the late 1990s the development was demolished and many of the former residents were pushed out to New Orleans East or the Lower 9th ward, where flooding was extensive. Due to the gentrification that followed in the neighborhoods surrounding the St. Thomas, even more working class families were driven from the area. Real estate sharks liked Pres Kabacoff and Joe Canizaro made millions through the ethnic and class cleansing of the area.  Only a handful of residents were able to return to the renamed “River Gardens” development, which is being built for mainly upper income, mostly white, families. In fact, the new development has now become a public housing development for the rich with sales and property tax proceeds from a newly constructed Wal-Mart--another beneficiary of the project-- being used to subsidize the developer and the wealthy residents.
   The destruction of other development also forced many poor, Black working class families into more vulnerable, areas of the city. For example, the partly or fully demolished developments, such as the Magnolia, Melpomene, and Fischer are located in areas where flooding was much less relative New Orleans East and the lower 9th ward. 
  In contrast to many poor families in New Orleans, the African American residents at the Iberville housing development, which lies just outside the French Quarter, were able to safely evacuate since floodwaters did not rise very high in this area. Yet, this development has faced severe pressure from developers and city hall, who want to drive out the Black working class community and turn the handsome 1940 built red brick townhouses into condos for the upwardly mobile.  A grassroots movement of residents, allied with the local anti-war movement, which included Workers Democracy Network/ New Orleans members as key leaders, was able to beat back attempts to drive out the community this past year. This movement will have to continue since, as we will discuss,  the local ruling class are using the Katrina to reorder the city by class and race and drive out Black working class communities like Iberville.

The Rise of the Non-Union, Low Wage Tourist Economy

Particularly over the last twenty years the ruling elites in New Orleans have pushed tourism as the main stay of the local economy. This has not been a free market affair. Rather the so-called “hospitality” industry has benefited from millions of dollars of public subsides. The local and state government have built, with working class tax dollars, convention centers, street cars for tourists, and provided city property for constructing hotels, in order to subsidize the profit making of capitalists. In addition, the local, mostly Black Democratic Party officials, have worked local, mostly Black Democratic Party officials, have worked to hard to ensure that the overwhelmingly white controlled tourist industry have a low wage super-exploitable workforce. For example, the last mayor, Marc Morial, and the city council, worked with the chamber of commerce to block implementation of a law--passed by over 70% by voters in a referendum-- to raise the minimum wage $1 above the federal level. The current mayor, Ray Nagin also opposes the measure. The Black political leadership has also done nothing to stop the union busting carried out by the hotel owners, even when carried out on publicly owned property. Indeed, the city has also worked to break independent organizing drives among its’ own, predominately Black municipal workforce.  Nonetheless, despite these attacks, the local AFL-CIO  bureaucracy continues to pour union members dues money into local Democratic party coffers.

From Welfare State to Police State

Working people in New Orleans, as have other across the U.S. and world, have faced a continual assault on public services. In an effort to open new areas of profits for capitalists, while driving down the standard of living, and reducing the power of  workers, capitalists politicians have  privatized, or attempted to privatize New Orleans’ water system, schools, public housing,  sanitation and other public services over the last two decades.  While essential, services are gutted, the forces of repression are expanded. The clearest example is the city prison system.  While New Orleans’ population has declined from over 600, 000 in 1960, to about 450,000 in 2000, the prison population has climbed from 1,000 to over 6000 during the same time period. While schools are closed and personnel laid off, more cops are hired. 

Katrina and the Class Struggle in New Orleans

While Katrina has caused suffering and misery for most New Orleans area residents, it has opened great opportunities for a wealthy minority. For example, politically connected contractors, such as Bechtel, Halliburton and the Shaw group have been awarded multimillion dollar no-bid contracts from the Bush administration for “reconstruction.” Bush has also helped to increase their profit margins by exempting companies from the Davis-Bacon act, which requires paying workers the prevailing wage. In addition, ruling elites in New Orleans, like the big business controlled Greater New Orleans Inc, are working with local officials and the Louisiana Congressional delegation on a “business reorganization plan” for the city. In other words, Katrina has presented a great opportunity to push full force the local rulings class’s pre-Katrina agenda: protect the tourist infrastructure of the French quarter, Central Business district and the riverfront, while driving out poor and Black working class people from the center of the city and letting public services deteriorate even further.  As reported in the Wall Street Journal, the uptown white elite is calling for a racially and class reconfigured city of about 300,000. This is the point behind Baton Rouge congressmen Richard Baker crowing that Katrina had destroyed public housing: that was code language for saying it had permanently ethnically cleansed poor Black working class families for New Orleans. 
    In response to the criminal capitalist plans to further the racist war on working people, Workers Democracy Network puts forward a real reconstruction plan. This plan, first and foremost, makes the rich pay for the disaster they have created and benefited from.  Tax the rich, the oil companies, and withdraw all U.S. forces immediately from Iraq to finance the reconstruction. Furthermore, we call for a massive public works program that puts New Orleanians back to work at living wages. These democratically controlled public works projects, that totally eliminate the capitalist profiteering from this disaster, will build public housing, schools, hospitals, and infrastructure that will make the right of return for working class people a real possibility. This democratically controlled, publicly financed reconstruction of New Orleans would become a model for reconstructing the U.S. and the world, who have also been hit by similar long running capitalist storms. The working class fight over the future direction of New Orleans is the struggle of all working people. Join the fight!