We’re Still Here Ya Bastards: How the People of New Orleans Rebuilt Their City
by Roberta Brandes Gratz
Nation Books (2014)
We’re Still Here Ya Bastards is a remarkable account of how a loose knit network of citizens groups and organizations fought FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency), city hall and the state of Louisiana to rebuild New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the BP Oil Spill (2010). The grassroots rebuilding effort happened despite a federal/state/city conspiracy to use the storm (and flood) to rid New Orleans of black residents.
Prior to Katrina and the levee failure that flooded 80% of the city,* New Orleans was 67% black. Initially 250,000 of New Orleans 485,000 residents were forced to relocate to other cities and states. Thanks to grassroots efforts, by 2015 81% had returned – despite the best efforts of officials in charge of the recovery effort.
Specific examples of FEMA/city policies to discourage black evacuees from returning:
Unlike other areas, (mainly black) Lower Ninth War residents were forced to wait four months before they were allowed to return to their flooded properties.**
Homes in low income areas, in many cases, were red-tagged for demolition without notifying owners.
All New Orleans public housing was demolished, even though only one public housing building was slightly damaged, and FEMA funds were fraudulently funneled to private developers to build market rate housing.
Despite being returned to full function by volunteers, Charity Hospital was closed, with FEMA funds being channeled to build a new hospital serving private patients.
All New Orleans teachers were fired (in violation of the union contract) to enable the replacement of the Black middle class who previously ran the city schools with a white out-of-state corporate elite and publicly funded, privately run charter schools.
“Predatory demolition,” in which many poor residents were deliberately misinformed they had to demolish their homes due to “black mold.”
Systematic refusal of FEMA, insurance companies and Road Home*** to pay homeless residents enough to rebuild their homes.
The coming together of local and out-of-state volunteers and wealthy benefactors to assist New Orleans residents to rebuild and/or rehabilitate their homes is incredibly inspiring. The best known benefactor was actor Brad Pitt, who funded the construction of 150 sustainable, solar-power homes in the Lower Ninth Ward.
*Contrary to mainstream media reports, Katrina was a man-made disaster stemming from flawed construction (by the Army Corps of Engineers) of the city’s levees. Katrina was only a category 3 hurricane – not a category 4-5 as was widely reported.
**Despite its working class character, 60% of Lower Ninth residents were homeowners, the highest proportion in the city.
***Road Home is a federally funded disaster relief program administered by Louisiana.
The 1%, produced and directed by Johnson and Johnson heir Jamie Johnson, offers a rare insider perspective on the dangers of extreme wealth inequality for contemporary society. Johnson favors using major tax reform, ie requiring the wealthy to pay more tax, to reduce inequality.
The film devotes more or less equal emphasis to the psychological insecurities underlying greed and the sordid efforts of the 1% to corrupt democratic institutions.
It includes interviews with late conservative economist Milton Friedman, Ralph Nader, arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi (who brokered the Irangate arms for hostages deal), Robert Reich, sugar barons Alfie and Pepi Fanjul,* Chuck Collins (the Oscar Mayer heir who gave away his wealth), Bill Gates senior (who also supports higher taxes for the rich), and Nicole Buffet (her grandfather Warren Buffet cut her off from the family when she appeared in an earlier version of the 1%.
The film has some great archival footage of Katrina victims during their five day struggle, in the hurricane’s aftermath, to find food and water.
I was also struck at the major role professional financial advisors play in protecting the wealth and power of the 1%.
*Who largely owe their wealth to a quaint US law (and subsidy) that sets the wholesale price of sugar at 23 cents a pound while the rest of the world pays 7 cents.
The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism
Directed by Michael Winterbottom (2009)
Based on Naomi Klein’s best-selling book by the same name, this documentary explores predatory capitalism’s use of psychological trauma to crush human rights and forcibly transfer vast sums of money from the poor to the rich.
Like the book, the documentary begins with Dr Ewan Cameron’s CIA-funded research at McGill University into the long term effects of shock therapy, sleep deprivation and other deliberately inflicted trauma. The Agency would incorporate Cameron’s findings in their Kubark counterintelligence interrogation (ie torture) manual. They went on to use Kubark to train fascist South American military officers at the School of the Americas and to interrogate random prisoners (the vast majority were never charged) at Guantanamo and Iraqi prisons.
The film also explores the “economic shock therapy” developed by the late University of Chicago economist Milton Friedman. Friedman was a master at exploiting natural and contrived disasters to impose the kind of extreme free market reforms that crush unions and wages, shut down or privatize public services and create massive unemployment – while simultaneously transferring obscene amounts of wealth from the working and middle classes to the rich.
Friedman and his cronies seized the opportunity to put their predatory theories into practice when the CIA helped overthrow democratically elected governments in Chile, Brazil, Uruguay and Argentina; during the neoconservative regimes of Thatcher and Reagan; in Russia after the Berlin Wall collapsed; in New Orleans after Katrina; in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami; and in Iraq after 9/11.