News  Criminalization of the survivors

Jordan Flaherty talks to The Daily about New Orleans’s struggles five years after the storm

Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based organizer and journalist whose writing about community struggle in post-Katrina NOLA has gained national prominence. He spoke at McGill’s Faculty of Law on Tuesday, October 5, as part of the Community and Resistance tour. The tour aims to “build relationships between grassroots activists and independent media,” and educate young activists about the concept of “solidarity work” in disaster situations – which respects established local community leadership structures – as opposed to volunteerism, which usurps these structures. Flaherty spoke at McGill as part of Culture Shock, the weeklong series of events hosted by QPIRG and SSMU. Flaherty spoke about the history of New Orleans’ culture borne of community and organizing, and a recovery effort based on “survival of the fittest.” He spoke to The Daily the day after.

His book, Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena 6, was published this summer by Haymarket Books.

The McGill Daily: A lot of people in the media have been calling the recent BP oil spill “Obama’s Katrina.” Do you agree with these parallels?
Jordan Flaherty: I do think that, in both cases, the problem is systemic. Bush’s adviser Grover Norquist said, “We want to make government so small that we can drown it in a bathtub.” The logical result of that policy – that started at least with Reagan, if not before – was this idea of making government ineffective, so that [the Federal Emergency Management Association] is not there when you need it; so that the federal Mineral Management Service is actually collaborating with the oil companies. The idea is that every aspect of government does not do what it’s supposed to do. I can’t really blame Obama for not making a radical change, because we’re talking about three decades of government policy that has done this. I think Obama is a change in tone, but not in direction. Definitely the drilling disaster is a continuation of what we saw with Katrina; of the government not doing its job to protect people.

MD: How do you feel about the oil drilling moratorium in the wake of the spill?
JF: The moratorium is too small a step. I think we need something much more major. We need to completely redefine the U.S. government’s relationship with oil companies. For people on the Gulf Coast, there needs to be some real focus on how you can really reinvest in those communities in a real way, because they are hurting from the effects of the drilling over decades.

MD: Do you see the new U.S. health care reform as helping New Orleanians?
JF: On a basic, nitty-gritty level, there were some concrete benefits for Louisiana. Louisiana is the only state in the country, I think, that has a free state-wide indigent health care system. On a bigger scale, health care is a major issue. Again, Obama is a change in tone, not in direction. We didn’t get anywhere near the Canadian system; we didn’t get the public option. So we didn’t get the change that was needed, but there were some positive steps.

MD: Twenty current and former New Orleans police officers have been indicted for misconduct in their actions in the days immediately following the storm. Have police relations deteriorated or improved since Katrina?
JF: We have a new mayor and a new police chief, and they’ve said that they’ll be addressing these issues and making these changes. Maybe the fact that there have been these high profile investigations and arrests have made people feel that there’s been some progress. When I talk to folks in the community – especially folks that are active on this issue – people are incredibly angry and do not trust the police. They feel that the new police chief is bringing more random [police]stops. Of course we’re seeing that overwhelmingly in poor African-American neighbourhoods. The struggle right now is on what form federal oversight of the police will take. If we can get some real positive reforms, that might make a difference.

MD: At the talk last night you said that the media, that America at large, had engaged in a process of “criminalizing the survivors” of the storm. It seems a fairly apt description of what has happened to people still living in inner cities across the U.S. Do you see any positive steps in Obama’s administration toward creating an urban policy in America?
JF: His early action was criticizing the cop who arrested [Henry Louis Gates Jr.], and then back tracking and inviting him to the beer summit. I think that really represents what we’ve seen from the Obama administration. Again, it’s a change in tone, but are there real policies on the ground that are making a difference for people? We’re not seeing it. We’ve gone so far in the wrong direction over the course of decades that a slight altering of course is just not enough.

MD: How should the U.S. government facilitate the right of return for the 100,000-plus New Orleanians that are still displaced and with no ability to come home?
JF: The fundamental problem is that federal policy over disasters [is] governed under the Robert T. Stafford Act. The Stafford Act specifies the rights that people don’t have. Instead, [federal disaster policy] should be governed under the international law that governs internally displaced persons, which the U.S. has signed on to. That law facilitates not only the right of return, but the right of people to have a say in the conditions of their return. And that’s fundamentally what we’ve really been missing. If we just followed the relevant international law, we’d be making a huge step forward. People from New Orleans have been fighting, fighting desperately to come back. The reason that more people haven’t is because the government is literally putting walls in front of them. The firing of teachers [in New Orleans], the sealing up of public housing. All these things are putting up walls in front of people instead of helping them.

—Compiled by Michael Lee-Murphy