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Time to Build Our Levees

Zein El-Amine
Date Published: 
January 01, 0001

Monsters, Inc. has been exposed. Operators of the fear-mongering factory are being indicted or pushed out of office. The Marie Antoinettes that they charged with our safety have been exposed. Their biggest propaganda peddlers have been discredited. Bush’s approval ratings continue to dive. No one would touch him with a 10-foot pole during the last election and the only one that he touched—candidate for governor, Kilgore of Virginia—went down in defeat.

Only a few months ago, the only worry that the administration had was Cindy Sheehan. Monsters, Inc. was getting ready to throttle her (like many critics before her) when a real threat to security happened. Katrina happened, and the cat was out of the bag—Monsters, Inc. is totally incapable of ensuring the safety of their citizens, let alone the world.

Republican political strategist Grover Norquist’s statement about shrinking government to where it can be drowned in a bathtub took on a new meaning. The Country watched in horror as a major US city fell through the gutted social safety nets to its death. The story of the ongoing gentrification of US cities was played out in fast forward—long term neglect and displacement of the poor, followed by the call to build a better and newer city, followed by the immediate congregation of corporate scavengers (egged on by tax incentives), then the attempted gutting of social services and wages. All this involving an armed repressive forces that is focused on protecting property and the containment of poor blacks to prevent their spillover to the higher, richer, whiter neighborhoods.
So many truths were coughed up by the media after its extraction from the behind of the military industrial complex and its reluctant embedment into the toxic swill of US injustice—that the number of Americans living in poverty has grown by 4 million in the last 5 years; that 36 million live below the poverty line; that the US is ranked 43rd in the world in world infant mortality.

Even the Sunday morning pundits started to question the US’s pretense of providing security in other countries, namely, Iraq. To contain this scandalous state of affairs, Bush declared that the Gulf Coast has been afflicted with “deep persistent poverty” and that this poverty “has roots in a history of racial discrimination which has cut off generations from the opportunity of America.”

The reality that Katrina uncovered crashed with the administration’s attack on our social safety nets. It coincided with administration’s attack on the only rental housing assistance program, the Section 8 housing program. It also showed the misplaced the priorities of the administration. The skewed reallocation of resources from social welfare to militarization was epitomized in one scene of a dehydrating mass of people in New Orleans being fanned by a black hawk helicopter. These images were not lost on people in this country—an important national, multilingual poll conducted in California found that there was “a strong consensus among the major ethnic and racial groups in America” that the reconstruction of New Orleans should be financed by “getting our troops out of Iraq as soon as possible.”

What has become apparent now is that there are two securities. Their security has to do with securing the profits of their corporate clients such as Halliburton, securing tax cuts, marginalization of the poor (especially blacks), and the funneling of the resultant marginalized populations into prison or the military. Then there is our security—affordable shelter, living wages (this has taken a new meaning after Katrina), education, and healthcare.

The administration was exposed as a one trick pony that has built a huge insecurity industrial complex around it perpetuated by apocalyptic scenarios that are detached from the daily worries of working people. The criticism of the economy and corporate theft, which had been discontinued around September 11 resumed. The declining approval polls reflected worries about jobs and healthcare. The October issue of Time magazine led with a cover article, “The Great Retirement Rip-off,” with a subheading on the cover, “Millions of Americans who think they will retire with benefits are in for a NASTY SURPRISE. How Corporations are picking people’s pockets with the help of Congress.” The article was loaded with stories of people working hard for a lifetime and ending up ripped off by CEO’s who are hardly working.

Newsweek, in an in-depth investigation, discovered that there is poverty and racism in the US (!) and called for a “skirmish” against poverty:

    “It takes the sight of the United States with a big black-eye visible around the world—to help the rest of us begin to see again. For the moment, at least, Americans are ready to fix their restless gaze on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention. Does this mean a new war on poverty? ….. this disaster may offer a chance to start a skirmish , or at least make Washington think harder about why part of the richest country on earth looks like the Third World.”

Those of us living in urban centers have a special duty of building sound levees around our public schools and hospitals and around our affordable housing—our strongholds against displacement. This means a concerted fight for the soul of New Orleans first and foremost. But, it also means that the revealing spotlight that has been shone on race and class in New Orleans, for all the world to see, needs to be turned to shine on all our urban areas. This means using this time of sobriety to show that all the conditions that are associated with New Orleans exist in all of our cities. Into this spotlight we need to bring all of our allies (antiwar, anti-globalization, labor and environmental activists) to bear on the issue of gentrification (depopulation) of our urban centers because the hurricane has connected the dots for us. If the global justice struggles are not grounded in the local work against privatization then only half of the story is being told.

This is not a turning point but a teachable moment that gives occasion to the start of skirmishes against our local mayors and governors. It is an occasion to start turning this ongoing class war on our cities into a two-sided one.