Hurricane Katrina did not begin with a natural disaster. It began with the hatred that flared among white people in response to a civil rights movement that challenged white supremacy in US society. It began with a racist backlash that erupted with the killing of Emmett Till and continues to this day. Moreover, it made visible the predatory nature of disaster capitalism and its willingness to turn a disastrous event into a petri dish for the forces of neoliberalism. Katrina launched a new era in the politics of disposability.
Below is an excerpt from my book, Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability, which is more relevant today – in an era that some still describe as “postracial,” even as Black men, women and youth are gunned down in routine acts of state-sanctioned violence – than when it was first written.
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In the long aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people in the United States and globally are still struggling to draw the correct conclusions and learn the right lessons from that horrific catastrophe. Initially, we were led to believe that Katrina was the result of a fateful combination of a natural disaster and government incompetence. The perfect storm of bad luck provided one more example of the general inability of the Bush administration to actually govern, let alone protect its citizenry. Yet, with some distance and sober reflection, such assessment seems a bit shortsighted, and a little too localized.
As Katrina made perfectly clear, the challenges of a global world are collective and not simply private.
In truth, Katrina offers a number of relevant lessons not only for US citizens, but also for Canadians and citizens all over the world who must grapple with the global advance of what I call a politics of disposability. First, Katrina is symptomatic of a form of negative globalization that is as evident in Ottawa, Paris and London, as it is in Washington, DC, or New Orleans, or any other city throughout the world. As capital, goods, trade and information flow all over the globe, material and symbolic resources are increasingly being invested in the “free market” while the social state pays a terrible price. As safety nets and social services are being hollowed out and communities crumble and give way to individualized, one-person archipelagos, it is increasingly difficult to address as a collectivity, to act in concert, to meet the basic needs of citizens or maintain the social investments needed to provide life-sustaining services. As nation-states fall under the sway of the principal philosophy of the times, which insists on the end of the era of “big government” in favor of unencumbered individualism and the all-encompassing logic of the market, it is difficult to resurrect a language of social investment, protection and accountability.
Second, as Katrina made perfectly clear, the challenges of a global world, especially its growing ecological challenges, are collective and not simply private. This suggests that citizens in New Orleans as well as in Vancouver, Halifax and Toronto – coastal and inland – must protect those principles of the social contract that offer collective solutions to foster and maintain both ecological sustainability and human survival. Certainly, Canadians have done much to ensure environmental protections, especially in comparison with their neighbors to the south, but there is much, much more that has to be done to curtail the threat of global warming and numerous ecological disasters.
Third, as Hurricane Katrina vividly illustrated, the decline of the social state along with the rise of massive inequality increasingly bar whole populations from the rights and guarantees accorded to fully fledged citizens of the republic, who are increasingly rendered disposable, and left to fend for themselves in the face of natural or human-made disasters. This last challenge is difficult, for here we must connect the painful dots between the crisis in the Gulf Coast and that “other” Gulf crisis in the Middle East; we must connect the dots between images of US soldiers standing next to tortured Iraqis forced to assume the additional indignity of a dog leash to images of bloated bodies floating in the toxic waters that overwhelmed New Orleans city streets after five long days of punctuated government indifference to the suffering of some of its citizen populations.
If we continue to squander the world’s natural resources, prioritize free markets over free people or beggar populations already in need because of financial debt, is it not then likely that we will have to endure more “natural” catastrophes, more terrorist threats, along with media images that punctuate our own loss of humanity, whether of Canadian soldiers in Somalia or US soldiers in Abu Ghraib? In earlier eras, imagery of racist brutality and war atrocities moved nations to act and to change domestic and foreign policy in the interests of global justice. These contemporary images moved all of us, but only it seems for a time. Why is that?
Hurricane Katrina may have reversed the self-imposed silence of the media and public numbness in the face of terrible suffering.
Emmett Till’s body arrived home in Chicago in September 1955. White racists in Mississippi had tortured, mutilated and killed the 14-year-old Black boy for whistling at a white woman. Determined to make visible the horribly mangled face and twisted body of the child as an expression of racial hatred and killing, Mamie Till, the boy’s mother, insisted that the coffin, interred at the A.A. Ranier Funeral Parlor on the South Side of Chicago, be left open for four long days. While mainstream news organizations ignored the horrifying image, Jet magazine published an unedited photo of Till’s face taken while he lay in his coffin. Shaila Dewan points out that “mutilated is the word most often used to describe the face of Emmett Till after his body was hauled out of the Tallahatchie River in Mississippi. Inhuman is more like it: melted, bloated, missing an eye, swollen so large that its patch of wiry hair looks like that of a balding old man, not a handsome, brazen 14-year-old boy.” (1) Till had been castrated and shot in the head; his tongue had been cut out; and a blow from an ax had practically severed his nose from his face – all of this done to a teenage boy who came to bear the burden of the inheritance of slavery and the inhuman pathology that drives its racist imaginary. The photo not only made visible the violent effects of the racial state; it also fueled massive public anger, especially among Black people, and helped to launch the civil rights movement.
From the beginning of the civil rights movement to the war in Vietnam, images of human suffering and violence provided the grounds for a charged political indignation and collective sense of moral outrage inflamed by the horrors of poverty, militarism, war and racism – eventually mobilizing widespread opposition to these antidemocratic forces. Of course, the seeds of a vast conservative counterrevolution were already well underway as images of a previous era – “whites only” signs, segregated schools, segregated housing and nonviolent resistance – gave way to a troubling iconography of cities aflame, mass rioting and armed Black youth who came to embody the very precepts of lawlessness, disorder and criminality. Building on the reactionary rhetoric of Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan took office in 1980 with a trickle-down theory that would transform corporate America and a corresponding visual economy.
The twin images of the young Black male “gangsta” and his counterpart, the “welfare queen,” became the primary vehicles for selling the US public on the need to dismantle the welfare state, ushering in an era of unprecedented deregulation, downsizing, privatization and regressive taxation. The propaganda campaign was so successful that George H.W. Bush could launch his 1988 presidential bid with the image of Willie Horton, a Black man convicted of rape and granted early release, and succeed in trouncing his opponent with little public outcry over the overtly racist nature of the campaign. By the beginning of the 1990s, global media consolidation, coupled with the outbreak of a new war that encouraged hyper-patriotism and a rigid nationalism, resulted in a tightly controlled visual landscape – managed both by the Pentagon and by corporate-owned networks – that delivered a paucity of images representative of the widespread systemic violence. (2) Selectively informed and cynically inclined, US civic life became more sanitized, controlled and regulated.
Cadavers have a way of insinuating themselves on consciousness, demanding answers to questions that aren’t often asked.
Hurricane Katrina may have reversed the self-imposed silence of the media and public numbness in the face of terrible suffering. Fifty years after the body of Emmett Till was plucked out of the mud-filled waters of the Tallahatchie River, another set of troubling visual representations emerged that both shocked and shamed the nation. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, grotesque images of bloated corpses floating in the rotting waters that flooded the streets of New Orleans circulated throughout the mainstream media. What first appeared to be a natural catastrophe soon degenerated into a social debacle as further images revealed, days after Katrina had passed over the Gulf Coast, hundreds of thousands of poor people, mostly Black, some Latinos, many elderly, and a few white people, packed into the New Orleans Superdome and the city’s convention center, stranded on rooftops, or isolated on patches of dry highway without any food, water or any place to wash, urinate or find relief from the scorching sun.
Weeks passed as the floodwater gradually receded and the military gained control of the city, and more images of dead bodies surfaced in the national and global media. TV cameras rolled as bodies emerged from the floodwaters while people stood by indifferently, eating their lunch or occasionally snapping a photograph. Most of the bodies found “were 50 or older, people who tried to wait the hurricane out.” (3) Various media soon reported that over 154 bodies had been found in hospitals and nursing homes. The New York Times wrote that “the collapse of one of society’s most basic covenants – to care for the helpless – suggests that the elderly and critically ill plummeted to the bottom of priority lists as calamity engulfed New Orleans.” (4)
Dead bodies, mostly of poor Black people, were left uncollected in the streets, on porches, in hospitals, nursing homes, electric wheelchairs and collapsed houses, prompting some people to claim that the United States had become like a “third world country” while others argued that New Orleans resembled a “third world refugee camp.” (5) There were now, irrefutably, two Gulf crises. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) tried to do damage control by forbidding journalists to “accompany rescue boats as they went out to search for storm victims.” As a bureau spokeswoman told Reuters, “We have requested that no photographs of the deceased be made by the media.” (6) But questions about responsibility and answerability would not go away. Even the dominant media for a short time rose to the occasion of posing tough questions about accountability to those in power in light of such egregious acts of incompetence and indifference. The images of dead bodies kept reappearing in New Orleans, refusing to go away.
The bodies of the Katrina victims laid bare the racial and class fault lines that mark an increasingly damaged and withering democracy.
For many, the bodies of the poor, Black, Brown, elderly and sick came to signify what the battered body of Emmett Till once unavoidably revealed, and the United States was forced to confront these disturbing images and the damning reality behind the images. The Hurricane Katrina disaster, like the killing of Emmett Till, revealed a vulnerable and destitute segment of the nation’s citizenry that conservatives not only refused to see, but had spent the better part of two decades demonizing. But like the incessant beating of Poe’s “tell-tale heart,” cadavers have a way of insinuating themselves on consciousness, demanding answers to questions that aren’t often asked. The body of Emmett Till symbolized overt white supremacy and state terrorism organized against the supposed threat that Black men (apparently of all sizes and ages) posed against white women. But the Black bodies of the dead and walking wounded in New Orleans in 2005 revealed a different image of the racial state, a different modality of state terrorism, marked less by an overt form of white racism than by a highly mediated displacement of race as a central concept for understanding both Katrina and its place in the broader history of US racism. (7) That is, while Till’s body insisted upon a public recognition of the violence of white supremacy, the decaying Black bodies floating in the waters of the Gulf Coast represented a return of race against the media’s insistence that this disaster was more about class than race, more about the shameful and growing presence of poverty, “the abject failure to provide aid to the most vulnerable.” (8)
Till’s body allowed the racism that destroyed it to be made visible, to speak publicly to the systemic character of US racial injustice. The bodies of the Katrina victims could not speak with the same directness to the state of US racist violence, but they did reveal and shatter the conservative fiction of living in a color-blind society. The bodies of the Katrina victims laid bare the racial and class fault lines that mark an increasingly damaged and withering democracy and revealed the emergence of a new kind of politics, one in which entire populations are now considered disposable, an unnecessary burden on state coffers, and consigned to fend for themselves. At the same time, what happened in New Orleans also revealed some frightening signposts of those repressive features in US society, demanding that artists, public intellectuals, scholars and other cultural workers take seriously what Angela Davis insists “are very clear signs of … impending fascist policies and practices,” which not only construct an imaginary social environment for all of those populations rendered disposable but also exemplify a site and space “where democracy has lost its claims.” (9)
Looking back over the last decade, it is clear that Katrina was not simply a natural disaster but a political disaster, one that signaled and made visible a new era in racist tyranny and the politics of disposability. The names of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray, among others, stand as signposts to a society that after Katrina entered into the fog of what was called a postracial society. With the current rise of the new extremism, particularly the ongoing killing of Black people and the attack on immigrants in the United States, Katrina reminds us of the impending threat of totalitarianism, marked not only by an upsurge in racist violence, but also by the assault on every public sphere that provides the foundation for critical thinking, dissent and collective action. What is different is that young people all over the United States and other parts of the globe are remembering Katrina not as simply a tragic historical event but as a rallying cry to movements, such as Black Lives Matter, for which public memory is a call to action to build a society in which events such as Katrina never happen again. The memory of Katrina speaks not just to the past, but also to a future in which Black lives matter, justice matters and democracy matters.
Please note: This piece is partly excerpted from my book Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (Boulder: Paradigm Publishers, 2006).
1. Shaila Dewan, “How Photos Became an Icon of the Civil Rights Movement,” The New York Times (August 28, 2005). Also available online at: https://www.wehaitians.com/how%20photos%20became%20icon%20of%20civil%20rights%20movement.html
2. Douglas Kellner, The Persian Gulf TV War (Boulder: Westview, 1992).
3. Dan Frosch, “Back from the Dead,” ALTWeeklies.com (September 28, 2005), pp. 1-3. Online: https://www.altweeklies.com/gyrobase/AltWeeklies/Story?oid=oid%3A151104
4. Cited in Derrick Z. Jackson, “Healthcare Swept Away,” Boston Globe (September 21, 2005). Online: https://truthout.org/archive/component/k2/item/57401
5. Rosa Brooks, “Our Homegrown Third World,” Los Angeles Times (September 7, 2005), pp. 1-2. Online: https://articles.latimes.com/2005/sep/07/opinion/oe-brooks7
6. Terry M. Neal, “Hiding Bodies Won’t Hide the Truth,” The Washington Post (September 8, 2005). Online: https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/08/AR2005090800354.html
7. For a brilliant analysis of the racial state, see David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2001). On the post racial state, also see David Theo Goldberg, Are We All Postracial Yet? (London: Polity, 2015) and Susan Searls Giroux, Between Race and Reason: Violence, Intellectual Responsibility, and the University to Come (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2010).
8. Eric Foner, “Bread, Roses, and the Flood,” The Nation (October 3, 2005), p. 8. Online: https://www.thenation.com/article/bread-roses-and-flood/
9. Angela Davis, Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005), pp. 122, 124.