Naomi Klein: "Nothing energises the neocon true believers like a good disaster"
The Guardian -- London -- Saturday September 24 2005
This is turning into the ethnic cleansing of New Orleans There is empty housing for the tens of thousands made homeless by Katrina - but the white elite have other plans
By Naomi Klein
Outside the 2,000-bed temporary shelter in Baton Rouge's River Centre, a Church of Scientology band is performing a version of Bill Withers's classic Use Me - a refreshingly honest choice. "If it feels this good getting used," the Scientology singer belts out, "just keep on using me until you use me up."
Ten-year-old Nyler, lying face down on a massage table, has pretty much the same attitude. She is not quite sure why the nice lady in the yellow Scientology volunteer minister T-shirt wants to rub her back, but "it feels so good", she tells me, so who really cares? I ask Nyler if this is her first massage. "Assist!" hisses the volunteer minister, correcting my Scientology lingo. Nyler shakes her head: no; since fleeing New Orleans after a tree fell on her house, she has visited this tent many times, becoming something of an assistoholic. "I have nerves," she explains in a blissed-out massage voice.
Wearing a donated pink T-shirt with an age-inappropriate slogan ("It's the hidden little Tiki spot where the island boys are hot, hot, hot"), Nyler tells me what she is nervous about. "I think New Orleans might not ever get fixed back." "Why not?" I ask. "Because the people who know how to fix broken houses are all gone."
I don't have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she is on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighbourhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city. An hour earlier I had interviewed New Orleans's top corporate lobbyist, Mark Drennen. As president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc, Drennen was in an expansive mood, pumped up by signs from Washington that the corporations he represents were about to receive a package of tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations so generous that it would make the job of a lobbyist virtually obsolete.
Listening to Drennen enthuse about the opportunities opened up by the storm, I was struck by his reference to African-Americans in New Orleans as "the minority community". At 67% of the population, they are the clear majority; whites like Drennen make up 27%. It was, no doubt, a simple verbal slip, but I couldn't help feeling that it was also a glimpse into the desired demographics of the new and improved city being imagined by its white elite. "I honestly don't know, and I don't think anyone knows, how they are going to fit in," Drennen said of the city's unemployed.
New Orleans is already displaying signs of a demographic shift so dramatic that some evacuees describe it as ethnic cleansing. Before the mayor, Ray Nagin, called for a second evacuation, the people streaming back into dry areas were mostly white, while those with no homes to return to are overwhelmingly black. This, we are assured, is not a conspiracy; it is simple geography - a reflection of the fact that wealth in New Orleans buys altitude. That means that the driest areas are the whitest: the French Quarter is 90% white; the Garden District, 89%; Audubon, 86%; neighbouring Jefferson Parish, where people were also allowed to return, 65%.
Some dry areas, like Algiers, did have large low-income African-American populations, but in all the billions allocated for reconstruction there is no budget for transportation from the far-flung shelters where those residents ended up. So even when resettlement is permitted, many may not be able to return.
As for the hundreds of thousands of residents whose low-lying homes and housing projects were destroyed by the flood, Drennen says the city now has an opportunity for "21st-century thinking": rather than rebuild ghettoes, New Orleans should be resettled with "mixed income" housing, where rich and poor, black and white, live side by side.
What Drennen does not say is that this kind of urban integration could happen tomorrow, on a massive scale. Roughly 70,000 of New Orleans's poorest homeless evacuees could move back to the city, alongside returning white homeowners, without a single new structure being built. Take the Lower Garden District, where Drennen himself lives. It has a surprisingly high vacancy rate - 17%, according to the 2000 census. At that time 702 housing units stood vacant, and since the market has not improved and the district was barely flooded, they are presumably still vacant. It is much the same in the other dry areas, with landlords preferring to board up apartments rather than lower rents.
In areas that sustained only minor damage and are on the mayor's repopulation list, there are at least 11,600 empty apartments and houses. If Jefferson Parish is included, that number soars to 23,270. That means homes could be found for roughly 70,000 evacuees. With the city's permanently homeless residents estimated at 200,000, that is a significant dent in New Orleans's housing crisis.
Malcolm Suber, a longtime New Orleans community activist, was shocked to learn that thousands of livable homes were sitting empty. "If there are empty houses in the city," he says, "then working class and poor people should be able to live in them." According to Suber, taking over vacant units would do more than provide much-needed immediate shelter - it would move significant numbers of poor residents back into the city, preventing key decisions about its future from being made exclusively by those who can afford land on high ground.
But he concedes that it will be a fight: the old-line families in Audubon and the Garden District may pay lip service to "mixed income" housing, "but the Bourbons uptown would have a conniption ... It will certainly be interesting."
Equally interesting will be the response from the Bush administration, especially its ideological obsession with building a radically privatised "ownership society". It's an obsession that has already come to grip the entire disaster zone, with emergency relief provided by the Red Cross and Wal-Mart, and reconstruction contracts handed to Bechtel and Halliburton - the same group that has been paid billions while failing to bring Iraq's services up to prewar levels.
This vision was laid out in undisguised form during a meeting at the Heritage Foundation's Washington headquarters this month. There, a Republican group compiled a list of 32 "pro-free-market ideas for responding to Hurricane Katrina and high gas prices", including school vouchers and repealing environmental regulations. Among the proposals were: "Make the entire affected area a flat-tax free-enterprise zone." Nothing energises the neocon true believers like a good disaster.
Research assistance was provided by Aaron Maté - a version of this column was first published in The Nation