NEW ORLEANS — I had never visited a city ravaged by war, but as I drove across the Mississippi Bridge into the heart of this devastated city with People’s Weekly World reporter Tim Wheeler last week, I felt that I was in a war zone. Debris filled the streets and a dreadful stench filled the air. Buildings were boarded up and the city’s celebrated music had gone silent.
Except for first responders, military personnel in Humvees, stray dogs and a handful of souls who had ridden out the storm, there were few signs of life.
Up close, the death and destruction are nearly incomprehensible. I had never seen anything like it. But what was apparent from the harrowing stories we heard and our own first-hand observations, was that much of the loss of life and devastation is attributable to man-made failures.
It wasn’t Katrina that issued death sentences to thousands in New Orleans and elsewhere. It wasn’t Katrina that left tens of thousands, including the very young and the very old, stranded in the rising water.
It wasn’t Katrina that herded thousands of people, overwhelmingly Black and poor, into the Superdome as if they were cattle and provided neither food, nor water, nor comfort, nor safety to the most vulnerable of the storm’s victims.
Katrina was a deadly, destructive hurricane to be sure, but it was human actions, incompetence and, above all, indifference that were the perpetrators of much of the death and dislocation.
Katrina lays bare for all to see the callousness of the George W. Bush administration and the system of capitalism that it sustains. Katrina shines a harsh spotlight on this administration’s twisted priorities, based on policies that favor corporate profits and war over human needs and the natural environment. Katrina exposes the rampant cronyism and nearly unimaginable ineptitude of this White House. And Katrina reveals the fault lines of race and class that continue to divide our nation — fault lines that the Bush administration has aggravated to the extreme.
After Katrina, how can Bush think anyone will believe that the Republican Party and the extreme right are color-blind upholders of family values and apostles of a “culture of life”?
How can Bush claim that poverty is disappearing or that institutionalized racism is a thing of the past?
How can he continue to assert that a shrunken government stripped of resources for the people’s welfare is a good thing?
How can he claim his “war on terror” is making our country safer?
How can he insist that the war in Iraq is not robbing our communities and postponing necessary infrastructure work?
How can he at the same time insist on cutting taxes for corporations and the wealthy and bankrupting the federal treasury?
How can Bush sidestep the indisputable fact that the mixture of poverty, racism and urban decay is not peculiar to New Orleans, but festers in every city of our country?
He can try, but how many will believe him?
His administration has received a heavy body blow to its moral authority, ideological armor and political standing. Once lost, these are difficult to regain.
In Katrina’s wake, the terms of the ideological debate in our country have been reframed and the terrain of political struggle has shifted to the advantage of the working class and people’s movement.
Millions of people, including many who voted for Bush less than a year ago, are connecting the dots of Iraq, soaring gas prices, stagnant incomes, infrastructure disrepair, poverty, racial oppression and attacks on democratic rights. They see those dots leading to the truly criminal group that occupies the White House.
Are we at a turning point in the fight against the Bush administration and, more broadly, against the extreme right that began its ascendancy in the Reagan years and now controls all three branches of the federal government? Nothing in politics is inevitable. But the possibility of delivering a decisive blow against the right is evident in the shifting ideological and political relationships of this moment.
If 9/11 was a tragedy that the Bush gang — and the reactionary section of capital that he represents — turned into a pretext to pursue a policy of global domination with an accent on raw power and force, then Katrina is a tragedy that could turn out to be their “day of reckoning.”
However, only the involvement of millions of people in struggle on every front will sweep away the cancer that has distorted our political life for a quarter century, eating away at everything that is just and decent about our country.
One immediate front of struggle is to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq, but now another is to support the people of our own Gulf — New Orleans in the first place — in their battle to rebuild the region in the interest of the people, Black, Brown and white.
Any reconstruction plan should be under democratic control and should accent public projects with affirmative action provisions and union wages, to build homes, schools, hospitals, roads, parks.
Sure, it will take money, but our country has plenty of it. Rescind the tax cuts for the big corporations and the wealthy, raise their taxes, and seize the scandalous profits of the oil and gas industries. And slash the military budget in half.
The administration has its own plan, to turn the Gulf region into what Bush calls an “opportunity zone.” Its aim is to hand the region over to the corporate elite to make it a vast zone of unregulated capitalism and a laboratory of right-wing schemes, such as privatization of public education. It would be “freed” from burdensome democratic rights that impede capitalist exploitation, “freed” from public services that are a buffer against the worst depredations of unrestrained capitalism.
This scheme can be defeated by the broad, united action of the people, especially as millions see through the spin and become aware of its details and implications. In this process, the working class and people’s movements are setting the stage for a much broader offensive in 2006.
Sam Webb (swebb @ cpusa.org) is national chair of the Communist Party USA.