Repeating racist fears of lawlessness in New Orleans after Ida
A police patrol shines a light on a woman walking along Bourbon Street in the French Quarter after Hurricane Ida knocked out power to the city, Aug. 30, 2021, in New Orleans, La. | Eric Gay / AP

New Orleans Police put in place a curfew after Ida left the city “vulnerable” to looting. The proclaimed vulnerability is in part due to the massive power outages that left over 800,000 people without electricity. The city itself is under a heat advisory as temperatures near 90 degrees again. Many residents are without or have minimal access to water. According to the Sewage and Water Board of New Orleans, residents are being asked to limit water usage in their homes. The focus on looting seems both shortsighted and insignificant given the massive risk of illness and death in the aftermath of the storm.

Such curfews are all-too-familiar and have a rich history in America. From sundown towns to limiting unrest in cities during protests, curfews have been historically linked to racial oppression and obsession with property values.

The focus on preventing looting also touches on racism’s history in New Orleans. It echoes similar overreactions to “lawlessness” from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Imagery circulated around the internet quickly, showing the racial and class disparities, differences between what was considered “finding” food and what was considered “looting.”

The focus on looting in 2005 led to the formation of “quasi-militia” groups—composed of white residents and cops—which patrolled the streets after the storm. These actions of these groups often went beyond the law and, in one particular case, led to the murder of an intellectually disabled individual, whose body was stomped after being shot in the back with a shotgun. Another was killed and several others wounded during the incident at Danziger Bridge. All those targeted were African Americans.

The story of New Orleans in 2005 was one that, despite the narrative pushed by conservatives and liberals alike, brought these disparities to light: Natural disasters and crises hit certain communities differently and the reactions of these communities’ responses are viewed, in the final turn, through a racial lens.

It’s important to note that the function of the police has long been, rather than to “serve and protect” people, more one of serving and protecting private property and interests. Private interests are especially high this time around, as Airbnb had cornered the housing market and surged in neighborhoods in the 9th Ward—one of the areas hit hardest by Katrina. The housing market has not been immune to the shift in focus to rent over home ownership, as more property management companies have rental developments in place. With property values on the rise, affordable housing is dwindling, and those who struggle to afford their rent or mortgage are being forced out.

New Orleans, being a major tourist destination, thrives off the hospitality and service industries which have been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing effects of a decades-old wage gap. These industries are notorious for having low pay, which creates levels of economic dependence that prevent any future of financial security for those working in them. Only recently, due to the pandemic, have talks of increasing wages begun. However, raising the “floor” will only be a short-term solution to a long history of exploited labor—especially one that furthers racial disparities.

This is a repetition of recent history with very long roots and goes well beyond farce. All claims of our society being “post-racial” since the Obama years fall apart against yet another tragedy. New Orleans, like many other tourist hotspots, will continue to find ways to benefit from the cheap, exploited labor of Black communities, the working class as a whole, and the poor—all the while leaving these communities with nothing when they need it most. The police will be there to ensure this.

As with all op-eds published by People’s World, this article reflects the opinions of its author.


Andrew Wright
Andrew Wright

Andrew Wright is an essayist and activist based in Detroit.  He has written and presented on topics such as suicide and mental health, class struggle, gender studies, politics, ideology, and philosophy.