The "Armies of Compassion" were AWOL in New Orleans after Katrina
Jose Torres Tama
in exile from New Orleans
Gainesville, September 15--I keep hearing about these "armies of compassion," and while I was sequestered by the chaos of New Orleans in Katrina's aftermath--trapped in a perverse social experiment that seemed to be engineered by homeland security sadists--these armies were absent without leave. AWOL! Where were they while my beloved bayou city descended into an even greater terror than the physical damage that Hurricane Katrina spawned with her category five fury of water and wind? Their absence exemplified the criminal incompetence of local, state and national FEMA officials--who actually heightened the social upheaval by preventing private citizens and organizations from delivering urgent aid without their "official" bureaucratic "rescue" stamp. These prevention strategies still continue even now, more than two weeks after the natural storm, because FEMA can only seem to flex its ineffectual muscles, which are trained in military practices, and have transformed a natural disaster into a state of war. Let's not forget that this is a "northern" confederacy of dunces who only know "war" and breed a "culture of war!" It should come as no surprise that FEMA has employed a strategy of uniformed military siege on the city of New Orleans, and the social chaos that was unleashed in their inaction gave them the best excuse to take the "perfect storm" and turn it into a war at home. And be informed that the practices being implemented on evacuees are turning them into "prisoners" of FEMA, and their "armies of compassion" when visible seem to lack the sensitivity training to exact a more humane effort in support of those who are left with nothing. These are your tax dollars at work.
While we have been privy to TV staged efforts of FEMA's aid and the photo opportunities of Bush hugging evacuated African American children, many current accounts demonstrate that the "armies of compassion" seem astute in the act of disappearance after the cameras are gone or are rarely to be found on the fields of the disaster. Such was the case on the third day after Katrina had passed and the social storm in New Orleans was increasing in strength. It became more evident to me that the "armies of compassion," still "missing in action," were part of a political strategy to punish this Southern port city because it recently voted itself the color "blue" in a "red" state?
It was not a stretch of the imagination to envision this Christian maniacal executive chief whipping New Orleans into submission like so many African slaves were whipped by similar bible-toting masters only a century and half ago? Let's not forget that previous "armies of compassion" have been used to protect slave-holding patrons and hold hostage their booty of dark-skinned property in a disturbing history that is not too far removed from this post-modern disaster.
In a city of ghosts like New Orleans, the past is always present, and I do not suffer from the cultural amnesia that often prevails in this channel-surfing consumer society. I know too well that this nation has an extensive resume of denying its citizenry of color due justice and protection under a set of laws--which have been historically applied with a biased gavel. From one century to another, I have seen little difference and only forty years ago similar "armies of compassion" were denying African Americans the right to assemble in the South and trying to suffocate the civil rights movement as much as they were denying proper voting rights and humane working conditions to Mexican American farm workers in California and engaged in acts of predicated murder to stop the American Indian movement. Welcome to a brief history of abuse of power in America.
I see a similar indifference in Katrina's wake and the inaction by FEMA and the current heads of state is just as sinister and calculated as other previous atrocities committed against people of color. Where do I begin and how do I continue? Well, here are a few more examples just for the sake of practical argument: the "trail of tears" against native Americans, the Zoot Zoot riots against Mexicans in Los Angeles, the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, the planned acts of arson against the Latino community in the Hoboken, New Jersey fires of the 1980's that displaced thousands for real-estate development condos overlooking the New York skyline? Oh, give me a decade in this history, and I can point to an atrocity for your palette. If we are to have any justice for the future of this multiracial experiment called the United States, then heads should be rolling in the same bloodbath that these neo-cons have created in the remaining floodwaters of New Orleans.
And let's hear it for the Bush matriarch who aptly deserves the "Marie Antoinette Award" for calling the displaced evacuees at the Houston shelter as being better of because "you know, (they) were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them." What clearer evidence that this Bush family is completely without the faintest of clues when face to face with the poor--the other face of America that they have been shielded from in their veil of supreme wealth that is stained with more and more blood on the surface of the oil that feeds them. I imagine that this is her "compassionate conservatism" on display in polemic black and white?
And what about the "chosen" TV images that sculpted such a believable profile of a culture in electric short hand--images that criminalized African Americans even further than the norm? Even without Katrina, we are generally aware of the accepted norms that one is always suspect in this country just by being black and/or Latino, native and Middle Eastern. Repeatedly, we were treated to images that created even greater fear of African Americans in a city with a rich legacy of civil rights defenders and a black intelligentsia, premiere Jazz musicians and composers, writers and artists, cultural workers and educators. But the media trance fixed its hypnotic loops over and over on images in which black people were either wanton looters or poor victims. Yes, there was certainly some truths in images of both and plenty of the city's poorest were sequestered and abandoned in public shelters that never offered the public assistance promised by local and state officials. But where were Bushs' "armies of compassion" then?
What we certainly did not see on TV were the valiant efforts of African Americans like the middle-aged woman I met at the edge of Esplanade Avenue, in the residential end of the Quarter, trying desperately to secure safe passage out of the chaos for her eighty-year old mother. In my short exchange with her, she mentioned how she was being immediately sized-up as a "potential looter" herself, and it was difficult to get assistance and even check into a hotel for some safety. No, you did not see this face of a concerned daughter trying to do the right thing, and the invisible "armies of compassion" were not there to usher her and her mother to safety.
Never was any of this looting footage prefaced by a proclamation that what makes New Orleans attractive to the country and to world over is owed mostly to its people of color--its African heritage that has built this city with the spilling of its enslaved blood and that even under such abhorrent conditions, these historically oppressed people transformed their pain into art and music and a culture that is revered internationally. Of course not, how can we expect such historical tribute and debt to be paid to people of color on prime time TV and cable stations that are generally the most effective tools for the propagation of white supremacy? Yes, I said it!
I can only imagine how it scares you when the legacy of "white supremacy" is brought to the forefront in the analysis of such an atrocity. Well, let's not forget that it is the most evident of the difficult civil secrets that lies just "under the skin" in this divided society, and there were no "armies of compassion" that countered this belief in the aid of the poor and abandoned.
This city that knows its respect for the ancients, this grand Madame of the South deserved an organized effort of heart and efficiency of humanity and true compassion. I remain deeply disturbed, perplexed and outraged as to how this great empire of capital and industry could not manage to organize its technology to mount a proper rescue for the most "precious pueblo" in its possession. By what method of madness and political design did the "armies of compassion" arrive a working week late when the city was already festering like an untreated wound in the August heat and people were dying in the plain view of national TV coverage and angered news reporters? Only, now, can I say that--finally--in the face of such tragedy it looks like the press in this country has regained its backbone--its cojones--its courage to put a camera on the brutal truths of a continuing legacy of abandonment!
What do I offer as a modest proposal of retribution or solution to these crimes? I call for more than FEMA's Brown and his "calculated" resignation and put the "blood of these people" on boy George's hands and the arrogance of his family privilege. This is not a time for us to be cowards and hold our flaccid tongues in silence for fear of sounding unpatriotic, because if we have any freedoms left in this Union and we are to deserve them as a free nation, then, we need to exercise these "inalienable rights" today and hold accountable a government that has played us with its recklessness and cruel indifference to working people and the poor.
This is a rogue administration whose pomposity is killing more of its citizenry, and if we remain with our tongues in our hands, then we deserve the fascist posturing it continues to flaunt while disguising itself as a "compassionate conservative" regime that calls for a "day of prayer" in the wake of its murderous bureaucracy. I will exhibit the same lack of FEMA compassion that dragged across the flooded streets of New Orleans and managed to turn my city into Baghdad in four days while it has taken three years to take that sovereign nation and turn into another "red mess" before the eyes of the world. If only the armies of compassion could have been that efficient.
Jose Torres Tama is a performer and poet based in New Orleans. You can learn about his work at www.torrestama.com
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