In August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans leaving unparalleled devastation in its wake. The Black communities bore its full weight. More than 1,000,000 people, mainly poor Blacks, were forcibly dispersed across the US. The US government had neither prepared nor mobilised to evacuate thousands of people displaced from their homes. Two years on, if the US government had its way, it would bury the issue. But a coalition of grassroots Gulf Coast organisations and their supporters throughout the world have organised an international tribunal to try the US government for human rights violations and crimes against humanity.
Why a tribunal is necessary
On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans and the Gulf Coast leaving death and unparalleled devastation in its wake. The poor Black communities of New Orleans, Mississippi, and Alabama bore the full weight of the storms and floods. Local, state and federal governments had at least four days advance notice that the levees did not have the capacity to contain mass flooding expected from a category three hurricane. Yet, despite these warnings, the US government had neither prepared for evacuation, nor mobilised to evacuate thousands of people displaced from their homes and left to die on their roofs and in the rubble of the devastation.
In the face of this abandonment, the population of New Orleans took their survival into their own hands and neighbour-to-neighbour attempted to save lives and reach secure ground. In the chaos of their own incompetence and racist rumors, local, state and federal governments sent military and mercenary personnel to New Orleans. They launched a military invasion aimed at removing the Black population and containing a potential rebellion, rather than sending a relief effort. New Orleans became a battle zone between government and mercenary forces seeking to 'protect' the white neighbourhoods of the city and the surrounding suburbs from the Black mass fleeing the floods and seeking refuge from the disaster and race induced neglect. Dozens were murdered and arrested by various government forces and mercenaries as the media fuelled and justified human rights abuses by their unfounded, later to be found completely untrue, reports of mass looting and rape.
To this day, the government has produced no accurate count of the number of people killed. What is known is that some 1,000,000, mainly poor Black people, were forcibly dispersed to over 44 states across the US. They herded people onto buses and trains at gunpoint, separating mothers, children, grandmothers and cousins. They uprooted and separated families, friends, neighbours and support networks, and violently ripped apart the social fabric of peoples lives in order to transform the ethnic and racial make up of New Orleans and the region forever.
Over the past two years, the US government has fundamentally ignored the plight of the more than 1,000,000 people directly impacted and displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. When the government has been pressed to answer for its actions, it has ducked and dodged and basically washed its hands of any responsibility or liability. While the Army Corp of Engineers acknowledged its responsibility for the faulty and racially discriminatory design and maintenance of the New Orleans levee system, the government has not corrected its errors, nor provided restitution or recourse for its fatal policies. The net result of the systematic policies of intentional neglect and depraved indifference being executed in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast is ethnic cleansing of the historic and politically strategic Black communities in the region.
This ethnic cleansing is being conducted through a deliberate and strategic collusion of government and multinational corporations, particularly real estate developers. In complete violation of the human right to return and the statutes on internal displacement adopted by the US government as outlined in its USAID policies, the government has made no policy, or financial provisions, to return displaced people to their homes and communities. Delays in rehabilitating and refortifying the region's infrastructure, including the levees and the provision of utilities like water and power, and services like health care and education have, by design, prevented people from exercising their right to return.
Then there is the diversion, mismanagement, profiteering by disaster capitalists and delay of relief and restorative aid by agencies like FEMA and the Red Cross. These are compounded by a ruthless application of neoliberal free-market logic and policy and systemic racism in the insurance, mortgage, and other money lending industries that deny financial resources to Black and working class families to repair their homes, purchase new ones, or make down-payments on rentals. Add to this skyrocketing and super-exploitative rents, the hyper-promotion of gentrification, the demonisation and criminalisation of Black youth and the homelessness, and an oppressive military occupation in New Orleans. The results are the massive depopulation of the Black community in New Orleans, Biloxi, Gulf Port and other devastated cities and regions in the Gulf Coast with concentrated Black populations. In New Orleans a mere 35 per cent of its pre-Katrina Black population has returned and resettled over the course of two years.
This ethnic cleansing cannot be allowed to go unchallenged. If they get away with it in New Orleans - after the tragic consequences of deeply entrenched racism horrified both national and international audiences - the gentrification and ethnic cleansing of other communities will accelerate. Where the US government refuses to hold itself accountable or allow itself to be tried for its repressive policies and human rights violations within its own courts, its victims have a responsibility to seek justice themselves. As an expression of the will of the peoples of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast for justice, the People's Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) and the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition (MDRC) have organised the International Tribunal and called on the international community for solidarity and an impartial hearing. It is only by thoroughly exposing the human rights abuses and inhumane policies of the US government before the world, and isolating it on this basis, that the displaced and dispossessed peoples of the Gulf Coast will attain the recognition, restitution, and justice they so deserve.
What human rights abuses and crimes are the US government being demanded to account for at the tribunal?
To expose the US government and bring it to account, there are several critical questions that must and will be posed at the tribunal to reveal the true depth of the crimes committed and the utter disdain exhibited for Black life. A sampling of these questions include:
1. Why did it take five days for the US government to implement an evacuation in New Orleans? Who where the individuals and institutions responsible for this delay in humanitarian relief?
2. Why were no ready response evacuation and medical teams in place to deal with the calculated damage of Hurricane Katrina? Who was responsible for the organisation and deployment of these teams and resources? Why weren't they prepared and deployed?
3. Why was no independent investigation of the Industrial Canal and its levee system permitted?
4. Why were survivors forcibly removed and dispersed from New Orleans to over 44 states in the US? Who determined who went where and why?
5. Why were 'shoot to kill orders' given in New Orleans? What authority did Governor Blanco have to issue these orders?
6. Why were Black survivors forcibly denied safe escape entry into the city of Gretna and the suburbs surrounding New Orleans?
7. Why were white survivors often separated and removed from Black survivors during the evacuation and relief operations? Who mandated this policy and treatment? What purpose did this policy serve?
8. Why were mercenary and foreign soldiers operating in New Orleans during and after the flood? Who authorised their use? By what authority and under what jurisdiction were they employed?
9. Why were curfews and quarantines implemented at evacuation centres throughout the US? Who were the authorities and institutions responsible for these orders?
10. Why was the Davis-Bacon Act suspended? Why were no bid contracts awarded during the first phase of the reconstruction process?
Similar questions can and must be raised regarding the treatment of women, youth, the elderly, the infirm, migrants and other vulnerable groups, and as regards the rights of oppressed nationalities, indigenous peoples, the right to vote and to freely assemble, the right to food, housing, health care, and education - all of which have been systematically violated by the US government.
What is the tribunal seeking to accomplish?
Appeals to the international community of peoples and nations for justice against the racism, national oppression, and tyranny of the US government have a long and rich history within the Black Liberation Movement going back more than 200 years. Black freedom fighters in the 19th century appealed to Haiti and many European nations against enslavement and for repatriation or national independence. In the 20th century, efforts were made by the likes of Callie House, W.E.B. DuBois, William Patterson, Paul Robeson, Queen Mother Moore, Malcolm X and organisations like the Republic of New Afrika (RNA), the National Black Human Rights Coalition, and the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N'COBRA).
The International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita stands squarely within this tradition, and builds on the precedent and foundations laid by these initiatives. It also draws inspiration and lessons from the 1993 International Tribunal on Hawaiian sovereignty, the 1984 Permanent Peoples Tribunal on Nicaragua, and recent tribunals and human rights commissions on the impact of the Tsunami in various parts of Southeast Asia.
There are five fundamental objectives of the tribunal:
1. To fully expose to the world the human rights abuses committed by the US government and its agencies and operatives in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
2. To attain national and international recognition as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) for the all the survivors of hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
3. To attain comprehensive financial restitution and reparations for all Gulf Coast IDPs (including migrant workers and communities).
4. To strengthen the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Movement and build a broad national and international movement in support of its aims and demands.
5. To hold the rogue US government accountable for its human rights abuses and crimes against Gulf Coast IDPs.
But yet, the tribunal is in itself only a tactic to further the development of a mass Gulf Coast Reconstruction Movement, the ultimate aim of which should be self-determination for the oppressed Black Nation in the US South. The findings, verdict, and corrective remedies mandated by the Tribunal will be used to help frame the agenda and programme of the Second Survivors or Reconstruction Assembly and the initiative to create a Reconstruction Party.
The Second Survivors Assembly will be held December 8 and 9, 2007, in New Orleans. The Survivors Assembly is a constituent body of the peoples most affected by hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The main purpose of the Survivors Assembly is to create a collective vision, platform, programme and coalition to guide the Gulf Coast Self-Determination and Reconstruction Movement.
The Reconstruction Party is a proposal for the creation of a strategic instrument that will enable the Gulf Coast Self-Determination and Reconstruction Movement to implement the restorative measures called for by the tribunal through the institution of the state.
It is through these initiatives that PHRF and MDRC aim to build relationships of solidarity with justice loving peoples and nations throughout the world and campaign within the international arena through organisations and institutions to expose the US government and attain justice and restitution for the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
For more information on the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita visit or www.peopleshurricane.org
* The opinions expressed do not represent the views of the International Tribunal planning committee, PHRF, or MXGM. The views are solely the opinion of the author. Assistance for this article was provided by Hakima Abbas and Arlene Eisen.
* Executive Director, People's Hurricane Relief Fund, National Organiser, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement