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2 years after Katrina: No Justice – tribunal holds government responsible

By Chapin Gray

New Orleans, LA – Days after President Bush visited New Orleans and proclaimed that the city was “making noticeable progress,” people from as far as France and Brazil gathered in New Orleans Labor Day weekend to for an international tribunal to mark the two-year anniversary of hurricane Katrina.

The tribunal was convened to determine whether the U.S. government’s response – or lack of response – constituted a crime against humanity , to expose the gross violations of human rights experienced by Katrina survivors and to strengthen the movement to demand reparations and justice for these abuses.

“The aim of the tribunal is to show the whole world who is responsible for this situation in New Orleans,” said Edenice Santana de Jesus, chair of Black Women in Struggle and executive director of the CUT Trade Union Federation in Brazil. “It is necessary to show that we have a common enemy and that it is necessary to organize in unity, because the struggle in defense of the Black victims of Katrina is the struggle of all the Black people of the world.”

Over the course of five days, tribunal judges from seven different countries heard testimony from Katrina survivors. Witness after witness rose to testify to post-Katrina conditions and brought charges against the U.S. government ranging from the violations of labor rights to education rights. High school students from the Fire Youth Squad, a grassroots organization of young activists, spoke to the dismal conditions of their schools. “There’s no toilet paper in the bathrooms, no lockers, no buses,” one young woman said. “How are we supposed to concentrate on school when our minds are on the cold meals we had for lunch, or when it’s too hot because there is no air conditioning?”

Health care, already sub par for the uninsured, the majority of whom are African American, deteriorated even more after the hurricane. Charity Hospital, one of the largest facilitaties that treated the uninsured of New Orleans, was shut down; the medical centers that are available are understaffed and overcrowded. Despite the desperate need for medical assistance and aid, the U.S. government refused offers from both Venezuela and Cuba, which, a day after the hurricane struck, were prepared to send up to 1600 doctors, including psychologists to treat post-traumatic stress disorder. Medical supplies the Italian government sent spoiled on docks.

“Health care delayed is health care denied,” said New Orleans resident Kim Stevens, expressing her indignation at being passed over in lieu of white patients and having to wait for over twelve hours to be treated.

Gentrification of the city is well under way, as more than half of the African-American residents have been dispersed and are denied the right to return.

Perhaps the most emotional and chilling testimony was that of the role of the military in the aftermath of Katrina. After the government-issued a ‘shoot to kill’ curfew, white vigilantes roamed the streets armed, given a free-hand to kill supposed ‘looters,’ according to Malik Rakim, executive director of Common Ground Collective and former member of the Black Panther Party.

The tribunal’s prosecution showed film clips of white residents of Algiers parish bragging that it was “like shooting pheasants in North Dakota.” These white vigilantes, as well as police, soldiers and private security contractors – which one judge compared to paramilitary death squads operating in Latin America – terrorized, harassed, threatened, beat and murdered African-Americans in New Orleans.

Over the course of several weeks, hundreds of bodies – all African-American – wound up in the streets and in the coroners office with gunshot wounds or other ‘unexplained’ injuries. “It was a military occupation, not a rescue,” said Rakim. “The Coast Guard was already here doing rescue operations. You can’t rescue a person with an M-16, heavily armed humvee, and attack helicopters. What they do in Fallujah in Iraq- that’s what they’d do here. They came to crush a rebellion, to impose ‘law and order,’ not offer relief.”

It has been two years since hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, and the tribunal’s participants say there has been little progress, and won’t be until the African-Americans of New Orleans are in full control of the recovery process. According to Kali Akuno, executive director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, who organized the event, “The International Tribunal is a critical step in the ongoing struggle for the right of return and a self-determining reconstruction process.”

The tribunal was an impressive show of international support and solidarity and participants from all over the world pledged to continue their support for Katrina survivors. “We in Africa are at your side in this struggle for justice, reparations, reconstruction and the right to return,” said Tiyani Lybon Mabasa, President of the Socialist Party of Azania (South Africa) and founding member of Black Consciousness Movement, addressing the participants. “Just as we need your help so that we can start to turn things around, so that we can forge our own solutions – something that is not possible as long as Black people are denied political sovereignty and self-determination wherever we may live.”

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