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Int’l tribunal on Katrina & Rita: We charge genocide

Published Sep 5, 2007 11:06 PM

Aug. 29 marked the second anniversary of when Hurricane Katrina began its reign of devastation along the Gulf Coast, especially Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Before many Gulf Coast residents could recover from Katrina, Hurricane Rita quickly followed, deepening the mass destruction and the suffering.

Audience at Aug. 29 opening session of International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita. Wearing black cap is Million Worker March Movement leader Clarence Thomas.
WW photos: Monica Moorehead

Fast forward to Aug. 29, 2007—while George W. Bush and Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were in New Orleans taking their photo-ops, two significant events were taking place in other parts of this city. One was a march in the morning of about 1,000 people from the Industrial Canal—site of the broken levee in the lower 9th Ward—to Congo Square. The other was the opening session of the International Tribunal on Katrina and Rita, which was virtually boycotted by the national mainstream media.

The tribunal, initiated by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF), was supported by many national and international organizations, and was attended by hundreds of survivors of both hurricanes along with political and community activists from around the country and the world.

The main purpose of this people’s tribunal was to expose to the world a multitude of crimes against humanity amounting to genocide carried out by the U.S. government on a local, statewide and federal level against the survivors, then and now. The tribunal ended on Sept. 2.

It has already been documented that it wasn’t the rains and wind caused by Hurricane Katrina that destroyed 80 percent of New Orleans; it was the flooding from the broken levees, especially in the largely African-American and poor lower 9th Ward, that resulted in the highest numbers of deaths, unimaginable repression and massive forced displacement.

Two years later, while billions of dollars have rapidly been directed to restoring the economy of New Orleans—notably the industries related to tourism—the lower 9th Ward still resembles a weed-infested ghost town, as thousands of residents struggle to rebuild and to return home.

Malik Rahim gives evidence on military occupation Sept. 1.

The goals of the tribunal were to fully expose the human rights abuses committed by the U.S. government and its agencies and operatives in the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; to attain national and international recognition as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) for the all the survivors of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita; to attain comprehensive reparations for all Gulf Coast IDPs (including migrant workers and communities); to strengthen the Gulf Coast Reconstruction Movement and build a broad national and international movement in support of its aims and demands; and to hold the rogue U.S. government accountable for its human rights abuses and crimes against Gulf Coast IDPs.

On July 16, Bush, along with Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, were sent letters by the tribunal’s prosecution team requesting their presence at the tribunal to face various charges. Not only did they not show up for the tribunal; they never responded to the letters.

The tribunal judges came from Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, France, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the U.S. The conveners traveled from Algeria, Brazil, South Africa and different U.S. cities.

Opening the “casket” on human rights violations

Left to right, Attorney Tracie Washington, Rosie M. Bias and tribunal witness, Lillie Mae Stokes. Bias is Stokes' mother.

Nkechi Taifa, a tribunal prosecutor from the Legacy Empowerment Center, officially opened up the first day of the tribunal proceedings Aug. 30. She spoke eloquently about how “the spirit of Emmett Till” was being felt at the tribunal. It was almost 50 years ago to the day that Hurricane Katrina hit that Till, a 14-year-old African-American youth from Chicago, was tortured and shot to death in Money, Miss., by racists for allegedly whistling at a white woman.

Emmett’s mother, the late Mamie Till Mobley, demanded in 1955 that the casket of her murdered son be opened for the world to see his horribly disfigured body. Taifa stated that the tribunal is about “opening the casket”—the casket in this case being the racist, anti-poor treatment that Katrina and Rita survivors still face today.

The ten charges that the prosecuting team would present at the tribunal with evidence and testimony were gross violation of the human rights: (1) to be free from racial discrimination, including discrimination based upon perceived immigration status; (2) to return, including the resettlement and reintegration of internally displaced persons; (3) to life, human dignity, and recognition as a person; (4) to be free from torture and other cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment; (5) to freedom of association and assembly and freedom of movement; (6) to work, to adequate health care and adequate housing; (7) to an adequate standard of living, freedom from poverty and right to education; (8) to vote, including electoral rights and right to participate in governance; (9) to a fair trial, to liberty, security of the person and equal protection under the law; and (10) to privacy, family life, and missing relatives.

Roderick Dean testified on prisoners’ rights abuses. His voice filled with emotion, Dean, who was falsely arrested in New Orleans before Katrina, talked about the subhuman treatment that he and other prisoners suffered when Katrina hit. Prisoners were not allowed to leave their cells and had to wade through feces-contaminated water; he and other prisoners were denied their medications; and prisoners had to endure languishing on a bridge in 105-degree heat for days without food, water or toilet facilities. Dean was released from jail in early December 2005 with no charges.

Charlene Smith, a child nutritionist, was arrested and jailed for writing a bad check in Wal-Mart because her mother and children needed items to survive after Katrina. Some of her experiences in jail included being housed with 19 other women in one cell, hearing a prisoner scream while being beaten by a guard and being denied sanitary napkins and her medications.

Under the police brutality session, Romell Madison, a Black dentist, spoke on how his brother Ronald was shot five times in the back by white cops with assault rifles on the Danziger Bridge. Last December, white cops were indicted for shooting and killing several members of the Bartholomew family, including children, trying to flee the flood waters across the same bridge.

Impact of Katrina on women

Mayaba Levanthal, from the group Incite! Women of Color against Violence, gave testimony on how poor women, especially single mothers, are more unlikely to be able to evacuate during a hurricane because they don’t have the means to do so. She also spoke on the failure to reopen public schools; the lack of shelters in the midst of a rise of domestic violence and sexual assault; and how stress disproportionately impacts Black and poor women, especially in New Orleans. An estimated 187,000 workers lost their jobs in New Orleans post-Katrina, and 50 percent of those jobs belonged to women.

Stephanie Mingo, from the St. Bernard section in New Orleans, gave testimony on her struggle to survive after Katrina as a single mother of four and a grandmother. Her 89-year-old mother died on a bridge waiting to be rescued. A food service technician, Mingo stated that she still couldn’t get home because “she is not one of the rich folks.” She stated that 90 percent of those living in public housing before Katrina were women, young and elderly. Mingo went on to say: “Thirty percent of your income goes towards living in public housing. My rent is higher than my income. I am discriminated against because I am a woman.” In tears, she kept repeating over and over again, “I want to go home.”

Military occupation vs. humanitarian aid

On Sept. 1, Malik Rahim, executive director of Common Ground Collective in New Orleans, gave close to two hours of riveting testimony on the racist military occupation of New Orleans post-Katrina. This occupation included the National Guard, state and local police, Blackwater mercenaries and local armed white vigilantes, all working in concert with each other. Many of the National Guard had just returned from Iraq.

CGC is a grassroots, multinational organization that provides free health care, clothing, tools and much more to Katrina survivors. Rahim spoke on seeing dead bodies, of Black men shot to death, in the streets. He recounted seeing military personnel driving by survivors, rather than rescuing them.

Portions of a documentary called “Welcome to New Orleans,” directed by a Danish filmmaker, were shown at the tribunal. White vigilantes, with their guns drawn, “jokingly” spoke on how they were “protecting their neighborhoods and their city from Black men.” Rahim reminded the tribunal that this reign of racist terror in New Orleans was sanctioned by Gov. Blanco, who publicly gave orders to the National Guard to “shoot to kill” to restore “order”—a codeword for protecting private property against “looters.”

On Aug. 31, Dale Warren testified on the horror that she witnessed when the police forced her to stay in New Orleans. She ended up in the Convention Center with thousands of others. Lights and air conditioning were shut off. Dead bodies were found in the freezer instead of food. Toilets were overflowing. On the fourth day, she witnessed a man shot in the head by a national guardsman after he jumped on top of the jeep in motion. The man had told her that he wanted to commit suicide. The guardsman kept driving after the shooting.

Sobukwe Shukura, an Atlanta representative of the National Network on Cuba, gave testimony on how the U.S. government denied Cuba’s gesture to provide humanitarian aid to Katrina survivors. This aid included close to 1,600 disaster-trained physicians along with medicines and equipment. The U.S. also denied relief aid from the Venezuelan government. The snubbing of this aid is further proof of how the U.S. government put politics before saving the lives of poor people, especially if they are African Americans.

Other tribunal sessions focused on gentrification and housing rights, children’s rights, forced dispersal, environmental racism, health care, cultural rights, Indigenous rights, voting rights, labor and migrant rights, misappropriation of relief, education rights and more.

Chokwe Lumumba, a lawyer from Mississippi and a Republic of New Afrika member, gave a powerful talk summarizing the findings and putting the testimonies in a historical framework of resisting racist repression. He asked the judges to consider all the testimonies presented over the three days as nothing more than genocide. The final verdict by the judges will be made public in the coming weeks.

For updated information about the tribunal, go to www.katrinatribunal.org.

Next: A visit to Algiers and the lower 9th Ward with Common Ground Collective; “neo-slaves”—immigrants in New Orleans; Indigenous rights.

Email: [email protected]