“Think the time is right for a palace revolution”: Liberal Street Fighting Man
It comes down to this fundamental question: is the state’s primary reason for existence to serve it’s citizens, ALL of it’s citizens, or is it there to secure property?
Rebecca Solnit has an interesting piece exerpted from the magazine up: Harpers Magazine – The Uses of Disaster.
We should not be surprised, then, that what transpires in the immediate aftermath of a disaster is nothing like the popular version. People rarely panic or stampede, nor do they often immediately engage in looting or other acts of opportunism.
The Scottish-born mathematician Eric Temple Bell, who witnessed the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, saw “no running around the streets, or shrieking, or anything of that sort” but instead people who “walked calmly from place to place, and watched the fire with almost indifference, and then with jokes, that were not forced either, but wholly spontaneous.” Another survivor, San Francisco editor Charles B. Sedgwick, noted-perhaps somewhat hyperbolically-that “even the selfish, the sordid and the greedy became transformed that day-and, indeed, throughout that trying period-and true humanity reigned.” This phenomenon of “surprising” human kindness and good sense is replicated time and again.
Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky tell a story (their first-hand report can be found here) of survival and of frightening indifference on the part of law enforcement officers. Their experience conforms to a great extent to the narative presented by Solnit in Harpers: of people organizing themselves to survive and help one another, and actions by authority and law enforcement to direct their energies toward protecting property.
We also suspect the media will have been inundated with “hero” images of the National Guard, the troops and police struggling to help the “victims” of the hurricane. What you will not see, but what we witnessed, were the real heroes and sheroes of the hurricane relief effort: the working class of New Orleans.
The maintenance workers who used a forklift to carry the sick and disabled. The engineers who rigged, nurtured and kept the generators running. The electricians who improvised thick extension cords stretching over blocks to share the little electricity we had in order to free cars stuck on rooftop parking lots. Nurses who took over for mechanical ventilators and spent many hours on end manually forcing air into the lungs of unconscious patients to keep them alive. Doormen who rescued folks stuck in elevators. Refinery workers who broke into boat yards, “stealing” boats to rescue their neighbors clinging to their roofs in flood waters. Mechanics who helped hotwire any car that could be found to ferry people out of the city. And the food service workers who scoured the commercial kitchens, improvising communal meals for hundreds of those stranded. […]
WE WALKED to the police command center at Harrah’s on Canal Street and were told the same thing–that we were on our own, and no, they didn’t have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred.
We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and constitute a highly visible embarrassment to city officials. The police told us that we couldn’t stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp.
In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge to the south side of the Mississippi, where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.
Authorities in this country start from that Hobbsian perspective that we’ve discussed here before, that we are in a war of all-against-all, ESPECIALLY when disaster strikes. Solnit continues:
Many official disaster-preparedness scenarios nonetheless presume that human beings are prone to panic and in need of policing. A sort of Hobbesian true human nature emerges, according to this version, and people trample one another to flee, or loot and pillage, or they haplessly await rescue. In the movie version, this is the necessary precondition for John Wayne, Harrison Ford, or one of their shovel-jawed brethren to save the day and focus the narrative. In the government version, this is why we need the government. In 1906, for example, no one quite declared martial law, but soldiers, policemen, and some armed college students patrolled the streets of San Francisco looking for looters, with orders to shoot on sight. Even taking food from buildings about to burn down was treated as a crime: property and order were prized above survival or even reason. But “the authorities” are too few and too centralized to respond to the dispersed and numerous emergencies of a disaster. Instead, the people classified as victims generally do what can be done to save themselves and one another. In doing so, they discover not only the potential power of civil society but also the fragility of existing structures of authority.
She offers the thought that it is in these times of crisis that people often confront and reaffirm themselves to the idea of a civil society; that we are all dependent on each other for survival. The dynamic often settles in to a small number of the connected and successful maintaining that interconnectedness based on exploitation, playing on people’s fears and hatreds to line their own pockets, to provide for their own security. After disasters, we hear calls for law and order, and the full weight of the police, military and even private “security” firms like Blackwater are hustled in to protect property.
Marc Cooper in LA Weekly notes the same dynamic:
The ills and deformities of American society that floated to the surface after last week’s events, however, are not the sole responsibility of the Bush White House. Carterite and Clintonista Democrats have been just as zealous as Reagan and Bush Republicans to starve the state and shred social safety nets. Both parties have equally gorged on legislative pork at the expense of common national priorities. The poorest of Katrina’s victims, living in a uniquely American version of apartheid and now washed toward the edge of oblivion, were already in that situation long before Dubya came to Washington.
The chasm of the Two Americas may indeed have been more brightly illuminated by the Bourbon-like sensibilities of the first family, but it was created and maintained by both major parties.
Once again we can see the way to a better future for this country, if only we can drag the Democrats back to serving people before property. If not them, then a populist movement through a third party may be our only hope. The current system, even before this disaster, cannot continue indefinitely.
The question is as simple as this: what is more important in this picture. Jabbar Gibson and the people he delivered out of the disaster zone, or the bus?
For too long, the answer to that question has been the bus. As Solnit concludes:
This is the disaster our society has been working to realize for a quarter century, ever since Ronald Reagan rode into town on promises of massive tax cuts. Many of the stories we hear about sudden natural disasters are about the brutally selfish human nature of the survivors, predicated on the notion that survival is, like the marketplace, a matter of competition, not cooperation. Cooperation flourishes anyway. (Slonsky and Bradshaw were part of a large group that had set up a civilized, independent camp.) And when we look back at Katrina, we may see that the greatest savagery was that of our public officials, who not only failed to provide the infrastructure, social services, and opportunities that would have significantly decreased the vulnerability of pre-hurricane New Orleans but who also, when disaster did occur, put their ideology before their people.
photo from The Houston Chronicle