New Orleans: laboratory of counter-insurgency

As looting and gunfire erupt in New Orleans, the authorities are shifting their attention from a humanitarian mission to what is starting to look like counter-insurgency. “They have M-16s and they’re locked and loaded,” Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco said of 300 National Guard troops who landed in New Orleans fresh from duty in Iraq. “These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will.”

The seemingly random violence being reported is a product of the apartheid-like conditions which have historically prevailed in New Orleans, with an African-American majority effectively segregated from the tourism districts, except as employees. This reality is betrayed in quotes from stranded tourists. “I’m not sure I’m going to get out of here alive,” one Canadian tourist told AP. “I’m scared of riots. I’m scared of the locals. We might get caught in the crossfire.” (AP, Sept. 2) A third of New Olreans residents lived in poverty before the hurricane, and in some of the worst housing conditions in the country. (Earl Ofari Hutchinson in, Sept. 1)

Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) director Michael Brown admitted his agency is attempting to work “under conditions of urban warfare.” Police snipers are stationed on the roofs of their precincts, ready to defend against “armed miscreants,” CNN reports. (CNN, Sept. 1)

The thousands of refugees at the Superdome are slowly being evacuated, but the Houston Astrodome is said to be already at maximum capacity. In any case, the refugees will likely be going merely from one de facto prison camp to another. From an LA Times account:

The Superdome is patrolled by more than 500 Louisiana National Guard troops, many of whom carry machine guns as sweaty, smelly people press against metal barricades that keep them from leaving, shouting as the soldiers pass by: “Hey! We need more water! We need help!”


One man tried to escape Wednesday by leaping a barricade and racing toward the streets. The man was desperate, National Guard Sgt. Caleb Wells said. Everything he was able to bring to the Superdome had been stolen. His house had probably been destroyed, his relatives killed.

“We had to chase him down,” Wells said. “He said he just wanted to get out, to go somewhere. We took him to the terrace and said: ‘Look.’ ”

Below, floodwaters were continuing to rise, submerging cars.

At least three deaths are reported at the Superdome, including one suicide; and two rapes, including one of a 10-year-old girl. There is no water or electricity, and feces and urine are accumulating in the fetid heat. (LAT, Sept. 1)

Receiving far less attention is the even worse situation at the New Orleans convention center, where several hundred have taken shelter. NPR’s John Burnett describes a “desperate” scene there. “There are, I estimate, 2,000 people living like animals inside the city convention center and around it,” Burnett reports. “They’ve been there since the hurricane. There’s no food. There’s absolutely no water, there’s no medical treatment. There’s no police and no security. And there are two dead bodies lying on the ground and in a wheelchair beside the convention center—both elderly people, both covered with blankets now.” (NPR, Sept. 1, online at TruthOut’s Mayday Mississippi Delta) NPR reported seven dead at the convention center later in the day. While the air above is thick with helicopters, no aid or evacuation assistance has arrived at the convention center.

All civilian search and rescue operations have been suspended following reports of attacks on rescue workers, including shots being fired at helicopters. (CNN, Sept. 1) There are reports of gun shops being looted, as well as luxury goods being plundered. But NPR’s Burnett reported Sept. 1 that the only food and water which arrived at the convention center was brought by “looters.” The overwhelming majority of the “looting” appears to be desperate residents doing what they have to to survive. The “looted” aid to the convention center indicates that at least some of the “looting” represents social solidarity rather than the social breakdown which is being portrayed.

Media-critic bloggers, such as one at, have noted an inherent double standard in reports of “looting,” comparing the captions of two wire service photos on Yahoo News. One shows a black resident wading through chest-deep water “after looting” a grocery store. The second shows two white residents again wading through chest-deep water “after finding” bread and soda in a local grocery store.

“I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting, or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving, or insurance fraud,” President Bush said in an interview on ABC’s “Good Morning America” Sept. 1. (Reuters) Presumably the “shoot-to-kill” policy will not be used against gasoline price-gougers.

In any case, the media images of (overwhelmingly white) police and National Guardsmen barreling through the streets in armored vehicles leveling rifles and shotguns at (overwhelmingly black) “looters” inevitably evoke scenes from South Africa in the 1980s, and have warmed the heart of one-time Louisiana state legislator and gubernatorial candidate David Duke.

FEMA has now been subsumed into the Department of Homeland Security, which is being portrayed as a downgrading of the agency’s importance. (Washington Post, Aug. 31) Rather, the ascension of FEMA’s essential mission to a huge cabinet-level department should be seen in precisely opposite light. We have noted before that since 9-11, FEMA has been drawing up plans for mass evacuation of the cities in the event of terrorist attack. We have also recalled FEMA’s role in preparing plans for martial law to deal with Central American refugees and potential domestic unrest in the Reagan era—plans which prominently called for massive detainment of refugees at prison camps on military bases. The state of emergency in New Orleans ominously comes on the heels of a similar declaration in Arizona and New Mexico over the inflow of undocumented migrants from Mexico.

Depite the official denials that martial law is in effect (Navy Times, Aug. 1), it is reasonable to assume that federal authorities now view New Orleans as a laboratory of domestic repression.

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.

  1. Life’s ironies
    “Stuff happens… Freedom’s untidy, and free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things.”

    Donald Rumsfeld on the Baghdad looting, CNN, April 12, 2003

    “I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this, whether it be looting, or price-gouging at the gasoline pump or taking advantage of charitable giving, or insurance fraud.”

    George Bush, Sept. 1, 2005