Urban “combat” in New Orleans —and ethnic cleansing?

A front-page story in Army Times Sept. 2, “Troops begin combat operations in New Orleans,” states:

Combat operations are underway on the streets “to take this city back” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“This place is going to look like Little Somalia,” Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard’s Joint Task Force told Army Times Friday as hundreds of armed troops under his charge prepared to launch a massive citywide security mission from a staging area outside the Louisiana Superdome. “We’re going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control.”

Jones said the military first needs to establish security throughout the city. Military and police officials have said there are several large areas of the city are in a full state of anarchy.

Dozens of military trucks and up-armored Humvees left the staging area just after 11 a.m. Friday, while hundreds more troops arrived at the same staging area in the city via Black Hawk and Chinook helicopters.

“We’re here to do whatever they need us to do,” Sgt. 1st Class Ron Dixon, of the Oklahoma National Guard’s 1345th Transportation Company. “We packed to stay as long as it takes.”

While some fight the insurgency in the city, other carry on with rescue and evacuation operations. Helicopters are still pulling hundreds of stranded people from rooftops of flooded homes.

Army, Air Force, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and police helicopters filled the city sky Friday morning. Most had armed soldiers manning the doors. According to Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeremy Grishamn, a spokesman for the amphibious assault ship Bataan, the vessel kept its helicopters at sea Thursday night after several military helicopters reported being shot at from the ground.

The report aired claims that soliders have already been in armed combat with New Orleans residents:

Numerous soldiers also told Army Times that they have been shot at by armed civilians in New Orleans. Spokesmen for the Joint Task Force Headquarters at the Superdome were unaware of any servicemen being wounded in the streets, although one soldier is recovering from a gunshot wound sustained during a struggle with a civilian in the dome Wednesday night.

More active-duty military troops are on the way in to the stricken city:

President George Bush ordered an extra 17,000 troops – including 7,000 elite airborne troops and marines – into New Orleans and the devastated Gulf Coast yesterday to try to bolster the stumbling flood relief effort and salvage the reputation of his presidency… Within two days the number of military personnel in the area is hoped to reach some 54,000 people.

As a full-scale rescue operation finally got under way and thousands of victims of the storm were ferried from the city by bus, plane and truck, the US military announced it would be deploying a further 10,000 National Guards. (UK Guardian, Sept. 4)

Police have also shot civilians:

Police shot eight people carrying guns on a New Orleans bridge, killing five or six, a deputy chief said. A spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers said the victims were contractors on their way to repair a canal. The contractors were walking across a bridge on their way to launch barges into Lake Pontchartrain to fix the 17th Street Canal, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Corps.

Earlier Sunday, New Orleans Deputy Police Chief WJ Riley said police shot at eight people, killing five or six.

The shootings took place on the Danziger Bridge, which spans a canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River. No other details were immediately available. (Reuters, Sept. 5)

But a showdown between local and federal authorities is reported:

“Why did it happen? Who needs to be fired?” asked Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, south of New Orleans.

Far from deferring to state or local officials, FEMA asserted its authority and made things worse, Mr. Broussard complained on “Meet the Press.”

When Wal-Mart sent three trailer trucks loaded with water, FEMA officials turned them away, he said. Agency workers prevented the Coast Guard from delivering 1,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and on Saturday they cut the parish’s emergency communications line, leading the sheriff to restore it and post armed guards to protect it from FEMA, Mr. Broussard said.

One sign of the continuing battle over who was in charge was Governor Blanco’s refusal to sign an agreement proposed by the White House to share control of National Guard forces with the federal authorities.

Under the White House plan, Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré would oversee both the National Guard and the active duty federal troops, reporting jointly to the president and Ms. Blanco.

“She would lose control when she had been in control from the very beginning,” said Ms. Bottcher, the governor’s press secretary.

Ms. Bottcher was one of several officials yesterday who said she believed FEMA had interfered with the delivery of aid, including offers from the mayor of Chicago, Richard M. Daley, and the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson. (NYT, Sept. 5)

Some sources have expressed skepticism about the widespread—but overwhelmingly unsubstantiated—reports of rape, murder and random violence:

In a week filled with dreadful scenes of desperation and anger from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina some stories stood out.

But as time goes on many remain unsubstantiated and may yet prove to be apocryphal.

New Orleans police have been unable to confirm the tale of the raped child, or indeed any of the reports of rapes, in the Superdome and convention centre.

New Orleans police chief Eddie Compass said last night: “We don’t have any substantiated rapes. We will investigate if the individuals come forward.”

And while many claim they happened, no witnesses, survivors or survivors’ relatives have come forward. (“Murder and rape—fact or fiction?” UK Guardian, Sept. 6)

And there are also reports of communities pulling together:

In the absence of information and outside assistance, groups of rich and poor banded together in the French Quarter, forming “tribes” and dividing up the labor.

As some went down to the river to do the wash, others remained behind to protect property. In a bar, a bartender put near-perfect stitches into the torn ear of a robbery victim. (AP, Sept. 4)

Malik Rahim, a veteran of the Black Panthers and housing organizer in New Orleans, warned in a Sept. 1 interview in the San Francisco Bay View that vigilante activity is also emerging:

There are gangs of white vigilantes near here riding around in pickup trucks, all of them armed, and any young Black they see who they figure doesn’t belong in their community, they shoot him. I tell them, “Stop! You’re going to start a riot.”

This sort of thing is being openly encouraged on the website of Louisiana ex-Klansman and ultra-right politician David Duke, who also makes the Mogadishu analogy:

When the gasoline tanks in the police patrol cars went dry, the batteries went dead in their radios, when the lights and alarms went out in the streets… New Orleans turned into Somalia.

It is becoming increasingly evident that the refugees who took shelter—at city behest—in the Superdome were captives, with the arena turned into a virtual armed camp. Writes one reporter who stuck it out in the arena:

More people kept arriving. By Thursday morning the crowd had grown to 20,000 – most crammed onto the bridge connecting the Superdome to a shopping mall.

Buses scheduled to arrive at 6 a.m. didn’t come. Fear and anger fueled an ugly mood.

Inside the mall, Louisiana state police wearing Kevlar vests and carrying rifles and shotguns lined up at the doors. “You better get back out of here,” one told me. “This is about to get bad.”

The crowd surged to the doors, then stopped. Guardsmen were able to move them back. (AP, Sept. 4)

There are also appalling reports of racial and class discrimination in the treatment of evacuees:

At midday, the evacuation was interrupted briefly when school buses rolled up so some 700 guests and employees from the Hyatt Hotel could move to the head of the evacuation line – much to the amazement of those who had been crammed in the stinking Superdome since Sunday.

“How does this work? They (are) clean, they are dry, they get out ahead of us?” exclaimed Howard Blue, 22, who tried to get in their line. The National Guard blocked him as other guardsmen helped the well-dressed guests with their luggage. (AP, Sept. 2)

This double standard seems to have applied even to the few white folks who had taken refuge in the Superdome. From an account based on interviews with evacuees from the arena:

‘People were being raped, there were cries and screams, there were gunshots, but the police did nothing,’ [Arineatta] Walker said.

‘The police were afraid to do anything,’ said Chantelle, a black 22- year-old. ‘They wouldn’t come in. They took two white guys out one night but left the rest of us in here.’ (UK Guardian, Sept. 4)

When the poor were finallly evacuated from the Superdome, men were separated from women, dividing families—and leaving the refugees with the ordeal of trying to find each other again in Houston and other destinations. Some family members have been taken to different shelters, and possibly even different cities. (Fort Worth Star Telegram, Sept. 5) Authorities are now undertaking house-to-house searches to enforce a mandatory complete evacuation of New Orleans, and soldiers are said to fear confrontations with residents who refuse to leave. (Houston Chronicle, Sept. 5)

Conditions look pretty harsh for the evacuees, especially those now in the Houston Astrodome and sports arenas in Dallas and other regional cities:

Texas is accommodating 139,000 in public shelters, and another 100,000 or so evacuees are staying in hotels, Texas officials said. Many more also staying in private shelters run by churches and other groups or with Texan family and friends…

Houston alone has accommodated about 27,000 poor, mostly black evacuees in its stadiums, conference center and other facilities, and officials in this city of 2.5 million are trying to figure out what to do with so many people in need…

Days of stress and harsh conditions were taking a toll. Officials at the Harris County Medical Examiner’s Office around Houston said ten people, aged 50 to 92, had died in shelter facilities since arriving in Houston in recent days. (Reuters, Sept. 4)

The United Command in charge of the four Houston “megashelters”—the Astrodome, the Reliant Arena, the Reliant Center and the George R. Brown Convention Center—came up with the sensitive idea of housing some 4,000 refugees on commandeered cruise ships.

“NO! I am scared,” Sandra Johnson, 55, said at the thought of moving to a cruise ship. “I done seen enough of water.”

Authorities are said to “balking” at this plan due to opposition from the refugees. (Houston Chronicle, Sept. 6) The article does not state what entities make up the United Command (FEMA? National Guard? Army, Navy? Local authorities? Private charities?)

Barabara Bush, accompanying her husband, former president George H.W. Bush, on a tour of hurricane relief centers in Houston, said in reference to the evacuees: “This is working very well for them.” (Editor & Publisher, Sept. 5)

California Rep. Maxine Waters, meanwhile, is calling for the evacuees to be housed at England Air Force Base, a shuttered military installation in Alexandria, LA. (Salon, Sept. 3)

The question remains of what the refugees will have to return to—especially given calls in high places for much of New Orleans to be razed:

It makes no sense to spend billions of dollars to rebuild a city that’s seven feet under sea level, House Speaker Dennis Hastert said of federal assistance for hurricane-devastated New Orleans.

“It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed,” the Illinois Republican said in an interview Wednesday with The Daily Herald of Arlington, Ill. (AP, Sept. 1)

Malik Rahim, in his interview, says that the social chaos in New Orleans was itself due to past bulldozings in the name of “slum clearance”:

When you see all the poor people with no place to go, feeling alone and helpless and angry, I say this is a consequence of HOPE VI. New Orleans took all the HUD money it could get to tear down public housing, and families and neighbors who’d relied on each other for generations were uprooted and torn apart.

Most of the people who are going through this now had already lost touch with the only community they’d ever known. Their community was torn down and they were scattered. They’d already lost their real homes, the only place where they knew everybody, and now the places they’ve been staying are destroyed.

The current complete evacuation of the city could be used to permanently displace much of the city’s African-American population, and when New Orleans re-emerges as a habitable city it is all too likely to be a boutiquified simulacra of its former self for tourists and yuppies, with a large chunk of the former residents permanently scattered and exiled.

See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.