Unnatural Disasters

UNNATURAL-DISASTERS

Racism and storms

The country’s eyes are fixed on the Texas Gulf Coast. Everyone is looking but not many are seeing what the local workers are experiencing. A grim Hurricane Katrina flashback plagues the coast as those in the area come to terms with the widespread chaos that Hurricane Harvey has unleashed on them. This is Trump’s Katrina, and “natural disasters,” like everything else, have a class character—that is, a “natural disaster” would not be a disaster at all if it were not for the specific way we produce human needs and the specific way human society is arranged. A category 4 hurricane smashing full force into the Texas coast would not be a tragedy if society were set up so that everything was properly prepared for these inevitable events. In an age when weather forecasts can predict devastating storms and evacuations are possible given the allotted resources, it is capitalism and not the weather that produces tragedy and creates the conditions for wide-scale loss of life. These disasters are no more natural than capitalism itself.

It is important to be historical materialists when examining the so-called “natural disasters” that routinely fuck up the US South. None stand out more in human cost than Katrina, which brought its wrath down on the people of New Orleans in 2005. Not everyone in the city was affected equally, and the real disaster struck just after the storm itself has passed. Houston is the new New Orleans and Harvey is this decade’s Katrina. Many to this day are still scratching their heads saying, “Why didn’t the people of New Orleans leave?” This kind of liberal hand-wringing stinks of uncritical support for the bourgeois narrative. Many did leave. In fact, over 100,000 of New Orleans’ Black working class were unable to return and were forced into diaspora.

There are material, social, and economic facts that forced so many others to stay and face death and displacement head on. Every two to three months the city of New Orleans would have a severe storm warning and encourage evacuation for storms that time and time again would never hit; this is common along the Gulf Coast. The vast majority of the Black working class in New Orleans lack job security and have severe difficulty in landing jobs in an economically depressed part of the US South. When they would heed the warnings and take refuge outside of their city, they would commonly find they had been fired upon returning due to missing work. The city urged people to evacuate the area, which they knew would be vulnerable to the storm due to racist, lazy, and greedy city planning that did not take necessary precautions to ensure that levees were secured in the poor New Orleans neighborhoods. In fact, it was well known for decades that the patchwork of the 50 or so levees that surrounded New Orleans would not be able to ward off a hurricane of Katrina’s magnitude. It was capitalism’s death threat of “work or starve” and “leave if you can afford to” that held the gun of Katrina to the heads of the Black masses. This is not the conditions that a lot of the white people of New Orleans ever had to consider, as even white working-class people were better taken care of than the masses of the oppressed-nation people.

New Orleans has a strong culture and tight-knit communities, and many of the people had not traveled outside of their neighborhoods for years on end. All their families, friends, and everyone they knew lived there in New Orleans. The city’s white population had contacts outside of the city, places to stay, and relatives to visit. Many of the Black working class who owned their own homes had them passed down from generation to generation—they could not afford insurance. The only way to protect their homes was personally and directly being present. Those homes, being uninsured, were allowed by capitalism to be blighted, erased, and forgotten. The upper classes had insurance and could actually draw a profit from the storm, and many of the wealthy had over-insured their properties knowing that they lived in a storm-prone region and would eventually profit. Renters especially among the Black working class were never able to return, and the absentee landlords never prioritized fixing the slums they presided over.

Houston, like New Orleans, is a Black city. Houston is the westernmost point of the occupied Black Belt region. What it faces now, and what lies before it, will be similar to what the Black working-class masses of New Orleans suffered after the storm. Contrary to popular belief, areas devastated by storms like Harvey or Katrina do not tend to shrink but instead grow; and with this growth comes intense stratification, segregation, and gentrification. Money from insurance held by the bourgeoisie and petite bourgeoisie comes like a second violent flood into the area. Relief money from the state and charities finds its stewards, in facilitating the “rebuilding” of the city at the expense of the working-class Black population. Any study of Black neighborhoods after storms of this magnitude supports this claim. Anyone who visited the city of New Orleans before and after the storm, who went among the masses, can grasp the second loss of culture and of community, as gentrified coffee shops and other white institutions popped up in the 9th Ward. It is no coincidence that the most white areas of the city were the least affected in property damage (the French Quarter and Garden District). Gentrification was not just salt into the wounds of a people who had already dealt with devastation—it was the final nail for many, causing long-term devastation and disaster for the community as gentrification displaced more communities far more quietly than anything nature has in store. And when gentrification destroys whole communities, the wealthy do not put on fake smiles and extend their charity.

In these times of crisis, the responders with the most gear and resources are the state and the reactionary non-state actors (white-supremacist militias), both of whom are armed to the teeth and itching to protect private property against the black working class that they most despise. In times of crisis, regular law and order is suspended and the reactionary racist whites go on hunting sprees, compounding the disastrous effects of the storm on the black community. Due to racist city planning that forced working-class and especially oppressed-nations working class people into floodplains or near poorly constructed levees and bayous, which tend to overflow, many have their death warrants signed before the storm even hits. And because the body count is already so high for those who die this way, many racist vigilantes get away with murder. In some cases it is the ongoing gentrification that forces these populations into precarious housing in flood-prone areas. Del Valle, just outside of Austin, is one such example.

One of the most affected areas in Houston is the neighborhood of Greenspoint. It’s not really coincidental that the city of Houston decided to place many of its Katrina refugees in Greenspoint, where they ended up relocated permanently. Greenspoint is a thoroughly working-class neighborhood, with 40% of its population making less than $25,000 a year. 60% of its population is Chicano or Mexican, 32% is Black, and only 5% is white.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that when Houston goes underwater, those who sink are the poor. The ruling class has job security—their only job is to exploit others’ labor. Storms are profitable for them. Their vacation homes out of state, and even the homes they leave behind, are fortified and insured. They have private security and well-stocked provisions, resources that the working oppressed-nations masses of Greenspoint lack. The masses can only rely on themselves, and many in a city like Houston lack transportation or cannot afford to make trips even in the event of an evacuation or 24.1 inches of rain in some parts of the neighborhood, or a total of 17 feet of water. Those who cannot leave and have no choice immediately face the unrestrained violence of capitalism, not only in the form of threats from the police (former Austin PD chief of police Art Acevedo has already begun tweeting these threats of locking people up for shoplifting water in devastated Houston) but also in the form or predatory capitalism, which tends to immediately raise the price of bottled water, gas, food, and other necessities to draw outrageous profits off of the desperation and misery of the masses.

Houston drowns, not from the flood, but from capitalism’s inefficiency, the chaos of its markets, racist city planning, and inept political leaders of the ruling class. Even the head reactionary Texas governor was seen on the news strongly encouraging evacuation, while local Houstons officials told the masses over and over again to “hunker down” and that “it won’t be that bad”. This stay-home order not only confused the masses but has left many in impossible situations. The deaths of these people will only further stain the already blood-drenched hands of the city politicians.

Capitalism is certain death for the workers and for the planet. The environment that capitalism has created with over-production and a profit-driven mode of production has affected and intensified these routine storms via the process of climate change. Like the local politicians, the government’s top leaders are all in denial.

Communists exist to fight in the rift between the people and the state.

So what should communists do? We should serve the people and we should do so while exposing the lies of “natural” disasters. During the protracted people’s war in Nepal, the reactionary government would ignore disaster-stricken regions and allow the masses there to suffer and to die. The people’s forces led by Maoists knew that serving the people and people not profit must be our driving force. Everywhere there was a disaster, the Maoists would help the people, all the while increasing their popularity and sharpening the contradiction between the masses and the reactionary state.

In the Philippines, the Communist Party of the Philippines, the National Democratic Front, and the New People’s Army announced a ceasefire immediately after Super-typhoon Yolanda. They stopped all fighting without hesitation and began helping their people rebuild. The reactionary state had no interest in honoring this ceasefire because they had no interest in the well-being of those affected by the storm. This only exposed even further to the people that communists are their friends and showed the true nature of the reactionary state: they would rather kill communists than actually help the neglected masses.

We too must live up to the example of these comrades and go to where the masses suffer to lend a helping hand, to share in their pain, endurance, and triumph. The revolutionary mass organization Serve the People–Austin is already preparing to help those affected by the storm in whatever way they can. We encourage you contact them if you want to help (servethepeopleaustin@gmail.com).

To our comrades in Houston, friends, family, and beloved communities across Texas: our solidarity is with you. No one deserves the hell that capitalism makes of storms. We intend to keep fighting this system to construct a socialist society where people’s well-being is placed before profit, a society that could and would come together to greatly lessen the impact of such storms on the lives of the people. Our hearts ache with the pain of the people.

Solidarity and survival

—Red Guards Austin, 2017

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