September 04, 2005
Anarchy, New Orleans Edition (bottom up)
The first warning sign I caught was in midst of the Hurricane build up. Can't remember where, but buried in some article was a line about long lines to get into the Superdome, the shelter of 'last resort'. Long lines because security at the door was searching everyone for drugs and guns.
The storm of the century is blasting towards New Orleans and police are busy searching people for drugs and guns, something was ajar, the record skipped a groove. The impact wasn't in yet the storm had not landed, this was supposed to be a story about a natural disaster and the human response, where the hell did the drugs and guns, the search and seizure, where did it come into the picture.
Welcome to New Orleans.
Beneath the jazz history, oil flows and 24 hour drinking establishments, is a city of deeply entrenched poverty, distrust and inequality. Its a city where a quarter of the population lives in poverty. A city where a largely white police force plays enforcer to a population that is 70% black. As liberated as the city may seem to a drinker, its never escaped the shadows of slavery and the equally insidious but far more subtle structures of racism that followed. As in much of the south the Civil War never quite ended in New Orleans. Beneath the Marti Gras facade of the city is a perpetual tension, a poverty that goes beyond economics, a poverty of communication, a poverty of politics, a poverty of trust.
The destruction of New Orleans began long before the hurricane hit. The looting, chaos and armed gangs began long before the levees broke. You could read it in the paper as Katrina approached, a storm is coming and what are the police doing? What they always are doing, searching the population, imposing their will. The city is being evacuated, but the police and general population can never work together in this city, the divides are so deep that they stand up strong and violent even as the levees fall.
In the intensely disturbing days that followed, that as I write this still appear to continue, two news items hit even harder, even nastier, then the rest. One was the stories of New Orleans police turning in their badges, their ties to the community had been severed by the waters, they no longer cared for the city they had sworn to serve and protect. Nothing could be a stronger indictment of just what a wounded community existed in New Orleans, of just how much the police force was their to protect property not serve the people of the city. Perhaps even more shocking and nearly entirely blocked from the news is the fact that troops (Louisiana National Guard?) where blocking the bridge out of the city, preventing thousands from walking out the disaster zone and the Red Cross from coming in. New Orleans had been turned into a prison, a war zone, an area not to be helped, but to be contained. If these reports turn out to be true, so far the only source I've found is of all places Fox New's Shepard Smith, then the story evolves from disaster and into one of crimes against humanity. And I suspect its damn true, I was wondering just why no one was walking out long before that report, and Nola.com was filled with reports of people being denied entry to rescue people at confirmed locations.
What this all builds up to goes beyond just the racism, repression and persistent
low level class warfare at work and into anarchy. Anarchy is a funny word, the mainstream news was full of it for the past few days. Anarchy as chaos, lose of control, the inmates running the prison while the lights stayed out. Anarchists however have quite a different definition of anarchy however, and completely out of step with their philosophy, are rather insistent that others use their definition despite the fact that a vast majority of people use a quite different definition.
My friend tobias c. van Veen provides a good example, in his other wise spot on essay "A Black Rainbow Over Downtown New Orleans", he makes the claim that no, New Orleans is not in a state of anarchy, but rather "the rupture of the facade of global capital". Which is all probably true if one follows one of the rigid definitions of anarchy favored by practitioners, but utterly incomprehensible to those of us who still are aware of word in its common usage. New Orleans was in a state of anarchy after the disaster, a state where the law was absent, a non force, a state of chaos.
What's really interesting to me though is that neither definition of anarchy, the anarchist's own definition or the common more frenzied one need to be contradictory. In fact both anarchies are easily contained within one definition, and both are in reality potential states of one concept, potential states of anarchism.
Anarchy is the social state free of political authority, and in the days after Katrina hit New Orleans is a clear example of what can happen in such circumstances. That "can" is essential though, it does not mean that is what will always happen and in fact there are plenty of examples quite to the contrary. New York after 9-11 is the one that immediately springs to mind, but perhaps Chalmette, Louisiana is even better, a small town seven miles east of New Orleans where the Katrina tied together rather then divide the community.
Anarchy is by its very nature an emergent system. What emerges does not necessarily need to be intelligent or organized, but since there is no direct centralizing force, whatever group behavior exists must be emergent in some manner.* But just how anarchy emerges is not predetermined in any manner, and in fact there are a variety of potential states that it might take. What determines what state anarchy enters into is largely determined by environment, culture and forms of energy circulating within the anarchistic space.
In New Orleans a culture of distrust and borderline warfare was long present in the environment. Poverty, racism and drugs where part of day to day life. As nearly all the white people, along with the black middle class and elite fled New Orleans what remained was largely two groups the helpless and the deeply repressed. Free of the persistent police presence, hungry, lacking water, plumbing and electricity anarchy emerged. Some of the anarchy was people breaking into stores for food and water. Some was people breaking in to obtain those material goods they never obtain in the political and economic climate that was New Orleans. And some of it was just plain people breaking. Pains and pressures snapping into the form of rapes, beatings and bullets directed at the police.
It was all there and apparent as the Hurricane approached. The police officers slowly and intensely searching every person as they entered the Superdome seeking shelter clearly illustrated the failure of this community and the vicious environment constructed to keep it that way. This was a community already at war, a long drawn out police action of a war. A community without trust. These are the force that directed the emergence of anarchy. The forces that pushed the anarchy towards its violent emergence, its most tragic form.
Anarchists, expect perhaps a few lunatics, want no part of this sort of anarchy, and in fact will go to great measures to redefine anarchy to exclude these realities. But in fact the anarchies of the anarchists are merely other potential states of the exact same anarchy that New Orleans produced. Far more positive potential states, and ones that can be glimpsed at in places like Chalmette during this disaster. There residents ignored by authorities for six days distributed food via boat, did their own rescuing and created their own shelter. Just as in New Orleans it was anarchy, the absence of political control, the parish officials had fled. But a very different state of anarchy, guided by an environment not nearly as oppressive as New Orleans.
Just who is responsible for the various police actions around New Orleans is still pretty clear, but its becoming evident that the various government agencies at work went out of their way to ensure the anarchy of New Orleans would be pushed towards a negative not positive state. The searches at the Superdome where just the prelude. The combat operations, "little Somalia" approach of the US Army was the most over the top. Most odious and damaging though was the sealing of the city, the turning of the city into a prison where people could not walk out. Volunteers with boats where turned away, people with confirmed locations could not enter to pick up relatives and friends. Even the Red Cross was kept out. The government it seems was far more concerned with containing the poor of New Orleans then in solving any problems. Its not a new story, its merely a wretched retelling of the same foul story of slavery in America and lord its not pretty. Its a story that will get told again and again too, perhaps never with the same catastrophic energy of Katrina pulsing through it, perhaps never with the same media attention, but the same old story, same old tragedy once again.
* This it should be noted gets directly at one of the biggest confusions surrounding emergence, there is a massive difference between an emergent intelligence, an emergent system and an emergent property.