We’re broadcasting from today from New Orleans, specifically from the Lower Ninth Ward. Behind me, the Industrial Canal levee that breached two years ago today.
A five-day International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita opened last night here in New Orleans. The tribunal is bringing together hurricane survivors, international delegations, expert witnesses, a team of human rights and civil rights prosecutors, and a panel of US-based and international judges.
One survivor of the hurricane, Viola Washington, said, “We are calling for an international tribunal to bring charges of racial discrimination, forced eviction of pubic housing residents, violations of the right to life and health, and the denial of the right to return.”
We’re joined right now by two people from here in New Orleans, founders of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, one of the main sponsors of the tribunal. Kali Akuno is executive director of People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and Malcom Suber is the group’s national organizing coordinator.
Before we talk about the tribunal, I wanted to go to something that happened earlier in the day yesterday. It was outside the Convention Center. A number of people gathered. Remember, the Convention Center, that was the place Michael Brown said — they didn’t realize the difference between the Superdome and the Convention Center, that people were also in the Convention Center without water, without food, without help. But a number of people spoke, and among them was Malcolm of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. You gave a fiery speech, Malcolm, and you particularly focused on the Red Cross. Why?
MALCOLM SUBER: Well, we believe that the Red Cross has basically stolen money from the victims here in New Orleans. They collected, by their own accounting, $2.1 billion. They claim that they spent $1.9 billion, and they had $200 million left. But we have never had any public accounting of the funds actually spent, and this last $200 million, they have decided to establish a Means to Recovery program, which works through a case management system. And basically the only people who knew about the program were their partners, the other nonprofits, and they would give the money to selective survivors. And we just don’t believe that that’s a very fair and democratic way. We don’t think that the donors who gave the money to the Red Cross intended that the money be set aside and decided by the Red Cross what to do with the money.
And so, we have just been challenging their veracity on this whole program, and witness to that is every time we’ve confronted them they’ve changed the figures. When we first started this campaign, they said they had $80 million left. A week later, they said they had $40 million left. And then the national president came down here, and he said they had $171 million left. So you don’t know what the story really is, so they haven’t gotten their story together.
And, of course, they’ve been attacking the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, saying that we are spreading lies and stuff against them. But we confronted them directly, and we took our — their application to the local news media. And they were forced to admit that the program existed, because when people first called about the program, the Red Cross would say, “What are you talking about? We’ve never heard of a Means to Recovery program.” So we want to know why such secrecy, and why did you decide that it was up to you, the Red Cross, to decide what to do?
The other important factor is they got $50 million from Kuwait, and instead of giving that money to people, they built new office buildings in New York City.
AMY GOODMAN: $50 million from — did you say Kuwait?
MALCOLM SUBER: Kuwait, yes. That was part of the international aid given to the Red Cross on behalf of disaster victims, and they decided to take the money and build new office buildings. And we think that’s thievery.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about the people’s tribunal and what you’re doing with this, Kali.
KALI AKUNO: Well, today will be the first day of testimony, and we’re going to have two days of testimony, one day of deliberation and one day of going through a site tour throughout the city of New Orleans.
AMY GOODMAN: Who is deliberating?
KALI AKUNO: Deliberating today, we have — it’s broken down into several different areas, Amy, to really try to cover the expansion of all the different things that took place. So we’re starting off with the issue of police brutality and prisoners’ rights, really highlighting the torture and abuse that took place and the abandonment which took place and the different human rights violations that that brings up. We’re also going to be dealing with some of the summary killings and executions which took place, you know, shortly after the flood. That’s what begins this off.
And then, later on this afternoon, we’re going to be looking at the whole historical development and neglect around the levees, particularly, you know, this levee here with the barge that broke, and highlighting the systematic nature of how the government knew that its design was faulty, it had depleted the funds systematically since Hurricane Betsy. They knew categorically it would not withstand a Category One or Two hurricane, and yet they just left it in a total state of disrepair. And they have to be held accountable for that. Those are the things we’re going to focus on.
And then from there, really breaking down in a systematic way, later on this afternoon, of how women’s rights have been violated through this particular process. And one of the things I think everyone so vividly remembers about the experience of what people saw — CNN and all the news cameras — was the number of just black women, single black women who were just kind of left stranded by the city not having or the government not having a systematic evacuation plan, not having buses, not having public transportation, not giving effective evacuation orders.
Those are the things we’re really going to highlight, and then ask critical questions, you know, that we’re looking for a response to, some of which we know the answer, some of which the answers have not necessarily been sufficiently provided. But, you know, we’re going to cover different things, like Blanco giving shoot to kill orders. Under whose authority? Why was that order given?
AMY GOODMAN: What to you mean, “shoot to kill”?
KALI AKUNO: When she was — I think it was September 3rd — or, excuse me, September 2nd, she gave orders that — for the National Guard and other folks, that they were trained, they just came back from Iraq, they knew how to use their weapons, and if they caught anybody so-called looting, that they had the right to shoot to kill. You know, and there was no question around what if people don’t have water, people don’t have food. The government is not providing this. How are people otherwise supposed to fend for themselves? And it didn’t really address that question, you know, just kind of left it open. And so, under what authority does she have to issue an order like that? And then, why was it necessary to bring in so many different contractors, the mercenary forces that came in. Under whose authority were they under? What rules were they operating by? And we’ve heard a number of different reports and accounts.
AMY GOODMAN: You mean companies like Blackwater.
KALI AKUNO: Like Blackwater, who are still here operating. Blackhawk and a number of different security companies, what were they doing here? That needs to be fully exposed. We know, in what had come out to date through some of the deliberations, that they didn’t get their contracts approved, right? Many of these companies, they were just kind of operating without proper licensing. So for the different acts that they committed, similar to Iraq, who were they accountable to? Right? This all really needs to be exposed and brought out. And, you know, with all the different information and the crimes that are being alleged and are going to be demonstrated and proved throughout this process, you know, what we’re demanding is justice and reparations.
AMY GOODMAN: So you’re having this tribunal over a number of days. Will city officials be there?
KALI AKUNO: They have been invited. State officials have been invited from Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana. And Bush and the heads of FEMA have been invited.
AMY GOODMAN: This all comes out of the First Survivors Assembly.
KALI AKUNO: That’s right.
AMY GOODMAN: What was that?
KALI AKUNO: The First Survivors Assembly was the first major national gathering of survivors after they had been displaced. It was in December 2005 in Jackson, Mississippi. And it was basically a democratic forum where all those who were displaced could come together and organize themselves and make some comprehensive demands in the program to carry their actions forward. So the tribunal is just one of the programmatic things that came out of that assembly. And we’re having the Second Survivors Assembly here in New Orleans in December, December 8 and 9.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, Malcolm, about the issue of homelessness and the issue of the destruction of housing?
MALCOLM SUBER: Yes. Because of the great destruction of the flood, 140,000 units of housing were destroyed. The other problem, of course, is that there has not been an aggressive program on the part of state or local government to repair homes or get money to the victims so that they can repair their homes, nor has there been any real effort to provide temporary housing, to construct dormitories and what have you for people to live.
As a consequence, the number of homeless in the city has grown from 6,000 before the storm to 12,000 now. And one of the characteristics of the new homeless are those — these were people in the city who had homes before the storm. And, of course, coupled with the fact that rents have doubled and tripled, poor working-class black folk in this city can’t afford to pay the rents that they are charging today.
And so, because of that crisis, we have been organizing the homeless, and they now have an encampment at Duncan Plaza, right across from City Hall, actually putting the question of homelessness in the face of the politicians and saying to them that we must make a pledge to outlaw homelessness in the new New Orleans.
And the way that we have to do that, of course, is we have to ask the city to take control of all these abandoned buildings, all these abandoned homes, get a reconstruction program going, where you’re hiring homeless folks, youth, to bring them back home and get the them to work rebuilding the city. And not only will they be rebuilding it, but they will be investing in the city, which they know and love, but they will be making a contribution to its redevelopment.
AMY GOODMAN: I asked Mayor Nagin yesterday about public housing and why most of the public housing has not been reopened, although a lot is in good shape, like Lafitte housing.
MALCOLM SUBER: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: What is your response to that?
MALCOLM SUBER: That’s part of the gentrification and ethnic cleansing policy, which was being pursued prior to. As you know, two of the developments are right downtown, Lafitte and Iberville. The developers have always had their eye on that as an extension of the French Quarter, essentially from the French Quarter straight back to the lake.
AMY GOODMAN: Iberville is the birthplace of jazz.
MALCOLM SUBER: Right. And so, you know, this is just part of that whole gentrification program and the changing of the demographics of the city. The local white ruling class wants to maintain its — to regain its political control, and so they have used this storm and the flooding as a convenient excuse to get rid of black folk, especially poor black people. And basically their mentality is, you can only come back to this plantation if you’ve got a job; if you don’t have a job, we don’t want to provide any social services.
AMY GOODMAN: We just have a minute. But this whole issue of the right of return, how are you framing it?
KALI AKUNO: It’s an unequivocal human right, and it entails — it has to entail a comprehensive program for both reconstruction, returning folks home with jobs, justice and equity. I mean, those are the basic parts of it.
AMY GOODMAN: About, what, 60% of people have returned home?
KALI AKUNO: I would say that that number is actually inaccurate. I mean, I think it’s still closer to between 45% and 50%. I think if you look around the region, you may find that number of people living in Slidell, people living in Baton Rouge. But I still think, you know, realistically, when the sun goes down, there’s still only half the population of New Orleans in town.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us. Is there contact information for — well, today in New Orleans, the tribunal is at People’s — at the Pan-American building.
KALI AKUNO: It’s at the Pan-American Conference Center, which is on Poydras and Camp Streets in downtown New Orleans. If you want to get in contact with us, you can call us at (504) 301-0215, or you can visit our website, which is www.peopleshurricane.org.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, Kali Akuno and Malcolm Suber, thanks so much. People’s Hurricane Relief Fund. We’re broadcasting from here in New Orleans in the Lower Ninth Ward. When we come back, we’ll speak with the former head of the New Orleans Teachers Union. After the hurricane, all of the teachers in New Orleans were fired. Democracy Now!