Commissioners from African diaspora come in solidarity to New Orleans

For a week surrounding the Anniversary Commemoration of the Great Flood, members of the International Commission of Inquiry (ICI) traveled from New Orleans to Biloxi, horrified and amazed at the level of destruction and abandonment of whole neighborhoods. They listened and shared tears with those still traumatized by the crimes that agents of the government committed against tens of thousands of Black New Orleanians.

I lost everything I had except my life. I’m a retired school teacher in Biloxi. They send $250 billion overseas and $3 billion here. Where is it! Sitting in our stinking governor’s office. If the President was here now, I’m in a mood now, I’d bust him in the mouth…

As she hugged people who had gathered at the Katrina Media Center in a Baptist Church on Main Street, in Biloxi, MS, Edenice Sant’ana de Jesus emphasized, “We—like you-- are bound by an umbilical cord to Africa”. A founder of the Workers’ Party, the Unified Black Movement and Black Women’s Organization in Brazil, she explained the mission of the Commission: “We’re here to gather testimony about your experience with Katrina. To figure out how is it possible that in the richest country in the world, this [referring to the total destruction she had witnessed and tales of horror she had heard] could happen…We stand here in the tradition of our great thinkers, like Malcolm X and Steven Biko—who have taught us to keep fighting for self-determination….I call on my ancestors and yours to build a strong bond among us that can force the government to meet our needs and human rights.”

My name is Tatiana. I am seven years old. When the hurricane came it was bad. My mother who had twins in her belly got sick. I was scared they almost died and the police was being very mean to the boys.

Tiyani Lybon Mabasa, one of the founders of the Black Consciousness Movement that was led by Steven Biko and current president of the Socialist Party of Azania, explained why he had traveled from South Africa to serve on the Commission. “ Because of the United States, the conditions of Black people are difficult all over the world. This is why I’m not talking as an outsider. The struggle here is not different from the struggle in Africa. We all are subject to the injustices of colonization.”

After four days of hell in the Superdome, they forced the men and women into separate lines to board the buses. When we questioned why we had to separate from our children, the National Guard drew their guns on us…. Then a woman in the crowd who couldn’t breathe handed her baby to me because I’m tall. I was about to board the bus, but the National Guard wouldn’t let me return the baby.

Chucho Jesus Garcia, founder of the Afro Venezuelan Network and Elegua Youth Organization, also participated in the Commission. After days of bearing witness to peoples’ suffering, he told the crowd gathered in Congo Square in New Orleans to commemorate the Anniversary of the Great Flood, “We have a great weight on our shoulders to struggle for justice in this modern slaveship. Today’s 21st century slavery, is rooted in capitalism, and like 17th century slavery pulls us away from our homes and families. It is our responsibility to continue this struggle and we will carry it out.”

I’m somebody’s father. I’m somebody’s brother. I’m somebody’s husband. We formed a rescue team. We rescued 200 people, but the authorities never asked our name. We got no respect…I thank you gentlemen and lady for coming down and being part of our pain. It’s like we don’t exist except for working and paying taxes.

Sammy Hayon, an Egyptian-born French trade unionist, was the fourth member of the Commission. At each gathering he emphasized that the devastation he had witnessed a year after the Storm was not “natural”, but rather the product of a system that has no respect for human life.

Origins of the International Commission of Inquiry for the International Tribunal

On December 8th and 9th, 2005 hundreds of Internally Displaced People from Hurricanes Katrina and Rita gathered in Jackson, Mississippi in a Survivors Assembly to demand accountability, reconstruction and restitution from all levels and departments of the US government. Their demands were in response to the government’s deliberate abandonment of hundreds of thousands of Black people in the aftermath of Katrina. Katrina was a category 5 hurricane that hit the Gulf Coast of Mississippi on August 29, 2005 and left over 2,000 dead or missing and over 800,000 without homes, jobs or help. Those forced to leave their homes comprise the largest and most inhumane internal displacement of Blacks since the end of the 19th Century following the Civil War.

The Survivors Assembly was facilitated by the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition (PHRF-OC), the Mississippi Disaster Relief Coalition (MS-DRC), the Black Activists Coalition on Katrina, and over 50 coalition partners from a broad range of political, religious, and social sectors in North America. On December 10, 2005 over 5,000 survivors and their supporters marched on City Hall in New Orleans demanding the right to return with dignity to their homes and their communities.

From these voices came a call to put the US Government on trial for its Katrina-related crimes against humanity.

Since the Storm, members of the National Conference of Black Lawyers and others have been collecting testimony of Katrina survivors and witnesses. But the arrival of the International Commission of Inquiry’s visit to New Orleans -- hosted by the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee (PHRF-OC), the Black Activist Coalition on Katrina, and the U.S. Human Rights Network-- was the first, fact-gathering effort by international experts for the International Tribunal on Katrina.

Bearing Witness and Investigating

We was like a disease or something to them. [the National Guard] They would pass us—we were starving, our kids had their tongues hanging out from thirst—but they wouldn’t help us or even talk to us. When they finally gave us some water and MRE’s, they threw them at us like we were dogs. We had to get down on our knees to pick up a bottle of water….Something needs to be done with our Black people. We can’t let them do this to us again.

In addition to meeting with individuals in Biloxi and New Orleans who witnessed crimes and abuses by government agents, the ICI extensively toured the devastation and also met with organizations and experts working to ensure the rights of internally displaced people. Shana Griffin from INCITE and founder of the New Orleans Women’s Health Clinic, documented how Black women who are heads of households face the biggest obstacles of any displaced people in coming home. Monique Harden, co-director of Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, explained to the ICI how environmental racism—long epidemic in the Gulf—denies people their human rights, including the right to return. The US government must take responsibility for cleaning up all toxic sites—which disproportionately affect Black people. Representatives from the Coalition for Workers’ Justice and a group of Brazilian workers in New Orleans reported to Commissioners the many ways workers—especially undocumented workers are denied their human rights.

War against Black People

They were shooting in the air as we ran across the bridge trying to get to dry land, “You niggahs and monkeys are not gonna get across that bridge, believe you me.” But I ran any way because I knew my grand kids and I would die if we had to turn around and go back to those rising waters….Men were carrying older people. Baby, we were gonna get across….They treated everybody in Orleans Parish like we were criminals…After we crossed, they held us at gunpoint for 12 hours under the bridge…I’m a grandmother with a heart condition but they didn’t care.

Robert Bolden came by the PHRF office in his work clothes. A tall muscular man in his fifties, Mr. Bolden is proud that he has always provided for his family, never drank or used drugs and was never arrested. He sobbed as he relived his time at the Convention Center.

They set us up and forced us to go to the Convention Center rather than cross the bridge to dry land. My mother has a house in Algiers. It was dry, I could have stayed with her…They told us there would be buses at the convention Center to take us to safety, but the buses didn’t come for days…It was pitch black inside, no electricity and you could hear people crying for help, but there was nothing we could do. I don’t know why they treated us like this…

Finally, as they were herding us on to the buses, the police asked me “what kind of drugs do you do?” I said “none”. He ordered me on my knees. But I don’t get on my knees for no one except for God. I tried to reason with them. I didn’t do nothing to deserve that treatment. So four or five of them beat me on my legs and knees, so I had to get down. They left me on the ground… If I don’t break a law, then treat me the same as the president. They maced me too and the mace burned for days. There was no water to wash the stuff off with. My legs still hurt, but I have no health insurance to get them checked….America actually treated us like that…The president has been here 13 times. He’s only worried about Bourbon Street. He don’t care about poor people.

Geneva, who – with 17 family members-- clung to her New Orleans East roof from 7:45AM Monday to sometime Wednesday, when a boat finally took the sick and the babies off. It took months for all the family members to find each other.

The boat took us to a truck and the truck hauled us like we were dogs to the Convention Center…The US has to recognize what they have done to us. We were left to die…

Next Steps
The National Conference of Black Lawyers, the International Commission of Inquiry and staff from the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) will continue taking testimony, investigating records and interviewing advocates and experts.

At the same time, staff of the PHRF will facilitate a process that provides support and the opportunity for survivors and witnesses of crimes by state agents to participate in further planning of the tribunal. They need support in processing their grief. They also need justice. June Brown bitterly demands,

We lost everything. Can you repair my grandson’s mind! You got money to repair my son’s mind!

To date, ICI, the National Conference of Black Lawyers and PHRF staff have collected testimony from some 30 witnesses. It is a wrenching process. Those involved are convinced that witnesses need a support/action group that provides them the structure to turn their grief and anger into action—action that shapes the Tribunal and the demands for justice that the Tribunal process will unleash.

The organizers of the International Tribunal on Katrina call on all org