Thursday, August 24, 2006


When the Levees Broke, subtitled A Requiem in Four Acts is a 2006 documentary film directed by Spike Lee, about the devastation of New Orleans, Louisiana due to the failure of the levees during Hurricane Katrina. The film runs four hours, and premiered at the New Orleans Arena on August 16, 2006. The television premiere aired in two parts on August 21 and 22 on HBO. The film will then be shown in its entirety on August 29, the one year anniversary of Katrina. It has been described by an HBO executive as "one of the most important films HBO has ever made."

Lance Hill expounds below on one very troubling question raised by the film.

For five days thousands waited and waited at Morial Convention Center for aid, for relief that never seemed to come.

Where was the aid these people desperately needed.

What was most clear at the time was that these mostly African-American citizens were being left to suffer in a way that would never be allowed to a similar group of mostly white Americans.

The historical revision has been that it was simply a matter of incompetence. But to say that is to ignore reality. You know that and so do I.

The following commentary is from Lance Hill.

Commentary by Lance Hill
August 22, 2006

Last week I attended a screening of “When the Levees Broke,” Spike Lee’s documentary that focuses on the impact of hurricane Katrina on the African American community in New Orleans. The four-hour film is airing on HBO this week. It is a film that leaves one deeply troubling question unanswered: why were thousands of African Americans stranded at the Morial Convention Center for five days without food, water, or medical aid from relief agencies or the government? Was it government incompetence or racism?

Part of the answer lies with an aspect of the story has never been covered by the major media or government investigation: that FEMA deliberately withheld food and water to drive people out of the city. This is not a new revelation for a non-evacuee like myself, who had to overcome official attempts to blockade aid from reaching the convention center (more on that later). But the difference between incompetence and official policy is crucial: If the convention center tragedy was due to government incompetence, then all we need is a more efficient FEMA. That, we have already been promised. But if there was an official policy to deprive citizens of their basic human needs, then the problem runs far deeper than bad management. It means that there was a double standard for African American storm victims, which has to be acknowledged and remedied. It means that racism is not something of the past no longer worthy of nation al concern and action.

At first glance, the idea of blockading humanitarian relief sounds so irrational that it’s difficult to believe anyone would even consider the policy. But keep in mind that during those days many government officials made no distinction between looters and black law abiding citizens. There was widespread—and ill-founded—fear in the white community that black people at the Superdome and convention center would simply take relief supplies and return to the areas of the city that never flooded—and there were several hundred blocks. The people who issued the blockade order were thinking about controlling the city and not concerned with the policy’s impact on innocent infants, the sick, and the elderly who were frantic to escape the city but without transportation.

Bits and pieces of the blockade story emerged during the crisis, in news reports and on the internet, but somehow the congressional investigation missed the issue and the media never followed up to investigate the matter. For those who refused to evacuate, the blockade policy was evident from the earliest days. On Friday, September 2nd, my wife and I packed up my car with all the supplies we could gather and I began the first of four runs into the convention center, where I encountered no danger; only grateful and orderly people desperate for food and water. On my fourth run I was met by a contingent of New Orleans and State Police who ordered me not to distribute the water I had brought. A line of white state policeman with automatic weapons faced off against the crowd who were shouting to let me unload my supplies. It was an explosive situation and the police quickly relented but told me not to return.

There was never any question in my mind that these officers were acting on orders to prevent relief from getting to flood victims. My wife and I remained in New Orleans for more than a month during martial law, for the most part taking care of elderly people in the unflooded areas, and every law enforcement officer and soldier that we met told us the same thing: they had been ordered not to provide citizens with food, water, or medical aid.

Red Cross officials are on record saying they had relief supplies in New Orleans but were ordered not to distribute them. American Red Cross president Marsha “Marty” Evans went on national television and said that the Louisiana Department of Homeland Security (LA-DHS) had ordered the Red Cross not to provide relief supplies to refugees inside the city, arguing that the presence of the Red Cross “would keep people from evacuating and encourage others to come to the city.” The same story was provided by other Red Cross officials and even the Red Cross web site carried a FAQ repeating that authorities had prevented them from providing relief supplies to the storm victims at the convention center.

It is unlikely that the blockade was a decision of state officials alone: subsequent reports on the internet offer evidence that federal FEMA officials were part of the decision. Indeed, former FEMA director Michael Brown testified in a congressional hearing that, contrary to his earlier statements, he knew about the convention center crisis as early as Wednesday, August 31—the day the blockade order was given. Only a formal investigation and full disclosure by the federal government will provide a definitive explanation of who made the decision and why.

Spokespersons for the LA-DHS and the Louisiana National Guard admit that they asked relief agencies not to deliver their goods to the convention center site, but explain it as a safety precaution—not an attempt to force citizens into leaving. Even if the convention center was too dangerous for relief workers accompanied by police—and I never felt unsafe when I was there unarmed—many observers have noted that helicopters could easily have dropped relief supplies.

But the excuse that the center was too dangerous for even the police turns to fiction when we consider that the police actually entered the center to execute a “rescue” after the blockade was in force. According to a story in the Washington Post, one day after the relief blockade order was issued, a twelve-member New Orleans swat team led by Sgt. Hans Ganthier entered the convention center to transport out two white women, the wife of a Jefferson Parish Sheriff’s deputy, who had requested the rescue, and her friend. The police literally had to make their way past dying elderly blacks in order to extricate the two white women. That incident alone should answer the question whether or not there was a double standard based on color for who deserved official protection and aid at the center.

There is another reason for concern if the suffering was the result of a deliberate policy and not merely incompetence. History teaches us that government directives implemented by bureaucrats in times of crisis carry a unique danger. Once the bureaucratic machinery of government assumes control, official orders take on a life of their own. Government directives have no conscience; and as they pass down the command structure they become even less responsive to human emotions or individual moral beliefs. The results can lead to appalling and dehumanizing behavior: one news organization reported that military police assigned to monitor the crowd at the convention center sipped ice water only a few yards away from dehydrating infants and the elderly.

If the assertion that there was a formal blockade policy proves to be true, then we have to come to terms with the fact that our government had a policy and apparatus that intentionally imperiled the lives of innocent African Americans. This goes well beyond incompetence or indifference to the suffering of others. The moment a government withholds food, water, and medical aid from its own citizens to achieve policy ends, it is deliberately inflicting harm to coerce behavior. The added danger is found in the cycle of human devaluation evident in catastrophic ethnic group conflicts in the past; once you deprive a group of their human needs, they behave in ways that are then used to justify inflicting more harm. Great evil begins with small acts of cruelty.

Spike Lee has asked a question that deserves an answer. The United States is a signatory to the Geneva Human Rights Treaty, which forbids governments from blocking humanitarian relief to refugees of political or natural disasters. At a minimum, our nation’s own laws should forbid using food and water as weapon against our own people.

New Orleans is busy with plans to commemorate and honor the disaster victims, including those who needlessly suffered for five days at the convention center. Among the plans is a proposal to erect a monument near the center. It seems to me that the best way to memorialize and honor those who suffered the horrifying ordeal at the convention center is to make sure it never happens again.

Lance Hill, Ph.D. is the Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University and author of “Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement,” UNC press. You can subscribe to his commentaries at

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