by Ann Garrison
“It’s a war down here, and there’s a new battle to fight almost every day.” – Lorie Arcenaux Seruntine, 21, geography student, ninth generation native of New Orleans
I met 21-year-old Lorie Arsinaux Seruntine in New Orleans. She’d told her professors at the University of Memphis that she had to go home, had to be in New Orleans, doing independent study until she finished her degree.
What better place for a geography student studying “hazards” – hazards both human and natural – to become an expert? Lorie understands levees, hurricanes, storm surges, geology, topography and the jet stream, most of which are still a mystery to me, and she knows as well as anyone that the flood that destroyed three quarters of New Orleans was no more natural than the bombs that destroyed Iraq.
She knows that the levee system protecting the Black and poor parts of town had been de-funded and neglected for years and that, whether the alleged levee explosions occurred or not, the powerful had been eager to empty the city of its poor, mostly Black residents for a long time and that they had no care for preserving more than a tourist industry’s pale simulacrum of the unique and overwhelmingly Black New Orleans culture so loved all over the world.
Lorie was among the first to occupy the rectory at historic, multi-racial St. Augustine’s Parish Church, when the archbishop of New Orleans threatened to replicate the New Orleans diaspora by dispersing its members into much larger neighboring parishes. This battle has been won – for now – but, like most, it will require continued organization, support and constant vigilance.
She is now organizing local emergency response committees to face the next Caribbean hurricane season, beginning June 1, in New Orleans. Like those she is organizing with, natives left in the neighborhoods and the Common Ground Collective, she expects no help from FEMA or from the federal government in any form. More likely, she and others expect obstruction, federal authority preventing people from helping one another or from accepting the assistance last offered by Fidel Castro and his world famous hurricane doctors, or from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez or even from the Black American medics who rushed to New Orleans from Atlanta, only to be turned back at the hurricane zone’s perimeter.
Like many of the natives I met still in New Orleans, Lorie believes that their city was attacked and continues to be under siege by real estate developers, oil companies, energy and utility giant Entergy, and the usual suspects, Bechtel and Halliburton and the Shaw Group, corporations also awarded huge reconstruction contracts in response to the lobbying efforts of the very same lobbyists who pressed their interests in Iraq even before the bombs began to fall.
Many more New Orleans natives still in the city confirmed the perception that they had been attacked. Grimly, quietly, often with resignation, most even seemed to believe that the barge that had catapulted through – or over, according to some – residential side of the Industrial Canal into the Lower 9th Ward levee had been a Halliburton barge. It was not, but its owner is another story for another day.
Many remaining residents told me horrifying stories but declined to be quoted. Even the editors of the New Orleans Times-Picayune, however, joined in an editorial lambasting the federal government, published on Sept. 4. I later learned that former FEMA chief and longtime Bush ally Joseph Allbaugh arrived on the Gulf Coast to represent his clients even before George Bush or then FEMA chief Michael Brown arrived.
Having spent six weeks in New Orleans, having seen the deserted and devastated 6th, 7th, 8th and 9th Wards and having studied the web of federal “reconstruction contracts,” I agree: New Orleans is a new front in the war of the super-rich against the rest of us, a war waged most virulently against the poorest and most vulnerable.
The highly capitalized and corporate organized now pick New Orleans’ bones much as vultures picked the bones of those whose bodies lay in the bayous for an entire week while FEMA reportedly haggled with Kenyon International, a subsidiary of Houston-based Service Corporation International (SCI), over the price of recovering the dead.
SCI, Kenyon International’s owner, is the world’s largest chain of funeral retail outlets, about to become even larger by merging with Alderwood Funeral Homes. A little-known corporation, unlike Halliburton, Bechtel and Shaw, whose war profiteering, in both Iraq and New Orleans, are quite well known, SCI has earned most of its headlines by desecrating the dead, in Texas, Georgia and Florida. In response to a class action lawsuit in Florida and charges by the Florida State Attorney General, SCI agreed to pay $100 million dollars to the Jewish families who had trusted one of SCI’s many subsidiaries, Menorah Gardens, to bury their dead.
SCI-owned Menorah Gardens books gravesites in advance, and it had way overbooked the gravesites at Menorah Gardens, as it often does. Having done so, it overpacked them with bodies, lost track of who was buried – if they were buried – where, then dug up and discarded corpses in nearby woods to make room for more. In one particularly grisly incident, it bashed into a crypt with a backhoe to remove corpses and discard them to make room for more.
George Bush, however, is such a close family friend of SCI CEO Robert Waltrip that he did his best to save SCI from paying $450,000 in fines for using unlicensed embalmers, with grisly consequences, in Texas. And he has been so generous in the extension of reconstruction contracts to his corporate family friends that it’s quite difficult to believe that “haggling over the price” really postponed the recovery of New Orleans’ mostly poor, mostly Black dead.
As this “haggling over the price” went on, the number of “American” soldiers, including the first, a Central American, and the 1,000th, a Navajo, to die in Iraq was nearing the 2,000 mark, scheduled to trigger anti-war demonstrations all over the country. And the national mobilization in D.C. against the war was only days away.
Recovery of more casualties within the bounds of the nation state that the war on Iraq was said to be defending might have given this country pause. Some might even have realized that, at that time, New Orleans had become the newest front in the war of the super-rich on the rest of us. The 500 yellow cakes – of milled uranium ore – that Saddam Hussein had allegedly imported from French-owned mines in Niger had long since been discounted.
Little could be more audacious, disgusting and tasteless than hiring Kenyon International, a subsidiary of SCI, already repeatedly convicted not only of desecrating, but also of even losing track of and literally discarding the dead. But who would be better suited to keep New Orleans death count comfortably below the approaching 2,000 U.S. military casualty number in Iraq and below the 2,986 9/11 casualty count, reputed victims of Osama bin Laden? SCI had contracts to recover and bury the dead in New York and Pennsylvania after 9/11 as well and to counsel the bereaved in both states.
Finally, embarrassed and disgusted by the so-called “haggling” between FEMA and SCI subsidiary Kenyon International, Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco took charge and signed Kenyon International’s contract to begin the recovery of New Orleans dead. The contract is ongoing, though the official number still has not topped 2,000. But if anyone believes the official number, I’d like to sell you the Mississippi River Bridge.
SCI International has not only settled repeated legal charges for its unceremonious disposal of the dead in the U.S.A. for corporate profit, but has also rushed to recover remains, count the dead and “return effects” in the Bali bombings, the truck bombing at the U.N. in Baghdad and nearly every suspicious plane crash in recent history. See SCI subsidiary Kenyon International’s list of Disaster Management contracts.
Now: Opening a new front on the war in Bayview Hunters Point
The Redevelopment Agency is now fighting hard to open a new front in the war right here in San Francisco. If passed, their Redevelopment “Concept Plan” for Bayview Hunters Point will be an attack of the super-rich, the highly capitalized and corporate organized, on the rest of us, especially the poorest and most vulnerable, who are, of course, as a result of colonialism in Bayview Hunters Point, mostly Black and Brown – 48 percent Black and 43 percent Brown, precisely. Some Supervisors seem to feel uncomfortable about voting against Sophie Maxwell, the only Black Supervisor on the Board, and seem confused by what they perceive as division within the Black community.
There is division indeed in Bayview Hunters Point and division amongst those of us who will be stuck with the bill for some $300 million in reconstruction – property taxes that will be diverted from the City’s General Fund to stuff the pockets of big developers to “redevelop” Bayview Hunters Point.
There is also division amongst those of us, throughout San Francisco, who will also be breathing the air stirred up when bulldozers, backhoes, cranes and the like begin digging into all the toxics, including radioactive waste, relentlessly dumped in Bayview Hunters Point for the past 60 years, in what is probably among the worst of many cases of environmental racism throughout this country. Even lying where they are, barely beneath the ground, all the toxics dumped in Bayview Hunters Point have already given it the highest breast cancer rate per capita in the entire U.S.A., infant mortality rates 2.5 times those of the rest of the city and far higher birth defects rates as well. (See http://www.sfbayview.com/102704/toxicblight102704.shtml, http://www.sfbayview.com/020905/healthistheissue020905.shtml, http://www.sfbayview.com/120804/lennarbuyssupport120804.shtml, http://www.asaging.org/diversity/EPA_Environment_and_Aging_Report.pdf and http://www.greenaction.org/hunterspoint/documents/TheStateoftheEnvironment090204Final.pdf.)
As to the Supervisors’ fear of voting against Supervisor Sophie Maxwell, they should get over it. Fast. Of course Sophie Maxwell is voting with the Redevelopment Agency. Hamed Karsai is also the president of Afghanistan. Condoleezza Rice is secretary of state. Jalal Talabani seems to be the president of Iraq for the moment, and someone named Nuri al-Maliki seems to be Iraq’s prime minister-designate, also for the moment. All brown-skinned heads of brown-skinned countries, but so what?
Not one of them is calling for a U.S. military or corporate pull-out from Afghanistan or Iraq. Black or Brown skin does not disadvantage those who side with the highly capitalized and corporate-organized super-rich, no more than white skin protects anyone who happens to be poor from aggressive military recruitment, toxic employment or a nuclear waste dump landing in their back yard.
I myself grew up in Bremerton, Washington, a town built around the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and, at that time, a far from wealthy, mostly white town, though it did have an unusually large Black population, which had migrated north, like those who migrated to Bayview Hunters Point, to work in the shipyard during World War II. Most students I went to high school with did not expect to attend college, and most residents seemed to feel that work in the shipyard was the best deal they would ever get.
That meant that speaking out against U.S. wars, the U.S. military and U.S. military expenditures made me unpopular at an early age. However, after many of those I grew up with died young and two of my own brothers contracted cancers in their 40s, I dug in to do some research and learned something the Navy had never told us: that Bremerton is the final resting and recycling place for all the nuclear-powered vessels in the U.S. Navy.
Some unfortunate U.S. Navy employees remove the spent nuclear fuel rods and send them off for disposal in Hanford, Washington, a largely white town with high cancer rates and a nuclear enrichment plant that was finally shut down due to irreparable contamination, though Hanford is still home to the largest nuclear power plant in the U.S.A. I also learned that Bremerton is on the path planned for nuclear waste returned to the U.S. for reprocessing, like that transported from a major nuclear accident in Japan.
Bremerton, despite having a shipyard much like that in Hunters Point, was nevertheless no San Francisco. Not by any means. Though, at least to me, it seemed not particularly racist, it was, at that time at least, extremely homophobic. Same sex love was something people didn’t even talk about, except to whisper, “Oooh … disgusting; how could they do that?” A couple of local college professors and our best high school English teacher were all suspect. Bremerton also voted for Ronald Reagan and celebrated his election because it was likely to mean larger military budgets and thus a bigger budget for the shipyard.
No such behavior, obviously, would be allowed here. Everyone knows that no Republican nor open racist nor homophobe can be elected in San Francisco. Nor can anyone supporting a foreign war expect to be elected here. However, how many of us believe that these foreign wars are really wars between nation states? Capital has long since become global, so isn’t it high time that the nation state and its aggressive and defensive armies become global as well – as in a United Nations not dominated by the nuclear superpowers of the U.N. Security Council?
Who among us believe that this war fought by American soldiers – including the Central American who was the first to die, the 19-year-old Navajo Indian who was the 1,000th to die, and the 34-year-old Black Texan who was the 2,000th to die – is really a war between nation states, between the United States and the nation state of Iraq, possessed by England at the conclusion of World War I and turned into a faux European nation state in 1932?
Most of us, especially those in New Orleans and in Bayview Hunters Point, know that this is a war of the corporate super-rich on the rest of us, especially, and first, on the poorest and most vulnerable, who, by the way, always – always – lack nuclear weapons. Why is it that those so evil as to be subjected to the full force of the U.S. military never seem to have nuclear weapons?
Nicaragua had none, nor did El Salvador, Panama, Afghanistan or Iraq. Mightn’t that be why Iran and Venezuela dream of having some, and the nuclear weapons empowered or nuclear weapons capable G-4 now knock on the door of the U.N. Security Council demanding a seat?
Now that the 500 yellow cakes of milled uranium ore from French-owned mines in Niger have long been discounted, not as French controlled yellow cakes mined and milled by miners now sick in Niger, but as Saddam Hussein’s imports to create the dreaded WMD, Donald Rumsfeld suddenly claims that newly found chemical weapons stores must have justified this war on Iraq. Some readers, particularly Gulf War vets, may have ideas about where the chemicals in these weapons came from, but, for now, let’s return to the basic question:
How many of us believe that these foreign wars are really wars between nation states? How many of us believe that they are instead, wars of the super rich, the highly capitalized and corporate organized, on the rest of us, particularly the poorest and most vulnerable, who are, as a result of history and whatever else, most often Brown and Black?
Those of us who believe that the war in Iraq is a war of the super-rich on the rest of us, and that the war my young friend Lorie Arsinaux Seruntine and many others describe in New Orleans is a front in the very same war, that of the super-rich on the rest of us, are also seeing that a new front in the very same war has long been opened here in San Francisco, by the Redevelopment Agency, which has always represented the super rich, the highly capitalized and corporate organized, like the Lennar Corp., its chosen “Master Developer” of the Hunters Point Shipyard Redevelopment Project, building $100,000 Superfund Condos next to a 46-acre nuclear waste dumpsite.
Or the Catellus Corp., the “Master Developer” of Mission Bay, which Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her banker husband Richard Blum own significant interests in. Or the Treasure Island Redevelopment contract awarded to former Mayor Willie Brown’s two biggest campaign contributors, who were guaranteed a 25 percent return on their $40 million investment. We, the taxpayers of San Francisco, put up the other $350 million.
Laurence Pelosi, stepson of House Whip Nancy Pelosi and former campaign treasurer for his first cousin, Mayor Gavin Newsom, is also a former vice president of a Lennar subsidiary redeveloping the Shipyard. Lennar, a corporation based in Florida, about as far from San Francisco as one could get, recently “acquired 37 communities in the Phoenix, San Diego and Orange County areas.”
Does San Francisco want any more of its communities acquired, built and/or re-built by the Lennar Corp. or other huge corporate “Master Developers” represented by politicians with flagrant conflicts of interest that flagrantly break the law against such conflicts of interest in the state of California?
Many of us see, within the Bayview Hunters Point district and without, strategic similarities in the wars being waged in Iraq, in New Orleans and here in our own home town. (We have been spared the bombs, thus far, though not the toxics, especially in Bayview, which may soon fill the skies above all of us as whoever is named the next Master Developer starts ramming into the Bay Area’s worst toxic dump with backhoes, bulldozers, cranes and wrecking balls.)
Basic strategy in Iraq
1) Plan to bomb every major city in the country to rubble.
2) Get your lobbyists – Joseph Allbaugh in the lead – pushing for reconstruction contracts even before the first bombs drop. Never mind the U.N.
3) Get the rest of us taxpayers to pay for the bombs and for the huge reconstruction contracts won by the corporate lobbyists and woefully fulfilled by the winners. Let the national debt – that owed by the rest of us, whose assets do not span the globe – soar beyond $8 trillion dollars to fill the pockets of the global super-rich, the highly capitalized and corporate-organized.
4) Make sure not to significantly employ or train many Iraqis in the reconstruction of next to nothing so as to avoid leaving much money behind.
5) Control local resources, in this case oil, so as to control its price on the international market.
Basic strategy in New Orleans
1) Let the levees crumble by defunding the Army Corps budget for repairing them until three quarters of the city floods.
2) Stop as many volunteers as possible from getting in to help the victims, and stop people – people sharing food and water after the floodwaters subsided – from helping each other. Drive them out of their homes at gunpoint into the baking hot sun on the Mississippi River Bridge and then “evacuate” them, without even asking where they might have family or might want to go, and keep barely any records of where they have gone.
3) Get lobbyists – again, with former FEMA Chief Allbaugh turned Halliburton, Bechtel, Shaw and SCI lobbyist in the lead – down to the Gulf Coast ahead of FEMA Chief Michael Brown or President George Bush.
4) Get the rest of us to pay millions in sympathy and distraction taxes to the Red Cross and then use the rest of our taxes to pay for $2.5 billion in hurricane relief to Louisiana energy companies, including Entergy, a hugely capitalized new leader in nuclear energy, half a billion in tax credits to the gambling industry and similarly huge dollar figures to Bechtel, Halliburton, the Shaw Corp. and little-known Circle B Industries, a manufacturer of kitschy-coo Western trailer theme parks.
5) Then, in May, kick most of the poor, mostly Black, mostly scattered evacuees off their FEMA vouchers, even though no one but a smattering of volunteers have rebuilt anything for them to go home to. They’ll be so isolated, damaged and discouraged that they won’t have a lot of fight left.
6) Seize local resources, i.e., the property, which, like all inner city property, has highly appreciated with the rising oil prices, long commutes and the end of the safe suburban dream.
Basic strategy in San Francisco and, right now, imminently, in Bayview Hunters Point
1) Pay the Redevelopment Agency to spend 10 years writing a “Redevelopment Concept Plan” to destroy a neighborhood neglected and assaulted with toxics, 80 percent of the City’s solid waste and high level radiation from the National Radiological Defense Laboratory, plus a nuclear dumpsite, fallout from weapons tests hauled back from the Pacific for 60 years.
2) Position corporate lobbyists while the “concept plan” is being conceptualized.
3) Then give Mayor Gavin Newsom the right of eminent domain and the land grant authority of a king over “redevelopment” building contracts for 1,300 plus acres. Rebuild big and fast, making big fast profits for huge corporations. Shatter the community; then take the money and run.
4) As in Iraq and New Orleans, make sure not to employ local people or contract with local business longer than necessary to satisfy token local employment and training requirements, so as to avoid leaving any money behind.
5) As in New Orleans, seize the highly appreciated inner city property.
6) Make sure San Francisco taxpayers pay companies like Florida-based Lennar, Redevelopment’s last big corporate prizewinner, to destroy a neighborhood, scatter a lot of our neighbors, and make a bundle building a gargantuan planned “community,” totally out of character with everything people love about San Francisco – unique houses, built one by one, by individuals, and neighborhoods that grew as they built those houses, one by one, over the past 150 years.
The City – that’s us, supposedly – and the Redevelopment Agency will wait to get theirs in increased property taxes, though some highly capitalized, corporate-organized members of city government aren’t likely to have to wait that long, being members and special friends of the super-rich, the highly capitalized and corporate organized.
Will our Bayview Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan money stay in the Bayview? Will it develop skills and businesses there and build a mutually supportive commercial community that lives beyond the big building project?
Of course not. The money will leave, become further concentrated in the hands of fewer corporations – and their local friends – and vanish into further mergers, disappear in search of new even larger projects – new wars, disasters, even epidemics, and more urban “blight” – not high level radiation, but unpainted houses and broken porches – all projects of a size large enough to guarantee the rate of return required by highly concentrated capital growing ever more so. Will the money and the great big plan create community? Of course not. Community can only be created by the day-to-day interactions of individuals.
Yes, Black Bayview Supervisor Sophie Maxwell will vote for the plan; Sophie was elected the same year thousands of ballots were left untended across the street from City Hall and then found floating around in the Bay, unreadable. PG&E fought off public power in San Francisco that year too. If it passes, the Bayview Hunters Point Redevelopment Plan will take care of Sophie – and Gavin Newsome – for life. (As though Gavin were not taken care of.) With so much patronage, they will never have to raise another campaign dollar in their political lives.
And I’m sure there are plenty of people in Bayview who understandably think that this is the best deal they can hope for. I understand that. I honestly do. I grew up in a town that felt the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, last resting and recycling place to every nuclear-powered vessel in the Navy, was the best deal they were ever gonna get.
But I myself am far from perfect, and I have to believe that not only I, but also Sophie and Gavin and everyone else supporting this toxic Redevelopment for the Rich Plan could do better, much better, and that we would all be better for it.
Why not use the same $300 million budgeted for enriching the rich to make small 0 percent loans to individual Bayview homeowners who can’t get loans for home improvement, despite good credit and large amounts of equity in their homes, because banks have redlined their mostly Black and Brown neighborhoods?
Why not use our money to make 0 percent loans to small, local developers, those who build a house or two or rehab one building at a time, then maybe another, those who have roots in the Bayview Hunters Point community, rather than Florida and the global corporotacracy?
Don’t Bayview residents deserve this after being saturated with toxics, including high level radiation for all these years, the highest breast cancer rate in the entire country and 80 percent of this City’s solid waste, pushed out there for chemical dousing before being pushed out into the Bay?
If we’re going to spend $300 million, why not spend it on soil remediation, solar installation, community gardening, a community food system, electric rail lines, and everything else that might make Bayview a stellar example of green reclamation and environmental recovery?
Why not use some of this $300 million to fund scholarships for Bay View Hunters Point students to attend the Bay Area’s several excellent green colleges and universities to learn all the green skills now much in demand in the booming green industries. It takes less than 16 months to train a solar installer, and solar business means small business, distributed business. So do community gardening, community-based food systems and community waste disposal – unlike the Bay Area’s disgraceful disposal of all its toxics and most of its solid waste – in Bayview Hunters Point.
Distributed energy means distributed power, energetic and political. So does distributed food production and food sales, and so distributed waste. If every community in America, including Sea Cliff, Pacific Heights, Russian Hill and Noe Valley, kept the nuclear waste – and the solid waste they generate – instead of storing or shipping it elsewhere, we’d soon see the end of nuclear waste and find a more environmentally friendly way of dealing with our own solid waste, in our own neighborhoods. Some aspects of life are simply too basic for the oblivious delegation we’ve all indulged in for so very long.
Email Ann Garrison at email@example.com.