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The Byrne Report

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Five days after Katrina, Malik Rahim is in New Orleans without electricity, running water, medicine or real food. But he is dry, and his telephone works.

Rahim, a community organizer, lives in the Algiers District, which escaped the flood. When soldiers brought a modicum of relief, courtesy of a politically spooked president, on Saturday, Rahim had to use precious gasoline to drive a dozen miles for food and water. The troops do not want to rumble through Algiers, a largely black neighborhood near the central city.

"There is a dawn-to-dusk curfew here," says Rahim. "Vigilante whites are riding around with shotguns. Blacks are lying dead in the street."

Rahim ran for Congress on the Green Party ticket earlier this year. He asks that people come to New Orleans to rebuild the neighborhoods. He wants to start a "Green Cross," since the Red Cross is not to be found anywhere near Algiers. Rahim's pal from San Francisco, antiwar activist Gloria LaRiva, heard his call. She managed to evade the military blockade of New Orleans on Saturday, arriving just in time for a banquet of Meals Ready to Eat.

LaRiva gets on the line: "There are convenience stores with broken windows from the hurricane and food on shelves. But no one dares to enter them for fear of being shot."

Three years ago, the Times Picayune detailed how unprepared the government was for dealing with a major hurricane. Emergency planners knew that levees were antiquated and unstable, that a storm surge could kill thousands and that 100,000 impoverished blacks would not be able to evacuate. The Department of Homeland Security had no plan to house, feed and provide medical care to disaster victims. Lloyds of London, famous for insuring any risk, wrote New Orleans off. A real estate expert told the Picayune that thousands of homes and businesses would be seized by banks when refugees missed loan payments: "The banks will . . . resell that space. It will all be fire sale prices, and it will end up . . . owned by different people."

For years, the central government has assured Americans that spending billions on high-tech security equipment serves a "dual use purpose" of preparing first responders for earthquakes, hurricanes and floods as well as terrorist attacks. And then there is the Northern Command (known as NORTHCOM), which was mostly absent until Saturday. As I reported in the May/June issue of Mother Jones magazine, the Pentagon's newest combatant command covers North America with a blanket of surveillance. It has the power to take control of every National Guard, reserve and active military unit in the country upon order from the White House. Tens of thousands of soldiers, hundreds of huge transport planes, flotillas of helicopters, depots crammed with emergency supplies and construction equipment are (supposedly) held at the ready by NORTHCOM, poised to spring into emergency-relief work.

At its headquarters under Colorado's Cheyenne Mountain, NORTHCOM fuses state-of-the-art intelligence data gathered from ground sensors, cyberspace and outer space into a virtual-reality map it calls the "battlespace." And yet, according to a spokesperson, NORTHCOM was "not aware" that thousands of people were trapped for days inside the New Orleans convention center. Nor did the powerful command unleash its flotillas of Starlifter and Hercules cargo planes and Chinook choppers and ultracool communications systems to come to the aid of city and state responders overwhelmed by Katrina and its aftermath.

After Mayor Nagin gave his expletive-laced, no-nonsense radio interview chastising Bush for inaction, NORTHCOM jumped to attention. The feds started blaming the governor of Louisiana for not relinquishing her emergency authorities to Bush. Bureaucratic niceties aside, the most probable reason that NORTHCOM and the National Guards of the affected states sat quietly by as Katrina smashed the Gulf Coast is they were being held in reserve as a fighting force. When NORTHCOM assumes operational control of National Guard units, those soldiers automatically lose their police powers, i.e., they can no longer enforce laws, make arrests or shoot civilians; all they can do is combat foreign terrorists or perform relief work.

As the black people of New Orleans swam around in sewage on international television, Bush refrained from mobilizing the government's most powerful emergency response and humanitarian aid tool, reserving it, instead, for potential combat inside New Orleans, Biloxi, Mobile. In one fell moment, all the government propaganda about how the NORTHCOM is able and ready to defend Americans against natural disasters was unveiled as cant.

As of Monday, Bush had yet to utilize the full emergency assistance capability of the Northern Command by "federalizing" the National Guard, which is still empowered to shoot "looters" and to forcibly remove people from their homes and ruined businesses. At least one New Orleanian is making a stand.

"I am not leaving," says Malik Rahim.

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From the September 7-13, 2005 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.