However, five days after Katrina made landfall, New Orleans, built a temporary jail. Under the direction of State Prison Warden Burl Cain, prison laborers from Angola assembled cages out of chain link fencing and razor wire in the parking lot of an abandoned bus station to create what the good warden called "Camp Greyhound."
"This is a real start to rebuilding this city, this jail," warden Cain said to the NYTimes.
Why did New Orleans start reconstruction by building a prison camp?
There was a lot of media attention on stories of people in New Orleans performing heroic acts:
But that attention shifted from images of heroism to images of predominantly black people doing some "Katrina shopping."
Remember the "looters"?
Of course that video was the sensationalist one. See how another news network turned the same footage into a comedic farce:
A sleight of hand: the first newsreel edited out footage of white people looting, while the second includes them. Coincidence? Perhaps. Consider the following two photographs and captions pulled off the AP.
The caption to the photo of the black man reads, "A young man walks through chest deep floodwater after looting a grocery store." The caption of the photo for the white people reads, "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." Many people have written about the representation of "black looters" versus "resourceful whites," and I don't want to recapitulate that debate here.
I'd like to start an analysis of how this conceptual framework enabled the slide into governmental procedures far more dangerous than mere racial bias in media coverage.
As rumors circulated of violent crime, roving bands of black men shooting at helicopters, and general chaos breaking out in the flooded city, police and National Guardsmen switched from performing rescue operations to conducting military patrols and checkpoints in the streets. Gov. Kathleen Blanco issued a statement to CNN: "I have one message for these hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will."
Rumors of violent crime have now been proven unfounded, and the "crime" was largely limited to petty theft.
Police and military personnel claimed there was an outbreak of "total anarchy" or an "insurgency" throughout many parts of the city, and responded with an unprecedented deployment of 50,000 National Guard Troops, and some 20,000 active duty Military personnel.
"This place is going to look like Little Somalia," Brig. Gen. Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana National Guard's Joint Task Force told Army Times Friday as hundreds of armed troops under his charge prepared to launch a massive citywide security mission from a staging area outside the Louisiana Superdome. "We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control."The images do look like a third world urban war zone. In fact, Many of the National Guard troops who Gov. Blanco said "know how to shoot and kill" learned those techniques in tours of duty in Iraq, before being redeployed to New Orleans. I can't help but wonder why an African metaphor was chosen instead of something more current, like Fallujah.
[Photo from CNBC, the man above was arrested for looting because he was in possession of a few beers]
"A combat mission" in an American city began. As valuable government personnel and resources shifted a portion of their focus from rescue and evacuation to law and order operations to fight the chimera of violent crime, the portion of the population who could not evacuate was made into prisoners of this war--detainees.
But the jail was underwater.
So "Camp Greyhound" was the first public works construction project of New Orleans. Over the course of the 6 weeks of it's operation, 1,200 detainees were bussed in to the depot where they were processed and held for many days without trial before being shipped off to other facilities throughout the state. Detaines slept on the asphalt.
Claude Moman, the first detainee according to USA Today , allegedly stole a rental car on Thursday after the storm and drove to the Greyhound bus station to get a ticket out of town. Instead of finding an escape route, he drove into the center of the New Orleans state of exception, was charged with auto theft and put in a cage. One group at Camp Greyhound was arrested for fleeing the city in a "stolen" mail truck. Most were arrested for looting.
There are a number of questions we could ask about the racial dimensions of this situation. For instance, why were rumors of black men shooting down helicopters simply accepted as fact?
While I think the racialization of crime is an important question, and I'd like to return to it more fully in future posts, there's another line of inquiry we could take. The government failed to plan for the evacuation of the poorest of neighborhoods, and placed 20,000-30,000 uncomfortable, tired people into a cramped sports field for five days with minimal provisions. What if violent crime had broken out inside the Superdome? Are the origins of Katrina crime to be found in a violent people, "hoodlums" in Gov. Blanco's terms, or in poor government planning?
The "criminals of Katrina" are clearly victims of circumstance. A government that could not ensure their survival criminalized their survival techniques. A government terrified of armed citizens armed itself to the teeth. A government whose jail flooded constructed a camp to administer justice. A simple reading of these events would be that of projection, or scapegoating, and there is no doubt that media attention shifted from a scathing portrayal of government problems to a terrifying portrait of chaos.
The spectacular drama of a breakdown in "Law & Order" appears to be a drama of anarchy, rebellion and criminality. At a deeper level of analysis, the situation is actually a crisis of raison d'état. A government that failed it's citizens with poorly constructed levees, bad crisis management and delayed evacuations, violently reestablished its legitimacy with force. "Camp Greyhound" and the militarization of New Orleans are flip sides of a cypher that we might use to uncover our contemporary political situation. If government failures in the Katrina crisis transformed the human figures of that failure into detainees at one end of the spectrum and refugees at the other, might the large scale socio-economic failures of government be transforming similar figures into America's swelling prison population? In this analysis, Katrina appears to have exposed the dark underbelly of a generalized governmental failure and a corresponding expansion of military tactics over the population. Put concisely, when the state's power to protect its citizens floundered, the criminalization of citizens of New Orleans reestablished a reason for the existence of the state.
We might extend our argument even further. Perhaps, the fact that scenarios of this sort are poping up around the globe is evidence of a larger scale crisis of raison d'etat. That is certainly the perspective of the military establishment. Pentagon planners, and military officials are using Katrina data to conduct war-games of future domestic scenarios, according to Army Times. In fact, Congress passed legislation in 2006 overturning the century old Posse Comitatus Act, banning the deployment of active duty military personnel on domestic soil. The law was repealed in subsequent legislation in 2008, but the precedent has been set.
In the security complex that responded to Katrina, we can see the growing indistinction between police and military operations. The combat mission has been generalized, and so have the camps.