In the shadow of the 'Man on a White Horse'

The military presence in New Orleans has sinister implications for the future of the US. But all is not bleak, writes Martin Schreader

It is hard to write this article, a follow-up to my report on the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's waves of devastation that hit the Gulf Coast of the US on August 29. It is hard, not because there is no new information to report, but because there is information to report - information that has chilling implications for the future of the US. Since Katrina passed through, New Orleans has been essentially sealed off from the rest of the country. As of this writing, over 65,000 military personnel - from the army, navy, marines, coast guard and national guard, more than one-third the size of the US force in Iraq - are deployed across Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, most of them in and around New Orleans. At first glance, it would seem that this is a misprint. But, as the information 'fog' that surrounds the immediate aftermath of any great event has begun to lift, and facts begin to coalesce into a coherent, singular 'truth', we are beginning to understand more why so many soldiers, sailors, marines and guardsmen are now stationed in the area. The picture that is emerging is one that is perhaps too horrifying and sickening to fathom. It is becoming increasingly clear that this so-called 'rescue effort' has an ulterior motive. Timeline of terror Here is what we have learned in the last week. Tuesday August 30 - as the levees were breached and water from the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain began to pour into New Orleans, the federal government sealed off the city and region. No one was allowed in or out. The American Red Cross was denied access to New Orleans. Meanwhile, the USS Bataan, a marine troop transport with a 600-bed hospital, helicopters, doctors and the ability to generate 100,000 gallons of fresh water a day, stood idle. Wednesday August 31 - food and water run out, and the poor and working people of New Orleans begin to organise foraging parties and armed self-defence groups to protect and care for the people trapped in the Superdome and convention centre. Fema, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, issues orders to block supplies from other parts of the country, and assistance from other federal agencies, from entering the region. This includes tanker trucks full of fresh water donated by Wal-Mart, offers by Amtrak (obviously feeling guilty for removing their trains from the region early) to send in trains to carry people out of the city, an offer from the US Forest Service to send water tanker aeroplanes, and aid from the city of Chicago and state of New Mexico. Thursday September 1 - in the face of massive shortages, rebellion in the ranks of the New Orleans police and the complete lack of any 'command and control' structures, the state authority fails, with power falling into the hands of armed neighbourhood communes, called "tribes" by the racist media, with those in the Superdome and convention centre also assuming similar structures. Some residents in the less flooded areas seek shelter on higher ground, and are met by armed New Orleans police guarding the wealthy neighbourhoods that sit in those areas. It is only in these wealthy areas, relatively untouched by the hurricane, where state authority remains, though stripped of its 'democratic' facade. Friday September 2 - as Bush prepares his 'Potemkin photo-op', flights of food, water and other needed supplies are grounded for hours. In advance of his landing, 1,000 members of the national guard are immediately deployed to the convention centre in a "clear and hold" mission ("clear and hold" is how the US military described its mission in Fallujah last November). This force is the spearhead of a larger military force, numbering 10,000, mustered outside New Orleans. As Bush was having his photo-op, federal officials were presenting Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco with a document to sign, allowing the federalisation of national guard troops under the Insurrection Act. This act allows the president to take control of state police and guardsmen when state governments are unable to 'suppress rebellion'. The media picks up on military statements that regard residents trapped in the city as "insurgents". Saturday September 3 - as more and more soldiers pour into the area, the federal government moves to neutralise local and state authority over the region. Communication lines in Orleans and Jefferson parishes (counties) are cut by Fema agents without any warning, then are quickly restored and guarded by local police. Failing to supplant the local authorities, Bush has dispatched Lieutenant General Russell Honore to establish a parallel command and control structure, completely bypassing the local and state authorities. Meanwhile, the Bush regime's propagandists begin to put out the line that the massive amount of death and devastation is a result of the failure of local and state officials. This is only the beginning of an orchestrated propaganda war waged from Washington against the people of the US. Sunday September 4 - thousands of corpses continue to float throughout the New Orleans area, with no thought of recovery entertained yet. Lt Gen Honore attempts to impose a blanket ban on any future reportage of the death count and seeks to censor media images of corpses, giving justifications similar to those used in Iraq. Reports of the character of the military operation begin to filter out to the public. Brigadier general Gary Jones, commander of the Louisiana national guard's joint task force, tells the Army Times: "This place is going to look like little Somalia. We're going to go out and take this city back. This will be a combat operation to get this city under control." An unnamed journalist asked Lt Gen Steven Blum, chief of the National Guard Bureau, if the reason why it took until Friday for the guard to enter the city with any significant aid was because they wanted to complete their 'combat-ready' build-up. The reply: "That is not only fair; it is accurate. You've concisely stated exactly what was needed, and I told you why. We took the time to build the right force." Monday September 5 - residents previously trapped in the Superdome and convention centre are being shipped out by plane and bus. Many of these residents are being herded on to transports, not told where they are going until they are en route. Some families are separated and sent to separate places - sometimes hundreds or thousands of miles apart. Evacuees are not allowed to take any more than one piece of carry-on luggage. As the media-friendly 'shelters' in Houston, Baton Rouge, St Louis and other cities close, Fema redirects buses and planes to remote camps in Oklahoma, Utah and Colorado, where they are cut off from the world. Dress rehearsal Only one conclusion can be drawn from the actions of the federal government, specifically Fema and the US military, in response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina: this was a dress rehearsal for martial law and the deployment of the military on US soil in an aggressive posture for the first time since the end of the Reconstruction. To some, this may seem like an overreaction. But, in the context of other information and reports that emerged over the month prior to this event, the thought of military rule in the US is not so ridiculous. On August 8, the Washington Post ran a front-page article outlining military plans ostensibly designed to handle domestic terrorist attacks. However, it is clear that these plans are meant to provide for control of large sections of the US population, and can be used for reasons other than 'anti-terrorism'. These plans, compiled by the North American Command (Northcom) of the US military, allow for the deployment of thousands of soldiers in domestic policing, population transfer, counterinsurgency actions and information management. Sound familiar? Elements of these plans, called Conplan 0500 and Conplan 2002, sound eerily like the steps taken by the military and federal government in response to Katrina: isolation of the affected zone, establishment of authoritative and unchallenged command and control, and authority over distribution of aid and supplies, population transfer (including destinations and means of transport) and information. Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of Northcom, made it clear that he believed the military was the best agent for dealing with major catastrophes: "In my estimation ... the department of defence is best positioned - of the various eight federal agencies that would be involved - to take the lead." When the Post reporter asked about the use of military personnel in domestic policing services, "senior Northcom officers remain[ed] reluctant to discuss specifics. Keating said such situations, if they arise, probably would be temporary, with lead responsibility passing back to civilian authorities" (emphasis mine). They "probably would be temporary". Then again, maybe not. In 1878, the Congress, in the grip of the backlash against Reconstruction, passed the Posse Comitatus Act, which restricts the deployment of the armed forces, except for the guard forces, to instances of "war, invasion or rebellion". Rightwing politicians in the US have sought to undermine this act since the late-1960s. In 1984, a marine corps officer presented to the National Security Council plans for the round-up and detention of 300,000 Central American immigrants and political opponents of Washington's plans in El Salvador and Nicaragua, called Operation Rex-84. That Marine officer was Lt Colonel Oliver North, later of Iran-Contra infamy. Based on past experience, and the information at hand, the conclusion that what we have seen in New Orleans over the last two weeks comes out of Northcom's plans reported in the Washington Post does not seem so far-fetched. 'Man on a White Horse' It is also in this context that we begin to understand more about the bourgeoisie's fascination with, and lionising of, Lt Gen Honore. Since he landed in New Orleans on September 3, Honore has been the darling of both government officials and the capitalist media. He has become a larger-than-life figure, a "John Wayne dude", according to New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin. The Washington Post, in a fit of slobbering sycophancy, described him thus: "There's the swagger, and that ever-present stogie ... There's the height and heft of his physique. And that barking voice with its font of perhaps impolitic obscenities, ... not to mention his penchant for not suffering fools, as is the prerogative of a three-star general." Looking like a reject from some Capra-esque World War II propaganda film, Honore strides across the region like he is the great saviour of the thousands of people suffering in the wake of Katrina. However, little is mentioned in the media about how he was the man responsible for keeping the region sealed off from aid and supplies, for mustering thousands of soldiers to mount what is effectively a combat operation, and for usurping authority from local and state officials in the name of the Bush regime. This 'take-charge' general reorganised a relief effort into a military invasion. Honore's arrival was not the salvation of New Orleans, but marked the region's transformation, in the eyes of the Bush regime, into a new Fallujah. There is no question that the designation of survivors of Katrina as "insurgents" came directly from this 'man of action'. But there is something more dangerous than Honore himself in this story. It is, in fact, the myth being built up around him - as a 'man of action', a 'take-charge' "John Wayne dude" with a "penchant for not suffering fools". To any student of US interventions in the latter half of the 20th century, these kinds of laurels are chillingly familiar. They echo the way that the American ruling class, through its media mouthpieces of the day, talked about Chile's Pinochet, Cuba's Batista, the Philippines' Marcos, and, yes, Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Honore is now America's 'Man on a White Horse': a military leader who can take charge in times of great crisis, can 'save civilisation' from the scourges of unrest, disorder and anarchy. Again, only one conclusion can be drawn from this ... and that conclusion chills this author to the bone. Spectres When all of this information is taken together and laid out in a clear fashion, a dynamic emerges that potentially places the United States of America on the road to military rule and dictatorship unfettered by the last vestiges of capitalist democracy. It is not too much to say that this spectre hangs over the people of this country like a pall. But it is not the only spectre that haunts this country. These preparatory moves, if they are to be seen as such, are the result of the capitalists' recognition of the potential for social explosion in the US in this period. In the last 25 years, through the Ronald Reagan, George HW Bush, Bill Clinton and George W Bush presidencies, a relentless attack has been waged against poor and working people in this country. Basic social welfare programmes have been drastically cut or eliminated; most of the programmes initiated under the 'new deal' of the 1930s and the 'great society' of the 1960s have all but disappeared, or have been made worthless. The 'social safety net' has been pulled out from under those who need it the most, leaving millions to suffer under the weight of crushing poverty or turn to the 'underground economy'. The rights, living standards and organisations of working people have been steadily attacked since Reagan broke the air traffic controllers' strike in 1981. Today, the percentage of unionised workers in the private sector is lower than it was in 1901. The AFL-CIO, the main union federation in the US, has become a gross caricature of itself, helping to break strikes by independent unions and bleeding its members through credit schemes that enrich those at its highest levels. The working class has been effectively disarmed and atomised by the capitalists and their 'labour lieutenants'. The left in the US is ineffective, hindered by its small size and general inability to understand events - to say nothing of the fact that most of the large left organisations are in, and refuse to break from, the orbit of the capitalists' Democratic Party. Those organisations that can muster an independent presence and mobilise people regularly foist their narrow organisational concerns and/or 'campaigns' on immediate issues, and the main focus blurs in the din of a thousand slogans. So where does that leave us? There are plenty of urgent tasks that revolutionary socialists and communists must take on, but we are either scattered, along with our class, or effectively prisoners of left organisations run by those whose interests are not in line with those of working people. But even though these old organisations have either integrated themselves into the capitalist order, or have become as myopic as to be blind to what is happening around them, there are still thousands of working people who consider themselves revolutionary socialists and communists who are ready to take on these tasks in an organised and principled manner. It is within them that the other spectre - the spectre of social change, of liberation from exploitation and oppression, of socialism and communism - rests. It may take time, perhaps even more time than we have at our disposal today, to draw together these fragmented strands of working people's resistance and rebellion into a unified political movement that can effectively challenge the existing order. But it is a task that we all, including this author, must take as our own. What I have written above may seem to paint a bleak picture, but I remain confident. Every day, that spectre finds a home in another working person outraged at the war in Iraq, the Bush regime's attacks on democratic rights and living standards, and the treatment of people from New Orleans. I know that they, too, will step forward - perhaps with us, perhaps just behind us. But they will be there. Nature abhors a vacuum, someone once wrote. Not even 65,000 soldiers led by a 'Man on a White Horse' can fill the vacuum created by the confluence of social inequality, political instability and economic devastation. It can only be a safety pin holding together the edges of a torn parachute. And that, in its own way, gives me hope for the future.