Hurricane Aftermath and the ACLU
Hurricanes Katrina and Rita seized - and shocked - our national psyche in an unprecedented way. We saw image after image of poor, black, disenfranchised Americans cast aside. But these victims were, in effect, cast aside when the issues of racism and poverty merged into one, long before a hurricane made landfall on August 29. solution to Katrina requires moral leadership to begin an earnest conversation about why some were left behind in the storm, while others were able to "board the ark."
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As ACLU Executive Director Anthony D. Romero said in a speech shortly after the hurricanes hit, a
In the wake of Katrina, the ACLU formed a working group composed of staff from the ACLU offices in the affected areas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Texas, and Alabama, and from the National and Washington Legislative Offices. The group is exploring crucial issues confronting survivors as well as the failures in preparedness and response that must be addressed:
- In a comprehensive, book-length report released in August 2006, the ACLU documented the experience of prisoners and guards at the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) in Louisiana, many of whom were trapped in deadly conditions. Learn more >>
- In June, an ACLU delegation traveled to Geneva to ask the United Nations Human Rights Committee (HRC) to hold the U.S. government accountable for its human rights abuses under internationally recognized norms and treaties. The ACLU conveneed a panel of human rights victims, which included victims of Hurricane Katrina, and submitted a report to the committee. Read more >>
- The ACLU and its affiliates have conducted fact-finding tours in the affected Gulf Coast states and they are working with other advocates to ensure that civil liberties and human rights concerns are addressed, including those related to housing, education, voting and racial profiling.
- In Mississippi, the ACLU is representing displaced students from New Orleans who were singled out for harsh discipline by officials at a local high school. The ACLU of Mississippi also helped to stop the eviction of Katrina refugees and is battling dragnet drug sweeps of FEMA camps.
- In Louisiana, the ACLU has filed numerous official requests regarding the evacuation of prisoners during the storm and has called for an end to racial profiling and disparate treatment of Katrina refugees. An extensive voting rights initiative helped thousands of displaced persons from Orleans Parish gain access to the ballot box during recent elections.
At a news conference in Mississippi August 29 commemorating the Katrina anniversary, ACLU human rights attorney Chandra Bhatnagar said, "We are here to deliver one simple message loud and clear, human rights begin at home."
In the days following Hurricane Katrina's landfall in New Orleans, the pre-trial detainees and prisoners in Orleans Parish Prison were abandoned by correctional staff, and were left in unsafe and unhealthy conditions without food, water, power, or sanitation. The haphazard evacuation that followed was the result of the Orleans Parish Criminal Sheriff's failure to devise and implement an evacuation plan. The ACLU has collected over 1,000 first-hand accounts of what happened to these individuals, and is working with local and national organizations to give these people a voice. The ACLU is evaluating litigation and policy options for redressing the injuries suffered by these individuals, and addressing the ongoing problems faced by those who are once again residing in Orleans Parish Prison.
>More on Prison Conditions and Prisoner Abuse After Katrina
The ACLU's commitment to ensuring adequate defense to the indigent dates back to the 1930's, with our involvement in "The Scottsboro Boys" case. Since then, we've fought vigorously to balance the scales of justice for those who don't have the financial means to afford zealous advocates. The ACLU is monitoring the current indigent defense crisis in Louisiana: approximately 3,500 people charged with crimes in New Orleans have remained in pre-trial detention without meaningful access to lawyers or a fair trial since Hurricane Katrina hit in August 2005.
The ACLU believes that every child has a right to a quality public education. Displaced students should be able to access a free and appropriate education wherever they are. The ACLU is monitoring incidents of limited acess to schools and educational resources, student placement issues and unfair disciplinary procedures including the funneling of displaced students into the school to prison pipeline.
>ACLU Fights to Keep Three Students from New Orleans in Mississippi Public School
In response to the housing crises in hurricane-devastated areas and the government inaction in remedying many of these problems, the ACLU has been partnering with local and national organizations to collect information on housing issues and to disseminate information including Know Your Rights materials to affected communities, particularly communities of color.
> Louisiana Housing Know Your Rights Brochure (pdf)
> New Orleans Property Owners' Rights Q&A
Intensifying our efforts to hold the United States government accountable under universally recognized human rights principles, the ACLU has created a new Human Rights Working Group to incorporate human rights strategies and frameworks into ACLU advocacy. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, African American communities and other communities of color were not provided with basic human rights such as adequate shelter, medical care, food and clean water. Working closely with the ACLU of Mississippi and the ACLU of Louisiana, the ACLU has conducted fact-finding trips to affected areas and has developed a strategy of international human rights advocacy to ensure that the right to permanent housing, education, health, work and a decent standard of living will be provided equally, regardless of race or ethnicity, to all those displaced by Katrina, as required by the United Nations Guidelines on Internally Displaced Persons and other universal human rights obligations. One example of this strategy is a human rights documentation project and advocacy effort on behalf of internally displaced children in the state of Mississippi who are being tracked into the school to prison pipeline.
More Information on the ACLU's Human Rights Work >>
Historically, racial profiling and police misconduct have plagued the Gulf coast region. These problems were made worse by Katrina, especially in New Orleans, where historical corruption and a rash of shootings of suspects spilled over into the treatment of residents during the hurricane and its aftermath. The Campaign Against Racial Profiling is tracking police activity and educating citizens on how to protect themselves when confronted by law enforcement in their everyday lives and during demonstrations.
>Know You Rights "Bust Card"
The ACLU of Louisiana has carried on with our long tradition in the area of voting rights by supporting maximum voter turnout for elections in hurricane affected regions. To that end, a "know your rights" pamphlet advises voters how to register for the first time, request an absentee ballot, and actually vote in and around the New Orleans area. At the state legislative level, we lobbied for the passage of a number of bills to increase voter participation. That effort carried forward to the Secretary of State, where we have pushed for provisions to make absentee, early and day of election voting easy and accessbile, especially for displaced residents.
>ACLU of Louisiana Voters' Guide for Orleans Parish Elections
Congress and the Bush administration are considering some measures to provide relief to Gulf Coast hurricane survivors that threaten their civil rights and civil liberties. These measures include actions that significantly impact public education, religious liberty, housing, voting rights, and workers' rights. Many of their actions fail to address the pressing needs of these communities, but also in several instances, they exacerbate existing problems by increasing racial and economic disparities and undermine basic constitutional principles of equal protection and due process. The ACLU is monitoring proposed federal legislative, administrative, and regulatory measures and providing recommended actions as appropriate.
> Memo to Interested Persons on Katrina Relief Policies and Legislative Action