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Desperately Seeking Sunlight

Chandra Bhatnagar,
Senior Staff Attorney,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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May 31, 2008

Hurricane Katrina was a catastrophe and a natural disaster, but the U.S. government’s response to the storm has been even more catastrophic and disastrous. The severity of the storm, combined with governmental inaction, incompetence, callousness, and discrimination in providing relief to individuals in need created a second disaster, and was a stark reminder of the enduring impact of American apartheid and the contemporary forms of racial and economic inequality that persist.

Against this bleak backdrop, Mr. Doudou Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, was welcomed by Gulf Coast residents and local and national advocates, as an independent and internationally recognized human rights monitor who could document the very real human rights abuses that continue in the Gulf Coast region. During his visit, Mr. Diène toured New Orleans, Biloxi, Miss., and other parts of the Gulf Coast and heard testimony from affected community members and advocates in issue areas ranging from criminal justice, education, the rights of immigrant and African-American low-wage workers, housing, immigration detention and deportation, and environmental justice.

As part of his tour of New Orleans, Mr. Diène was taken to the Crescent City Connection Bridge where police fired guns to block African-American residents seeking refuge from the flood waters during the storm, he also visited the Lower 9th Ward, where he met with residents and saw the devastation that the community has endured.

Mr. Diène began his day by driving by the notorious Orleans Parish Prison, where he heard about serious human rights violations chronicled in the ACLU’s report, Abandoned and Abused. During the tour and in the hearings later in the day, Mr. Diène was told the decision to not evacuate the prison before the storm resulted in some prisoners dying before officers finally came to evacuate them. He heard how guards used pepper spray to subdue prisoners, assaulted them with rifle butts, shot at them with beanbag guns — some in the back, and made them lie down on the muddy prison floor with the explanation that the guards needed to “restore order” or to prevent prisoners “escaping” rising floodwaters. Most of all, he heard about rampant racial discrimination that prisoners faced. One story is expressed very poignantly by Mr. Clarence Norman in the ACLU report to the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination:

I witnessed several inmates with various medical conditions suffer from dehydration— we were forced to live off toilet water, and lie in our own waste and bodily fluids. We were drinking out of toilets because that is all we had…They used to set the food trays on the floor…I asked why they did that, and they said we were like monkeys, and that’s what you do with animals at the zoo.

Later in the day during the hearings, Mr. Diène was told about the exploitation of low-wage workers in the Gulf Coast region and the relationship between the lack of economic opportunity offered to African-American workers and the severe exploitation and abuse suffered by immigrant workers. He heard about undocumented immigrant workers being harassed and racially profiled by police, being cheated out of their wages, and suffering discrimination and health and safety abuses on the job. He heard about immigrant “guest-workers” being lured to the region with promises of good-paying, steady jobs, and paying exorbitant amounts of money to recruiters contracted by hiring companies, and once they arrive deep in debt, the workers are denied basic workplace protections.

He was told of the inherent abuses in the U.S. guest-worker program, including the lack of visa portability and workers’ reliance upon “employer-sponsors” to remain in the U.S. This creates a Catch-22 for workers, as they’re effectively unable to challenge employer abuse and exploitation without facing the threat of deportation and being forced into labor to pay off debt. Mr. Diène was told that these factors, combined with exploitative working conditions, and fraud and abuse in recruitment and subcontracting, leave guest-workers in extremely vulnerable situations that are often compounded by physical and linguistic isolation, racial discrimination, and on occasion violence and physical abuse. He also heard that low-wage South Asian and Muslim workers are particularly vulnerable, as they face anti-immigrant hostility, employment abuse, and post-9/11-related discrimination.

It has been said that “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Sadly, more than 2 1/2 years after one of the most severe natural disasters to ever impact a major American city and entire region, residents are still in search of “sunlight,” or accountability for the serious and systemic human rights violations that occurred. We have yet to have a 9/11 Commission-style investigation into what happened before, during, and after Katrina; moreover, even today, people are still in desperate need of governmental assistance in returning to their homes and communities and rebuilding their lives. Mr. Diène saw and heard much during his time in the Gulf Coast, it is the hope of many residents here that the “international sunlight” that his visit and report brings will create additional pressure on the federal, state, and local governments to comply with their human rights obligations and to allow residents the opportunity to return and rebuild.

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