July 17 at the Center for Constitutional Rights in Manhattan community organizers from Louisiana, progressive attorneys and elected officials announced that the International Tribunal on Hurricanes Katrina and Rita will be held in New Orleans from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, marking the second anniversary of the Katrina disaster. The tribunal will include hurricane survivors, expert witnesses, international delegations, a team of human rights and civil rights prosecutors, and a panel of U.S.-based and international judges.
Attorney Joan Gibbs of Medgar Evers Center for Law and Social Justice, who will also be part of the prosecution team, chaired the news conference. Speakers included Kwame Kalimara of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement; former Georgia Congress Member Cynthia McKinney; New York City Council Member Charles Barron; Kali Akuno of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund; and Viola François-Washington, an organizer with the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund and Executive Director for the Welfare Rights Organization.
Kalimara opened by announcing that President George W. Bush and Governors Kathleen Blanco and Haley Barbour (of Louisiana and Mississippi respectively) had all been officially advised that the Tribunal would be trying the U.S. government for crimes against humanity and genocide under the U.N. Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other relevant international agreements following the hurricanes that hit the Gulf Coast almost two years ago.
McKinney cited as an example of the crimes committed the incident at the Gretna Bridge, when more than a hundred hungry and thirsty Katrina survivors—mostly African-American—tried to flee across to dry land right after New Orleans was flooded in 2005 and were prevented from crossing by racist Gretna police officers, who fired on the crowd and shouted racist epithets.
McKinney also cited the suspension of the Second Amendment right to bear arms by Michael Chertoff, secretary of Homeland Security. Survivors found that their own weapons were confiscated, while mercenaries from Blackwater and other corporations were sent in to patrol the streets. “Instead of sending food, they sent men with guns,” McKinney said.
She pointed out that the blame for the ongoing disaster falls on both major political parties. “Bush was criticized for not mentioning Katrina in his 2007 State of the Union address, but Pelosi also failed to mention it in the Democratic Party’s first one hundred days in power.”
Barron said that the tribunal would be an opportunity to shed light on important institutional issues, including race, class and gender issues. He said, “We need to put enough pressure to put Katrina on the top of the agenda. Black people cannot let the government get away with what they did, because they left our people to die.”
Viola François-Washington, a Katrina survivor on the Gretna Bridge during the infamous incident, reported on the complete lack of any assistance during and after the storm. “We saw helicopters flying all over the city, but no one was helping us,” she said.
The racism that denied help to people during the disaster is still very much a reality. “We still have two cities,” François-Washington said. “One is getting help and the other has not.”