Back in the 1950s a black and white film – I forget the title – posed
a dilemma that will soon confront all of mankind. It is without doubt a question
that most people are totally unwilling to face. In the wake of the sinking of
a cargo ship, a group of survivors take refuge in an overcrowded lifeboat. The
dilemma, which soon becomes apparent to the tiny ship’s officer in charge,
is that there are too many people aboard the small craft and that it will sink
and kill all of them unless someone is cast overboard. This actually happened
in real life and the officer who made a decision to cast people off was subsequently
exonerated. Instead of sacrificing all lives in a politically correct gesture,
he saved some lives that would otherwise have been lost.
What happened after Hurricane Katrina is a different story.
In the aftermath of the storm we are seeing many ominous warnings of
choices that will come to us all sooner or later as hydrocarbon energy reserves
diminish in America and around the globe. None are easy. None are palatable.
And none are politically correct. But hard science doesn’t care
about being politically correct. Below is a story of what happened when the
occupants of one lifeboat felt threatened at the prospect of taking on too many
survivors – so they took on none. I neither agree with this nor endorse
it. In fact it fills me with rage. The people of Gretna and Tarrytown, places
I visited in 1977 during my heartbreaking discovery that the CIA was bringing
drugs into this country, could and should have done better as thousands of New
Orleans refuges started streaming across the Mississippi into these relatively
unscathed communities. Instead of blocking the bridge and threatening to shoot
the “unwashed” masses comprised largely of African-Americans, they
had an obligation to extend aid to whomever they could. At some point also they
would have been justified to say, “That’s enough, we just can’t
take any more.” The fact that no attempt was made at all is what will
remain forever unforgivable about this tragic episode.
It is a lesson for all of us.
As I continue to lift my eyes above the immediate horizon I see choices
like this soon coming at all of us. Will it be the unwashed of Phoenix fleeing
to Scottsdale? The gay, lesbian and Democratic hordes of San Francisco fleeing
north into Marin County? The undereducated poor of Boston heading towards Martha’s
Vineyard or Vermont? Or will it be millions of Manhattanites and Washington
office workers eyeing the Amish farmlands of Pennsylvania and Ohio?
We are all only one hot, soothing shower away from being unwashed.
The racism of Gretna is obvious and despicable. But it is also predictable.
Psychology 101 in almost all college courses directs our attention to fruit
flies and red sturgeon. It tells how species recognize each other and form into
societies based upon visual recognition. This is neither good nor bad. It just
is and it is also ingrained in human behavior. What this story tells us is that
we must chose to act differently if we are to survive as a species or even in
a few fortunate communities. It’s easy to distinguish black, brown and
yellow from white. It’s also a cop out (pardon the pun). What happened
in Gretna is an archetypal model of what is coming for all of us and a warning;
a very clear warning.
As we confront Peak Oil and Gas, and as we march headlong into a winter
of devastation for the US economy from which there will likely be no recovery,
all of us must force discussion of these issues now so that we can be prepared
when the time comes and not linger in denial until the only option we have left
is to revert to the level of the red sturgeon in panic or of the Gretna police
department – also in panic.
Gretna also reinforces my stated position that local police agencies
are going to become uniquely important as collapse becomes evident.
Scientists like Richard Heinberg and I both see a “devolution” into
feudal societies. Feudal societies were maintained by cadres of local knights
and their first duties were to the people of their barony or fiefdom. This horrible
tragedy took place in a region where racism is about as easy to find as a freshly
shucked oyster used to be, so I am not surprised to see how it played out. I
am only heartbroken.
My fear is how other, supposedly homogeneous communities will react.
How will all the “have” places react when they see the
unwashed “have not” hordes approaching. At some point they will
have to say we can’t take any more. At some point, they will
have to defend their supply or risk hastening a total ecological collapse. But
the decisions about whom and how many to save must be based upon some other
criteria than race. Always, wherever possible, attempts must be made to save
those who can be saved. It may be ultimately necessary to decide whom to save
based upon skill sets. These decisions must be made by the people themselves
in each place and not by Dick Cheney, David Rockefeller, Hillary Clinton or
any other elite person or persons. Ultimately each locality will be forced to
make its own choices and what will decide whether they are correct or not will
be solely whether the community itself survives in nature. Diversity is a key
to sustainability. I pray that we can do better than Gretna and the only way
that we will is if we start talking about it right now.
'Racist' police blocked bridge and forced evacuees back at gunpoint
By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
Published: 11 September 2005
A Louisiana police chief has admitted that he ordered his officers to block
a bridge over the Mississippi river and force escaping evacuees back into the
chaos and danger of New Orleans. Witnesses said the officers fired their guns
above the heads of the terrified people to drive them back and "protect"
their own suburbs.
Two paramedics who were attending a conference in the city and then stayed
to help those affected by the hurricane, said the officers told them they did
not want their community "becoming another New Orleans".
The desperate evacuees were forced to trudge back into the city they had just
left. "It was a real eye-opener," Larry Bradshaw, 49, a paramedic
from San Francisco, told The Independent on Sunday. "I believe it was racism.
It was callousness, it was cruelty."
Mr Bradshaw said the police blocked off the road on the Thursday and Friday
after Hurricane Katrina struck on Monday 29 August. He and his wife Lorrie Slonsky,
also a paramedic, had sheltered with others in the Hotel Monteleone in the French
When food and water ran out they were forced to head for the city's convention
centre, but on the way they heard reports of the chaos and violence that was
taking place there and inside the Superdome where thousands of people were forced
together without running water, toilets, electricity or air conditioning. So
Mr Bradshaw spoke with a senior New Orleans police officer who instructed them
to cross the Crescent City Connection bridge to Jefferson Parish, where he promised
they would find buses waiting to evacuate them.
They were in the middle of a group of up to 800 people - overwhelmingly black
- walking across the bridge when they heard shots and saw people running. "We
had been hearing shooting for days. What was different about this was that it
was close by," he said.
Making their way towards the crest of the bridge they saw a chain of armed
police officers blocking the route. When they asked about the buses they were
told their was no such arrangement and that the route was being blocked to avoid
their parish becoming "another New Orleans". They identified the police
as officers from the city of Gretna.
The following day Mr Bradshaw said they tried again to cross and directly witnessed
police shooting over the heads of a middle-aged white couple who were also turned
back. Eventually, late on Friday evening, the couple succeeded in crossing the
bridge with the intervention of a contact in the local fire department.
Arthur Lawson, chief of the Gretna police department, said he had not yet questioned
his officers as to whether they fired their guns.
He confirmed that his officers, along with those from Jefferson Parish and
the Crescent City Connection police force, sealed the bridge and refused to
let people pass. This was despite the fact that local media were informing people
that the bridge was one of the few safe evacuation routes from the city.
Gretna is a predominantly white suburban town of around 18,000 inhabitants.
In the aftermath of Katrina, three quarters of the inhabitants still had electricity
and running water. But, Chief Lawson told UPI news agency: "There was no
food, water or shelter in Gretna City. We did not have the wherewithal to deal
with these people. If we had opened the bridge our city would have looked like
New Orleans does now - looted, burned and pillaged."
Mr Bradshaw and his wife were evacuated to Texas and have since returned to
California. They condemned the authorities, adding: "This official treatment
was in sharp contrast to the warm, heartfelt reception given to us by ordinary
"Throughout, the official relief effort was callous, inept and racist...
Lives were lost that did not need to be lost."