BlackLivesMatter, Criminalization, and Disaster Justice

August 28, 2015

The #BlackLivesMatter movement has made the dehumanization of and violence inflicted on African Americans visible. The ways in which the criminal justice system metes out violence towards people of color are manifold. One little-discussed facet of this violence is that which results from, and is hidden by, disaster response. As we prepare for more frequent and more damaging disasters, it behooves us, on this, the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall, to render visible how climate change and the inequities of the criminal justice system intersect and compound, as stated by #BlackLivesMatter, “the loss of healthy and thriving Black life and well-being.”

By now, many are familiar with the ways in which the media fomented the criminalization of African Americans while the massive destruction of life and community wealth dealt by Katrina was disproportionately borne by communities of color. Images from flood-ravaged New Orleans framed white people as “finding supplies,” while people of color were portrayed as “looters.”

Image courtesy of Salon

This kind of discourse, fueled by what researchers have called “elite panic,” helped make the militarization of the response to Katrina, a response rife with wasted resources and useless violence, possible. The police shootings of people of color escaping the danger of Katrina’s flooding along Danziger Bridge in New Orleans being the most senseless reminder of the problems with this narrative that dehumanizes African Americans.

But what has gained less media attention is the unnatural impact on incarcerated persons that natural disasters can have in this country. A decade since the tragedy of Katrina, we do well to remember the hundreds of inmates of the New Orleans city jail abandoned by officials and left to fend for themselves. Some were forced to stand in chest-high, sewage-tainted floodwater for up to four days – this on top of being without food, water, or proper ventilation.

It is important to highlight the apparent ‘disposability’ of incarcerated persons in a country where the overwhelming majority of incarcerated persons are African American.

Image courtesy of Prison Policy Initiative

And it is equally crucial to bring to light the fact that these incarcerated persons have performed “what may arguably be the most toxic job in America.” In Louisiana, a state with the highest incarceration rate in the country, where African American men comprise 70% of its population of incarcerated persons, it was good business to use inmate labor for cleaning up the BP oil spill in 2010.

While British Petroleum, the company responsible for the spill, was able to receive generous tax breaks by using inmate labor, they were also able to stifle the local economy as newly unemployed fishermen were passed over for the use of near-free labor in the clean-up efforts. There was remarkably little transparency concerning this “open secret” in LA. This is not surprising because, as The Nation pointed out at the time, the effects of the arduous clean-up efforts on the systems of those doing the work were unknown and many of the laborers who were hoping for earlier release, would re-enter society with uncertain prospects vis-à-vis healthcare.

So, yes, the lives of black incarcerated persons matter. But what does that have to do with climate change? Well, as President Obama, during his remarks on the 10th Anniversary of Katrina, stated, “[W]e’re going to see more extreme weather events as the result of climate change — deeper droughts, deadlier wildfires, stronger storms.”

We’re seeing proof of that right now with the wildfire raging in Northern California. This disaster is no isolated incident. Wildfires that prolong themselves for weeks are relatively recent phenomena according to a recent short documentary entitled “Unacceptable Risk – Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change.”

Unacceptable Risk – Firefighters on the Front Lines of Climate Change from The Story Group on Vimeo.

As these firefighters point out, the combination of drought-stressed trees, depleted water, and higher temperatures have, in the last 10-20 years, shifted trends from fires that would last for a few days to nightmares that last for weeks on end. Indeed, record fires are being eclipsed at a shockingly rapid rate.

And who do we find on the frontlines with these firefighters in California? Incarcerated persons. And they are being paid $1 a day under extreme, life-threatening conditions for the hopes of an early release. As we experience more and greater natural disasters, it is important to isolate and eliminate the unnatural additives that have made their human impact unjust.

Not only will disasters come at a greater frequency and a larger scale, these disasters will continue to highlight how non-inclusive city planning leads to disproportionate impacts on communities of color and low income communities. These disasters and the discourses that normalize them have led to the criminalization and regulation of populations of color while also making populations of incarcerated persons (an overwhelming majority of which, it must be restated, are African American) available to meet the demand for cheap labor for the most dangerous jobs supplied by climate change.

So, the critical lenses provided by the #BlackLivesMatter movement and that of the climate justice movement, overlap here to provide another window onto some of the ways people of color face greater violence as a result of racism. With Tropical Storm Erika making landfall in the U.S., on this tragic anniversary no less, with many more storms to come, we would do well to continue to make visible all of the ways that disproportionate violence is perpetrated, both directly and indirectly, against African Americans.

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