Revisiting August 31, 2005, the Katrina Reader, and Thoughts on Digital Archives for Social Justice in the Wake of DocNow

Still revisiting the Hurricane Katrina Archive eleven years later. Today, the waters would still have been rising and state and federal officials would still have been scrambling. The governor would be saying the city needs to be evacuated. The mayor would be saying, sure but there’s about 10,000 folks still there. FEMA would still looking for buses to evacuate them. 80 percent of the city would be flooded. Then President Bush would do his famous fly by, with a camerman to take pictures of him looking out of the helicopter window, deep in thought. Photos to prove he cares. 

(See the 14-day timeline by Frontline for details and interviews)
There are also images from the Superdome from this day eleven years ago. But I don’t share those outside of the classroom or workshop space. Not because they aren’t important or because I can’t handle it–

(and a former professor of mine will hear herself in these words; these words are not mine) 

–but because I don’t think you can handle it. Not without context. Not without breaking the image from the sound of the media broadcasting “chaos” in the Superdome. Journalists, in trying to get the word out, sent images of a Superdome where black bodies en masse represented the picture of broken order, failure and neglect, ruptured state support. This distracted from the sound of it all–anger, fear, loud cries and crying, but also clear demands from residents already organizing themselves around needs: water, cool air, medicine. The sound of community resilience. The media on the Superdome offered glorified poverty porn where blackness stood in for degeneration, instead of a reality of black people standing up for themselves.

Twitter was founded in 2006. There was no Twitter then. But then, as now, organizers did what they could to exchange information and communicate, to build archives to remember the violence of the unnatural disaster, to gather evidence of their strategies of survival during the Storm and prepare for the fight to come after the waters receded. They anticipated right to return would be circumvented. They knew if they could be erased at the moment of emergency preparedness and evacuation, then they could be erased anytime and anywhere. So they built things and because this was 2005, some of those things were also digital.

A Katrina Reader

A Katrina Reader is dedicated to all the Katrina Survivors and Grassroots Racial Justice Organizations of New Orleans, who are fighting for the Right of Return of all ‘Internally Displaced Persons,’ and the Right to Rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast with justice, dignity and self-determination.

The Katrina Reader was “compiled by a team of white anti-racist solidarity activists.” Their statement of goals and anti-racist activism and white solidarity in that moment includes several points worth mentioning and three worth really reflecting on:

  • The U.S. government left the African American people of New Orleans to die — before, during and after Katrina;
  • African American and indigenous peoples of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast resisted the government’s deadly practices, and continue to resist, as they have for centuries;
  • All Katrina Survivors have the Right to Return; and the Right to Rebuild their communities with self-determination and racial, economic, gender, environmental, ability and global justice;

This is what white anti-racist solidarity looks like. 

This is also what grassroots digital archive sustainability looks like. Several of the links on the site are broken, the site itself needs updating. This is not unique to the Katrina Reader. This the case for much of the online reporting on the hurricane from 2005. Stories once available at the Guardian or Times-Picayune have disappeared as online media platforms updated and changed ownership. But the TP has a print base and dedicated institutional archivists. The movement does not–yet? Radical archivists like the ones working on DocNow are changing that. Research centers like the Amistad and the Schomburg, or university/college archives like at Barnard College  are likewise invested in keeping histories. But how do we keep smaller projects, the ones happening from the bottom up like the Katrina Reader, going?

How are we, who are building online, who are accountable to vulnerable communities and oppressed populations and justice and healing and redress, who are resisting and fighting back by building archives and histories, likewise safeguarding the returns so that eleven years later we can tell the story that no one else is telling? And how do we do it in a way that is ethical, safe for those contributing, involves them, accounts for their desire to participate in a project of recollection. Deen Freelon encouraged the DocNow community to commit to conversations about the archive and with members of the protesting community as a project of political education, where we all learn and grow political consciousness, organizing skill, and build strategies for social change. Together. This was such a good addition to the conversation. It seems like political education would need to be a facet of any radical archive that gets created. 

Ending with an example. Among the documents archived is one from September 11, 2005. An email sent to the INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence mailing list, authored by Nada Elia, with a note from Shana Griffin, who evacuated after the Storm. INCITE! hosted its conference, Color of Violence III in the Treme in March 2005. This document is black women’s history, black political history, black intellectual history, and radical womyn of color organizing history all at once. It is Dat Wuk. How many more emails are there like this, from those organizing via listserv and mailing list in the late 90s, early 2000s, that we are missing now? Who holds those? These are the documents least likely to be saved and histories least likely to make it into the main narrative unless we push. And these are the stories we need most.

The link to the letter on the reader site is broken, reproducing the letter here from a legacy link I found with a quick Google search. Read it below the break.

INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
Nada Elia, Shana Griffin
Date Published:
To: [INCITE! mailing list]
From: incite_nationalATyahooDOTcom
Date: Sun, 11 Sep 2005
Dear INCITE! Friends & Supporters:

INCITEI Women of Color Against Violence is stunned by the catastrophe and tragic loss in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. In New Orleans and in many other communities along the Gulf, people are experiencing unimaginable devastating conditions. We are especially alarmed for the people who have the fewest resources, who were unable to evacuate New Orleans because of poverty, who were — and in some cases still are — trapped without food, water, and medical attention. Because of racism and classism, these people are also overwhelming folks of color, and because of sexism, they are overwhelmingly women of color — low income and poor women, single mothers, pregnant women, women with disabilities) older women and women who are caregivers to family and community members who were unable to leave the city. Women living at the intersections of systems of oppressions are paying the price for militarism, the abandonment of their communities, and ongoing racial and gender disparities in employment, income, and access to resources and supports.

As you know, the Historic Treme Community in New Orleans recently hosted INCITE!’s Color of Violence III conference this past March. Treme is the first free community established by Black people in the U.S. and is currently home to hundreds of Black women and their families, many of whom are poor. We are deeply hurting for the families and communities that graciously hosted us and who are now facing profoundly tragic circumstances.

We have heard word from most of the sistas who are part of the New Orleans INCITE! chapter, many of whom were able to evacuate. We also received word that one of the COV·3 volunteers had a mother and sister trapped on the 8th floor of New Orleans City Hall at some point – we sincerely hope that they have reached relative safety at this time. An early letter from Shana Griffin, member of the New Orleans INCITE! chapter and the national lNCITE! steering committee, is below. Our hearts and prayers go out to them and we want to provide them with as much support and as many resources as we can so that they can mourn this horrible loss, re-connect with those that are missing, and, eventually, rebuild the rich and vital communities that have been devastated. Our thoughts and prayers are also with INCITEI chapters, members, COV III participants and supporters in other areas affected by the hurricane in the Gulf States.
Many of you have thoughtfully written and asked how you can help. At this time, we are asking for donations from our supporters so that we can send money to our New Orleans chapter members who will use it to help people who need it most. We have not given up on our sisters and brothers in New Orleans and other places that have been hit. We are dedicated to pooling our resources and using those resources to continue to organize plans for survival, safety, and justice in New Orleans. Please organize fundraisers in your hometowns and communities and send your donations to the [address below].
Nada Elia
(Nada Elia is a member of INCITE!’s national steering committee and will be organizing the donations to make sure the resources get to New Orleans.) Please make checks out to INCITE and put “New Orleans” in the memo line. Thank you very, very much for your generous support.

That said, we’d like to take this opportunity to express our deep outrage at the federal government’s shamefully slow and pathetic response to this disaster. It is clear that the lack of rapid and effective response is based on a racist assessment of the value of the 150,000 mostly Black and poor people – a disproportionate number of whom are women -left behind in New Orleans. Further, INCITE! lays the blame of this disaster squarely at the feet of the U.S. government and particularly with George W. Bush for the following reasons:

The Bush Administration’s willful denial of the existence of global warming has kept this country from taking seriously global warming IS dangerous consequences, one of which is an increase in the severity of hurricanes. Hurricane Katrina, for example, began as a relatively small hurricane off south Florida, but it was intensified to a level five hurricane — the highest level a hurricane can reach — because of the unusually blistering sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico caused in large part by global warming. (Ross Gelbspan, The Boston Globe, 8/30/05) However, the Bush Administration, leveraged by the coal and oil industries, relegated global warming to a myth rather than the emergency environmental crisis that it is. Because the impact of Hurricane Katrina had an exceedingly disproportionate impact of devastation on people of color, Bush’s failure at addressing global warming is a catastrophic example of environmental racism.
Bush’s illegal, imperialist, and racist war on and occupation of Iraq – ironically, to enable consumption of more oil, aggravating global warming – as well as tax cuts to wealthy Americans, directly pulled resources away from levee construction and emergency management in New Orleans, as well as from programs and entitlements which could have provided much needed support to poor people and communities in New Orleans. In 2003, as hurricane activity in the area increased and the levees continued to subside, federal funding was specifically redirected away from addressing these problems because of spending pressures of the war on Iraq. In early 2004, as the cost of the war on Iraq soared, President Bush proposed spending less than 20 percent of what was needed for Lake Pontchartrain, according to a Feb. 16, 2004 article in New Orleans CityBusiness. At least nine articles in the Times-Picayune from 2004 and 2005 specifically cite the cost of the war on Iraq as a reason for the lack of hurricane- and flood-control dollars. (Will Bunch, Editor & Publisher, 8130/05) The lack of resources to prepare for a disaster like Hurricane Katrina is a tragic example of how imperialism not only devastates communities of color abroad, but also communities of color here at home. This criminal neglect on the part of the government is responsible for thousands more deaths than the 9/11 attacks — deaths that could have been prevented with adequate funding.

It is unconscionable that, while thousands of people are suffering from horrible and deadly circumstances, the media continues to harp on the so-called looting in New Orleans. The constant media coverage of so-called “criminal behavior” instead of the outrageous and criminal lack of response from the federal government is racist and disgraceful.

Though we are also very distressed about reports of violence- including sexual and physical violence against women and children – in the area caused largely by widespread chaos and desperation, we condemn the current mass militarization of the area. There have been numerous accounts of vicious police brutality experienced by men and women who have survived untold horrors only to be subjected to abuse by the law enforcement officials sent to “save” them. Thousands of soldiers from the U.S. Marines and Army are currently in New Orleans to enforce evacuation orders and bring about “law and order.” In response to violence in the area, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco shockingly remarked, “I have one message for these hoodlums. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary.” Besides the fact that it is against the law for federal troops to engage in domestic law enforcement, a militarized response is another piece of a racist pattern of de-humanizing poor people of color. Instead of seeing poor Black people driven desperate by the appallingly weak and unacceptably slow response of the federal government, the media and the government frame these primary victims as criminals or blame them for bringing the circumstances on themselves by “disobeying” mandatory evacuation orders when they had no means to comply.

We demand that there be no further criminalization of survivors of the hurricane as rescue, recovery, and rebuilding efforts go forward. We are particularly concerned about the creation of temporary accommodations — expected to serve as “home” to evacuees for up to six months which are akin to detention facilities, surrounded by barbed wire, in isolated parts of Utah, Oklahoma and other areas, from which inhabitants will be prohibited from leaving without a “pass” and in which they will be housed in gender segregated housing and prohibited from preparing their own meals. The prison-like conditions of such facilities have been justified by the soldiers guarding them as follows “do you know what kind of people we have coming here?

We are also concerned about the adequate provision of medication, supplies, and child care to women with disabilities, HIV/AIDS, as well as mothers and elderly women. We are calling for support for survivor-led, women of color driven formations within evacuation facilities and for their demands. We are also calling for support of . women’s individual and collective efforts to ensure their safety from physical and sexual violence within evacuation facilities while submitting that the existence of such violence is no justification for violent repression of evacuee communities.

We call for support and safety of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender survivors of the hurricane, and for respect for the integrity of their families and of their needs in evacuation facilities. We are also deeply concerned for immigrant, and particularly undocumented women, who fear seeking assistance for fear of adverse immigration consequences and deportation. We call for efforts to connect incarcerated women, men, and children with their families, many of whom do not know the location of those dear to them, and for authorities to ensure conditions of confinement that meet international human rights standards. We are asking for charges against those who took food, water, and supplies in an effort to survive be immediately dropped. Finally, we are calling for support of domestic violence survivors who were displaced from shelters, support systems, and places of safety by the storm and may be at greater risk of violence from their abusers under current circumstances.

We demand an organized, rapid, and just response to save the survivors of Hurricane Katrina. We demand a comprehensive plan that is respectful of the value of the people who have been abandoned and responsive to their actual needs for survival and safety. We want immediate action operating from a vision of justice and hope.

We have pulled together a number of analyses of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, information about critical organizing and mobilization of poor people and people of color, letters from sistas from INCITE!, and other ways to help. Please contact us if you have questions, concerns, or resources. Our e-mail is and our phone number is 484.932.3166.

In Solidarity,
INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence
Peace sisters,

Tears are rolling down my face as I write this e-mail; my family is safe. My son evacuated with my mother and sister on Saturday night. My partner and I left on Sunday morning before the mayor declared a mandatory evacuation out of the city.

I spoke with Kerrie on Monday morning and received a text message from Isabel on yesterday. I e-mailed Janelle and Tara and haven’t heard back. My cell phone is not working; I can only receive text messages. I’m in west Louisiana, near the Texas/LA border. I’m having a very difficult time processing the devastation of the city, the displacement of my community, and the thousands of people who were unable to leave the city, many of whom are feared to be dead.
I will update everyone with the whereabouts of Janelle and Tara, who I suspect made it out of the city.


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