"We Went into the Mall and Began 'Looting'":
A Letter on Race, Class, and Surviving the Hurricane
by Peter Berkowitz
[Peter Berkowitz is a long-time Monthly Review subscriber. He was in New Orleans bringing his son Ernesto to begin his freshman year at Loyola when they were caught in the hurricane. Peter and Ernesto spent five days on the street by the Convention Center. Below is a letter Peter sent to his mother upon his return. -- Ed.]
September 5, 2005
This is pretty much what happened to us as far as I can remember it. Some of it is probably off because we lost track of time and days and nights blended. I'm still feeling very angry and sad. Watching the news outrages me. I see "Dr. Phil' opining on why people didn't evacuate New Orleans. He says they didn't believe there would be a hurricane or they didn't want to leave, etc. Well, there was no way to leave. We had no way out. People with families and no resources had no way out. There were no buses coming for people or shelters to take people to. Just announcements to leave. So, naturally, the poorest, sickest, etc. were left behind. No one as far as I could see wanted to be there or elected to be there. No one really allowed them to get out!
Anyway, we began hearing hurricane news on the television. By Saturday, we were hearing insanely frightening news of a direct category 5 hurricane hit and projections of massive flooding and deaths of up to 30,000 people. Despite being through several hurricanes, this seemed worse than imaginable. We were pretty scared. Bruni and I had tickets out for Sunday, 8/28 at 2 pm, so we weren't worried. I called all the airlines and finally got Ernesto a ticket to Chicago for 1 pm the next day.
Sunday morning, we sent Ernesto back to school to get his things. I called to check on my reservation and was told the flight was cancelled. Bruni and I had no way out. Ernesto's flight was never cancelled, but there were no taxis, buses, etc. or any way to get to the airport. So we bought some wine and canned goods and waited out the storm in the hotel. With all the dire predictions, it was pretty nerve-wracking to wait. I don't remember the storm too well. The winds picked up at night and really roared during the day on Monday. The electricity went but we had water. We watched the hurricane from our room and from the lobby of our hotel. The two restaurants attached to the hotel made coffee and sandwiches for the guests. The bar was opened. Everyone cooperated, so it was not nearly as bad as predicted. Being in the city, the hotel was pretty well protected by other buildings. It was not nearly as bad (or impressive) as the hurricanes we passed in Cupey.
So everything was fine and we were just waiting for the next day to see when the airport would open and when we could get out. It was quite a relief.
Tuesday morning at about 8 am, the hotel people knocked on our door to say we were evacuating the hotel immediately for their sister hotel the Saint Marie. The wanted to get all the guests together for protection from looters at nighttime, because the Saint Marie had a generator, and because it was five stories high and there was lots of talk of floods of up to 20 feet. So we left for the Saint Marie, two blocks away. When we got there, we were herded into the ballroom and told to stay there. As I kept inquiring about our room, I was finally told there were no rooms, that we could stay in the ballroom if we wanted as the flood waters poured in, or we could go to the official evacuation center at the Convention Center. We were effectively kicked out of the hotel. So we left with about fifteen other guests and walked through the streets, about ten blocks to the Convention Center. Water was clearly coming down the streets from the direction of Lake Pontchartrain and the flood news was terrible. At the front door, the workers there told us to go around to the side. At the side, we were informed that the Convention Center was not an evacuation center and that no one was permitted inside. There was no one else there except for our group. Our concern at the moment was not to be caught up in the flood. Behind the Convention Center ran the "Riverwalk," a mall and outside walkway along the Mississippi. Right on the side of the Convention Center was an escalator that ran up to a maybe 100 foot-long covered walkway that led into the mall. The walkway was about thirty feet high. We decided that it was the best place for now to ride out the flood.
So we all went up and put down our bags. Ernesto and I walked to the mall entrance but the doors were locked. We thought maybe moving into the mall might be better and safer. At the very corner of the front windows to the entrance to the mall, we found a window shattered on the bottom by the storm. I broke the rest of the window out so we could walk in. The mall was full of shops and food and drink kiosks. We showed it to the other people with us. Since it was hot inside the mall and the people were still afraid of getting in trouble for "trespassing," they elected to camp outside. We decided to stay all together as a group. Since we had no food or water and no way to get any, we went into the mall and began "looting," gathering food and water for our survival. At this point there was no communication with anyone. No one knew what was happening. There were no police. There was nothing other than news of terrible floods. Everyone was on their own. So now with some food and water we sat down to wait. The entrance to the Riverwalk had part of the roof still intact, so we were able to wait in the shade.
Shortly after we noticed a man with a rifle and duffel bag walk up to the door to the mall. We see him try the door and find it locked. Then he simply smashes out the door with the butt of his rifle and walks in. We, of course, decided to not enter again until he left. Maybe half an hour later, he marches past us and is gone. His duffel seems a bit fuller. We went in again and explored more, located where the food was, found stores on a lower floor, etc. Some time passed and then the person with the rifle returns again. This time we notice he is a cop and he is with four other cops and they all have arms and duffel bags. And their only purpose is to get whatever they can. And that really opened up the mall for us. We gathered food, drinks, and explored the stores. Some other tourists appeared and joined us. We took chairs and tables out of the mall. The police had "opened up" Footlocker and other stores, so there were shoes and clothes available for the taking. I wondered through looking for bedding and ways to set up camp. I took the covers off some kiosks to use as a bed. Bruni found some semi-cushioned furniture, and we took cushions. One day we found pillows in a store. Our group grew as new people came looking for ways to get out of the expected flooding. At some point, I started to walk back to our hotel to find out if we could stay there. On the way, I ran into an employee of the hotel and her family who had also been kicked out of the hotel. They came up and joined us as well.
The first night we were about thirty up on the bridge. The next day some others arrived. I think the second day, Wednesday, might be when the Convention Center opened because one family decided to move down there. I think it was one of the families of the hotel employees. They had been enjoying the provisions of the mall with us. Once they moved down to the Convention Center, word spread and there was a steady stream of people coming up and sacking the mall. People came out with everything, as did we. More stores were broken into and people came out with bags and bags of goods. And it spread and spread. We went in systematically all day long taking out food and provisions.
During all of this, there are no police around. There are no authorities around. There is no food. There is no water. There is no information other than the hysteria and rumors from the radio. No one knows how long we'll be there. No one knows when the floods will reach us. The news indicates that the airport is under ten feet of water. That the main shelter, the Superdome, has lost part of its roof and is flooding. That there is killing and looting and who knows what else. Everything is rumor. No one knows anything. If you see cops, they are on their own. They are also homeless and if they talk to you it is to say you are on your own.
By Wednesday, the streets are filled with people who are at the Convention Center. There are thousands of people in the streets. No one has food or water. It is hot and miserable. It was maybe Wednesday or Thursday that some people on the street are yelling about dead bodies and toss a body wrapped in a sheet on the side of the Convention Center just below us. A little later, a wheelchair with a dead woman appears there as well. Again, everything is rumor. People are saying that the dead woman in the wheelchair was bludgeoned to death in the Convention Center. At the same time, hordes of people are coming up the steps past us and into the mall. They are breaking into all the stores, smashing cash registers, etc. There is desperation all around. And anger. And violence.
Our group is about fifty. We are mostly tourists from the US, Australia, England, etc. There are also several families from New Orleans who were flooded out who have joined us. Two of the people are nurses. The bathrooms in the mall have overflowed. There has been no water since Tuesday night. Food is rotting. Everything smells, as do we. But we are organized. We have set up buckets behind broken pieces of zinc roofing as bathrooms. We have sodas and water stacked up in our kitchen. While there is still ice in the mall, we have some hams buried there. We have umbrellas and trash cans and trash bags. Even disposable gloves to help avoid disease. We also have dead bodies, dead rats, and shit and stink all around. And we have no idea how long we are here for.
Our group is mostly white and from Middle America. They decide that the Blacks (the Convention Center is 99% Black obviously) are planning to murder us to get attention and help. There is mass hysteria in the group and racism is rampant. People don't know where to flee. Rumors are everywhere about murder, rape, etc. There are shots during the night (Thursday? Friday?) At 2 am, there is a huge explosion across the river and a huge fire. Smoke pours in from fires in every direction. There is some nasty racism in our group. One day, when the hysteria is greatest, a Black man stands up and says -- why do you think these people want to kill you? They are surviving just the same as you. Struggling just the same. Just as desperate as you. They don't care anything about you. They are concentrating on surviving, etc. That calmed people a bit and made them feel particularly foolish. At the same time, more and more families from the Convention Center were moving up to the walkway with us. Our group grew to about 80. Each morning people began to bag the garbage. Others swept the walkway. Some set out breakfast for everybody. Two women who were home care workers for the elderly emptied and cleaned the shit buckets. A group would go into the mall and forage for provisions. Then we would sit all day and wait.
I think on Friday the helicopters began to arrive dropping water and MRE rations in the parking lot in front of us. It was the first food and water ever to arrive -- three days after the hurricane. And it was just tossed from the helicopter for people to run after and gather. The old and the sick had nothing. Again, no one knew what was happening. Fires were burning all around. Everyone was desperate and frightened. Everyone was just trying to survive. And all, other than us tourists, were there because they had been completely wiped out -- they had lost their homes and every possession and had young kids and elderly parents to feed.
As the helicopters arrived, we also ran down and gathered what we could. We began to survive on the army rations. Ernesto and I became friendly with the man who had given the speech chastising our group. He invited me to go with him to the Convention Center and distribute whatever Army rations we could pick up from the next helicopter to the disabled there since they had no way to get rations. We gathered about thirty meals out of the next drop. (The drops were scandalous -- throwing food and water out of a hovering helicopter -- people scrambling for food to survive. Reduced to animals foraging -- when the copters could have landed, imposed order with guards, and distributed food with some respect and humanity)
Anyway, we walked through the Convention Center distributing food. The Center takes up about eight city blocks. There must have been 25,000 people camped out there without provisions, without bathrooms, without water or electricity. With no means of survival. Families with little kids. Old people. People in wheelchairs. There was no medicine. No nurses or doctors. There was filth and garbage everywhere. Some people asked for food and we gave it. Others said they were fine and had eaten. Some pointed out others who needed food. Like our group, they were doing their best to survive and sharing whatever they had. We kept walking. The crowds went on and on. People with nothing. Every one of them had lost everything. Abandoned. Not knowing how they would eat, how they would survive. It was the most disgraceful, sad, infuriating thing I had ever seen in my life. Poor people discarded like garbage because they were poor people.
Everybody was waiting for the promised buses to evacuate us. Every day there were rumors of buses. Every day we waited and watched. Nothing ever came. Every day there was more filth. More people fainting from dehydration. Children were getting sick. Disease was becoming a bigger worry.
Our community on the walkway was interesting. One day a reporter came by and asked me if we had a "mayor." We didn't. Everyone worked. Everyone joined in. Everyone did the job that made them most comfortable. And everything functioned. And as people joined us, they automatically joined in the work. There were differences but everyone worked. When there was talk about leaving or looking for ways out, it was discussed collectively. There was always a sense of staying together and getting out as a group. There was also nastiness and racism and comments about "the people down there" in the Convention Center. We intervened with a lot with people in our group who were blaming all the "people down there" for the violence. We intervened when reporters started to come and were told that "the people down there" were looting and killing. We told them that they were doing just what we were doing -- doing what was necessary to survive in desperate circumstances.
I don't know what else to say. We were anxious all the time. The nights were the worst. Partly because nights are generally more frightening. Also because there were often shots or explosions. There was always a surprise. And it was always bad news. It seemed like it would never get better. We just waited and scavenged. We worried that things would get more violent as they got more desperate. We also made incredible friends and saw amazing acts of kindness.
One morning we woke and packed at 3 am because of a rumor that the buses were coming early in the morning. We waited and hoped. No buses came. We cleaned up camp and sat down to wait again. Hoping to get through another day without tragedy.
It was Friday or Saturday that we heard the news that Bush was coming to view the disaster. That was when I first thought we would be getting out. I knew that New Orleans was another excellent political stage, a chance to improve his ratings, for Bush and that the president wasn't going to show up unless the troops were coming and the mess was going to be cleaned up. Here was a place where an appearance without an immediate success would be a political disaster. We looked down the next day at noon, and of course there were the troops. And a perimeter was set up. And piles of water and food were set up in the parking area. And that was the beginning of the evacuation. By the next day the buses arrived. I think we finally left round 4 pm on Saturday.
Once the troops arrived, the general anxiety level in our community went down. Now it was just a question of getting out. Fires were burning. When the wind shifted, it was hard to breathe, but we knew if no other disaster hit, we would get out soon. As always they told us the buses were coming. We didn't believe it for a minute. The National Guard told us we had to vacate the walkway and go down onto the street to await the buses. Of course we refused. We told them we had a community here that was self-sufficient. There was no need for us to be on the street and in the sun for nothing. That here we were supplying food, medical services, etc. to ourselves and to anyone who had a need. By this time we had about five or six elderly incapacitated people in our group. They had been left behind by a hospital when they evacuated. They were with a nurse who had been abandoned with them. We pointed out that our sick could not go down. We had another nurse in our group who was very well spoken and helped convince the National Guard that we had to stay for reasons of the health of the children and the elderly. So we stuck together and stayed on the walkway. No body left until we finally saw the buses and were assured that everyone would get out. And then we marched out together as a group with much of the group still intact.
In convincing the National Guard to let us stay, one of the more hateful and delusional of our group argued to the Guard that we should be left on the walkway because of "racial tensions." This was the same woman who had been telling everyone who would listen that the Blacks would slaughter us to gain media attention so they would be evacuated. Anyway between all the arguments we were allowed to stay. And it also resulted in one of the most shameful moments of our stay. When the meals were distributed in the parking lot, several distribution lines were formed. We were given a separate line. Our line was escorted to and from the food by Guardsmen. No one from our group was ever able to walk alone. As always, it is the racist hysterical argument that prevails. It was better not to get food than to pass through that disgrace.
We were amazed that there was actually a bus when we walked down to the corner where the bus was supposed to be. It took an hour to get out of the city. The driver did not know where we were going. As usual, we knew nothing. At some point, the cop leading the line of evacuating buses informed us that we were going to Fort Chafee, Arkansas. All we wanted was an airport but there was no way off a moving bus. Later we were told we were going to Fort Smith, Arkansas, even farther away. We demanded to be let off. The cop told us that we would stop to eat in Shreveport, Louisiana and we could get off there. Of course the bus didn't stop. It did stop just across the Texas border where a group of people had voluntarily set up tables to distribute food and help to the refugees. We grabbed our bags and decided to find a ride into Shreveport. There was no good reason to go to Fort Smith for us. Ernesto found a volunteer to take us to a motel by the airport. Our first priority was to bathe by this point. An airplane was next. Of course no motels were available. So we decided to spend the night at the airport. Another man offered to take us. As we were getting in his car, he also offered us a shower at his house. We took him up on it and headed off. We showered, chatted, etc. I made plane reservations for 7 am the next morning. They invited us to stay and sleep for the hour and half that remained of the night. They gave us food and little presents, a tee-shirt from their local high school baseball team, etc. They were kind, concerned, and really wanted to help and do the right thing. As we talked, it was also clear that they were religious conservatives, racist, homophobic, etc. East Texas. Kindness and hatefulness on the same plate.
Anyway we're home. We're still angry and anxious. Writing all this makes me relive it. Reading it makes Bruni cry. What we saw was just too raw. Poor people abandoned because they were poor. Poor people treated as trash. Poor people being branded as looters and thieves for trying to survive. Our own country treating us just as we treat the Iraqis, Palestinians, and every other country that we exploit or invade. How can we ever deny class warfare?
The other thing that struck me were the contradictions in people. How the kindest people in our group who gave aid and compassion individually to Blacks and whites, rich and poor, also painted all those people at the Convention Center with the same brush -- animals, looters, ignorants.
And it is no wonder when all the papers write and all the news reports is looting and violence -- as if there was no need or reason to "loot." Sure, there were some violent people there. There are everywhere. But this handful gets turned into "those people." And everyone gets branded. So no compassion is needed for the poor. After all, they brought it on themselves. They wouldn't let the government help even though the government tried so hard. And that becomes what this country believes. And then of course the government can "morally" do nothing for the poor -- which is what it intended in the first place
That's all I have for now. After you read this give me a call and we can talk.
Peter Berkowitz is a lawyer who has practiced in Puerto Rico since 1979. He was one of the founders of the Puerto Rico Civil Rights Institute in San Juan. He recently moved with his wife Brunilda Groennou to Cambridge, Massachusetts. He works as an attorney for Massachusetts Correctional Legal Services, defending prisoners' rights.