Sink or Swim

A Marxist historian and New Orleans native talks about how disasters foster solidarity

"Am I the only one in America who thinks race has nothing to do with this?" yucked Fox TV's Bill O'Reilly. "President Bush doesn't care about black people," blurted rapper Kanye West. "So many people in the [Astrodome] here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them," barfed former first lady and current first mother Barbara Bush.

Apparently, it took Hurricane Katrina to get America talking about race and politics--and revolution. But New Orleans native and University of Minnesota political science professor August Nimtz--whose published works include essays on Marxism and social transformation in Latin America and South Africa--has been studying the topic for years, most recently in his U of M class, "Politics of Race, Class, and Ethnicity."

After returning from a Socialist Workers Party conference in New York City over the weekend, Nimtz sat down Sunday night to talk about what's happening in the Deep South.

 

City Pages:You have family in New Orleans. How are they?

 

August Nimtz: My mother and father were living there, along with an aunt and some cousins and more distant cousins. My father was in a nursing home in St. Bernard's parish, and he was evacuated Saturday. My mother is 82 and her sister is 95, and they decided not to evacuate because it would have been too hard to wait in the traffic. So they made reservations at a hotel, but when they got there they got bumped, because the mayor had the hotels cater to tourists over locals.

So they went to a bed and breakfast, which in itself was an interesting story. The caretaker of the bed and breakfast, an older black man, was left there by the owners to take care of the two dogs and the parrot while the owners flew town--you know, that's the way things work in that part of the South. So, the hurricane hit and we lost contact with them for a few days. I had an uncle who was in the Superdome, but they're all okay.

 

CP:What was the focus of the New York conference?

 

Nimtz: I got a chance to hear what the Militant reporters in New Orleans focused on, which is something that the mainstream press has not focused on: how people in neighborhoods actually organized themselves to protect and defend themselves collectively. It's important, because those are the little glimpses of the future. Human solidarity. The reason they did what they did was because their backs were against the wall. People will resort to human solidarity when they have no escape, no alternative.

 

CP:You've said in the past that black nationalists, including yourself, were inspired by the Cuban Revolution of 1958. Why was that inspiring, and is it in any way analogous to what's happening now in North America? What I mean is, does the fact that a lot of people are learning for the first time that their government regularly fails its weakest citizens portend revolution?

 

Nimtz: I don't think it portends revolution, but what it does portend is a crucial learning moment for working people. The revolutionary process is never inevitable, but what crises like this can do is create conditions that, if utilized correctly, can be very useful for the revolutionary process. For those of us who think the Cuban Revolution was a major advance for humanity, this is perhaps the best opportunity for those of us in the United States to make a case for the Cuban revolution.

 

CP:I read your piece in Britain's Socialist Worker newspaper on how Cuba handled Hurricane Ivan in 2004. Here was a category five hurricane, and they had two million evacuees and no fatalities. Beyond the fact that they deal with more hurricanes than we do, you have to unpack that. You have to ask why they're better prepared, and then you have to ask what the definition of "the greatest country in the world" is, which is getting a lot of play these days.

 

Nimtz: I think what you're saying rhetorically is this moment reveals a reality about the United States that many people were not aware of. It's my opinion that we should be outraged by what happened, but we shouldn't be surprised. Before the Cuban revolution, there were thousands of people dying from hurricanes. And making a revolution meant prioritizing the interests of the majority of the people for the first time. But there's something even more important about Cuba, and that's the notion of human solidarity, where people look out for one another. This is why Cuba has better infant mortality rates and better health care than the United States.

One of the biggest illusions people in this country have is the notion or belief that the government is quote-unquote "our" government. It's only through things like [Katrina] that people realize it's their government--of the rich, for the rich, by the rich.

What people confuse is what should be with what is. Yes, it should be our government. It should be a government of working people. But boy, we should not confuse what is with what should be, because it's deadly. And that lesson is burned deep into the people of New Orleans' brains unlike any other part of the country right now, and the rest of us can learn from that.

Jim Walsh can be reached at jwalsh@citypages.com or 612.372.3775

 
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