Looking back ten years later, it’s hard to decide what was the most disgusting aspect of Hurricane Katrina. Was it “Brownie, you’re doing a heckuva job?” Was it the corporate media’s references to US citizens as “refugees”? Was it the false stories suggesting that those who survived Katrina were all criminals?
If there was one truly dignified aspect of Hurricane Katrina, it was the moment when a courageous young black man spoke truth to power, the moment when a citizen of conscience dared to say what the corporate media absolutely would not. That moment occurred on September 2, 2005, during a nationally televised benefit concert for Katrina survivors. That moment occurred when Kanye West engaged in what the kids call “real talk” about the George W. Bush administration:
It can be argued that West’s profound statement that night marked the unofficial beginning of what we now call the Black Lives Matter movement. West declared, in essence, that government officials charged with protecting and serving did not value people of color, did not care whether they lived or died, did not take into account their basic humanity. The ideology that allowed the federal government to abandon African-Americans in post-Katrina New Orleans is the same ideology that terminated the lives of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice and Samuel DuBose. West was not wrong to do what he did: he was absolutely right to condemn a dereliction of duty on the part of the powerful.
It’s true that in 2010, West retracted his courageous remarks. It’s also obvious that West only did so in attempt to soften his image after the 2009 Taylor Swift/MTV Video Music Awards controversy. West should not have retracted his remarks; in fact, he should have reaffirmed them, and demanded that Bush apologize to every victim, and every survivor, of his administration’s post-Katrina negligence.
I can’t say I’m a huge West fan; I generally loathe the Kardashian media circus, and the only reason I consider “Champion” (2007) to be one of my favorite songs is because West used a sample of Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne” (1976). However, when he called out Bush’s malfeasance, he spoke for many who felt that the 43rd President left this country, and indeed the entire world, ”feeling like Katrina with no FEMA,” as West put in “Flashing Lights” (2007).
Imagine how different things would have been if a compassionate and empathetic President had been in the White House when Katrina hit and the levees broke. Imagine how many lives would have been saved. Imagine how much better our international reputation would have been…and the next time someone tells you that it doesn’t matter who wins a Presidential election, imagine what they could possibly be thinking.
UPDATE: At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, then-Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick reminded viewers that the Bush administration abandoned residents of New Orleans long before Hurricane Katrina hit. I don’t think Patrick ever apologized…and he certainly didn’t have to.
SECOND UPATE: President Obama to visit New Orleans on August 27. More from Chris Mooney.
THIRD UPATE: Malka Older of the Carnegie Council on the tenth anniversary of Katrina. Plus, I discussed Katrina’s tenth anniversary yesterday with Ted McIntyre of the Massachusetts Climate Action Network.