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Wednesday, February 01, 2006

blackwater

Offering his predictions Monday night on what Bush would and should talk about in the State of the Union, Hardball guest Reverend Al Sharpton named the Iraq war and Katrina relief as the top two topics that people want the President to address, and address well. Hearing the Reverend pronounce this potent combination reminded me of one commonality the two topics share, a commonality that I only learned about within the last week: Blackwater.

I missed this element of the Hurricane Katrina aftermath in the news, so I'm posting about it in case some of you did, too. A friend of mine who drove down to volunteer in the relief efforts recently told me of his experiences in New Orleans and his encounters with the Blackwater private security forces, mercenaries typically found engaging in combat overseas, but who were hired by the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana state government to protect private property after the gulf coast flooding. They protected the property--but what about the people? (more in expanded post)

For me, Kanye West’s notorious accusations take on a new dimension in light of the order in which various kinds of ‘relief’ reached the decimated areas and devastated people. From The Nation:
One might ask, given the enormous presence in New Orleans of National Guard, US Army, US Border Patrol, local police from around the country and practically every other government agency with badges, why private security companies are needed, particularly to guard federal projects. "It strikes me…that that may not be the best use of money," said Illinois Senator Barack Obama.
Indeed. If speed is the measure of urgency, then rather than protecting and providing immediate emergency for victims, it seems the Department of Homeland Security made guarding private property its top priority. According to The Nation, Blackwater troops arrived on the scene before any other government-commissioned relief organizations, and they were soon joined by other mercenary groups, including Israeli military fighters hired by individuals to secure their property by suppressing criminal activity, through lethal force if necessary. From an article featured at Democracynow.org:
Blackwater mercenaries are some of the most feared professional killers in the world, and they are accustomed to operating without worry of legal consequences. Their presence on the streets of New Orleans should be a cause for serious concern to the remaining residents of the city and raises alarming questions about why the government would allow men trained to kill with impunity in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to operate here. Some of the men patrolling the streets of New Orleans returned from Iraq as recently as 2 weeks ago.
Unfortunately, as my friend learned through firsthand experience, the odds of being judged on-sight to be a victim seeking aid in a home versus a criminal seeking to break into a home can be affected by the color of one's skin. The same kind of racial bias that leads to a higher conviction rate for minority defendants than for their white counterparts can also lead to a higher likelihood of targeting people of color when enforcing Bush’s philosophy of “zero tolerance for people breaking the law.”

An interview in The Nation indicates that the private troops did not carry machine guns merely as a preventative scare tactic, but did in fact use them against civilians. While the security forces described below were hired by an individual named Quinn, not by the government, it is not outrageous to assume that the hired hands in Blackwater conducted themselves similarly:
A possible deadly incident involving…hired guns underscores the dangers of private forces policing American streets. On his second night in New Orleans, Quinn’s security chief, Michael Montgomery, who said he worked for an Alabama company called Bodyguard and Tactical Security (BATS), was with a heavily armed security detail en route to pick up one of Quinn’s associates and escort him through the chaotic city. Montgomery told me they came under fire from "black gangbangers" on an overpass near the poor Ninth Ward neighborhood. "At the time, I was on the phone with my business partner," he recalls. "I dropped the phone and returned fire."

Montgomery says he and his men were armed with AR-15s and Glocks and that they unleashed a barrage of bullets in the general direction of the alleged shooters on the overpass. "After that, all I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped. That was it. Enough said."
During the aftermath, many noted and criticized the tendency of media coverage to racialize the crime occurring in some parts of the flood-stricken areas. Watching the news, my friend half-joked, one got the impression that there were armies of Black crack addicts banding together to terrorize, rape, and pillage innocent flood victims. While there's no denying that some opportunistic violence did occur, the exclusive focus on those relatively marginal instances not only reinforced racist stereotypes of the savage criminality of Black men, it also obscured the commission of government-sponsored violence and intimidation taking place in the area at the exact same time.

In addition to demanding, as Reverend Sharpton and many Americans are, a concrete plan to rebuild New Orleans, a plan that reflects proper respect for residents of all races and classes, we must also continue to question the Bush administration’s decision to sponsor, as The Washington Post characterizes it, “an unusual domestic assignment for a set of companies that has chiefly developed in global hot spots where war, not nature, has chiefly undermined the rule of law.”

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