Disasters: Natural and Social

Eric Klinenberg discusses the militarization of social services and what will be missing from any national conversations about poverty

Joel Bleifuss

A medic checks up on Willie McCray while attempting to convince him to leave his home in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

Hurricane Katrina, which was both a natural and governmental disaster, has put Eric Klinenberg and his 2002 book Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago in the media spotlight. Heat Wave recounts how racial inequality and political neglect contributed to the deaths of more than 700 Chicago residents during the heat wave of July 1995, one of America’s most important and ignored catastrophes. 

In These Times Editor Joel Bleifuss talked with Klinenberg, an associate professor of sociology at New York University, about the parallels between the Chicago heat wave and Hurricane Katrina. 

You have examined how police forces in cities like Chicago have usurped functions that were once the responsibility of public social service agencies. Do you see the same thing happening in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?

I do. Problems stemming from the militarization of social support programs are at the heart of the failed Katrina response. Beginning with the Crime Bill in 1994, all levels of government have delegated traditional social service responsibilities to paramilitary or military organizations – responsibilities that in many cases they are poorly suited to handle. In Heat Wave I call this an organizational mismatch, and one with serious consequences. 

Take Chicago: During the 90s the city asked the Chicago Police Department’s CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy) program to take on a range of traditional caring functions – holding community meetings, checking in on elderly residents, helping to clean streets – effectively using the punishing branch of government to do what the giving branch had done before. The officers themselves didn’t like to do this kind of work, and often they let it go undone. When Bush moved FEMA into the Department of Homeland Security, he did the same thing.

What effects does this have on civil society?

It’s dangerous for democracy because it is difficult for citizens and journalists to learn about what happens inside military or paramilitary agencies that manage vital government services. They are often designed to operate behind closed doors, and much of the work they do is classified and not subjected to public scrutiny.

Clearly this is a major trend from the Bush administration, which has tried to put as much government activity as possible out of public view. But it’s also a trend we saw in the 90s, when we began shifting so many federal dollars toward policing programs in our war on crime, often at the expense of public oversight. And I worry that ordinary citizens will never have the opportunity to learn about how these programs operate in practice.

You have observed that in Chicago, the rise of community CAPS meetings was accompanied by the decline in the influence of more democratic institutions, such as the traditional Democratic Party precinct organizations.

In the article Bowling Alone, Policing Together,” I examined the ways in which Americans were coming together in the 90s around their shared interest in building community by cracking down on crime. This concerned me, since it often meant penalizing the poor, and I began to go to community policing meetings in Chicago. It was extraordinary. Citizens were attending the meetings on a regular basis, and community policing events became the primary sites for citizen involvement in local government.

Chicago has a longstanding history of aldermen and committeemen running intensely local political activities for neighborhoods. They were once the brokers of projects and services, working between the city government and citizen groups. This led to some corruption and nepotism, for which Chicago is famous. But this intense form of local politics had the benefit of providing citizens with a sense of political community and a direct connection to city government.

During the 90s Chicago began to provide incentives for citizens to request services through their police departments rather then through democratically elected representatives. CAPS had developed a service priority system, wherein citizens who made their request for services through CAPS moved to the front of the line, while residents who made service requests through ordinary channels such as the aldermens’ offices just waited. It was remarkable that citizens were being encouraged to channel their local democratic actions through police departments. But it was also disturbing that the program received so little public discussion.

Everybody has said that Hurricane Katrina lifted the veil on poverty. It seems that what is not being discussed is the root causes for this poverty.

It took about three days for the media to begin reporting what everyone was seeing with their own eyes, namely that the people who were abandoned in New Orleans, who were left to suffer or die, were predominantly poor and African American. It took several days for the media to say that, but once we saw it we haven’t been able to stop talking about it. And that’s a good thing. My hope is that we are able to sustain a conversation about the extent to which the poor and people of color are especially vulnerable to these kinds of disasters. The language of environmental justice is a powerful resource for framing these events.

But the media has not adequately covered one issue, even though we have seen the images – the specific and special heightened vulnerability of the elderly poor. We are reading these horrific stories about the elderly who were left behind dying collectively because no special efforts were made to evacuate them, but we have not named this special vulnerability of isolated, poor senior citizens. 

We live at a time when there are more elderly living and dying alone than ever before. Our disaster plans need to be tailored to address their needs. And so do our ordinary plans for dealing with everyday life in cities.

Underlying all of this is the development of a market-model of governance that expects citizens, including the elderly and frail, to be active consumers of public goods. They are to be expert customers” of city services made available in the market rather than citizens” entitled to social protection. This creates a systemic mismatch of services, whereby people with the weakest capabilities and greatest needs are the least likely to get them.

One of my key points in Heat Wave is that disasters reveal everyday conditions that are always present but difficult to perceive. Clearly our response should be to bolster our disaster planning and prevention efforts. But we also need to be dealing with the disaster in slow motion of everyday life in the poorest and most abandoned urban areas.

So you would advocate the beginning of a national dialogue about the condition of the elderly poor?

We need to have a national dialogue about a lot of things. We hear many commentators today saying that perhaps after Katrina we can open up a national dialogue about the persistence of racial segregation, extreme poverty and inequality in American cities – even Condoleezza Rice has made this kind of remark. But I’m skeptical that we will have that national conversation about segregation and inequality in American cities. This is an administration that governs by public relations and relies on image-making projects to deflect attention from our national problems.

And history tells us it’s much easier to talk about disaster planning, improving drainage systems and shoring-up levees and building new housing, than it is to talk about racial segregation and the gross inequality that has long characterized American cities. I have very little confidence that the Bush administration and a Republican Congress are going to make addressing racial segregation and the increasing poverty in American cities a priority. My guess is that the current administration will continue to frame poverty as a cultural problem rooted in the behavior of the poor, not a structural one rooted in the economy, the structure of metropolitan governance that allows wealthy suburbs to horde resources at the expense of cities or the endurance of segregation.

Can we expect a more meaningful response from the Democrats?

The Democratic Party doesn’t have a great, recent track record of openly addressing the vulnerability of impoverished Americans. In fact, Democrats are responsible for helping to reinvent government” so that it became more punitive to the poor. The current levels of incarceration in the United States, particularly among African Americans, are not only shameful – they are dangerous. We are creating a society in which millions of people cycle in and out of the criminal justice system, where they are getting more stigmatized, more disadvantaged, rather than more educated or trained.

The Democrats didn’t provide much leadership during and after the great Chicago heat wave, either. The Clinton administration and Daley administration did a little to help poor residents of Chicago, but no one treated this human disaster with the urgency that it deserved. 

The Republicans were especially cruel in 1995 because about a week after the disaster, while dozens of bodies remained unclaimed, Republican Senators voted to cut funding for the low-income energy assistance program, which is the only federal program that provides assistance to the poor for the home energy costs related to heating and air conditioning. They voted for that cut directly after the heat wave. 

One of the most important social policies to address in the aftermath of Katrina, and the resulting rise in energy costs, is energy assistance to low-income people. It’s hard to fathom how America’s poor are going to pay for heating this winter, let alone cooling in the summer.

Perhaps Katrina will help us rethink our national energy policy priorities too. The Bush administration obviously wants to ensure that Americans can afford gas for their SUVs. If only it cared as much about ensuring that everyone can afford heating, or about the dangerous climate changes that result from our gluttonous use of oil. Imagine all the future disasters – social, political and meteorological – that we could avoid if our political parties actually advocated kicking our gas-guzzling habit. Maybe it’s time for us to demand that they do. 

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

Brandon Johnson
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