Washin’ Away

A trial activity asks who's guilty for Katrina's horrors

By Ian McFeat

Illustrator: AP Wide World Photo/Rick Bowmer

Photo: AP Wide World Photo/Rick Bowmer Leonard Thomas, 23, cries after a SWAT team burst into his family’s flooded home in New Orleans. Neighbors had reported that the family was squatting.

‘Louisiana, Louisiana, they’re tryin’ to wash us away, they’re tryin’ to wash us away,” sings Randy Newman in his song “Louisiana, 1927,” which chronicles the rising of the flood waters in Louisiana and the government’s racist and limited response.

“Washing away” seems an apt metaphor to describe what’s happened to the poor and black of the Gulf Coast in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Yet, as we come to grips with the bleak reality of America today, how do we approach this in the classroom? As a public high school teacher in Tacoma, Wash., thousands of miles away from Louisiana, I asked myself, “What does Katrina teach us about poverty and race in America?” This is the question I wanted my students to wrestle with.

Conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly made it clear who he thought bore the brunt of the responsibility in New Orleans:

If you’re poor, you’re powerless. Not only in America, but everywhere on earth. If you don’t have enough money to protect yourself from danger, danger’s gonna find you. The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina should be taught in every American school: If you don’t get educated, if you don’t develop a skill and force yourself to work hard, you’ll most likely be poor. And sooner or later you’ll be standing on a symbolic rooftop waiting for help. Chances are, that help will not be quick in coming.

It was in this context that I decided to write a role play on Katrina, to dig deeper than what my students were seeing on the nightly news, to ask serious questions about what this catastrophe represents.

I wanted my students to confront hard questions, to analyze and pick apart the glib and often reactionary rhetoric of politicians and political pundits, and to investigate the roots of this disaster. It was not enough to let the mass media corner this educational opportunity.

During our first pep assembly of the year, students cheered as our two new students from New Orleans were called down. “We have two students who have come up here in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina,” said a colleague. “As a token of our appreciation for what you’ve overcome, we’d like to extend our welcome.” The two young students took their T-shirts and plaques as my colleague continued with a request for donations, and out came the cheerleaders.

I didn’t want our thinking about Katrina to begin and end with charity. I decided to create a trial on Katrina, to engage students in thinking about the causes of this disaster. Randy Newman’s chorus in “Louisiana, 1927” is “They’re tryin’ to wash us away.” I wanted students to consider the “they” in the Katrina disaster.

The structure of a trial role play begins with a “crime” — in this instance, the death and destruction wrought by Katrina — and charges several defendants as perpetrators of the crime. (I based the structure of the Katrina trial role play on “The People v. Columbus, et al.,” by Bill Bigelow in Rethinking Columbus and “The People v. Global Sweatshops,” by the Portland Area Rethinking Schools Globalization Workgroup in Rethinking Globalization.)

I had other reasons for choosing a trial as well. Pedagogically speaking, trials offer me a way to allow students to wrestle with deeper issues, to move beyond one-sided explanations so that we all might question reality from multiple perspectives. Also, one of my goals this year is to make clear the systemic causes of problems. I want students to look for the roots of problems in our world and not accept the idea that individuals alone are completely responsible for social problems. It wasn’t enough for us to blame people involved with Katrina without looking at the system.

The Defendants

The indictment in the trial charged all the defendants with the same crime: “You are responsible for the horrendous, barbaric conditions experienced by the people of Louisiana and surrounding states after Hurricane Katrina.” But which “defendants” to charge with Katrina’s crimes? I settled on six: state and local authorities, New Orleans’ poor people, New Orleans’ rich people, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the Bush administration, and the free market economy. (See sidebar for summaries of roles.)

The Trial Begins

On Monday, as students settled in for class I explained that we were going to have a trial on Hurricane Katrina, that each of them would be defendants, and that I would play the prosecutor. We read a firsthand report by Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, two EMT workers from San Francisco who were trapped in New Orleans during the storm and encountered a brutal and inhumane response from the authorities. Their article highlighted the callous treatment at the hands of police and sheriffs in the region. The article is available at www.counterpunch.org/ bradshaw09062005.html. We also read “Race, Relief and Reconstruction,” “Disasters,” and “Crime and New Orleans,” all by Jordan Flaherty (www.leftturn.org). I also found www. nycore.org to be valuable in providing extensive background on New Orleans.

I divided students into roughly equal-sized groups and handed out the role-indictments for each group. I explained that it was their job to build a defense against the indictment by accusing other groups and creating their own arguments and reasons for their innocence. I told them that they could plead guilty, but they needed to accuse at least one other group, as well. As I passed out the Poor People of New Orleans sheets to one group, Anthony*, whose mother is raising six children alone, spoke up: “Ah, man. How you gonna go and blame the poor people? They’s my people.”

Students read their roles in groups as I circulated around the room. The Free Market Economy group had some problems. “So, what is this?” asked Nate. “How are you going to put an idea on trial?” I didn’t want to reply to him quite yet as I figured that having this question was more important than my answer. I did tell him that I’d be back after their group thought about his question for a while.

On my second pass around, I spoke to Rob’s group: “People are not born greedy and heartless,” I said. “Your system shapes them that way.” I added that the free market also shapes our world by offering a framework with certain rules. If one doesn’t play by the rules, they’re out. I told them to think of Monopoly. The rules of the game are already there and these rules control the players’ actions and goals. One can even be generous in Monopoly, but ultimately the rules force the play in particular directions.

I circulated around the room for the remainder of the period. I told groups to write up their group arguments together, but to each include what they personally might say during the trial. Too often, in my past trials, students have relied on memory, which sometimes deceives them into thinking they have all the facts. Writing down arguments makes their thinking concrete. I told them this didn’t mean they had to read from their notes, but they could use them as reference sheets. And their written arguments gave me an opportunity to check their work for understanding.

I asked my colleague, Tim Ford, if he would be willing to judge for the trial. I called him in after we organized the classroom into a court. We had the jury, one student from each group, pledged to neutrality and sworn in. Tim read the brief indictment aloud and explained that I was the prosecutor and the defendants would defend themselves and accuse others. I instructed the court that the jury would question the defendants after they were finished and then members of other groups could raise questions. At the conclusion of the prosecution of each group, we’d move on to the next group to repeat the process.

I asked to approach the bench to begin my case against the first group, the Rich People of New Orleans. I prosecuted the first indictment with a degree of sarcasm, and then it was the Rich People’s turn. Amy began their defense. “First, let us say that it is not our job to protect people during a tragedy. It’s FEMA’s job. It’s what F-E-M-A stands for,” Amy said, slowly articulating the four letters. The students in the courtroom let out an “Oooh,” as Amy paused to let her statement sink in. She continued, “And poor people had the choice to be poor or wealthy, we worked for what we got on our own. No one helped. You-all is lazy.”

I was sure students would have plenty to say. After the members of the jury asked their questions, Tim called on each group to ask theirs.

Sharon, from the Poor People group, shot back at the Rich People when it was her group’s turn to question. “So what do we do as the poor? Make cars appear out of nowhere? Where do we go? Where do we get our money in three days?” The room got hot, as other students raised their hands to chime in. Tim quieted them down just enough with a pound of the hole-puncher on the podium. “Order in the court.”

After the Bush Administration defense, Tim called on students to ask questions. One student asked, “Just how does it make sense to have all our resources in another country for an unjustified war? Answer that.”

“You were on vacation when this was happening,” a student said to Bush. “How is this anyone else’s fault? What, was your phone on vibrate?”

I almost laughed at the language they used, but when I looked around the room, students were dead serious. The Bush Administration group answered that they needed to have the war to protect U.S. citizens.

Jonathan, a reluctant participant to this point, stood up. So far, his Poor People of New Orleans group had not asked many questions. “If you guys was poor, wouldn’t you want someone to help you?”

“Yeah,” said Denise. “And why did you not help the poor with the Davis-Bacon Act? You all act like a feeding frenzy, sharks on meat that’s been left in the ocean.” Her finger pointed squarely at Kyron, representing a member of the Bush Administration.

She was referring to the act requiring prevailing wages in federally sponsored construction that Bush had suspended after Katrina hit. She had figured out who benefited from this arrangement and who it hurt the most.

Kyron offered his own creative response. “We, the Bush Administra-tion, be about it,” he said. “We’ve had to make our own place in this world. Everyone can control his or her own destiny. So do it and stop blaming us.” And he continued: “All the people in America point the finger at us, but what have any of you done? If you want someone to blame, blame the people too stubborn to evacuate.”

Kyron and other members of the Bush Administration kept returning to the idea that individuals control their own lives. They put forth the idea that it is not the government’s role to help those who can’t help themselves. And because individuals need to learn how to get ahead, blaming others is a lot like crying when you fall down; the person who falls is responsible, not others.

The Free Market Economy was the last group to defend itself. I deliberately made them the final group, to focus attention on this group and to help build understanding in a gradual way during the trial. I wanted students to question whether or not the roles had connections with the free market.

When her turn to raise a question came up, Brittney, from the FEMA group let the Free Marketers have it. “For you, it’s liberty and justice for some. You’d rather make a profit than help everyone. The poor could work harder than a rich person but still be poor. All because of your system. Isn’t that right?”

Photo: AP Wide World Photo/Christopher Morris
An aerial view of the flood-ravaged St. Bernard Parish, La., in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Sept. 12, 2005.

The Verdicts

In the five classes I teach, when the juries returned their verdicts, there were some commonalities. In four out of five classes, the Bush administration shouldered the blame, with my sixth period giving them a whopping 100 percent of the burden. In every class but one, students assigned between 5 percent and 10 percent of the blame to the poor. And three classes assigned more than 20 percent of the guilt to FEMA. Curiously, few students gave the rich people much responsibility, with one juror saying, can’t blame them. It’s not their job to help others and it’s not their fault that they have money.” In not a single class did the free market receive a substantial amount of blame, with 14 percent as its highest mark.

Kiley, a soft-spoken student, did find the free market responsible. Her critique of the market system grasped at the idea that something larger was at work:

The free market is a heartless system that lures people into its trap . . . It is simply greedy to be making profits rather than saving lives. . . . Money is one of the most deadly weapons to all people all over the world. It can destroy people physically, emotionally, and mentally.

As I expected might be the case, many students didn’t appear to understand the free market’s relationship to poverty and wealth inequality. Most of them focused on the culpability of individuals. Including the free market role in the trial did allow for students to begin thinking more systemically about the causes of Katrina’s horrors. I wanted students to think about the causes of poverty and the implications of Hurricane Katrina on the issue of race in our country.

But I’m not completely disappointed. I helped my students wrestle with the possibilities of guilt during a time of crisis, to grapple with conflicting perspectives, and to hold these perspectives up for scrutiny amongst their peers. This sort of thinking is a victory in itself. Even if many of my students had difficulty recognizing the systemic causes of disaster, they still listened intently to one another, and they realized that issues such as the devastation caused by natural disasters have deeper causes.