The topic of violence is one that is complex and hard to understand but yet is always pertinent. In his novel Cities of the Dead: Circum Atlantic Performance, Joseph Roach defines violence as “the performance of waste.” By this Roach implies that violence is just the action of creating waste with purpose to it. Roach further expands upon his definition by providing three corollaries: “first, that violence is never senseless but always meaningful, because violence in human culture always serves, one way or the other, to make a point; second, that all violence is excessive, because to be fully demonstrative, to make its point, it must spend things—material objects, blood, environments—in acts of Bataillian “unproductive expenditure” (or Veblenian “conspicuous consumption”); and third, that all violence is performative, for the simple reason that it must have an audience—even if that audience is only the victim, even if that audience is only God.” Although Roach’s work is from 1996, his definition of violence is still relevant today and especially so to the topics covered in class as each of Roach’s three corollaries can be applied to the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina.
In the context of Katrina, the failure of the United States government can ultimately be considered as an act of violence upon the people of New Orleans. During the events of Katrina, the levees of the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, a predominantly poor and black district, broke causing massive flooding and catastrophic damage. The United States government viewed the people of the Ninth Ward as expendable and because of this, they did very little to protect this group from the destructive power of a hurricane. As outlined in the Spike Lee documentary When the Levees Broke, the United States Corp of Engineers conducted an investigation post Katrina and found that the levees that they had constructed were not sufficient to handle the kind of destructive force of a hurricane as powerful as Katrina. In the novel Unfathomable City, A New Orleans Atlas, authors Rebecca Solnit and Rebecca Snedeker relay in a powerful quote how if the levees were constructed properly, much of the destruction of New Orleans could have been avoided altogether: “Imagine that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had built adequate levees: Katrina would have just been a powerful hurricane that missed New Orleans…” In addition, the United States government completely blundered the response in the aftermath of Katrina, taking far too long to respond to the crisis. New Orleans had to fend for itself in the aftermath of the storm with little support as reflected in another quote from Solnit and Snedeker: “Imagine that even though the levees failed and people were left behind, everyone in a position of power had responded with urgent empathy so that no one was left to die on a roof or in an attic…” In this case, the people of New Orleans, more specifically the people of the Ninth Ward, are considered as waste by the United States government and thus, violence was acted upon them.
In Roach’s first corollary, he mentions how violence is never senseless but rather always has a point. In the case of Katrina, the point of the violence acted upon the people of New Orleans by the United States government was as punishment for the actions of the people or rather their “sins.” It is no secret that the United States government held many prejudices against the people of New Orleans, believing the city to be prideful, dirty, and unclean. Thus, the government only initiated an evacuation of the city at the last possible moment, providing little to no resources in the aid of the evacuation. Spike Lee highlights in his film how the government relayed that they were not going to help anyone who stayed during the hurricane, doing little to help in the process of evacuating the city. Solnit and Snedeker also highlight this idea in the quote “Imagine that the evacuation order had not been a demand that people without cars and money do the impossible but an expression of social commitment that no one would be left behind. The U.S. government did the bare minimum to say that the people of New Orleans were warned and punished greatly those who had no choice but to stay in the city. If the people of New Orleans were going to be disobedient, the government would not help them in their time of need. An obvious analogy can be made to the biblical story of Noah in which God used a storm to flood the Earth and purge the wicked so that the Earth can be reborn. In this case, the government played the role of God, using the storm to purge the city of its sin and wickedness so that it too could be reborn. Many believed that this worked and was a benefit to those who had survived the ordeal. As highlighted in the collection of poems Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith, one such example was past first lady Barbara Bush who in a tasteless quote stated: “What I’m hearing is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone here is overwhelmed by the hospitality… And so many people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this-this [chuckles slightly] is working very well for them.”
In Roach’s second corollary, he mentions how violence must be used excessively if a point is to be made and Hurricane Katrina is no exception to this rule. The sheer destruction of New Orleans is captured expertly in Spike Lee’s documentary which gives the audience a visual indication of what the hurricane did as well as how the hurricane affected those who were caught in the storm on an interpersonal level. Hundreds died during the storm and those who survived lost their families, homes, or both. One poignant example from the documentary is a case in which a man who worked his entire life to pay off his home, broke down crying after seeing what the storm had done to the home he spent decades paying for. The excessiveness of the violence is also demonstrated expertly through Blood Dazzler by Patricia Smith. There are many poems that demonstrate the excessiveness of the violence. A notable example is the poem Buried in which a father must bury his own son who passed away during Katrina because the government stopped giving funds to help bury the victims of Katrina. This poem does an amazing job at not only demonstrating violence caused by the storm, but also how the government abandoned New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, causing even more violence as a result.
In Roach’s third corollary, he mentions how violence is performative in nature and because of this, there must be an audience for the violence to be performed for. In this case, the audience is the entire world, who saw the complete destruction of New Orleans by Katrina. The U.S. government used New Orleans as an example of what happens to cities which sin or disobey orders given to them. The residents of New Orleans, especially those from predominantly poor and black districts were treated as criminals or sinners. Anyone who tried to get food from grocery stores were labeled as looters, further contributing to the idea that New Orleans is an unjust city that needs punishment. The people of New Orleans were treated as savages by the public and were not given the help they desperately needed. As outlined in Spike Lee’s documentary, those who tried to leave the city were met with people with guns who attempted to keep people in New Orleans. Rumors ran rampant about the residents of New Orleans with one of the biggest perpetrators being New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass. In the collection of poems Blood Dazzler, Patricia Smith in the poem Dream Lover highlights the actions of the police chief with the quote “We had babies in there. Little babies getting raped” in reference to how the police chief stated that residents were trying to rape babies in the dome arena during the aftermath of the storm. This claim was completely nonfactual and only further served to justify the destruction of New Orleans. Violence was used by the government so that the world would see the absolute worst in the people of New Orleans in order to justify the violence that was committed upon the city of New Orleans.
It is important to understand Roach’s definition of violence as it allows us to better understand why violence occurs in the first place, allowing us as a society to avoid such acts of violence in the future. The violence acted upon the city of New Orleans was not an act of God but rather an act of man that could have been avoided altogether. Yet, the people of New Orleans were considered to be waste by the government and thus violence was perpetrated onto the city through the inaction and lack of support from the government. If we are to avoid such acts of violence in the future, we must first define violence and then understand the means in which violence is committed.