The Allusions of Waste: Violence Preformed on Hurricane Katrina Victims

“Waste” is a term that can reference a broad array of allusions. For some, waste can exist as a form of physical garbage, bodily excretions, or other tangible debris. And yet, for others waste holds a greater significance in representing concepts such as time, energy, thoughts, or even people. In an expansive sense, “waste” is something that has the ability to be spent, ridden of, abandoned, rejected, or discarded. Another implication of “waste” could be supported as something that could be sacrificed or expended with a sense of disregard and lack of care. Most importantly, however, I feel as though the strongest ability of “waste” lies within its capability of being forgotten.

People forget what they deem unimportant or unworthy of remembrance. This coincides with “waste” because the many insinuations of this term all reference the lack of merit that we deem our waste to have.  As for remembrance, memory is the process of retaining information, analyzing it, and storing it so that it can be brought to mind later. In Joseph Roach’s performance “Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance”, he explained how the process of “memory operates as both quotation and invention, an improvisation on borrowed themes, with claims on the future as well as the past” (Roach, 1996, pg.33). Therefore, memory is persuaded by the source and the environment from which the memory is being recalled; it is an easily influenced concept. He further explained that “memory circulates and migrates like gossip from location to location as well as from generation to generation, growing or attenuating as it passes through the hands of those who possess it and those whom it possesses”(Roach, 1996, pg.35). Comprehensively, he is reaffirming his idea that memory is interpretive and can be manipulated through interpersonal communication. It can be a biased misinterpretation of the past that can be wrongfully expounded in the future. Overall, our ability to forget “waste” and the misconstruction of memories create a threatening combination for our past, present, and future. 

Within his performance, Roach also referenced the consequential undertone that the term “waste” could carry, especially in regard to representing groups of people. With this, he explained the harm that is led to arise from the classification of people as waste, and he referenced both historical and more recent contexts in doing so. Historically, human societies have often turned to violence when one group of people identifies another group as “waste” that could be sacrificed, as they are considered inferior and worthless. Through this, he ultimately supported his claim that “violence is a performance of waste” (Roach, 1996, pg. 41).

Promptly after this claim, Roach clarified his definition of what violence truly entails; he explained, “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” (Roach, 1996, pg.41). Comprehensively, this definition exploits the true intent of violence as a purposeful performance of brutality upon an “expendable” victim. Personally, I have always felt as though violence stems from an accumulation of internal anger that is eventually “taken out” on another through a physical or verbal act of rage. Furthermore, I have always believed that people tend to become violent against those that they deem inferior, as they are seen as unworthy of respect and civility. The collaboration of my thoughts on violence and Roach’s own personal and elaborate definition therefore both support Roach’s ultimate claim that “violence is a performance of waste” (Roach, 1996, pg.41).

As mentioned prior, groups of people have been categorized as “waste” throughout history and have therefore been considered to be expendable; consequently, suggesting that violence could be administered upon these groups. Such examples of historical violence have often resulted after a catastrophe, a word which Roach defines as a “…word rife with kinesthetic imagination, which carries forward through time the memory of a movement, a “downward turning,” redolent of violence and fatality but also of agency and decision.” (Roach, 1996, pg. 33).  Hurricane Katrina is an example of such a catastrophe that revealed a sense of violence against the people of New Orleans performed by national leaders and organizations of the United States. 

The tragedy of this category 5 hurricane and the violence that followed was depicted in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke: a film that exposed the truth behind the events before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina occurred. Throughout the four acts of this film, Lee unveiled an array of people that were involved in or affected by Katrina and had them tell their side of the story. Many of these stories explained their mentality prior to Katrina, and then the hardships they faced as a result of such a severe storm. Most of these people referenced their frustration and helplessness during and after the storm’s outbreak, and many pointed their fingers at the same common enemies: the United States government and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Following this hurricane, thousands of New Orleans residents were left stranded in the flooded city and forced to deal with starvation, dehydration, unbearable heat, and unsanitary living conditions. Over one thousand people died as a result of this tragic event, and yet, many feel as though this high death toll could have been avoided. 

Returning to Roach’s performance, the people trapped in New Orleans felt “expendable” by the U.S. government. There were countless preparations that should have been executed prior to the hurricane, especially knowing the damage that a category 5 hurricane is capable of causing. The main example of this was the structural incompleteness of the levee in the 9th ward of the city of New Orleans. For this, many residents blamed the federal government of Louisiana for their ignorance of the inadequate design and construction of the levee; and as a result, this levee was incapable of withstanding the force of the hurricane. In the book, Unfathomable City Solnit and Snedeker referenced the federal involvement in New Orleans in stating, “Like many urban Infrastructure systems in the United States, the city’s trinity of waterways has not been well maintained. People haven’t been willing to or able to pay up– and we haven’t adapted these systems to the problems we had” (Solnit, 2013, pg.156). From this, I, like many of the New Orleans residents, questioned: what is the true reason why the levees were inadequately constructed? Knowing that a majority of New Orleans’s geography lies below sea level, as well as its proximity to a quickly eroding coast, why wouldn’t the federal government prioritize the establishment of adequate flood protection? These were the questions that fueled so many residents’ frustrations following Hurricane Katrina, as preventative measures could have been taken to potentially have avoided the storm’s detrimental effects. This idea was further expressed in the lyrics of the Wood Brothers’ song, “River Takes the Town”, as they stated, “nothing’s ever for certain until the levee breaks down–The water comes in and the river–The river takes the town”.  Overall, as these precautionary measures were not taken to prevent flooding water from drowning the city, it could be argued that the U.S. government was willing to sacrifice the people of New Orleans. 

This argument was further supported by the aftermath of the storm depicted in Spike Lee’s film, whereas the people of New Orleans were abandoned in dehumanizing conditions and left helpless. Families were separated, dead bodies lay in the streets, people remained trapped in buildings, and thousands faced starvation and dehydration, and yet, where was the United States Government to provide relief? The Federal Emergency Management Agency was not sufficiently prepared for the severity of the storm and took multiple days to begin helping those in need. Furthermore, President Bush remained on his vacation following the hurricane, and waited three weeks to arrive and begin assisting the flooded city. This delay infuriated the many scared and desperate New Orleans residents. One example of this was expressed in a poem by Patricia Smith, where she wrote from the perspective of a  New Orleans woman in stating, “Looks like this country done left us for dead”(Smith, 2008, pg. 22).  Evidently, there should’ve been a greater sense of urgency for the government to assist the people of New Orleans. These people felt expended by a government that is supposed to protect and care for them. Their helplessness quickly transformed into frustration against the powers of the United States that had sacrificed them as “waste”.

Throughout history, Roach explained how we  “tend to place catastrophe in the past, as a grief to be expiated, and not necessarily in the future, as a singular fate yet to be endured”(Roach, 1996, pg.35). Yet, considering all of the hardships faced by the victims of Katrina, I argue that we should not allow this catastrophe to be left in the past. The hardships these people faced impact their lives to this day, and the United States government should still be held accountable for the wrongs they executed. In the context of Hurricane Katrina and the aftermath, it is important that we do not forget the truth that the United States government was willing to sacrifice the people of New Orleans.  The government enacted violence against these residents as they abandoned them and left them helpless. The horrifying injustice of this catastrophe is something that cannot be ignored because this violence could be repeated again if another tragedy were to occur in an “expendable” city. As civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr. once stated, “Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars”. With this, we must hold the United States government accountable for their consideration of people as waste and remember the true violence that the people of New Orleans underwent during and after Hurricane Katrina.

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