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Washin' Away

By Ian McFeat

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.

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