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Death sentence in the delta


They were left behind for one reason.

Left to fend for themselves while rescue workers and National Guardsmen waited for orders to go in. Orders that came four days too late.

Some died, some killed others. A few reportedly ate human flesh to survive.

We all know the reason why this verdict was handed down to them.

Because they were poor.

You thought I was going to say it’s because they were black, didn’t you? Well, obviously that didn’t help.

But Condoleeza Rice is African American too. And while her brothers and sisters were dying where they sat at the New Orleans Convention Center, she was attending Spamalot on Broadway and shopping for shoes on Fifth Avenue.

Condi may be black, but poor she ain’t. The sister has an oil tanker named after her. Black people in New Orleans are surrounded by the refineries that fill Condi’s Chevron tanker, but there won’t be any ships named after them.

Our society lets a lucky few African Americans rise to the top, the very top. So far to the top that we refer to them by their first names, like royalty: Condi, Colin, Michael, Prince, Tiger, Beyonce.

But we never let our poor see the light of day, much less rise to the top.

Quick, name a poor person... they don’t even get names, do they?

If some residents of white America -- excuse me, “the heartland” -- look down on the hurricane survivors of New Orleans with contempt and scorn, it may indeed have something to do with the color of the victims’ skin.

Mostly it will be because they’re poor.

Because in America, being black may suck. But being poor is a capital offense.

I don’t want to minimize the racism that contributed to the government’s agonizingly slow response to New Orleans. But to chalk it all up to racism is too easy. It denies the deeper reality.

It’s become the norm to say America “neglects” its poor, as one might neglect to water some flowers or neglect to return an e-mail.

But America does not neglect its poor. It hates its poor.

Before the “War on Drugs,” before the “War on Terror,” before the “War to Spread Freedom and Democracy to Iraq Since We Couldn’t Find Any Weapons of Mass Destruction There” -- America had a War on the Poor.

In 1932, in the Depression, President Herbert Hoover gave a shoot-to-kill order to quash a gathering of poor people -- poor white people, the so-called “Bonus Army” -- who came to Washington to demand money promised them years before. They were shot, stabbed with bayonets, stomped by cavalry horses, tear-gassed and had their tents burned to the ground. By their own government.

In 1935, some Bonus Army survivors were sent to work on construction projects in the Florida Keys. Over 250 of them were soon killed by -- you guessed it -- a hurricane.

Being poor in America is the cardinal sin. A sin for which there is no absolution, the original sin which is without redemption.

The poor make us look bad. They make us uncomfortable. They make us feel guilty. They make us mad.

The presence of poor people in the richest country in the world makes us so mad that when they make themselves visible -- when they ask for some water to drink -- they’re quarantined in a modern-day Andersonville, an entire city turned open-air death camp.

Playing God, our government consigns the poor to hell on earth for all the world to see in plain sight on 24-hour television. That’s a lot of hate.

Our leaders move heaven and earth to bring American government to the Garden of Eden itself, nestled between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, as the Bible tells us. But they will not make haste to send one American soldier into the ancient waters of the Mississippi River delta to protect our own citizens.

That’s a lot of hate, my friend.

Trucks were lined up. Helicopters fueled. Guardsmen waiting to go in. Tourists at the big hotels airlifted out, given a hot meal and a shower.

But still rescue for the poor waited. Even the Red Cross was not allowed in.

Oh, but Jim, you say, it was unsafe to send anyone in. There were looters with guns. You know how “those people” are.

Yes, about that: We have sent the National Guard into Iraq for over two years, to shoot and to be shot at. Blown up on the side of the road. Suicide-bombed to smithereens. RPG’ed to a crisp. Or if they’re lucky, a sniper’s quick kill-shot to the head.

We’ve sent the National Guard to Iraq to face all that, and more. But we can’t send in the Guard to shoot and be shot at by a few looters? In Louisiana?

Our government will send our children to die for the Iraqis’ right to impose woman-hating, medieval Islamic law on themselves. But not to protect and feed people in the direst need in one of our own most storied cities.

Man, that’s a lot of hate.

Eyes are opening, though. Minds are waking up to the reality. We know the deal now. We’ve seen it. That’s good.

It could just as easily be Savannah. It could just as easily be you caught on tape “looting” in order to feed your family.

It could just as easily be you who “ignored” the evacuation order because you didn’t have a car or didn’t have money for a plane ticket out during that brief window when flights are available before the airport is shut down.

It could just as easily be you who tried to drive out but found the gas pumps dry -- and Lord knows that SUV needs a lot of $3.20 a gallon gas just to clear its throat in the morning.

Anyway, here’s a special shout-out to those of you who still think that everyone in New Orleans who stayed behind deserved what happened to them.

You know who you are.

Best of luck to you, my friend, because when the dark clouds gather and the stiff wind picks up and the brown water rises, all of God’s children are poor as dirt.

Best of luck to you, because the hell on earth the poor blacks of New Orleans faced is probably nothing compared to the hell that awaits you when you meet your maker.

Jim is editor-in-chief of Connect Savannah. His blog is at