Colette Pichon Battle

ColettePichonBattleBonjour. It's so great to be here--thank you for having me.

The first question that most folks from the Gulf Coast get when we're in places like New York is, “Where were you when Katrina hit?” Well, I was in [[Washington,] D.C., practicing corporate law, trying to achieve success. Anybody feeling me? Any Black lawyers out here move to D.C. to achieve success? It's a whole bunch of success out there. Beautiful Black people, beautiful suits, nice cars, they go to museums, they eat out. It's great, it's fantastic. Best couple of years of my life, loved every minute of it.

And then there was this really big storm in the Gulf. I checked on my family, and the next day we saw these images. And it took about two weeks before I knew everyone in my family was okay. There was one thing I understood as a lawyer: they might need some help with paperwork. [I thought,] “I'll go down and I'll volunteer. I'll go home for a little while.” But what I didn't understand as a movement leader was how much injustice was located in the middle of disaster.

My community has been in Slidell, Louisiana, actually just outside, since the 1770s. Our community, so says the oldest people there, who gave us testimony after the storm, said the water had never been that high. Where people live with water all the time, it had never come up that far. There was a thirty-foot tidal surge off the Gulf of Mexico and my community was completely underwater.

I was told I was talking to some lawyers today, so I don't have an inspirational talk. What I did make was a list of damages, so I thought you'd appreciate that. I'm not one of those [lawyers], I hate trial, [and] I don't like speaking in front of folks. Interestingly enough, in disaster work, there's a lot of different roles for lawyers. And one of the roles I found over the last ten years was just keeping a list of all of the things that we should be receiving damages for.

The first thing I want to mention is [that] we're waiting for damages from the oil companies that dredged canals in the lower part of Louisiana and allowed for the salt water intrusion to destroy the marshes that protect the land. I don't know how much money that will be, but if you could just restore the south of Louisiana, that would be okay. Whatever that equals, we'll take those damages.

The second damages on my list go to the federal government. Because it was actually the failure of levees built by our federal government that flooded an entire city. New Orleans was 80% underwater, not because of Katrina, but because of levees that broke. What was found out at trial was that those levees were not built to the standards they were set to, and the standards that were set were not good enough to protect that city. There was a lawsuit; they even won. Turns out you can't sue the federal government for damages when the Army Corps of Engineers is at fault.

The third on my list is the New Orleans Police Department. We just want damages for all the Black people they killed. And when they do the calculations for the civil part of the trial, we would appreciate if you would value Black lives the way white lives get valued when these kind[s] of things happen.

Next on the list is the Jefferson Parish Sheriff's Office. I don't know if you heard, but in the middle of the storm, people literally tried to leave the city [to] get away from the water that was slowly rising. There were armed sheriffs on the bridge of the Crescent City connection telling people that they could not get out, and [they] sen[t] them back into Orleans Parish. We would like some damages for that. I'm not sure how to calculate that; I'm willing to work with you all to figure out how that's gonna break down. But something about that seems a little illegal, and I think we have some civil claims to that. I asked my trial friends to help me with that.

Next on the list is BP [British Petroleum]. Five years after we were recovering from Katrina, and the levee breaches and the floods, just when people were starting to come out of the trauma that follows a disaster like that, there was a massive disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. 3.1 million barrels-- three hundred million gallons--of oil, not regular oil, [but] heavy crude oil. And if that wasn't bad enough, BP, the federal government, [and] several other people, said, “Let's sink the oil floating on the top by spraying toxic dispersant on it. And let's use toxic dispersants that are banned in Europe for their human impact, for their known human impact--the cancer-causing properties of this stuff--let's spray it on South Louisiana.” And that's what they did. Recently there was a judgment. Some people were happy about it, [but] most people in South Louisiana were not. The judgment was $20 billion against BP. Some people think that's a lot of money. But $20 billion was what was settled for the Alaska Exxon Valdez, an oil spill that was a fifth the size, one state, on rocky coast, with no population. We would like the rest of our money. We could just multiply that and count it out.

Finally, we would like damages from all of the people who came down to South Louisiana, South Mississippi, and South Alabama to exploit for their careers, interests, and volunteer desire. [They] came down to exploit my people for [their] benefit. We would like our damages.

Our disaster recovery is not a game. It's not a learning moment. There are some injustices going on, and if you're not coming to help us find justice, we don't need you there. If you came and you get a paper, or you got some kind of grant, or you wrote some[thing], [or made] a movie or such, we'll take all of the profits that you got from that. Just send it on down.

So, small list of damages. [In] a room full of lawyers, I know we can figure out a way to work this out. These are my “radical ideas” . . . damages for things that are very clearly to be paid to us.

I made another list, [be]cause I like lists. [T]here are some changes we'd like to make in South Louisiana and in the Gulf South, and they have to do with laws.

The first thing we want is to see a change in federal disaster law. Does anybody know what the federal government has to do in disasters? What does the federal government have to do in disasters? Not a damn thing. The next time Sandy comes through, [or] the next time something happens to your community, please note it is a discretionary movement of the federal government to act. We don't have any law on our books that says the federal government has to come to the aid of its citizens in a disaster. And if you lived in Louisiana at the time of George [W.] Bush, and you had a Democratic governor and a Republican president, you quickly find out what decisions people make when they have the discretion. Somehow, when there's discretion, Black lives don't get valued. We're not the ones that get saved, and we weren't chosen, and we weren't valued, and we weren't saved.

Next, I just want to mention this little thing called voting rights. Thought I'd mention it, because when you displace millions of people at gunpoint with one-way tickets and you don't help them get back home, and then you hold elections, and you say there's just no voter turnout, and then you purge the voter rolls, because they just haven't been home, but there are no homes to come back to--well, we've come to the conclusion that we might need some voting rights in disasters. So, [for] the conversation on voting rights that's happening right now . . . be ready for when the disaster comes, because that is the hit. That is the moment when our power really gets taken away: when we are at our weakest, most traumatic space.

The next change: we just need a law that protects public institutions. When there's a hurricane that hits your coast, and levees that flood your city, we need laws that protect the strongest buildings that are on the highest ground, that are meant to withstand wind, where even the rich people go because they're the strongest buildings in the city. That's our public housing; that was our public housing in New Orleans. It got torn down. Not because it flooded. But because somebody wanted to “shift the density of poverty,” is what they said. What it actually meant is it permanently displaced thousands of people, who are still not home, because they were living in public housing, and they were never allowed to come back to their city. We think public housing should be protected in disasters. All public institutions.

And speaking of public institutions, we might want to protect our hospitals, too. We have a big hospital called Charity. It was built at the same time that our public housing was built. It's [in] downtown New Orleans, and the only thing that flooded was its basement. [It] turns out that [when] the whole team of medical staff . . . and the military group [that] cleaned it [[and] got it surgery-ready . . . told the government, “We're ready to receive patients at Charity,” the government and a few other folks put a gag order on the doctors and military, opened the windows, and re-flooded Charity Hospital. The dollars that were supposed to go to rebuild Charity Hospital, clean it up, [and] save the people who were stuck went to a new facility right next door. When you come down, check it out. They could've just rebuilt Charity [or] cleaned it up. But Charity Hospital is a hospital for poor Black people. And so they just pushed it to the side, and . . . they're starting to privatize the public money put into those hospitals.

Finally, another public institution: schools. Turns out New Orleans has become the epicenter of the charter [school] movement. But let me tell you what's really happening. We're seeing children who go to four schools in four years, because a charter school really [just] takes $300 and a signature to start. These children can't write their names, they can't add, they can't figure anything out, and there's no connection to the crime that we see in our city. “It's just their fault for not making better choices.” It ought to be our fault for not protecting our children and the public institutions that they need to grow.

So for housing, hospitals, and schools, let's just protect them as public institutions, and let's not allow your tax dollars to go to help privatize these institutions, which is what's happening now.

The next law we ought to think about: a federal law banning racial and religious profiling. After Katrina, there were thousands of immigrants brought into our city to help with the recovery and rebuilding. When those immigrants asked for their paychecks, they were fired, and they immediately lost their status. When they lost their status and they drove from their home to their work, or to find more work, they were profiled for being brown. Turns out Black folks in New Orleans knew all about that trick. Black men in my family [have] been profiled all my life. And right after [September] 11, our Muslim brothers and sisters started getting profiled, too.

A suggestion: we need a federal law that bans racial profiling. It's come up, [[but for] some reason it can't get passed. I don't know why this isn't a priority, but when police have the right to stop you based on your skin color, that ought to be illegal.

We also need some laws that actually promote an alternative economic system. It turns out that in the middle of a disaster, capitalism [is] not the best thing. Not the best thing for Black lives. In fact, what we saw in South Louisiana after Katrina was the barter system, because the ATMs weren't full and the banks were closed. We saw people actually using what they had and getting what they need[ed].

I remember one morning, I woke up to a bag of okra in my FEMA trailer as payment for some legal services that I had done. Now, I love okra, so that was a very good payment for me. But it was [from] a lady down the street who didn't have any money. She gave me some okra, I was hungry: it all worked out. I don't understand why these kinds of [systems] can't be part of our conversation.

And one last suggestion. And this one you might not connect immediately to Black lives, but trust me, it's connected. We need federal recognition for the United Houma Nation. The United Houma Nation is a Native American tribe in South Louisiana with 17,000 tribal roll members. They are the Nation that put the red stick in the ground that we now call Baton Rouge. They've always existed where we are. But our federal government doesn't recognize them.

The problem when the federal government doesn't recognize you when you're the largest tribe in South Louisiana is that you don't get royalties when your land sits on a lot of oil and gas. You also don't get a say in how disasters are cleaned up in your community, with your tribe. We want federal recognition for the United Houma Nation, not only because it's the right thing to do, but because what we've figured out in South Louisiana is that none of our struggles, none of our movements, will go anywhere until we have movements and justice for our indigenous brothers and sisters.

So, I'll wrap it up. I just thought I'd give you some things to think about, because the question was, “If law worked for Black lives, what would the world be like?” Well, this is just a suggestion on where we could start, and this is from ten years of disaster recovery in the Gulf South. So I'm going to leave you with one request, and I'm going to let you know what's going on down in the Gulf South.

The request is: remember us on August 29. This is ten years since Hurricane Katrina, and no matter what you hear up here in New York, or over there in Ohio, or way on the West Coast, don't believe that the recovery is finished. Don't believe that we're okay. Don't believe that justice has been served. That has not occurred. And if you don't believe it, we invite you down to come see for yourself.

There's an initiative called Gulf South Rising led by local Black people. Local Black people saying, “This is how we want to remember Katrina ten years later.” Those people are taking to the city, and they're asking you to join them for a march and for healing rooted in traditional arts and culture. The Gulf South Rising movement is going to build power: we're building our own infrastructure, leaders, [and] financial system. That's goal number one. We invite you to join us.

Goal number two is that we're coming together, not just to party . . . specifically, to heal our bodies, our minds, our relationship with one another, and our relationship to Mother Earth. We've got some healing to do, and the healing is going to go down in New Orleans on August 29.

We're also moving from this notion of resilience to resistance. Now, we do acknowledge that we are resilient people. We are [resilient], thank you very much: when you punch me, I can come back. That's right. It's good, I can take it--thanks. We figured that out. But stop hitting me.

So we're building a movement to just stop the punches. We don't need to prove anymore to the nation or anyone else that we can take a punch. We can take a punch. Stop hitting us, stop hurting us, stop killing us, [and] don't forget about us. And so this narrative from resilience to resistance is what we're going to be shouting on August 29. If you can't join us, at least remember that the legacy of resistance in this nation started in the Gulf South.