I thought I understood time until 2020. There are regularly days when I am not sure which day of the week it is until it’s time to go to bed. Then there are weeks where I’m not sure what year it is. This week, as we neared the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, when I saw the devastation from Hurricane Laura, I could not help but be transported back to 2005.
I remember sitting with my mother and grandfather in the cool of our newly repowered air conditioner, as we watched image after image of utter devastation on the Gulf Coast, but especially New Orleans in the wake of the massive Category 3 storm. We saw city residents marooned on rooftops and bridges and makeshift rafts, baking in what we knew was a merciless heat. Those images were followed by ones of the sweltering masses outside of the convention centre or the Superdome, all of the faces visibly horrified by the conditions inside.
My family was a little less than 322 kilometres away in Port Gibson, Mississippi, close enough to have been affected by the storm and for New Orleans to have been important to us, but that says more about the breadth of Katrina’s destruction and the bigness of New Orleans’ influence than anything else. The images still haunt me, and many other Black Americans like me, even those who weren’t anywhere near New Orleans. Because we looked into their faces and saw ourselves.
I’ve written before about the days between when the power went off to when it came back on. But the story didn’t stop there. Hurricane Katrina swept the ground out from under the whole country and revealed just how shaky it already was. The thing about a storm like that is that there’s endless ways to tell the story because it never actually ends. It becomes a part of you. You remember where you were when it happened and you never see the world the same way again.
In the days after Katrina passed but the floodwaters remained, carving scars that remain to this day, New Orleans was rife with rumour, swallowed by water, and abandoned by the federal government. Hundreds of police officers deserted their posts, while others became emboldened by the chaos. The president, meanwhile, was playing guitar in San Diego. I listened to reports of vigilantes all over the city that organised in the wake of the storm to brazenly and cravenly shoot to kill “looters” — which had become the term du jour for Black people trying to survive in a city left shattered after one the deadliest storms to ever make landfall in the U.S. These ragtag, roughshod, heavily armed groups were openly lauded by the media and all but sanctioned by the state as a logical and even necessary response to the “lawlessness” that had overtaken the state and the region.
As I watched the news, I remember feeling like I was looking through a portal into the past. I watched my mother and grandfather’s faces and wondered how they must have felt to watch the Old South, the one they’d fought so hard to beat down and back so that I would never see it, rise yet again in broad daylight and on national television.
Years later, we’d learn the vigilante violence was so much worse, so much more organised than was even reported at the time. Some groups organised from neighbourhood watches to mobs to militias. Some of them relished the opportunity to shoot Black people with impunity, seeing the chaos as the perfect opportunity to wage what they thought was a long overdue race war.
Now, in 2020, that all sounds familiar to me not from history books, but from the headlines. It turns out I wasn’t looking at the past. I was looking at the future. Since the 2016 election, groups like the Boogaloo Boys and Proud Boys and even straight-up, self-identified Nazis have gained momentum and permanence, showing up at anti-lockdown rallies and anti-anti-racism protests (which, believe me, there’s a shorter way to say that). They believe in climate change, they want a race war, and they’re not afraid to start it. And they’re backed up and gassed up by the biggest bully pulpit on the planet, a president who is also committed to policies that worsen the climate crisis that will put more people — especially Black and brown people — in harm’s way.
I didn’t know the name of it when I saw it in 2005, but this is ecofascism, a far-right ideology that co-opts the climate crisis to justify racial violence and totalitarianism. It’s found not just in the U.S., but all over the world. Last year, it showed up in the form of lone wolves like the El Paso and Christchurch shooters. This year, it’s been uncovered that it has infiltrated the U.S. and even the German army, where active and former troops are prepping for a violent end days type of scenario that’s disturbingly attuned with the climate crisis.
Katrina has always been the prism through which I’ve seen the climate crisis, and the ember that fuels my passion to fight it with everything in me. When I began to fully grapple with the reality of climate change, I mentally overlaid the images from Katrina’s aftermath with the scientific predictions. I began to ask myself: what happens to Black people, who live in perpetual crisis, in a climate crisis? And I feared I already had the answer. In 2020, it’s become even clearer.
The 2005 hurricane season was the most active on record. There were so many storms we ran out of letters and had to enter the Greek alphabet. This year, we’ll almost certainly end up there again. August isn’t even over and we’re already at “M.”
Katrina descended under the shadow of the 50th anniversary of Emmett Till’s murder. Laura comes near the 65th anniversary of Emmett’s murder, under the shadow of more violence; Jacob Blake was shot seven times by police officers this week, and a white supremacist gunned down three people protesting that shooting, killing two of them. She comes during a summer marked by unrest and outrage over the murders of innocent Black people, when the names Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd are still fresh on our lips. She comes when people who have known nothing but trauma since they landed on this soil have said no more.
2020 is just deja vu. We’ve all seen this movie before. But, the thing about this movie is that while it may be on a loop, it’s still unfinished and there’s still time for us to write a new ending.