author – activist – faculty – mom
In 2005, during Hurricane Katrina, I was getting married. I was neck-deep in preparations because it was DIY and not fancy, so we didn’t have bridesmaids or groomsmen. Prior to getting married, I didn’t realize that they were the workforce of a wedding. And I had no workers, so I was literally doing most of it myself.
It was before social media was popular, and I was paying no attention to the news. But I began to get these distress call emails from African American email lists that had no context. They were talking about black people drowning and dying in a post-apocalyptic New Orleans. It took a while to break through my shock and denial and understand that a hurricane had hit, the levees had broken, and it was a horrific moment in our history.
Katrina taught me many painful lessons about “natural disasters.” These events disproportionately affect poor and brown people, because the infrastructures to protect us are failing or nonexistent, while more privileged nations or cities or neighborhoods “weather” these events without catastrophe. The only exception being Cuba, which is brown and not affluent, but socialist and well organized. They evacuated a million people from Katrina and didn’t have a single casualty. They offered help to the US, but President Bush refused it.
Here in the US, I saw the whole situation play out:
History repeats itself. As Puerto Rico has been devastated by hurricane Maria, we have been seeing some of the same dynamics. Massive flooding, lack of food, water, medicine, electricity. Puerto Rico, like parts of the Gulf Coast, was already vulnerable. There’s an additional layer of complexity, as these are brown and black people living outside the continental US in a colonial relationship with the this nation. I’m of Puerto Rican and African American heritage, so I refer to PR in both the first person plural and third person.
And I’m not seeing those same kinds of urgent emails from African American folks. Much of our attention has been turned toward another issue of Black Lives, the #TakeAKnee conversation. For anyone who doesn’t know, Colin Kaepernick became a target of NFL and Tr*mp retaliation after he insisted on exercising his constitutional right to free speech by not standing for the national anthem, due to systematic US institutional violence and murder of black people. The crisis of Black Lives wasn’t breaking news, rather the battle for free speech about racism in the NFL was the news, as other national male athletes and teams, as well as cheerleaders and other non-sports celebrities knelt in solidarity. As many have pointed out, the women of the WNBA had long been taking a public stand on the same issues, but women’s sports don’t receive as much attention.
I’m glad so many people—black and otherwise—were focused on this important issue. It was just hard to see, in the same moment, how little focus there was on Puerto Rico. The crisis in Puerto Rico is breaking news, life and death for an entire nation of black and brown people, and some of the hardest hit areas are have high concentrations of black residents. Yet it’s so hard for us in the US, even black people, to pay attention to crises in the Global South—myself included.
I’ve also heard many people advocate that we help Puerto Rico by framing it in citizenship terms: “3.5 million American citizens” in Puerto Rico. This is double-edged, as Puerto Ricans are only citizens because of our colonial status. It’s like how someone says the maid is “part of the family.” With no political power to control their own territory, the people living in Puerto Rico are decidedly second class citizens. And the economic crisis/collapse in Puerto Rico is a direct result of our colonial status. This is a rallying cry that the US, having Puerto Rico as a colony, means we are responsible for the people. Yet, a human rights perspective would have us care about ALL people in the world, not just US citizens.
A first step toward independence would be to repeal the Jones Act, a 1920, a WWI law that only allows US ships in PR. It began as a defense against Germany after the first world war, but has become an economic monopoly that underlies PR’s economic crisis, and is now blocking all other nations from helping in this disaster. Just like Cuba offered to help after Katrina and Bush refused, other nations want to help PR, but the Jones Act prohibits them. Incidentally, Puerto Rico’s crushing debt to the US is roughly equal to the amount of money the island has lost to this monopoly. So legal action could make all the difference.
#BlackLivesMatter #TakeAKnee #RepealJonesAct #CancelPRDebt