Black lives matter. America understands this as a movement rooted in the breathtaking sadness of George Zimmerman’s 2013 acquittal in the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin; necessitated by the enraging refusals to indict police officers in Ferguson and Staten Island for the murders of black men in 2014; and amplified by the unrelenting videos of black vulnerability and death out of South Carolina, Ohio, and Texas throughout 2015. These moments caused activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to assert that black lives matter.
But for us, James and Melissa, Black Lives Matter began as a public movement a decade ago, on August 29, 2005; and it was our neighbors, friends, beloveds, and coworkers who formed the first modern corps of Black Lives Matter activists. Before Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown and Eric Garner and Sandra Bland, it was more than 1,000 dead and hundreds of thousands of displaced New Orleanians who forced America to confront black vulnerability and to understand how that vulnerability indicts a system of national inequality.
Hurricane Katrina did not hit New Orleans directly, and the city would have recovered swiftly from the extensive but manageable damage caused by winds and rain alone. But in the hours after the storm hit, several critical levees failed as powerful storm surges swept against decades of inadequate infrastructure. This part of the Katrina story is old and simple: By refusing to invest adequately in the public infrastructure needed to protect the most economically vulnerable and racially marginalized communities, the federal, state, and local governments left New Orleans open to massive devastation and long-term economic losses that affected every single neighborhood.
A decade later, we remain locked in maddening partisan battles as our public infrastructure crumbles beneath us—as if the consequences are irrelevant, or distant, or easily contained. Katrina already taught us that the fate of black lives cannot be separated from that of whole communities. Black lives matter.
Ten years ago, broken levees unleashed lake waters with frightening force and speed. In vulnerable neighborhoods, there was little warning and no means of escape. Stranded Americans waited for relief and rescue that did not come for days. The power went out, and the floodwaters rose. Food and water became scarce. The city’s shelters became centers of disease, hunger, and death. Despite aggressive and continuing coverage of the destruction on cable news, it seemed that the federal government refused to recognize what was happening in New Orleans. This part of the Katrina story cannot be forgotten: Video footage does not ensure justice.
Even though the disaster deepened before the nation’s eyes, black people were forced to publicly grapple with the question of whether they were American citizens worthy of fair treatment and swift help. The slow and militaristic response to black suffering was as visible in the Lower Ninth Ward in 2005 as it would be nine years later in Ferguson.