Nagin on Race and Class

On Sunday (4 September), New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was interviewed on a special edition of ABC’s Nightline. This is my transcript (ABC doesn’t make theirs freely available) of a portion of his interview. Click on the image above to watch the entire interview (Quicktime, 20MB).

JOHN DONOVAN, ABC NEWS: The last thing I want to ask you about is the race question.

So, I’m out at the highway — it was last Thursday — huge number of people stuck in the middle of nowhere. Jesse Jackson comes in, looks at the scene, and says it looks like the scene of a, from a slave ship. And I said, “Reverand Jackson,, the imagery suggests you’re saying this is about race.” And he didn’t answer directly, he said, “Take a look at it, what do you think it’s about?”

What’s your response to that?

RAY NAGIN, MAYOR OF NEW ORLEANS: (Sighs) You know, I haven’t really thought much about the race issue. I will tell you this. I think it’s, it could be, but it’s a class issue for sure. Because I don’t think this type of response would have happened if this was Orange County, California. This response definitely wouldn’t have happened if it was Manhattan, New York. And I don’t know if it’s color or class.

DONOVAN: In some way, you think that New Orleans got second-class treatment.

NAGIN: I can’t explain the response. And here’s what else I can’t explain: We are basically, almost surrounded by water. To the east, the bridge is out, you can’t escape. Going west, you can’t escape because the bridge is under water. We found one evacuation route, to walk across the Crescent City Connection, on the overpass, down Highway 90 to 310 to I10, to go get relief.

People got restless and there was overcrowding at the convention center. They asked us, “Is there any other option?” We said, “Well, if you want to walk, across the Crescent City Connection, there’s buses coming, you may be able to find some relief.” They started marching. At the parish line, the county line of Gretna, they were met with attack dogs and police officers with machine guns saying “You have to turn back…”

DONOVAN: Go back.

NAGIN: “…because a looter got in a shopping center and set it afire and we want to protect the property in this area.”

DONOVAN: And what does that say to you?

NAGIN: That says that’s a bunch of bull. That says that people value their property, and were protecting property, over human life.

And look, I was not suggesting, or suggesting to the people that they walk down into those neighborhoods. All I wanted them to do and I suggested: walk on the Interstate. And we called FEMA and we said “Drop them water and supplies as they march.” They weren’t gonna go into those doggone neighborhoods. They weren’t going to impact those neighborhoods. Those people were looking to escape, and they cut off the last available exit route out of New Orleans.

DONOVAN: And was that race? Was that class?

NAGIN: I don’t know. You’re going to have to go ask them. But those questions need to be answered. And I’m pissed about it. And I don’t know how many people died as a result of that.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Morial Convention Center, this is a picture of the bridge (the Crescent City Connection) passing right over the center (hilighted in red), with colored highlights on the nearby exit and entrance ramps. The convention center is about a half-mile long.