Dirty South Bureau

May 18, 2010

Notes on a disaster, part 3: mutagenic poisons, corporate dominance and failures of the American Left

Filed under: Class,environment,Media,Race,Southern Louisiana,The Feds — christian @ 4:46 pm

I had originally only intended to write two parts of Notes on a Disaster, however what I have learned in recent days has caused me to re-evaluate. In particular, the failures of Obama’s EPA has dramatically exposed how much the US Government can be a tool of the large corporations. There is an urgency in this issue that must be addressed.

The most overlooked aspect of this whole disaster is the potential impacts of the dispersants, which have been used to break up the oil. It has been revealed that BP and the Coast Guard used two dispersants, called Corexit 9500 and Corexit 9527A. Corexit 9527A contains 30-60% of a chemical called 2-butoxyethanol, which the National Institute of Health via its Haz-Map data indicates causes birth defects and reproductive harm in animals. The Coast Guard has dumped and sprayed hundreds of gallons of this toxic substance into the gulf, and we don’t know how much more is on the way.

The only way that I found out about this risk is due to the work of journalist Tom Philpott at Grist.com. Tom is a real hero for putting out this information. While some other media outlets, like the Mobile Press-Register, have expressed strong concerns about the dispersants, no other outlet drew the link to reproductive damage, and the media in general has massively fallen down on the job here. Which should not be surprising, as under our stage of corporate domination, the corporations

The New York Times, however, has at least let us know that Corexit was not the only available dispersant. No, instead it was the only dispersant that was made by a company that BP has a close relationship with.

 

The “free market” and corporate dominance

This is the way that the “free market” actually works in many cases. The natural tendency of capitalism is towards monopoly, and corporations act in their self-interest, whether or not that follows the so-called “rules” of the market. Once corporations get big enough, they make the rules, whether that means overlooking better or cheaper products and/or destroying any competition in the market. BP, like may large companies, does whatever it wants.

This spill and its aftermath should serve as a stark warning that the big corporations are calling the shots here and that the government has been mostly a tool. While Obama gives lip-service to ending the cozy relationships with oil companies, not only has BP not been held to task for the incredible damage they have caused, but they have been allowed to manage the disaster, while the EPA looks the other way. And we who live on the Gulf Coast are treated as disposable.

The lack of information on the dispersants is a perfect example. I encourage all of you to read Mr. Philpott’s article on Grist. Even the Louisiana government is demanding to know more about the dispersants, while the EPA continues to shuck and jive.

In the past the government has been important in reigning in the worst abuses of the corporations. But when we are at this point of corporate dominance, it is essentially the same as Mussolini’s description of fascism – that the government and the corporations are one.

 

The disposable South

Again, it isn’t surprising that Louisiana is getting screwed. The same thing happened after Katrina. I’m reminded of the Legendary KO’s words in George Bush Don’t Care About Black People, written in late 2005: “He would have been in Connecticut twice as fast – after all we’ve been through, nothing’s changed – you can call Red Cross but the fact remains.” If you think that is different under Obama, think again.

The people and land of the Deep South are treated as disposable for reasons of regional, class and race biases that have everything to do with power. It’s easy for the rest of the nation to pass off the whites down here – who are portrayed as ignorant, backwards racists in much of the mainstream media. It’s a poor region with low education, and that allows people in other parts of the country to sneer at Southerners, and then, and when we suffer for the nation’s oil supply, to intimate that we somehow deserve this. Black Southerners have always gotten the short end of the stick, but all of us in the Deep South – especially whites – have to realize that as it is easier for large corporations and the federal government to disregard blacks, this allows them to prey on the whole region.

Let’s be clear here – Louisiana is suffering for the nation’s oil.

 

Failures of the Left

This is a time when we need leaders to organize the people take on the corporations. Unfortunately, the American Left for decades has been a marginal force that is content to sit back and make absurd, maximalist demands instead of organizing for real change. Another failure of the Left is attachment to historical terms and cultural identifiers that, if they do mean anything to the people they would organize, merely associate leftists with failed models and foreign dictatorships.

People down here need real help and real solutions. We need to be safe, and we need a movement that will make sure that this never happens again. That will only come when we stop the corporations. And that will only come when we have a real movement that can speak to and work with people in places like Louisiana. We are on the front lines.

March 13, 2010

Freedom ride… to where?

Filed under: Class,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 7:05 pm

Last night the New Orleans Human Rights International Film Festival opened with the excellent documentary, Freedom Riders. I can’t say how pleased I was to see this important piece of Southern civil rights history explored so fully and so well. The film focused on the Freedom Rides, where black and white students took buses into the Deep South together to challenge segregation laws in 1961, initially orchestrated by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). The film evoked the fear, courage and uncertainty of the Freedom Riders, and examined the dynamic between activists, leaders and the government.

I can sum up the lessons as such: activist lead, and when they win, leaders follow and then take credit for what happened. The film looked at the tension between Freedom Riders and the Kennedy Administration, showing the administration’s transformation from uninterested enablers of Southern racism to champions of the freedom riders, of course after the riders repeatedly forced the administration to take action or suffer the consequences in terms of worldwide bad PR. It also showed a timid Dr. Martin Luther King, who tried to talk the Riders out of their action, and at one point declined to join them on the buses.

This sort of bottom-up history is critical to understanding the way that social movements really work, because in the retelling, the “leaders” – whether in government or the movement – will take credit for things that they were forced to do by the movement.

I have fewer positive things to say about the discussion before the film. It was great to see actual Freedom Riders from New Orleans discussing their experiences. However, where the discussion turned to the present, it fell short. It is important to point out that racism still exists in the age of Obama. However we are in a different era today than 1961, and inequality has persisted long after the end of de jure segregation. The dominant discussions about oppression in our present era, based entirely on race without mentioning class, and specifically the intersection of race and class, are disingenuous.

There is a lot of pressure on us white anti-racists to not talk about these things. However, ultimately we writers and activists have a responsibility to our communities, white and black, to talk about what is really going on.

The black political class in New Orleans today acts more out of class self-interest than the interests of the masses, black and white, and such a race-based dialogue gives them cover. The largest example is that the majority of black politicians were complicit in the dismantling of public service institutions and the forced displacement of tens of thousands of mostly black residents of this city after the storm. All Nagin had to say was “Chocolate City” and his collusion with white politicians and business leaders was forgotten. All City Council members had to do was be black, and they turned out black votes, without any real accountability for what they had done and not done.

It can be argued that in a majority white state and with institutional forces arrayed against them, black politicians often have little choice but to acquiesce. But most black politicians in this city, just like white politicians, aren’t even trying.

There are exceptions, and exceptional moments. I recall State Rep. Charmaine Marchand leading meetings of Lower 9th Ward homeowners to advocate for the return of their neighborhood (something I did not see many other black elected leaders do), and every now and again black politicians sponsor promising legislation.

But most of the time, the blackoisie actively sells New Orleanians, black and white, down the river, and has for some time – just like white politicians do. Such sell-outs are not limited to politicians, and it was interesting to see some (though not many) of those individuals present at the screening, like radio personalities from a certain black radio station which gives Entergy Corporation, their funder, space to spread lies about their nuclear program. The radioactive waste from Entergy Corporation reactors will be around for hundreds of thousands of years. When it gives cancer and birth defects to future generations, it will not first check to see if they are black or white. And if current inequities continue, they will more likely than not be black.

It is not as though these things have never been discussed, in fact, only a few years after the Freedom Riders the battlegrounds became class and race. We see a Martin Luther King who is assassinated at the moment that he talked about economic rights for black Americans in the Memphis Sanitation Strike. We see the rise of militant movements, some of whom, like the Panthers, were explicitly focused on the failures of capitalism. The Panthers had no truck with black capitalist oppressors; even here in New Orleans much of their conflict was with blacks who preyed on the black community.

I do not accuse the panellists at the film of race essentialism, merely that this talk was an extension of the failure to talk about something that legitimately is more complex and nuanced than simple race. However, a pattern of race essentialism dominates contemporary dialogue about these issues in New Orleans, and by doing so sets us back fifty years. This is why so many contemporary discussions of race in New Orleans fall flat, such as Lance Hill’s failure to explain post-Katrina racial issues to white audiences. If what we hear sounds inaccurate and incomplete, it is because it is.

Even in the early 1960′s, more advanced thinking was being put forth by intellectuals, black and white. I encourage anyone to read Frantz Fanon’s writing about the post-colonial bourgeoisie in Wretched of the Earth (1961) and tell me what this says about the black political classes in New Orleans. Fanon literally says that the post-colonial bourgeoisie must be eliminated because it serves no purpose and holds back progress. Draw your own conclusions.

American capitalism can accommodate civil rights, and it can accommodate token black leaders. Real emancipation of the black masses is another matter. The long ride, for all of us, is far from over.

December 20, 2009

What is wild?

Filed under: Class,culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 10:13 pm

Exciting news for Dirty South Bureau: tomorrow I am going to an interview on a short film that flimmaker Ed Holub and I produced on the impacts of hurricanes and loss of wetlands on communities in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes. It’s thrilling to know that our short, the Human Cost, will be shown along with the other winners of Gulf Restoration Network’s Defend Our Wetlands, Defend Ourselves film contest on local television courtesy of Timecode NOLA. When Ed and I shot the footage and the interviews we knew we were on to a big story, but didn’t figure that we would make local TV.

For those of you who weren’t aware of this, Southern Louisiana is experiencing an environmental catastrophe unparalleled in our nation. We are literally losing the land in our coastal parishes, as the wetlands and marsh slip away into the Gulf of Mexico. Why this isn’t a bigger national story says a lot about the warped priorities of our media, but also about our own ideas about what the “environment”, “nature” and “wild” mean.

Part of the film focuses on the struggle of the Point-aux-Chenes people, a native people living in Lafourche and Terrebonne Parishes, to survive. The Point-Aux-Chenes and other native groups in South Louisiana are not recognized by the federal government. Like the native Americans in Southeast Alaska, natives in South Louisiana waged no wars against the United States and were never put on reservations. The old folks speak French and they live next door to Cajun and other bayou communities, with a history of intermixing that appears to predate the purchase of the land by President Jefferson in 1803. With their French language, their diesel powered shrimping boats, and their assimilated way of life – not much different than their neighbors – they are about as far from the American cigar store, feather headdress image of Native Americans as you could get.

But is it European culture that assimilated these indigenous people, or the other way around? In many practical respects, if you forget about the diesel fuel and modern wooden houses, the way of life for those living off the bounty of the sea and the land is not fundamentally different.

The natives of South Louisiana challenge our post-Rousseau Western notions of what is “wild”. In the “untamed” West of the United States, we set aside huge areas of land as “natural” preserves, to protect some pristine notion of wilderness from our own impacts. After, of course, we removed the people who lived there. In this dichotomy of “wild” vs. “civilized”, the space for contemporary indigenous people is in a museum or on a reservation.

By these notions the land of South Louisiana is hardly “pristine”; but does that make it any less worth saving? What about the people who live there: Native American, Cajun and just folks who live down the bayou?

Much of the failure of modern environmentalism has been rooted in false dichotomies – nature vs. people, trees vs. jobs – which the large corporations who perpetrate environmental crimes, be they Shell or International Paper – are more than happy to perpetuate. But environmentalists are part of the problem. When environmentalist and their organizations – and the big national ones have been among the worst – speak the language of yuppie environmentalism, where the environment is something on the outside, separate from us, that needs to be “saved” (at times by removing people), the seeds of these conflicts are sown.

The truth is that we are dependent upon our environment, and the most pressing reason to be concerned about environmental issues is that they affect us, our health, and our ability to survive. We are the ones that need saving. Nowhere is this as clear as South Louisiana, which is ground zero for environmental issues.

A big thank you to Chuck Verdin, Nathalie Bergeron, Robert Bergeron, Marylee Orr, Paul Orr, Aaron Viles and everyone who made this possible. The Human Cost can be seen on YouTube.

December 12, 2009

The value of life: Jacquian and the Iraqi dead

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Economy,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 9:41 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot this last week about the different value that we, a society assign to different human lives; how some lives, such as the lives of white people from affluent families, are seen as almost infinitely valuable, and how others, such as the lives of young black men from low-income neighborhoods, are treated as almost infinitely cheap. This is hardly news, but we, myself included, end up getting so used to this paradigm that after a while we don’t even notice that we have internalized these values.

One of the reasons that I have thought about this is the untimely death of Jacquian Charles, a young man who worked in the workforce training program at my day job. Jacquian was murdered shortly before Thanksgiving in Algiers, and the Times-Picayune story that ran after his death was boilerplate young-black-man-with-criminal-record-is killed-in-New Orleans.

Now I understand that writers some times have difficulty finding biographical information for stories, especially those written on short deadline. My non-profit wrote a letter to the editor that offered to augment the information in the article by telling readers about the Jacquian that his co-workers and friends knew; a hard-working, kind, humble man who was trying to turn his life around and provide a future for his children. As of the writing of this blog post, the T-P has yet to print this letter.

I have to contrast this treatment of Mr. Charles to the sensationalized stories that come our from time to time, such as when the young white woman went missing in Bermuda a few years ago, that are all over the television and the papers for weeks on end. I understand why different news outlets run this story: it’s good for ratings and ultimately ad sales. We, especially those of us who are affluent enough to be good to advertise to, are titilated and intrigued by sexual/violent fantasy images of the danger to this young woman’s virtue and life by dangerous dark-skinned savages.

But that doesn’t excuse anything, especially not on our part.

Several young black men die in poor neighborhoods every week in New Orleans. Their lives are trivialized by the poor educations they receive, by the low wages that are available to them in the tourist industry, and by a society that tells them that if they don’t have money they aren’t worth a damn. And these lives are further trivialized by the treatment they receive in the press, particularly the Times-Picayune.

I have to wonder how much of this is the result of a society that, particularly since the 1980′s, has taken a turn towards turning as many aspects of our lives as possible over to the market. I have to wonder if our net worth (including realized or unrealized cultural and intellectual capital) has become the sole social yardstick of our human worth.

A particularly egregious example of this is the dead from the Iraq War. And I am not talking about the U.S. Soldiers, who are meticulously counted. I am talking about the hundreds of thousands of nameless, faceless Iraqi men women and children who have died since we invaded their county seven and a half years ago. We don’t even know how many have died; though a 2006 study put this number at around 655,000.

Every American that dies is this senseless war is a tragedy. But I refuse as a human being to value the lives of Americans above the lives of others. It is a tragedy that over 4,000 American men and women have died in Iraq. But the Iraqi deaths are a tragedy of a far greater magnitude because so many more Iraqis have died.

But who cares about Iraqis? They are poor, brown heathens. They are camel jockeys, sahibs, sand niggers. Just like when we bombed North Vietnam and Cambodia, we were only killing gooks – not the ivory-skinned princes and princesses of Connecticut and Texas, California and Kansas. Just like the “thugs” in our city, their lives are cheap to us.

This attitude is an affront to our humanity. When we value one life above another because of wealth, skin tone and/or nationality, we do something obscene.

My condolences to the family of Jacquian Charles and of every young person who has died of violence in this city.

September 9, 2009

Van Jones and the witch hunt

Filed under: Class,environment,Race — christian @ 11:53 pm

I know that my readers on this blog are expecting some sort of commentary or story on New Orleans, as this is the personae that has been created for Dirty South Bureau. My apologies for disappointing all of you, but there are moments when national issues have to be addressed.

The character assassination and subsequent resignation this previous weekend of Van Jones from Obama’s cabinet has me more and more angry the more that I think about it. Don’t get me wrong. Growing up watching the stilted, narrow, shallow and right-wing dominated terrain of national politics, I never would have dreamed that someone as cool as Van Jones would end up in a presidential cabinet. Call me crazy – but I just didn’t have that much faith in the people elected by the corporations with the consent of my fellow Americans.

It was too good to last. Van Jones was too much of a visionary for the overly cautious Obama, and now I suspect he has been thrown under the train the same way that Reverend Jeremiah Wright – whose great crime was to tell the truth about race in this country – was.

Van Jones has done something unprecedented for this country. He showed our country the relationships between the environment, race and poverty. More importantly, he articulated a positive vision for our future – which we have far too few of. A vision of inner-city people having good jobs creating energy options that would make the citizens of this country masters of our destinies – true energy independence. A vision of a more just economy and a greener future. A vision of solar panels rising over former crack houses. A vision we in a city like New Orleans need, and that many of us, in our work, follow.

And what is it that Jones’ great crime was, anyway? That he signed a petition that called for the Bush administration be investigating for potentially allowing 9-11 to happen? That he called Republicans assholes? That he is a closet Socialist, and that he was once a Communist?

I’ll take these one by one. First, I suspect the Bush administration of having allowed 9-11 to happen. There – I said it too. It may have happened before. Scholars still debate whether or not Roosevelt knew Pearl Harbor was going to happen. Among the crimes of the Bush Administration too numerous to mention, Cheney and Rumsfeld repeatedly ignored and fabricated intelligence as an excuse for war. We all knew there were no “Weapons of Mass Destruction” – yet they used this gross lie to invade Iraq. So why is it so improbably that they may have known about and ignored 9-11?

The Bush administration also essentially ignored our great disaster – the flooding of the city after Hurricane Katrina. I wouldn’t put anything past them.

Second, “asshole” is none too strong a word for members of a party that starts a $500 billion war that kills hundreds of thousands of people in a foreign country for no good reason, fails to rescue the victims of the worst natural/engineering disaster in our country’s history (post-K levee failures) or adequately help them recover, and then gives hundreds of billions to banks with few strings attached, against even their own “free-market” rhetoric. It is absurd that we allowed the Republicans to do this. Now we get excited about a four-letter word in describing a party that committed these and other crimes against humanity on this scale? Give me a break.

Finally, it appears that Van Jones once was a Communist. So what?

Are we back in the 1950′s again? Is the Communist Party really such a worldwide threat that we are in secret danger of them overthrowing our government? Look, I’ve studied the history of Communism. The Communist Party, led from Moscow, was seeking to overthrow governments worldwide in the 1950′s – but even that doesn’t excuse what we did, which was to ruin the lives of thousands of people in a meaningless purge. A lot of good people suffered because of “tail-gunner” Joe and his self-promoting escapades, and we are the worse for the loss of their contributions to our society. And this was at a time when the Communist Party was a real threat.

That was sixty years ago. Today, the Communist Party may take over Nepal, but it is in little danger of taking over anything in North America besides a few bookstores in the Lower East Side and in Madison, Wisconsin. The radical left is so thoroughly marginalized in this country it’s not even funny. Jones recognized that and got out, and now goes around the country talking about “green capitalism” – which if the right had any brains they’d pick up on, because it offers one of the only ways for the economic system they hold so dear to survive coming energy-induced catastrophes.

I have to wonder what planet the right-wingers are on, with their fantasies about Obama turning this country into a Socialist state. Give me a break. Cynical bastards like Limbaugh and Beck are feeding these fantasies to poor ignorant people who have never been out of this country and don’t know better.

But whether or not Obama forced Jones’ resignation, this is a serious strategic error. Giving in to the paranoid forces of reaction only makes them bolder, and now they will call for more and more in a genuine witch hunt. We are going back to the fifties. We are doing so because the Democratic leadership is full of cowards who continue to sell us down the river with their capitulations and compromises on the real issues, like health care reform and carbon regulation. And now we have lost the best member of the Obama administration at the behest of a lunatic fringe.

Where is Glen Beck’s vision of the future? More dependence on oil, until it leaves us in a profound economic and social crisis as it runs out? More wars? More inequality? More prisons? Fewer and fewer people having access to the skyrocketing cost of health care? More financial crises due to deregulation? More forced morality by the most immoral people in the country?

The right offers paranoia but no answers. The greatest irony of this whole escapade is that among the worst things that actual Communist regimes did in the 20th century was to conduct ideological witch hunts among their populations and leadership. And now the right is trying to do exactly the same thing.

It’s time real and decent people fought back, just like some of us did in the 1950′s, before this thing goes any further. Van Jones will go down in history as a great visionary, perhaps one who came before his time. I salute you, Mr. Jones. You are a real leader.

September 5, 2009

Blowout Charity second line report

Filed under: Charity,Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Politics,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 7:57 pm

Due to an even more than usually busy week, I am just now getting to posting about Monday’s second line for Charity Hospital. In a word, it was incredible. Official estimates are between 1,000 and 1,200 for the number of attendees. As with any event like this, we will never know for sure how many people attended. Suffice to say that it was easily the largest event yet to call for the re-opening of our public hospital, much larger even than the event where former Councilmember Oliver Thomas spoke in 2006.

Just as impressive to me as the overall numbers was the breadth of those who attended. From what I saw the crowd was 60/40 black to white. It is damned hard to get large numbers of African Americans and whites to anything together in this town, let alone to protest. But there we were. And I have to hand it to the organizers for doing a superb job in bringing together a wide range of groups and individuals. Big time salute to Eli, Jonah, Jacques and the whole team – finally we have some politicos in this town who know how to mobilize folks.

It was also just a plain good time. Rebirth and the Hot 8 rocked the streets. I’m telling you, if you want turnout for a protest, this is the way to do it. For those of you who aren’t in New Orleans, a second line is a street parade that we do, led by a brass band. Even the legendary Ernie K. Doe (who ranted on WWOZ about being born in Charity Hospital when he was a DJ) came back from the dead to join in the protest.

However, this was also serious business. LSU Health Sciences Center remains utterly committed to not rebuild in the Charity building, and to destroy a huge swath of Lower Mid-City so that they can build a hospital not associated with the Charity legacy. I honestly don’t know the political route the organizers are planning to use to change the game, but I do know that if they can maintain this kind of social pressure, they may find a way to change what even I had thought was a done deal.

Now, to dispel several myths propagated by right-wingers and ignorant folks like the racist trolls in the nola.com comment section:

Myth #1: the crowd was out of town young white privileged activists.

This is the same myth that I’ve heard, typically from folks from Jeff Parish and the North Shore, about many of the fights over public services in this city. In the fight against tearing down the big four public housing developments, there was a grain of truth (but only a grain) to this, as a small group of activists were invited in from out of town (against the advice of many of us here) Even in that fight, there were a large number of people who were born here or who lived here pre-storm. In many high profile events, it was safer for whites allies to be on the front lines instead of black residents of public housing, because 1. whites don’t get treated as harsh by the police and 2. we weren’t in danger of losing our temporary HANO accommodations for political activism.

However in this event, the dozens of people I knew were overwhelmingly people born in New Orleans or had been here a long time pre-storm. I feel like it’s pretty easy to spot the out-of-town activists, and I didn’t see anybody who fit the Common Ground-style bill. Mostly I saw a bunch of poor black folks and white New Orleanians who are damned pissed about the lack of access to affordable medical care in this city.

Not only that, but the sheer size of the march would have been very difficult to pull off with people bussed in from out of town.

This is a pernicious myth used to discredit important political movements, but it’s also problematic when people come to protest something they don’t really understand and don’t have to live with the way that locals do. However in this event I call bullshit on this myth.

Myth #2: Those in the march didn’t go to Charity Hospital for care and would never go to Charity.

Um, if I was shot or in a bad car wreck, Charity is absolutely where I would want to go. As Dr. Tlaloc Alfarez (the daughter of Mexican sculptor Enrique Alfarez who did the sculpture at Charity) noted, if the president was shot in New Orleans pre-storm he would have been sent to Charity. The level one trauma center was among the best in the country for dealing with these kinds of injuries. Also, if I had a loved one with a mental illness that I, my family and my community were unable to care for adequately, I would absolutely want them to go to the third floor of Charity. I would certainly rather have them in Charity than OPP, our default mental health facility where a beloved mentally ill woman died in January after being put in restraints.

I for one didn’t go there for checkups. Because I didn’t have medical insurance until a few years ago, I didn’t go anywhere for checkups, though I technically could have gone to Charity – assuming I passed the means testing. Since the storm I’ve used Common Ground Health Clinic. I am willing to bet that a large number of the hundreds of African Americans on that march did go to Charity – for everything.

I will also note that the march included a contingent of Charity Hospital doctors and nurses, and that since the storm a number of my friends – some of whom were in the march – have gone to the ER at University Hospital, in the Charity system, where the lines are long and the care is not what Charity provided.

So I call big-time bullshit on the right-wingers for that myth.

Myth #3 – We need the jobs that building a new hospital will provide.

Again, total and complete bullshit. Of course we need the jobs – but rebuilding a new, state of the art hospital in the shell of the Charity building will provide a similar number of jobs to tearing down Lower Mid-City and building a hospital there. Hell, if we follow the right on this piece of pure horse puckey, we might as well tear down the entire city to put people back to work – starting with the French Quarter.

Myth #4 – The organizers are proposing moving back into the old, dilapidated building in its current condition.

Actually, what the group at savecharity.com is proposing is that we build a new, state of the art hospital inside the Charity building – as proposed in the study commissioned by Foundation for a Historic Louisiana (FHL) . According to FHL, this option would provide us with a state of the art hospital in two years less time and cost $283 million less than LSU plans. This is also a far more environmentally friendly approach than building a new hospital, and again doesn’t require the destruction of a huge swath of Lower Mid-City.

So for those of you who are serious about getting adequate public health options back to this city, I strongly urge you to come to the September 19 music benefit at the Howling Wolf (8 pm), which marks four years since Donald Smithburg, then CEO of LSU HSC, illegally ordered the emergency cleanup crews out of Charity and closed the hospital, preventing it from being used to provide emergency medical care. Keep in mind that this was less than a month after the city flooded.

savecharity.com

fhl.org

photos of the event

August 31, 2009

Waveland

Filed under: Class,Louisiana,New Orleans Politics,Other,The Feds — christian @ 1:12 am

I think I can speak for many of my fellow residents of New Orleans when I state that I wanted nothing to do with the Katrina Anniversary this year. Frankly, many folks have felt like that since 2006. At that time you really couldn’t help but remember the storm because so much of the physical evidence was here, in your face, day after day. By now, even though everyone’s lives have been permanently altered, many of the people I know are settling into a new reality. We want to move on. Many here will never be able to forget, so forgive those who want to.

I got the hell out of town. A trip to the beach seemed perfect. Of course, due to a number of unforseen circumstances, such as my friend Jewels almost getting arrested looking for my house (glad to know my part of the Irish Channel is well-patrolled), we ended up where the eye of the storm hit: Waveland, Mississippi. Go figure.

First we made it all the way out to Biloxi, where I got to check up on Sue at Le Bakery. I featured Sue in a radio piece I recorded about the Vietnamese community in Biloxi a few years ago, and was honored that she and all the Le Bakery staff remembered me. Of course, Sue made it easy; with her darling Southern Accent and her sign that “the bread will rise again”, it was too touching. That, and the vile disregard for the Vietnamese Community in the city’s official planning effort made for a hell of a story.

Biloxi looks pretty similar today, only with less debris. The empty lots still line stretches of Highway 90, steps leading to nothing, just like the ghosts of homes in the Lower 9th. The casinos are as big and as obscene as ever. The Vietnamese community in East Biloxi has largely not returned to their original neighborhood; similar to the gulf shore there is empty lot after empty lot. Sue says they’ve moved to the north part of town. However, also like New Orleans the official planning effort seems to have come to naught, so East Biloxi has been spared the fate of being erased with new casinos, hotels and a large park. (I have pity for planners. They’d be really dangerous people if anyone ever listened to them.)

Regardless, Le Bakery is still there. The banh mi, the Vietnamese sandwiches on French bread, are excellent, as are the sweets, including the yucca-coconut pastries.

However I can not speak as highly for the beaches in Biloxi. Despite the water being the temperature of God’s own bathtub, this part of the gulf features opaque brown water and you can walk out for about half a mile before the water rises above your knees. For someone from the West Coast like myself, this is hardly inspiring.

But Waveland was lovely. Taking 90 west from town, the water is clearer, and gently slopes in to the Gulf. We went in at a spot where Katrina had wiped our nearly everything, near a quansit-hut church, where the sign says “Katrina was big but God is bigger”. I was struck by how similar this expression of faith is to the Muslim saying “Allah akbar”. The clouds streaked the sky, and despite all the debris that must be somewhere in that water, there was nothing but mud in our toes and gentle waves.

For a little while I even forgot about the health care fight that is raging. In some ways it is welcome that now the rest of America is engaged in an issue that has been huge in post-Katrina New Orleans: access to health care. Sadly, it appears that many are engaged for all the wrong reasons; including an almost superstitious fear of “big government” (as if nearly a trillion dollars spent on foreign wars and spying on civilians under Bush was not big government). I am shocked at how many of my fellow Americans seem to equate Obama’s tepid version of a national health plan with Soviet-style central planning. Folks: wake up. The rest of the industrialized world has some form of universal health care, and they aren’t suffering under some awful tyranny; instead, they are healthier than we are because anyone can go to the doctor when they need to and get cared for. There are no death camps and there is no rationing. The closest thing to rationing that goes on is in this country, where those without coverage can’t get treated except in emergency rooms.

It would be one thing if those protesting the health plan were all affluent. But I see on television a number of what seems to be working people who have been so bamboozled by the right and the medical-industrial complex that they actually think they are better off under the current system. There really is no end to the ignorance some of my fellow Americans exhibit. This is the reason we’re last in geography, folks. Time to open at atlas once in a while, check out the BBC website, and learn about the rest of the world!

We can’t let a few misguided ignorant folks and wing-nuts get in the way of our having universal health care, just like any other advanced, affluent nation. This is personal for me. I for one spent over ten years without health coverage, and thank God I didn’t have any serious health problems. I am damn worried about how my brothers and I are going to take care of my mother’s medical expenses as she gets older. And I’m not even getting into my friends, most of whom are lucky to be healthy – now, because many of them don’t have medical coverage.

I’ve been lucky to make a few of the health care forums. Cao bullshitted us, but at least he had the courtesy to hold forums during the evening when working people could attend, whereas that worthless low-life Vitter had to hold his at 2:30 pm during a workday (Heelllloooo David… most of us aren’t running around on weekdays screwing prostitutes! We have jobs!). But the real prize goes to Mary Landrieu. A forum on Thursday at 2pm in Reserve? Now that you’ve made sure that the vast majority of those who can get there from the largest urban area in the state have cars and either don’t work or can get off Thursday afternoon, I’m sure you’ve had a real sampling of Louisiana, especially the uninsured. Way to go Mary.

For those of you outside the state, we in Louisiana have a bunch of the worst whores in government imaginable, and Mary Landrieu takes the cake – both for selling out to big pharma and the oil industry, giving us lip service all the while. For those of you here, it is time to get active, because you know for sure these swine – Vitter, Landrieu and Cao – aren’t going to do a damn thing unless you make them.

God is greater than this.

August 20, 2009

Morris X. Jeff, equity and the future

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Schools,Race — christian @ 12:04 am

I left the party at Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club tonight with a mix of emotions; both hope, sadness and a little ennui. Tonight the organization that is attempting to open a public school in the Bayou St. John neighborhood of Mid-City held a fundraiser, with support from Zulu and a range of local restaurants. Kermit Ruffins even played.

The crowd was an interesting mix. The people I knew were a mixture of educators, a few education bureaucrats, friends and family of the organizers and Morris X Jeff (the man for whom the school is named), social justice activists and some Zulu leaders. On a plaque in the corner was a statement of the values of the proposed school, that spoke to focus on inclusiveness and equity as well as academic excellence.

These values were reiterated by Brod Bagert, Jr., the president of Morris X Jeff Community Coalition. In his speech, he set forth a compelling vision of overcoming the failures of the old school system, and made some bold statements. He said that excellence and exclusivity were often spoken of in the same breath, and that they were out to create a school that proves that you can be both excellent and inclusive. Were it someone other than Bagert, I would think that he was simply pandering, but Bagert’s work as a community organizer and advocate for low-income communities precedes him. Before him, Educator Davina Allen, the vice-president of the coalition, spoke movingly about her parents’ journey from poverty in rural Jamaica to becoming successful professionals due to the possibilities created by the island nation’s education system.

I could not agree more with the vision Bagert and Allen set forth. There is only one problem: this goes against the entire history of the education system in New Orleans.

When I worked for the American Federation of Teachers in working to re-establish United Teachers of New Orleans, I thought that by defending the educational system against free-market restructuring, that I would be fighting for educational equity. It was a value that we preached, and that I continue to believe in. Certainly the new forms that were being set up were not equitable; after all the charters, poised as they are to compete against each other, are finding ways to get rid of the children who might bring down their precious test scores. And our educational vouchers, championed by Rep. Austin Badon from New Orleans East, are taking money that can and should be used to create a quality public educational system to subsidize unaccountable, elitist private options.

However the public educational system in New Orleans was not equitable before Katrina and in fact, to my knowledge, has never been equitable. Authors Joseph Logsdon and Donald DeVore give a compelling account of the failures of this system in their book Crescent City Schools. It’s a tragic history of underfunding and neglect for the education of African-Americans for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. After effective desegregation in the mid-1960′s, the system was again thrown into crisis, as white abandoned the public schools both by voting with their feet and refusing to support public funding for integrated schools. According to progressive educator and Vice-President of the Teachers’ Union Jim Randels, also damning was the move to city-wide magnet schools, which took the best students and left the majority of children in low-income neighborhoods behind in under-supported schools. Many will disagree on why, but the sad truth is that public schools in New Orleans have failed to live up to their promised role in the American dream, of supplying a quality education to all children.

Morris X. Jeff is currently applying for a charter. I’ve been very critical of charter schools in the past, and I feel I have good reason to do so. The charter school movement is complex, but here appears to be dominated by elements who are determined to privatize and remove any voice for teachers in the structuring of education (the ultimate arrogance of many operators is to think that people with no substantial educational background know better than teachers how to educate). More importantly, their model, based as it is upon competition, is fundamentally at odds with society-wide educational equity. Charter schools set out to create islands of excellence, and even when they succeed those islands will not address the other children left in the sea of failing schools.

But I am also loathe to suggest trying to opening a school either under the dysfunctional Recovery School District, or the Orleans Parish School Board, who do not seem to even want more schools to run. For the Morris X. Jeff community coalition, the options are complicated. Ultimately the organization was formed to open a school and they must work with the options they are given.

Many other educators whom I respect have taken the charter road, not the least of which is Principal Doris Hicks of Martin Luther King Junior Elementary. A union supporter, Hicks has been quite frank that it was a struggle to get the school open at all in the Lower 9th Ward and that opening it as a charter was the easiest way. There are those who have been vocally critical of post-storm educational restructuring and believe in collective bargaining on the board of McDonogh 42 charter as well.

I have to wonder if Bagert’s and Allen’s noble vision will survive the political realities of education in New Orleans, or the ancient and pernicious tendencies towards race and class stratification that so often define life in New Orleans. At the fundraiser, I saw a majority of white faces, and none of my former neighbors from the neighborhood situated between the Zulu Club and the old Morris X. Jeff. This gave me pause; but I also know the difficulties of engaging low-income populations, and the black neighborhood in Bayou St. John is far from affluent. However, to be a model that rises above the failures of the past, the Morris X. Jeff group will have to engage low-income African-Americans.

I believe that if anyone can successfully navigate the tortured post-Katrina education system and create a quality, equitable school, it will be Bagert and Allen, with the support of Zulu, the people in that room, and the others behind the Morris X. Jeff Community Coalition. I hope and pray they succeed.

April 26, 2009

Jazz Fest and Ghetto Business Acumen

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Economy — christian @ 12:16 am

I’ll admit it: I love Jazz Fest. This may seem surprising, as every year about this time my neighborhood is invaded by large numbers of horrid frat boy types and their equally noxious female equivalent, who swarm across town like lemmings to hear overpriced music. They are awful, it is true. On Friday I was cursing all their known ancestors as I was blocked from my local coffee shop by a horde of them dancing badly (a consistent trait) to a “Mardi Gras Indian” performance.

Side note: I am totally uninterested in Mardi Gras Indians. Blasphemy, you say? Well, listen. With all the aspects of black culture in New Orleans that we white people have already approximated, the ones that are left are usually just not our business. Which is exactly how I (don’t) relate to the Mardi Gras Indians. Yes, the historical relationship between Native Americans and African Americans is interesting in an abstract way, but not one that relates to me. Furthermore, anytime the Indians go out in public there is such a swarm of photographers, videographers and assorted assholes following them down the street that it is just Not Fun Anymore.

Yes, on Friday I was disgusted by this whole thing, but 24 hours later I have changed my tune. Because I have been reminded of the beauty of Jazz Fest: the hustle.

This morning I was sitting, minding my own business on a friend’s steps in the 9th Ward. I was working out the details of some carpentry she has asked me to do on her house, and I was idly sketching away at details. Out of the blue a pickup truck stops, and the yat driving it asks if I am interested in any seafood or wild meat.

Wild meat?

I get up to look, and in the bed of his pickup he has several coolers. The yat (let’s call him Franky) tries repeatedly to sell me alligator meat. Not very interesting. I have my eye on the venison sausage, but it’s overpriced. So we open the next cooler, which has cowan turtle and frog legs (getting warmer). And there, buried underneath, are two large freezer bags containing strange creatures with long, flat teeth. He is selling gutted and skinned nutria, and at a decent price.

Franky is talking a mile a minute. He’ll sell me the turtle meat, has other coolers full of shrimp, catfish and trout. When I ask about the nutria, he quickly and slightly nervously explains that they are clean creatures, that they’re vegetarians and mostly eat grass.

So this is how I end up buying a frozen nutria out the back of a pickup in the 9th ward. That, and a pack of frozen turtle meat.

His prices were a little high (probably Jazz Fest prices), but you have to admire the sheer initiative of someone who obtains all these bizarre meats and then literally drives around the neighborhood, looking for people to sell them to. I have to wonder, does he hunt the nutria himself?

This sort of activity is not unique, and springs from an entrepreneurial spirit combined with a lack of enforcement of law, in this case FDA regulations. We have several home-made pie sellers in the city, including the famous pie lady, who is known for her beautiful voice as much as her pies. And the sweet potato pies I used to buy in Algiers Point before the storm were out of this world.

I decided I’d best get back to Mid-City to refrigerate my newfound treasures, however along the way I was waylaid by an excellent sidewalk sale. An older gay man sitting peacefully on his stoop, selling a set of gorgeous antiques including a porcelain cup with “cocaine” inlaid in gilt lettering, chinoiserie lamps and a hand-woven rug Iranian rug at a steal of a price.

So this is how I came into the quandry of how to get an antique Chinese lamp, a frozen nutria and a package of turtle meat home on a bicycle, an issue which was later fully resolved by my ladyfriend’s mechanically marginal Isuzu station wagon. But I digress…

Anyway, upon returning to Mid-City, I found that my neighbors were engaged in similar pursuits. The folks with the large white house down White Street were selling parking, as well as t-shirts that were arranged on their fence. An older couple on White towards Orleans had an umbrella and coolers full of seven kinds of beer. Even the daughter of the only white family on St. Phillip between White Street and Broad was selling kool-aid. The parents admitted to me that setting up during Jazz Fest was the daughter’s idea. Merely by growing up in New Orleans, she already has the instinct.

Of course, my ladyfriend and a housemate were at that time in restaurants, working the tourists for tips. Another housemate was selling them artwork in the Quarter. I can’t even count how many people I ran into in the last 24 hours in some way cashing in. In short, much of the city is hustling in one way or another, including in my neighborhood.

The prevailing suburban racist/classist “wisdom”, such as can be heard on right-wing talk radio, is that people in the ghetto just need to learn to be productive citizens, that welfare has sapped their ingenuity, and that they are plain lazy. I say bullshit. There is plenty of creativity on my street, and the moment a dollar comes anywhere near this neighborhood, there is an outright mobilization to seize it. Frankly, people in low-income neighborhoods like mine are the most resourceful people I’ve ever seen. Have you ever seen a white suburban kid set up shop in a gas station and sell CDs out of his trunk? Do you think GW Bush did this as a teenager? Sure, when they get money too many of my neighbors throw it away on showy garbage like fancy rims. But in terms of initiative, there in no lack.

Earlier in the week I overheard two young disgruntled men talking in restaurant, pondering the viability of kidnapping tourists for profit. The one with the wandering eye noted that as tourists are apparently not dissuaded by how dangerous this city is, that you could probably get one or two every few years without even upsetting the tourist industry.

At present, my friends and neighbors seem to feel there is enough surplus to be had, and they will get any piece of it they can. All the tourists from Texas, the Midwest, and everywhere else will help fatten wallets for the lean summer, and I can love them for it. Because this, to me, is beautiful.

April 7, 2009

My Fascist Neighbors

Filed under: Class,Mid-City,New Orleans Economy,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 10:59 pm

I’ve been trying to stay away from planning.

Now that my day job involves energy policy, it’s been nice to be in a different fray, at least for a little while. It is a tremendous relief to not have to deal with the mind-numbing boredom of endless meetings and constant internecine conflicts that defined my experience of the official planning process of this city.

However, last night, to my chagrin, a Mid-City Neighborhood Organization (MCNO) meeting that I was attending for entirely different reasons was hijacked by a huge fracas over The Master Plan.

I didn’t stay for the whole thing, thank God. Technically I live in Bayou St. John, and am outside the purview of MCNO. However I stayed long enough to be again depressed by the viciousness and lack of charity that my neighbors (my fascist neighbors) displayed.

As a disclaimer, I have no official stance on The Master Plan. I haven’t read it. I’m terribly glad to hear that it would level the I-10 over Claiborne, reversing (decades late) one of the most obscene and destructive planning decisions ever imposed on an American city. But as for the rest of the plan, you’ve got me. I’m sorry. I sat through Bring New Orleans Back, Lambert, and the ungodly Unified New Orleans Plan process (the final form of which which turned out OK after all). By the time Blakely was mapping out his target recovery areas, I was already extremely fatigued. So I’ve had the luxury of not looking at this plan much.

But what I did see was the crazed response of My Fascist Neighbors to the suggestion that parts of Mid-City might be zoned to allow for multi-family dwellings. Several speakers articulated the real fear: that poor people would move in near them, just when their property values where skyrocketing. Those who spoke were besides themselves with self-righteousness and anger, in a way that would have been comical were it not so cruel.

Now I should also explain that Mid-City is a mixed neighborhood; poor, working class, middle class, black and white. It defines easy explanation. I can think of no part that it truly affluent or as poor as the 9th Ward; as the name suggests, it is kind of… in the middle.

Last night at the MCNO meeting you did not see the diversity of Mid-City. You say overwhelmingly white people. The people who spoke the loudest were the people who always see it as their God-given right to speak: property and business owners (side note: I will never, ever eat at Liuzza’s after watching the scene the owner of that establishment made). I will note that the president of MCNO did a very good job of handling the speakers, who often behaved like over-sized children.

And let’s be clear about something else. When my Fascist Neighbors were speaking about poor people and low-income housing, they were talking about black people. The vast majority of poor people in New Orleans are black. “Poor” and “low-income” have become code words for low-income African-Americans.

I could hardly contain my wonder. Really, folks, get over it. You live in an urban area. Density and racial diversity are parts of living in a city, and medium density is normal for the center of an urban area. And besides, as both the president of MCNO and the planners explained, zoning is not the decision to approve a specific development or building. It is merely a decision as to what kinds of buildings and businesses can be built in any given area.

It became very clear last night that the people who are making this a whiter, more affluent city are not just the Pres Kabacoffs and Joe Canizaros. It is not even big-time property owners like the Marcellos. These are in many cases the owners of apartments and small businesses. And if they get their way, they will make sure that many of those displaced by the Hurricane never come back, and that all of our rents will go up in their lust for property values. I will note that one reason that San Francisco is unlivable for ordinary people is that property owners have banded together in neighborhood groups to assure that no medium density housing is ever built, effectively exiling the poor from that city.

There were a number of progressives and radicals in the room: Brod Bagert, Jr. of the Jeremiah Group, Shana Griffin of INCITE and her partner Brice White, Brad Ott, champion of Charity hospital, educational activist Amelia LaFont, Bart Everson to name a few. All were silent when I was there. I wondered if they knew how many of their fellows were there to back them up.

Because we are here, and we live here, too. And it’s time we get together.

March 8, 2009

Huey Long lives. In Brooklyn?

Filed under: Class,Louisiana — christian @ 1:26 am

So those of you who know me personally are probably aware of the monster project I have been working on for the last few years, the book on public services and political movements in New Orleans, tentatively titled The New Deal In Reverse. Yesterday this seemingly endless effort got a shot in the arm with the publication of an article that outlines one of the historical arguments that the book makes, that Long influenced the second New Deal (the one where we got all the good social-democratic stuff like social security) by threatening Roosevelt. My old friend Ted Hamm agreed to take it for his arts/culture/politics weekly Brooklyn Rail.

http://www.brooklynrail.org/2009/03/express/remembering-huey-long

Of course, it’s easier to write historically about Long given the economic crisis the nation has been experiencing. But why the emphasis on Long?

There’s a couple of reasons. First, it seems that radical movements for economic justice are something that we talk about happening elsewhere- perhaps in Latin America, in Russia one hundred years ago, but not in 20th century America. And if we do talk about such movements in America, they are usually marginal and/or doomed, like the IWW, American Communists in the 1930′s, or revolutionary union movements in 1970′s Detroit. This approach implies that such ideas are not intrinsically American or that such movements can never succeed here. Which is hogwash.

Long was not marginal. As flawed as it was, his ‘Share The Wealth’ movement drew millions of adherents. He was a powerful national political figure who had a shot at becoming president, and he scared the wealthy, the powerful and the complacent. He also motivated Southern whites on the basis of class, while so may of his contemporaries instead focused white resentments against African-Americans. He was a genuine American radical and he left a profound mark on the state and the nation.

This is also an argument about agency. Before studying these histories, the story that I have heard my whole life about the South is that progressive movements are something imported from the outside and imposed on inherently regressive Southern whites. If something good happens, it is because yankees did it – from freeing the slaves to the New Deal to the Civil Rights movement.

In these stories the South doesn’t get credit for being a crucible of social change, and, in some cases, for leading the nation. Pop history of the New Deal is no different, where Roosevelt the great father comes down from Washington to help the poor. It took a lot of reading to learn exactly how specific social pressures influenced the New Deal, and how some of the most significant of those pressures came from the South – both in the case of the first New Deal, which was driven by a desire to derail Alabama Senator Hugo Black’s Thirty Hour Bill (Rhonda Levine covers this well in Class Struggle and the New Deal) and the second New Deal, crafted when a strike wave and Huey Long were both scaring the hell out of Roosevelt.

Now I’m certainly not saying that it was healthy to put this social motion in the hands of one person, or that Long was an ideal champion- far from it. But it’s high time that Huey Long and the poor whites who supported him got credit for their part in changing 20th century America for the better.

It’s a little ironic that this has come out so far away, in Brooklyn. Another article on Long is scheduled for Against the Current this May, and if any of my readers know of a suitable Louisiana publication to talk about Long’s legacy in, Share the Wealth and send it my way.

January 4, 2009

Marshall Truehill, Jr., RIP

Filed under: Class,New Orleans Politics,public housing,Race — christian @ 8:40 pm

Yesterday I had the honor to join the hundreds of mourners who came to pay their last respects to the late Reverend Marshall Truehill, Jr., who passed away so suddenly last Christmas eve. The ceremony was more joyous than somber, as appears to be the custom of the black Protestant church.

I did not get the honor of knowing Marshall Truehill personally and I am sad that I did not have the chance. He passed so suddenly, and to see his body lain out like that, a man still young and strong, gave a strange feeling of vulnerability.

Instead I know his work. Reverend Truehill was a consistent fighter for the rights of those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, especially public housing residents. He was an eloquent and powerful speaker, a man whose very presence radiated dignity and purpose. I recall many a time hearing his words before City Council, words that spoke truth to power, without pretence. The media has called Reverend Truehill “a voice of reason”, and this is true. However in today’s world Marshall Truehill was also a radical, and kept the company of radicals in many of the stands that he took.

What I did not know before his funeral is that Reverend Truehill was also born in the B.W. Cooper (Calliope) Projects, and spent decades before the storm working on the behalf of the residents of public housing as a man of faith.

The Judases were there at his funeral as well; four members of our esteemed City Council and Mayor Ray Nagin. While it is honorable that they attended, I personally found it distasteful that certain members of the City Council used the occasion to grandstand. I did not expect either temperance or good taste from such persons, however it was an inappropriate venue for elected officials, whose actions are so contrary to the vision of the man, to use his funeral in this way.

Because of all the speakers, I found what Reverend Truehill’s sister said to be the strongest, that Truehill “did not just read the bible, he lived the bible.” In a city and a nation with so many churches, I have seen some but not enough of religious communities fighting for social justice, particularly for the human right to return for those evacuated from this city after Katrina. I wonder how so many can go to church on Sunday and walk by the homeless on Monday. Truehill was not one of them.

It is men like Reverend Truehill who have caused me to re-evaluate my opinions of the tradition of the clergy. It comes down to this: Jesus was a radical. He opposed the Roman state, and was killed for it. His reward in heaven did not stop him from changing things on earth: from driving the money lenders from the temple (they have returned in great numbers), from healing the sick, from championing the poor and dispossessed.

Jesus did not say: love some of your brothers and sisters, and others you can discard because they are unworthy: because they are poor, because they are black, because they are poorly educated, because their neighborhoods are dangerous and they have children out of wedlock. He said to love all of humanity.

If I have had little interest in the church, it is because I have seen a great many religious people who want to talk endlessly about Jesus, but they are not willing to follow his example or even his teachings.

Reverend Truehill was not one of them. A great man has passed. God rest his soul.

August 18, 2008

The Savvy Bureaucrat Presents: A GUIDE TO AVOIDING PUBLIC INPUT IN PUBLIC MEETINGS

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Politics,Other,UNOP,We Are Not OK — christian @ 11:40 am

Everyone involved in policymaking in New Orleans today recognizes that public input is an essential component of the legitimacy of any plan or policy. But we also know that public opinion is unpredictable; that people will come down and express their opinions in a way that sometimes, no matter how hard you try, cannot be managed and diverted into the self-interest of planners, policy-makers, and the host of bureaucrats and non-profit flunkies who must accompany any process.

So what to do when public opinion, for PR reasons, is inevitable? We at the savvy bureaucrat offer you this handy-dandy guide for avoiding, at all costs, real public input while maintaining the necessary facade to keep your hands clean and bamboozle the majority of the public who will only find out about these things through newspapers which your PR people have good relationships with.

Without further ado, the savvy bureaucrat’s GUIDE TO AVOIDING PUBLIC INPUT IN PUBLIC MEETINGS.

Rule #1: Announce your meetings right before they happen.
Why give your critics advanced notice? If you can put a notice in the Times-Picayune a day before the event, all the better. Websites are also beautiful for this. Just have your webmaster put a little blurb on your website, say, a few hours before the event. If anyone bitches, hey, did you check the website? And the odds of people who are farther away from the process you are managing- in other words, ordinary working folks, checking your website is next to nil.

Bonus points- do this in states like Louisiana that have low levels of overall internet usage.

Rule #2: If possible, hold your meeting in the most obscure and distant location possible.
Why use city hall of the largest city in the state when you can use a hotel in some obscure town in the hinterland?

Rule #3: Hold meetings at a time when no-one who is not part of the bureaucracy could possibly attend.
Daytime meetings are more convenient for those of us who are in the in-crowd. We wouldn’t want to extend our workdays unnecessarily by holding a meeting at, say, 7PM, now would we? We might be tired and cranky the next morning. Most ordinary working folks, in other words the people who will be affected by your plan, can’t possible get off work at 2:30 PM on a Monday. So it’s a great time for all of us who really matter, and it keeps the riff-raff out.

Rule #4: Delay. Delay. Delay.
About to put out something unpopular? Never fear! You can kill public interest by continually extending the deadline. Say you’ll release it at May 31… no, July 17… no, September 1… no, September 18! No one will be paying attention when you finally unveil your plan.

Rule #5: Hold a tedious public meeting that reveals nothing.

Start the meeting by the sort of mutual self-congratulation that will assure everyone in the room who the important and unimportant people are. Talk about how you knew your fellow bureaucrat’s cousin’s daughter in college. Talk about what a great plan you are unveiling, and how much work you put into it. Conduct other business. Whatever you need to do, but by all means DO NOT reveal actual content until much later, hours later if possible. By that time even the fiercest public watchdogs will be doing crossword puzzles if they haven’t left to relieve the babysitter or go back to their day job.

And today, we have to give credit to (drumroll please…. not the New Orleans City Council (good jobs on #1 and #5, but tazers are a little crude, folks), not our long-time champions the Louisiana Recovery Authority (you guys wrote the book on this one), but our new champions of avoiding public input…

Concordia Architects and The New Orleans School Facilities Master Plan Team!

Way to go guys, on #1, #3, and #4! Can’t wait for your meeting this afternoon so we can see you really smoke ‘em!

May 30, 2008

Scattered Notes May 30

Filed under: Class,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 5:55 pm

A lot has gone down since the server that housed my blog went out. The big news:

The lawsuit to re-open Charity Hospital went to its first hearing in Civil District Court. Judge Ethel Simms Julien rejected LSU HSC-New Orleans claims that would have forced the case to go to court in Baton Rouge.

This is a big win. Baton Rouge may only be eighty-five miles away, but it’s another world in many respects. Baton Rouge judges have not been as sympathetic to these issues as our own have.

More by Justice Roars

 

Last week I also had the pleasure of meeting Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous. I am impressed by his work, notably his filing of FOIA requests for the contracting process that landed Concordia and Parsons Engineering with the school facilities master plan contracts, requests that so far have resulted in his being stonewalled.

We Could Be Famous on Paul Vallas, Parsons and Concordia

Apparently Eli has a lot more time for research than I do, and thank God someone is doing it.

 

And lastly, there has been a leadership change at United Teachers of New Orleans (for the record: my day job) resulting in Larry Carter and Jim Randels being elected to President and Executive VP of UTNO.

UTNO website

April 21, 2008

Ya Heard Me?

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Politics,Other,public housing,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 4:51 pm

It’s sad to think that while I was busy working and sleeping during the vast majority of films at the New Orleans Human Rights Film Festival, I easily could have missed Saturday night’s premier of Ya Heard Me?, a groundbreaking documentary on Bounce.

This movie blew my mind. It starts pretty much as one would expect— gratuitous booty dancing shots, interviews with various artists and producers. But during the course of the film, it slowly peels away the layers not only to reveal Bounce as a highly original and powerful artistic expression of a people, but also to delve into the sexual politics of Bounce— from artist Mia X’s straight-up feminist lyrics to the entire “Sissy” scene, with artists like Katey Red making Bounce that is an expression of homosexual, trans culture.

The exploration of dance in the movie also moves beyond simple booty shaking to show a highly sophisticated form of dance that looks remarkably similar to traditional African dances, expressed in a contemporary, urban context. One has to wonder if the filmmakers intentionally led the viewers from stereotyped scenes deeper in slowly, to emphasize the contradictions between mainstream (often white) perceptions of Bounce and the real thing.

But perhaps the most powerful thread to run through the movie is Bounce as music that came out of New Orleans’ public housing developments. Many of the scenes are shot in and around projects such the Magnolia (CJ Peete), Calliope (BW Cooper) and Melpomene developments (large sections of Calliope and all of Magnolia are now piles of rubble). The term “project music” is repeatedly used by musicians and producers to describe Bounce, and it is a powerful irony to see the celebration of this culture at the moment it is most threatened, which the film also explores, tracking the displacement of artists such as Cheeky Blakk.

Big shout out to Jordan Flaherty, an organizer of the New Orleans Human Rights Film Festival, for making this possible. Jordan struck a powerful chord in his introduction to the film, hinting at the importance of recognizing the range of cultural achievements of this city, particularly when they are left out by the self-appointed arbiters of New Orleans music culture such as (he did not mention them by name) WWOZ.

Incidentally, I’ve heard rumors that OZ has finally grudgingly acknowledged the cultural importance of New Orleans Hip-Hop and begun letting certain DJ’s play Hip-Hop and Bounce. I have yet to hear any of that on the station. Last thing I knew OZ had a strict no Hip-Hop policy. To quote DJ Davis “When they said community music, I didn’t realize they meant the community of white Yankees who listen to black music from forty years ago instead of the community of thirty-year old black people who actually live here and make music.”

So for the time being, Bounce, instead of having non-profit and foundation backing like Jazz and other “acceptable” forms of music, is sold out of trunks at gas stations.

Little changes. It’s important to remember that Jazz was originally as unacceptable to mainstream white culture as Hip-hop is, that white musicians were drawn to it (like Hip-hop), that in many ways it was co-opted, and that now that it is no longer considered a threat to mainstream white culture it is acceptable. I have to wonder if Hip-hop (and Bounce) will follow a similar trajectory.

Yaheardmefilm.com

Nolahumanrights.org

April 15, 2008

Mixed Income

Looking back recently, I’ve realized that in all the rush to fight the impending demolition of public housing as we know it in New Orleans, that I and others have never really taken the time to explain the specifics of why we oppose the demolitions. Maybe it just seemed to obvious that the demolition of hundreds of units of livable housing was simply too absurd and too wrong to even bother to explain given the institutionalized displacement of over one hundred thousand residents of New Orleans and the severity of the housing crisis that we are experiencing.

But it is worth explaining, and the details are important.

First, let me be clear that I speak only on behalf of myself and that others in the movement to stop the demolitions may disagree with me on some or all of these points.

Some may be surprised to hear that both I and some other allies of public housing residents agree that mixed income developments are a better strategy for public housing than the old, Fordist warehousing of poor people. Yes, you heard me right— concentrating large numbers of poor people in massive developments may have seemed OK in the 1930’s- 1950’s, but I don’t believe it is a good idea today.

As a caveat, I don’t think concentration of poverty is at the root of the social ills that policymakers describe in their rush to destroy public housing. Policymakers are frequently confusing the problems of concentration of poverty with the problems of poverty itself. For instance, there is violence around the drug trade in low-income communities in many American cities. This is true if the poor are concentrated or spread out; in fact since the mixing up of returning New Orleanians post-storm there is generally more violence, reflected in our higher per-capita murder rate. No amount of moving people around in the shell game that we call our housing policy has changed that.

Why then, are we opposed to the demolition of public housing if it results in mixed-income redevelopments? First, because it doesn’t.

There is simply no reason to believe that any of the entities involved in the redevelopment of public housing— developers, the assorted opportunistic non-profits or HANO/HUD— have any intention of allowing the vast majority of the poor who lived in these developments pre-storm to return to the new developments. Developers like Columbia Residential, who has the contract for the St. Bernard Redevelopment, are corporations like any other and exist to turn a profit. It is simply more profitable to skew the numbers to create more “market-rate” units, and it is easier to sell, lease and rent these units for larger profits if there are fewer poor people living near by.

These sort of mixed-income developments could potentially work if there was stringent government oversight of the process to assure compliance with an income mix that allowed the majority of low-income residents to return. This approach appears to have worked in such cities as San Francisco, where the Valencia Gardens Development appears to be a successful HOPE VI redevelopment.

However, can anyone argue that known crooks like Alphonso Jackson- who resigned amid an FBI investigation, or the HANO bureaucrats— who had their office taken over in 2002 for massive mismanagement— are effective stewards of the public good?

More importantly, we watched this process go down in River Gardens, the St. Thomas Redevelopment. An excellent master’s thesis by Brod Bagert Jr., now an organizer with the Jeremiah Group, lays out much of what happened when the foxes guarded the hen house. In a nutshell, Pres Kabacoff of HRI, the developer, fudged the numbers and the New Orleans City Council, as now, looked the other way.

There is no reason to believe that homes in these mixed-income redevelopments will ever materialize for the vast majority of public housing residents.

(Side note- Kabacoff is now trying to redevelop his own image with the assistance of a white voodoo-priestess girlfriend and a new development on St. Claude in the 8th ward that includes a police substation and a food co-op housed in a “healing center”. I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.)

Second, even given the laughable contention that any significant numbers of public housing residents might be allowed to return to the new developments, there is still the issue of time. It will be years before any of these redevelopments are rebuilt; some units may be opened as soon as 2009. So for every public housing resident who returns to a “mixed-income” redevelopment, there is first 4-6 years of unnecessary displacement.

Scott Keller, assistant to Alphonso Jackson, called the post-Katrina situation an “opportunity” in 2006. I again feel the need to tactfully explain to all the big wigs and suits out there that this was not an “opportunity” for the tens of thousands of men, women and children evacuated from public housing, this was a disaster. Losing your home and having to find a new one for 4-6 years in a city where rent has more than doubled is not an “opportunity”.

If there was even a shred of consideration for the residents of public housing, redevelopment would have occurred in stages, with residents moved back in to a majority of easily cleaned-out units while the redevelopment occurred one development at a time. But there wasn’t.

The situation of Charity Hospital is very similar. If LSU Health Sciences Center had any concern for the low-income residents of the city who depended on Charity, they would have allowed the crew of military and hospital personnel to re-open Charity while they work on their “dream” hospital. But they don’t. In the case of both Charity and public housing, the people of New Orleans are pawns to be swept aside in the grandiose dreams of the powerful.

Lord knows pubic housing in New Orleans needed an overhaul; most significantly some maintenance of otherwise excellent buildings. How about keeping the developments but reintroducing the street grid, as was recommended in District 4 of the Unified New Orleans Plan?. Frankly, I would support an overhaul of public housing if it was done with real involvement of the residents and a plan to bring back those who wanted to return while redevelopment occurred in stages.

What is happening right now is not an overhaul, it is wanton destruction of not only buildings but lives. It is a totally unnecessary human rights catastrophe, and makes a mockery of the concept of mixed income.

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