Dirty South Bureau

April 9, 2011

Fukushima on the Gulf Coast: What the media isn’t telling you about the human costs of energy disasters

Watching the tragedy in Fukushima unfold, in recent weeks, I saw a sickening replay of a familiar script. As the magnitude of the dangers posed by the radiation leaks and ongoing failure to control the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant were unveiled, their coverage on the main pages of world news outlets decreased.

You could blame it on the public; we have short attention spans. You don’t have to be very far away from these disasters, it seems, to become easily jaded. But if the American public has short attention spans, I will argue that it is because we have been trained to be so, by the Pavlovian conditioning of the daily assault of mass media and advertising. Easily distracted people are easy to sell things to.

But more importantly, easily distracted people also easily forget what their neighbors are going through, even if these are grave crimes. Which serves the spin-masters in the Japanese government and Tokyo Electric Power Company just as well as it has our own U.S. government and BP for the past year. If you can hide the worst details of a disaster in the early days, when they come out later fewer people are paying attention.

Which is exactly has happened in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Not yet a year has passed, and the coverage of the real costs to people who live on the Gulf Coast of this disaster are utterly absent from the pages of mainstream American media.

Which is what I am asking you, reader, to overcome.

The gross failure of the media

As a journalist I am particularly angry about the role that the media has played and is playing in downplaying the risks that people face from these disasters, a pattern which I have witnessed both in Fukushima and in the oil flood following the Deepwater Horizon accident.

In our complex, technological, contemporary society the media fills a very important role in informing the public about what is actually going on in the world. However, it seems that to many media outlets and journalists, this role is secondary to managing public perceptions. The role that journalists take mirror that of government and corporate public relations, in that keeping the public calm takes priority.

Or it could be that many journalists themselves do not do sufficient research to find out what the real dangers are. However, I find that highly unlikely given how easy it is to find much of this information from credible sources.

Regardless of why, in both disasters the majority of large, and some local media outlets have failed us by failing to warn the public of the actual dangers that we face from these disasters. The most obvious way was by not warning the public of the worst health effects, though it is significant that the media also frequently fails to report on these health effects as they are revealed.

Media failures in Fukushima

For a long time I was a big fan of the BBC. I felt like I was getting a more balanced, more global, less corporate-influenced version of the news. That confidence is gone. Again and again I have watched the BBC downplay the dangers that the Japanese people face, even as the United States government set a much higher recommended evacuation zone and the head of France’s nuclear agency stated that the accident is an INES level 6 – the second highest rating, less severe only than Chernobyl.

Meanwhile, the BBC, which seems to be taking its cues from the Japanese government, has repeatedly cited the Japanese government’s absurd initial rating of INES level 4. The Japanese government later admitted that the accident is an INES level 5, days after U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu told the world that the accident was worse than Three Mile Island (a five on the INES scale.)

I now realize there are Judith Millers on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Japanese government is interested in downplaying its own liability for allowing Tokyo Electric Power Company to build these plants on a fault line. It doesn’t want a huge health disaster on its hands, and it appears to be doing what President Barack Obama’s administration did after the Deepwater Horizon oil flood – lying its way out of responsibility for what had happened and its inability (unwillingness?) to control a large corporation.

Meanwhile, not only the BBC but a number of media organizations seemed to go out of their way to downplay radiation fears, regurgitating official statistics about the lack of cancer deaths associated with past nuclear accidents. But as the child of a cancer survivor, I know that when someone gets cancer, you never know exactly why, so it is impossible to track all the cases of cancer to which exposure to radiation contributed.

And again, I must cite conflict of interest: government officials have a material interest in not being liable for giving people cancer, not having to deal with public health crises in which they may be implicated, and not interrupting the status quo of power generation.

It is interesting to note that I have seen this in other stories by the BBC, including a story about an Taiwanese factory producing iPhones were workers were exposed to n-hexane, a chemical found in the blood of Gulf Coast residents. The article mentions more superficial effects, but never that n-hexane is toxic to the nervous system.

In high enough doses radiation causes cancer and birth defects. Let’s be clear on that one. The Fukushima disaster has led to very high levels of radioactivity in the ocean and in the air near the plants.

Media failures in the Gulf Coast BP oil disaster

This all follows the play book I saw after the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Again and again I watched both U.S. national media and the New Orleans Times-Picayune fall down on the job.

In May 2010, Journalist Tom Philpott of Grist Magazine reported that one of the main ingredients in one of the two varieties of Corexit that BP was spraying contained 2-Butoxyethanol, which causes birth defects and testicular damage in rats (no data for human testing is available for obvious reasons). NIH analysis here: http://hazmap.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/hazmap_generic?tbl=TblAgents&id=129

I never saw the words “birth defects” “reproductive harm” or “testicular damage” in any of the media coverage following the gulf oil flood until a group I worked with organized a rally in Baton Rouge to call for an end to the spraying of Corexit, specifically citing these dangers. After that, the concept again disappeared from the media.

Even when legendary Chemist Wilma Subra (winner of the 2011 Global Exchange Human Rights Award) came to New Orleans to directly address the issue of impacts of the oil and dispersant, and specifically addressed the potential for birth defects, miscarriages and reproductive harm, the Times-Picayune still failed to talk about these dangers.

The article produced, which was better than many before it, specifically mentioned: “skin irritation, nausea, headaches and vomiting… liver and kidney damage, cardiac arrhythmia and chronic respiratory problems”. Journalist Bill Barrow also mentioned that benzene causes cancer – one of the few times that I have seen the word “cancer” in the media connected to this disaster.

Having your child born deformed is many magnitudes of severity greater than skin irritation.

On a technical note, a common practice has been to solely quote Material Safety Data Sheets. Which is dumb. Producing MSDS sheets is the responsibility of the manufacturer, which is a clear conflict of interest. They frequently do not include the most dangerous long-term effects. For a serious accounting of dangers, I refer to the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program – a program produced by a credible government organization that is a few steps removed from liability, and does not have the direct competing interests as do the corporations that make dangerous chemicals.

I must also note that in addition to Grist, one other media outlet deserves praise for their forthright coverage of what is happening in the Gulf: Al Jazeera. Looking at their coverage of this disaster, one wonders if Al-Jazeera exists on the same planet as the Times-Picayune and the BBC.

I never thought I would join the activists in Mobile Alabama in praising a media network from a monarchy in the Middle East for their coverage of a local issue. We truly live in strange times.

What is going on in the Gulf

I have very bad news for Gulf residents, which I have waited until after Mardi Gras to deliver for my New Orleans readers.

We have evidence that the seafood from the Gulf is contaminated with high levels of poly-aromatic hydrocarbons, and that the FDA instead changed the acceptable levels to avoid warning you.

Cleanup workers and residents who live in coastal parishes and counties the near the Gulf have been poisoned. A large number are reporting serious health effects, and the blood tests that have come back from some of those suffering these health effects show highly elevated levels of highly toxic hydrocarbons including benzene (which causes cancer), ethylbenze (which may cause cancer, damages the liver, and is toxic to the nervous system), xylene and hexane (which is toxic to the nervous system).

This information is all from the National Institute of Health’s Haz-Map program and Chemist Wilma Subra. The full information from Ms. Subra is available here: http://leanweb.org/news/latest/making-the-connection-2011.html.

I refer you to the earlier information about 2-butoxyethanol and birth defects and reproductive harm. Since we have seen every other health impact associated with these chemicals, there is no reason to believe that we will not see these.

In case you didn’t get the memo the first time around, the government will not tell you, there is a serious health crisis in parts of Southeast Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and the Florida Gulf Coast, and it is not going away because the cameras have left.

We must transition from fossil fuels and nuclear power

I pray for the residents of Fukushima Prefecture and the residents of Northern Japan, as well as for the residents of the Gulf that none of their families must suffer this terrible outcome, as did families in the Ukraine and Belarus following the Chernobyl disaster.

But we must be clear – cancer, birth defects, and the poisoning of whole regions – these are the human costs of our dependence upon unsustainable energy sources, the drive of large corporations to make a profit at any cost, and the deep collusion between governments and corporations. We will pay them again and again until we make profound changes in the way we use energy, and change the structure of our society.

Moving to a sane and sustainable energy and transportation infrastructure – meaning renewable energy, high speed rail and other forms of efficient mass transit – isn’t just about feeling good about “going green”. It is about people’s lives – whether that is in Navarre Beach Florida, Venice Louisiana, or Fukushima, Japan.

In the short run, people on the Gulf Coast need to have this addressed as a real health crisis and the result of a poisoning, so that they can access the resources that they need.

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.

February 2, 2010

Who ***?

Filed under: culture,Media,Other — christian @ 8:49 am

As many of you know, I do not usually write about professional sports.

I like a good football game as much as anybody. I have a little more difficulty getting attached to any particular pro football team, because of a disconnect between where the team is based and where the players are from. They seem a little like mercenaries to me. Now give me an LSU game, and that to me is more interesting.

But this whole issue with NFL claiming to own the phrase “Who dat?” is another matter. Obviously I believe in intellectual property rights – I’m a writer. We need IPR to make our money. I’m a big fan of the copyright office, because it means if a publisher screws me on a major work, I can sue.

But I think we should all use this is a time to step back and take a look at our society when the NFL claims to own a fan phrase that is almost the city slogan.

This may not mean much in practical terms for most of us on the street. I mean, I can yell “Who dat?” all night long (and likely will on Feb. 6), and the NOPD ain’t going to lock me up.

Obviously it means something for t-shirt makers and maybe even radio professionals. But just a god-damned minute here? Who the hell do the swine behind the NFL think they are? Are they not making enough money off of our obsession here?

No, clearly not. Not enough for them, anyway.

I look at this instance in light of the recent Supreme Court decision to allow unlimited campaign finance contributions by corporations. No, they are not happy with what they have. They want more. And that means they want it from you and me, because we, as working people, are what makes profit possible.

The details may be very complicated, but that is the bottom line. The people running the corporations, whether it is Exxon-Mobil, Wal-Mart, or the NFL, want more.

Well, f*** them. WHO DAT?

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.

April 7, 2009

Review of “Hunger”

Filed under: Media,Other — christian @ 10:11 pm

So on the publishing front, the other day I wrote a quick review of the film Hunger by British filmmaker Steve McQueen (no relation to the American actor) and playwright Edna Walsh, which got published in the “webzine” of a socialist group that I’ve been known to hang out with (FBI take note!).

As I mention in the review, more Americans should see this film, for perspective if nothing else.

Review on the Solidarity website.

September 2, 2008

Going Home? (Evacuation Part III)

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Economy,New Orleans Politics,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:30 am

First off, props to the ACE for the levee repairs. Even if it doesn’t really make up for the last forty-some years, at they worked well enough to save us this time, and that means a lot.


So after the drama of levee over-topping and watching Anderson Cooper hanging out in the French Quarter for the last 24 hours in a desperate attempt to get news (or at least entertainment), the latest is that Mayor Ray Nagin may not allow us back in to the city for several days.

This must be a bad joke. The stated reasons: because the power is out? Are you kidding? What do you think life was like in neighborhoods like the ninth ward for the first six months after Katrina?

Or that there are downed power lines? Oh, because we’ve never seen those in New Orleans.

Or because the health care infrastructure might not be adequate? What? Did I miss something? We have a health care infrastructure?

If there was anything that worked in the city of New Orleans, I might be a little less skeptical. But our roads look like four-wheel drive trails (been down Paris Avenue lately?), we pay absurd sums to Entergy every month, I’m more scared of the cops than I am of the drug dealers, and the only thing that I can think that is working right now is the levees.

Nagin apparently will allow those working in “essential businesses” back in to New Orleans a day earlier. I mean, I get it- we need folks to fix the power, man the water plant, repair gas lines, etc. But the irony of that statement is killing me. In the economy we’ve constructed, daiquiri shops are the closest thing we have to an essential business. Maybe if we had “essential businesses” in the city of New Orleans (other than the port), we wouldn’t be in the economic shape that we are in.

I also found it offensive watching that moron Cooper congratulating Nagin for the orderly evacuation. Most people I know got themselves out, because we were terrified of what would happen if it was left to the city. And if the city was emptied out easier this time, it is in part because half of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina poor no longer live here, something that Mayor Nagin is at least complicit in if not directly responsible for.

The only thing worse than the government’s failure to supply essential services are the things that are done ostensibly for our own good, like keeping us out of our city unnecessarily. I know very few people who live in New Orleans who don’t have survival skills, and I for one want to go home.

And we wonder why some people don’t evacuate.

August 25, 2008

More Thoughts on Education, Tough, Charters and Teachers

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Schools — christian @ 6:00 am

Judging from the comments that I have received both in person and online, I feel the need to clarify and go deeper into some of the issues that I have discussed both on this blog and on the Rising Tide III Education Panel, and to dispel some misunderstandings.

First off, I am not against new (and young) teachers coming to New Orleans. Some of the people who I count as personal friends, such as Jeffrey Berman, who I sat next to on the Rising Tide Educational Panel, are new teachers. These people are taking on a noble and extremely difficult task. They deserve a level of support that they are not getting either from the RSD or from many charter organizations. Over and over again, in my conversations with new teachers, they are the first to tell me that they need effective professional development and mentoring, which they are absolutely not getting in the RSD or in some of the charters.

I do think that bringing in large numbers of inexperienced teachers as the cure-all for the system’s ills is just plain wrong. First off, it goes contrary to test score data, which problematic as it is, is among the most relevant “objective” data available. But more, the logic behind this solution of bringing in mostly white, ivy-league educated teachers to replace a mostly black, native New Orleanian teacher force appears to be driven by latent cultural imperialism. As a veteran New Orleans teacher once told me, he saw it as “the great Bawana coming in to save the ignorant country teachers”.

There were bad teachers before the storm. There are bad employees in every field. However, blaming the pre-storm teachers for the state of the schools in New Orleans is one of the critical mistakes that is guiding the so-called “reform” going on in New Orleans schools.

In one small example, I recall about a year ago receiving a press clipping from an Alabama paper congratulating a transplanted New Orleans teacher on winning teacher of the year. This man, who was both a teacher of multiple subjects and a football coach, had not missed a day of work in over thirty years. He is among those who was fired after the storm when he was displaced, and now we’ve lost him. Way to go, Cecil Picard, Leslie Jacobs, Ann Duplessis et al.

In many cases, what I heard from teachers who taught elsewhere after the storm is remarkably similar to what I heard from students who went to school elsewhere- that they were amazed at the resources and environment offered to them to work in, and that they inevitably had reservations about returning to the awful conditions back in New Orleans.

This is what was most missing from Paul Tough’s New York Times Magazine article. He quoted plenty of academic bureaucrats, think-tankers and other “experts”, but very few teachers. I do not recall reading the comments of a single veteran teacher in his article, and this is likely why he seemed to have little idea what actually goes on in New Orleans schools. To dismiss their years of experience and scapegoat them for a failed system is simply inexcusable, and Paul Tough’s work deserves to be condemned for the omission of their voices more than anything.

Second, I am not categorically against charter schools. This may surprise some of you, and I have been attacked both from the left and the right on this issue. We absolutely needed educational reform in New Orleans pre-storm. Some teachers I have talked to prefer working in charter schools and say that in their charter administration is more accessible and they feel free to innovate in ways they could not in a traditional school. I am sure there are some significant advantages to decentralization, though there are also serious drawbacks that I have gone into in previous posts.

But that does not mean that I am willing to drink the Kool-Aid and declare the chartering of the vast majority of the schools in Orleans Parish a success. It’s appalling that this is what has happened in the media in New Orleans and nationally. I stand by my earlier comments that much of what we are getting is through the media pure hype and well-managed PR. The data is just not there to back the “success” of the charter schools, nor does it match the personal experience of teachers, students and parents who I have met.

It’s shameful that anyone who raises some of the very significant issues about charter schools is attacked as a defender of the old system. Frankly, this is the sort of group-think that the right has used in such situations as the Iraq War, again backed by the New York Times (two for two, guys?). Those opposed to the Iraq War were told to either “support the troops” or that they were supporting the terrorists.

Same thing here, where the small minds are saying either that we declare both the replacement of teaching populations and the charter school experiment successes without even looking closely at them or that we are the enemies of progress. What if, like the Iraq War, these big experiments are massive failures? What if, like the Iraq War, they are guided by faulty, ideologically-driven information and lies?

Sorry, folks, I’m not drinking the Kool-Aid. I’ve talked to too many teachers, parents and students. Bring me results. In the mean time, start listening to the teachers, and not just the new ones.

August 24, 2008

Rising Tide III

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Schools,Other — christian @ 1:34 pm

I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to stay for all of Rising Tide III yesterday. And I don’t just have such a high opinion of New Orleans’ annual blogger conference because I was a panelist on the education panel. Not at all. First off, it was great to run into all the local bloggers and media-makers: G-Bitch, Patrick, Loki, Alan, Liprap, Oyster, Bart Everson, even Schroeder.

Second, the keynote speech by author John Berry, who wrote the original Rising Tide about the Great Flood of 1927, was amazing. I was thrilled to get to ask the man himself questions about the impact of the aftermath of the flood on the rise of southern populist leaders like Huey Long.

The few panels which I was able to catch were also excellent. I was particularly honored to be able to sit on the education panel with such an accomplished scholar as Leigh Dingerson from the Center for Community Change, but also the people who know so much from first-hand experience such as Cliff, G-Bitch and Jeffrey Berman. Getting to talk to Nation author and former Gambit Weekly editor Michael Tisserand definitely capped the day off.

But I must also note for the various bloggers covering this conference that I no longer work for United Teachers of New Orleans, so please do not list me as such.

August 19, 2008

Dark days for both public education and truth

Filed under: Media,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,We Are Not OK — christian @ 2:16 am

First off, a disclaimer. I am no longer working for United Teachers of New Orleans, as I have been for over a year. So while all the content on this blog was only ever my personal opinion and in no way reflected the positions of the union, well, now it does even less.

Today the School Facilities Master Plan was finally unveiled after months of waiting… or was it? I got a press packet from my good friend RSD Communications Director Siona LaFrance that contained a slim, vague jumble of papers; apparently the details will be released at the school board meeting at McDonogh 35 tomorrow and then made public the following day.

For the best description of what little we do know about the Master Plan I have to again refer you to Eli Ackerman of the blog We Could Be Famous.

We’re shrinking the footprint again. I had the pleasure today of hearing a fascinating exchange between Eli and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek, who must the be the most overpaid, under-qualified bureaucrat in the state. Basically it went something like this…

Pastorek: “Those places where we rebuild schools, they will serve as catalysts for neighborhood recovery.”

Ackerman: “So then what is going to happen to neighborhoods where we don’t rebuild schools? By extension, does that mean that if we don’t provide public services like schools, that this will discourage people from rebuilding those neighborhoods?”

Pastorek: “Well, I don’t think the placement of schools will have an effect on all areas of the city… high schools would not be a geographic attractor.”

There we have it in perfect bureaucratese, the sort of sublime logic that only those who make more than $300,000 a year can really understand. Where we build schools, people will come back to those neighborhoods. Where we don’t rebuild schools… oh well, that doesn’t really matter, does it? After all, we’re going to have these “magnet-like” schools…

On another front, last Thursday Paul Tough of the New York Times published a perfect piece of bullshit that I only now have come across. I talked to Paul when I worked for UTNO, and I recall how out of touch he was about the realities of New Orleans schools. He appeared to have no idea that the overwhelming majority of our public school students were low-income African Americans, and also did not seem to grasp the historical role of de-investment in the incredible inequities around education here.

But hey, I guess you don’t have to be too much of an intellectual to work for the New York Times Magazine, do you?

It was enough for Tough to know that 1. schools were really bad before Katrina (no shit) and 2. the free market is great.

Maybe I have just not been smoking from the same Neoliberal bong that Paul has. Maybe I am burdened by the knowledge that experienced teachers make a significant difference in test scores, and that these ivy-league kids with TFA largely don’t have any idea how to manage a class? Or perhaps it is what really shouldn’t be inside knowledge for someone who calls himself a journalist- that the RSD and many of the charters are terrible messes.

Despite all the hype, test scores have not appreciably risen from pre-storm levels. Yes, they improved over last year- but I seriously hope so, given the abysmal chaos of the RSD under Robin Jarvis when the school takeover architects in their infinite wisdom decided they could run a district with half a dozen people as their main office staff.

What Vallas has accomplished he has largely done by more than doubling per-pupil expenditures, mostly by spending one-time monies that are supposed to be going to long-term needs and infrastructure. Give any urban school district in the country that kind of fiscal injection and you are going to see improvement.

But while Vallas has shrunk student-teacher ratios and brought technology into the classroom, he has also failed to fix basic problems. Ask any teacher and they will tell you that RSD professional development is a bad joke, run by salespeople and consultants who largely have no classroom experience. The implementation of the much-publicized technology like the “promethian boards” is abysmal; half the time it just doesn’t work. The discipline policy is toothless, where it is actually enforced. The paperwork errors are legion: in one small example a teacher friend of mine called me tonight and explained to me that the RSD had lost the 11th grade records for a large number of her former students, and has been sending them as seniors back to 11th grade classes.

And the charters? The great wunderkind of public education? Please. Again, most of them have no idea how to handle discipline. A third of teachers in Algiers think their merit-pay scheme TAP should be scrapped, and another third think it should be overhauled. And among the wonders of their decentralized model of education is a situation where no school can afford retiree health care for their employees because they’ve lost the economy of scale that a real school district has.

Charters have largely made what improvements they can claim in test scores by creaming their student populations via a combination of backdoor selective admissions and “soft expulsion”, where the parents of troublesome kids are “encouraged” to pull their kids out so the school won’t have to expel them. This, and their ability to attract private funding.

But don’t believe the hype or the Times-Picayune headlines. Even with these advantages, many of the charters have not improved their test scores, and charter schools here, when you take the test scores of the same schools pre-storm, have largely dropped in performance. This echoes national trends, that charter schools perform on average slightly below regular public schools in standardized test scores.

But again, none of this seems to bother Paul Tough, who is busy chasing down attractive 23-year old ivy leaguers and falling head over heels for their dedication to saving the ignorant savages of New Orleans.

Here’s another story that didn’t make it in to any of these reports: the RSD basically drove out the internationally renowned writing program Students At the Center (SAC) with a combination of neglect, bungling and outright hostility. This year there is no SAC at Frederick Douglass High School in the 9th ward, and the “reformer” Vallas and his cronies who he put in charge of academics, many of whom are overpaid consultants with no educational experience, are to blame.

Paul Tough basically swallowed the PR of New Schools for New Orleans hook, line and sinker, and came up with the sort of dross that Sam Winston was writing for Gambit Weekly before I took him to Einstein Charter in the fall of ’07 to see how badly a school that has no real accountability can go. Tough should know better; he is a professional. I have to wonder; did he even talk to any teachers who weren’t recent TFA graduates?

This sort of shallow, ideologically loaded work is the reason that people in the rest of the country have no idea what is going on here.

August 18, 2008


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!

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.



December 19, 2007

Alphonso Jackson’s Xmas present to New Orleans

Filed under: Class,Media,New Orleans Politics,Race,The Feds,UNOP,We Are Not OK — christian @ 8:06 pm

So the DSB is back after a lengthy hiatus… actually in the interests of full disclosure I got a new job working for the teachers union. And let me also say that anything that I say here on this blog is my own personal opinion and should in no way be connected to the union.

And what’s new on the horizon (drumroll please…) Alphonso Jackson send us bulldozers for Christmas! And the City Council lacks the guts to do anything about it! Maybe this is because in our electoral apathy we allowed a devout gentrificationist and a woman who epitomizes hatred of poor people to be elected?

Where to start? Alphonso Jackson’s compromising relationship with Columbia Residential?

12,000 homeless people on the streets of New Orleans?

Blatantly biased reporting from that paragon of journalism that we know as our daily paper? (Love those 64-word lead sentences with no clear connection between clauses, guys.)

All I know is that I have sent my letters to Midura and Fielkow, and I am going to be at the City Council Meeting tomorrow morning, Thursday, December 20.

My letter to Shelly Midura:

Dear Councilwoman Midura,

I live in your district in the Bayou St. John neighborhood and I am asking you to vote not to allow HUD to demolish the CJ Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard Developments.

Though I lived in District C at the time, I was glad when you defeated Jay Batt. You seemed like a person of compassion and integrity. This vote will be a test of those qualities.

We all agree that public housing in this city needs to be improved. But HUD’s plan is privatization, not improvement. It will waste hundreds of millions of dollars in senseless destruction and will not provide enough low-income housing for New Orleanians who want to come home.

There are other plans that have been approved by the city government, including your office, such as the Unified New Orleans Plan, which provide for some demolition but also renovating and improving much of the city’s public housing instead of wantonly destroying it. This plan was arrived at in a democratic and inclusive manner and is supposed to be the official plan for rebuilding the city. I implore you to follow our city’s plan instead of arbitrary and destructive measures put forth by a federal government which has repeatedly shown a lack of care for this city and our people.

There is an article in the art and design section of the New York Times which describes better than I can what a waste destroying these buildings is. Before you vote you should read it— the historical and architectural value of these projects, especially Lafitte, is immense.

But it is the people, not the buildings, who are the real issue. There is a housing crisis in this city of epic proportions, and tearing down thousands of units will make it worse. It will take at least three years to rebuild any of these developments, which will only contain a fraction of the affordable housing. Many poor people simply cannot afford to move back to this city. The failure of the federal and state government to provide for a way for these internally displaced citizens to come home is a violation of international human rights law. If you vote for demolition, you will be a party to that crime.

Please make the right choice, the humane choice, the compassionate choice. Do not allow these demolitions.

Christian Roselund

June 5, 2006

New Orleans AK and P-DUB

Filed under: Labor,Lower 9th Ward,Media,New Orleans Politics,Race,The Feds — christian @ 2:28 pm

So, pardon the lack of communication for the last few weeks. Among other projects I’ve had to move shop. I’m still in the Bywater, but fighting the gross housing market down here right now. (see earlier post, Gentrification Gets Personal for the DSB)

The good news: the first demo of New Orleans AK (after Katrina) a weekly radio show on current events and social justice issues in the Crescent City, has come out, and was snatched up by radio station KPFT in Houston, where it will be playing tonight at 7 PM.

New Orleans AK is a collective creation of Public Digital Urban Broadcasters (P-DUB) members Krystal Muhammud, Mayaba Leibenthal, Mikkel Allen-Loper, Christian Roselund and Corlita Mahr. So far this is the first creation of P-DUB, a radical, largely african american (except yours truly) media group.

Contact me at c.roselund@gmail to com to obtain a 128 KBPS copy, or to rebroadcast on your local radio station. Enjoy.

New Orleans AK Part 1 2 3

This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.5 License.

More information is available on publicdub.com

April 17, 2006


Filed under: Labor,Media — christian @ 10:09 pm

(don’t read this Monica- you’ve already heard it enough times)

I’ve done a lot of jobs in my life.

I’ve driven cabs, built houses, moved people, managed small offices, mixed mortar for masons, done friend’s taxes, worked in a hardware store… even a couple of coffeeshops and a dorm kitchen in college. The conditions in some of these jobs were so bad that they had a permanent radicalizing effect on me. But never have I seen a worse labor situation than freelance reporting.

Here’s how it works. You pitch stories. Maybe they get taken, maybe they don’t. If they get accepted, then you scramble to meet a deadline, find sources, interview them, and do research. You send a script (or a story). You wait. Revisions come back, you work with them, and then you file the story, upload the file, wipe the sweat from your brow, and try to relax.

And then you wait to get paid. And for some reason, you repeat the process.

When do you get paid? Generally, when they feel like it.

I’m not singling out any organization that I’ve worked for, in fact I will say that FSRN pays the most regularly of any of them that I’ve experienced. I’m more talking about the norms of the industry.

I have only once or twice, in any other job, had a boss fail to pay me on time. Sure, I’ve been cheated on overtime, and I won’t tell you what some of these places paid. But normally, in any blue collar job, be it a moving company or a construction outfit, you get paid once a week, in full, no delay. If there ever were to be a delay there would be hell to pay. Carpenters, masons, cab drivers and movers get mean when they don’t get their money. They break things. Threaten people. File mechanic’s leins. Things get ugly.

But in freelance reporting, there is no such gaurantee. My bosses are thousands of miles away, immune to anything threat that I have except small claims court or that I won’t work for them anymore.

And there are far more potential freelance reporters than there are jobs.

I am not writing this to bitch. This has results. What kind of normal person can tolerate not getting paid for weeks on end?

Or, better yet, who can afford to work in unpaid internships for years on end waiting for a paying gig?

Someone already affluent, from an affluent family who supports them.

So, the rest of us had better have a steady second job, or a large savings account. But how many working people in America do? And how many years do we have to work “day” jobs to pay for our reporting habits?

The worst thing is that this is true of the “alternative” media, the “left-media” more than anywhere else.

I used to wonder why it is that the media was so out of touch with ordinary working Americans. And I shouldn’t wonder, because in the re-emerging caste system in America, only those from the upper castes, beyond being the only ones likely to be able to get an education, and the only ones from backgrounds who think of doing this sort of work as an option, are some of the only ones who can afford to do this.

America needs more working-class intellectuals. But it isn’t likely to get them any time soon, and if it does, it isn’t likely to hear much from them. Not with the structure of the knowledge industries.

April 10, 2006

Hello, world

Filed under: Lower 9th Ward,Media,New Orleans Politics — christian @ 3:57 pm

This is the beginning of an experiment with blogging. I am a reporter (radio, mostly) who lives in the downtown part of New Orleans (not to be confused with the Central Business District- explanation later). I file stories mostly for Free Speech Radio News, Pacifica Network and also manage content for New Orleans Indymedia as well as recording public meetings for ThinkNOLA. A big thanks to Alan Gutierrez of ThinkNOLA for setting me up with this blog.

This weekend was nuts. Lower 9th homeowners meeting, as usual, except that this time the guest speakers from the Sewerage and Water Board didn’t show up. Gee, I wonder why? Eight months and the Lower 9th still does not have potable water and thus no FEMA trailers can be hooked up. The city says that it is doing everything that it can. Money is always an issue in this city, but give me a break- we are the wealthiest country on earth. If this had happened in Connecticut power would have been back on in two weeks. The big oil companies take the oil from this area, the whole nation uses the port, and the Feds screw us. Lack of money is as usual is shorthand for lack of political will.

I digress. Also, Democracy Now! came to town. Any of you reading this can thank Mike Burke of DN! and Eric Klein of FSRN for suggesting this.

Also, the Jeremiah Group held a mayoral forum. Well, it wasn’t what I knew as a forum. It was more like, seven candidates had to sit still and listen to the agenda of the Jeremiah Group/Industrial Area Foundation Network of Katrina Survivors, and then they got fifteen seconds to answer yes or no to a list of demands (agenda items). It was great watching big politicos like Landrieu and Nagin squirming in their chairs, having to say Yes Or No and then having their decision put up on a scorecard. Interesting inversion of roles, if only temporarily. When candidates said no the large african-american man sitting behind me heckled them- “That’s right- That’s a NO for you!”.

This stuff never makes it into the news reports.

That’s really why I am starting this blog- for all the stuff that doesn’t make it into the neat little three minutes that I usually get to cram the complexity of an issue into.

Great to see Brod Bagert of the IAF at the forum, too, looking dapper as usual in a new blue suit. I hadn’t seen Brod since we fought the St. Thomas redevelopment three and a half years ago.

Oh- and today the day laborer’s run for justice came to New Orleans. Got to watch several dozen day laborers in a circle at the foot of the statue of General Robert E. Lee at Lee Circle taking part in a native american ceremony.

This is why I don’t return phone calls on time, or sleep much. When it rains, it pours, and I honestly could not make this stuff up if I tried.