Dirty South Bureau

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.



photos of the event

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.

January 28, 2009

Credit where credit is due

Filed under: Mid-City,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 10:22 pm

So often in New Orleans, we write about the negative. Actually, the horrible, the gut-wrenching, the insane, the god-awful. And along with it goes the blame: the backwardness, the ignorance, the greed, the corruption, the incompetence which are often so easy to find, particularly in local governance.

But today I’d like to give some credit where credit is due. First award: to the NOPD. Yes, I said it. While I’m still disturbed about the shooting of Adolph Grimes, I need to give credit to the NOPD for catching the rapist/burglar who has been assaulting people in the 6th/7th wards.

Like anyone in this city, I have often doubted the ethics, tactics and culture of the NOPD. And for a variety of reasons, some of which are entirely out of their control, I also have concerns about their ability to actually find violent criminals. With so many unsolved murders in the city, I had very little faith that the creep who beat my friend in the head with a beer bottle while trying to rape her in her apartment would get caught. Starting with a tip from someone in the neighborhood, the NOPD found this guy and he’s now in jail.

Thanks NOPD.

Frankly, I know there’s a lot of good people in the NOPD, just like there were a lot of good people in the projects, trying to do their best in utterly untenable situations. And frankly, the NOPD doesn’t get paid enough to do such a stressful job.

Second: Kudos to Gambit writer Alison Fensterstock for her coverage of hip-hop in New Orleans.

This one is long overdue. I wrote roughly a year ago about the failure of (white) arts and culture periodicals and radio stations to cover New Orleans’ huge and idiosyncratic hip-hop scene. Now you may like hip-hop, or you may hate it. You may find it vapid, regressive, crude, repetitive and/or uninspired. I’m not a big fan of a lot of hip-hop either, frankly. I get sick of bounce pretty quickly, and there’s only a couple of Mystikal songs that I don’t skip over on the CD player.

But hip-hop is here and it’s here to stay; more importantly hip-hop is the musical and lyrical expression of the lives of African-American youth, and we are still in a majority black city. It deserves to be examined.

Fensterstock (likely with no prodding from me) stepped up to the plate. Her articles in Gambit about the “sissy” scene and Lil’ Wayne’s national success were excellent. Such attention has spilled over into the T-P: what prompted the hilarious Times-Picayune living section article comparing Lil’ Wayne and Celine Dion?

And finally… a big thank you to LPSC member Lambert Boissiere, III.

(NOTE: The Louisiana Public Service Commission (LPSC) is the body that regulates utilities in the state of Louisiana, including our very favorite monopoly, Entergy Corporation. So if you wonder why your power bills are so high, I recommend that you start paying attention to what the LPSC and the New Orleans City Council Utility Committee, which regulates utilities in our city, are doing, and aren’t doing, in your name.)

The LPSC did two very important things on January 14, 2009, and both were spearheaded by Lambert Boissiere. First was to pass an ethics rule prohibiting commissioners and staff from receiving free meals from regulated utilities. For practical purposes, this is only a step; LPSC members need to stop taking campaign contributions as well. However in direction this was a major change, and I was impressed as all hell by Boissiere’s leadership on this one. Credit also needs to go to Foster Campbell, Commissioner from northern Louisiana, who has long championed this very sort of ethics reform to a mostly unsympathetic commission. For the record, Jimmy Field voted for the new ethics rule as well.

Second, the LPSC re-opened an inquiry into the feasibility of passing the state’s first Renweable Portfolio Standards (RPS), which, if passed, would require that utilities purchase a set portion of their power from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and biomass, a number that would increase modestly year by year.

For so many reasons- not only CO2 emissions but also energy independence and freedom from volatile fuel prices- this is huge. It may take a lot of political push to get it passed (thanks to the recalcitrance of our friends at Entergy) but if it does it means strengthening rural economies and the beginnings of clean, safe, reliable energy sources for the state.

That’s all for now. So before I start sounding like Sheila Stroup, be sure to check in next week when we will return to our regularly scheduled programming of terror and failure. We would not want to let you down.

January 17, 2009

DWI (Driving While Integrated)

Filed under: Mid-City,Prison-Industrial Complex,Race — christian @ 2:59 pm

I’ll start this by stating that I’ve never really felt comfortable with the police. Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I’ve rarely found them helpful or interested in my well-being. Far from “serving and protecting”, I’ve always had the feeling that they’re here to give me tickets, take my money and potentially put me in jail, possibly for no good reason at all, and that I might get my ass kicked along the way if I’m not careful.

However any positive feelings I’ve had about the police have further eroded since a few months ago when a friend, who happens to be a black man who grew up in the 9th ward, moved into the vacant room in my apartment.

I try to understand the way black folk experience things; in the part of the west coast I grew up in, they’re just weren’t that many black people around. And while I have a basic intellectually understanding of the issues of racial profiling and the profoundly unequal way that police tend to treat black people, all that is very different from actual experience.

Because for the second time last night, I was harassed by police in my neighborhood, on the way to the store, for a DWI (Driving While Integrated). For those not familiar with DWI, it is a relative of DWB (Driving While Black), which is also related to WWB (Walking While Black).

Here’s how it works. I am driving on Broad, and notice that a car with a little rectangular row of lights on top is behind us (My older brother served jail time in California. I always notice the police). My housemate, let’s just call him Big J, he and I are on our way to pick up food, paper plates and a garbage can for a party that we’re having. We decide to head up to Rouse’s, so we turn on Bienville. The little row of rectangular lights follows us.

Do not look in the rear view mirror. Drive slowly. Relax.

As we head up Bienville, Big J notices an old friend who works at a tattoo parlor across the street. He is about to jump out, when I inform him that the police are behind us. No sudden moves. Let’s just pull over some place where we can legally park and get out.

So we turn on Jeff Davis (proper use of turn signal). The police are still behind us. Now it is clear that we are being followed. My mind races. My truck is as legal as it’s ever been. I just fixed the turn signal flasher unit, and all the lights work. I have no warrants. My registration is up to date. Why is this happening?

We find a parking spot and big J jumps out. Immediately the spotlight comes out (readers should take the tip that the quickest way to identify undercover cop cars is the big, round black spotlight on the driver’s side). Big J freezes in its glare. An order is barked for me to get out as well.

This cop is not fucking around. He orders Big J to put his hands on the hood of the squad car. For me, it’s hands at your sides. The officer wants to know if we have ID. I reach in my pocket to get my ID, the officer barks something again about keeping my hands out of my pockets and it’s hands on the hood for me as well.

Our fine NOPD officer informs me that this is about a hit and run a few blocks away, and that our vehicle matches the description. This must be because there are so many beat up ’85 ford pickups on the road. I wonder: if this is for a hit and run, why are we being treated like we might pull a gun on him at any moment? He runs our licenses.

In the glare of the flashing lights, I see anger wash over Big J’s face, which quickly changes into a mask of contained fury. I’m a little more calm, but then again I have yet to visit the inside of OPP, like a fair number of my friends here. Looking at Big J, I realize that this is far from the first time this has happened. The rage, and the control to bury it, appear to be familiar reflexes.

I’m also remembering that we were pulled over not two weeks ago after getting a new lock for the front door from Home Depot. The officers’ excuse then was a bad turn signal, but they admitted that they had already run my plates before this happened. Cops approached both doors, and ran both our licenses. I had never before seen a passenger get his ID during for a traffic violation.

I get it. I live in the ‘hood. But this seems a little excessive. I think our real crime here is violating the Separate Car Act, like Homer Plessy did in 1896. We were Driving While Integrated. After all, what good reason would a white man and a black man have to be driving around the ‘hood?

I get it. Except that we live here, and that we are friends.

After the licenses come back clean, the cop lets us go unceremoniously.

Driving back from Rouse’s, Big J is silent. This gives me time to think. Will we be stopped again on the way home? How many more times we will get pulled over on shopping trips? Exactly how many times in his life has Big J been stopped by the police? What does it do to the psyche of a young black man to continually be harassed by the police? How many of those in OPP are there for any actual crime? What exactly did Adolph Grimes do, or not do, to get shot in the back so many times by the NOPD?

And how long will Big J stay in New Orleans, before he decides he can’t live like this any more?

April 27, 2007


Filed under: Mid-City — christian @ 7:13 pm

So I moved six months ago to a new apartment, which is in Mid-City/Bayou St. John. I always have to explain to folks who are visiting that there are actually neighborhoods and meta-neighborhoods in New Orleans, and that they sometimes have the same name, for example Uptown can mean anything on that side of the interstate or it can mean Uptown proper, which is a much smaller area. So Mid-City is my meta-neighborhood, and Bayou St. John is the neighborhood, though my block feels more like the back of the Treme (which is right across Broad). I guess I am also living in the 5th ward, but I am neither black nor did I grow up here.

Today is a beautiful day, first day of Jazz Fest, and the streets (which often have no sidewalks) are filled with parked cars. A high school kid is playing the trumpet outside.

Bayou St. John is a funny neighborhood. It’s mildly affluent in parts, Ursulines which is one block away has noticeably wealthy sections. But the part I live in is mostly low-income and mostly black, but with enough other white folks that I don’t feel like an intruder. This part of Mid-City feels sweet and lazy and even more laid back than other neighborhoods here. More private too, quieter than the neighborhoods nearer the river.

Of course on New Years my immediate intersection was a war zone of fireworks from five in the afternoon to four in the morning. People get down here, but mostly you see them on stoops and porches, or coming home from work. A man named Blue with gold teeth talked to me last time I was working on my truck about carpentry work. I have discovered no way as good to meet my neighbors as regular automotive repair.

Pal’s is my new neighborhood bar, a bar that I had been flirting with for years. It used to feel cool and quiet and like a getaway- six months after moving down the street I don’t go there as often. Reminds me of some relationships. I, like most other people, must be a sucker for the allure of the inaccessible. Or maybe it’s the new bartenders, some of whom fail to live up to the legendary charm of the old ones.

Soprano’s, the local grocery, has not lost its charm. The place is your typical ghetto grocery story, canned food, toilet paper and beer, except that it has a kitchen and serves hot food. The walls are decorated with autographed photos from the Soprano’s TV show, which the proprietor, a man from the Middle East, is apparently obsessed with. I don’t know how long he has been here, he halfway talks like a Yat and has decided that I am German, so he greets me with a “boomstig shaiza! (or something like that in German) every time I show up. He has a mischievous gleam in his eyes and is constantly in motion. I wonder about the source of his constant energy, stuck there behind the counter with toothpaste, chewing gum and cheap cigars.

Whenever he grabs my hand to shake it vigorously I notice again that he is missing the last digit of his index finger. There’s a small sticker of a flag on the back of his car, I think it is Palestine. I can’t seem to bring myself to ask him about either one of these things.

And he’s hard to keep up with sometimes. At times like this I will smile and slip out to the street, to the cool under the oaks, to the stars which are more visible with the lack of streetlights, to the night air which is filled with distant sounds- cars and children, couples arguing, and the sounds harder to hear, and indistinct, somewhere out there people are making love, fighting, eating, living. And the clean smell of the banana trees, of food cooking, all the growing things, and the earth.