Dirty South Bureau

May 18, 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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


The “free market” and corporate dominance

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

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

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

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


The disposable South

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

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

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


Failures of the Left

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

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

March 13, 2010

Freedom ride… to where?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2009

The value of life: Jacquian and the Iraqi dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 9, 2009

Van Jones and the witch hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 5, 2009

Blowout Charity second line report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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 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.

February 14, 2009

Homer Plessy finally gets some respect

Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,Race — christian @ 1:58 pm

New Orleans is a funny city. Visiting here, if you didn’t know better, you would be tempted to think that the significant events in the long history of the struggle for black equality happened elsewhere; maybe in Selma and Montgomery, maybe Harlem, maybe in Memphis, but certainly not sleepy old New Orleans. After all, where is the physical evidence?

I can recall when I moved here noting the large number of Confederate memorials. Which is also funny for a city that fell early and relatively uneventfully in the Civil War (or the “War Between The States” as I have heard it called in Mississippi). There is the statue of Confederate General P. G. T. Beauregard at Esplanade and City Park Avenue, the Jefferson Davis statue on Jeff Davis Parkway (all life sized), the stone memorial outside the house on 1st and Camp Streets where Jefferson Davis died, and of course the statue of General Robert E. Lee that dominates Lee Circle in the Central Business District. We won’t even talk about the White League memorial at the foot of Canal Street which fondly commemorates the brutal end to Reconstruction.

So why, then, do our memorials not remember other events great historical significance?

Two days ago, on February 12, 2009, was a very important beginning to correcting this city’s selective historical memory. The descendants of Homer Plessy and John Howard Ferguson unveiled a plaque at the corner of Royal and Press Streets in the 9th Ward.

If you have been on the corner of Royal and Press streets, it may be surprising to hear that any event of national significance ever happened there. It is a sleepy thoroughfare where the Bywater meets the Marigny, with unused warehouses on one side and modest homes on the other. When I lived in the Bywater I knew these tracks as a place where you go from home to work and back again, and where you are frequently stopped with your neighbors for an indeterminate period of time by freight trains, which still have the right of way. For years I associated the location with the Morning 40 Federation’s song “Walking through the 9th Ward”, about being too drunk and broke to be scared while walking home through a dangerous neighborhood, not any Civil Rights history.

But it was at this seemingly inauspicious corridor that Homer Plessy, a man of 1/8 African-American descent, boarded a whites-only train car in 1892 as a legal challenge to a law mandating separate facilities for blacks and whites. This law was similar to those on the books in many Southern states, which had not been nationally recognized. Many of my readers are familiar with the end to the case Plessy v. Ferguson, a Supreme Court decision that upheld the “Jim Crow” system of legal segregation until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954.

As tragic as that ending was, the significance of Homer Plessy’s act can also be viewed as a testament to the long struggle for equality, and a triumph of human decency. Homer was a member of a citizen’s committee that fought for racial equality, with a willingness to use civil disobedience a full sixty years before such tactics were made famous in America by individuals such as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

This is not a story that ends in 1892, or 1954. There was also a struggle to put this plaque in place that lasted several years. Rumor has it that the first plaque commemorating Homer Plessy’s act mysteriously disappeared after Katrina. Since the storm I have seen Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance and Jim Randels of Students at the Center (SAC) tirelessly struggle through bureaucracies and a moving map of land titles to get recognition for this location. Randels and his partner Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC also deserve credit for involving their students with this work. Most notably, SAC students published a civil rights anthology of student writings, The Long Ride, which deals with three centuries of the history of struggle by African Americans for equality.

In giving these credits, I am sure that I am leaving out significant players, and I apologize in advance for this.

February 12, 2009 was an important day for our city. Maybe now we will begin to remember with eyes that are more clear, and to finally give some respect to those who, like Homer Plessy, have been willing to act, and to make personal sacrifices, to do what is right. It’s about time.

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?

January 4, 2009

Marshall Truehill, Jr., RIP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

May 30, 2008

Scattered Notes May 30

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

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

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

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

More by Justice Roars


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

We Could Be Famous on Paul Vallas, Parsons and Concordia

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


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

UTNO website

May 12, 2008


Filed under: Bywater,New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,Race,We Are Not OK — christian @ 12:45 am

My readers will pardon the delay with which I am passing on information about a fairly urgent situation. However, the sheer volume of work that the union has sent my way, plus the psychological exhaustion that comes from prolonged outrage have conspired to keep me from relaying this information clearly until now.

Ah, where to start?

Decision makers at the state level are planning on closing Frederick Douglass High School on St. Claude in the Upper 9th Ward. We know this for two reasons; one that no new freshmen were admitted last year, and that several weeks ago teachers at Douglass were pulled into a meeting and told that the school is being phased out.

The very way this is being done is sneaky and vague; likely because if these plans were publicly announced they could result in a huge PR problem for the RSD and State Superintendent Paul Pastorek.

But first, a bit about Douglass for those of you not familiar with the school.


Douglass High School

Frederick Douglass High School is in the 9th ward, on St. Claude between Pauline and Alvar. It’s in an old, poorly maintained but still beautiful pink art-deco building that straddles the block, across the street from Charles Drew Elementary. The names, Douglass and Drew, are more recent; those who grew up in the neighborhood in the 50’s and 60’s still remember them as Nicholls and Washington, respectively. Times change, demographics change, and with massive white flight, black power and a movement towards a recognition of black history, names change. I have only heard the process of renaming the school from that of a Confederate General to a radical trade unionist, former slave and abolitionist alluded to, and unfortunately have no concrete details for my readers.

The Ninth Ward (upper ninth, that is), with the exception of parts of the newly gentrified Bywater (between St. Claude and the river), is a low-income African American neighborhood with serious problems. The student body that goes to Douglass is almost exclusively black and almost exclusively free and reduced lunch. LEAP test scores are low, graduation rates are some of the lowest in the city.

It also has a lot of community support. Before the storm the Frederick Douglass Community Coalition was very active in school and the neighborhood surrounding it. The school is also one that participates in Kalamu Ya Salaam and Jim Randels’ nationally acclaimed writing program, Students at the Center (SAC). At Douglass, along with other public schools, Kalamu and Jim have been turning inner-city youth into writers and intellectuals for years now. It’s an incredibly hopeful and inspiring project.

Given the socio-economic status of the neighborhood, it would be extremely unlikely for Douglass not to have problems. But many people in the community support the school and see it as a place where there is a struggle to improve things for the children of the 9th.


The Plan to close Douglass

We are not sure who is behind this plan, but Pastorek would have to be massively out of touch to not know about it. As for RSD Superintendent Paul Vallas, he is likely not the originator of this plan but he is at least an accomplice, and has been making statements about the state’s designs for the school which range from dire to vague to downright contradictory.

Vallas claims that the decision not to bring in new freshmen in the ’07-’08 year was made before his tenure, which is probably true. However, I was at a BESE (state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education) meeting a few months ago where he and his financial team brought forth the RSD capital improvements budgets, and there was a very clear distinction between the schools that were to receive large amounts of funding for building renovations and those that weren’t. Douglass was among the schools that had very few funds allotted to them. Maybe Vallas was counting on the assumption that no-one concerned about Douglass would be at that meeting, as it is held during the work day in Baton Rouge. However there is a plan in the RSD that specifically does not allocate funds for the repair of Douglass and a number of other schools, and to pretend otherwise is dishonest.

This all came to a head at a very disappointing meeting with Paul Vallas last Tuesday, a meeting that was shocking for the sheer level of disregard Vallas displayed towards a group of concerned community members and stakeholders. Now, given that I am used to official disregard for community concerns, but the powers that be usually do a better job of hiding this than Vallas did. And it was not just anyone that met at Douglass- this was a group that included Jim Randels and Kalamu Ya Salaam of SAC, Gwen Adams of ACORN, musician Charmaine Neville, Reggie Lawson of Crescent City Peace Alliance, teachers and students at Douglass, and neighbors who live within blocks of the school.

The meeting

First, Vallas showed up half an hour late. Now, here in New Orleans meetings rarely start on time. But thirty minutes was excessive by anyone’s standards. This was followed by a presentation by Vincent Nzinga of the RSD, who gave one of the more absurd speeches I’ve heard yet, where he tried to associate the spirit of Frederick Douglass with a criminal justice academy in the Lower 9th, planned to replace the art-deco building on St. Claude, because Frederick Douglass was a lawyer.

I feel the need to point out to Mr. Nzinga some facts that he is likely aware of: that the 13th amendment does not apply to those duly convicted of a crime, and that the incarcerated population in America, particularly in the south, is disproportionately black. Many of us have realized that in the nation with the highest incarceration rate in the world, prison is the new slavery. And I feel the need to remind Mr. Nzinga that Frederick Douglass is primarily remembered not because he won a few court cases, but because he was an outspoken abolitionist.

I digress. This was followed by Mr. Vallas taking questions. Now, before we get too far into this, let me explain what a public meeting with Paul Vallas is like.

All of us got lungs at birth. Paul, he got lungs for, say, two or three people. The man can talk. Lord, he can talk. I’ve been at more public meetings with Paul Vallas than I can count. He talks, and talks, and talks. When people talk this much, you may think they have something important and/or profound to impart. However at the end of a meeting with Paul Vallas, one is often left with the realization that he has not committed to anything substantial except what he had already planned.

He also talks over people. Which he did quite a lot of at this meeting. To my knowledge no one has ever accused Paul Vallas of being a particularly good active listener. But this meeting was truly rare form.

Because this group wanted answers. Answers Mr. Vallas did not want to give.

He started off by dodging a question from a woman who had been teaching at Douglass for eight years and is temporarily in Illinois with her sick mother, questioning whether or not she was coming back. Vallas’ questioning the woman’s status was not received well by the crowd. Then Charmaine Neville got up and said that she knew a large number of tradesman and contractors who would be interested in working on the building for free. Vallas interrupted her to suggest that she bring them tomorrow to the school. Whether or not it was intended as so by Mr. Vallas, this was widely seen as a disrespectful brush-off and elicited hisses and angry remarks. But it was easy to see how. The entire meeting Vallas was defensive, awkward, angry.

At some point in the meeting (you will forgive my lack of chronology) Vallas passed out a brief report from Parsons Engineering which suggested that repairs to the school would be in the 30 million dollar range. Vallas repeatedly stated that he had no say in what would happen to the school building, saying that he only dealt with academics. For all of these questions, he referred us to the Master Plan.

Which brings me back to the rally to re-open Morris X. Jeff that I attended on Sunday April 6, 2008, where Torin Sanders of the OPSB (Orleans Parish School Board) stated that as much as he believes we should rebuild schools with that level of community support, that he’d have to refer to the Master Plan.

Master Plan? Many people in the meeting at Douglass were asking questions as they had never heard of a Master Plan.


Master Plan

At this point in the meeting I was able to clarify that the Master Plan that he refers to is the one being managed by Concordia Architects and Steven Bingler.

This is problematic for several reasons. One, Steven Bingler was sued by DeSoto Parish Schools in a situation that does not make Bingler and Concordia sound like very competent managers of school facilities.

Two, Steven Bingler is the brother-in-law of Sarah Usdin of New Schools For New Orleans (NSNO). It concerns me when you have those managing facilities with strong family ties to the heads of ideologically driven organizations like NSNO.

And you’ll have to pardon me, but I just don’t feel that NSNO has children’s best interests at heart, and I fear that ideology is clouding their vision. This is the group that, on their website, describes Katrina as an opportunity, and is spearheading bringing in large numbers of poorly-equipped recent Ivy League graduates to replace the veteran teachers in New Orleans. Multiple studies have shown that particularly in inner-city school districts, veteran teachers make a huge positive difference in test scores. But those like NSNO who are trying to replace a population because their analysis is that veteran teachers were the problem have ignored this data.

However, Bingler and his family connections are not the only problem here. Parsons Engineering has done quite a bit of work in Iraq, and the track record isn’t positive. A Washington Post reporter has described their Baghdad Police Academy, which literally rained feces from the ceiling, but this apparently is only one in a string of bad projects for Parsons.

To quote from the article:

“This is the most essential civil security project in the country — and it’s a failure,” said Stuart W. Bowen Jr., the special inspector general for Iraq reconstruction, an independent office created by Congress. “The Baghdad police academy is a disaster.”

Bowen’s office plans to release a 21-page report Thursday detailing the most alarming problems with the facility.

Even in a $21 billion reconstruction effort that has been marred by cases of corruption and fraud, failures in training and housing Iraq’s security forces are particularly significant because of their effect on what the U.S. military has called its primary mission here: to prepare Iraqi police and soldiers so that Americans can depart.

Federal investigators said the inspector general’s findings raise serious questions about whether the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has failed to exercise effective oversight over the Baghdad Police College or reconstruction programs across Iraq, despite charging taxpayers management fees of at least 4.5 percent of total project costs. The Corps of Engineers said Wednesday that it has initiated a wide-ranging investigation of the police academy project.

The report serves as the latest indictment of Parsons Corp., the U.S. construction giant that was awarded about $1 billion for a variety of reconstruction projects across Iraq. After chronicling previous Parsons failures to properly build health clinics, prisons and hospitals, Bowen said he now plans to conduct an audit of every Parsons project.

“The truth needs to be told about what we didn’t get for our dollar from Parsons,” Bowen said.

There are already too many parallels in disaster profiteering between Baghdad and the Gulf Coast.

I left the meeting early, but from what I hear Althea Strong of American Friends Service Committee tried to pin Vallas down to a promise to stand behind the community, a promise he wouldn’t make.

The long and the short is this: Don’t count on Vallas or anyone at the state level for help, and frankly you should not be lulled into waiting for this dubious Master Plan. For the Douglass community, you are going to have to fight to keep your school.

To quote Frederick Douglass: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the roar of its many waters.”

Blog entry by Jim Randels on this meeting

Save Frederick Douglass

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.



April 15, 2008

Mixed Income

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 1, 2008

Alphonso Jackson’s Resignation: Too Little, Too Late

Filed under: Class,Race,The Feds,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:48 pm

HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson stepped down yesterday. If I am saddened by this news, it is only because he resigned after doing so much damage to the lives of so many men, women and children in the city of New Orleans, and that he was not stopped earlier.

It is ironic that Jackson’s resignation comes less than a week after the final accomplishment of his wantonly destructive tenure at HUD- the granting by the city of New Orleans of a demolition permit for the Lafitte Housing Development.

But not to fear; Jackson losing his job will likely not be a time of instability, like it would be if you or I lost our employment. I am sure Jackson’s friends at Columbia Residential, Jackson’s former employer and the company he awarded with a contract to oversee the redevelopment (read: destruction) of the St. Bernard Development, will not allow Jackson to see tough times. Like most former cabinet-level officials, Jackson will be free to return to the world of private industry which did him so well on his way to the top.

There are more than a few similarities between Jackson and another prominent Bush appointee who resigned amid scandal, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. Both have lives that read like sinister versions of the Horatio Alger myth. Both are men of color who were born into poverty in large families, to fathers who labored in humble jobs. They are amazing examples of the kind of class mobility that America has prided itself on, often exaggerated in our national mythology of who were are. But Jackson and Gonzales were the real deal; hard-working, ambitious men whose rise would be unthinkable in the pre-civil rights era.

What happened to make these men forget where they came from, and to turn them into the monsters they became? They represent a curious trend in American society. Unlike the blue-bloods who run, say, the Times-Picayune, these men knew poverty and want, rose above it, and then proceeded to mercilessly sacrifice those still trapped below them to their own massive ambitions.

The administration of Bush Jr., himself a patrician and a faux-Texan, will be remembered for promoting a large number of minorities to cabinet-level positions. They appear to have made a study of finding the most ruthless, unscrupulous and spineless African-Americans and Latinos to fill these positions. It is truly a PR feat. Rove, or whoever else has been running the Bush machine, is very clever to have used these individuals to do their dirty work while still paying homage to equal opportunity employment. In this case, it reads more like equal opportunity oppression.

Ultimately, Jackson’s resignation is too late for the homeless under the interstate, and for those in semi-permanent exile in Houston. The Magnolia (C J Peete) Development has already been flattened, and demolition is underway on both parts of B W Cooper and St. Bernard. New Orleans now has a 4% homeless rate, four times that of most major US cities. Most of them, like the overwhelming majority of the poor in New Orleans, are of course black.

Maybe Horatio Alger wouldn’t be the best person to write Jackson’s story. It’s a pity Theodore Dreiser isn’t still around.

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