Dirty South Bureau

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.

March 7, 2010

Nutriapalooza II

Filed under: culture,environment,Southern Louisiana,We Are Not OK — christian @ 3:57 pm

There are those nights when you say to yourself – this is why I live in the greatest city on earth, New Orleans. For the record, I felt this sentiment in fully sobriety, as has been my less-than-ideal state for all two weeks and five days of Lent.

Nutriapalooza is one of those events that could only happen in this city. Billed as a fashion show, it was actually simultaneously a fashion show, an environmental education event and a cultural celebration of South Louisiana and our city of beautiful freaks. Saturday night was Nutriapalooza II (I missed the first one, which I have heard was also great).

Where to begin? The tattooed models on the runway in Audrey Hepburn-esque fur outfits made from our favourite invasive species? The outrageous rock and roll auction of nutria fur? The beautiful work that went into turning rodents into fashion?

Again, only here. Before I go further, let me explain for those of you unfamiliar with what they called on Broad Street “nutria rats” that the nutria is a member of the muskrat family that was imported into Louisiana in the early 20th century to be raised for its fur. Nutria got loose, bred like, well, rodents, and have been helping the oil industry sink out wetlands into the Gulf of Mexico for over 50 years. So we have to get rid of them, one way or another. Which means killing them off. It’s them or us.

Also, they happen to have really fine fur.

The show was sold out, and my friend and I got the last two tickets for standing room only. It started fairly slowly, with a presentation by the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) and its charismatic “invasive species” guy, Michael, who was frequently interrupted by questions from a rowdy audience that wanted to know, among other things, why nutrias had such poor dental hygiene. (They don’t. Their teeth are naturally yellow-orange.)

There was also a discussion of nutria as cuisine, an idea that State of Louisiana officials have, in the past, devoted millions to. This was not particularly successful. And while I strongly believe not wasting the flesh of dead animals, my own experience with nutria, as have been documented on this blog, were not pleasant. I think it could work out roasted with a honey glaze, but for God’s sake, DO NOT STEW. It is not a good idea to stew any particularly gamy meat, and especially NOT NUTRIA. Maybe I hadn’t cleaned it properly, but I ended up with a broth that was really only suitable for chemical warfare. Also, I will note that the hindquarters were much gamier than the rest.

There was also a presentation by Mr. Pitre, the last nutria furrier in Louisiana and the man who supplied the rodent furs for the fashion show. This was a rare moment – in a freak venue on St. Claude, to have a second-generation furrier from rural South Louisiana explaining his family business and the fluctuations in the price of nutria pelts to a fascinated audience.

Finally, after a few more shows including the inadequately-miked but charming Jurassic Parish Folk Ensemble and their song about five dollars a pelt, the models came on.

Before I go any further, I have to say that I’ve never really been able to understand why scantily clad tattooed women in fur bikinis do it for me. Maybe it was growing up reading too many Savage Sword of Conan comics, but this was hot.

The designs were not only beautiful but daring and broad in scope. We saw and entire gamut from Red Sonjaesque and Native American-inspired designs (where did the gutterpunks get the idea to all dress like late-19th century Native American train robbers, anyway?) all the way to 1940′s and 1860′s styles, and a hauntingly beautiful homage at the end of the show to recently deceased fashion designer Alexander McQueen. There were even nutria designs for men, but unfortunately few of these items were on sale at the auction later.

John C. Calhoun was one kick-ass auctioneer, regularly performing multiple kicks in the air and stage dives, backed by the newly-formed Invasive Species, which is actually they guy who works as a notary public on Prytania on guitar, and Helen the cellist on drums.

But what’s amazing about all of this is that this was an environmental awareness event, and worked as such. It was also a tiny bridge between the urban-rural divide in South Louisiana, where rural residents often show contempt, financial jealousy (“they get all the federal money and we have to make do on our own”) and fear of our city, and people in New Orleans forget that rural Louisiana even exists. Which is not in our best interests, if for no other reason than we need the wetlands for this city to survive. More and more people here are getting it, which can be the basis for a political movement which will be necessary (and which may not be enough) for South Louisiana to survive this century.

Every student of environmental communications should study the Righteous Fur movement. This truly was making environmental issues sexy. In our own weird and beautiful way.

Thanks to Cree McCree and Righteous Fur, Micheal and BTNEP, John Calhoun, Helen Gillet, Notary Guitarist/MC Guy, Mr. Pitre the furrier, all the designers and models (especially the Rat King) and everyone else for a superb event.


Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program

Righteous Fur

February 2, 2010

Who ***?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, f*** them. WHO DAT?

January 23, 2010

The pathology of elections, episode II – the empire strikes back

Filed under: New Orleans Politics,New Orleans Schools,public housing,The Feds — christian @ 4:09 pm

It’s that time again.

Election season. Which in New Orleans seems to be about every three months or so. This election season finds me particularly pessimistic about any possibility of any change for the better. Perhaps it is the quagmires at the national level around health care “reform” and carbon regulation. From those of us who said during the presidential election that Obama would not bring the change we need, well, I for one didn’t want to be right on this one, but Obama is looking more like a black Jimmy Carter by the day.

But the real news is the Supreme Court’s recent decision to allow corporations unlimited access to finance campaigns. This one has to go down with Plessy v. Ferguson as one of the most monstrous decisions ever made by those miserable old black-robed bastards. Whatever Democracy you thought we had, kiss it goodbye.

But how much Democracy did we have to lose, anyway? We voted every few months or years for elected officials with limited powers, and then most of us spent eight hours (or more) a day in a dictatorship. Did you vote for your boss? Your landlord? Your mortgage company? The oil companies that cut canals through South Louisiana, destroying our coast? We took one small part of public life and held elections for people to run it, and then left the rest to that “invisible hand” of the market that’s been slapping more and more people out of their homes and into unemployment lines of late.

Here in New Orleans, that Democracy has meant even less. Before the storm 40% of adults couldn’t read or write well enough to fill out a job application. I don’t know what the number is now, but there is a large portion of this city whose education level precludes meaningful participation. As if, between the political machines of the city, the tendency for race/class based castes to reproduce and the factors that I already mentioned, there was much to participate in.

This is part of our pathology of elections in America. We have been bamboozled into thinking that politics only happen on election day and only happen through elected offices. Politics happen every day. They happen when we go to work, they shape our intimate relations, they are there when we pay rent and when we pay bills. And these relations are typically not Democratic.

I’m still going to vote, to exercise what little power I have and to make what little statement I can. At least I can say I voted before corporations ran that, too. But for city offices, this is a grim election. My professional work prevents me from saying much of what I would like to about various candidates, which is not pretty. Isn’t that the way it works? The more you know, the less you are at liberty to talk, as you may have to do business with these people some day.

Notes on particular races:

Mayor: We all know Mitch is our next Mayor. At least he’ll be better than Nagin, and this office doesn’t give him authority to screw us in the same ways that his sister does. I’m voting for James Perry, who is a hell of a guy. He won’t win, but any percentage that he gets makes a more meaningful statement to me than victory or loss by other candidates.

City Council: I find myself, over and over, not voting for people, but against them. Particularly in District B. Seven years ago I participated in an abortive effort to recall Renee Gill-Pratt. Look who we got instead. District C: Can we get another option? Please?

I would say that my frame for many of these races is the lesser of two evils, which, considering the level of evil involved, is weighty. My favourite people on the council had a group of former public housing residents, and me and my fellow protesters pepper-sprayed and tazered (I only got the spray, thanks guys!) two years ago, when we tried to keep them from authorizing the senseless destruction of thousands of units of livable housing during a region-wide housing crisis. All are guilty of participating in gross human rights violations against New Orleanians displaced by post-Katrina flooding.

On a side note, at least district A has some interest in energy policy issues. Fielkow seems to take these matters seriously as well. He’s my favourite person who’s ever had me pepper sprayed. Real decent guy in person, under better circumstances.

But as I stated before, I’m not pinning my hopes on any of these people. When this city, this state and this country made real change for the better, it took a long, slow process of education and organizing. Short cuts don’t work for the long run. If we want to see the change we need, this is what it will take – not electing someone from an oppressed group to be the figurehead for machines of oppression.

And that’s all for today. See y’all in a bit, hopefully before I have to find corporate sponsorship for this blog. Remember – what you read, and if you have access to read it, is also politics.

December 20, 2009

What is wild?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 12, 2009

The value of life: Jacquian and the Iraqi dead

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

October 25, 2009

Disorganized rant about the 6t’9 parade, culture, etc.

Filed under: culture,sexuality — christian @ 11:24 am

It is hard not to be in love with everything here when the weather is so damned pleasant. Mornings in the 60′s, even the crusties look good smoking cigarettes in front of Rue De La Course. It’s been miserable here for so long I can’t even count. The last few weeks are the first respite from 90′s weather for something like five god-awful months, where the only break is lying in bed with the AC on, wondering how bad Entergy is going to screw you for your little oases of comfort.

Last night the season of the Good Times officially began again with the march of the 6t’9 Social Aid and Pleasure Club Hola-ween Parade, which I was honored to join. It was a Latino-themed parade, even Krewe De Jieux had Mariaschewitz going on. The club had the only mariachi band in town; rumor has it that 6t’9 paid a fortune for the honor. Is this an unofficial welcoming of the expanded Latino presence in New Orleans? An admittance that now Hondurans are the second largest ethnic minority after white Americans?

6t’9 is stepping it up in terms of artistry, and I’m not just saying that because I am a new member. The giant Day of the Dead-style skull was visually impressive, and I personally liked the figures of loteria (simple, good idea well executed). Krewe De Zoo had excellent costumes. Top float had to go to Miss Claudia for her as the Virgin of Guadalupe, but the gutter punk with a bicycle coffin that he drove from inside (This is where the engineering talent goes in this city, and clearly the Army Corps of Engineers needs to step up its recruitment) topped everyone by bringing his pet rooster as a prop.

Pardon me for devolving here into another rant on the superiority of New Orleans culture, but why oh why must the rest of America be so boring? When will we get over being Protestants? If we can’t be a humane nation, at least we should be able to enjoy being still the wealthiest nation on earth, and to do this with a little more style than American Idol and Project Runway.

Of course, many of us have a weakness for the ponies. Hardly a new idea; but I remain fascinated that 6t’9 is able to pull off a kid-friendly Halloween parade with this level of sexuality, including a distinctly S & M themed sub-krewe. The sight of six buxom women in black leather and corsets with bridles and tails pulling a cart down the middle of a major intersection just isn’t something I get to see in other American cities. Frankly, it’s hot. And the kids (at least the small ones) appear none the wiser.

Don’t get me wrong – San Francisco has the Folsom Street Fair, a leather street parade, as well as various festivities around the Castro, but these are different in that first they really are for only a part of the community (why do the fags get to have more fun than the rest of us?) and second that the level of subtlety just isn’t there. I could speculate about the legacy of legal prostitution from the Victorian era or the still-vibrant strip club business, but I honestly don’t know how New Orleans seems to find ways to mix sexy with cute so well, to so successfully doll it up in a way that is less blatant and more about the allure than anything.

Also, I would be remiss if I didn’t thank LJ, Renee, Rebecca and the other Orleanian Ashkenaz for allowing me, a goy, to march with Krewe de Jieux. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Jieuxs, I mean, getting to throw a gold painted bagel is the ultimate one-up on Zulu (whose practice of throwing painted coconuts has become its own cult). Of course, they did need a gentile to push the float, as it was Shabbas. Or so they say. Shalom, y’all.

September 9, 2009

Van Jones and the witch hunt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 5, 2009

Blowout Charity second line report

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

savecharity.com

fhl.org

photos of the event

August 31, 2009

Waveland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God is greater than this.

August 20, 2009

Morris X. Jeff, equity and the future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 26, 2009

Jazz Fest and Ghetto Business Acumen

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

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

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

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

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

Wild meat?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 7, 2009

My Fascist Neighbors

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

I’ve been trying to stay away from planning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review of “Hunger”

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

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

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

Review on the Solidarity website.

March 29, 2009

Mr. Go, the future, and hope.

I don’t know what has gotten into me. This week, yet again, I find myself posting positive news on Dirty South Bureau.

I have an innate aversion to this. Perhaps because there is so much misery and pain that people don’t want to talk about but that needs to be learned from, I have taken it on as my personal role to work in such territory. Or maybe it is a deep revulsion to the sunny voices that dominate certain types of media, such as many shows produced by NPR affiliates. For the stories I produced for such venues when I was a radio reporter, I recall the premium placed on resolution of the crisis in the story, which contrasted with the absence of easy resolution in post-Katrina New Orleans. Either way, I tend to avoid overly cheery accounts; after all Sheila Stroup might get testy if I start to tread on her emotional market share.

And yet there is no other way to express my experience yesterday of attending a ceremony to mark progress on the closure of the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MR-GO).

For those of you not living in this region, Mr. Go, as we like to call it, is a 76-mile shipping channel leading from the Gulf of Mexico into the Intercoastal Waterway, a few miles before the Interharbor Navigational Canal (AKA the Industrial Canal), which cuts through the 9th Ward and divides New Orleans East and the Lower 9th Ward from the main part of the city. It is also the “hurricane superhighway” that, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, carried a brutal storm surge into the Intercoastal Waterway and the Industrial Canal, where it destroyed levee walls on both sides, flooding the 9th Ward, the Lower 9th Ward and large swaths of St. Bernard Parish, particularly the parts where most people live.

Of course, there were other factors: the loose barge left in the industrial canal that went through the flood wall into the Lower 9th, not to mention the poor design, construction and maintenance of levees, much of which was revealed in a forensic investigation by a UC Berkeley team in the summer of 2006. Even with these qualifications, Mr. Go is not a popular waterway for many here.

The boat launch was at 8 a.m., and, needless to say, my companion and I arrived late. This was in part due to the fact that we had never been to Yscloskey, Louisiana, before. I believe that by the time we found Yscloskey we had seen much of rural St. Bernard Parish, which is a hauntingly beautiful landscape. I was reminded of how Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s describes the bogs in Jutland – wild, desolate, utterly empty areas of grassland and swamp, broken in areas by stands of trees, many of them dead.

Our timing turned out to be good luck. Immediately upon finding the Yscloskey Marina we encountered a lost Argentinian photographer, in a very Down By Law moment. With his help we flagged down a passing motorboat, containing not one but two councilmen from St. Bernard Parish, Wayne Landry and George Cavignac, who were kind enough to give us a personal tour of the Mr. Go closure.

Mr. Go is a very impressive waterway. During the high-speed boat ride (we were advised to close our teeth) Landry and Cavignac patiently and cheerfully explained the ins and outs of the waterway, as we passed barge-loads of large rocks and earth-moving equipment. Originally built to be around 500 feet wide, Mr. Go is now between 1,000 and 2,000 feet wide, enough for many cargo vessels to pass each other, ships that now have to use the Mississippi River as they did for the first 250 years of this city, and as many did anyway afterwards.

The rock wall that we reached was not particularly impressive, despite the crane atop it. It spanned only part of the waterway, and to our disappointment it appeared that no heavy work was being done that morning. Are we being overly impatient? It should be noted that the entire industrial canal took only nine years from legislative approval (1956) to completion (1965). As a nation, we can accomplish incredible feats of engineering (particularly with the Army Corps of Engineers) when, and only when, there is the political will. How about our white flight superhighway, the 24-mile causeway spanning Lake Ponchartrain, that we built to allow middle-class and affluent whites to escape the city and still commute in the 50′s and 60′s? It is now three and a half years after Katrina. How long will it take to build a rock wall across a mere 1,500 feet of canal?

Some say that a rock wall is not enough – that Mr. Go should be filled. I am in no position to evaluate such proposals, but Cavignac and Landry indicated that a rock wall, while it won’t entirely stop a storm surge, would at least act as a brake on the speed and intensity of any storm surges traveling up the waterway.

But the important part to all of us is that it is there, and that it is being built. It meant something to me. As absurd as it may sound, I saw hope in that pile of rocks.

It was also a lovely day, just cool enough to be invigorating, with pelicans and hawks passing overhead and dolphins swimming in the waters. All of that is enough to make us forget, temporarily, that New Orleans and Southern Louisiana are ground zero for the impacts of global warming. Sea level rise due to the melting of polar ice adds to other factors that cause the wetlands that protect this city to increasingly disappear. And of course, there is the link between global warming and more severe hurricanes. In the end, the levee walls constructed after Katrina and severely tested during Hurricane Gustav (anyone else remember watching Geraldo Rivera narrate water splashing over the top of levee walls on a television in a distant city?), may not hold back the next major Hurricane to hit this region. We are all guinea pigs here.

I am reminded of the end of the movie Blade Runner, when the Harrison Ford character, escaping the city to the north, explains that he doesn’t know how much time he and his genetically manufactured girlfriend have before her internal clock stops ticking. “But who does?” he asks. New Orleans is in deep shit for a lot of reasons, and may not survive this century. But many of us, who choose to live here because we love this city, don’t need forever. We just need some reasonable assurances of short-to-medium term viability, including some effort by the feds to fix any infrastructure problems that threaten us with total annihilation. It’s just not too much to ask for a medium-sized American city.

Coming back in the motorboat to the safety of the launch, past the enormous piles of rock fill, I was given just enough of that assurance.

(Big thanks to St. Bernard Councilmen Wayne Landry and George Cavignac for their superb hospitality.)

March 8, 2009

Huey Long lives. In Brooklyn?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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