I’ve never been to New Orleans, though, as I’ve written elsewhere, I feel connected to it by way of water and the imagination. The closest I come to a real connection is this:
In high school I knew a guy named Jamie Schweser. He was a senior at one of the town’s high schools when I was a freshman at another, and I met him via the anti-war movement–the “first” Gulf War happened that year. He went on to do various things–he was involved with a pirate radio station and public access television and all kinds of activism, and he co-wrote a book called Tales of a Punk Rock Nothing with Abram Shalom Himelstein. Some time in the late 1990s or early 2000s, they both moved down to New Orleans and got active down there, and I’d get an occasional e-mail from Jamie. I haven’t heard from him in years. Just a few weeks ago, though, I read a piece in Publisher’s Weekly [sorry; only the abstract is available without a subscription] about what Abram Himelstein is up to now: working with kids in New Orleans on the Neighborhood Story Project, an oral history project, a writing workshop, and now, five books, all written by teenagers. I meant to write about this sooner; now, of course, one can’t send mail to or from New Orleans, and so you can’t order the books.
The other day, I got this e-mail of another New Orleans story from Ted Glick, via the Independent Progressive Politics Network mailing list:
—– Original Message —–
Sent: Friday, September 02, 2005 4:42 PM
Subject: Notes From Inside New Orleans
Thanks to all the loved ones and long-lost friends for your sweet notes of concern, offers of housing
and support, etc. Yes, I stayed through the storm and aftermath. I’m fine – much better off than most of
my brother and sister hurricane survivors. Below is my attempt to relay some of what I’ve seen these
last few days.
Notes From Inside New Orleans
by Jordan Flaherty
Friday, September 2, 2005
I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment I was staying in by boat to a
helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone wants to examine the attitude of federal and state officials
towards the victims of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.
In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway, thousands of people (at least 90%
black and poor) stood and squatted in mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving
sun, with heavily armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through, it
would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the barricades, and people
would rush for the bus, with no information given about where the bus was going. Once inside (we
were told) evacuees would be told where the bus was taking them – Baton Rouge, Houston,
Arkansas, Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound for Arkansas (for
example), even people with family and a place to stay in Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get
out of the bus as it passed through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in
Arkansas. If you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could not come
within 17 miles of the camp.
I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation Army workers, National
Guard, and state police, and although they were friendly, no one could give me any details on when
buses would arrive, how many, where they would go to, or any other information. I spoke to the
several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been able to get any information
from any federal or state officials on any of these questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local
Fox affiliates complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess. One cameraman told me “as
someone who’s been here in this camp for two days, the only information I can give you is this: get
out by nightfall. You don’t want to be here at night.”
There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set up any sort of transparent
and consistent system, for instance a line to get on buses, a way to register contact information or find
family members, special needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment for
possible disease exposure, nor even a single trash can.
To understand the dimensions of this tragedy, its important to look at New Orleans itself.
For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible, glorious, vital, city. A
place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere else in the world. A 70% African-American city
where resistance to white supremacy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of
vivid beauty. From jazz, blues and hiphop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, Parades, Beads, Jazz
Funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights, New Orleans is a place of art and music and
dance and sexuality and liberation unlike anywhere else in the world.
It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can take two hours because you
stop and talk to someone on every porch, and where a community pulls together when someone is in
need. It is a city of extended families and social networks filling the gaps left by city, state and federal
governments that have abdicated their responsibility for the public welfare. It is a city where someone
you walk past on the street not only asks how you are, they wait for an answer.
It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of New Orleans has a population of
just over 500,000 and was expecting 300 murders this year, most of them centered on just a few,
overwhelmingly black, neighborhoods. Police have been quoted as saying that they don’t need to
search out the perpetrators, because usually a few days after a shooting, the attacker is shot in
There is an atmosphere of intense hostility and distrust between much of Black New Orleans and the
N.O. Police Department. In recent months, officers have been accused of everything from drug
running to corruption to theft. In separate incidents, two New Orleans police officers were recently
charged with rape (while in uniform), and there have been several high profile police killings of
unarmed youth, including the murder of Jenard Thomas, which has inspired ongoing weekly protests
for several months.
The city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders will not graduate in four years.
Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per child’s education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest
teacher salaries. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana
schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any given day. Far too
many young black men from New Orleans end up enslaved in Angola Prison, a former slave
plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die in the
prison. It is a city where industry has left, and most remaining jobs are are low-paying, transient,
insecure jobs in the service economy.
Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster is one that was
constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence. Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark
igniting the gasoline of cruelty and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at risk, to the
treatment of the refugees to the the media portrayal of the victims, this disaster is shaped by race.
Louisiana politics is famously corrupt, but with the tragedies of this week our political leaders have
defined a new level of incompetence. As hurricane Katrina approached, our Governor urged us to
“Pray the hurricane down” to a level two. Trapped in a building two days after the hurricane, we
tuned our battery-operated radio into local radio and tv stations, hoping for vital news, and were told
that our governor had called for a day of prayer. As rumors and panic began to rule, they was no
source of solid dependable information. Tuesday night, politicians and reporters said the water level
would rise another 12 feet – instead it stabilized. Rumors spread like wildfire, and the politicians and
media only made it worse.
While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to get there were left
behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and national media have spent the last week demonizing
those left behind. As someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of this
tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.
No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely closed stores in a
desperate, starving city as a “looter,” but that’s just what the media did over and over again. Sheriffs
and politicians talked of having troops protect stores instead of perform rescue operations.
Images of New Orleans’ hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into black, out-of-control,
criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime
than the governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of damage and
destroyed a city. This media focus is a tactic, just as the eighties focus on “welfare queens” and
“super-predators” obscured the simultaneous and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan
scams and mass layoffs, the hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a scapegoat
to cover up much larger crimes.
City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since at least the mid-1800s, its been
widely known the danger faced by flooding to New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this
week’s events, was more about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated
exactly the danger faced. Yet government officials have consistently refused to spend the money to
protect this poor, overwhelmingly black, city. While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending
danger to New Orleans and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the city, the
Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or refused to fund New Orleans flood control,
and ignored scientists warnings of increased hurricanes as a result of global warming. And, as the
dangers rose with the floodlines, the lack of coordinated response dramatized vividly the callous
disregard of our elected leaders.
The aftermath from the 1927 flood helped shape the elections of both a US President and a
Governor, and ushered in the southern populist politics of Huey Long.
In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New Orleans. This money can either be
spent to usher in a “New Deal” for the city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new
schools, cultural programs and housing restoration, or the city can be “rebuilt and revitalized” to a
shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more casinos, and with chain stores and theme parks
replacing the former neighborhoods, cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.
Long before Katrina, New Orleans was hit by a hurricane of poverty, racism, disinvestment,
deindustrialization and corruption. Simply the damage from this pre-Katrina hurricane will take
billions to repair.
Now that the money is flowing in, and the world’s eyes are focused on Katrina, its vital that
progressive-minded people take this opportunity to fight for a rebuilding with justice. New Orleans is
a special place, and we need to fight for its rebirth.
Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine (www.leftturn.org). He is not
planning on moving out of New Orleans.
Below are some small, grassroots and New Orleans-based resources, organizations and institutions
that will need your support in the coming months.
Current Info and Resources:
I don’t imagine that Abram Himelstein, or Jamie Schweser, if he’s still there, are planning to move out of New Orleans either. I hope someday I’ll get to see their city. And I hope that they, and the people they know, are safe.