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by Darwin BondGraham
New Orleans, Nov. 4, 2008 – Three years and 69 days ago the Republican Party was strong if erratic. President Bush was well ensconced in his second term of rule. The nation was bogged down in the disastrous war in Iraq, with troops also dying in Afghanistan and U.S. soldiers making forays into several other nations under the banner of the “war on terrorism.” At the time the U.S. housing market was still booming, as was the demand for other toxic financial instruments being peddled about by Wall Street’s titans. Then a catastrophe struck, the first of many.
It was the flooding of New Orleans and the devastation of the Gulf Coast by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in 2005 that began the downfall of the Bush regime. The administration responded to the crisis as they would with most any other challenge confronting them. They framed the disaster as an opportunity and handed out big contracts to well connected corporations to fix the problem. What happened as a result has been detailed elsewhere.
To sum it up, though, the city of New Orleans was effectively privatized with public schools turned into charters, the public hospital shuttered, public housing demolished, public transportation gutted etc. The most savage political and profit driven plans of developers, politicians and a suburban white electorate were achieved. After a year of the neoliberal hell that New Orleans and the Gulf Coast had become it seemed things could not get worse, but still the situation descended.
Life has been a constant struggle ever since for the working class people of Louisiana and other parts of the Gulf South. Black communities were hit especially hard. Somehow, though, it has come to be that this nadir for Black America has proved to be the historic turning point for the Bush regime’s fortunes.
Three years and 69 days was a lifetime ago in political terms. There are still many Americans living today who grew up in an apartheid America where the concept of even allowing Blacks to vote in many states and counties was considered impossible.
Today a Black man has been elected president of the United States of America. He began his campaign on a cold January day about one year and 10 moths ago. It was more than a long shot. He announced his candidacy and then proceeded to outline an agenda of a progressive nature involving accessible health care, affordable education, criticism of the Iraq war and more. After a grueling primary battle he succeeded against formidable odds, and he trounced his Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain the general election.
Tonight New Orleans is ringing with the sounds of celebration. Having endured the brunt and brutality of the Bush administration’s neoliberal economic agenda and neoconservative political agenda more heavily than any other community in the United States, the city has begun a party like only this town knows how to throw. The sounds of ship horns along the Mississippi River blasting in jubilation mix with cars honking along the main avenues. Cheers of hooray resonate across the town from victory parties at bars and crowded households.
Perhaps there will even be a funeral march for the Bush administration in the coming days? One woman walking to the polls today wore a shirt proclaiming, “New Orleans, we know how to put the fun in funeral,” referring to the city’s tradition of second lines full of dancers that follow the more somber funeral processions.
It’s hard to tell what the commotion is about in particular swaths of the city though. Among the white sections of New Orleans the celebration seems to be set in a firm repudiation of the Bush administration’s political legacy and a desire for a more progressive politics. It’s about change, whatever that means. In the Black sections of the city it’s no less about rejecting the Bush administration, the most anti-Black working class political regime in recent history, but it also seems to be about the singular fact of history that has been made tonight.
A Black president. Even though Obama went out of his way to eschew the issue of race during his campaign, rightly fearing that too many direct confrontations with it would cost him white votes. The chocolate city, however, has turned out a record vote in order to make history by putting a Black man in office. For Black New Orleans, race always was a key reason to mobilize.
Early on Election Day, I walked through the 3rd Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood called Central City. Below sea level, cut off from the downtown by hulking freeways, polluted and over-policed with a severe lack of jobs and affordable housing, Central City is one of this city and the nation’s poorest communities. It was devastated by Katrina and more so by the political decisions made in the aftermath. Many houses remain empty and in disrepair to this day. But the attitude among residents was upbeat no matter where I walked.
In front of the Friendly Supermarket just off Washington Avenue, several men talked about the importance of this election. “Historic,” explained a 43-year-old man named BH. “Obama and the new government are going to stop this shit about the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer.” For BH the election’s various issues were never separate. Whereas the major media networks seemed to parse the Iraq war, the economy and energy issues into distinct topics that overtook the campaigns at different times, BH and his friends in this neighborhood explain the systematic connections they see and which they believe most other Americans see.
“The war was for oil. Now look at the price of oil. And notice, every time there’s a war, afterward there’s going to be a recession, at least for us working people.” BH’s understanding is firmly rooted in his experiences with past presidential administrations, particularly Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush. “See, every time there’s a Republican president, there’s a war,” says BH. Arthur Red, another Central City local agrees and adds, “Yeah, see it’s the Republicans who are mostly about going to take over other people’s stuff.”
BH, Arthur and the several other men drinking coffee in front of this corner store on election day all worry about the Republicans trying to steal yet another election, but none of them think it possible with the momentum behind the Democratic Party. Down the street, worries about stolen elections lead to a more conspiratorial idea, based less on the fact of past elections and more on the present worries of all that could and has gone wrong for the Obama-Biden campaign.
On the stoop of a house off First and Saratoga Street, a group of young men and women sit across from a polling station watching their relatives and friends enter and exit. “Did you vote for Obama?” they yell to the occasional face they recognize. As I neared the polling place, one of them called across the street to me, “You voted for McCain!”
“Why would you assume that?” I responded crossing the street to meet them. The boy, not older than 8, was blunt in his response. “Because your color,” he said, pointing to my white skin. His sisters, brothers and friends gave me the benefit of the doubt though, and we began talking.
They explained to me their fears that white America would do anything to keep a Black man out of office. One of them speculated that “they” killed Obama’s grandmother in the final days of his campaigning in order to cause him distress and ruin his campaign’s wrap up efforts. Another said they expect Obama will be attacked and possible killed early in office by white supremacists, while a third offered up a report that an attempt had been made on Obama’s life last month. “But he’ll survive and win,” they all stated with conviction.
Paris Green, who had just turned 18 and cast her first vote for the president, offered the most sober opinions. “I voted for Obama because he’s going to change things. He’s going to fix schools, provide better housing, shelters for the homeless, jobs for the unemployed, and he’ll fix programs like WIC [Women Infants Children], and he’ll bring that hurricane relief we never got from Bush down here,” she explained.
“And I think he should paint that White House, make it a colored house of many different colors,” she concluded. Green and her friends said they had seen more people voting today than they had in past years and were all confident in the Obama victory that has come to pass.
New Orleans News Briefs
National Association of Independent Schools People of Color Conference Dec. 5-7, New Orleans
Three thousand administrators, teachers and students from independent schools around the world will meet in New Orleans Dec. 5-7 to attend the National Association of Independent Schools 21st annual People of Color Conference to be held at the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center, 900 Convention Center Blvd, New Orleans. Keynote speakers include Sir Sidney Poitier, legendary actor, director, producer and humanitarian, Friday, 8 a.m.; John Trudell, recording artist, poet and champion of indigenous issues, Friday, 4:30 p.m.; Carmen Van Kerckhove, race and racism consultant and president and co-founder of New Demographic, Saturday, 8 a.m.; Reza Aslan, Middle East expert and author of “No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam,” Saturday, 7 p.m.; Wendell Pierce, award-winning television, movie and stage actor, Sunday, 11:45 a.m. Learn more at www.nais.org/go/pocc.
Human rights violations recur in response to Hurricane Gustav
More than 2 million Gulf Coast residents were evacuated from their homes as Hurricane Gustav barreled toward Louisiana and Texas. In the ensuing days, tens of thousands of those residents were subjected to violations of their basic human rights, including disparate and discriminatory treatment; inadequate provision of food, water and shelter; and failure to provide for a safe and timely return. Three years after the Hurricane Katrina debacle revealed major systemic problems with federal, state and local government disaster relief policies, the official response to Hurricane Gustav proved that many of these the problems have yet to be addressed.
“Governments have had plenty of time to fix the system,” says Ajamu Baraka, executive director of the US Human Rights Network. “It is unconscionable that Katrina’s hard lessons still have not been learned.” Under international human rights agreements to which the U.S. has subscribed, government has an obligation to protect the rights of people displaced by natural disasters. But federal and state policies conspire to undermine those rights.
In an effort to spotlight disaster-related human rights violations and ultimately leverage changes in policy and behavior, the US Human Rights Network announces the launch of the Gulf Coast Human Rights Monitoring and Documentation Project. The first phase of the project, developed in partnership with the Louisiana Justice Institute and the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, New Orleans, will involve the training of an extensive volunteer network to interview those displaced by Gustav and compile the data. A comprehensive report is expected by summer 2009. To learn more and get involved, contact Janvieve Williams Comrie, (404) 588-9761 or (404) 610-2807.
Children from FEMA trailer park battle serious health problems
USA Today reports on a new study that finds children displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita have serious health problems. This first-of-its-kind study, released by the New York-based Children’s Health Fund, reviewed medical records of 261 children who lived in the region’s largest FEMA trailer park outside Baton Rouge until early summer.
The study found that 41 percent of children younger than 4 were diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia, more than double the rate of children living in New York City homeless shelters – so high that the doctor testing the children thought her machines were malfunctioning; 42 percent were diagnosed with hay fever and/or upper respiratory infection; and 24 percent had a cluster of upper respiratory, allergic and skin ailments.
This year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it would launch a long-term study of children who lived in FEMA trailers in Louisiana and Mississippi, hundreds of which were found to have high levels of toxins, such as formaldehyde. There are still at least 9,300 families in trailers across the Gulf Coast, according to FEMA.