Sunday, February 05, 2006


Thow Me Something Mister!

Commentary by
Lance Hill
January 5, 2006

I attended the second line parade in New Orleans a few weeks ago that was unfortunately marred by a shooting at the end. The shooting overshadowed a much bigger story. By the time the second line had turned down Orleans Avenue off of Claiborne, there were at least 10,000 people marching in the street, a solid mass of people--black people--from Claiborne to Broadway. Near the end of the march they were chanting "we're back," "we're back." A cultural event had been turned into a political protest--in quintessentially New Orleans style. Contrast this outpouring to the poor turnout for recent traditional street protests staged in support of levees (100 people showed up for the protest at the Army Corp). What the second line parade did was what every successful social and religious movement in the past has done: adapt their message to the cultural traditions of a community.

We need to make visible the frustration, anger, and sense of abandonment that has immobilized New Orleans. I spoke at an event the other day and someone asked for a show of hands of people who had seen the "devastation." Most raised their hands. I thought to myself, no you have not seen the devastation. All you have seen is empty houses. The real devastation is in the hearts of hundreds of thousands of people who lost everything and are far removed from family and community. Day by day they are losing hope. One of the ironies of Katrina is that the evacuation has made poverty and the human pain virtually invisible. We have become victims of the television age in which images dominate content. Television shows pictures of empty houses and then cuts away to images of displaced people living well-fed and comfortably in Houston. Bus seldom does the public see the victim on the foundation slab waiting for the mythical FEMA trailer. They don't see the fear of single mothers contemplating what will happen when the FEMA rent runs out and her children have no food or shelter. This is why Bush can dither on his commitment to build a new levee system; he is being asked to protect empty houses, not people. Put families in these empty houses, as the Vietnamese community has done in New Orleans East, and the moral onus will be on Bush to protect people.

We need to surface the pain, suffering, and frustration of Katrina victims for the public to see. What do we want the world to see on Mardis Gras day? Happy, well-fed people having a good time?. Fine. But we also should let them see a united mass movement of tens of thousands of determined people from all walks of life who believe the federal government has forsaken them. We can do both. I suggest that after the Rex parade, the crowds lining the streets fall in behind in a massive second line with children, costumes, wagons, and protest signs. The march route would loop around Canal and end at the Federal Building where we would stage a protest--no leaders, no speeches, just people taking a stand before the world. To give voice to those still displaced who deserve to come home, people could bring signs that have the names of people who want to come home, e.g. "My Name is Shirley Breaux and I want to come home to New Orleans" (people could post their names on a web site). It would be a beautiful gesture and show the country we know how to both party and politic. All you need is two feet or a few wheels. And you'd still have time to catch the truck parades. This is New Orleans, after all.

Lance Hill, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Southern Institute for Education and Research

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