Thursday, June 01, 2006
MENDING THE BREACH
The two commentaries below are from my old friend Lance in New Orleans.
However, before you get there I wanted to let you know that the Common Ground Collective is looking for volunteers in a wide range of areas this summer in New Orleans? To view them and to register go to the link below http://www.commongroundrelief.org/node/144
Common Ground is a community-initiated volunteer organization offering assistance, mutual aid and support. The work gives hope to communities by working with them, providing for their immediate needs and emphasizing people working together to rebuild their lives in sustainable ways.
Thoughts on June 3rd as the Turning Point for New Orleans' Displaced Poor
This Saturday, June 3rd, will mark an historic turning point for New Orleans' displaced African American community. In the nine months since the impoverished black community was forced out of their homes by flood waters, there has not been a single disruptive civil disobedience protest organized and led by the victims of the policies designed to prevent their return. On June 3rd a coalition of public housing residents plan to defy the law and take back their homes at select housing development sites, most of which have been shackled and left to deteriorate by the local Housing Authority.
The absence of disruptive protest in the past, of course, is in large part is a consequence of the continued displacement of the black community hundreds of miles from home. But in the past few months, thousands of poor blacks have returned to the New Orleans area, despite the shortage of housing, by doubling up with relatives in the city or neighboring communities or squatting in abandoned housing. Now with the school term ending in Texas, we can expect a huge wave of migration back to the city throughout the summer.
The elite group that engineered the plan to prevent the poor from returning will now make rest of the community pay the price for not preparing for the return of the poor. Until now, all the policies and actions intended to discourage poor blacks from returning have been implemented with out fear of social disruption or civil disturbances; there was no price to pay for moral indifference to the suffering of others. Those days are gone. We can only expect the frequency and intensity of protest to increase in the coming months, around not only the issues of and public and affordable housing, but also around employment and education.
In 1963 the civic, business, and political leadership of Birmingham, Alabama plunged the city into months of chaotic and disruptive protest by remaining intransigent to the just demands of the civil rights protestors who sought to desegregate the city. Today New Orleans faces a similar choice of paths and the response to the first rumblings of protest will determine the fate of the city for years to come.
Mending The Breach in Race Relations in New Orleans
Guest Column by Lance Hill
June 1, 2006
One of the tragedies of the evacuation during Katrina was the way it destroyed all sense of mutual obligation and left the New Orleans community atomized and competing for what little high ground and resources remained. The underlying message of the evacuation order was to save yourself and leave the fate of others to professional “first responders”--who turned out neither responsive nor even the first to offer aid. With most of the media attention focused on repairing the breached levees in the face of the new hurricane season, we need to give equal attention to how we can mend the growing breach in race relations reflected in the dynamics of the recent Mayoral election.
The flood waters had not even receded last fall before a host of prophets proclaimed that the flood was a sign of God’s wrathful judgment for past wickedness. No one paid much mind to the Jeremiahs at the time, but perhaps they were on to something but simply got it backwards. Could it have been that the great deluge was not the Judgment but rather the Divine Test of character that precedes the Judgment? If our character as a nation is being tested, then it must certainly be our obedience to the commandment to “love thy neighbor” that is in question.
The problem is how we have defined “neighbor” or, in its modern form, “community.” All the myriad city and neighborhood planning commissions that convened in New Orleans after Katrina had one thing in common: they defined community as only the fortunate few who had made it back to the city. Suddenly nearly 350,000 people, 80% of whom were African American, ceased to be neighbors. The displaced and their needs became invisible in the planning process. It was as if the ship had gone down and those who escaped by life boat never bothered to return to search for survivors.
Those who remained in the city have reassured themselves that the displaced poor were better off elsewhere. But as time passed it became clear that New Orleans did not solve the problem of poverty--we merely exported it. In recent months reports paint an alarming picture of tens of thousands of poor African Americans on the precipice of a human disaster. Unemployment for displaced people jumped 54% in the month of March alone, leaving more than one-third of them jobless. Lacking jobs, tens of thousands of evacuees lost their private health insurance. Depression and other mental disorders are skyrocketing and 20% of displaced children are not even enrolled in school.
The poor who have returned to the city after FEMA booted them out of temporary housing have not fared any better. They find themselves homeless and forced to take shelter in moldy gutted houses. Their jobs have been taken by low-wage itinerant laborers, their schools closed, and their only public hospital shuttered.
Concealed within these numbers are the most defenseless victims of Katrina; the 40,000 black children under age five who never asked to be born below sea level. Psychologists tell us the two things children fear most are darkness and water, the very nightmare they endured at the risk of lasting emotional damage. One day during the rescue phase I found myself sitting on a guardrail watching hundreds of helicopters drop off people stranded in the flood zones. I sat next to a boy staring silently at the helicopters. The busses behind us were departing for the shelters, so I asked him what he was waiting for? “My sister,” he said softly, looking straight ahead. I don’t know if he ever found his sister, but I do know that no child should have to bear that memory by himself.
And that’s the problem. The forced evacuation not only destroyed our sense of community obligation across racial lines, it also destroyed the informal safety net of extended family and friends that sustained the poor in hard times in New Orleans. A recent report described a New Orleans grandmother in Mississippi who was caring for seven displaced school-aged grandchildren. None was in school. Why? The grandmother was battling leukemia and diabetes. Were she back in New Orleans living in the most wretched public housing project, her grandchildren would be in school. She would be able to rely on relatives, friends, neighbors, and even the children’s teachers to provide solace and support.
The solution to the breach in race elations begins with redefining the meaning of community. Community is not geography; it is the communal spirit of a people who have a shared history. The New Orleans community must be defined as everyone who lived in the city before Katrina. Communities, like families, take responsibility for their members, even when they leave home.
Second, we must treat the recovery as a test of our nation’s character--our commitment to the principles of justice, equality, and compassion for the downtrodden. Only the federal government has the wherewithal to rebuild the human infrastructure of the city and region. It is imperative that we provide government services to rebuild the informal safety net and lives of displaced people. We need to guarantee Katrina’s victims the right to safe homes, job training, employment opportunities, educational support for children, and free medical and mental health services. It will cost money. Somehow we find a way to fund a military budget that costs $1 billion a day. We will find the money if we can only find our conscience.
I don’t know if Katrina was a divine test, judgment, or simply a Hurricane. Regardless of your faith, or lack of it, if we fail our nation’s principles we may suffer a judgment far worse than plagues, floods, or famine: We will have to live with ourselves the rest of our lives.
Lance Hill is Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University and author of Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement. He remained in New Orleans during Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org