Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Dispatches, Volume 12

Seeking Refuge in the Forlorn Bayou…Indians on Parade…Shock and Awe Revisited….Rejubilation in Biloxi
These are ugly times in the 2008 campaign, a good time to duck your head in the sand, or in Hillary Clinton’s case, duck under the onslaught of non-existent sniper fire to take photo ops with eight year old Bosnians. If you thought the talking heads were out of things to talk about, wait till you give them a 6-week lay off from a primary or debate to have a dramatic countdown to.
For this Rovingstorm writer, the idiocy of Geraldine Ferraro made me so angry as to make writing impossible. Then I cathartically started a group called Fordham Students Ashamed of Geraldine Ferraro (FSAOGF) and the anger eased out. I’ll admit, I already disliked Ferraro somewhat, or at least found her unimpressive. Her keynote address at the Fordham Law Democrats dinner last spring was rambling and filled with factual inaccuracies. Between Ferraro’s nasty racial comments, Spitzer’s stunning fall from power, Clinton’s Youtube ‘gotcha’ moment and Bloomberg’s presidential prospects fading in a sea of homeless people and broken subway lines, this is not an impressive time to be a New York politician.
It was, however, perhaps the perfect time retreat southwards, to the greatest battleground of all, the battle to rebuild the Gulf Coast. As most of you know, Biloxi, Mississippi is where I spent the most important year of my life, from 2005-2006, and some of its great moments will be chronicled by Guillermo Olivos in his near finished novel. Getting back down to the Gulf Coast is an emotional whirlwind, a mixture of sad hopelessness (‘look how many people are still not in their houses!’), self-disappointment (‘why would I not be here helping this effort right now?’) and, just occasionally, inspiration that things really are getting better.
It’s been 31 months since the storm, and things are not great in New Orleans. In a recent interview, Mayor Nagin declared he was worn out from the job, and challenged a TV reporter to a fist-fight in the parking lot. A recent study put homelessness at 4%, or a whopping 12,000 people. Every progressive activist and lawyer walks around head hanging low, exhausted that even the simplest justices don’t come Easy in this town.
Despite these conditions, national volunteer support remains staggering. This spring, the Student Hurricane Network, and organization of law students doing work on the Gulf Coast, sent nearly 1,000 students to Louisiana and Mississippi for spring break, almost as many as they did two years ago, fresh after the storm happened.
A few folks and I were placed with the Workers Rights Center for Racial Justice, which bringing attention to a large group of Indians (dot, not feather) who had been lured by construction corporations on false visa charged, placed in animal like housing conditions, worked for months without pay, and been threatened with deportation whenever they complained. It was a horrific but familiar story, this time with a group of educated subcontinenters who were not going to take it lying down.
So we took to the streets, and marched through a series of New Orleans neighborhoods, chanting in Hindi. As the Indians marched, labor organizers called locals to come out from their porches and apartments and for Mexicans from their construction sites to chant with us and learn about the injustices. To their credit, blacks in New Orleans don’t need to hear specifics, they just assume if angry minorities are marching, rich white corporations have fucked them over somehow. “Just keep fighting for your rights, honey,” one woman hollered at me.
“The key to this,” one organizer explained to me, “is to get the black community, hard-pressed for jobs as it is, to not see Mexicans and Indians as enemies, but rather as allies that corporations are pitting against each other to lower everyone’s wages.” There was some confusion, however, as many onlookers thought the marchers were Hispanic in the first place, even though they were chanting in Hindi, which incidentally, seemed like an off-putting way to build a coalition.
The overall effectiveness of a chanting in Hindi to get your message across is questionable, and will probably becoming increasingly off-putting during this multi-city tour that takes the Indians through Mississippi, Georgia, North Carolina, up to DC. New Orleans is a first-tier, ‘now I guess this is happening city,’ up there with New York, San Fran, and Vegas. It takes a lot to turn heads in a town where its perfectly acceptable to be wasted at eight in the morning and have gay parades through downtown, but people in Baton Rouge and Greensboro might not be as receptive. The whole affair will probably be a headache for the Indian Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. Nothing like turning on your own people to protect business interests during your first months in office.
Near the end of the protest we stopped near a major public housing project that is being demolished for no good reason except to drive its poor former residents from the city forever. An organizer explained this, via translation, to the crowd of Indians. I don’t know how they felt, but the message I came away with was, “Hey guys, look! More people getting shit on here in the Big Easy!” Building a coalition is a sad, sad time here in NOLA.
The racial fever burning through New Orleans was particularly poignant given the national story last week, which was Obama’s preacher causing the candidate headaches (Youtube is always watching…). Funny how an angry black preacher becomes this highly scrutinized figure of importance- CNN even analyzed his new Easter sermon. Since when have we ever cared, or even known, what pastors and preachers for other candidates say over the course of their long careers? Colbert brilliantly juxtaposed Wright with the infamous and largely forgotten moment when Jerry Farwell and Pat Robertson blamed gays, feminists and secularists for 9/11, a tad more idiotic than blaming imperialistic U.S foreign policy.
Yes, it was a good time to take stock of the racial tension in the air, because at that very moment in Philadelphia, Barack Obama was delivering one of the great speeches I have ever seen. I trust most of this readership has already seen, heard, or read the speech, but the link is here: http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/hisownwords/
It was the most in sync I’ve felt with an audience since I watched Ahmadinejad’s Columbia speech in the Fordham Law cafeteria (“Man, that guy is crazy!”). The speech spoke truth after truth about the complex and unfinished issues of race in America. So yes, the speech was absolutely incredible, and honest, and for those wondering what it all means politically, it showed Obama’s ability to take an adverse situation and handle it was grace and composure. There was no passing the buck, ducking for cover, bullshit excuses, just a thorough explanation, reflection and call for elevated discourse. It was, as usual, far classier than anything Hillary Clinton could ever come up with. She doesn’t have the human in her left to make a speech like that if it were written for her. But will it be enough?
Apparently not for Pennsylvania, where their own Democratic governor, a top Hillary booster, has declared that swaths of the Democratic primary base aren’t ready to vote for a black candidate. What if we told you he was half white? It’s of no concern- Obama will still be the nominee, and everyone can stop fretting, thanks to Bill Richardson.
Richardson’s endorsement was timely, and though it will only sway a few votes outside of his family, who presumably already voted this season, the media seem to think this is stupendously important, so I’ll roll with it. Media cycles are the name of the game, of course. The best part was probably that James Carville compared Richardson to Judas on Easter, to which Richardson responded, “This is exactly the kind of rhetoric that turned me off to the Clinton campaign.” I saw Carville on TV last night explaining that his comparison was “not literal,” because it’s always helpful to remind people that Hillary Clinton isn’t Jesus. I can just picture the next Karl Rove disciple slapping a WWHRCD bracelet on as he goes into battle.
After the Obama speech I wandered the New Orleans streets for a bit. The hollowness of the empty plastic cup and the abandoned home was haunting. For some, the juxtaposition of a town full of bar to bar romping, jazz swinging and girls gone wildin’ with the most noble humanitarian effort in recent domestic history is a perfect fit (I think of the Onion article, “Alternative Spring Break Devolves Into Regular Spring Break”), but for me that’s all it can be, the perfect disaster relief vacation. New Orleans is a town where some things are not just back to normal, they are doing awesome! The Hornets are in first place. Mardi Gras sent the hotel business booming. Live jazz bands like Rebirth play to white college crowds so packed you can barely move. But that march with the Indians told it all. In the poorer communities, nothing, and I mean nothing, has changed. The people largely haven’t come home. Those who have working for slave wages, and choose between living in unfinished houses or poisonous trailers, sending their kids to a school system in shambles, and their sick relatives to third worldly crowded hospitals. It’s the two Americas, right there in the Crescent City.
As if the conflation of the Democratic Primary and the Hurricane Katrina weren’t epic enough for one week, the news cycle had to toss in the five year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq (or, as one CNN producer put, the five year anniversary of the ‘Liberation Army's march to Baghdad’). Like many of you, I remember vividly where I was when that fateful shock and awe campaign began. It was spring break, and Kieron and I had drunkenly bought one way tickets to Myrtle Beach and flown down with almost no money, no cell phone charger, and no plan on how to get back home. We slept under boardwalks and ate at the American House of Pancakes until we found a place we could afford, the Stardust Motel.
After checking in we sauntered off to our first bar, where the local Myrtle Beach crowd was fixated on Fox News. As the first green explosions of the war began the bar burst into a mighty cheer, and the bartender flicked on “Bombs over Baghdad”, an anthem that would play four times in succession as forty-somethings danced up and down in the dark and trashy bar. Those were the days. And that war drum has marched on ever since. I think what deflates the anti-war movement is that George Bush has no conscience. LBJ and Nixon, you could see the anguish on their faces, even as they stayed the course. If you sang “Hey, Hey, how many kids have you killed today” to Bush, he’d probably stare at you, blink a few times, and then respond, “Six. No, seven. But Al Queda is on the run. And it is worth it.”
Man. Time to go to Biloxi.
It’s an intense but warmly familiar feeling driving down the broken shells of commercial buildings that adorn Route 90 on the way into Biloxi. Councilman Stallworth, the leader and one of the true heroes of the relief movement in Biloxi, graciously showed some of my Fordham colleagues a tour of the East Biloxi Coordination Relief Center, a fascinating hub of elevation maps, rebuilding grids and architectural models. The Coordination Center was where all the relief groups in the area would meet twice a week to trade notes, divide work, and make sure the relief effort was coordinated. For the Fordham crew, who had spent a depressing week observing the disorganization of New Orleans, this was an inspiring reminder that the rebuilding process could be done properly. And by properly, I mean 40% of the people who have returned getting back into their homes. That’s success down here, and while I would never disparage it, no one down there would tell you we don’t have a long way to go.
Our group met with James Crowell, the intrepid leader of the local NAACP. We became close working together to organize the first Martin Luther King Jr. parade after the storm. The group met in his office, which has had a leaky roof since the storm. It is hard to find a man more in touch with the people purports to represent in any non profit or advocacy group anywhere. It comes as little surprise, with folks like James and Councilman Stallworth leading the way, that Biloxi is hardcore Obama country. After a day of work, a tour, and mandatory pit-stops at Shady’s and The Pub, we were on our way back to New Orleans. And Biloxi’s been back on my mind ever since.
I see Guillermo patrolling the Hope VI housing project with a clipboard in flip-flops. I see Jeff Rohde ripping a bathtub from a wall with his bare hands. I see Nate Harrold pimping shades and barking instructions into his cell phone as the Biloxi’s only healthcare clinic is being. I see Catholic Nick wheeling and dealing with local Catholic leaders, Amy DeHuff looking for the pulse of a community, and Animal Rescue Ben pulling into the parking lot with 36 Katrina puppies he rescued from extermination.
We were in our 20s, seizing the day, experiencing, as Councilman Stallworth says, “one of those rare moments when you know you’re really making a difference.” Hurricane Katrina was as great a call to patriotism as 9/11, and I told George Bush as much when we met in April of 2006. But each passing day, it feels less like my time there was service rendered, and more like a privilege and an honor to have been part of the process. As we always used to stay when folks thanked us, “We’re just happy to be here.” And we by no means the only ones who got it. Americorps' vaunted NCCC program currently has 55 teams of 10 dispersed throughout the Gulf Coast. For some, the domestic battle of our lifetime rages on.
In these times, the weight of the world can seem overwhelming. The war. The economy. The painful primary. The slow Katrina recovery. Tibetans being slaughtered. Everyone at work, late into the night, missing the beauty of spring outside their windows, or beyond the reach of their cubicles. It doesn’t seem like the energy is there for something big to happen. But I think of Jim Lovell. In a documentary about the astronauts who made the initial moon landings, Lovell reflected on the sudden change in his assignment from orbiting the Earth to orbiting the moon:
“It was a bold move. It had some risky aspects to it. But it was a time when we made bold moves.” People, it’s time to make bold moves again.

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