Tuesday, September 27, 2005

March to the Sea

Under the current plans of the New Orleans Business Council and the Republican leadership in Washington, there is little chance of rebuilding the NOLA of memory. There are no visible provisions being made to provide jobs and housing and schools for the working class population of the city.

It’s not clear that all of the working class, black population of the city will want to return. The neighborhoods many lived in were a Clockwork Orange-like horrowshow of drugs and violence..

I can well imagine how many must have felt. Trapped, fearful of for their lives and the lives of their children, abandoned to a fate they did not understand, they were more a prisoner than any resident of Orleans Parish Prison. For them, the rising water was a change only in the character of the threat to their lives, not to their basic mode of living.

For many of these folk, Katrina was an act of god of a different sort, a Biblical deliverance through the dire Sinai of the storm to the edge of the land of milk and honey. They will not return to the decrepit projects or crumbling backwater neighborhoods of New Orleans, if they can find homes and jobs and decent schools in Houston or Atlanta.

But there are some, who live in all sorts of homes in all sorts of neighborhoods, who can’t imagine living where an oyster po’boy can’t be had in walking distance. They want their children to grow up in a neighborhood when they can learn to play their grandfather’s trombone because they want to, anxious to join the brass bad in the funeral parade.

They want to live in a city where the food and the music and the Mardi Gras are all part of a rich tapestry that makes almost any circumstances in NOLA bearable, even if it means you spend your nights behind the bars of a sun bleached Creole cottage or an gleaming uptown mansion.

There is no question that the residents of the mansions might return. In fact, the city’s leaders beg them to, and the government has promised to help. It’s the rest of the city that worries me.

The New Orleans Business Council want to build a “different sort of city”. All across Louisiana and Mississippi FEMA and the Red Cross simply bypass black communities and setup shop on the white side of town. A crony of disgraced FEMA top man Brown and Governor-in-waiting Kathleen Blanco are already cashing in by building trailer towns far from New Orleans. We have seen the FEMAvilles of Florida. They are housing projects rebuilt far from the city.

The model the NOBC and federal government envision is one of these: the townships of apartheid South Africa, or the Gaza Strip, with a safely-contained and docile populace to provide the low wage jobs which the tourism economy demands.

This is not acceptable.

If the government will not return the people of the city to NOLA, they will have to return themselves. Already community organizations have formed their own relief operations, starting with the cooperative Common Ground Relief in Algiers.

These efforts must expand beyond Algiers to encompass all the working class neighborhoods of New Orleans. If the government won’t provide the people what they need to return, we need to help them provide it for themselves. Those of us far away who can’t assist on the ground need to be ready to start loading the trucks again, this time in support of the return of the people of New Orleans.

And then the people of New Orleans need to begin to their rightful return.

One reader has suggested that an underground railroad be created, using the passes being given wealthier white residents, to return the working class black population to the city. To stay. They will need support. They will need food and water, cleaning and medical supplies. They will need money. First what we can give, and later what we must demand until the federal government delivers.

Beyond ones and twos, they may need to simply march down I-10 and defy the government’s efforts to deny them. How would they stop 10,000 people of New Orleans, who are just trying to go home

It may be time for the 21st Century version of Gandhi’s March to the Sea.

I believe that the local leadership, in particular Mayor Nagin and Jefferson Parish President Aaron Broussard, would not obstruct it. I don’t believe that our National Guard, even as hardened as they are after Iraq, would follow the order prevent their fellow citizens who just want to go home. And, once the reality was created on the ground, I believe those political leaders, and our fellow Americas in uniform, would do what it takes to make the repopulation possible.

Such a movement will only succeed if every native of Louisianan (and there are tens of thousands of us who have left for one reason or other over the years, and dream only of the day we return), and those who choose not to return, are prepared to do whatever it takes to support such a movement. It will only succeed if every person in this country who still believes in justice and fair play are prepared to step up and deliver.

The people will need more truck loads of supplies, because we can be certain that the Bush Administration would let them starve before it would allow the repopulation to succeed. They will need people all across the country to shame or intimidate any who interfere into silence. Many of us will have to return and join the march—white and black, rich and poor-so that people see it as a great movement to restore what our country has lost in the last few decades—a common identify as Americans.

If this movement doesn’t succeed, if the city cannot be repopulated by all of it’s natives who choose to return, if we cannot build a better and brighter place for all the people of New Orleans, then the American experiment fails. We will have become the sort of benighted, class-ridden European oligarchy we sought to replace, a place where ethnic cleansing is possible. It is a future too dark and frightful to contemplate.

I prefer to think of a brighter future, including a brighter future for NOLA, a city repopulated and rebuilt to a glory greater than any it has ever known. A glory shared by every son and daughter of New Orleans.

To secure that, I am ready to march to the sea.

Coming Up: Rebuilding New Europe: The postwar reconstruction of European cities as a model for rebuilding in a culturally and socially acceptable way, cities that look like and feel like and live like the cites they once were.

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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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