Sunday, April 09, 2006

Relearning The Ways
of Democracy in NOLA

A confluence of seemingly disconnected threads--a book I'm reading, stories in the news not particularly about New Orleans or the Flood formerly known as Katrina, the upcoming city election--inspired me to wonder if our city must not relearn the lessons of democracy if we are going to survive.

Reading John M. Barry's excellent Rising Tide about the 1927 flood reminded me how much our city and state has relied upon, and been at the mercy of, strong men. The private executive meetings of a select few before the actual meetings of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, no doubt where the real decisions were made, reminds us things have not changed that much since the 1920s.

As Barry reminds us, in the early 20th century a handful of bankers and exclusive carnival krewe members could meet in a downtown boardroom and secretly decide the fate of entire cities and parishes. The politicians, to the extent they were involved, were there to receive their marching orders. The moneyed men of the 1920s never really recovered from the flood, and spent the next decade in a life and death battle for power with Huey P. Long, himself a reminder of our tendency--like our Latin neighbors to the south--to rely upon the the leadership of strong men and oligarchs.

What inspired me to think about New Orleans and democracy was the intersection of the upcoming election, and a story on National Public Radio about a one room school house in New England and, more importantly, the annual town meeting that debated its future. In that section, people have never lost their connection to the grass roots democracy that grew in the eighteenth century and became the United States of America.

This led me to think about the charter school rebellion in New Orleans, in which activist parents have essentially moved to secede from the criminally corrupt Orleans Parish School Board. I am following this movement closely because my son will be a new student to NOLA come Fall, and I am a partisan for public (and against parochial) schools. I think that the public school system (in much of the country) is the great leveling institution in which we learn to live with all our fellow citizens, much as the military was in the last century. It is an important counterweight to the growling tribalism and sectionalism that dominates our civic life.

A charter school can be like that school in a small New Hampshire village reported by NPR. It depends upon the good will and energy of committed citizen-parents, a drama I watch being re-enacted on the mailing lists of the Parent Teacher Organization of Hynes school as they furiously debate the future of their school, and the details of their charter application. It is democracy of a sort the people of New Hampshire would recognize.

I believe that the charter school rebellion offers a window of opportunity for the average people of New Orleans to reclaim their city, to have a direct voice in the future, to discover some common ground--Lakeview or Ninth Ward--in providing a quality education for their children out of the clutches of the long foundering school board.

A similar opportunity is afoot in neighborhoods that took the BNOB commission's suggestion to organize themselves for recovery and ran with it, even as the BNOB plan came apart at the wheels. Residents of neighborhoods as diverse a Gentilly, Lakeview, Broadmoor and Arabi are coming together to plan their own future, to reclaim their right to exist and set the terms of that existence. Our future need not be left to those privileged to lunch with the mayor before the open BNOB meetings. It is in our own hands.

The city has risen up against the strong men in the past. The most prominent example was the Second Battle of New Orleans, the fight against the Riverfront Expressway. In response to the idea to build a smog-cloaked Berlin Wall between the French Quarter and the river, citizens all across the city rose up against the money men and their servants in City Hall and Baton Rouge, and won.

The opponents were not average Joes, but were themselves often prominent men and women. It was not a mass movement, but then neither is the the charter school uprising It did show that by concerted action it is possible for the people of the city to rise up against those who usually run the place, and define the city we all will live in.

As we approach the election, New Orleanians need to think long and hard about the mistakes of the past. The school board is an excellent example of how democracy can go awry, an example of how the corrupt and power-hungry manipulate our identity politics--white and black, uptown and downtown--to the detriment of the city. And behind all our elected officials lurks the secret machinations of the BNOB commission, like a historical re-enactment of the work of the 1920s leadership cabal described in Barry's book, equally dangerous to our future.

We are rapidly (and too easily) slipping into the habits of the past. The identify-politics challenge to the election is a good example. Yes it's hard to vote absentee. What about our lives now is not hard? Is it really that difficult to mail in a request for an absentee ballot, to complete the ballot and mail it back? Does it even rank with dealing with FEMA and your insurance company? By making this an issue of race simply drags us back into our own divisions, ones we can't afford right now.

The model for the democratic future of New Orleans is not the posturing of Jesse Jackson or gossip over to whom Jimmy Reiss is giving his money and support. It is in that town in New Hampshire, and in the meetings and phone calls and emails that are defining the charter school future of New Orleans education and the rebuilding of neighborhoods. It is not in a division of the spoiled, but in finding common ground.

charter schools democracy

Comments:
As we approach the election, New Orleanians need to think long and hard about the mistakes of the past. The school board is an excellent example of how democracy can go awry, an example of how the corrupt and power-hungry manipulate our identity politics--white and black, uptown and downtown--to the detriment of the city. And behind all our elected officials lurks the secret machinations of the BNOB commission, like a historical re-enactment of the work of the 1920s leadership cabal described in Barry's book, equally dangerous to our future.

We are rapidly (and too easily) slipping into the habits of the past.

Shouldn't we instead be applying the lessons of our past? As you point out, the plutocracy has only been brought to heel when people are effectively rallied to fight them. Politics in the real world is, unfortunately, not about finding "common ground" not when there are wolves about. In September Greg Palast had it right when he said that this is our moment to stand and fight... all that's missing this time is another Huey.
 
I don't know what to say, Markus. I am so concerned about this election and the future of the city (and her institutions). It all just seems so daunting. I guess you're right, though, in that you take the one thing you can do something about and start there. In your case, it's a Charter School. Still, it's so hard for me to see how those displaced who are also disenfranchised will find their way to absentee ballots, much less, home. *sigh*
 
YES YES YES YES YES, Mark...and thank you for YOUR comments at Every Poet Needs A Patio.

The Second Battle of New Orleans (Baumbach and Borah, to those of us who took N.O. history!) is PRECISELY the starting point for any blueprint of how to proceed. Unfortunately, with the second-richest CEO in Amerika (KB Homes guy) buying up the land and making snide remarks while defecating McCondos onto it,this is waaaay bigger than the usual level of evil to which we've grown accustomed. New Orleanians outside the city and New Orleanians holding it down MUST be each other's eyes and ears if we are to save our city, whether from the flocks of vultures with political agendas or from opportunistic profit-seekers of all stripes.

I should say I've read your blog for some time now, and that I also blog at kd5qel.blogspot.com and hurricanepoetscheckin.blogspot.com, though more so during the immediate threat.

Robin Kemp
 
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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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