The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
OUR FABULOUS New Orleans, one of the world's great cultural treasures, lies
in ruins. The destruction of this city's artistic life, just as with the
loss of life and property, is a tragedy of immense proportions
New Orleans was a product of many influences - but its character was
indelibly stamped by slaves and their descendants. Slavery was a holocaust
of such magnitude that it resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans
and enormous human suffering. It was a holocaust, as we see today, that
never really ended.
African-Americans responded to their cruel treatment by creating art and
music that ultimately became Americas great gift to the world. While the
former slave masters built a powerful empire based on military conquest and
exploitation, the former slaves fostered a unique culture based on their
African roots. New Orleans was a magical world where music was vibrant,
Tabasco flowed freely and human sexuality was celebrated in fantastic
Even after many years, I can still remember the people and music that
surrounded Southern Railroads Oliver Yard, where I worked and frequently
walked the tracks. Day or night, we could leave work and be swept up in
festivities. More than in any other city, the neighborhoods of the Big
Easy responded to official consumer culture with a lively, organic art that
expressed the aspirations and optimism of working people. Our loss is
Why the Fuss
The unwillingness and inability of the US government to prevent or
alleviate this crisis is not an oversight, miscalculation or mistake. We
all knew it would happen, and so did they.
Two days ago, I watched in astonishment as a jocular George Bush held a
press conference in Mississippi to begin his tour of the gulf coast. There
is great suffering in the land, he said. Why, my friend, Senator Trent
Lott (who stood at his side,) is one of the suffering masses - his
oceanfront home was destroyed. The President pledged to rebuild the house.
This was his starting point.
I don't think that Bush and Company is any more inept or insensitive than
other politicians. The same congress that was able to rush to Washington in
one day to keep the deceased Terri Schiavo plugged to a machine likewise
turned a blind eye to the desperate plight of living thousands. And the
liberal politicians who only now are so indignant were previously nowhere
to be found.
They live in a different world. The circumstances of the great unwashed
are not their concern, any more than you or I might worry about the sport
of polo. They are worried about their summer homes and investment
portfolios. The fate of the working poor is not a priority.
If not for the massive public outcry, people might have been left on their
rooftops until Mardi Gras came around. Had they been expensive horses
instead of poor people, they might have been evacuated more quickly. After
all, Bush's appointee to direct FEMA honed his emergency skills as the head
of the International Arabian Horse Association.
Even now, with normally docile news reporters actually moved to ask some
real questions, the blank expressions of administration spokespeople reveal
that they just don't get what all the fuss is about.
The Chickens Come Home to Roost
The death and destruction is a man-made, criminal act - the logical outcome
of corporate and governmental policies that thrived under Democratic and
Republican administrations alike. The authorities have known of the storm
dangers for decades. Don't blame Mother Nature - she was just being herself
(with some help from global warming.)
As a traveling muralist, I have seen firsthand the dreadful consequences of
US foreign policy in places like Nicaragua and Iraq.
Washington's callousness to suffering is no revelation to most of the
world. It's old news to the Iraqi people - the US embargo and occupation
has killed over a million of them. The indifference to life is certainly no
eye-opener for the abandoned of Darfur.
Now, in New Orleans, the ugly face of American capitalism stands revealed.
This nation, though born with the horror of slavery and slaughter of
indigenous people, at one time was vigorous and forward-looking. But we are
witnessing the empire in decline. Starving people in New Orleans? Let them
eat beignets. City under water? Bush waves from the window of his jet
while he heads home from his five-week vacation. He plays golf the next day.
Oil companies, already bloated with record profits - immediately took
advantage of the crisis by jacking up gas prices. You can bet that the
food companies and every other industry will soon follow suit. Cheney and
his Halliburton pals are licking their lips in anticipation of lucrative
reconstruction contracts. They take everything and produce nothing.
We were told we were different. We were told that this could not happen to
"Americans." But you're only an American when it's time to go to war or
speed up production. The rest of the time you're just a worker - like
workers in Nigeria or Haiti. If you are not making a profit for your
employer, your usefulness is over. You will be left to drown in your attic
or die of thirst or starve to death.
A Different Example
In Cuba, so vilified by the US government, the population is informed and
educated about the hurricanes that frequently slam into the island. The
scant resources of the entire country are used to evacuate hundreds of
thousands of people. Electricity is turned off to prevent death by
electrocution. Water is turned off to protect against
contamination. Medical facilities are prepared - and health care is always
free in Cuba. At times, over a million people have been evacuated with no
loss of life.
In fact, Castro has offered to send 1100 doctors, completely at Cuban
expense, to aid in gulf coast relief efforts. He has refused to criticize
Washington in this hour of crisis.
Venezuela has offered to provide inexpensive gas to poor Americans. The
demonized Chavez has offered to send two mobile hospitals, 120 specialists
in rescue operations, 10 water purifying plants, 18 large electricity
generators, 20 tons of bottled water, and 50 tons of canned food.
Ever faithful to her corporate masters, these offers have been rejected by
Condoleezza Rice. Better the poor should die than be exposed to socialist
ideas. (Rice made sure to have a photo-op unloading some relief supplies
from the back of a truck.)
The Victims Become the Criminals
As always, the poor will be blamed for their own misery. The war-makers
who cut federal funding earmarked to strengthen the levees and gave it
instead to a fake rebuilding of Iraq; the politicians who lined their
pockets and ignored public safety; the real estate moguls who made
millions of dollars with rampant, unplanned development; the graft-ridden
cops who ran away in fear of a city of needy black people; the CEOs of
profit-hungry oil companies - all will now hypocritically point their
fingers at the victims--desperate workers taking food or medicine for
their families - and brand them as looters.
The authorities and the press are promoting racist hysteria. Black people
are portrayed as marauding animals and rapists - all without a shred of
evidence. Troops are sent to protect Gucci bags in upscale malls. Yet
there is little to indicate any civil problem that compares to a single
night of drunken revelry by middle-class tourists at Mardi Gras.
Bush, the spoiled child of wealth and privilege, could not wait to start
talking tough about "law and order." The returning cops have already
murdered more people than were murdered during the past week, when there
was no "security." Yes, there are individuals who have struck out in anger
and desperation. But the tens of thousands of poor people who were left
to suffer and die displayed more self-control, caring and dignity than any
of their so-called leaders. We should all be proud of them.
March on Washington
This catastrophe is only beginning. Yet to come is the spread of disease,
skyrocketing prices, increasing unemployment, food
shortages, environmental destruction and the curtailment of democratic
rights. The cost of the storm and the looting by corporations will be born
by working people. Tuitions will increase, education will
deteriorate, our bridges and roads will fall into further disrepair,
healthcare will become more inaccessible - life will become more difficult
for all of us.
Bush has blithely promised to rebuild a new and better New Orleans. Along
with developing the hydrogen car, I suppose.
I can imagine his new city: Mardi Gras Mall to replace Fauberg Marigny
and the French Quarter. Starbucks instead of the Cafe du Monde. Britney
Spears performing the songs of Professor Longhair and Alan Toussaint.
No - the people of the gulf coast will pick themselves up from the toxic
silt. Working people from all over the world will come to
their aid. They will respond to ruling class indifference with
solidarity and caring. The eyes of many have been opened - Americans will
never look at the suffering of others in the same way.
September 24 will be massive march on Washington, San Francisco and Los
Angeles to demand that the troops be brought home from Iraq. We will
demand that the enormous resources of the occupation be used instead for a
massive public works program to rebuild the gulf coast. We will demand
money for jobs and education. We will repudiate the actions of Bush and his
creepy-crawly administration. They do not speak for the American people.
We will eventually force the war-makers to withdraw from Iraq, just as we
forced them out of Vietnam. Working people - the true source of all
wealth and the great incubator of ideas - will absorb this experience and
spit it back in the form of new art and music. The great culture of New
Orleans is part of our collective consciousness, and will live on in a
thousand new ways. Corporate greed will never destroy our humanity or
silence our music.