Five minutes into a screening of the new documentary Trouble the Water, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin walked out of the theater. Democracy Now! producer Anjali Kamat reports. [includes rush transcript]
Tomorrow marks the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Now, Gulf Coast residents are bracing for another tropical storm: Hurricane Gustav. Republican Governor Bobby Jindal has declared a state of emergency, called for 3,000 members of the National Guard. Some Louisiana officials at the Democratic National Convention, including New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and Senator Mary Landrieu, are headed back early to prepare for the coming storm.
Well, Democracy Now! caught up with them before they left Denver at a screening of the award-winning film Trouble the Water, directed by Tia Lessin and Carl Deal.
ANJALI KAMAT: Three years ago, Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and most of the Gulf Coast. To many here at the convention, that devastation is a distant memory. But even as another tropical storm makes its way towards the battered and barely recovering Gulf Coast, a new film is trying to remind the delegates of what happened to New Orleans. Trouble the Water tells the story of a young couple from the Lower Ninth Ward who survived both the hurricane and its aftermath.
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: My name is Scott Michael Roberts. This is my wife Kimberly Roberts.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: New Orleans.
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: We’re from New Orleans, the Ninth Ward, underwater.
They said on the news that it’s like aiming toward Mississippi, so we might get the [inaudible].
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: There’s the sky. It looks pretty now, but it sure soon will change.
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: I hear some thunder.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: Golly! Look at that water, boy! Ooh, Lord!
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: You see how high that is?
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: Holy Jesus!
Ooh, be with us, Lord, please.
New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin was invited to a screening of Trouble the Water Wednesday afternoon at the Stars Film Center in Denver. Kimberly Roberts caught up with the mayor right before the film was shown to ask him when things were going to improve.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: I want to know what is —- you know, what are the people, the leaders of New Orleans, are going to do about the neglect that’s going on in the city?
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: Unfortunately, we can’t change 200-300 years worth of habits overnight. The good thing about Katrina, if there is a good thing, is that we’ve got our economy going in a much better direction. There’s lots of jobs, opportunities, and business.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: I’m talking about real jobs with living wages. We’re still -—
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: Let me just tell you a couple of examples. And I know this is something that is — we need to have a deeper discussion about.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: Right, right, right.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: Just things like, you know, working at Gene’s po’ boy shop.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: Yeah, yeah.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: They’re paying, you know, $1,500, $1,800 a week to their cooks.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: No, they’re not, man. I’m putting [inaudible] Gene’s, man.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: To their cooks.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: They’re not.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: I’m telling you what they’re doing.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: I cook. I cooked in the French Quarter before, and I’ve tried everything.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: You ought to try, because I just left Gene’s not too long ago.
ANJALI KAMAT: Mayor Nagin promised to talk to Kimberly Roberts later, because he had to get into the theater to see the film.
MAYOR RAY NAGIN: I’m just telling you, this is that opportunity for you to make decent money in this recovery. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.
TIA LESSIN: So the mayor stayed for about five minutes, and his handlers said that, you know, if they had seen the whole movie, that they wouldn’t have ended up coming.
CARL DEAL: I’m so disappointed that the mayor and his people didn’t — weren’t able to stay for the whole film and disappointed that they said that it was a negative portrayal of the people of New Orleans. Poverty is a very negative thing. Poor education is negative. I mean, it’s not a pretty picture for a lot of people who live in New Orleans. And yet, this is a story that takes you through one family’s entire journey, and it tells the truth. Kimberly and Scott open themselves up and expose themselves through this camera, because they felt so strongly that people know what it was like living in New Orleans before, during and after Katrina.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: The camera don’t lie. So we shot the truth. And it’s like no one wants to be held responsible for this. So that’s why I think he kind of ran away from it.
ANJALI KAMAT: We asked Scott Roberts what he would have said if he had the opportunity to talk to the mayor.
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: I would have told him, “What were you thinking, you know, when it came down to evacuation, you know, putting all those people in the Superdome and having the city buses on the levees high and dry?” You know, we could have used them buses to get people out of town.
ANJALI KAMAT: Three years ago this week, Kimberly and Scott were among the thousands of victims of Mayor Nagin’s evacuation plans and the pace of FEMA’s response. There was no public transportation, and they didn’t have a car. They spent two days in their attic with eighteen feet of water around them, before a neighbor swam out to rescue them. Kimberly and Scott then turned to the closest large building for shelter.
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: We went down to the naval base, because nightfall came and got everybody to pull in this thing [inaudible]. I asked the Army people and the US Wildlife Association, “Where was we supposed to go?” And they told me, “Go down to the naval base.” So I tried to tell everybody who was out there, and we walked down to the naval base, and I was talking to the people. And the man told us, “Get off the property, or we’re going to start shooting.” So, after that, you know, I just said, “Forget it. Let’s go down to the school for a couple of days, and hopefully we’ll get some help.”
ANJALI KAMAT: After the film, Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu joined the filmmakers and Kimberly and Scott in a panel.
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: But the saddest thing is the government abandoned everyone, and the ones that were the weakest just died soon. And it’s pretty bad.
ANJALI KAMAT: But when we spoke to the senator earlier this week, she was reluctant to discuss race and the changing racial profile of New Orleans.
SEN. MARY LANDRIEU: The people are coming home, white and black. Now, anytime a catastrophe hits, you know, poor people are hurt worse than wealthy or middle-class. But please don’t make the mistake that this storm only affected poor people or African Americans.
ANJALI KAMAT: African Americans constituted more than two-thirds of New Orleans’ population before Katrina. Today, that number is down to less than 50 percent. Less than 11 percent of families have been able to return to the Lower Ninth Ward. But President Bush visited New Orleans last week and hailed the pace of reconstruction. He said that, quote, "Hope has been restored." We asked Scott whether he thought things had really gotten better.
SCOTT MICHAEL ROBERTS: Basically, it’s the same as the storm hit. You know, we still have poor jobs that’s paying minimum wage. We still have kids running the streets. You know, school is not being enforced. You know, we still have poverty everywhere you go. You know, they quick to sell you a beer or some alcohol, but they’re not quick to give us education.
ANJALI KAMAT: Kimberly emphasized the absence of hope among those for whom so little had changed, even three years after the storm.
KIMBERLY RIVERS ROBERTS: No, not for the poor citizens, it’s not getting better, because people — it’s ten and twenty staying in the house now. It’s people that — you know, people are still struggling to get their houses back up, you understand? Everybody — maybe for the people with money, who had money before Katrina and, you know, after Katrina. It may be a good time for them, but the poor has been forgotten, and it’s evident in the film. You know, people who do have money or have status, you don’t help the government. So that’s the people that I’m speaking for, are the people who are being neglected the most, are the people that were living in poverty during Katrina, before and after Katrina. That’s the ones that are still being neglected.
ANJALI KAMAT: For Democracy Now!, this is Anjali Kamat, with Elizabeth Press.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report. Danny Glover is the executive producer of this new documentary, Trouble the Water. Your thoughts?
DANNY GLOVER: Well, first of all, when Joslyn Barnes, my co-founder of Louverture Films and certainly the one who brought this film to my attention — when we saw this film initially, we thought about — the people need to see this story and how the story itself would inspire, empower people. It’s the reason why we took on the film. It’s the mandate of our company, Louverture Films.
And so, what has happened over the course is this movie has been screened, and parts of it have been screened at conferences, among people who actually are on the ground working around urban areas, disenfranchised areas around the country. It’s people who’ve talked about, how can we use this film in our own mobilization, and how can we use this film in the work that we do? So, obviously, the film has its import in that way, right now, that people say, “We can use this film. Not only it moves us emotionally, but this inspires us.”
In this sense, coupled with the campaign itself, coupled with this whole idea about change, what does change look like? What does a quality education look like? What does the kind of job creation look like? New Orleans is a city whose basic industry is the service industry. That’s why it makes its money. That’s — it brings people to the city. People come to the city and experience the wonders of this extraordinary city and everything else. The question is that, how do we create jobs which are the jobs that have pay, that — living wages?
AMY GOODMAN: I mean, your question “What does change look like?” is a key one —-
DANNY GLOVER: What does it mean?
AMY GOODMAN: —- in this election —-
DANNY GLOVER: It’s the key to this election, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: —- because “change” has become the watchword.
DANNY GLOVER: And here we are right now, and we look at what has happened in New Orleans. And make no —- I’m down in New Orleans about several times a month. I’m down there because I’ve adopted a school, the James Singleton Charter School, in a traditionally black neighborhood, 708 students, run by the YMCA. And I’m down there. It’s people. And I watch people, under the radar screen, mobilize and begin to talk about that and demonstrate their own capacity to change what is happening.
AMY GOODMAN: Isn’t this an incubator for this new idea about education, that it could be privatized? You’re talking about a charter school.
DANNY GLOVER: Well, that’s the major problem, one of the problems. This privatization process in New Orleans schools has gone on long before Katrina.
AMY GOODMAN: But they fired all the teachers.
DANNY GLOVER: They fired all the teachers, -—
AMY GOODMAN: After Hurricane Katrina.
DANNY GLOVER: — which is the oldest teachers’ union —-
AMY GOODMAN: The entire city.
DANNY GLOVER: —- in the Deep South. In the Deep South — fired all their teachers. The charter school mandate — and the James Singleton is different as a charter school. It’s grounded in the community. It takes all comers. It does not selective in this process. It takes all comers.
But it’s just — this whole privatization of education and other vital institutions has been going on in New Orleans for a while. It’s a test case not only for New Orleans, but perhaps a template for what is going to happen in urban areas around the country. And I think we have to be very concerned about that, and the only way in which people’s voices are going to be heard are on the ground, mobilizing, talking about and envisioning their idea of what these institutions look like, their idea of what pay —- living wages look like, their ideas of safety in the community and healthcare and housing in the community. Those are the things that are going to happen on the ground.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think Senator Obama is addressing these issues at a national level?
DANNY GLOVER: Well, I think -—
AMY GOODMAN: And do you have his ear?
DANNY GLOVER: I think we — I think that unions have his ear. And when I talk about the union movement, I speak most notably about Change to Win has his ear. I think that specifically Bruce Raynor and UNITE HERE, as well as Andy Stern, who represent workers, service industry workers, has the ear and could be possibly a bridge between those communities who with we talk about employment, job creation, those communities — those who are unemployed, underemployed. And certainly, I think that’s a possibility. The reason why we support this candidacy is that. The reason that we — we have to be the architects of our own rescue. We have to be the architects of this change. And whatever we do is all founded on that.
AMY GOODMAN: Danny Glover, before we end this conversation, today is a historic day. Forty-five years ago, King gives his "I Have a Dream” speech in Washington. Where were you then?
DANNY GLOVER: I was in high school at that time. I was in front of the television watching that speech. As I’ve said before, I’m a child of the Civil Rights Movement, and I’ve watched the movement from basically as a child [inaudible].
AMY GOODMAN: Five years later, you’d lead the strike at San Francisco State.
DANNY GLOVER: Five years later, I was at San Francisco State College as a student and led a strike that lasted four-and-a-half months.
AMY GOODMAN: Longest in history.
DANNY GLOVER: The longest in — on a US campus in history. And what resulted was an ethnic studies program, the first ethnic studies program at any major college in the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: You shut down the university.
DANNY GLOVER: We shut down the university. And our cry was "On strike, shut it down." But we also — we shut down in support of the students in Czech Republic. We also supported the students — the Parisian students. And we also were in support of an end to the war in Vietnam, as well.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you think about activism today? I mean, last night, as Barack Obama was nominated, the first African American to head a major party presidential ticket, there were thousands of people outside the Pepsi Center. And it’s awkward even to keep referring to the Pepsi Center, but maybe it is symbolic in some way all over this country, these centers named for the corporations. Thousands of people, led by veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, marching in uniform, in unison, trying to get the Obama campaign’s attention, with three demands: pull out now from Iraq, reparations to the Iraqi people, healthcare for vets. They almost were tear-gassed. The riot police were poised. There were hundreds of them. But finally, the Obama campaign came out, and their military liaison, vet liaison, spoke with them.
DANNY GLOVER: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: What about activism today and where we stand today in the midst of war?
DANNY GLOVER: Well, as we watch the activism that’s been building around the globalization movement, as we watch the activism that is built around protecting the environment, and certainly the activism built around real social — meaningful social and economic change, that activism that has to be — has to be grounded in understanding what is really happening to us.
Interesting enough, in reading an op-ed, I think, believe February 3rd, by Robert Wright, he talked about how the mean ways that the average worker, American worker, has remained stagnant for the last thirty-five years. This is not a process that happened just with the Bush administration, but it has happened with subsequent administrations — or prior administrations, as well. We have to find ways in which we begin to engage people in imaginative ways and creating a new language that we need to talk about, in terms of racism, the question of racism, the terms we — the language we need in terms of class, the language we need in terms of understanding our relationship, in terms of foreign policy and domestic policy.
It’s going to be us whether we can challenge this administration. As George Will said on Stephanopoulos’s show, that there’s only — there’s going to be two elite. We’re going to choose between what elite is going to rule this country and is going to be in charge of this country. We have to debunk that. We have to be that wedge that drives the question and asks the hard questions. That’s the kind of activism that we need. It’s not simply going out and voting on Election Day on November 4th. It’s remaining active. It’s getting involved in every single thing to talk about progressive issues, from healthcare to education to job creation, everything else, to foreign policy. That’s what that activism has to resonate — that activism has to resonate in that way.
And we have to — we’re going to push this candidacy. And the further we push, just as the Civil Rights Movement, just as that moment when the Civil Rights Movement pushed the idea of Johnson’s great society, pushed the idea of the war on poverty and pushed those ideas which I think are central to making this country realize its — what it can be. And it’s always been that way. This country has always been run by elite, and it’s an elitist democracy. And that’s not a radical concept. It’s elitist democracy. When people talk about democracy, they don’t talk — really talk about participatory democracy, until the point that we get us at Election Day.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to leave it there. And Danny Glover, I want to thank you for being with us. Danny Glover, here in Denver, actor, activist, executive producer of the new documentary Trouble the Water about New Orleans, also making a film about Haiti. And another time, we’ll talk more about what he’s doing there.