New Orleans native, acclaimed actor, Tony Award-winning producer and community activist. His new book is The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. Pierce starred in the HBO dramas Treme and The Wire, as well as the Oscar-nominated film Selma. He founded a nonprofit called Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corp. to build new affordable solar and geothermal homes for families displaced by Katrina.
co-director and attorney with the New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights.
On Sept. 2, 2005, during a nationally televised telethon benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina, hip-hop legend Kanye West went off script to directly criticize the media and the White House’s handling of the storm. "I hate the way they portray us in the media," he said. "If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. If you see a white family, it says they’re searching for food." West went on to say, "George Bush doesn’t care about black people." Bush later wrote in his memoir that this moment was an all-time low of his presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Our guests are Monique Harden, environmental and human rights lawyer in New Orleans; Gary Rivlin, author of Katrina: After the Flood; and author and actor Wendell Pierce, The Wind in the Reeds: A Storm, a Play, and the City That Would Not Be Broken. Juan?
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I want to go back to an infamous moment shortly after Hurricane Katrina when the hip-hop star Kanye West spoke out against President Bush on NBC’s nationally televised concert for hurricane relief. He was appearing alongside actor Mike Myers. This is Kanye West.
MIKE MYERS: With the breach of three levees protecting New Orleans, the landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically, and perhaps irreversibly. There’s now over 25 feet of water where there was once city streets and thriving neighborhoods.
KANYE WEST: I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food. And you know that it’s been five days, because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV, because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before even giving a donation. So now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give. And just to imagine if I was—if I was down there and those are my people down there. So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help with the set-up, the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible, I mean, this is—Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way, and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.
MIKE MYERS: And subtle, but in even many ways more profoundly devastating is the lasting damage to the survivors’ will to rebuild and remain in the area. The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the more tragic loss of all.
KANYE WEST: George Bush doesn’t care about black people.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was Kanye West. And this is President Bush later—who later wrote in his memoir that this moment was an "all-time low" of his presidency. He spoke about it in a 2010 interview with NBC’s Matt Lauer.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I didn’t appreciate it then, I don’t appreciate it now. It’s one thing to say, you know, "I don’t appreciate the way he’s handled his business." It’s another thing to say, "This man’s a racist." I resent it. It’s not true. And it was one of the most disgusting moments of my presidency.
MATT LAUER: This from the book: "I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low."
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yeah, still feel that way as you read those words. Felt them when I heard them. Felt them when I wrote them. And I felt them when I’m listening to them.
MATT LAUER: You say you told Laura at the time it was the worst moment of your presidency.
GEORGE W. BUSH: Yes.
MATT LAUER: I wonder if some people are going to read that, and they might give you some heat for that. And the reason is this.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I don’t care.
MATT LAUER: Well, here’s the reason. You’re not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana. You’re saying it was when someone insulted you because of that.
GEORGE W. BUSH: No. And I also make it clear that the misery in Louisiana affected me deeply, as well. There’s a lot of tough moments in the book, and it is a disgusting moment, pure and simple.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was President George W. Bush in 2010. Monique Harden, your thoughts as you hear those clips?
MONIQUE HARDEN: You know, I think one of—for me, I think it’s important people understand that this is the same president that adopted within the State Department a policy for protecting human rights when people are displaced by a disaster in foreign countries, and with the understanding that if you don’t ensure that they have the right to return, the right to recover, that destabilizing effect of displacement can create serious setbacks that could last several generations into the future. And you can go from destabilized people and families to destabilized communities and areas and regions where the disaster and the displacement occurs. And so, to do that in the year before Hurricane Katrina and then to turn around and do the complete opposite—ignore the need for evacuation, ignore the need for preparation, ignore the tremendous need for recovery that’s equitable and just and protects human rights—is part of his legacy, and it’s something that he created.
I mean, when you look at the federal law, all of the decisions come from the president. Once something is declared as a national disaster, this law says all decisions, and the decision to act or not to act, are entirely discretionary and immune from lawsuit. And this is how he chose to exercise that power—to let people wait and suffer in flooded cities on rooftops and convention centers and the Superdome without adequate support and services; to evacuate families without—parents without children in a really inhumane and harsh condition; and to set about this conservative recovery agenda [inaudible] caused displacement of so many people, African Americans, in particular, from New Orleans and the Gulf region, and put money in the hands of folks who are not in need of any recovery but are just profiting from the disaster. He did all of that.
AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Pierce, if you could respond? Where were you when you heard what Kanye West said? And then, you talked about your parents among the first to live in Pontchartrain, an African-American suburb in New Orleans, but your history goes way back—grandparents, great-grandparents. A brief biography of your family and its connections to New Orleans?
WENDELL PIERCE: Yeah, I was in the middle of St. James Parish, where we were—where we rode out the storm. We were without power. We were in the middle of the storm at an uncle’s home. And I didn’t see Kanye’s expression on television until later on.
But getting back to what the president, President Bush, said, that he was disgusted, I was truly disgusted. You know, the 82nd Airborne can be anywhere in the world in 48 hours, and they’re in Georgia, just a couple of states away, a couple of miles away from New Orleans. I was disgusted when I watched the president of the United States fly over the disaster that was happening in New Orleans rather than come there. You know, in 1965 during Betsy, when I was a little boy, another devastating hurricane, LBJ came down to the Lower Ninth Ward with a flashlight, wading through the water, saying, "I am your president. I am here. Come out. We are here to do something for you." And it was just this stark contrast of a president who just was—just showed neglect.
And to say that it wasn’t about race, I’m sure that—I kept saying to people who finally got in touch with me in the middle of the night, and I would tell them, "We are in great need down here." And they kept telling me, "Wendell, we’re watching it on television." And I said, "You can’t be telling me that you’re watching it on television, because there would be some response." And to find out later, once I got out of Louisiana, to see that it was something that was broadcast around the world live—and those same people we saw at the Convention Center tried to walk out of the city, met on the other side of the bridge by racist cops who shot into the crowd, over their heads, saying, "Go back. We don’t want you to come into our community of Gretna," which is a white suburban neighborhood and city just across the bridge—I’ll never forget that. I’ll never forget how people responded to people of color. If those had been white American citizens, you would have seen a more immediate response. I doubt that if in the Marina section of San Francisco after the earthquake in the late ’80s, that people would have sat back and done nothing. They knew that was one of the most cherished neighborhoods in America and one of the most cherished and profitable cities in America, and so they responded. It was all about race—the lack of attention, the fact that you saw these images of people in need.
And so, I think back to how my parents’ generation created Pontchartrain Park, the neighborhood that I grew up in. It came out of that same sort of racist neglect during Jim Crow. You could only go to the park only one day of the week if you were black, and that was Wednesdays, Negroes’ day, Negro day. And Pontchartrain Park was in response to that, of the advocacy of the civil rights movement, so that we could have access to this post-World War II suburbia that was happening after the war. My father, who fought in World War II, came back, took advantage of the G.I. Bill and created Pontchartrain Park—a golf course, a thousand homes around it, where they would have access to what was that Levittown sort of suburbia that was happening in America.
We were in some of the deepest part of the flooding, and we took it upon ourselves to initiate our own redevelopment, resident-initiated, the Pontchartrain Park Community Development Corporation. So now we have these homes and are trying to bring people back. We’re restricted by those who don’t have our best interest at heart, because we’ve turned away people with cash, saying, "Here we are and want to buy a home in your community, come back. Just like you, Wendell, I heard the call." This Joshua generation, honoring that Moses generation that gave us a great foundation, a great place to grow up in, and we have to turn away people with cash because of these policies that are restricting us from selling to any sort of middle-class or working-class person who wants to come, because they’re using our redevelopment to displace all of those from public housing. So we’re restricted to only take in those who are in need from public housing, as they take back and reclaim the center of the city and other parts of the city that had public housing that they want. I call it the new blight, because two-thirds of it sits empty at market rate, where you have only one-third that is public housing. So you see, over the course of generation and generation and generation, racist policies that are not in the best interests of communities that are doing everything possible to thrive on their own. And so, you have to be ever vigilant, from my grandparents’ generation, where people were coming—night riders coming and burning cars in the black community in Assumption Parish, to my mother’s generation and my parents’ generation, who brought us up in Pontchartrain Park.
And now, as we mark this 10-year anniversary of Katrina, the most profound thing about this commemoration is the fact that we have another window of opportunity to get it right. And while some people have said that I am a voice of cynicism, that I am not being as celebratory as everyone else, you’re absolutely right, because I choose to look at what is going wrong and saying we have an opportunity now to attack those issues and those policies that are going to have a negative impact, and let’s try to bring back those people who want to come home, that 100,000 displaced New Orleanians who love New Orleans. And being a culture matron, as an actor, to know that most of the culture you’re familiar with in New Orleans comes from that history of oppression and is known around the world. Second lines were because black communities were redlined by insurance companies, so we put together own social aid and pleasure clubs. You understand the pleasure part. The social aid was to make sure that we pooled our monies—
AMY GOODMAN: Five seconds.
WENDELL PIERCE: —so that we can take care of ourselves. So, that’s the thing that I want to remember the most—the legacy of the culture that came before, the fighting those that don’t have our best interest at heart—
AMY GOODMAN: Wendell Pierce, I want to thank—
WENDELL PIERCE: —and looking forward to the future.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you for being with us. The book, The Wind in the Reeds. Also Gary Rivlin; his book, Katrina: After the [Flood]. And Monique Harden, thanks so much for being with us.