President Obama visited New Orleans on Sunday and praised the recovery of the city and the resilience of its people five years after Hurricane Katrina. We talk to lifelong New Orleans resident and civil rights attorney, Tracie Washington, and Jordan Flaherty, a community organizer and author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. [includes rush transcript]
ANJALI KAMAT: I’m joined now by lifelong New Orleans resident and civil rights attorney Tracie Washington. She’s the president of the Louisiana Justice Institute. And we’re also joined in New Orleans by writer and community organizer Jordan Flaherty. He’s an editor of Left Turn magazine, and his book is just out from Haymarket. It’s called Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six.
Welcome to Democracy Now! Jordan, let’s begin with you. Take us back to those days — the chaos, the catastrophe was unfolding. Explain what was happening and how communities were trying to live with as much dignity as they could at that time.
JORDAN FLAHERTY: Well, first of all, thanks for having me on the show. It’s always a pleasure to be on, and I really appreciate the work you’ve done to shine the light on these important issues.
In that period right after Katrina, the media portrayal of the disaster shifted very quickly from sympathy for the survivors of the storm to portraying people as looters, as criminals, as gangs that were out of control on the streets. And you had the governor of the state of Louisiana saying, "We’re sending in troops. They’re locked and loaded. They’ve been trained to shoot to kill, and I expect they will." You had, we recently discovered, the second in charge of the police department telling people it’s between them and their conscience if they wanted to shoot looters, if they wanted to shoot to kill. You had this perception among the police that they could shoot whoever they wanted, and no one was going to investigate.
And that was so painful to think about these people that were killed, the Madison family and other folks who were crossing over the Danziger Bridge in those days after the storm, trying to get to dry land. Police came on them and fired a hail of bullets at them, shot Ronald Madison, a mentally challenged man, in the back, and then ran up and stomped and kicked him until he was dead. And then, even worse than all of that, even worse than the murder, they invented witnesses, they fabricated and planted evidence. They collaborated to invent stories, to have a believable story for what happened.
Henry Glover, an African American man on the West Bank of New Orleans, was shot by one officer, then kidnapped by other officers, put in the back of a car, and that car was later set on fire with his body in it.
Danny Brumfield, Sr., at the Convention Center, in front of scores of witnesses, he was seeing car after car drive by with police officers and others, no one stopping with any water or food. He ran up to one car. The car deliberately hit him. The officers then shot him in the back.
And these stories were not told. Democracy Now! told some of them, especially in your conversations with Malik Rahim. But overall, our local media failed us. Every check and balance that we were supposed to have failed us. The district attorney was not interested in looking into it. The US attorney was not interested in looking into it. And for years, what kept the story alive was people at the grassroots, people like Tracie Washington; people like Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a grassroots criminal justice organization; the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, who had a people’s tribunal on the first anniversary of Katrina and documented some of these stories. The family members — the Madison family, the Glover family — kept these stories alive against years of silence and against years of the coroner’s office classifying Henry Glover not as a homicide, despite the fact there was this burned body in a car.
Eventually, Malik Rahim got the story to Rebecca Solnit, who got the story to A.C. Thompson, who started investigating. We had a new Justice Department in 2009 that was finally interested in investigating civil rights cases for the first time in at least eight years. We had grassroots activists from New Orleans who went to the Justice Department and went to the Congressional Black Caucus and asked for these investigations. And finally, now, the story that nobody wanted to hear about is now the story that everybody knows. And that’s because of the efforts of these people right at the center of it, these grassroots activists, these family members, that kept the story alive and fought for the truth to come out, against this wall of silence.
ANJALI KAMAT: Well, let’s talk about the present moment. President Obama was in New Orleans yesterday. He spoke at Xavier University. Here’s a snippet of what he said.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: I don’t have to tell you that there are still too many vacant and overgrown lots. There are still too many students attending classes in trailers. There are still too many people unable to find work. And there are still too many New Orleans folks who haven’t been able to come home. So while an incredible amount of progress has been made, on this fifth anniversary I wanted to come here and tell the people of this city directly: my administration is going to stand with you and fight alongside you until the job is done, until New Orleans is all the way back. All the way.
ANJALI KAMAT: Tracie Washington, what’s your assessment of how far New Orleans has come in the past five years? And how much has the Obama administration done for the recovery of New Orleans?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, again, thank you for having me on the show.
And, you know, that snippet, and part of the speech by President Obama, while on the one hand is encouraging, on the other hand is also frustrating to me. We heard a promise from the government five years ago that we were supposed to be able to recover. We’ve continued to hear promises that have been broken. We should have one government in continuity, not having to worry about whether the administration is Republican or Democrat. And what we are seeing is continued blame placed on the victims — the victims of the federal government’s inaction, such that we can have a president here, a president who I love, who says we see too many overgrown lots. Well, peel back the onions — peel back the layers of that, Mr. President, and understand why there are still so many overgrown lots: because you had elderly people waiting on federal assistance after Hurricane Katrina through CDBG funding who didn’t get enough money, who could not possibly recover with $100,000 or $70,000 or whatever it is that you were going pay them based upon the pre-Katrina value of their homes. You didn’t give replacement value for homes for people who owned property, principally people in the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly and Pontchartrain Park.
And so, I give that as an example to say, when you continue to make these promises, federal government, at this time, this fire next time, this five years later, I want you to put in accountability measures so that we don’t have the theft and graft, and people rich in Manhattan and Long Beach, and us still suffering in New Orleans because of disaster profiteers, that you ensure that our folks here in Louisiana state and locally — make sure that the people who were directly victimized by inaction, by the failure of the Army Corps of Engineers to protect us, now get remedy, and finally, that those folks who are still stuck in the diaspora, who are in almost every zip code in the United States of America, are truly guaranteed the right and given free passage back to New Orleans, because, remember, we put them — we gave them a one-way ticket out. We need to make sure folks not only are welcome back, but are given a plane ride back, given a bus ride back, and ensured that they have housing when they get back here. So that’s my impression. That’s my frustration five years from now. I say this: I will continue to work, because this is my home. And I love this city. But let’s not put the "mission accomplished" banner out now, because we’ve got a lot more work to do.
ANJALI KAMAT: Tracie, give us some of the numbers. How many people still have been unable to return to New Orleans?
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, look. We have 100,000 people less now than we had prior to Hurricane Katrina. Is that the right number? Probably not, because we’ve imported so many people, wonderful people, here in the city of New Orleans that didn’t live here prior to Hurricane Katrina. So, you know, at least 100,000 of our native folk are no longer here.
Folks say, "Well, many of those folks who live now in Houston or Atlanta or elsewhere are having far better lives than they would have here." I give this example, however. I have a cousin, brilliant young man, and his wife, who were living here in New Orleans, educators, prior to Hurricane Katrina. And yes, they are doing quite well in Houston. But when they lived in New Orleans as educators and as education administrators, their combined salary was far less than $100,000 a year. Both Master’s degrees. They moved to Houston. You know, they saw their standard of living increase dramatically. But what frustrates them is that they said, "Look, Tracie, now we see young Caucasian non-educators were able to come into our positions, positions that we should have rightfully had, making far more money than we ever made in New Orleans." Are they happy in Houston? Will they stay in Houston? Absolutely. But there’s still that frustration, and a bit of anger, that they weren’t afforded the opportunity to return home and make the standard of living and the kind of living they deserved. So, you know, folks want to play with numbers. I won’t play with numbers. I play with lives. I don’t play with lives, but we talk about lives, and we say that’s what I want folks to focus in on.
ANJALI KAMAT: Well, Tracie Washington, civil rights attorney and president of the Louisiana Justice Institute, we’ll be back in a minute.
ANJALI KAMAT: We’re joined now by two guests from New Orleans. Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based writer and community organizer. His book is Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. We’re also joined by Tracie Washington, civil rights attorney and president of the Louisiana Justice Institute.
Jordan, in your book Floodlines, you tell many, many stories of communities surviving and resisting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Talk about what happened to the education system in New Orleans.
JORDAN FLAHERTY: Well, the education system certainly had problems before Katrina, as Tracie talked about. The teachers were not paid well. The system was tragically underfunded. It was not a working system. But what happened after Katrina is you had a complete shift in the system. So, pre-Katrina you had 128 schools; 124 of them were under the control of the school board. After the storm, the first thing that happened was the entire staff of the school system was fired. All teachers, janitors, cafeteria workers, 7,000-plus employees, were fired. Their union, which was the largest union in the city, was de-recognized. It was also probably the largest source of black political power in the city. It ceased to exist. The schools were then taken away from the control of the school board, so that now there’s five schools under the school board, and the rest are under a combination of either the state or various charters. So we have this — what Superintendent Paul Vallas has called this 100 percent choice system, what he proudly calls a free market system. And that, I think, is a microcosm of what we’ve seen in all these aspects of the post-Katrina New Orleans, where it’s this survival of the fittest system.
We do have excellent schools in the city now, but you need to have parents that can go out and research and get their applications in and get you into the right schools. We have some great healthcare available, but there’s no one healthcare system that provides an indigent, poor — you know, free healthcare for indigent folks. That’s been taken away. You know, so we have some wonderful housing available, but it costs a lot more now. And if you, you know, lived in a home that was damaged, if you lived in a white neighborhood, you got the full amount of money to rebuild; if you lived in an African American neighborhood, you didn’t get the money to rebuild. So, it’s this survival of the fittest. If you lived in the French Quarter or the central business district, or you go to the Lower Garden District, those areas were very quickly rebuilt, even though they didn’t flood. You go to the Lower Ninth Ward, these areas that were hit the most — Gentilly, New Orleans East —- they still haven’t recovered. So it’s like the recovery support went to those that needed the least.
And that’s, I think, fundamentally what we’ve seen as a problem with this whole recovery. And that’s why I think there’s important lessons for people to learn around the country from New Orleans, not just if you’re scared of a hurricane, but if you’re concerned about any of these issues -— housing healthcare, criminal justice, education — because we saw these issues in New Orleans, but we saw them played out on hyper-speed, on fast speed. Suddenly all the teachers fired. Suddenly all the public housing closed up and shuttered up and the people not allowed back in. Suddenly all the schools taken away from local control and put under state control and transferred over to this charter system. Virtually overnight these changes happened.
But I think there’s a lot to learn not just from the problems, but also from the solutions, from this organizing that people did here in New Orleans. And I talked a little bit ago about what happened, criminal justice organizing, but there’s incredible organizing that’s happened from people working on these issues of housing and education, people that have fought for a just reconstruction of the city, people like Tracie Washington, culture workers that have been organizing on the front lines, like Sunni Patterson, who have been doing amazing cultural work and have also been community organizers, folks like Sess 4-5, who have been not just participating in the events, but organizing a lot of this response. And so, there’s important positive lessons, I think, for people around the country concerned about these issues to learn from.
ANJALI KAMAT: Jordan, in a recent article you wrote, you cite a statistic from the recent survey of New Orleanians by the Kaiser Family Foundation about the racial disparity in terms of understandings of recovery. Forty-two percent of African Americans versus just 16 percent of whites say they have still not recovered from Hurricane Katrina. Tracie Washington, we’ve just got a few minutes left with you. You’ve talked about the right to recovery, as opposed to recovery as a privilege. Explain what you mean.
TRACIE WASHINGTON: Especially here, and following, I guess, a little bit on what Jordan was saying. This right to recovery really evolves from United Nations principles, but it is embodied in sort of the type of the economy and how we lived here in New Orleans and really all along the Gulf Coast. We had a social services infrastructure in place here that supplemented healthcare and education and transportation, because we worked people poor, right? We had so many low-wage workers, and we were an impoverished city. Granted, we had lots of wealthy people here, but those wealthy people really made money off of the labor of poor folk. We took away the entire social services infrastructure but still expected people to work poor and live really poor, except now it was much more difficult.
When we talk, therefore, about a right to recovery, we mean principally that the folks who were here prior to Katrina, those folks who were worked poor, all of us, really, have a right to be returned, not just to where we were prior to Hurricane Katrina, but we have those same rights principally to education, to housing, to healthcare, to voting, right? All of these things should be human rights for us. And they’ve not been restored. And for so many of us who are principled and moralled and so many activists, all of whom I couldn’t possibly name here, we sit and we look in these faces every day. We look at these children who are being horribly underserved and undereducated. And we don’t say just 365 days from now, but what’s going to happen three years from now and thirty-six years from now? What’s going to happen with their lives? And if we simply take the time to have a principled recovery, based on these rights, basic human rights, we would be so much better off, and, in fact, we would be that model city that the President, our governor, our mayor and our senior senator continue to falsely say we are. We are not there yet, but we can get there.
ANJALI KAMAT: Well, Tracie Washington, we’ll have to leave it there. Thank you so much for joining us, president of the Louisiana Justice Institute.
We’re going to turn now to poet and performer Sunni Patterson. She’s from the Lower Ninth Ward, but, like thousands of the city’s residents, had been forced to live outside and is now based in Houston, Texas.
Sunni joined us on Democracy Now!
when we were broadcasting from the Lower Ninth Ward on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina in 2007. She read some of her poetry about the storm.
SUNNI PATTERSON: So we know this place,
for we have glanced more times than we’d like to share
into eyes that stare with nothing there
behind them but an unfulfilled wish
and an unconscious yearning for life
though death rests comfortably beside us.
At night their moans are louder.
They come to visit the guards at the gate,
and they stay until morning
torturing their guilt-ridden insides.
The silent cries of the keepers are louder
than the booms that come from the guns
they use to occupy the space.
And we know this place,
for we have seen more times than we’d like to imagine
bloated cadavers floating through waters of a city gone savage,
foraging the land for what can be salvaged.
But what can be saved when all is lost?
It happened in August, twenty-nine days in.
We are now five days out of the only place
we knew to call house and home.
Few things are certain:
one, we have no food;
two, there are more bodies lying at the roadside
than hot plates being distributed
or first aid being administered
or recognition as a citizen.
Fourteenth Amendment, X, refugee, check.
ANJALI KAMAT: Sunni Patterson performing in the Lower Ninth Ward live on Democracy Now! three years ago.
Sunni Patterson, welcome to Democracy Now! Your thoughts on this fifth anniversary? You no longer live in New Orleans. You’re in Houston. Talk about what it feels like to be back in New Orleans.
SUNNI PATTERSON: Well, you know, of course, New Orleans is home. Thank you for allowing me to be on the show this morning.
But, you know, we’ve been talking about this fifth anniversary and the difference that you feel with this particular anniversary. It’s much more of a hoopla, we could say, that comes with it. It’s still unbelievable to me at the same time. Yesterday we had an event in what’s called Hunter’s Field. We started over in the Ninth Ward and second-lined down to this park area called Hunter’s Field. But it rained all day yesterday. And to see, at the same time again, the people stand there just to even call the names of people that they knew, that they have lost in the hurricane, and even as a result, after the hurricane, people that have been lost to post-traumatic stress, you know, heart attacks, cancers that have been festering and all kinds of other health —- overdoses that we’ve been dealing with. So to see these things and then, at the same time, to still see a glimmer of hope in the people’s eyes is still an amazing, amazing thing. I know for myself, not being able to be in the city full-time, it’s something that still tugs at my heart, of course. But what I do know is that, you know, we have a lot of work to do, and I know that wherever I am, I’m certainly going to be a cultural ambassador, you know, for the city, to bring a light to every injustice and even bring a light to, you know, all of the stories of hope and victory and resiliency that go on every day and every moment.
ANJALI KAMAT: Sunni Patterson, is there a new poem you’d like to share with us? We only have a few minutes left.
SUNNI PATTERSON: We only have a few minutes. OK, I can -—
We have not always found comfort in killers.
We have not always found solace being rocked
in the bosoms of those who silently pray
and openly destroy.
No, not always have we mistaken mimicry for mastery
or pretending for knowing
or enslavement for freedom.
But across my memory —-
across my memory marches millions -—
bold, regal, resilient, confident —-
unshackled feet stumping up spirits
to guide us through this fickle material world.
We like sun and moon folk,
universal souls praying our prayers,
singing our songs.
Eshu, Ogoun, Shango, Yemaja, Oshun, Obatala, Oya,
Damballah, Ayida Wedo, Loa, Nkongo, Olodumare and Yami.
We know all of you by name.
We are people of beginnings, of culture, of strength.
Not always have we given into the empty threats
and scare tactics of the powerless ones.
Not always have we allowed the blood of our sons and daughters
to color the streets while we’re walking asleep,
marching to the beat of that siren song.
They’re still wearing their sheets,
with nooses in reach,
showing their teeth and smiling, it seems.
But I hear in the breeze
in the rustle of the trees
and the dangling of the feet,
they say, please, don’t let them ever forget.
You see, not always have we suffered from amnesia.
Not always have we forgotten how to conjure up spirits,
fix up a mixture,
We, like magicians,
god-like vision, we -—
we are people of sight.
So, no, not always have we fallen
for this okie doke
or inhaled the hazardous smoke of the manipulators
or been satisfied with crumbs for meals
our hands have prepared.
Hughes said life for us ain’t been no crystal stair,
but at least the steps are there
to push us up higher,
teach us how to go beyond the destroyer’s disguises,
look them in the eyes and be able to see.
Because what’s surprising when you know the nature of a beast
and especially when they’ve shown the same face for centuries?
So you tell me,
what’s the difference between two sisters in New Orleans
shot point-blank in the back of the head,
and two women bound in their car in Baghdad?
Or government-sanctioned killings in Kenya,
and a sister held hostage in a house in Virginia?
Or poverty in Haiti, poverty in Jamaica,
rape in Rwanda or rape in Somalia?
A sweatshop in China or one in Guatemala?
Or small pox and blankets, syphilis and Tuskegee,
formaldehyde and FEMA, ethnic cleansing and Katrina?
I recall within a speech Dr. King made us aware,
he said injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere.
So they can spare us their drama, huh?
We got the heart of them field working mamas.
We carry the torch of that ancestor fire.
So with every fiber that flutters in our being,
with every find that comes from our seeking,
with every hearing that comes from our listening,
and every sight that comes from our seeing,
we must be faithful, strategic, victorious and free.
ANJALI KAMAT: Thank you, Sunni Patterson.
SUNNI PATTERSON: Thank you.
ANJALI KAMAT: Jordan Flaherty, I want to end with you. Sunni talked about amnesia. What lessons can people around the world learn from the resilience of the people in New Orleans? As Pakistan faces the worst floods in a hundred years, Haiti recovering from earthquake, disasters natural and unnatural, what community-based lessons can people learn?
JORDAN FLAHERTY: It’s really hard to speak after Sunni Patterson; my breath is taken away. I think that there are so many important lessons to learn again from the grassroots resistance, from the organizing, from the communities coming together. I think we need to learn not to give money to Red Cross and these big charities that are not accountable to the communities that are most in need. We need to find the folks in the grassroots and find ways to support them. We need to understand that this system causes crisis, and so that there will always be more of these crises. And we need to look out for the corporations that will try to profit off these crises, what Naomi Klein has called "the shock doctrine," these politicians that try to use this crisis to take away power from the people and control from the people and shift over to more corporate control, more privatization. But there are communities in Haiti, in New Orleans, in Pakistan —-
ANJALI KAMAT: Five seconds.
JORDAN FLAHERTY: —- that are rising up and organizing. And so, we need to support these communities. Thank you again for Democracy Now! for all you do to spread the word about this.
ANJALI KAMAT: Thanks, Jordan. Jordan Flaherty, community organizer, writer in New Orleans, the author of Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six. Thanks also to Sunni Patterson, poet from the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans.