We've all loved New Orleans, and the Big Easy has loved us right back. We've partied there, gambled perhaps, gorged on the delicacies and had a good time to the point of embarrassing ourselves. Losing yourself in the revelry was par for the course in this uniquely American city, a town where anything goes and all is forgiven.
Today New Orleans represents a national disgrace that is unforgivable. The devastating loss of life and human dignity in the Gulf Coast region must forever live in infamy. And the negligence of our nation's leaders demands serious recourse.
How do some of the poorest people in the country hold the most powerful accountable? Community leaders from across the South met in Baton Rouge this weekend to begin formulating an answer to that question.
Over sixty grassroots organizers convened at Southern University for a nine hour meeting on how to balance the need to provide relief for the suffering with the urgency of fighting for justice. According to Norris Henderson, a criminal justice organizer from New Orleans, the meeting was a first step toward establishing a People's Commission to have a voice in the allocation of resources for redevelopment. Southern activists also discussed the need to gain access to FEMA and Red Cross data bases in order to better serve displaced families desperately searching for loved ones.
Community Labor United (CLU), a New Orleans-based coalition, helped coordinate Saturday's meeting. CLU wants impoverished people from the region to have a role in overseeing the local relief efforts of FEMA and the Red Cross and decision-making power in the reconstruction of the urban center of New Orleans. CLU is calling for lawyers to investigate the wrongful deaths that could have been prevented in the wake of Katrina and for a rigorous investigation of how and why the levees broke. CLU has also helped establish a People's Hurricane Fund to be directed and administered by New Orleanian evacuees. (Go to www.qecr.org for more information.) It's critical that indigenous leaders have, not only a voice, but also real power in short-term relief efforts and long-term redevelopment. Otherwise, national leaders -- including liberal ones -- won't confront the real issues. CLU's Organizing Director Curtis Muhammed explains: "This is plain, ugly, real racism. While some politicians and organizations might skirt around the issue of race, we in New Orleans are not afraid to call it what it is. This is not just immoral -- this has turned a natural disaster into a man-made disaster, fueled by racism." While it's impossible to calculate exactly how responsible the Bush Administration is for the "man-made" death and destruction -- where does the lethal force of nature end and the failure of public systems to save lives begin? -- it's certain that President Bush perpetrated a level of malign neglect that is treasonous. Treason, simply, is the betrayal of one's country. Pilfering millions from New Orleans' levee repair project to pay for a war based on deceit is a national betrayal. Sending one-third of Louisiana's National Guard and much of Mississippi's to Iraq is a national betrayal. Failing to declare a national state of emergency or to halt the "shoot to kill" policy of law enforcement which replaced orders to "search and rescue" is a national betrayal. Bush's willful neglect of the people of the Gulf Coast amounts to criminal negligence. Bush appointed former PR handler, Michael Brown, to head FEMA after the guy was asked to resign from the International Arabian Horse Association. It's clear that ensuring the safety of our country during a time of national crisis is as important to Bush as an equestrian contest. He didn't put anyone with experience managing disaster at the head of FEMA because, in short, he could care less. Bush doesn't want a strong FEMA. He doesn't want a functional public sector. His only interest in government is to exploit the public good. Katrina paints in stark and tragic relief what we already knew: the Bush Administration considers itself unassailable and unaccountable to all but the wealthiest American citizens. The poor and powerless are at critical risk. And none of us are truly safe. The President has placed our country on a fault line. Van Jones has put forward the right framework of action for recreating public safety and taking back the country. His nine steps for "shattering the old consensus and building a new one" [see Jones' September 7th posting, "Now Let’s Rescue America: Nine Key Steps"] include, perhaps most importantly, maintaining the estate tax. The Democratic Party leadership in Washington, DC needs to demand a roll back of the 2001 Bush tax cuts and we should impose a windfall profits tax on oil company income for the balance of this year and next. Tax revenue that results from these minimal fiscal reforms should be invested in rebuilding the decimated Gulf Coast region. Progressives from coast to coast should respect and support CLU and other organizations representing those who have the most to gain from a restorative version of redevelopment that redistributes resources. Just as New Orleanians searched for higher ground in attics, on rooftops and beyond the eye of the storm, so must we rise up and seize the moral high ground. We must take back our country. Some national leaders called for the impeachment of Bill Clinton on the grounds that he fooled around with a White House intern. What then is the proper punishment for a President who wrecked havoc in the lives of thousands upon thousands of our fellow citizens? We must not only ask what Bush could have done to prevent -- and still must do to repair -- the damage; we must also ask ourselves individually and collectively what we can do to dethrone Bush. May the survivors of Katrina remind us that this will require sweat and sacrifice. May the survivors of Katrina give us courage and fuel us with an outrage we've never felt before. It's time to do and give more, far beyond the capacities we thought we had before the hurricane struck. It's time to rise up like a flood surge and summon up the power to hold Bush accountable by removing him from office.