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Now Let's Rescue America: Nine Key Steps

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The troops have arrived, and the waters are receding. The battered and traumatized residents are being transported -- we hope and pray -- to safer ground.

But the battle to save New Orleans is not over -- not by a long shot.

The work to rescue it, and the country, has just begun. The coming struggle will be difficult -- stretching over a decade or more.

But if we dedicate ourselves, the outcome is certain. The puffed-up potentate who fiddled while New Orleans drowned will lose his grip on power -- and so will his party. And the people of New Orleans will live in a resurrected city -- their hometown rebuilt by a nation more deeply committed to justice and equality.

That result is possible -- but only if our progressive networks create a force strong enough to achieve it. The post-Katrina moment provides a rare opportunity for us to come together and win real change. Below, I will share my own dreams about what we might accomplish.

STATE OF SHOCK: FROZEN IN PLACE

But first, it must be said: we progressives have NOT gotten off to the best possible start. I am deeply disappointed in myself, for not doing more sooner.

I will keep denouncing Bush until I am old and gray for his unconscionable betrayals. But inside I will always feel ashamed -- not just of the president, but of myself.

I have been an activist for two decades, supposedly "building organizational power" to champion the cause of justice. And yet when truly heroic action was called for, I didn't just come up short. I didn't even get into the game.

Feelings of shock and helplessness paralyzed me for days. My African-American ancestors, who led slave revolts and toppled Jim Crow, would have been dismayed by my inaction -- if not disgusted.

Of course, my forebears would have known better than to expect the U.S. government to prioritize saving Black people from serious danger, in the first place. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have gone down there immediately -- defying FEMA and leading a peaceful march to bring in food, medicine and water. And Malcolm X or the Black Panthers probably would have commandeered vehicles, crashed the roadblocks, braved gunfire -- saving our people, by any means necessary.

Not me. Thousands of mostly poor, Black people were wiped out or abandoned by the government to die. And I couldn't even figure out how to get that online donation thing-ie to work. I didn't even call my U.S. senators. I just sat here, surfing websites, forwarding e-mails to my friends, blogging a little bit ... and wiping away tears.

THE LEFT LACKED THE CAPACITY OR GUTS TO DO MORE

There was a major leadership failure last week. But it was not limited to the White House. It extended deep into our own ranks. And my own impotence places me, shamefully, inside that circle of failure.

I wish we had flooded Capitol Hill with a coordinated wave of phone calls and emails. We should have conducted protests and "sit-ins" at every federal building in the country. Maybe after Wednesday, we should have delivered the aid ourselves -- regardless of the cost. We had a duty to move heaven and earth to support the Southerners -- including the local activists -- who did risk their necks to save lives.

The fact that we did not have the organizational capacity -- or the guts -- to do more than we did is as exasperating and devastating to me as any of Bush's crimes or omissions.

Now progressives must also act quickly to recover our balance and seize the political initiative. We will have to work hard, even through our tears.

It will be tough to overcome our paralysis and break through long-standing weaknesses on the Left. But now is the time to do it.

NOW IS THE TIME TO SPEAK TRUTH & ACT BOLDLY

If we articulate a bold action program, we can win support on a scale that we have not known for decades. This tragedy has touched something deep in the American people. And after a long romance with those river-boat gamblers on the Right, they are finally ready to hear something sensible from our side.

The press has not yet awakened to this reality. The pollsters haven't caught on. But a small, strong voice is rising again in this country. Far from the deaths and the denials, on opposite coasts as well as the heartland, a clear voice is growing steadily stronger.

This voice does not shout. It is far too angry and ashamed for that. It is not loud -- just determined.

You have heard it yourself. The media flooded your senses with images of destruction, death and delay. And a voice inside you said: "No -- not in my country."

"NOT IN MY COUNTRY" HEARD FROM COAST TO COAST

Men and women clinging to rooftops, dying in flooded attics, collapsing in diabetic shock, dying of dehydration -- five days after the skies had completely cleared. No rescue, no assistance, not even an airlifted water bottle.

"Not in my country."

Thousands of human beings locked into a sweltering, filthy sports arena -- with 100-degree temperatures, corpses and no water -- on live television. Dead grandmothers piled into corners like garbage. Infants dying, in their mothers' arms, of thirst.

"Not in my country."

A major American city wiped off the face of the Earth -- along with probably THREE times as many Americans as perished on 9-11. Meanwhile, the U.S. president keeps playing golf and attending fund-raisers.

"Not in my country."

Now, this may seem like a small thing: millions of Americans, of every color and class, saying simultaneously -- and in their deepest of hearts -- "no."

But I believe that this voice -- with our encouragement -- can grow in confidence and in volume. I believe that it can remind us all of this country's better and wiser traditions. And I believe that this voice can, at long last, call America back to her senses.

This voice is your voice. And mine. It is the voice of millions and millions of people in this country, right now. With devoted, hard work, all those voices can swell into a chorus -- too powerful and too resonant to be denied.

TIME TO SHATTER THE OLD CONSENSUS & BUILD A NEW ONE

And as we move forward, let us not be afraid to teach America a new song. This is the rarest of circumstances: a genuine teaching moment. Let us take full advantage of it.

The desire to pull something good out of this disaster is neither cynical nor opportunistic. National crises almost always unleash energy for change -- in one direction or another. The GOP used our last national disaster -- 9-11 -- to torpedo the country's finances, curtail our freedoms and soak Iraq in blood.

By seizing the moment, we can do something positive. We can shatter the present consensus that says "cut social spending to pay for a massive warfare state." We can re-balance federal spending priorities away from the Pentagon -- and toward first-responders, infrastructure and communities. Let nothing stop us from doing this.

Particularly vulnerable now is the right-wing's strategy to "starve the beast." Republicans have been planning to choke off tax revenues, so they can forcibly shrink all non-military parts of the government.

That's what the GOP "tax cut" mantra is really about: leaving the government too broke to pay for social uplift programs. That's the reason Bush turned the Clinton-era surplus into this mind-boggling deficit. In the end, the rich get the biggest tax breaks. And working people lose essential support and services -- like functioning schools, hospitals, roads, bridges, dams ... and levees.

As far as I am concerned, "starve the beast" should drown in New Orleans. The Katrina aftermath shows that we need a functioning government, after all. It proves that over-funding the military and cutting services actually makes us LESS safe, not more safe.

And the aftermath demonstrates that issues of racism, poverty, climate destabilization, petro-chemical poisons and the vulnerabilities of an oil-based economy are not just petty obsessions of the politically-correct crowd. They are life-and-death issues for real people.

FILL THE LEADERSHIP VACUUM: NINE KEY STEPS

In other words: we were right, all along. And Team Bush was wrong, all along. We should make that point, again and again. As we propose our own ideas.

Ordinary Americans were stunned by a huge leadership gap and credibility gap in the Bush White House. By stepping forward immediately, we can fill that gap ourselves.

The following nine steps are critical.

1. Let's tell America that we want to fully fund FEMA -- by rolling back the Bush tax cuts to at least Clinton-era levels. The rich must help secure the country against the next disaster. Reckless revenue cuts that leave us vulnerable must be repealed.

2. Let's declare that Katrina's flood-waters washed the GOP's proposal to repeal the "estate tax" off the table. There will be no tax breaks for the mega-rich while the nation is recovering from this historic blow -- and preparing itself for the next one. Any revenue cuts would both impair the rebuilding effort and risk lives down the road. Let's declare the repeal of the so-called "death tax" to be: D.O.A. (Dead On Arrival).

3. Let's publicly demand that George W. Bush either apologize to the people of the Gulf Coast for failing them, or else resign. It is time to stop fearing Bush Almighty, assuming that he and Karl Rove can keep trashing the country and never pay a price. The man just impaled himself on his own arrogance and contempt for life. Even conservative reporters were outraged by his team's indifference and dishonesty. Under Bush, America abandoned our poor, sick and disabled in a crisis -- and the whole world saw it on live TV. True patriots were appalled. And his smirking and shirking just aren't cute anymore. A call for his resignation would draw some right-wing support.

4. Let us resolve not to lose a single moment -- pacing back and forth, wringing our hands and trying not to appear too "partisan" or "blaming." Of course, the Republicans are going to howl that we are "finger-pointing" or "exploiting the tragedy." What else can they say for themselves at this point? That Bush did a good job? Let them call us names. And let us stay focused on ensuring that the thousands who perished did not die in vain.

5. Let's insist that New Orleans be rebuilt -- under the direction of those who have lived there for generations, not at the behest of big developers or carpet-bagging profiteers like Halliburton. To that end, let's passionately support grassroots organizations in the region like the Community Labor United, Mississippi Workers Center, Southern Empowerment Project and Project South. And let's help any evacuees who relocate to our areas get politically organized, so they can stay involved in the process.

6. Let's help rebuild the Gulf Coast on a visionary, environmentally sustainable basis. (On the worldchanging.com site, Alan AtKisson makes a beautiful, well-reasoned and comprehensive case for rebuilding New Orleans as a model "green city.") All of our environmental sustainability, environmental justice and eco-business networks can unite to make this happen.

7. Let's launch a national network of individuals to help secure from all levels of government properly funded reconstruction and evacuee support. (We are gathering signatures for such an effort at ellabakercenter.org.) Let's push our city councils to pass "Sister City" ordinances in solidarity with New Orleans and other hurricane-ravaged towns. Evacuee support should be a yearly budget item in every major city (through the entire decade of rebuilding, if need be). Every mayor needs to appoint a paid ombudsman to support local evacuees and to coordinate information flow with Louisiana and Mississippi officials.

8. Let's call for National Guard troops to be returned from Iraq, especially those from Louisiana and Mississippi. The Katrina aftermath shows how much we need our disaster relief forces to be back here, in the United States. Let's tie, with a thousand strings, progressives working in the recovery effort to the anti-war movement. (The United for Peace & Justice statement, "The Gulf Wars" makes a convincing case for common ground. You can find it at unitedforpeace.org.)

9. And let us wage our own war ... against forgetting. We must not let the media or the Right "orchestrate amnesia" by pushing this tragedy to the back pages. We deserve levels of ongoing media attention that match and exceed 9-11. Every writer, film-maker and artist must share this shameful story: a storm came, and this nation left its poor, Black and disabled people behind to die. We must sear that fact into the memory of this nation. This catastrophe -- and its lessons -- must become part of the national legend. Only then, can we be assured that the mindset that permitted it will never again lead this country.

Taking these steps -- and dozens more like them -- are the best ways for us to honor the dead. Through bold action, we just may find the gift in this hideous, grievous wound.

We could not save those who died needlessly on Mississippi rooftops and in Louisiana attics. But we still have time to rescue America.

And as our voice of conscience grows louder, let us expand our hearts even more. In the days to come, let us say about this kind of injustice: "Not in my country. Not in this world. And never again."

In the name and the memory of all those souls taken from us, let us begin.

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