The waters are receding. But the battle to save New Orleans – 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 continue losing 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 progressives create a force strong enough to achieve it. The post-Katrina moment is a time to come together and win real change.
State of Shock: Frozen ind Place in a Crisis
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.
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.
Of course, my fore-bearers 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. I couldn't even figure out how to get that online donation thing-ie to work. I sat here for days, surfing websites, forwarding e-mails, blogging … and wiping away tears.
The Left Lacked the Capacity or Guts to Do More
I wish we had flooded Capitol Hill with a coordinated wave of phone calls and emails. I wish we had conducted protests and "sit-ins" at every federal building in the country. 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.
But there was a major leadership failure last week. And not just in the White House. It extended deep into our own ranks. The fact that we did not have the organizational capacity – or the guts – to do more than we did, is as exasperating to me as any of Bush's crimes or omissions.
Now progressives must recover our balance and take the initiative. We will have to work hard, even through our tears. Break through long-standing weaknesses on the Left will be tough. But now is the time to do it.
Now Is the Time to Speak Truth and 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 hasn't quite awakened to this reality. The pollsters are just beginning to catch on. But far from the deaths and the denials, on opposite coasts as well as in the heartland, a small 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" Resounds 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 nothing to eat – 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 possibly 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 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 of this country's better and wiser traditions. And I believe that this voice can, at long last, call this nation back to its senses.
This voice is your voice. And mine. It is the voice of millions and millions of American citizens and residents, right now. With tireless work and devotion, all those voices can swell into a chorus – too powerful and too resonant to be denied.
Time to Shatter the Old Consensus and 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. It is a moment of deeper longing and listening. We owe it to the dead not to waste it.
The desire to pull something good out of this disaster is neither cynical nor opportunistic. National crises 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, instead. 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. And we can banish forever the “sink or swim” politics that have seduced Republicans and Democrats for far too long.
Let nothing stop us from completing these tasks. The Katrina aftermath shows that over-funding the military and cutting services actually makes us LESS safe, not more safe.
And it 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
Ordinary Americans were stunned by a huge leadership gap and credibility gap in the Bush White House. By stepping forward immediately, we can fill those gaps ourselves.
The following nine steps are critical.
1. Let's tell America that we want to fully fund FEMA and disasterrelief
– 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 more vulnerable must now be repealed.
2. Let's declare that the Katrina's flood-waters washed the GOP'sproposal 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 thepeople 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 might 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 something changes in the wake of this catastrophe.
5. Let's insist that New Orleans be rebuilt – under the direction ofthose 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 Union, 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, environmentallysustainable 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 ensure that all levels of government properly fund 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 who are 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, we will 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."- Van Jones is the national executive director of the Ella Baker Center For Human Rights. (Originally published by the HuffingtonPost.com.)