The best qualities and the worst features of U.S. society were on full display in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. And today we are still witnessing a frenzied tug-of-war between opposing aspects of the American character -- with the final fate of New Orleans hanging in the balance.
This dynamic will continue throughout the long years of recovery, reconstruction, and renewal in the Gulf Coast region. The outcome is uncertain. But we can do a lot to help tip the scales.
Looking Back: Days Of Heartbreak and Horror
The winds of Katrina blew back the curtain on some of the worst features of U.S. politics, culture, and society. No one can forget the heartbreaking images of our most vulnerable citizens abandoned to a horrific fate, trying to survive in a city underwater. Nor can we erase the image of a fly-over U.S. president, indifferent and detached during an unprecedented national catastrophe.
The misplaced priorities of the Bush White House were made clear when the president announced a policy of "zero tolerance for looting" -- but never declared "zero tolerance" for starvation, dehydration, drowning, or medical neglect. So for five days, live television showed thousands of Americans struggling to survive a disaster -- without one scrap of food, or a single bottle of water, from the richest and most powerful government on Earth.
And the disappointments were not limited to official Washington. We learned -- to our horror -- that local officials had offered no help to those who were too poor or too feeble to flee. And for days, media coverage served up racial stereotypes, simultaneously promoting sympathy for the white "survivors" and fear of the black "looters."
The president's "property-over-people" ethic, the media's chronic racial bias, and the nation's knee-jerk disdain for the poor are negative aspects of the American character. And they all came to the fore during the crisis.
Looking Back: Days Of Hope, Renewed
But the better side of America also came into view. As the days wore on, reporters, editors, and news producers finally recovered some of the backbone they lost after 9/11. They started challenging the White House's preposterous spin that evacuation efforts were going along fine. (Let's hope this spirit extends into, and improves, mainstream coverage of the disaster in Iraq.)
The fundamental decency of the American people expressed itself in widespread disgust and shame at the government's bungled, slow-motion response. Bush's poll numbers plummeted as (even) conservatives turned their backs on him – appalled by the spectacle of a U.S. president happily attending fund-raisers while a major American city drowned.
By the end of the week, the humanity and the suffering of New Orleans' impoverished and abandoned African-Americans touched the nation.
Ordinary people of all classes and colors opened their hearts, homes, and wallets to the displaced families of the Gulf Coast. And progressives were at the forefront of the charitable response. For instance, Moveon.org and other progressive groups established HurricaneHousing.org – our very own “underground railroad” that helped tens of thousands of evacuees find new homes.
Celebrities and other notables did fund-raising concerts and telethons. In the spirit of the brash, young Muhammad Ali, rapper Kanye West courageously accused Bush of not caring about black people.
His controversial words struck a chord. Because for the first time in more than a generation, caring deeply about the fate of the black poor seemed – at least for a moment – like the American thing to do.
Tens of millions of U.S. citizens and residents acted from a place of renewed compassion and concern for the poor. And that fact gives us something hopeful upon which to build as we face the challenges of reconstructing the Gulf Coast.
And those challenges are monumental. One million displaced people have been evacuated into more than 30 states. A major production center -- for both oil and culture -- has been destroyed. And the emotional trauma suffered by the direct victims (let alone the millions of TV witnesses) may take years and decades to fully heal.
Worse, the same slowpoke forces that botched the evacuation are now moving at lightning-speed to profiteer on the region's reconstruction. Bush's administration has suspended environmental safeguards for fuel production. He has canceled affirmative action and living wage protections for workers who will rebuild the region. The White House has also passed out no-bid contracts to the likes of Halliburton and Bechtel, creating a multi-billion dollar bonanza for corporate giants – who now have no obligation to employ local workers or pay anyone a decent wage.
And then, to add greater insult to unspeakable injury, Republicans plan to pay for this boondoggle not by reversing tax breaks for the rich, but by slashing social services to the poor. If the GOP has its way, it will be people like the ones we saw suffering on TV who will wind up footing the bill to rebuild New Orleans.
Worse still, New Orleans ultimately could re-emerge as a cartoon version of itself: the Big McEasy, a corporate-controlled Disney Land for yuppies, with no room for the original population to return – ever. The region's African-descended people, with their unique cultural heritage and deep roots in the area, would become a new black diaspora, scattered to the winds. New buildings might rise from the rubble, but the spirit of New Orleans would be forever lost. The damage to those displaced peoples—and to the worlds of music, art and culture —would be incalculable.
Averting A Second Catastrophe: No Big Mc-Easy
Fortunately, the better parts of America are already rallying to avert what would be a second catastrophe in the Gulf Coast region.
Many organizations and funds have sprung up (or re-oriented themselves) in the past month, trying to make the very best of a bad situation.
It would be impossible to list all of the efforts, but some key groupings stand out. Community Labor United (CLU), a New Orleans coalition of over 40 grassroots organizations working for justice, has emerged as a central player. CLU quickly established the People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition to "(meet) the needs of those impacted by Katrina and (insure) that there is local, grass-roots leadership in the relief, return and reconstruction process in New Orleans."
National organizations of progressives, including the Vanguard Foundation and True Majority, support CLU as a major activist voice on the ground.
Across the country, folks took up the challenge of supporting survivors and pressing for a just reconstruction. The Web came alive with new sites and portals, including: KatrinaAction.org, NewOrleans.Indymedia.org, NewOrleansNetwork.org, RebuildGreen.org, and ColorOfChange.org (which I helped to launch). FusionConsulting.org posted a list of vetted charities and political responses, including efforts to save the culture of New Orleans.
Defend Evacuee Rights: To Survive, Thrive, and Return
The main pivot of this activism is the fight to protect the evacuees' three most fundamental rights: namely, to survive, to thrive and to return to their homes. In the short term, evacuees should not be crowded into sub-standard housing or FEMA camps, nor strangled in red tape, while they await their return.
At the local level, schools need to provide emotional support services. Evacuees should get free or reduced-fare access to public transportation. Some landlord/tenant laws should be relaxed, so that friends and relatives can take in evacuees without risking eviction.
But the big fight is to ensure that evacuees are able to participate fully in decision-making about who rebuilds the region and how they do it. Congress should ensure that community organizations have a role in planning, where federal dollars are in play. And governments and charities must ensure that all evacuees maintain an effective right to vote in the Gulf Coast until they can return.
Rebuilding New Orleans As Model “Green” City
These will be tough battles, requiring coordination and determination. But already, some passionate visionaries are looking beyond mere survival or a seat at the table.
They want to set a bold agenda for reconstruction, ensuring that the new New Orleans is resurrected, not as a corporate theme park but as a thriving eco-city -- designed in accordance with the best ecological thinking and built largely by local labor.
As utopian as the idea may sound, such an outcome is still possible. In her book, The Limits of Power, Christine Rosen explores the way that three cities -- Chicago, Boston, and Baltimore -- responded to devastating fires. Chicago and Boston rebuilt the way they had been, recreating all the old structural and political dysfunctions.
But Baltimore rebuilt on new principles because the city had already been working on a positive vision of what it could become. Guess what? So was New Orleans. Enlightened business and community leaders had been laying plans for a green urban revitalization years before this disaster struck. They already have a compelling, eco-friendly roadmap.
One of the long-standing proponents of a green renewal of New Orleans is Alan AtKisson. In his well-reasoned and comprehensive essay entitled "Dreaming Of A New New Orleans,”" he lays out a powerful, workable vision for an ecologically sound, people-friendly, and prosperous city.His ideas, posted at WorldChanging.com, are simple and straightforward
- Work with nature, and technology, to protect the city from future worst-case scenarios.
- Use rebuilding to lift the poor to safer economic and social ground.
- Create an economy of creativity.
- Become a clean, green showcase.
The underlying ideas were gaining support in parts of New Orleans before the catastrophe struck. They should not be trampled underfoot by Halliburton-style profiteers now.
AtKisson's group is not alone. Global Green is working with Habitat for Humanity to build 10,000 green homes in the region. Eco-City Builders has elaborated a set of principles that could make New Orleans the greenest city on Earth. And a new organization, New Orleans Rebuild Green, has emerged, giving these ideas grassroots legs and credibility. Rebuild Green is led by long-time Black activist, Malik Rahim. (You can support these efforts at RebuildGreen.org.)
A Better City–And A Better World–Are Possible
Environmental justice luminary Carl Anthony is right when he says that activists must rapidly make the transition to thinking proactively about a positive vision, not just reacting to all the horrors. People of conscience must move beyond charitable aid -- beyond even just opposing the corporate carpet-baggers -- and into a position of vision-driven leadership.
If we meet this challenge, progressives will help rebuild an American city in a way that reflects our deepest social and ecological values.
During the high point of anti-globalization protest, we used to shout proudly: “A better world is possible!”
And it is. Let's work together to build a better New Orleans -- and show the world what we mean.