North Carolina Pushing Back

Charlotte  It’s sad joke when someone in North Carolina says with less than a smile, “Welcome to North Carolina, the new Alabama.” First, because Alabama is still doing all it can to continue to be the old Alabama, and secondly, because one of the top two fastest growing states is fighting a rearguard effort to try to move the state backward against the rising tide.

The good news is that groups like Action NC, the former North Carolina ACORN, on its own and in coalition with a good number of groups is fighting fiercely, and with some success, to push the state hard right political forces and legislators back towards the people. Our delegation meeting in Charlotte from ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign spent several hours in what ACORN Kenya always calls a “sharing” on a recent Sunday afternoon over pizza and sweet tea talking about these efforts, and we were encouraged.

And, delighted, when we heard the report of Action NC’s senior “warriors,” as they called themselves. Several of them told us of a trip they had made with people from other organizations to confront the leaders of the Federal Reserve in their annual meetings in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. More importantly they told us about how they were organizing other seniors in the fight to protect – and expand – their benefits on Social Security and to prevent the erosion of Medicare. The stories of deciding between paying for medicines or buying food were common in their work, but they also focused on the fight to make sure that the Affordable Care Act was protected and that there was not a Congressional raid on Social Security and Medicaid.

The “new” North Carolina, and especially their queen city of Charlotte, is also growing more diverse. The Action NC leaders had Carolina roots but had also living in New York, Philadelphia, and other cities before returning, so there were clear lines they wanted to draw, but the other difference had to do with the vibrant immigrant population, which has become a major part of Action NC’s work. The fight to save the differed action program for the Dreamers has been major for them, as well as continuing to push for immigration reform.

We were also encouraged to hear that they are now part of an ongoing voter registration program, not just waiting for the next election. We had all read about the North Carolina house of representatives having voted, admittedly before Charlottesville, Virginia, but that’s really no excuse, to grant immunity to a car deliberately being weaponized and driven into protesters. The governor, a democrat who won a squeaker election against the republican incumbent, partially over the bathroom issue and the business opposition and boycotts it triggered, has brought attention to the issue so hopefully that is one made direction that will run into a wall. The more people they and others register, the better chances we will have in the future in North Carolina.

We had an early bed check with meetings on tap, but we were delighted to see the fire in peoples’ eyes and the fight in their step in North Carolina, because this and other state by state battles are where the future will be won.

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Community and Organizational Responses to Flooding

Russell Lee, flood refugees at meal time, Charleston, Missouri, February 1937. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF34- 010215-D.

New Orleans Bear with me on this, because we’re going to take some twists and turns, but trust me, these things are all connected, and the water is always rising somewhere, so it matters.

Partly of course we’re closing in on the 12th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. We’re still in recovery. There are still volunteers coming in from time to time to help. We’re still trying to develop the ACORN Farm in the Lower 9th Ward. There’s still a fight to stop expansion of the Industrial Canal that flooded the area and ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice, is still in the thick of the fight as it has been for the last dozen years. In Paris one evening during the ACORN International staff meeting we showed a clip from the upcoming documentary, The Organizer, that told the story of ACORN’s fight to rebuild New Orleans after the storm. I’m telling the truth when I share that there were some tears in the eyes of these hard bitten organizers.

Arthur Rothstein, State highway officials moving sharecroppers away from roadside to area between the levee and the Mississippi River, New Madrid County, Missouri, January 1939. FSA-OWI Collection, Library of Congress, LC-USF33- 002975-M2.

I was struck reading Michael Honey’s book and oral history on John Handcox and the Southern Tenant Farmers’ Union, Sharecroppers Troubadour, on the plane back to New Orleans from a too long 19-day trip to Hungary, France, and Italy. The STFU and Handcox had been organizing in the Bootheel section of southern Missouri which cuts into northeastern Arkansas when the Great Ohio and Mississippi River Valley Flood of 1937, “displaced 7,000 whites and 5,000 blacks, including nearly all of the STFU’s 250 paid members in nine Missouri locals.” Like Katrina the impoverishment was devastating, except if anything worse, because the country had not found an adequate response to its peoples’ disasters then either. These were farm workers whose crops were washed away, partially when the Corps of Engineers used 200 pounds of dynamite to blow up a levee to stop more flooding downriver. Like the ACORN Hurricane Katrina Survivors’ organizations in cities throughout the south and southwest footprint, as Honey notes, the STFU “organized an Official Council of the STFU Refugees, which excoriated the federal government for having caused ‘the most disastrous flood in the history of our country.’” There were too many coincidences. The little money promised came too late. The crops recovered, but the people did not. The STFU had to also be rebuilt in the area to fight again in a last gasp.

John Handcox and Michael Honey, 1986.
Smithsonian Folkways – Smithsonian Institution

There was a story recently about the National Flood Insurance Fund in one of my daily papers, which grew out of these kinds of disasters. The fund is $25 billion in the red largely because of Katrina, Sandy in the New York-New Jersey area, and continued flooding in Louisiana from massive rains. The piece claimed that 30% of the money went to repeaters, folks whose homes just keep being flooded. A family in upstate New York was interviewed who were about to raise their house 10 feet with the insurance support. They couldn’t sell the house because of the floods. They wanted to retire and move to Arizona but they couldn’t. Poignantly, they said they knew they would be hit by another flood in the future. It was hard to not wonder, why the fund didn’t just help them get a new place?

As climate change becomes a constant concern, all of this history and these simple questions are going to be harder and harder not to answer with a more constructive and humanitarian response.

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