The Dilution of Class Privilege on Mardi Gras

s.mgpastpresent.2New Orleans    Mardi Gras season is rough for year round residents. It’s not the going to parades but navigating the parade routes so that regular work and life maintains its semi-normal routine. It’s also stomaching the symbols.

Mardi Gras marks the beginning of Lent on the Christian calendar with Easter forty days away. Historically, Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a guilty pleasure rife with class and racial entitlement. And, like so many rock-ribbed Southern traditions, the traditions of the upper class continue unabated. The daily newspapers continue to parade front page pictures on the Sunday before Mardi Gras of an elderly white man anointed as the King of the Rex parade, the premier old line outfit, and a young, white woman debutante as the Queen of Rex. This year’s queen looked twelve in her picture. She is no doubt an accomplished young woman who is now attending Yale and speaks Mandarin, but has never gone to school and hardly ever lived in New Orleans, as distant from her disloyal subjects as the planet Mars. The uptown island of wealth and privilege in New Orleans continues to float aimlessly in a sea that is 60% African-American and one of the most crime ridden and poorest cities in the United States. There’s something distinctly unappealing about watching self-proclaimed royalty throwing trinkets to the out stretched arms of the masses, but maybe that’s just me, because it is certainly deeply rooted in the New Orleans culture.

There’s pushback though. The Endymion parade celebrated its 50th Mardi Gras and along with other so-called super-krewes have left Rex in the dirt as the most popular parades. Endymion was a middle and working class parade interloper now claiming thousands of members, open to pretty much anyone willing to come up with a couple of grand. Not for everyone certainly, but compared to the high society swells, a democratic revolution. Such parades chose their royalty from the ranks of local and other celebrities focusing on the crowds and popularity, maybe even the fun of it all, rather than the pomp and prestige.

The post-Katrina surge of the young and the hips detached from any tradition, but looking for a good time, has also leavened some of the more troubling pieces of the Mardi Gras tradition and added a somewhat more democratic tinge to the experience. The African-American Indian “tribes” and costumes were neighborhood based and outside of the main culture, and now newcomers have brought some of the same topsy-turvy to tradition. There are walking parades, makeshift floats or none at all, and costumes of all description often to musical accompaniment. There are parades for dogs and neighborhood parades of floats the size of a shoebox. Some are bawdy and racy, while others are political and satirical. Many are unannounced without routes or routines and therefore all of the more exciting. When you hear the music, you can run to your front stoop and with some joy and surprise catch a glimpse of the passing parade.

Gradually the people are stealing up on the big whoops and making Mardi Gras their own as the natives and the newcomers make it more fun and celebratory, rather than a painful parody of the city’s racial and class divide.

This Lead Thing is Serious, Why Aren’t More People Taking it that Way?

Susanne.Posel-Headline.News_.Official-flint.water_.lead_.epa_.river_.01_occupycorporatismNew Orleans   The stories coming out of Flint, Michigan are a scandal. Political indifference and economic decline coupled with the general unwillingness of our collective will to finance and repair infrastructure has produced the specter of an entire populations reduced to the level of undeveloped countries without potable water to drink. Worse, they are being poisoned by lead with likely permanent impact.

I live and work with a self-described “lead head,” as the small band of activists, researchers, and, sadly, families coping with these kinds of disasters describe themselves humorously. In August 2013 in fact, I interviewed Beth Butler, President of the Lead Safe America Foundation on Wade’s World so it was easy to get a deeper understanding of what is happening here. In fact Tamara Rubin, the energetic and evangelical executive director of the Lead Safe America is heading soon to Flint to offer several hundred free lead tests to children currently not eligible for testing for lead problems in Flint.

Talking to Butler, it seems that the only children actually being tested in Flint now are children five years old and younger. In Louisiana, where Butler lives, there is a state requirement for universal testing of all children five and under already, although pediatricians routinely just don’t bother even though it is reimbursable by Medicaid as well. Lead Safe and even some pediatricians argue that Medicaid reimbursements should be held up until there is full compliance. Not so in Michigan obviously. Admittedly, the percentages of damage are the highest in that demographic, but as Butler passionately points out, “it damages everybody who is contaminated by the way!” Lead Safe argues that everyone now needs to be tested, especially girls and women who might later transfer lead poisoning in the womb.

Butler and Lead Safe warn that even the simple finger-prick test for lead only is examining a 30-day window of lead impact, and not whether lead is already bonded into an individual’s bone structure. In Flint, especially other tests need to be made available in order to determine whether or not the lead invasion has breached even more bodies.

What can be done? Some people are being given water filters in Flint. The gold standard is triple-osmosis filters and that’s good with a caveat. Just like the infrastructure, such filters will also have to be maintained and changed, and they would be needed in all homes and all businesses. Butler, who has changed the filter in her home’s system, asks rhetorically, “How many are going to change those filters?”

If you have lead inside you now, and at some level we all do no matter where we live as the residue of lead paint and leaded gasoline continues, you have to live and eat differently with lots of calcium and iron and vitamin C to promote absorption. More seriously nutritionists and doctors attuned to this issue need to monitor the community in recovery and triage the more serious cases for assistance. As a veteran community organizer, Butler argues that without building strong community organizations that can constantly make the demands that are needed and force accountability, this is also not going to get better in Flint or the rest of America.

And, if you think this is just something isolated in the deindustrialized rust belt of America, take a deep breath in some cleaner air, because darned if overnight construction in the Longworth building of the House of Representatives in Washington, DC, didn’t bring down ten cafeteria workers who became sick from dust residues of lead paint removal, temporarily closing down the cafeteria, a favorite of Congressional members. God know what shape the construction workers, likely contract, immigrant laborers, are in and given the impact of lead on brain functioning even in adults, who knows what factor it may play in the curious craziness of Congress in these times.

Seriously though, lead has to be taken much more seriously!

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Pictures from New York Public Library Tell Thousands of Words

nola2New Orleans   What’s the old saying, a picture can speak a thousand words or something like that? Well, the New York Public Library a couple of days ago dropped 180,000 photos from their collections into the public domain. Any claim to a copyright has long ago expired. The library spent the time and money to scan them into a usable form and a somewhat searchable database that can be accessed at digitalcollections.nypl.org. Putting something like New Orleans or Little Rock or unions or Flagstaff in the search slot displays whatever photos or scans they have. Some of this can be a slog. There were over 400 pictures linked to New Orleans, but only two of mountain views for Flagstaff. Labor unions were buried under the Union Jack and Union Square, but that’s no different from the trials and tribulations of any exploration where there is sweat in hopes of salvation.

In Little Rock, there were pictures of the Little Nine and the integration of Central High School. One picture that added a surprising grace note was a photo of the nine being celebrated for their courage by the NAACP chapter in Cleveland.

In New Orleans there were the standard street scenes of the French Quarter, but enough of them to remind the explorer that once the Vieux Carre was a real neighborhood of lower income and working families, many of whom found work on the river. There were also disturbing shots of scabs, largely African-American, being unloaded from boats on the docks to act as strikebreakers in a longshoremen’s union strike in 1935. On the same waterfront were pictures of bananas being unloaded on the wharves with slings rather than cranes. The pictures were from 75 or 80 years ago, but I can vividly remember in those long ago days of the 1960s when I was in high school in New Orleans that anyone and everyone walked along the docks on a nice Sunday afternoon amid the unloading of tons of bananas just mindful of not stepping too close as the longshoremen pulled the sling over to the pallets.

Despite all of the pictures of grand New Orleans buildings, there are also reproductions of the infamous slave markets. More inspiring were pictures of Mrs. Frances Joseph Gaudet, born in a log cabin in Mississippi of African-American and Native American roots who moved to New Orleans and taking up social work founded a farm and rehabilitation center called the Gaudet School for African-American juvenile offenders when there wasn’t anything else available. The property was off Gentilly Road and what is now Franklin Avenue and thanks to her bequest at her death it later became a school for orphans where Louie Armstrong learned to play the trumpet and now in post-Katrina reconstruction is the headquarters of the New Orleans Recreation Department. I drive by regularly when in town as I visit my mother not far away. The photos were a nice memory of Frances Gaudet’s life and commitment.

Looking at the photos of Louisiana and Arkansas there were vivid reminders of the dominance of agriculture in the era of King Cotton and sugarcane, and the dreary poverty that fueled its production. Some of those scenes travelers can escape on the interstate, but even today it’s obvious once you get on the state roads and byways or thanks to the New York Public Library on the internet highways as well.

Put on your seat belts, fire up the computers, and hit digitalcollections.nypl.org and take a journey into the past and see where we stand more clearly today.

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Little Rock Nine

Little Rock Nine

Guns and Kids: Justice for Jerome

Jerome Morgan. Source: Nola.com

Jerome Morgan. Source: Nola.com

New Orleans   Social Policy Press is releasing an e-book, Guns and Kids: Can We Survive the Carnage? by Frank Strier, a legal scholar and emeritus professor from California State University. Not surprisingly, the facts and figures are chilling. We may be horrified by the outrages in San Bernardino and Connecticut with military style assault weapons, but the overwhelming number of deaths, including to children, come from handguns.

Part of the problem is plain and simple access to guns. Combine access with age and the results too often are tragic. The evidence is everywhere.

Recently I was talking to Pat Bryant, the co-convener of a very interesting New Orleans-based coalition called Justice & Beyond, and Beth Butler, one of the steering committee members, on Wade’s World. Among other projects they have recently been organizing a quiet protest of solidarity in one of the most depressing and difficult venues for direct action: the courts. The other day more than one hundred crowded into a local courtroom, many wearing t-shirts saying “Justice for Jerome,” and though the arguments are complicated now, the issue of guns-and-kids lies at the root of the confusion.

Jerome Morgan was 16-years old. He and a bunch of other 16-year old teens were at a party. Someone said something to someone, got mad and stomped off. Later someone came back to the party with a gun. When it was over, another 16-year old was dead. Jerome ended up arrested and charged. He spent twenty years in jail until it all unraveled. The two so-called witnesses recanted, saying that their testimony, which fingered Jerome, was coerced by the police. Jerome was released from jail on bond. The current district attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, has Jerome back in court trying to recharge him for the crime and threatening to also charge the two witnesses with perjury. The judge who released Jerome says without the witnesses, the police have nothing in the case against Jerome, since the gun was also never found. Cannizzaro was the original judge on the Jerome case and was allowed under Louisiana law to sentence Jerome as a juvenile to a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

The case is complex. Justice & Beyond, has taken it on, and seems to have won an evidentiary hearing previously denied. Their protests and disciplined demonstrations are making a difference to the elected judges hearing the case. I won’t get off message here and talk about the stark contrasts between the struggle for justice being waged for Jerome Morgan compared to the queue of prisoners, also too young and invariably African-American, that is over populating the New Orleans courts and policing regime. The continual struggle to protect “the body” against racism is currently better handled in the powerful and passionate award-winning book by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me.

Throwing guns into the cauldron of our cities and culture and allowing them to be accessible, perhaps even available, to kids though is a simple story no matter how complex and twisted the path to justice. There is nothing but tragedy and pain in their wake. The smoke never clears. The blood and tears never dry.

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Bobby Jindal Finally Takes Us Out of Some of Our Misery

screen-shot-2014-10-01-at-1-39-12-pmNew Orleans   There is a pretty fair dose of embarrassment that comes from just plain living in Louisiana. Poverty, inequality, education, health, welfare, and football teams are regularly at the top of every list, though most of these are bad lists to be on and require lots of apologizing. Even trying to catch a break by changing the subject to New Orleans can quickly go down a bad road about Katrina recovery, crime, boiling water to drink, and, well, some people think the city is dirty from what they tell me. If you are going to live in Louisiana, you have to learn to take it in stride and shrug it off.

Adding insult to injury though has been the humiliating farce of Louisiana’s Governor Bobby Jindal’s perverse fantasy run for President of the United States. There has never been a rational way to explain this other than an ego trip divorced from all reality.

Sometimes governors run for President as Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton did based on their record in their home states. In Jindal’s case, there was no way to pretend he wasn’t running based on his record in Louisiana, yet that’s been abysmal.

Louisiana is going into the eighth straight year of a budget shortfall, this time by what looks like a half-billion, and because of Jindal’s no-taxes pledge to Grover Norquist, a Washington resident who to the best of anyone’s knowledge does not live and suffer in Louisiana, many citizens would embrace voodoo economics as something better than what Jindal was pretended. Universities have been decimated. Hospitals have been semi-privatized to outside contractors but the contracts are short money to run them. Medicaid was not expanded under the Affordable Care Act even though the state leads the nation in the number of low income families without health protection. There is no state minimum wage. Like I said, there will soon be a proposal to change the license plate slogan from Sportsman’s Paradise to Shamer’s Paradise.

Jindal pretty clearly made the decision some years ago to sacrifice the State of Louisiana and its citizens on the altar of his ambition. In order to try to build a crazy conservative base there were never any obstacles to the outrages, including the legal limits of his considerable powers as governor under the Louisiana constitution. Planned Parenthood, get them out of the state. Syrians, no way, Jose. Guns, let ‘em fire. Immigrants, deport every last one. Honduran children, get them out of here. Charter schools, vouchers, and religious extremism, bring it on! And, so on and so on.

The arc of justice eventually bends our way though. None of this boot licking worked. A cartoon in one the newspapers had Jindal giving his announcement that he was dropping his Presidential campaign, while calling for his “supporter,” singular, not plural. His popularity is now about 20% in Louisiana. Pundits believe he may be sinking the Republican shot at replacing him. President Obama is now more popular than Jindal in Louisiana!

Finally, some of the embarrassment for Louisiana will ease. Jindal’s ego fueled presidential run is over. Jindal said he has come to realize, “it’s not my time.” Sadly, he has not come to realize that he has now squandered his time, and it will never ever be his time. His time is over.

Now the big problem for Louisianans is living with Jindal’s scorched earth governance policies, and that pain will last for years.

Volunteers May be the Only Good Thing to Hit New Orleans after Katrina

DSCN0432New Orleans    Opinions are divided on the New Orleans so-called recovery after Hurricane Katrina, and it is more than a glass half-full, half-empty situation. Talking to Vanessa Gueringer on Wade’s World, her articulate anger still rages, and listening to her describe how her community in the lower 9th ward has had to fight to win the fulfillment of every promise to the area, it is impossible not to agree. There are many in the city who are ready to evacuate if they hear the word “resilience” even one more time.

Presidents Obama and Bush have now visited along with the current and former HUD secretary and a host of others. I listened to the disappointment expressed by neighbors and colleagues that President Obama didn’t double down on his commitment to rebuild. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has been everywhere enjoying his Mardi Gras moment. Former Mayor and current head of the Urban League Marc Morial was more sober, releasing his report on the state of black New Orleans, where the short summary is: bleak with little change or hope.

DSCN0424-1 DSCN0423-1 DSCN0422-1The one place where almost everyone can find agreement is in thanking the hundreds of thousands of people and thousands of organizations who have come to the city over the last ten years as volunteers to help in any way they can. Appropriately,  even the City of New Orleans and Landrieu somehow understood this universal consensus and got behind the effort. People of good will from around the world made a difference to New Orleans in some way shaming our own government for its inaction, inequity, and racism. And, what better way to mark the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina than by organizing a humongous volunteer service day.

The volunteer goal for the anniversary was 10,000 people and for a change almost the same level of preparation and support is going into the affair as you find during Carnival season, which until this anniversary is the New Orleans benchmark for volunteer extravaganzas. Hosts of nonprofits were recruited to the effort. Individual projects by Tulane University and Xavier University were subsumed into the overall city campaign. ACORN International is hosting 100 volunteers at the ACORN Farm. A Community Voice has 100 volunteers canvassing the Upper 9th Ward, and Southern United Neighborhoods (SUN) has another 100 in the Lower 9th Ward. It’s all in!

There are even corporate sponsors. Just as Walmart trucks rolled into the area after Katrina and there were special vouchers for purchases in their stores, Walmart is a big sponsor of this volunteer assault on the city as well. Coordinators got water, peanut butter crackers, and of course blue volunteer t-shirts at pickup points at Walmart stores throughout the week. The blue in the t-shirts, not surprisingly, looks identically like the Walmart blue customers see in their stores, but, hey, what else would you expect, they say Walmart on the back along with sponsors.

DSCN0425-1 DSCN0428-1 DSCN0426-1The volunteers will only work three hours, and given the heat and humidity that surprises so many in late summer in the city, that probably has more to do with public health than public need. They will have lunch and entertainment later at the Superdome. You get it, right, we’re saying thank you, and whether corporate and tacky, or political and boosterism, we all really mean it.

DSCN0429-1 DSCN0430-1 DSCN0431-1For real, this is thanks to all the volunteers that made such a difference and came to help New Orleans. We’re hoping you feel welcome enough to keep on coming until the job is finished!

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Kindle version of Battle for the Ninth for reduced price to mark the 10th Anniversary.