New Orleans Monument Fight Triggers Newspaper Rich Spit Wars

Removable of Robert E Lee Statue at Lee Circle in New Orleans

New Orleans   One footnote of the fight to take down four racially divisive Civil War and segregation monuments in New Orleans, has been a seldom seen dogfight highlighting the divisions among the rich elites that are rarely publicly displayed in front of the city’s commoners. Locals might argue that too much has been said and written about the contrasts in leaders, ideology, and positions stated by the various sides publicly contending for prominence in the dispute. Most of that is just the usual bare knuckled grist for the mill of local issues and politics, but the “ad” war has brought a new dimension to this bizarre and overdue dismantling.

Mitch Landrieu, the Mayor of New Orleans, has obviously been the man in the middle of the monument dispute every bit as much as he has been the public leader who invested the greatest political capital in getting the job done over the last several years. The Landrieu name owns a rich political legacy in the city. Maurice “Moon” Landrieu was a transitional mayor in what had seemed the permanent exchange of power from white to black political leadership finally recognizing the emerging demographic majority of African-Americans moderating the tensions of the civil rights struggle by diversifying public employment practices and modernizing the city’s position in the South, while later serving nationally as Secretary of HUD and then retiring as a Louisiana elected appeals court judge. Mary Landrieu his daughter of course, served several terms until recently in the US Senate as a moderate Democrat. Mitch Landrieu before winning two terms as the first white mayor in New Orleans after a generation and losing a previous contest, had been Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana for several terms.

Outsiders would have thought just a strong political blood line would make the family immune from personal attack even when there were political disagreements, especially in a city like New Orleans that likes to only reveal the comings and goings of the rich elite in the stagedpageantry of Mardi Gras. As the monuments came down, so did the darker “uptown” veil. Frank Stewart, the former kingpin of Stewart Enterprises, and its efforts to build a national network of funeral homes, until its sale, has always been a crotchety conservative voice in business circles, but suddenly he was signing one and two full page ads in both of the local newspapers regularly attacking the Mayor, derisively calling him “Mitch” in the ads with ad hominem slaps at his monument positions as being nothing but ambition and opportunism. His inner bad dog was off the chain. As one monument after another came down and his pro-monument position was rendered increasingly impotent, it seemed to mainly loosen his checkbook to pen even lengthier, largely incoherent “letters to Mitch.” And, that’s not all. Some side swipes he took at John Cummings, rich lawyer and owner of the Whitney Plantation, which has become a well-regarded destination for many to learn about the impact of slavery, prompted Cummings to also take out a full-pager to defend his operation and family from Stewart’s claims he was just money grubbing. Pres Kabacoff, a local developer in an after the fact “letter to the editor,” felt it necessary to weight in.

Wow! Rarely do New Orleanians ever get to witness such a bizarre public revealing of the fissures of the local ruling class. The last time may have been when former Councilwoman Dorthy Taylor led the fight to integrate the Mardi Gras clubs forcing the big whoops to come plead their case in open hearings in council chambers.

Sadly, this is still all about race, more than class, and the roots of these divisions are not as old as the Civil War, but are certainly embedded in the civil rights and desegregation fights. Any rudimentary scrutiny of voting records in the precincts of Uptown New Orleans over many decades bares the continued grievance that the Landrieus somehow “sold out” the white elite. From Moon to Mary to Mitch, their political lives have depended on strong black majorities. Often they have lost or only narrowly carried a majority of white votes.

Stewart and the circle of friends, associates, and others in his echo chamber may continue to egg him on, but he’s not fighting the last battle of the Civil War, but the ongoing struggle around civil rights and equality for African-Americans. He and the many like him will lose this fight, just as they have had to watch the monuments come down, and they can shout their rationalizations as often as they want to pay for the newspaper ads, but, tragically, this an is uncivil war that will continue for many years to come.

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And, the Civil War Monuments Come Down

New Orleans   Mi companera was happy for a number of reasons this morning.

She liked the fact that there was a positive comment about a Southerner on the front page of the New York Times. The reporter in dissecting the bad boy antics and ruthless operation of Travis Kalanick, the CEO of Uber, had told a story his being summoned to a meeting at Apple where engineers had discovered that his company was breaking their rules of operation. In the meeting, Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple confronted the Uber exec by saying, “So, I’ve heard you’ve been breaking some of our rules,” Cook said – now hear this – “in his calm, Southern tone.” You can see why she was excited. How often do any of us see “calm” and “Southern” in the same sentence. It just doesn’t happen.

But, that was the icing on her cake on this particular morning. She had awakened to beeps on her phone that she described to me later as Twitter being “on fire.” The first of the long promised and long delayed removal of four Civil War and Reconstruction monuments in the City of New Orleans had been accomplished under the cover of darkness, outfoxing opponents who were on a self-proclaimed vigil to protest and attempt to block the removal and had long delayed the efforts with legal maneuvers and anonymous threats to contractor bidders of violence and mayhem.

The first to go was, if anything, the least defensible, the so-called “Liberty” Monument or more formally the Battle of Liberty Place monument, that memorialized the efforts of white New Orleanians to oppose the post-Civil War Reconstruction government in the city and state. This was not the first trip the monument had taken. Under a previous mayor, Sidney Barthlemy, the second African-American mayor elected in the city, it had been moved in 1993 and placed almost in hiding behind a parking lot structure near Canal Street. The plaque was changed at the time. Where previously the language had expressly commemorated white supremacy, it was rewritten to commemorate the courage of the local police force in opposing the vigilante efforts by various parts of the racist, white community to turn back the clock. For a long time the monument had been the staging ground for various racist groups around Louisiana to rally, hoot and holler.

Hiding behind the true facts, local reporters interviewed a man who claimed to be a great grandson of one of the men listed on the Liberty Place monument. He claimed his relative had only recently arrived from Ireland, never owned slaves, and had not been part of the War Between the States. He claimed that his fore-bearer and his associates had only been fighting to maintain the role of state and city rights versus those of the federal government, responsible in this case for Reconstruction after the war that had temporarily empowered and elected some African-Americans to public office. He may have wanted to believe that, but of course it wasn’t true, and the original plaque, had he been willing to acknowledge it, would have made his remarks a lie, even as he spoke them.

This monument and the others that will now follow will go to much less visible hiding places elsewhere in the city, but these are concrete and marble embarrassments that have long divided this city and so many others in the South, allowing “calm” and Southern to be more comfortable reside together in many sentences, cities, and states around the South for everyone, not just for the few still trying to breathe something different in the hate that has scarred these communities for too long.

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Music as a Barometer of Our Times Calls for a Better Man

New Orleans   It’s Mardi Gras in New Orleans. I helped my son open up at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse for the regulars. Once or twice a year it’s “training day” all over for me. I’m help, just not great help, but I don’t mind getting bossed around. It’s fun to see everyone, wish them well. After decades, Mardi Gras is a chance for me to come off the road and get a day off for me and take a Trump relief break.

Alexa is playing alternative country and that’s a nice break as well. We’ve had some problems in country music recently. I’ve loved it for years, but almost had to swear off last year. It had become boring and ridiculous. Last year there was a song that said it all, as someone whose name I didn’t catch sang, “It’s hard to be a woman in a country and western song.” She mourned the fact that it all seemed about going after a girl and driving her to the lake or river in a big pickup truck.

But, maybe times are changing? I heard a song about how the trick of driving across the border was to put a Bible on your dash. A real sign of potential change though for women, and we can hope for their men as well, is a recent release by the group, Little Big Town, called “Better Man” where the refrain continues to “wish you were a better man.” No standing by. No taking the blame. None of what my companera calls “whining women singing.” It’s mournful about losing the man, but it’s clear it simply came down to the fact he just plain wasn’t a better man. That’s a standard we have to be ready to step up and be judged by.

Here’s Better Man:

I know I’m probably better off on my own
Than lovin’ a man who didn’t know
What he had when he had it
And I see the permanent damage you did to me
Never again, I just wish I could forget when it was magic
I wish it wasn’t four am, standing in the mirror
Saying to myself, you know you had to do it I know
The bravest thing I ever did was run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man

I know I’m probably better off all alone
Than needing a man who could change his mind at any given minute
And it’s always on your terms
I’m hanging on every careless word
Hoping it might turn sweet again
Like it was in the beginning
But your jealousy, I can hear it now
You’re talking down to me like I’ll always be around
You push my love away like it’s some kind of loaded gun
Boy, you never thought I’d run

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
A better man
Better man

I hold onto this pride because these days it’s all I have
And I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that
You can’t say that
I wish you were a better man
I wonder what we would’ve become
If you were a better man
We might still be in love
If you were a better man
You would’ve been the one
If you were a better man
Yeah, yeah

Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again
And I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man
And I know why we had to say goodbye
Like the back of my hand
And I just miss you and I just wish you were a better man
We might still be in love, if you were a better man
Better man

And, if those lyrics aren’t enough of a surprise, then here’s a big one: the song was written by Taylor Swift, who now styles herself a pop diva.

There’s some hope for all of us and a Happy Mardi Gras!

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The Forward March of “Free” Walking Tours

a rich Spanish family’s house on the plaza as they memorialize themselves and their conquering of the Maya underfoot and the “wild men” outside their gates

Merida   I’ve had some interest in the concept of “tours” for some time. The way in which a people, a neighborhood, and a city are presented is not a trivial concern either for those doing the looking and listening or for those being observed, usually silently and sometimes like animals in the cage.

the “weight” or responsibility for the building is pictured on the architect

There is a historic arch across the street from our house in New Orleans. On a normal day several local bicycle tours stop to look at the arch commemorating soldiers from the 9th Ward who fought in World War I. It’s hard not to hear the explanation of the guides and the stories they tell and sometimes fabricate about the arch. On the street side the names listed alphabetically are all white. If anyone happens to walk to the other side of the arch, the names listed alphabetically are all black, and so it states clearly. Some guides stand in front of the arch and lecture their riders without ever suggesting they get off the bike and walk to the other side. Others see the arch as simply a rest stop and offer the opportunity to rubberneck at the houses surrounding this one block green square as they talk generally about the neighborhood. I’ve never heard anyone describe the fact that the arch was moved to its current location from the center of what was known as McCarty Square. The history that led to it being fenced and gifted to the school board from the city because neighbors on the square became afraid of too many people, and increasing numbers of African-Americans, using the park day and night is never told. The very issue of the separate spaces for the names of neighborhood soldiers, black and white, is never mentioned or condemned, nor the relative irony that even listing the names at all and allowing them in the center of the small park might have been a bit radical for that time almost one-hundred years ago either.

Our union represented New Orleans buggy drivers for a while, and some of them were clear that they unabashedly made up stories and stops based on favors from businesses and tips along the way. In the Lower 9th Ward now the post-Katrina tours are a constant issue for neighbors, because they receive no benefits from the gawking and pointing. In the coming issue of Social Policy we offer an excerpt of a book dealing with slum tourism, pro and con, which includes a long interview with ACORN’s Vinod Shetty about our members’ view of tours in Mumbai’s giant Dharavi slum where we work. At the first Organizers’ Forum International Dialogue in Brazil, my companera and I spent several days in Rio de Janiero and took a so-called “slum tour” of the favelas as this trend was beginning. My point is simple. All of this is happening in the cities around you, perhaps off your radar, but has impact both profound and political, and benefits that are either nonexistent or minimal to the those living and working while the objects of the tourists’ gaze.

pieces of Mayan temples are used to build the church walls

And, I say this after our family enjoyed and learned from a free walking tour in Merida in Mexico’s Yucatan that essentially walked among the buildings, churches, parks, and cathedral located around the city’s central plaza. Free walking tours are sometimes touted as having begun in Berlin in 2004 and according to various websites exist in 18 cities around Europe and 60 cities around the world, although a quick look reveals that this is just hype and marketing. The US National Park Service has done an excellent free walking tour around the New Orleans French Quarter for decades for example. Our Merida tour in Mexico is not on any lists.

I’m not an advocate of free labor, but it is hard to deny that having the guide dependent on tips creates incentives for an excellent presentation. Our guide in Merida was Mayan, but his thousand watt smile didn’t disguise the political and religious facts of the Spanish colonization and enslavement of Mayans, the destruction of Mayan temples to build the churches, the apology of Pope John Paul II in the Cathedral for the historic abuses, the conflict of beliefs, his derision of the city’s upper class 19th century love affair with everything French from architecture to fashion, and more.

In his case, the two hour bilingual tour was a service to the city, and should have merited the guide a position on the municipal payroll. As free walking tours are exploding around the world, if communities want to receive benefits for their people as well as make sure that the whole story is told and the contributions go to the community and the organizations making a difference, rather than see their history and futures as little more than a gratuity, they need to take their messages more seriously and recognize the power they pack.

murals in the governor’s house depict the Mayan creation story

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Getting the Lead Out of Schools

leadpsymptoms

New Orleans       Increasingly, we are going to ask which school district is going to be the last one to stand up for its children and workers and test for lead.  There really is no rational reason in the face of the devastation that lead brings to children and others and the overwhelming evidence of its ubiquitously destructive impact in schools, and for that matter, other public buildings, for any steward of public trust and responsibility not to assure communities that they are protecting the safety of families and workers.

            After our success in Houston in winning testing for lead in all the districts’ water fountains and other water sources, and what seemed to be the quick agreement in New Orleans to move in the same direction, we have been heartened.  Attention is growing as well.  PBS is coming to New Orleans to film ACORN’s affiliate, A Community Voice and LSU Health Science Center’s testing program in both the schools and adjoining neighborhoods.  A lead education program that is embedded in the ACV housing education classes is also going to be filmed and featured.   Three New Orleans schools have already been tested for the impact of lead on both the soil and water sources.  The PBS angle focuses on the way in which science is being used as a tool for change in the communities, which seems spot on in this fight.

Local 100 United Labor Unions was somewhat surprised that Dallas continued to drag its heels in responding to us on this issue.  With fall and the return of classes, a meeting with a school board member and resumption of school board meetings as well as an emerging coalition of various groups united in their call for such testing, found a positive response finally.  Not only are they going to do the testing, but the Dallas Independent School District also finally agreed with our position to test retirees that had been exposed to lead and other chemicals in the warehouses.

            Dallas had little choice as well because they were beginning to seem a pariah in the metroplex.  Fort Worth had already not only agreed to test all of its water fountains, but having found evidence of lead already in several of them, has moved to replace them.  Arlington, half-way between Dallas and Fort Worth, has also announced a testing program as well.  Other school districts in the Houston area, including neighboring suburban districts of Alief and Cypress-Fairbanks are also moving forward on a testing plan now.   In Texas, districts are beginning to fall in line, but although Local 100’s representative in Arkansas reported some success in lining up allies among teacher groups to push for testing in Little Rock and Pulaski County, both districts are still lagging, even as so many of the trains have pulled out of the station on this issue.

            Other public buildings where we clean, as well as state and public facilities where our members work, are high on our list as well.  The simple rule of thumb should be that wherever there is a public water fountain, there needs to be a lead test. 

How hard is that to get done?

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Katrina at 11 Years

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Streetcar Line St. Claude Groundbreaking

New Orleans    On the Katrina anniversary this year, I’m flying out of the country for two weeks to work in the Netherlands, Germany, and Canada. It wasn’t so long ago that this was a no-fly, must-be-home day because there were commemorations, volunteer projects, and other events that noted the progress or lack of it in the years since Katrina inundated New Orleans. Katrina is in the news now only as a reference point and warning since climate triggered 1000-year rains have recently flooded parishes from the north shore of Lake Ponchartrain across from the city up the river to Baton Rouge. It’s fair to say that Katrina has been off of the front pages for some time, and now is off the back pages as well.

So, how is New Orleans doing eleven years after the storm?

In the last year a hospital opened in eastern New Orleans for the first time, and the first project in the rebuilding of healthcare in the center of the city came with the opening of the new Veterans’ hospital. That’s good, and the expansion of Medicaid finally with the election of a new governor, the first Democrat since the storm, will mean a lot to the city and the state’s lower income families.

The schools are finally on a countdown to unification after their seizure by the state after the storm and the ushering in of the largest charter school experiment in the city. The schools will finally be under the democratic control of New Orleans voters soon, though the business and charter industry is moving rapidly to control the elections. The teachers’ union, decimated by firings after the storm, is organizing again and faced two more elections this year. There was a move finally by the state to equalize support so that some of the charters, many accused of not supporting special needs children but getting a premium for more advanced programs, are screaming in opposition to the new equity in the funding formula.

The slow, slough of rebuilding and downsizing public housing is still underway, and the crisis in affordable housing is still so intense that 80,000 can’t come home, even if they wanted to do so, because there’s no place for them. The major influx has been younger and whiter. A good example of the skewed public policy was the awarding of tax credits to a developer taking over an old school property in Treme to build more affordable housing for…artists. We now will have four housing complexes for artists while public housing is still half-done. There is in-fill construction in some of the older neighborhoods like Bywater that didn’t flood, but graffiti and anti-gentrification vandalism created the opening of the old public market as too upscale for the food desert that remains in the 9th ward.

The police have announced a training program that tries to reshape the culture of the department so that officers will act rather than conceal when they see their fellow officers involved in ethical breeches. The police department reassigned all of its community-beat police because of increased crime.

There is street construction everywhere, but there are estimates that it could take another $9 billion to put the city surface roads in safe condition. Neighbors noted that a project on Galvez has been stuck in a rut for a year now with water so deep when it rains, people fear drowning. A streetcar line though is scheduled for completion from Canal Street to Elysian Fields.

I should talk about jobs, but there’s not much to say really.

So, eleven years on, we’re moving in New Orleans, that’s for certain, but still it’s too often two steps forward and one step back, and that’s where there’s progress. Sadly, there are many areas that are just plain stuck.

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