Thursday, September 08, 2005

No one in the world can ever convince me that what we've seen in the federal response to the Gulf Coast hurricane had nothing to do with racism.

It was blatant. It was criminal neglect. Katrina exposed what we all knew but what only the honest among us will admit. We're still a deeply divided country -- first by economics and ultimately by race. In the deep south, the two are most clearly connected. For the most part -- the poorest among us are African American. In New Orleans, particularly, a lot of those who were "apparently" white suffered along with their darker-skinned relatives without being recognized as "black" by viewers who watched their misery and tried to share their pain. This is not to say that there weren't poor whites and a few not-so-poor mixed in with the hordes of displaced citizens. Of course there were. All suffered similar fates -- all horrific!

The awful stories that will come from those who lived that horror will work their way through the country over the next months, and they will equal those images and stories that drove the Civil Rights Revolution of the Sixties. And well they should. The pictures of people screaming for help and being ignored equal those of fire hoses and dogs and police out of control at Selma years ago.

After days of worrying and wondering about family members who were caught up in the tragedy I had a moment of triumph last night. Was listening to the African American chief of police in a CNN interview. He was lauding those officers who had held tight and remained on duty despite the awfulness of their personal situations and concern for the fate of their own families. In a moment that flashed by he mentioned the name, " Officer William Charbonnet," who had defended him in a moment of stark danger. This had to be one of my young cousins. I didn't even know we had anyone on the police force, yet here he was -- and one of the heroes, at that. It felt so good to know learn about him in this way. It didn't matter that I wouldn't have recognized him if he'd been shown on camera. No problem. This was a Charbonnet. And I knew where at least one was in that corner of Hell and maybe before the week ends, I'll learn of others.

Oddly enough, my daily work at the National Park Service is going extremely well despite the day-to-day dives into depression. Keeping life in balance may be the greatest challenge. The highs are so high and crashes into the lows each night when I watch the days happenings in the wake of Katrina are so hard to manage. It's dizzying ... .

Despite all I'm feeling hopeful. Others are seeing and feeling and reacting to the same reports and images that I'm seeing and feeling and reacting to. We are not alone. It's possible that the reaction of reawakened news teams and a stiffening of the spines of Democratic leadership in Washington is taking place. Maybe this is where the country turns around and hits an upward spiral. Maybe this is the place where we've hit absolute bottom and can kick-start ourselves up into the next phases of positive change.

Noticed something else: Because of the disgraceful and life-destroying conduct of FEMA and the failure of traditional institutions to function -- ordinary human beings stubbornly moved in and by-passed where they could. We finally got sick of having our human responses acted out through privatized corporate systems and went back to taking care of our brothers and sisters ourselves by any means necessary. Each time I heard one of their heroic stories -- like that 18 year old kid who stole a bus and drove a full load of survivors to Houston -- and got arrested upon his arrival -- I feel pride and victorious for us all. Or the many who headed directly into Hell from wherever they were to ferry people out or bring food and water in -- despite prohibitions that threatened their own freedom and safety. There were probably more heroes than we'll ever know.

Surely a new day of freedom will grow from such deeds.

I cannot believe otherwise and remain sane.

Monday, September 05, 2005

It may be only symbolic, but historic St. Louis Cathedral came through without harm ...

Bourbon Street and the Old French Quarter withstood all that Katrina could hurl. That may mean that the Convent, too, withstood the rising waters. But that may be asking too much. It was miles away from the higher ground of downtown or Canal Street.

I find myself recalling that my parents talked about Uptown (the wealthier district), Downtown (Creole section) and BackaTown, the district of the poorest of the poor. I suspect that it was BackaTown that suffered the greatest losses. Having said that, I can't remember enough about those dinner table conversations to speak with any authority. Touro (not sure of the spelling) is the place of the home that I can vaguely remember as being our last before coming West; a small bungalow on an unpaved street. I know that what passed as sidewalks -- over the length of a city block -- were actually two long wooden planks set side by side and end to end to walk on every summer to avoid the mud from the daily summer rains. Those boards were dragged in by the neighbors and chopped up and burned in wood stoves for heating and cooking in winter, then replaced by the city the following summer. Sounds an awful lot like BackaTown to me, right? But then my proud Creole folks always referred to their neighborhood as Downtown.

I can remember (from my visit to N.O. as a teenager) that cigarettes were sold to anyone (children included) at a penny-a-piece from broken-sealed packages, and that anyone could purchase a drink who could stand at a bar. I remember seeing my Aunt send one of the kids to the store with a pitcher to buy a bright red drink called, "Jumbo" to go with the shrimp jambalaya. Sounds an awful lot like BackaTown to me.

Can remember when the Good Friday hurricane of 1927 struck, and resulted in my parents picking up what little they could salvage and joining my grandfather in Oakland, California. Mother arrived with 3 little girls and little else on a Southern Pacific train with Dad following a couple of months later to join us. We lived with my maternal grandfather, Papa George, Aunt Vivian, Uncle Lloyd, Aunt Louise, and Uncle Frederick, in a tiny 3 bedroom home surrounded by open fields in East Oakland until my father could find work and rent a small cottage nearby.

Small wonder that Katrina has reached her tentacles out to find me even this far away on the Pacific Coast. The tears flow as if it all happened yesterday. My need to fulfill my role as family savior in the way that Papa George did is driving me into a frenzy! I'm really less moved by the plight of my extended family members who are now most likely comfortably listed among the power elite than of those who are far more like me (at the time). My own experience as a "refugee" -- folk from BackaTown whom we've seen desparately cutting their way through rooftops and suffering family separations and dislocations in unknown places -- without Papa Georges and Aunt Vivians to step up to provide aid and sustenance.

Many of my relatives lived closer to the French Quarter on paved streets -- in wooden homes that all appeared flush against the sidewalks with two or three steps to climb to reach gates that led to inner courtyard gardens. The Charbonnet-Labat Funeral Home was located on such a street -- but that area had lately been bi-sected by a major highway that cut into that community -- Claiborne Street, maybe? Most now live Uptown and quite possibly evacuated early in their SUVs along with the rest of the "haves." After all, that's the position we've all been striving to achieve in the world, and few can be faulted for having earned the right to the good life by hard work and due diligence. The Charbonnet would surely have done that.

Our extended family is now scattered all over the South; Texas, Florida, St. Louis, with a number evacuated safely to Baton Rouge. Many of us had already settled over many years in both Northern and Southern California. I've reached no one directly, but have learned from local relatives who have received word from some survivors, that most are accounted for.

I'm left with this emotional connection to those who've been left behind. I'm left with memories of little girl Betty now resurfacing fullblown -- of lying in a small bed on sodden clammy warm blankets -- raised high on orange crates in a small bedroom by frightened young parents -- with water lapping all around. Of shrieking winds and deafening thunder. Of wondering why God was punishing everybody on this Good Friday? Who had sinned so badly? I have these firmly-etched images of my father (the builder) hammering together a flimsy plywood boat with which to ferry people around town to what higher ground there was -- and my sister, Marjorie, being allowed to sit in the back of the uncaulked boat bailing out the water with a pot as it rose around their feet. I was too young to help much, but did get to bail when needed and no one else was around. Even at that age I can remember feeling the importance of being small -- because we took up less space and more people could be saved because we were. I suppose this may have been the first time that I felt the awesome power of one human being to effect lives, even the power of one very little girl.

Went to bed last night in my comfortable apartment -- alone -- with all those square feet lying empty when they might be serving the greatest need of all by being made available to others. Was reluctant to list my empty rooms on Craig's List indiscriminately to strangers when it might be needed for my own displaced kinfolk. That brought on a sense of guilt since it's quite possible that I won't be able to locate anyone ... and... . Perhaps there needs be a limit placed on just how long one should wait before acting on behalf of anyone needing to be housed.

I'm receiving calls from caring friends with offers of blankets, personal items, diapers, money, they'd like to give -- but want to wait until families have been brought into the Bay Area and are within reach. No one wants to burden a broken Red Cross system with gifts that their volunteers can't process and therefore would become lost to those who need the help so desparately.

It's impossible not to wonder whether or not many of those floating bodies are less fortunate members of my own family -- there are so many of us to account for... .

Even more important -- they may be all of us -- surrogates whose only sin was that they were too poor, too young, too old, too sick, or too black and therefore relegated again to "the back of life's bus!"

There but for the grace of God ...

But then I'm an atheist, remember?

(Photo: Dorian Reid's "Lion with Rainbow")

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The good writers ...

Despite the horror of it all, some semblance of sanity is beginning to return. Spent the morning reading the Sunday NY Times; Frank Rich, Maureen Dowd, Paul Krugman, and Anne Rice. Last night I read a brilliant piece by Rick Bragg (Miami Herald). In the words of those giants of the written word I found solace. Truth is having its day; if "truth" is defined by those words that confirm something buried deep inside me; clicking into what I already know.

As in the days of Vietnam, the scenes of such human misery and neglect coupled by the lack of connection with our institutions as represented by government sources, is not be believed. The dissonance is so pronounced that one wonders if the entire world isn't seeing what is inexplicable even to the most uncaring among us. There appears to be as many conservative as liberal voices screaming for help for those poor souls suspended in hell! It is difficult to imagine the level of incompetence we're witnessing. That may be the scariest of all.

Maybe it was easier to yield to those conspiracy theories that insisted that brilliantly evil forces had taken over the nation, and that they'd been working toward the complete takeover of our systems of governance over a period of the past forty years. That was hard enough to confront in the dark of night when paranoia runs rampant. But the Ship of State in the hands of morons? That's an incomprehensible nightmare!

Is it possible that the man in our White House is simply so ineffectual, so frightened, so unknowing and ignorant that -- as he sat paralyzed for that long period reading to children on 9/11, he sat frozen in space too stupid or terrified to move? He repeated that performance for 48 hours last week; frozen in space, unable to move, distracted, "too stupid or terrified to move?" Is this possible?

Reports of the whereabouts of the rest of the administration leadership was equally as insane. No one has yet reported on the status of the vice president. Strange? No words of caring or condolence? No sign of taking charge even at a second level position? Sitting in a bunker somewhere deep under NORAD? Do you suppose he was out readying the forces of Halliburton to get into position for the rebuilding of New Orleans, only this time with seafront villas and casinos, hotels and resorts, and NO black folks except for those willing to play "slaves" for visual effect of a "reenactment" of the Old South?

Heard Randy Rhodes (Air America) posit the notion that the difficulties confronted by that beleaguered city were caused by the fact that this is a Red state with Blue leadership. The senator, the governor, the mayor are all Democrats (Blue). In the deep south, Black folks are notoriously committed to the Democratic party, therefore are politically expendable. Could the situation be that cynical?

I do know that here in California the energy crisis that toppled Governor Gray Davis proved to be motivated by the fact that our legislature is predominantly Democrat, our congressional delegation the most liberal in the nation, and that we paid for it by the administration's withholding help until Davis was overturned by a celebrity Republican in a special election. Enron figured heavily in the destruction of our energy system by manipulation of the regs. Remember folks, Ken Lay of Enron is a close friend and ally of the president. Political retaliation is surely likely to be a factor in what happened in the wake of Katrina.

Surely an investigation should expose the fact that political vengeance may have played a part in the refusal of the administration to fund the reconstruction of the deeply flawed levee system in New Orleans. The fact that 30% of the Louisiana National Guard is currently on duty in Iraq. The highwater vehicles (Humvees) that would have been needed to save lives at home were also overseas. The deep cuts in funding for the levee reconstruction (despite years of warnings by the Times Picayune and reinforced by the mayor's pleas) were quite possibly effected by political vengeance as well.

By the weekend, we will have word that literally thousands will have lost their lives. Some will be children. It is highly likely that some will be relatives I've been unable to locate after endless hours of searching online ... .

Now it's back to haunting the Red Cross online "We're safe" listings, Craig's list, CNN pages, and more phone calls to busy signals from broken telecommunications systems in faraway places in a putrid, water-sogged, hot and humid South reeking from the stench of dead and rotting flesh.

Let me know if you're still reading ... my only company this weekend has been the ghosts of my past.

It's lonely ... .

Photo: New Orleans Mardi Gras Ball of 1924 - the debut into society for young Creole women. Cousin Vivian Allen sitting 3rd from far left; Uncle Raleigh Coker 2nd from right standing. He was physician, graduate of the nation's only black medical school, Meharry.