Thursday, April 29, 2010

CITY WITHOUT FEAR: New Orleans After Ray Nagin

Finally, and mercifully, New Orleanians can take a full breath as Mayor Ray Nagin is out of office. Find me a New Orleanian who says otherwise and I will show you someone who simply hasn’t been paying attention to the neglectful, laissez-faire, disinterested, uninvolved, apathetic two-term mayor. We are almost five years on from the great wave Katrina and subsequent crumbling of aged, ill-conceived levees. Although our city is remarkably resilient, and its people doggedly determined, these past five years could have been the most progressive in our 300-plus year history, had there been fierce and skilled leadership. There was not.

A few years before Katrina, one night I was at a gathering at an uptown New Orleans home, at which the Mayor was the honored guest. When he rose to speak I noticed several impressive things: First, he was impeccably dressed and groomed. But more importantly, he was articulate, full of enthusiasm for our city and determined to rid City Hall of its heritage of corruption. He spoke convincingly, and he was clearly comfortable in front of the news camera in the room.

Therein lies the problem with Ray Nagin: he is a nattily turned out chameleon who can tailor his suits and his words for whatever crowd happens to be present. Five months after Katrina, it was a very different Ray Nagin who stood on the steps of Gallier Hall on the holiday honoring Martin Luther King, and said this:
"We ask black people: it's time. It's time for us to come together. It's time for us to rebuild a New Orleans, the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. And I don't care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are. This city will be chocolate at the end of the day.”
That day he spoke with a twinge of dialect, and his earlier all-inclusive civic spirit had clearly dissipated. That was the day Nagin unwittingly wrote his own mayoral legacy. And that was the day the Mayor of New Orleans became a national punchline.

Every New Orleans citizen suffered for that and still does. You will please pardon the analogy, but the citizenry of New Orleans is a rich gumbo pot. Everybody gets to jump in. Yes, we are racially divided in a big way, but we are not a black city or a white city or a Creole city. We are richly diverse. Nagin did not understand the importance of honoring our diversity.

Some would say that is the least of our complaints about Ray Nagin. More importantly, after our 2005 tragedy, the mayor needed to firmly and decisively step up. He did not. He whined, bitched and complained about what victims we were. In doing so, he weakened us and victimized us. Had he been a savvy negotiator with the Feds, a good collaborator with Senator Mary Landrieu and Senator David Vitter, and one whose ego was less important than his dedication to the citizenry, the last five years could have put us on the fast track toward rebuilding the city.

That very citizenry voted him back in office for a second term, largely because many New Orleanians felt it was not a good time to shift gears to a new administration. We were in the middle of FEMA battles, Senate hearings, Katrina-related lawsuits, insurance companies trying to lowball the worst hit areas and more. It seemed logical to many citizens to maintain continuity. A new mayor, many reasoned, would set us back to square one. Nagin won the race (against Mitch Landrieu, our new mayor), and then essentially retired. We saw very little of him, we heard even less about his questionable whereabouts and by a year or two after the storm, we knew we were on our own.

In his last year in office, Nagin took up such causes as attempting to buy a downtown office building (right) to which he wished to move City Hall. The multi-million dollar enterprise was nixed by a city council that knew Nagin was not a reliable arbiter of the city’s welfare or budget. While Ninth Ward citizens continued to live elsewhere as their section of the city rotted, Nagin concerned himself with unrelated issues. For one, when an ordinance came up that would make it impossible for vendors with a history of corrupt practices to do business with the city, Nagin tried to veto it, essentially condoning criminal behavior. Once again, the city council had to step in and exercise its common sense.

Nagin operates independently, rather than cooperatively with individuals and groups that could advance the city's needs. Chief among his adversarial relationships is that with the media. Here is a typical example of how the mayor conducts himself with the press:

So, let’s review: Here is what we New Orleanians are left with as Ray Nagin smugly talks of moving into “disaster consulting.” A drive through the lower Ninth Ward reveals blocks that look much like they did the day after Hurricane Katrina. The local school public system is so fractured and disabled that some former board members are in jail, and some schools were taken over the by State. A large percentage of downtown office space sits empty. We have a police department that is slowly revealing itself to be ill-trained, poorly managed and corrupt. Because of the Danziger Bridge debacle, the Department of Justice is insinuating itself into local law enforcement. This, just as the local murder rate is spiking again and other crimes are on the increase. As Nagin strolls out of office, the city is seven months behind and $8 million in debt to the major contractor handling big recovery projects.

And here comes Mitch Landrieu. As mayor, we wonder if Landrieu will be able to offer hope to those who were displaced by the storm and never got to come back. Will the city’s business climate become more welcoming to the rest of the world, and will we finally have more industry than tourism and shipping? We wonder if the combination of a new police chief and Federal intervention will result in less crime, and we sure hope the extreme racial divide will narrow. One thing we have learned is not to place all of our dreams in the hands of the city leader. We learned we have to jump in and participate in the decision making process and monitor the administration’s performance. Most of all, we learned how resilient we are in the face of massive tragedy and governmental incompetence. We’re still standing. We don’t identify our city any more as “post-Katrina New Orleans.” Nagin was the last symbolic element of that, and now we’re moving on. We now view ourselves as a top-tier destination city in the country. Pack your bags and say goodnight, Ray.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

One Nation Divided, Part II: Crisis of Color

It was one of those rare balmy days in New Orleans when the air was perfect enough to allow me to keep my windows open. I could hear one of my neighbors talking to someone, and soon realized he was on the phone speaking to his son. I couldn’t help eavesdropping because I’m just that nosey:
“I don’t hate white people, but listen, you can’t trust them," he said. "If you think those guys you work with are your friends, just wait until it comes down to you or them to take the rap for something on the job. They’ll turn on you so fast you won’t know what hit you. My grandma taught me that and I never forgot it. That’s just how they are.”
The racial divide in this country is worse now than it has ever been in my lifetime, including the Civil Rights era, when there was rioting in the streets, coast to coast. Anyone who thinks the black and white citizens of our country are harmoniously co-existing is delusional. Here’s some evidence:

• Headline: April 14, 2010, Reuters News: "Judge tells Mississippi schools to stop segregating." If you have never heard of the rural Mississippi borough of Walthall County, join the club. It seems tiny Walthall County has been systematically separating its white students and black students, despite the desegregation rulings handed down by the U.S. government more than 40 years ago. Not only have hundreds of white students been allowed to transfer outside of their residential district so as to not have to attend classes with black students; but even those schools who mix races in the buildings have classrooms for whites and classrooms for blacks. In 2010. Worth noting is that the revelation about Walthall County comes just days before the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (“Snick”) holds its 50th reunion, 836 miles away in Raleigh, NC. Snick was a group of young people, including emerging luminaries like GA Congressman John Lewis and NAACP President Julian Bond, who staged lunch counter sit ins, orchestrated the legendary Freedom Rides and staged countless peaceful demonstrations in the name of civil rights. As they gather, there will no doubt be a societal cloud looming over their festivities, brought on by Tea Party demonstrators who called John Lewis a nigger during the recent health care debates. Walthall County’s decades-long defiance of desegregation laws will likely be a pervasive topic.

• Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell declared April “Confederate History Month.” Not only were vast numbers of Virginians offended by McDonnell’s recognition of the Confederacy, but the fact that slavery was not even mentioned was a clear indication that the Governor did not see this historical abomination as significant at all. After much public protest, McDonnell revised his proclamation to include mention of slavery. The annual commemoration of the Confederacy bit the dust back in 2001, but McDonnell brought it back, saying, “"I felt just as I've issued dozens and dozens of other commemorations, that it was something that was worthy of doing so people can at least study and understand that period of Virginia history and how it impacts us today.” Is Bob just nostalgic for the good ole slavery days, or is this really a political move to strengthen his position with his base supporters? It is most likely the latter, but what does that say about the mindset of his supporters?

• Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour just could not see what all the fuss was about after all hell broke out in response to McDonnell’s proclamation. Said he: “To me, it’s a sort of feeling that it’s a nit, that it is not significant, that it’s not a — it’s trying to make a big deal out of something (that) doesn’t amount to diddly.” Interestingly enough, the Governor’s mansion is less than 100 miles from soon-to-be infamous Walthall County. Even more interesting is that Barbour also declared April in Mississippi to be “Confederate Heritage Month,” calling on his citizens to celebrate the “rich heritage” of the Confederacy. Like his GOP colleague in Virginia, Barbour made no mention of slavery in his proclamation, even in a state with the highest percentage of black citizens in the U.S. For a guy who is rumored to be considering a Presidential run in 2012, Barbour emerges as something of a figure with his head in the sand. Note to Haley: What plays in Mississippi does not stay in Mississippi.

• The Southern Poverty Law center released findings that from 2000 to 2008, the number of hate groups in the U.S. rose by 50%. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2008, 72.9 percent of hate crime victims were targeted by attackers with an anti-black bias.

• The emerging Tea Party was ostensibly formed so that politically and fiscally conservative citizens could form a collective voice to protest the 2008 bailouts and the 2009 stimulus package. While the party members continue to claim that racism is not inherent in its followers, those who attend Tea Party events suggest otherwise. Anecdotal reports show that protestors routinely carry signs with racist connotations, often directed at President Obama. Typical of those signs: “Cap Congress and trade Obama back to Kenya.” Others carry signs with renderings of Obama as Hitler. Radio entertainer Rush Limbaugh and a number of his neocon cronies say it’s much ado about nothing, and that Tea Partiers are not racist. Right.

The American culture has a tendency to focus on very few issues at a time. (Best evidence? Financial reform didn’t go front burner until healthcare simmered down). So, in the 1960’s, we focused on Vietnam and civil rights, two seemingly disparate societal issues. When Vietnam was finally settled, did the civil rights movement lose momentum at the same time? Maybe. And that is unfortunate for all of us. As mentioned earlier, the racial divide in this country is more evident than ever, and with an economy that has tanked and stayed sluggish, frustration and anger are front and center. Is it just me or does it seem like racial tension is reaching a boiling part in many quarters around the U.S.? If you lived through the 1960s, you know exactly what I am talking about. If you were not around at that time, stay tuned, stay alert and watch your back.