Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Six Years After Katrina, The Battle for New Orleans Continues
Political power has shifted to whites, but blacks have not given up their struggle for a voice -- and justice.
By Jordan Flaherty
Published today on: The Root

As this weekend’s storm has reminded us, hurricanes can be a threat to U.S. cities on the East Coast as well the Gulf. But the vast changes that have taken place in New Orleans since Katrina have had little to do with weather, and everything to do with political struggles. Six years after the federal levees failed and 80 percent of the city was flooded, New Orleans has lost 80,000 jobs and 100,000 residents. It is a whiter and wealthier city, with tourist areas well maintained while communities like the Lower Ninth Ward remain devastated. Beyond the statistics, it is still a much contested city.

Politics continues to shape how the changes to New Orleans are viewed. For some, the city is a crime scene of corporate profiteering and the mass displacement of African Americans and working poor; but for others it’s an example of bold public sector reforms, taken in the aftermath of a natural disaster, that have led the way for other cities.

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans saw the rise of a new class of citizens. They self-identify as YURPs – Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals – and they work in architecture, urban planning, education, and related fields. While the city was still mostly empty, they spoke of a freedom to experiment, unfettered by the barriers of bureaucratic red tape and public comment. Working with local and national political and business leaders, they made rapid changes in the city’s education system, public housing, health care, and nonprofit sector.

Along the way, the face of elected government changed in the city and state. Among the offices that switched from black to white were mayor, police chief, district attorney, and representatives on the school board and city council, which both switched to white majorities for the first time in a generation. Louisiana also transformed from a state with several statewide elected Democrats, to having only one -- Senator Mary Landrieu.

While black community leaders have said that the displacement after the storm has robbed African Americans of their civic representation, another narrative has also taken shape. Many in the media and business elite have said that a new political class – which happens to be mostly white – is reshaping the politics of the city into a post-racial era. “Our efforts are changing old ways of thinking,” said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, shortly after he was elected in 2010. After accusing his critics of being stuck in the past, Landrieu -- who was the first mayor in modern memory elected with the support of a majority of both black and white voters -- added that "We're going to rediscipline ourselves in this city."

The changes in the public sector have been widespread. Shortly after the storm, the entire staff of the public school system was fired. Their union, which had been the largest union in the city, ceased to be recognized. With many parents, students and teachers driven out of the city by Katrina and unable to have a say in the decision, the state took over the city’s schools and began shifting them over to charters. “The reorganization of the public schools has created a separate but unequal tiered system of schools that steers a minority of students, including virtually all of the city’s white students, into a set of selective, higher-performing schools and most of the city’s students of color into a set of lower-performing schools,” writes lawyer and activist Bill Quigley, in a report prepared with fellow Loyola law professor Davida Finger.

In many ways, the changes in New Orleans school system, initiated almost six years ago, foreshadowed a battle that has played out more conspicuously this year in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey and other states where teachers and their unions were assailed by both Republican governors and liberal reformers such as the filmmakers behind Waiting for Superman. Similarly, the battle of New Orleans public housing -- which was torn down and replaced by new units built in public-private partnerships that house a small percentage of the former residents -- prefigured national battles over government’s role in solving problems related to poverty.

The anger at the changes in New Orleans’ black community is palpable. It comes out at city council meetings, on local black talk radio station WBOK, and in protests. “Since New Orleans was declared a blank slate, we are the social experimental lab of the world,” says Endesha Juakali, a housing rights activist. However, despite the changes, grassroots resistance continues. “For those of us that lived and are still living the disaster, moving on is not an option,” adds Juakali.

Resistance to the dominant agenda has also led to reform of the city’s criminal justice system. But this reform is very different from the others, with leadership coming from African-American residents at the grassroots, including those most affected by both crime and policing.

In the aftermath of Katrina, media images famously depicted poor New Orleanians as criminal and dangerous. In fact, at one point it was announced that rescue efforts were put on hold because of the violence. In response, the second-in-charge of the New Orleans Police Department reportedly told officers to shoot looters, and the governor announced that she had given the National Guard orders to shoot to kill.

Over the following days, police shot and killed several civilians. A police sniper wounded a young African American named Henry Glover, and other officers took and burned his body behind a levee. A 45-year-old grandfather named Danny Brumfield, Sr. was shot in the back in front of his family outside the New Orleans convention center. Two black families – the Madisons and Bartholomews - walking across New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge fell under a hail of gunfire from a group of officers. “We had more incidents of police misconduct than civilian misconduct,” says former District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who pursued charges against officers but had the charges thrown out by a judge. “All these stories of looting, it pales next to what the police did.”

District Attorney Jordan, who angered many in the political establishment when he brought charges against officers and was forced to resign soon after, was not the only one who failed to bring accountability for the post-Katrina violence. In fact, every check and balance in the city’s criminal justice system failed. For years, family members of the victims pressured the media, the U.S. Attorney’s office, and Eddie Jordan’s replacement in the DA’s office, Leon Cannizzaro. “The media didn’t want to give me the time of day,” says William Tanner, who saw officers take away Glover’s body. “They called me a raving idiot.”

Finally after more than three years of protests, press conferences, and lobbying, the Justice Department launched aggressive investigations of the Glover, Brumfield, and Danziger cases in early 2009. In recent months, three officers were convicted in the Glover killing (although one conviction was overturned), two were convicted in beating a man to death just before the storm, and ten officers either plead guilty or were convicted in the Danziger killing and cover-up. In the Danziger case, the jury found that officers had not only killed two civilians and wounded four, but also engaged in a wide-ranging conspiracy that involved planted evidence, invented witnesses, and secret meetings.

The Justice Department has at least seven more open investigations on New Orleans police killings, and has indicated their plans for more formal oversight of the NOPD, as well as the city jail. In this area, New Orleans is also leading the way – in a remarkable change from Justice Department policy during the Bush Administration, the DOJ is also looking at oversight of police departments in Newark, Denver, and Seattle.

In the national struggle against law enforcement violence, there is much to be learned from the victims of New Orleans police violence who led a remarkable struggle against a wall of official silence, and now have begun to win justice. “This is an opening,” explains New Orleans police accountability activist Malcolm Suber. “We have to push for a much more democratic system of policing in the city.”

In the closing arguments of the Danziger trial, DOJ prosecutor Bobbi Bernstein fought back against the defense claim that the officers were heroes, saying the family members of those killed deserved the title more. Noting that the official cover-up had “perverted” the system, she said, “The real heroes are the victims who stayed with an imperfect justice system that initially betrayed them.” The jury apparently agreed with her, convicting the officers on all 25 counts.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ground-breaking article in the Independent today, about the treatment of minors in the Occupied Territories...

How Israel Takes Its Revenge on Boys Who Throw Stones

In most cases, children as young as 12 are hauled from their beds at night, handcuffed and blindfolded, deprived of sleep and food, subjected to lengthy interrogations, then forced to sign a confession in Hebrew, a language few of them read.

...and here's the re-posting on Mondoweiss, followed by 152 comments and counting....
In Jerusalem

by Mahmoud Darwish (Translated by Fady Joudah)

In Jerusalem, and I mean within the ancient walls,
I walk from one epoch to another without a memory
to guide me. The prophets over there are sharing
the history of the holy . . . ascending to heaven
and returning less discouraged and melancholy, because love
and peace are holy and are coming to town.
I was walking down a slope and thinking to myself: How
do the narrators disagree over what light said about a stone?
Is it from a dimly lit stone that wars flare up?
I walk in my sleep. I stare in my sleep. I see
no one behind me. I see no one ahead of me.
All this light is for me. I walk. I become lighter. I fly
then I become another. Transfigured. Words
sprout like grass from Isaiah’s messenger
mouth: “If you don’t believe you won’t believe.”
I walk as if I were another. And my wound a white
biblical rose. And my hands like two doves
on the cross hovering and carrying the earth.
I don’t walk, I fly, I become another,
transfigured. No place and no time. So who am I?
I am no I in ascension’s presence. But I
think to myself: Alone, the prophet Mohammad
spoke classical Arabic. “And then what?”
Then what? A woman soldier shouted:
Is that you again? Didn’t I kill you?
I said: You killed me . . . and I forgot, like you, to die.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

I don't know what I want to do next year, but I want it to involve Palestinian education...

Monday, August 22, 2011

The Promise

I've been looking for this for months! It's Peter Kosminsky's mini-series on British Mandate Palestine, based on the diaries of British soldiers stationed there after WII. It actually goes back and forth between today's Israel/Palestine and the late 1940's. Before, it was only possible to stream it on Channel 4, which is only available in the UK, but I picked this link off of CiF Watch, which is a website "dedicated to monitoring antisemitism and combating the assault on Israel’s legitimacy in the Guardian newspaper’s ‘Comment is Free’ blog." This is one of the sites that called Jawaher Abu Rahma's death a hoax back in January. In another time there might be a CiF Watch Watch, for those who are inclined to prowl the internet for anti-Arab sentiment. But for now, CiF Watch, I salute you for accidently making this wonderful series available for American consumption. May we learn more from it than you did....

fyi there are a few pop-up ads....and you can't fast forward or rewind otherwise it'll take you back to the beginning!

Letter from Birmingham Jail, MLK

My friends, I must say to you that we have not made a single gain in civil rights without determined legal and nonviolent pressure. Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily. Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.

We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was "well timed" in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word "Wait!" It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This "Wait" has almost always meant "Never." We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that "justice too long delayed is justice denied."...

I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured....

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Here's a video of the work that's going on in al-Aqaba right now! I will be there in a month (??) insh'allah...

Saturday, August 13, 2011


In March of 2011 I went to Palestine with Clay Carson, who runs the Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute, to film his play about King performed by the Palestinian National Theater and an African-American gospel choir. It was presented to audiences all over the West Bank and it was an incredible journey! This is a great story that can reach new audiences who would not necessarily come see a film about Palestine, incorporating the inherent drama of the theatre and propelled by the foot-stomping rhythms of gospel music. It was an intense cultural exchange between two peoples encompassing the joy of new friendships, creative collaborations and eye opening experiences. No one who participated remained unchanged.

We traveled through the Holy Land that the Christian choir were so passionately excited to see, as they were introduced to the other side of the land where Jesus once walked: a man whose front yard has been bisected by the Security Wall and whose children have to play in the dust of its continued construction; the ease with which they as foreigners were able to pass through checkpoints while their Palestinian counterparts took hours to navigate the same distance; a home which had no water because a settlement had taken over their well, where Palestinian women teach them songs in Arabic and join them in singing American gospel songs. And yet, amidst the hardships of occupied life, the choir is greeted with food, humor, and generosity, a mixture that brought some of them to tears.

Check out the project page for Martin Luther King Jr. in Palestine!

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Help

I just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. The movie's out now, so I wanted to finish the book fast so I could go and see it. When I read the first few chapters, I was really distracted by the language of the two main characters, Aibileen and Minny. They were supposedly thinking and speaking like black maids in the 60's, through the writing of a white woman. I found it really distracting, but in the end it didn't detract from what Stockett was aiming to do, which was to show her readers a new perspective. I read the NYTimes review, which said the white characters are the ones who suffer the most from caricaturization. I totally agree. The white women are all helpless, silly, or just plain villainous, like Hilly Holbrook. There was truth in those portrayals, and maybe I'm throwing aside gender in the 60's just to talk about race in the 60's (surprise surprise). But I could tell that characters like Celia and Hilly were AS ridiculous as they were because it made the book more entertaining. We understood Hilly was a domineering, racist socialite and we understood that Celia was an ditzy, insecure "white trash" wife trying to impress her rich husband. Those points were constantly driven home, maybe a little too far home.

What I enjoyed was the audacity of it, the awkwardness of Skeeter's first interview with Aibileen, and the gradual easing of that relationship. The condemnation Skeeter received, and the reassurance that her mission was right, because the times, they were "a-changin." But the subject was so touchy, the white women didn't want to be seen as racists, or see themselves as such. This problem endemic to Jackson, Mississippi was observed through indidividuals, in their treatment of their maids, and their reaction to the book that let it all hang out. I loved reading about the women who asked questions about their own behavior, about the behavior of their friends, and those who stood up for the women who raised their children. The bad stories are important, now it seems like we're showered with them in an age of "post-racist-morbid-fascination." I'm fascinated too, but the art lies in the good stories. Love conquers hate, courage conquers fear, steadfastness overcomes systematic oppression. Aibileen and Minny are beautiful characters, and they succeed in telling their story.

In the Afterword of the book, Stockett quotes Howell Raines as an encapsulation of her struggle in writing The Help:

There is no trickier subject for a writer from the South than that of affection between a black person and a white one in the unequal world of segregation. For the dihonesty upon which a society is founded makes every emotion suspect, makes it impossible to know whether what flowed between two people was honest feeling or pity or pragmatism.

Then she repeats the book's line that she "truly prizes:"

Wasn't that the point of the book? For women to realize, We are just two people. Not that much separate us. Not nearly as much as I'd thought.

When my mom read the first chapter, she set it down and thought, I had a black maid. She told us all about Jane, who used to wax their floors then slide my mom and her brother around on a blanket. I was in awe of this new story.

I was also inspired by the amount of work Skeeter put in to get her book printed and published, and the sacrifices she made to tell a story that needed to be told. She isolated herself in order to bring others into view, but in the end, she found more love than hate, made more friends than enemies. Unity triumphed over separation.

I'm going to go see the movie now.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

This is part of a letter written by Nurit Peled-elhanan, an Israeli peace activist. I just read about her recent study in The Guardian, soon-to-be published in the UK, about the unfortunate portrayal of Arabs in Israeli textbooks. Her brother is Miko Peled, also a well-known activist.

Today, when 'terror' is the term coined to define the murderous deeds of the poor and the weak, and 'war against terror' is the term coined to define the murderous deeds of the strong and the rich, when the greatest democracies commit the most terrible crimes against humanity using terms such as 'freedom', 'justice' and 'the clash of civilisations' to justify their crimes, we the bereaved, the victims of either terror or anti-terror terrorism, are the only ones left to tell the world that there is no civilized killing of the innocent or barbaric killing of the innocent, there is only criminal killing of the innocent. We are the ones to tell the world there is no clash of civilizations, that in the ever-growing underground kingdom of dead children there is no clash of civilisations. On the contrary: true multiculturalism prevails there, true equality and true justice. And maybe we are the ones who should remind the world that the golden age of both Islam and Judaism was when they lived side by side, nurturing each other and flourishing together.

Nurit Peled-elhanan-The Bereaved Parents for Peace (whole letter)