Organizing Notes

Bruce Gagnon is coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons & Nuclear Power in Space. He offers his own reflections on organizing and the state of America's declining empire....

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Location: Bath, Maine, United States

Saturday, September 03, 2005

NOTES FROM INSIDE NEW ORLEANS


By Jordan Flaherty

Friday, September 2, 2005

I just left New Orleans a couple hours ago. I traveled from the apartment
I was staying in by boat to a helicopter to a refugee camp. If anyone
wants to examine the attitude of federal and state officials towards the victims
of hurricane Katrina, I advise you to visit one of the refugee camps.

In the refugee camp I just left, on the I-10 freeway near Causeway,
thousands of people (at least 90% black and poor) stood and squatted in
mud and trash behind metal barricades, under an unforgiving sun, with heavily
armed soldiers standing guard over them. When a bus would come through,
it would stop at a random spot, state police would open a gap in one of the
barricades, and people would rush for the bus, with no information given
about where the bus was going. Once inside (we were told) evacuees would
be told where the bus was taking them - Baton Rouge, Houston, Arkansas,
Dallas, or other locations. I was told that if you boarded a bus bound
for Arkansas (for example), even people with family and a place to stay in
Baton Rouge would not be allowed to get out of the bus as it passed
through Baton Rouge. You had no choice but to go to the shelter in Arkansas. If
you had people willing to come to New Orleans to pick you up, they could
not come within 17 miles of the camp.

I traveled throughout the camp and spoke to Red Cross workers, Salvation
Army workers, National Guard, and state police, and although they were
friendly, no one could give me any details on when buses would arrive, how
many, where they would go to, or any other information. I spoke to the
several teams of journalists nearby, and asked if any of them had been
able to get any information from any federal or state officials on any of these
questions, and all of them, from Australian tv to local Fox affiliates
complained of an unorganized, non-communicative, mess. One cameraman told
me "as someone who's been here in this camp for two days, the only
information I can give you is this: get out by nightfall. You don't want
to be here at night."

There was also no visible attempt by any of those running the camp to set
up any sort of transparent and consistent system, for instance a line to
get on buses, a way to register contact information or find family
members, special needs services for children and infirm, phone services, treatment
for possible disease exposure, nor even a single trash can.

To understand the dimensions of this tragedy, its important to look at New
Orleans itself.

For those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible,
glorious, vital, city. A place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere
else in the world. A 70% African-American city where resistance to white
supremacy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid
beauty. From jazz, blues and hiphop, to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians,
Parades, Beads, Jazz Funerals, and red beans and rice on Monday nights,
New Orleans is a place of art and music and dance and sexuality and liberation
unlike anywhere else in the world.

It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can
take two hours because you stop and talk to someone on every porch, and
where a community pulls together when someone is in need. It is a city of
extended families and social networks filling the gaps left by city, state
and federal governments that have abdicated their responsibility for the
public welfare. It is a city where someone you walk past on the street not
only asks how you are, they wait for an answer.

It is also a city of exploitation and segregation and fear. The city of
New Orleans has a population of just over 500,000 and was expecting 300
murders this year, most of them centered on just a few, overwhelmingly
black, neighborhoods. Police have been quoted as saying that they don't
need to search out the perpetrators, because usually a few days after as shooting, the attacker is shot in revenge.

There is an atmosphere of intense hostility and distrust between much of
Black New Orleans and the N.O. Police Department. In recent months,
officers have been accused of everything from drug running to corruption
to theft. In separate incidents, two New Orleans police officers were
recently charged with rape (while in uniform), and there have been several
high profile police killings of unarmed youth, including the murder of
Jenard Thomas, which has inspired ongoing weekly protests for several
months.

The city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders
will not graduate in four years. Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per
child's education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest teacher
salaries. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop
out of Louisiana schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent
from school on any given day. Far too many young black men from New
Orleans end up enslaved in Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where
inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die
in the prison. It is a city where industry has left, and most remaining
jobs are are low-paying, transient, insecure jobs in the service economy.

Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This
disaster is one that was constructed out of racism, neglect and
incompetence. Hurricane Katrina was the inevitable spark igniting the
gasoline of cruelty and corruption. From the neighborhoods left most at
risk, to the treatment of the refugees to the the media portrayal of the
victims, this disaster is shaped by race.

Louisiana politics is famously corrupt, but with the tragedies of this
week our political leaders have defined a new level of incompetence. As
hurricane Katrina approached, our Governor urged us to "Pray the hurricane
down" to a level two. Trapped in a building two days after the hurricane,
we tuned our battery-operated radio into local radio and tv stations,
hoping for vital news, and were told that our governor had called for a
day of prayer. As rumors and panic began to rule, they was no source of solid
dependable information. Tuesday night, politicians and reporters said the
water level would rise another 12 feet - instead it stabilized. Rumors
spread like wildfire, and the politicians and media only made it worse.

While the rich escaped New Orleans, those with nowhere to go and no way to
get there were left behind. Adding salt to the wound, the local and
national media have spent the last week demonizing those left behind. As
someone that loves New Orleans and the people in it, this is the part of
this tragedy that hurts me the most, and it hurts me deeply.

No sane person should classify someone who takes food from indefinitely
closed stores in a desperate, starving city as a "looter," but that's just
what the media did over and over again. Sheriffs and politicians talked
of having troops protect stores instead of perform rescue operations.

Images of New Orleans' hurricane-ravaged population were transformed into
black, out-of-control, criminals. As if taking a stereo from a store that
will clearly be insured against loss is a greater crime than the
governmental neglect and incompetence that did billions of dollars of
damage and destroyed a city. This media focus is a tactic, just as the
eighties focus on "welfare queens" and "super-predators" obscured the
simultaneous and much larger crimes of the Savings and Loan scams and mass
layoffs, the hyper-exploited people of New Orleans are being used as a
scapegoat to cover up much larger crimes.

City, state and national politicians are the real criminals here. Since
at least the mid-1800s, its been widely known the danger faced by flooding to
New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this week's events, was more
about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated
exactly the danger faced. Yet government officials have consistently
refused to spend the money to protect this poor, overwhelmingly black,
city. While FEMA and others warned of the urgent impending danger to New
Orleans and put forward proposals for funding to reinforce and protect the
city, the Bush administration, in every year since 2001, has cut or
refused to fund New Orleans flood control, and ignored scientists warnings of
increased hurricanes as a result of global warming. And, as the dangers
rose with the floodlines, the lack of coordinated response dramatized
vividly the callous disregard of our elected leaders.

The aftermath from the 1927 flood helped shape the elections of both a US
President and a Governor, and ushered in the southern populist politics of
Huey Long.

In the coming months, billions of dollars will likely flood into New
Orleans. This money can either be spent to usher in a "New Deal" for the
city, with public investment, creation of stable union jobs, new schools,
cultural programs and housing restoration, or the city can be "rebuilt and
revitalized" to a shell of its former self, with newer hotels, more
casinos, and with chain stores and theme parks replacing the former
neighborhoods, cultural centers and corner jazz clubs.

Long before Katrina, New Orleans was hit by a hurricane of poverty,
racism, disinvestment, deindustrialization and corruption. Simply the damage from
this pre-Katrina hurricane will take billions to repair.

Now that the money is flowing in, and the world's eyes are focused on
Katrina, its vital that progressive-minded people take this opportunity to
fight for a rebuilding with justice. New Orleans is a special place, and
we need to fight for its rebirth.

-----------------------------------------------
Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine
(www.leftturn.org). He is not planning on moving out of New Orleans.

Friday, September 02, 2005

RICH GET OUT - POOR LEFT BEHIND

The U.S. Senate is now poised to vote on the repeal of the estate tax. At a time when our nation is hemorrhaging, our wise "leaders" want to give more tax cuts to the rich. Can you believe it?

I heard people in New Orleans, in the last 24 hours, tell how rich folks in fancy hotels were taken out of the city in SUV's while working class people, holed up in the same hotels, were not allowed to escape in those same SUV's. They were told there was no room for them as the rich folks filled the vehicles with their luggage and expensive possessions.

Another story is about two hospitals in New Orleans. One is at the private Tulane University and the other, just across the street is called Charity Hospital. Tulane University Medical Center has a helicopter pad on the roof. They had 1,000 of their patients evacuated soon after the hurricane. The patients in Charity Hospital, poor people, are still sitting in their squalid conditions. Someone at Charity got the good idea to move their most dire cases across the flooded road on canoes to Tulane Med Center. Then up eight flights of stairs they carried the critical patients to the helicopter pad. They had finally made some arrangements to get a chopper to pick up these folks. The helicopter took the patients to the New Orleans international airport which has, in part, been turned into an emergency medical evacuation center. When the helicopter put down they were turned away. No word yet what happened to the Charity Hospital patients on the chopper. Many more of the suffering poor still sit inside of Charity Hospital waiting for help.

I heard the FEMA director say last night on TV that his office has "just heard" about the thousands of people stranded at the Convention Center in the city. Eyewitnesses told the media that 10 people had already died there and the people there are without food and water now for the 5th day. Now I had known about the people at the Convention Center for the past couple of days. It has been all over the news....but somehow the head of FEMA (the emergency management agency for the federal government) had just heard of this situation. Can this be believed?

The news has reported that 30% of the population of New Orleans had incomes below the national poverty guidelines. It was a city of workers who served the tourist industry - hotel workers, cooks, dishwashers, and the like. The federal government does not give a damn about the poor in this country, we all know that, and we are now seeing the results of this attitude.

It ought to make all of us come to our senses. This country is run by the rich, for the rich and the rest of us are on our own when the shit hits the fan. And on top of all that, the rich want even more tax cuts by repealing the estate tax. By repealing that tax the rich will ensure that they can pass on even more wealth to their children. So for the next generation the divide between the rich and the poor will grow even wider.

The tragedy in New Orleans is a warning sign. Put your ear to the railroad tracks and hear the train coming. See how the working class and the poor will be treated as our economy begins its collapse. Jobs are moving out of America. Scientists are now saying, that because of global warming, the hurricanes in the future will be more severe because the oceans are becoming warmer and this causes hurricanes to increase in ferocity. So there will be more devastations like New Orlenas in the future. Open you eyes and see what is going on. You might be next.

In the meantime we are blowing YOUR TAX DOLLAR$ on a war for oil in Iraq. Star Wars research and development is eating up tens of billions of YOUR TAX DOLLAR$ every year. It's your future we are talking about here.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

NATIONALIZE THE OIL CORPORATIONS


This picture speaks for itself...the oil corporations will make out like bandits from this human and ecological disaster. Isn't it time to nationalize the oil corporations?

Wednesday, August 31, 2005


A city scene from New Orleans with the Superdome in the fore ground. It is devastating to see the human, physical, and environmental damage that has been done to these three states coastal regions as a result of the hurricane. It is hard to imagine how the government(s) will be able to afford to rebuild these communities any time soon. What will happen to the hundreds of thousands of people who now have no home, no job, and little future? The states of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama have very low tax bases so they won't have many resources to apply. The federal government, already spending over $4 billion a month on the Iraq war, is now in fiscal crisis. How will the nation be able to help these people? What will happen?

Tuesday, August 30, 2005


The Portland and Bangor newspapers in Maine reported today, on the front page, our plans for a peaceful protest on Sept 10. The Navy's Blue Angels will come to the Brunswick Naval Air Station to "perform." The protest is being sponsored by Maine Veterans for Peace and I am coordinating the event. Cindy Sheehan and Kathy Kelly will be speaking at the protest. Already hate mail has begun to pour into the VfP web site and I have received angry phone calls at my office. Some people feel we have no right to protest at the Navy base. They say the airshow is family entertainment. VfP maintains that it is a recruiting gimmick for the military - in these days when enlistment numbers are sagging. Others say, that because the Navy base has just been put on the base closure list (set to shut down in 2011) we have no right to protest there. Others say Cindy Sheehan has no right to come to Maine to protest. Should the peace movement have to request permission in order to protest in public? Should we take a poll of the public and if the public thinks the protest "not at the right time or place" should we back off? I think not. Did Martin Luther King ask for permission before he led civil rights activists over the Edmund Pettis bridge into Selma, Alabama? Did King cancel the protest because controversy would ensue? Did Gandhi cancel plans for his salt march knowing that it would be controversial? Should Cindy Sheehan not have gone to Crawford, Texas because it would open up "wounds" in the hearts of Americans? I think the peace movement must shine a light on the manifestations of violence in our culture. We must do so with a non-violent spirit, but we must not fear the inevitable conflict that will result. The great American abolitionist Frederick Douglas said, "If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground, they want rain without thunder and lightning."

Monday, August 29, 2005


Growing numbers of U.S. soldiers in Iraq are showing their disenchantment with the war. The Bush team has responded by increasing their recruitment of mercenary troops from Latin American countries (El Salvador, Honduras, Columbia, etc). Some in the peace movement predict a coming draft. I don't see it happening any time soon. The legions of jobs leaving the U.S. will ensure that poor and working class kids will keep joining the military as few other options exist for them.