By B. Boyles
During the week leading up to the 4th anniversary of Katrina, certain voices in New Orleans complained that President Obama hadn’t paid the city a visit since his election. Our racist daily newspaper went so far as to write an open letter demanding a presidential visit on August 29th, but only succeeded in securing an interview with their new pen pal. In recent weeks, that withered old bitch of local journalism even compared favorably our experiences under Bush, who liked to drop by and take a leak on us between lunches. Why, even ACORN got into the act, with a local coordinator asking “Where’s all that change you promised?” They fired her ass, and that just made the president look worse. When word leaked that this week’s visit would be a simple town meeting (“a drive-thru daiquiri visit” according to one reactionary suburban congressman), the chorus of whelping rose up well-trained. Yeah, what about us?? The White House listened and responded.
It’s too late now, the revised agenda is set. Maintaining the status quo, the president will travel to the Lower 9th ward, visit the MLK Jr. charter school there, then head out to the lake for that town hall at the University of New Orleans. Now there’s mild satisfaction from the chorus. The intended impression, according to these champions of low self-esteem, will be that we have a long way to go, that people are out there in the Lower 9th, and they still need help, and no one’s helping us. Help us! Help us!
Well, help is not on the way, and no photo-op will change that. The moment is gone when New Orleans could expect the government to come in and make things right so that houses were rebuilt, businesses re-opened, and crime controlled. The last 4 years passed, and we won’t get the spotlight or the sympathy or the free money ever again. Whatever recovery we have, we have because we made it happen. We have our city in spite of city government’s inability to fill out paperwork and secure the funding we deserved, to make wise decisions, to be inclusive, to ask for money in a manner befitting an organization of adults. Now, the rest of the country has gone to hell and that money goes to Wall Street, or wars, or bad mortgages. Not to justice, fair-housing or some fantasy of a federally-funded, eco-friendly, innovative, new New Orleans. Instead of wishing away our opportunity with the president, continuing to play the role of wretch, warming up the corpses of evil forces that have since left office, we should’ve demanded better from this visit. And by better, I don’t mean more time to hold his hand and be comforted. I mean taking him to places where he can actually have an effect.
Take the president to lunch at Café Reconcile on Oretha Castle-Haley Boulevard, where young women and men learn the restaurant business on a street the contains both a burned out school and a culture center, vacant lots and an independent movie house. While he eats, let him hear from the people at Castle Rock ministries or run into representatives of UNITY New Orleans so that they can explain how they’ve kept the city afloat these last four years, along with countless other groups, non-profits, and citizens, with no help from the City.
Walk with the first black president into the neighboring streets with Police Chief Warren Riley and the mother of a murder victim, and have the Chief explain how there’s really not as much crime as people say, and the mother give him the details of the crime and the justice system. Bring someone from the DA’s and public defender’s office to tell him how small their budgets are today. Get the folks from Silence is Violence to organize a walk for peace led by the Hot 8 Brass Band, and let Obama see the way we are trying to get through this unnecessary, crippling crime epidemic. Show him our resilience and the threats to our survival. Tell him that our protectors have failed us and that we need help defending our children and prosecuting our killers. Tell him it didn’t have to be this way, but we had small, weak men in power when we needed vigor and wisdom. Ask what he can do about that.
From there, take him to the former Magnolia or St. Bernard or Calliope projects, which were demolished. Show him the buildings that rise in their place, the wood and siding units shapes eerily similar to the brick ones that once stood there. Have him ask the director of HUD what exactly the plan is here, and if it really made sense (not for the contractors and building supply companies, but for poor people) to tear everything down only to rebuild a flimsier version. And let him ask who will live there in 5 years. For 30 minutes, let the president consider the odd prairies that wave where people once lived.
As commander-in-chief, Obama would be well served to meet with the Army Corps of Engineers and listen to them explain where we’re at in the construction of a new levee system. Where are they short of funds? What is the status of wetland disappearance and efforts to reverse it? Along with the Corpsmen, Obama should accompany representatives from Levees.org, the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation, and select, independent engineers on a tour of the new levees. For an hour, let him hear the arguments, the places where the groups agree we’re deficient, and the urgency of the situation. He can go back to Washington with a sense of the greatest threat to this city’s future: coastal erosion.
The agenda as it stands is a waste of time for New Orleans and for Obama. Going to the Lower 9th Ward won’t tell the president a fucking thing about the last 4 years. The same backdrop, the same image on the TV that says, “Look at those poor bastards. They still don’t have shit. They’re still all poor and they always will be. Oh, well.” Once again, we’ll hear how Brad Pitt has saved the day with his cruise-ship sized single family homes in the middle of a barren flood plain, in scary proximity to levees we know little about, where residents can live on a killing ground. No stores, no jobs, nothing but good intentions and bad advice. If you were for New Orleans 4 years ago, you’ll be for us when Obama shows up down there. If you were against us, you’ll be confirmed. There are so many things going on here, in this city of tragedy and blood and brutality and sweet light and improvisation and craftsmen, we should stop swallowing the simplification of a very unfortunate neighborhood. We should stop wasting our time crying and getting on our knees when the cameras show up. We should be honest with President Obama and get him as much information as possible on things he can actually affect.
There’s a new New Orleans, alright, warped and vibrant and open to suggestion. As ever, the city bucks description in mere words. In one day, you can see undeniable signs of innovation and mind-blowing reminders of the awful past. You can meet geniuses and winos in the halls of power, saints and devils in the schools, all the complexities of Americans living under sustained, unprecedented stress. Something new is happening here, something breathtaking. At the same time, corruption and suffocating bitterness hang like anvils over our heads every day. This is most certainly a complex and fluid present, morphing daily with the dreams of thousands who need honesty in order to move forward. Tear up the routine and the guilt script. Don’t take Obama back to the recent past and ask him for answers he can no longer give. Haven’t we had enough of that?