The Accidental American in New Orleans

Tonight, at the Community Book Center in the 7th Ward, the authors of the new book The Accidental American and Danny Glover came to speak and support the work of Restaurant Opportunities Center-New Orleans. It is the local chapter of a organizing/union/advocacy group started in New York City within the last few years. One of the co-authors of the book, Fekkak Mamdouh, was a Morrocan-born waiter at a restaurant in the World Trade Center whose life was thrown into turmoil on 9/11. Mamdouh and Renku Sen, his co-author who works at the Applied Research Center, “describe how members of the largely immigrant food industry workforce managed to overcome divisions in the aftermath of 9/11 and form the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York to fight for jobs and more equitable treatment.”

Sen read from the book, Mamdouh told his personal story and the need for organizing, and special guest Danny Glover pinpointed the need “to connect the dots” between various causes so that we can support each others work. Then local ROC organizers took center stage, echoing their sentiments and agitating sympathizers to become supporters in a soon-to-be public campaign. Solidarity forever!

Published in: on March 4, 2009 at 1:20 am  Leave a Comment  
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Beyond Jena

I am attending a conference focusing on “bloggers of color, education and social justice in New Orleans” that ties its news peg to the Jena 6 movement, especially the Sept. 20 protest, that has largely been attributed to blogging and internet organizing.

[below are notes, not my personal opinion…I’ll respond in my own way later on…]

Professor Dedra Johnson, blogger of G Bitch Spot.
Perspectives not taken into account, documentation that can fall through the cracks.

Dr. Eban Walters, blogger of New Orleans — It’s Just Me.
Most productive period of blogging was when he moved back home in late 2006.  Happened that there was the first Rising Tide blogger conference, which was the first time everyone had met.  Another blogger, NOLA Slate, urged him to blog because there were so few bloggers of color (Dedra being one of the only people). His first post was the first anniversary of Katrina, August 29, 2006, when he just couldn’t take it anymore.

Clifton Harris, blogger of Cliff’s Crib.
“It was a lot easier to write when I thought no one was paying attention. I’m not a writer by trade.” People shouldn’t be over concerned about who your audience is, says Harris, because then you’re doing things to get readers instead of staying true to yourself.

Harris — comment on blogs if you support what they say. Don’t just say the compliment in person…cause then it looks like it’s just one crazy black guy. Fight back against derogatory comments on! Needs to be a dialogue, conversation that’s TWO-SIDED.

Johnson — Been waiting for the number of bloggers of color in New Orleans to increase, doesn’t know why. Thinks especially important here to have those voices, need to represent the diversity of the culture of this city ONLINE. “I mean, you know there are more opinionated black people than the three of us.” Parts of the conversation were missing, whether talking about which neighborhoods should be rebuilt, public housing, etc.

Harris — Did write about Jena before 9/20. One of the few moments that I felt that technology was used to change a wrong that was done. There was black radio, but the seeds of the story were on blogs. The only regret I have about the whole situation — in a piece I wrote called “My personal apology to Michal Bell” — is that we had enough to follow through to get him out of jail, but not enough to heal his life. Should have had a counselor there with him, or something. If he had been successful in killing himself, the whole Jena movement would feel completely hollow.

Johnson — I was hopeful to get more out of the movement to Jena. Of course, there was a great dialogue that popped up on this issue…misperceptions. It shows us what we can start, not what we can finish, how we can follow through. I did find it disappointing that there was this great swell of interest and support that kind of faded.

Walters — I didn’t blog about Jena. I think about that period, I remember being surprised that this Jena story popped out of nowhere. I was upset that Nagin went up there, get some photo ops instead of handle business back home.

Moderator: What’s the next civil rights issue or important issue in New Orleans?

Johnson — Still feel housing is important. Education. I hope I make an impact by documenting, bearing witness to what’s happening.

Walters — Healthcare, mental healthcare in particular and crime. Link between crime and education. [tries to rock the boat a little, but worried about career?] I’ll write a letter to people, like Governor Jindal or David Vitter. Or some jerk editor from the New York Post about how New Orleans should be written off. And I’ll post that letter and tell people to use what they want from it to make their own letter.

Harris — If we’re fighting for new schools, hospitals, etc, then you can’t trash the schools or start a turf war as soon as you come back to the city. Job training.

Need to say: This is what we need to do once we get it. [set expectations] Fight for justice and equity that we deserve and then hold each other accountable. Don’t know how to separate the two, so I do both at the same time.

[end of the first panel…battery cut out before Q &A…]

Published in: on January 31, 2009 at 11:48 am  Comments (1)  
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Veterans Day with the War STILL On

For most people in the United States, and perhaps the globe, the election of Barack Obama last week provided a time for celebration and a collective sigh of relief.  Among supporters, there is the anticipation of a sweeping change in our relationship to government in an ailing economic time driven by the neglect of our public infrastructure and financially withering social programs that are the bedrock of a successful republic–for me, this means support for quality and equal education and meaningful employment (with a humane healthcare system we’ve never had to allow us the pursuit of happiness…notice we are given the right to pursue, but not necessarily the right to have happiness).

We are at War and today is Veteran’s Day.  For a state holiday I don’t often take much time to revere-having the rigid sense that only hawkish people would value going to war-there is renewed purpose.  A week into the president-elect’s presidency, we ought to consider how infrequent America’s two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were talked about in the campaign, especially in the last few months of the Bailout Era.

This must be remedied.  As Aaron Glantz wrote for The Nation today, if we as a people do not learn from history and, unless we confront the consequences of war with urgency and humanity, we are doomed to repeat it.  In this case, of course, the parable is the last few years in Vietnam:

Both Barack Obama and John McCain barely mentioned the war in Iraq in their final debate. In his historic victory speech, Obama said “Iraq” only once. Some say the election results show Americans demanding a “change,” and in many ways they do. But they also show a collective desire to forget.

Most Americans want to put the war behind them, but this feeling is based not on a coherent critique but on a kind of collective exhaustion. In many ways, we as a country find ourselves in a mood like the one towards the end of the Vietnam War: we are tired and simply want to move on and forget the conflict ever happened.

Yet this feeling can come at a great cost, because it is this same dynamic that led to the betrayal of more than three million Vietnam veterans.

In a stunning statistic reiterated on today’s Democracy Now! interview with Glantz, 18 veterans commit suicide every day according to the Department of Veterans Affairs own data.

We have not come to grips with the cost of war despite the overwhelming evidence: 200,000 veterans are homeless, which is approximately one-third of the homeless population in this country; the incredible physical and mental health needs of veterans; and, perhaps most importantly, the continued myth of the effectiveness of war to solve complex problems.

This myth is possible to continue in the non-militarized section of society through the continued suppression and silencing of military veterans’ dissent and the absence of courageous individuals in power to confront the military-industrial complex (Rep. Dennis Kucinich and former Rep. Tom Allen embodying two lonesome examples).   After making speeches in Chicago opposing the Second Iraq War in 2003, Obama continually hedges on the issue and makes great concessions to militarization in general, advocating for increased troop levels in Afghanistan.  Obama’s campaign narrative of “change” toward Bush’s style of militarization seems a half-hearted shadow of his earlier political maneuvering and hypocritical, especially since he is considering leaving Defense Secretary Robert Gates at his post.

Of course, since 1941 America has almost always been at war.  As documented in books such as “Killing Hope” by William Blum and “Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace” by Gore Vidal, the United States has had overt and clandestine (CIA) misadventures in reaches as far and wide as Guatemala, Iran, Chile, Grenada, Bosnia, Somalia, Iraq (the first time), Vietnam, Korea, Panama, East Timor…the list goes on.  This is partly due to the state’s concession to what Eisenhower warned as “the military-industrial complex,” which is explicated in the recent film “Why We Fight.”  Despite the wishes of our most respected founding father, George Washington, to have no standing army, the myth of war’s effectiveness has become ingrained in the American psyche to the point of insanity.

“This war,” expectedly, is said again to be in defense of American citizens’ freedoms and rights.

Yet, when Iraq Veterans Against the War attempted to ask both McCain and Obama questions on the U.S. war in Iraq, to “redress grievances” as they phrased it, at the final debate on Hofstra University’s campus they were met with mounted police.  Under the right to peaceably assemble and freedom of speech, 15 veterans crossed a police line outside of the debate and were attacked without cause by police on horses.  One person was trampled, suffering a broken cheekbone.  Yesterday all fifteen entered not guilty pleas in court.

After witnessing police at the DNC and reading the history of police in Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America, these actions are not shocking at all, in fact they are expected behavior for people who are essentially bribed through wages and other benefits to protect the interests of the upper classes in the name of “order.”  Many of the police are no doubt veterans themselves, considering the overlapping skillset in each profession.

In August, Iraq Veterans Against the War marched on the Pepsi Center in Denver to petition the Democratic Party and its nominee Barack Obama to fulfill its anti-war promises and agree to the veterans’ demands: return troops home immediately, healthcare and full benefits to returning veterans and reparations to the Iraqi people for U.S. destruction of their society.  There was a tense extended stand-off between police and the veterans who were in uniform and in formation just outside the gates to the Democratic National Convention.  Everyone readied for pepper spray and arrests.  Veterans made megaphone appeals to the heavily armed police, speaking to them as brothers and sisters who understood the pressures on them and how they are used as tools for the state.  But at the last moment, in a move that Machiavelli would approve of, Obama defused the situation by sending an aide to hear the veterans’ demands and carte blanche to accept whatever they were.  Obama made sure the convention remained without controversy and knew that, absent of pepperspray or mass arrests, the press’ attention would likely focus inside the Pepsi Center.

A friend of mine wrote about his experience as a media marshall, holding back those pushy aggressive photographers.  He was exhausted from four hours of marching, negotiating and fretting with the press and yet he relayed to me afterward that it was one of the most powerful events of his life:

There is a vision in my head now of seeing the once armed call for peace.  It was a dream being resurrected from my parents generation, a faint whisper of a dream sung to me at bedtime when I was a child.  It was a hope more powerful than anything Barak Obama could give us…

…Still, a day later I can find almost no press coverage of the event.  I had never seen so many reporters in my life.  Where did their stories go?  Killed at the editor’s desk no doubt. Those that I found published in national media were done so in obscure online galleries or washed of most of the meaning.  As for Barak Obama, there has been no public acknowledgment of any pledge to help the veterans.

It is in his interest to marginalize Iraq Veterans Against the War by not acknowledging his pledge publicly–it kept him in a centrist role heading into the election and will leave his options open as president.  It is obvious that he is accountable to the elite of Congress and not to those people most affected.  And this structure will remain in place until enough people in our culture and society make it known that war is an unacceptable solution that only breeds greater consequences.  Or until enough G.I.’s revolt.

Even the statements I recently found from a West Point professor–“There is no glory in war, only suffering.  No victors, only the living”–would be sage advice to the president-elect and our society at-large.  From this understanding, hopefully we can learn to divest ourselves from the myth of war as an effective strategy to bring justice, in which there are heroes and victors.

This Veterans’ Day, let us talk candidly and urgently of the consequences of war. Let us support the veterans of wars who are witnesses to its horrors and who act to oppose it.  Let us be creative and dynamic in working out alternatives and solutions to war and violence whether between nations or between friends.

Is it not a violently irresponsible government which permits 18 veterans to kill themselves each day from its own actions?  Is it not a violently irresponsible government which dismisses veterans’ right to petition and assemble by sending the police to attack them?

Published in: on November 11, 2008 at 5:01 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Nobody for President, Everyone for Liberation: at the Democratic National Convention – Denver

Flags. Banners. Suit-wearing delegates from fifty states. 15,000 media people (not sure I count). Mountains all around and yet 90 degrees.

I am here in Denver for the Democratic National Convention. Let’s hope that I am not here at any point during the week. Though if they would let me in with a camera…

I was also told by a close source that Denver City Council quickly passed an ordinance in the past two weeks making it illegal to carry any type of human or animal waste, whether it be piss or shit or manure or in any type of bottle or vat, since they got wind of one group’s brilliant idea to chuck said waste at delegates and/or representatives in an affable “you’re full of shit” communique.

I’ll be taking photos all week and will post the best here and more elsewhere. I’ll also be contributing to the independent media scene in Denver by posting to Colorado’s Independent Media Center. But look for a daily wrap-up/unwind.

For DNC events check: (music, free university, nonviolence trainings…) (Denver’s “alternative” weekly, kind of like Gambit in New Orleans)

Published in: on August 22, 2008 at 6:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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La. Gov. Jindal Allowing Sexual Orientation Anti-Discrimination Order to Expire

In the latest backward-moving and anti-civil rights move for Louisiana, Governor Bobby Jindal will allow an executive order (signed by previous Gov. Blanco in 2004) to make it illegal to discriminate against someone based on their sexual orientation, in any government services or contracted out services. 

“We are firmly and strongly committed to fair treatment of all of our people and certainly don’t condone discrimination in any form,” Jindal said, forgetting that not condoning a practice is not equivalent to making it have the force of law.

 Though he claims it is a “special right” and covered in pre-existing state and federal law, it is clearly not covered in other anti-discrimination legislation, say experts on this issue from the national Human Rights Watch and Forum for Equality, a New Orleans-based Political Action Committee advocating for lesbian and gay rights in Louisiana.

 As put by Randy Evans, a New Orleans lawyer who is also co-political director with Forum for Equality, the decision means “it is perfectly legal to fire anyone based on their sexual orientation even if they are a perfect employee.”

For more information, read the Baton Rouge Advocate article.

Also, the opinion of a Human Rights Watch expert.

Freedom to work and freedom from persecution for all!

Published in: on August 22, 2008 at 6:20 pm  Leave a Comment  
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If This is How it Starts: Report Back from the Citizen Participation Process Summit

Tonight, the “Citizen” Participation Process (CPP) Summit opened on the 11th Floor of the Pan-American Life Building in the Central Business District. Though this event was free with an advance registration, only about 150 people showed up in a city of nearly 300,000. This pales in comparison to the UNOP’s Congress Events, to which thousands flocked and where efforts were made to include displaced persons via teleconference.

Of course, civic participation may not be for everyone, but everyone must be offered the time and space to contribute and be a part of the decision making process from the beginning—for everything that starts at this summit will influence subsequent dialogue.

A potential pitfall is that residents who miss this summit due to conflicts or not being informed will not be viewed as legitimate—in effect people could become a victim of what’s known as “Founder’s Syndrome.” Or perhaps more simply, that certain attendees can say they were at the summit and can use this for political and personal power in influencing others in decision-making. Greater inclusion and

Some of these concerns were brought up throughout the night session. The session included questions to key note speaker Judith Mowry, a representative from the formalized Office of Neighborhood Involvement in Portland, Oregon.

Mowry’s last sentence–“Basically the world is run by those who show up”—showed considerable insensitivity to the context of post-Federal Flood New Orleans and to the logistics of low-income people. It makes invisible the difficulty of many New Orleanians who might work two jobs, have night shifts, or other conflicts and may not be informed, as stated above, especially by mass emails or by direct connection to a neighborhood association. (This is a pattern: The primary way to stay informed and engaged with the Master Plan and Comprehensive Zoning Ordinance process, which the City Council approved to put on the November ballot for popular vote on Thursday, is through its website. This is unacceptable in New Orleans, a place known for its digital divide and acquisition of news through those old-timey mediums like radio.)

In response to Mowry, Brad Ott, a health patient advocate and resident of New Orleans, immediately spoke to the necessity to involve the approximately 200,000 people who are not present. In addition, he later added how those directly affected by land grabs, such as the destruction of public housing and now the imminent VA-LSU teaching hospital plan for lower Mid-City—were and are currently left out of the decision-making process. The first public meeting on the teaching hospital came last month, more than two years since plans began. Ott’s determination is then that the CPP, as a burgeoning formal body, could put certain current issues on hold until a well established and inclusive participation process is in place.

After questions for Mowry, facilitators then continued the agenda wherein each table at the summit had two models of citizen participation. There were six models total across the participants. My table had models #2 and #5. The models described “Structure,” “Scope of Focus,” and “Funding.”
[Note: It should be mentioned that these models were meant to ignite discussion and feedback, not what the coalition organizing this summit actually want to see.]

#2: Essentially created a three-tiered system beginning with neighborhood groups, then to district coalitions, then to a Citizens Voice Council, wherein the scope was largely developmental and the funding decision-making power remained in the hands of the city council and mayor who would have to respond “in some way” to the Voice Council.

No one at my table thought this model would improve anything in the city. From their comments, it seems this would function largely as the system already does but formally, by granting authority to neighborhood associations alone and not including more informal community groups. In general, in all models, there were no specifics as to a standard of how decisions would or should be made—consensus? simple majority? two-thirds majority?—from the neighborhood association level all the way up to a Voice Council.

In my view, this tiered system continues the concentration of power into fewer and fewer representatives that is a mirror of our government, which we all know is largely out of touch with the priorities of its residents. We need to flatten out the decision-making power to include as many people as possible that will still be functional.

#5: Somewhat like #2, but more broadly inclusive and distinct in the fact that participants in the process could have decision-making power over the priorities of the budget.

We appreciated this distinction, but the process still remained vague. I noted that I would put more faith in this model if the budget priorities were determined in a city-wide ballot constructed like run-off elections in Ireland: if there are five priorities (or candidates) then you rank them from 1 to 5 for the ones you prefer (or give no rank for things you disagree with). The ranks are given weight in the ballot count such that a #1 priority would get 5 points, a #2 priority 4 points and so on…

Of course there could be thirty items on the ballot, each of which would have a paragraph description of what they mean…for this to be efficient you’d have to extend the number of days people can vote and you’d have to have an informed electorate.

Of course, in the larger analysis, even the word “Citizen” is problematic as it precludes migrant workers, incarcerated people and others who are and will be residents of the city and are affected by the decisions made in this process. Resident was preferred. People unable to vote, such as those under 18, should also be considered in the dialogue.

When groups reported back on other models, we had no concept of the context from which their comments sprung, whether critical or in support. The gap in communication and lack of a “crib sheet,” or list of participation process definitions, only produced confusion. For instance, in model #5, what is a municipal assembly? Who comprises it and how many people are on it? What is it accountable to and how does it make decisions?

I recommend any information, including all 6 models, intended to be commented back to the entire group should be included in the packet so all participants can read them and understand the comments in context.
We wished that we had a greater introduction and understanding of different models run around the country—their successes and problems—before engaging and brainstorming in this process.

Lastly, these are my initial observations and this entire process is new to me so I have much to learn, but I see pitfalls in the concentrating of power all around. I’m open to dialogue on this, please add your thoughts as comments.

Published in: on July 13, 2008 at 7:38 pm  Leave a Comment  
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