The ugly truth: Why we couldn’t save the people of New Orleans
Bubbling up from the flood that destroyed New Orleans are images, beamed around the world, of America’s original and continuing sin: the shabby, contemptuous treatment this country metes out, decade after decade, to poor people in general and the descendants of African slaves in particular. The world sees New Orleans burning and dying today, but the televised anarchy - the shooting and looting, needless deaths, helpless rage and maddening governmental incompetence - was centuries in the making.
To the casual viewer, the situation is an incomprehensible mess that raises questions about the intelligence, sanity and moral worth of those trapped in the city. Why didn’t those people evacuate before the hurricane? Why don’t they just walk out of town now? And why should anyone care about people who are stealing and fighting the police?
That hard, unsympathetic view is the traditional American response to the poverty, ignorance and rage that afflict many of us whose great-great-grandparents once made up the captive African slave labor pool. In far too many cities, including New Orleans, the marching orders on the front lines of American race relations are to control and contain the very poor in ghettos as cheaply as possible; ignore them completely if possible; and call in the troops if the brutes get out of line.
By almost every statistical measure, New Orleans is a bad place to be poor. Half the city’s households make less than $28,000 a year, and 28% of the population lives in poverty.
In the late 1990s, the state’s school systems ranked dead last in the nation in the number of computers per student (1 per 88), and Louisiana has the nation’s second-highest percentage of adults who never finished high school. By the state’s own measure, 47% of the public schools in New Orleans rank as “academically unacceptable.”
And Louisiana is the only one of the 50 states where the state legislature doesn’t allocate money to pay for the legal defense of indigent defendants. The Associated Press reported this year that it’s not unusual for poor people charged with crimes to stay in jail for nine months before getting a lawyer appointed.
These government failures are not merely a matter of incompetence. Louisiana and New Orleans have a long, well-known reputation for corruption: as former congressman Billy Tauzin once put it, “half of Louisiana is under water and the other half is under indictment.”
That’s putting it mildly. Adjusted for population size, the state ranks third in the number of elected officials convicted of crimes (Mississippi is No. 1). Recent scandals include the conviction of 14 state judges and an FBI raid on the business and personal files of a Louisiana congressman.
In 1991, a notoriously corrupt Democrat named Edwin Edwards ran for governor against Republican David Duke, a former head of the Ku Klux Klan. Edwards, whose winning campaign included bumper stickers saying “Elect the Crook,” is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for taking bribes from casino owners. Duke recently completed his own prison term for tax fraud.
The rot included the New Orleans Police Department, which in the 1990s had the dubious distinction of being the nation’s most corrupt police force and the least effective: the city had the highest murder rate in America. More than 50 officers were eventually convicted of crimes including murder, rape and robbery; two are currently on Death Row.
The decision to subject an entire population to poverty, ignorance, injustice and government corruption as a way of life has its ugly moments, as the world is now seeing. New Orleans officials issued an almost cynical evacuation order in a city where they know full well that thousands have no car, no money for airfare or an interstate bus, no credit cards for hotels, and therefore no way to leave town before the deadly storm and flood arrived.
The authorities provided no transportation out of the danger zone, apparently figuring the neglected thousands would somehow weather the storm in their uninsured, low-lying shacks and public housing projects. The poor were expected to remain invisible at the bottom of the pecking order and somehow weather the storm.
But the flood confounded the plan, and the world began to see a tide of human misery rising from the water - ragged, sick, desperate and disorderly. Some foraged for food, some took advantage of the chaos to commit crimes. All in all, they acted exactly the way you could predict people would act who have been locked up in a ghetto for generations.
The world also saw the breezy indifference with which government officials treated these tens of thousands of sick and dying citizens, even as the scope of the disaster became clear. President Bush initially shunned the Gulf Coast and headed to political fund-raisers in the West.
That left matters in the bumbling hands of the director of emergency management, Michael Brown, who ranks No. 1 on the list of officials who ought to be fired when the crisis has passed. Even as local officials were publicly reporting assaults, fires and bedlam at local hospitals, Brown took to the airwaves to declare that “things are going well” as mayhem engulfed the city. When asked about the rising death toll, Brown attributed it to “people who did not heed the advance warnings.” Brown’s smug ignorance of the conditions of the place he was tasked to save became the final door slammed on the trap that tens of thousands of the city’s poorest found themselves.
The challenge for America is to remember the faces of the evacuees who will surely be ushered back into a black hole of public indifference as soon as the White House and local officials can manage it. While pledging ourselves to remember their mistreatment and fight for their cause, we should also be sure to cast a searching, skeptical eye on the money that Bush has pledged for rebuilding.
Ten billion dollars are about to pass into the sticky hands of politicians in the No. 1 and No. 3 most corrupt states in America. Worried about looting? You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Originally published on September 4, 2005 at http://www.nydailynews.com/front/story/343324p-292991c.html and reprinted in TAM with permission of the author.