Like many of the journalists who cover stories about injustices that disproportionately affect people of color, Jordan Flaherty is white. And while Flaherty’s diligence in acknowledging his racial privilege is not unique among these writers, the graceful yet matter-of-fact tone he uses to discuss his privilege sets a new standard for anyone seeking to address race while working for social justice – an effort without which, said Flaherty, quoting a colleague in a recent speech, “you simply become a more skillful racist.”
In his book “Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six,” Flaherty is too busy chronicling the inequalities that rose to the surface when the levies broke to pontificate about the privilege that complicates his role as a journalist and advocate. Instead, he chooses a few powerful moments to show how his privilege becomes part of the stories he writes.
Shortly after the storm, Flaherty spent time at a makeshift camp near Interstate 10, where 95 percent of the evacuees were African-American and everyone waited under armed guard behind metal barricades. “My whiteness felt like a uniform I was wearing,” recalls Flaherty, “one that gave me access to a citizenship denied to the people all around me.”
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Thus disguised, Flaherty found a way out of the camp where others were virtually imprisoned, but he didn’t leave behind the stories that fill the pages of “Floodlines” with material indispensable to the historical record of a disaster and recovery effort that has become a devastating primer in American racism. Woven into these difficult stories are inspiring accounts of the secondline jazz parades, call-and-response bounce music and community ties that animate a resistance that has become a flood in its own right.
Truthout spoke with Flaherty outside the anarchist cafe that hosted the Portland, Oregon stop of his book tour while the worker-owned restaurant transformed into a venue for Flaherty’s lecture on our post-Katrina world and what it took to propel the Jena Six story into the national news.
Alissa Bohling: How have audiences responded to the tour so far? Have you seen patterns in what people are concerned about now, five years after the storm, when it’s been largely forgotten about by the media?
Jordan Flaherty: The idea of the tour is that it’s not just a New Orleans tour, it’s this Community and Resistance Tour, so the tour is made up of a lot of different organizers and activists and media-makers coming together, with the common theme being not just the Gulf Coast, but people bringing different stories of resistance – and actually successful resistance – with the idea that there’s some kind of consensus over what the problems are in our society, but not enough hope and not a vision of people who’ve actually had successes in their struggles.
I’ve been traveling, for example, with Vikki Law, who’s been working with women who’ve been organizing in prison, and Jesse Muhammad, who’s worked on a whole bunch of different Gulf Coast struggles. Tonight we’re performing with this spoken word poet named Mic Crenshaw. So it’s been a range of different people coming to social justice from different angles and different perspectives. I think if you do an event that is just about the Gulf Coast, you just get the people in the room who are interested in the Gulf Coast, but I think if you look at these five years post-Katrina, if you look at any issue – housing education, health care, criminal justice – in New Orleans, we face these issues on hyperspeed.
For example, people are struggling around education everywhere, but in New Orleans, we had the entire staff of the public school system – 7500 teachers – fired overnight. We had the teachers’ union cease to be recognized, cease to exist; it was the largest union in the city. We had a school system that was 128 schools – 124 were under control of the local school board. Now there’s five under control of the local school board, and the rest are either charter or under state control and in the process of being switched over to charter.
So we have this massive change that happened overnight. Housing: 80 percent of our housing flooded over night. Health care: our major free hospital was closed overnight. I think if you’re talking about any of these issues – education, housing, health care, criminal justice – you should really look at New Orleans as this paradigmatic example of, first of all, how bad things can be, but also how people have struggled. People have struggled in a way that was accountable to the communities at the base, in a way that was actually doing the work of going door-to-door in the community, in a way that used different talents, with the involvement of grassroots activists, of direct action, of lobbyists, of civil rights lawyers – and also used sheer persistence and showed how culture could be used for change, as well. All these different elements have made for models that can be replicated by people anywhere who are concerned about social justice.
AB: One of the things “Floodlines” touches on briefly is the intergenerational culture of New Orleans. Can you talk more about how that culture affects the organizing culture?
JF: I think that’s really important. I used to live in New York, and there, I feel like it’s a very not multigenerational community. As we’ve been traveling around in different places for this tour, places in the South, I’ve found, are really intergenerational in their social justice movements. In other regions and cities this is not as much the case. I do think that the more we can build a broad-based social movement, and the more that both young people and older people – oftentimes veterans of these movements – can feel they are welcome and have a role, the better off we’ll be. In some communities, there’s not enough respect for the community elders; in some communities, there’s not enough respect in listening to these young voices.
AB: One of the strongest scenes in “Floodlines” is when you and a large group of people who found refuge in the American Can Company building are gathered on the roof, and the helicopters are flying by and flying by, and people need to get out. They’re getting sick, and no one’s landing, and finally a gentleman who’s taken charge decides to ask everyone other than the elderly white folks to go downstairs – and a helicopter lands five minutes later. What did it feel like, or what the mood was like for everyone, to have to capitulate to this racist paradigm in order to get help for just a few people?
JF: In that situation, it was hard to know what was going on. There were all these strange reports from the media and there was, leading into these days of no help coming, of these helicopters going and you know, I don’t have any illusions about this country, but still, this situation of being in the U.S., a supposedly developed nation, yet days have gone by and a city has been flooded and there’s no help. So, the entire situation was like the whole city looking at itself in a funhouse mirror. I thought, this looks like it could be really bad, or it could be coincidence.
But then as days and weeks go on, and I talk to more and more people, you just start hearing more and more of these same stories. So, for example, I also talk right after that about that situation in the Ritz Carlton hotel, where the white residents of the hotel and some staff were put on a bus out of town and the black folks – mostly staff and some residents of the hotel – were put on a bus to the Superdome. And then when I heard about the people that were shot at trying to walk across the bridge out of New Orleans, I couldn’t believe it – and then it turned out to be true.
Any one of these situations, you could say, “Maybe that was a misunderstanding,” or “Maybe that was some bad apple,” but once you look back at the whole situation, everybody had these same stories. And even my experience in that evacuee camp, coming out of town, I was really shocked and disturbed by the way I saw people being treated. But I wasn’t there for days, I was just there for a short period, so I thought maybe I was there at a bad moment. But then everybody who went through that evacuee camp had the same story, the same experience: seeing guns pointed at people, seeing families separated, all of that. I think when people hear the story – even when you experience the story – and I think especially if you’re white and you’ve been brought up with this kind of privilege, you’re ready to give things the benefit of the doubt and it’s only after the evidence mounts and mounts and mounts that you start saying, wait a minute, this is something systemic.
AB: You bring up the bridge shootings: In the book you gave some examples of the Times-Picayune coverage after the storm and how they often took the side of federal agencies and local government, even as those governments made decisions, for example, to raze all the public housing even though much of it was still viable. Since then the Times-Picayune has done some interesting investigations taking the other side, where they’re digging into some of the misconduct during the storm and its aftermath, such as the bridge shootings. Do you have a sense of the politics of that paper, or what’s going on there?
JF: The Times-Picayune is a mostly white paper in a mostly African-American city. I think there’s a lot of great folks that work at that paper. I think, in general, they all take their jobs really seriously, and for white people in New Orleans, they’re on the liberal end of the perspective. I think the paper often does a good job, but all that being said, first of all, when you have a mostly white staff in a mostly African-American city, there’s stories that get missed and there’s perspectives that get missed and there’s different prioritizing that happens. And it’s not racism on an individual level, again it’s systemic. This is how voices don’t get heard.
Then, finally, A.C. Thompson’s story came out and the story of not just Danziger Bridge but the stories of Henry Glover, and Donnell Herrington and Danny Brumfield Sr., all these stories of police violence and vigilante violence started coming out. Then the Times-Picayune took the lead on this story, but it took almost being shamed into it by A.C. Thompson, this reporter who had little to no connection to the city and came in and did what the whole rest of our local media should have done but failed to do.
AB: Can you talk about some of the competition that arose among the different organizers and activists after Katrina and what that tension was all about?
JF: I think a really crucial book for understanding this period in social justice in our country is “The Revolution Will Not Be funded” by INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence. This paradigm that they’ve talked about, where organizations have become more accountable to the funders and to foundations than to their base, has been a serious warping of all these organizations and movements. And in New Orleans after Katrina, you had all this money coming in. At the same time, you had people under an incredible amount of stress, many under post-traumatic stress disorder. People had lost all their possessions, all their photos. People had lost family members, they’d lost friends, they’d lost community.
And so, take this incredible amount of pressure, and take this money flowing in, in a way that seems almost capricious and random. Then, take all these outside volunteers coming in – almost all of whom come with the best of intentions, but still, often, they play this role of pitting people against each other and kind of deciding to take sides and this sort of thing. It caused a lot of tension, and it is really sad because you have people who agree on 95 percent of issues fighting on 5 percent; you have, you know, I’m getting 100 dollars and you’re getting 200 dollars, and we’re fighting each other over that extra 100 dollars, when right over here the Red Cross is getting a billion dollars and we’re ignoring it.
AB: Are people organizing some of those same local activist networks around the BP spill?
JF: Absolutely. One of the really important leaders in the post-Katrina struggle for justice was Advocates for Environmental Human Rights. Directors Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker, they have been big leaders in this struggle around the BP drilling disaster. People in New Orleans who are concerned about social justice, and people in New Orleans in general, are almost in a panic over this. It’s certainly much more apocalyptic for the people on the Gulf Coast, where in every family there’s multiple people that make their living from fishing. It’s not quite the same in New Orleans – our culture is so much related to the Gulf, our cuisine is so much related to seafood, there’s certainly ties, but we’re not as economically dependent. We’re a tourism-based economy and a lot of that tourism does have to do with the Gulf and with fishing. It’s not as direct, but it’s still devastating.
People get so angry when they think about it. Both for communities on the Gulf and for New Orleans, part of what’s been hard is, who do you fight against? People are very angry at the federal government, at state government, and at BP, but it almost becomes, “What’s the demand?” I think, fundamentally, we need to completely reshape our country’s and our politicians’ relationships with these oil companies. The problem goes back to before the drilling disaster. You’ve got 10,000 miles of canals that have been dug through these coastal communities by the oil companies, bringing saltwater into the freshwater marshes, causing coastal erosion, a football field worth of land lost every 45 minutes off of the southern Louisiana coast, most of that due to oil-company drilling. So it’s devastation that goes back decades. Whatever happens with this drilling disaster, that fundamental paradigm is not going to change.
AB: Talk about your observation that the labor movement sent a lot of aid dollars down after the storm but overlooked Katrina as an opportunity to educate people about the race and class issues that were part of the disaster and the recovery effort.
JF: It’s a really heartbreaking topic to me. I worked for SEIU when Hurricane Katrina happened. I used to work as a labor organizer, and I believe that so much hope for social change happened in the labor movement. This post-Katrina period was a big part of a disillusionment for me.
I remember a conversation a month or so after the storm, where I was talking to someone who was a political director for an SEIU local – and again, this is just one voice – but I think it demonstrates the short-sightedness of a lot of people in the labor movement at this time. I said, you know, “How are you all responding to Katrina?” and she said, “Well, with all these people displaced from southern Louisiana, and it looks like that displacement won’t end soon, I think we need to start developing closer relationships with some Republican politicians because they’re going to be much more in power in this state.” Of course that’s not nationwide union policy, but if the labor movement had seen this post-Katrina moment as a moment when they should have been involved on a broader social justice scale – not just thinking most immediately about how they can organize workers, but how they can build a movement that, as part of that movement, will help workers have a union – it would have been completely different. The labor movement right now is virtually the only part of our Left that has the money and resources to mount these struggles, and they’re just not seeing how they can be involved. It’s been heartbreaking to me, as someone who believes in this movement, to see it just sit on the sidelines.
If you look back, in the sixties, the record was spotty but at least you had United Auto Workers supportive of the civil rights movement. Where do you see things on that scale? At this point, any time a union is involved in a protest movement, it’s only in an extremely shallow way and only when they can have control over it. And it’s like, “Oh, we’re going to protest Wal-Mart” but if Wal-Mart suddenly recognizes a union, all the protests are off. There’s no sense of a larger struggle.
If you look at that 1999 period with the WTO in Seattle, you had the labor movement joining with these direct action environmental activists, and it was a really exciting, beautiful movement, and gave birth to that whole cliche of “Teamsters and turtles [environmentalists],” people with historically disparate interests, finding common ground on which to work together, but – at least in the last nine years – that solidarity hasn’t reappeared.
AB: The book covers some examples of positive changes that have come about in New Orleans after key injustices were exposed. There’s a new independent monitor of the police department and the public defender system was overhauled. Have you seen changes since those new systems were put in place?
JF: Absolutely. I think that there was still a long struggle after passing the independent monitor, to get it funded and to get staff in place, so it’s really just ramping up now. But there’s some great folks involved, including one of the former folks from Safe Streets Strong Communities – which fought for the police monitors – now working for the police monitors’ office. So I’m really hopeful for the role that they will play.
And definitely the Indigent Defense Board is a huge change. These public defenders were almost as big a problem for their clients as the prosecutors, and now Derwyn Bunton, who’s the head of the public defender’s office, is a great advocate. He used to work at the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana and comes out of this community that really is concerned about giving people a fair trial and fair representation. So it’s been a sea change.
And now people are working at the grassroots on trying to get a people’s consent decree over the police department. It looks like there will be some form of federal oversight, but activist Malcolm Suber, who used to be with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, has said, “We don’t trust a federal government that kills people overseas to oversee our police department. We want real community control.” So they’re struggling around that. There’s a really vital and exciting fight over the size of the city jail, which right now, per capita, is the largest city jail in the country. People have been waging a really effective and strong fight to shrink that jail. So I feel really hopeful about where things are with the criminal justice struggle in the city. We have a long way to go, but I feel hopeful.