While the United States government failed in New Orleans, people acted to save themselves and each other. Once again, as so often in American history, ordinary people provided us with an example and an alternative to our existing system. Once again black people’s solidarity provided a model for us all.
Government failed utterly. Homeland Security secured nothing. FEMA-the Federal Emergency Management Administration-managed nothing. The President, finally tearing himself away from his vacation, first dawdled and then dithered while people died. Only after almost a week of tragedy, suffering and shame did government being to respond.
But the people of New Orleans, poor African American people mostly, didn’t fail. They gave us a model to live by. They helped each other. Ordinary men and women carried children and the elderly to high ground, built camps in the driest, most secure place, formed bands to forage for food and dry clothing. The strong helped the weak, as all helped each other. They also spoke out in righteous anger to the television cameras telling the world that the government had, after long neglecting them, now deserted them. They demanded to be treated with the dignity they deserved.
Not all were steadfast it’s true. Some behaved like our society taught them to behave: competed for resources, beggared their neighbors, hoarded their wealth. But most, the vast majority, stood together. The rejected competition and embraced cooperation and collective action.
Suffering and Solidarity
Doctors and nurses worked around the clock in exhaustion giving each other I.V.s to overcome dehydration. Firemen fought fires in a city with all too much water, but no water pressure. Public employees risked their lives fishing folks from the water, picking survivors off the roofs, ferrying the stranded to land. But mostly it was ordinary people, civilians, the common folk at the bottom of our social heap who helped each other, and set us an example of how society might work.
Their suffering has moved some, their strength should move us all. On a corner near my house-hundreds of miles up river from New Orleans-firemen on the corner hold out their boots collecting money to help. Around the country middle class people, working people and the poor have reached into their pockets and put money in the boot. Trucks loaded with food and clothing are rolling, convoys are heading South, volunteers are flying in, doctors are on the way-and not because of government, but because of human cooperation. Because of solidarity.
Rat Race or Human Race
What do we learn from this experience? For at least the last 25 years we have been told by government, media, the business departments of the universities, and conservative churches that the only social value is competition, that the only mechanism is the market, that the only role for society is to stand aside and let the rat race go on. We have been told that the only motives are selfish motives, the only interests are ego interests. We were told it was all a rat race: business, politics, foreign affairs. We have been told to believe that the biggest, fattest rat will be the winner of the race where in the end rat eats rat.
New Orleans has now shown us the alternative to the rat race that is the human race. We have seen that selfish interests give way to common concerns, that ego interests give way to collective action. Not selfishness but altruism and heroism have been common. The human race, if it is really human-we have learned through this experience if we did not know it before-lives not by competition but by cooperation, lives not by the survival of the fittest, but by making the society function so that all are fit to survive.
The poor black people of New Orleans, portrayed on FOX and CNN as pathetic beasts or savage animals, stood forth as human beings with all the strength and self-respect that makes us proud to be part of the race, the human race. The conservative media interpreted the crisis in New Orleans as rat race America at its worst. Those who were left behind were said to have stayed behind. Foraging for food became looting. The righteous anger and rebellion of the human spirit was portrayed as the dark mob on the verge of riot. But no rightward spin could spin away the spirit of solidarity seen in New Orleans, no report could cover up the face of people who were poor and courageous in mutual support.
Finally the guard and the army arrived, under orders to establish order, to evacuate the city, to rescue the remaining people stranded in the sunken city. While the government gave the order, guardsmen and soldiers acted as much out of heartfelt sympathy as military duty. Here government, the military, did not what it usually does, but what it might do in a good society, one that created a structure to facilitate human sympathy and solidarity. Government as it might be, not as it is.
New Orleans’s poor black people in their solidarity in this crisis have shown us an alternative to the White House, to the Hill, to Wall Street, to Madison Avenue. They have shown us that within our society, among its working people and its poor lives another potential society with other ideals.
What this crisis has made clear is that we need to get rid of the rat race to let the human race thrive. We need new values, a new society, a new government. New Orleans, flooded, burned and destroyed stands as a monument to the failure of our government. The poor black people of New Orleans, thirsty, hungry, tired, frustrated and angry, but helping each other to take another step forward, show us the way.
Now, we need to organize ourselves, as they did, we need to go forward too. We need a movement with a radical vision built not on working within failed system, but creating a new one. We’ll help rebuild New Orleans, but let’s also rebuild our country not on the basis of competition, but on the principle of solidarity.
DAN LA BOTZ edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, and is the author of several books on labor in Mexico, Indonesia, and the United States. He can be reached at: DanLaBotz@cs.com