We carried you in our arms
On Independence Day,
And now you’d throw us all aside
And put us on our way.
(Tears of Rage, Bob Dylan & Richard Manuel)
Mike West is Australian born, English raised, and, until Katrina hit, a resident of New Orlean’s Lower Ninth Ward for the last 12 years. West’s home recording studio now sits in 8 feet of water. West is one of the lucky ones. He, wife Katie Euliss, and their two children were on tour when the hurricane landed. He had insurance on his gear and a community of friends in Wichita to help his family establish a new home.
Although West states that economics played some part in why he chose the Lower Ninth Ward for his home, it is the sense of community that existed there that was the overwhelming factor.
For his 1999 album, 16 Songs For Drill and Banjo, West wrote a song called “After The Flood,” which not only describes the events that would unfold during the flood’s immediate aftermath, but also what is playing out in the refugee camps set up to care for the victims.
Now the mayor has saved the city
You and I will have to save ourselves
(After the Flood, Mike West)
West’s song is not so much prescient, but a reflection of what everybody in the city of New Orleans already knew. While President Bush and FEMA director Michael Brown made claims that “this flood caught us by surprise,” that was simply not true. And now, Mayor Ray Nagin has stated that those remaining in New Orleans will be forcefully evacuated to shelters to join earlier refugees.
We,re told that the folks who wish to stay will be denied food, water and electricity “for their own good.” Not mentioned is that they are also being denied the preventative shots that the armed forces, rescue workers, and eventually the rebuilders of New Orleans are receiving before they even enter the city. Shots that would protect them, to some degree, from the same illnesses that the government says they are in danger of contracting if they stay. This may turn out being the biggest and most shameful forced migration since the Trail of Tears.
On Monday, September 5, I undertook a journey to Red Cross processing centers and refugee camps in Missouri, Arkansas and Tennessee in search of musicians. I didn’t have a real grasp on the stories I wanted to write. But being primarily a music writer, I wanted to journal the stories of displaced musicians. How has this catastrophe effected them? How would it affect their art? By Friday, I had had enough.
I could not turn the tape recorder off on folks that were not musicians. There was eagerness by all of them to tell their stories. The sense of community that West talks about was well in evidence. But so was anger. “We were abandoned,” was the common refrain. The answers to the question of why they didn’t evacuate before the storm were multitude. But they can be summed up by Chris Rock’s comments during the Shelter From the Storm concert. “There are people who can afford hotels. And then there are people who work in them.”
Now those people live in shelters. Close quarters with armed guards at the gate. At some of the shelters they are required to wear wristbands to identify themselves as “residents.”
Access to the folks in line at Red Cross processing centers was easy. There were long lines waiting for hours for the centers to open. The Red Cross seemed to be treating this situation as just another workday with standard work hours. On the day I was in Memphis, 3,000 refugees arrived. The Red Cross processed 600. Access to people in the shelters was more difficult.
There are gun-toting law enforcement officers at the entrances. To go inside required hours of dealing with administrators, coordinators, lawyers, managers, etc. Don’t get me wrong. I believe that when you want to enter someone’s home, you need to knock first and ask permission. And as much as these shelters are not “home,” they are the closest thing to it that the refugees have. Except that in EVERY case, no one asked them if they wanted a visitor. That decision was up to someone else. It was like being blocked by a landlord when you wanted to visit a friend in an apartment complex. Or, on a different level, by the warden when you wanted to visit a prisoner.
I had intended to stay on the road for a full week. But by Friday I was weak with a virus in my body and a heart full of venom. I returned home to begin the transcribing and writing process. That will begin tomorrow.
I had dinner with a dear friend last night (Saturday) who sometimes serves as an unofficial editor for me before I submit articles. Kathy has a way of pulling things out of me that are crucial to the story. After an hour and a half of talking about the week’s experience, she asked me “How did the trip affect YOU?” At which point, I broke down in tears. In public. Unable to shut off the faucet. Unable to maintain composure. Barely able to answer.
“I don’t know how to express the amount of anger I feel. And I don’t know that if I could, who would ever publish it.”
During the week I had listened to countless stories. They came from a lot of people who’s culture and heritage were, for the most part, alien to me. Poor black folks with French surnames and gold teeth. Poor white folks with French surnames and gold teeth. French-tinged accents that were sometimes difficult to decipher.
Mike West told me a story about one of his neighbors. His neighbor is white and his family had lived in the Lower Ninth Ward for generations. His neighbor was an avowed bigot, the result of ingrained racism passed down through the decades. But at the end of the workday, it was common to see his friend sitting on his porch sharing a beer with his black neighbors. “These are the people he trusts.”
It wasn’t all that uncommon during this catastrophe to see reporters lose their composure. During the past few days, however, things have shifted back to standard operating procedure. For the major media, that means to point blame but protect the system. It benefits them.
The White House wants reporters to refer to refugees as “displaced persons.” “We don’t have refugees in the United States.” Bullshit. These folks are refugees.
“We were abandoned” is not a reflection of individual blame. It is a condemnation of the whole system. I inherited my tears from these folks. They were not tears of sorrow. They were not tears of pity. To apply the French twist to it, they were “larmes de colere.” Tears of rage.
BILL GLAHN is a freelance writer from Springfield, Mo. and RIAA Watch columnist for CounterPunch. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org