How the Other Half Lived

In 1911, the Triangle Shirt Factory in New York City, where I grew up, exploded in flames trapping scores of young, immigrant, women workers inside. As the fire burned, many women jumped to their deaths, unable to bear the slow death of heat and smoke. Newspaper reporters wrote about the sound they made as they fell, with their dresses billowing, before hitting the ground. In all, 146 women died.

The nation and the world were horrified at the barbarism of industry and began to focus on the rights of workers. For a moment, the world was able to see beyond the fact that the victims were female immigrants, and acknowledged the need for basic human standards for workers. This was a moment in history where, horrified by the excesses of the unrestrained capitalism and the disregard for the basic humanity of our citizens, this country was forced to change and adopt standards that progressives had vainly pressed for years. I imagine that then, as now, conservatives countered with market-based solutions and crude cost-benefit economic analyses but the tide had turned and people knew better, knew that these were paper tigers erected to obscure the reality that this suffering was real and avoidable. The tragedy at the factory has come to be understood as the beginning of the New Deal, the program that fundamentally change the relationship between government and its citizens in this country. (

Today, it appears that as many as 10,000 citizens of my adoptive hometown of New Orleans may be dead from the effects of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina was an enormous and dangerous storm but this is not why people died. Those who stayed in New Orleans were, for the most part, the poor; people who could not escape, people whose lives were constant struggle before anyone in New York had even heard of the New Orleans levee system or the Seventeenth Street Canal. While the rest of the country might have been ignorant of these Americans before the storm, they were there, they were poor, and they were desperate. The storm did not turn New Orleans into a third world city; it revealed it as one.

Poverty is a fact of life in New Orleans in a way that I never witnessed in New York or other cities outside the Deep South. The first time I drove past the projects in New Orleans, with their boarded up windows and knocked in doors, I assumed that they were abandoned, that people couldn’t possibly live there. Then I saw a mailman making deliveries through the overgrown alleys between the old, brick buildings.

I have worked in these projects, visiting the families of my clients, seeing their lives, and realizing that I was the first positive contact they had with a government-funded entity, the public defense non-profit for which I worked. I was representing their son on death row or facing the death penalty. Having disregarded the needs of these families for generations, the government finally sent someone out to them once it had resolved to kill their son. Too bad that there are no constitutional rights to education, housing, or medical care. Maybe someone would have shown up before the worst had happened.

Unmistakably, the poor citizens of New Orleans must feel similarly in the glare of all of this attention from the rest of the country. After everyone has been pulled from the water, dead or alive, the city will ask in unison, “Where the hell were you before I was drowning?”
Progressives must answer this question for a country that, though reluctant, is probably more able to accept reality today than ever. We must say that America didn’t answer because it didn’t care. Both political parties, one who had abandoned the south and the other which took it for granted, didn’t care about you until you were dying in a pool of raw sewage.

And this is a confession. A confession of guilt.

This is the confession that Jacob Riis was able to compel when he exposed the reality of the lives of immigrants in New York’s slums. This is the confession that Walker Evans, James Agee, Dorothea Lange, and other Great Depression artists were able to exact.

This is the confession that progressives must force if we are ever to be taken seriously in this country. We must remind the country that its discussion of poverty has focused on the mythic “welfare queen,” “personal responsibility,” and “faith-based” solutions. It must have been that welfare queen who couldn’t afford the gas to get out of town, who couldn’t take personal responsibility for her own food, water, and personal safety when she was being sexually assaulted in a Superdome bathroom, whose real problem is a moral crisis that would have been resolved if she prayed a little bit harder to the right God?

The citizens of this country never intended to vote into office people who would have allowed such barbarism to happen and, ultimately, they will hold both parties accountable if officeholders are not permitted to shirk responsibility through claims that this was an unforeseeable act of nature. First, The act of nature wasn’t unforeseeable to the New York Times or the Times Picayune who have been writing about the likely effect of such a storm for years. (Nothing’s Easy for New Orleans Flood Control, Jon Nordheimer, The New York Times, April 30, 2002, Section F, Science Desk, Pg. 1.; The Big One; a Major Hurricane Could Decimate the Region, but Flooding from Even a Moderate Storm Could Kill Thousands. It’s Just a Matter of Time, John McQuaid and Mark Schleifstein, Times-Picayune (New Orleans, LA), June 24, 2002, Pg. A1.) The loss of life wasn’t unavoidable but was instead the result of a political ideology that holds that the government that governs least, governs best, and that citizens should be left to deal with their own affairs from housing to education, health care to evacuation.

Progressives have long had a different view of the role that government should play in people’s lives giving people the tools to meaningfully participate in democracy and pursue a better life for themselves and their families.

As his final word in How the Other Half Lives, Jacob Riis quoted scripture: “Think ye that building shall endure which shelters the noble and crushes the poor?” Throughout our history, we have seen these buildings but, in this moment, progressives must lead, in our noble tradition, and rebuild New Orleans, and the rest of this country where people struggle invisibly, on a bold and visionary model. This is the best that anyone can ever hope from tragedy. If we do not act, we never will, and the worst will have happened, that all these people will have died in vain, and will again.

BILLY SOTHERN is an anti-death penalty lawyer and writer from New Orleans. He can be reached at:






We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005