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It’s been a little over five years that Hurricane Katrina unwittingly conspired with certain corporations, the US and various Louisiana government agencies to change the face of the city of New Orleans forever. The pictures of death and destruction and the sense of disbelief colored with occasional outrage may still be reasonably fresh in the national memory. Yet, as far as the mainstream media is concerned, the transfer of tens of thousands of mostly poor New Orleans residents from their homes to other places around the country is a forgotten story. So is the destruction of neighborhoods by government agencies that then sold them to corporate America. The tales of children orphaned and loved ones separated are old news that no one mentions. In short, like the US war on Iraq and the earthquake in Haiti, post-Katrina New Orleans is no longer news because the media and those that it serves have decided this is so.
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and left activist who has lived in (and loved) New Orleans for years. His recently published book, Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, not only fills the hole left by the retreat of the mainstream news media from New Orleans, it also reveals the true nature of the so-called reconstruction of the city. In the course of telling his tale, Flaherty uncovers the successes and shortcomings of aid organizations from the Red Cross to the Common Ground collective. He also strips away the layers of half-truths and lies regarding the role the police, military and other self-appointed guardians of law and order played in the days and months following the disaster known as Katrina.
Unrelenting in his attack on the racism of New Orleans bureaucracy and certain businesses, Flaherty is also unafraid to challenge the assumptions and accompanying actions of white anarchists, leftists and progressives as they arrived to assist in the rescue and reconstruction operations. In fact, it is this self-reflective aspect of Flaherty’s journalism that provides the reader with insights useful not only in analyzing what went wrong in the New Orleans post-Katrina effort to reclaim the city, but in reacting to future crises.
Floodlines opens with a history of New Orleans and closes with a quietly hopeful call to action. In between is a narrative of love, loss, anger, despair, indifference, murder and music. Personal in nature, the narrative is introduced to individuals instrumental to the culture and politics of the neighborhoods Flaherty discusses. Their histories and the histories of their organizations and neighborhoods are presented with the idea that it is these personalities and others like them that are the true New Orleans. Furthermore, writes Flaherty, the history and culture of New Orleans is a history and culture rich in resistance. Examples he provides range from the largest slave uprising in US history in 1811 to the Black Panthers in the 1970s and to the people’s struggle to reclaim their New Orleans neighborhoods in the wake of Katrina. Floodlines reminds us that it is people that make history.
In discussing the recovery and reconstruction efforts undertaken by grassroots and non-governmental organizations Flaherty saves some of his harshest criticism for NGOs whose funds come from foundations. He describes a system where energy spent on gaining and keeping funding is taken away from grassroots organizing and spent on what often amounts to mere publicity stunts. He continues, relating how the more radical elements of a movement that dared to challenge the system that creates crises like post-Katrina New Orleans were ignored or expelled from the coalitions by a leadership more interested in maintaining funding then ending the racism and oppression they claimed to be opposed to.
Carrying his attack into the broader realm of movements for social change, Flaherty lambastes the role foundations and other nonprofits have played in the professionalization of activism. This situation has created a dynamic where the needs of communities are often secondary to the desires of foundation boards. Furthermore, it has prevented a systemic analysis from taking front and center. After all, if it is the system that creates poverty and racism, how does one fight it without critiquing that system? Or as Dom Hélder Câmara put it many years ago: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a Communist.”
The city of New Orleans will never be the same. Large portions of its population have been displaced with little hope of returning. Many of the politicians and business people who run the city are working hard to make certain that this remains the case. Meanwhile, these same folks are working with outside corporations and the federal government to turn New Orleans into a city where working people and the poor (especially those of color) can not afford to live. Flaherty’s book is the story of New Orleans residents who are working to sidetrack those plans.
Floodlines is an electric piece of journalism. Not only does Flaherty tell a story that needs to be told, he does it with a style that reads like the best of reportage. There is lots of detail, yet it is never tedious. The writing here is reminiscent of two of the United States’ best journalists–Lincoln Steffens and I.F. Stone. Like the city Flaherty loves so much, this book has soul.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org