FOR THE ORIGINAL ARTICLE
Was it racism? Racism has become so cloaked in political correctness in this country that it becomes hard to tell. Some might argue this point, but I believe there existed a simpler time in this country when racists called you a “nigger,” and there! It was out there. You knew where you stood, they knew where they stood - oftentimes rope, tree, mob and all.
But today, in our new politically correct, affirmative action, rope-free reality, where separate but equal has given way to equal but separate; where a black man can live next door and share tools with you but he can't date your daughter; where a black man still can't get a cab in New York City; where in the papers, pictures can be shown of hurricane victims leaving stores with goods to survive, and the whites are called victims and the blacks looters, the line has become more veiled.
In today's world, it appears lynch mobs don't form. They use acts of nature and inefficiency to do their work. Take New Orleans as a prime example.
As a former resident of not only New Orleans, but Jefferson Parish and the Superdome (during Katrina), I can honestly say ignorance existed on both sides. But while ignorance on the black side of things basically constituted crimes of pettiness (theft, vandalism, inconsideration, grift, public drunkenness, drug abuse, assault and just being a general ass about things), on the white, or authoritative, side of things, people died - by the hundreds. Levies were blown, neighborhoods were lost, a city was brought to its knees and struggles still to rise.
At present (not to the credit of its citizens but because Louisiana needs the cash), even now, bodies washed out to sea, hundreds missing and unaccounted for, bodies yet to be discovered, a Mardi Gras is being planned. And though I, myself, and my bandmates (Of the Second Chance Second Line Brass Band From New Orleans), paid homage to the lost in Tahlequah a few months ago, New Orleans itself has yet to do so. I find that objectionable - intrinsically wrong. There have been those who've called New Orleans a “haunted city.” I feel it could never be said truer than it can be now, with so many souls yet to be laid to rest.
Was it racism? Not in the traditional sense. I think it was inefficiency allowed to run amok due to the apathy toward those left behind. Many of those considered less than intelligent for having stayed were, in fact, simply too sick, too old, and too poor - myself included - to have motive, means or opportunity to leave. Those who rendered those judgments never thought to ask why someone might stay behind in a disaster zone, aside from ascribing such behavior to either simple stupidity or stubbornness.
That same apathy allowed those who controlled mass transit - on an urban, suburban and national level - to move the transports out of harm's way but to allow those who pay for transit almost daily to remain stranded. The same apathy allowed the leaders of those municipalities to suspend bus service in outlying areas, while offering free bus service at the last minute to anyone who could make it to only certain locations, to the relative shelter of the Superdome.
But I can't just blame the politicians, especially the locals. I've met Ray Nagin on two occasions, once at a funeral for a mutual friend and again at the Superdome on Day 3, after the storm, when FEMA first appeared and disappeared in little over an hour, not to be seen again until well after we reached out of state shelters. He was a man coming to grips with his new reality. He didn't have the National Weather Service, NASA, the Hubbell telescope and whatever else the federal government had at its disposal. All he had was his experience, which, in this case, was nil, and the governor and the president to back him up. He got screwed, like we did. He listened to Gov. Blanco, who listened to President Bush, and (as the saying goes) “hilarity ensued.” But what followed and continues to follow people like me is far from funny. And now, as the holidays approach, families - still splintered with members still lost, displaced and with members missing in action - have only what our federal government has bestowed, which in some cases, amounts to naught.
In most respects, I was lucky. I was in the middle of a move; I took the most important stuff and sealed it in a closet in my second-floor walkup and duct-taped the door. I salvaged it a month or so later, and my family is safe. I found myself drafted into a band with men I think of as the brothers I never had by blood, and gained a certain amount of notoriety from that, and helped the Red Cross help others of my evacuated brothers and sisters along the way. I met good people, like Chuck Cissel, curator of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall Of Fame (thereby discovering there was indeed a Oklahoma Jazz Hall Of Fame - which I was completely unaware of), and the mayor of Tulsa, Bill LaFortune, (who, by the way, is a pretty cool guy, for a Republican). The good people of Oklahoma, mostly white folk, took me in and gave me a place to stay. I found a job, and I've even started my own fledgling business, Flights Of Fancy LLC. In all things I have been truly blessed.
So where, might you ask, does my outrage come from? The ones who got left behind (both actually and metaphorically). Tragedy does a lot of things, most of them bad, but the one positive thing it does is shake loose apathy. It breeds compassion - ironically enough, mostly in the uninvolved. While in Louisiana, it was almost as if we were stripped of our citizenship, and in a very true sense, declared outlaws. It wasn't until we crossed the state line that it seemed to be restored. And as we crossed the distance, that reaffirmation became more acute. Make no mistakes, however, for every person uninvolved who helped us up after, there were those in the ‘Dome: gang bangers, drug dealers, Joe Schmoes, and John Q. Publics, anonymous in the crowd. People upstanding folks would consider either beneath them socially or would escape their notice entirely actually stood up where other more “upright” citizens became what they previously abhorred. I know this to be true, because I was both. The aloof, “upstanding” type, and in time, one who found himself shoulder-to-shoulder with people whom I previously shared no commonality, or bond. Indeed, people I felt an inherent need to avoid throughout my life, to save the lives of those fallen because, again, ironically, they were the ones who stood up while others fell morally and socially by the wayside.
This point in human history was truly a remarkable place to be stranded in. And while I personally am glad it's over, I know in many ways, for many of us - because of the trauma; the unrecoverable loss of irreplaceable loved ones and items of sentiment and true value; the surrounding ambiance of death; the memories of incompetence, injustice, callousness, fear and despair that still claw at the sleep, hearts, minds and souls of many of us - it can never be over.
Was it racism? Was it apathy? Was it incompetence? I think, be it one, two, none or all of those things to you as an individual reader, what it should be to us all, as a people, is a wake-up call.
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Chris Lewis is a New Orleans evacuee who stayed for a time at Camp Gruber. He played the trombone in Tahlequah's “second-line parade,” and currently lives in Tulsa.