Monday, April 24, 2006


It's Election Time! Time to pull out that good old race card!

Urgh. Let's just vote for the best man, okay?

Big Easy Mayor May Need to Court Whites

Tears flow with votes at polls

Voters Shift in New Orleans Mayoral Race

Katrina's Children Struggle With Fears

Sunday, April 23, 2006

Election Time! and Other News

New Orleans Police to Return Seized Guns

FEMA Wants $4.7M Back From Katrina Victims

New Orleans Residents Head to the Polls

From Saturday's results, the mayorial race is between Mayor Ray Nagin and Lieutenant Governor Mitch Landrieu. May the best man win! (Go Landrieu!) :-)

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Dirty Secret of SF Quake: 1906 Disaster Was Like Katrina for Asians

I'll bet you've never heard THIS part of the SF Quake story before.

Fortunately, my good friend and mentor Bob Wing penned this eloquent testimony. It describes, in part, his own family's experience of the racially-motivated displacement that followed the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco.

"Natural" catastrophes often lead to human-made ones.

And, unless we are vigilant, it is those who are already on society's margins who are made to suffer the most. On its 100th year anniversary, let us commit, at long last, to learning ALL the lessons from the disaster.

Ruin, Rubble and Race: Lessons on the Centennial of the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906
By Bob Wing*

It's as if the spotlight that Hurricane Katrina cast on the inequities of disaster relief never happened. San Francisco's high and mighty are in full-throated self-celebration of the City's "rising from the ashes" of the April 18, 1906 earthquake and fire.

Forgotten are people like my great-great grandfather Lee Bo-wen who immigrated to San Francisco Chinatown in 1854 and reared two generations at 820 Dupont Street. My whole family was forcibly evacuated, never to return.

Even Dupont Street itself vanished forever, as post-disaster faux Chinese architecture buried the people's Chinatown and made its successor, the now famous Grant Avenue, the centerpiece of the City's newly minted Chinese tourist industry.

Indeed the same scandalous profiteering, racism, incompetence and mendacity that have characterized the response to Katrina had an antecedent in the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.

It is now fully documented that during and after the 1906 disaster, developers, insurance companies, corporations led by the Southern Pacific railroad, City leaders, newspapers and Army brass shamelessly lied and promoted anti-Chinese racism to downplay and distort the disaster in order to advance their own selfish agendas.

The 1906 earthquake and fire rendered homeless half of San Francisco's population of 500,000. It destroyed 28,000 buildings and 498 city blocks.

Authorities claimed that only 300 people had died, the better to undercut claims against the city and the business community. It took decades of painstaking documentation by Gladys Hansen, the city's archivist, to prove that in fact more than 3,000 had died.

The newspapers and city leaders talked only about the fire because it was considered a more normal event than an earthquake, which they feared would terrify potential investors and affluent homeowners. The San Francisco real estate board met a week after the earthquake and passed a resolution that the phrase "the great earthquake" should no longer be used; it would be known instead as "the great fire."

The Army and the police blamed their failure to control the fire on a lack of water. Later it was proved that this was a bald faced fabrication. Water was plentiful: the problem was that the City and the Army grossly failed to mobilize enough manpower to pump the water and fight the fire.
Meanwhile insurance companies paid up to $15,000 per photo--real or falsified--that could "prove" that a building was damaged by the earthquake rather than the fire, because they were not required to pay for earthquake damage. Businesses and building owners countered with massive arson in order to collect on fire insurance.

And everyone from the Mayor to labor unions promoted gross racism in order to justify their attempt to grab the prime real estate upon which 25,000 Chinese lived.

The San Francisco Chronicle railed: "Great as the recent catastrophe has been, let us take care lest we encounter a greater one. We can withstand the earthquake. We can survive the fire. As long as California is white mans country, it will remain one of the grandest and best states in the union, but the moment the Golden State is subjected to an unlimited Asiatic coolie invasion there will be no more California."

Take care they did: A recent article by the National Park Service reports that Hugh Kwong Liang, only 15 at the time, recalled, "I turned away from my dear old Chinatown for the last time& city officials directing the refugees' march approached us and told us to proceed toward the open grounds at the Presidio Army Post." Despite the presence of the military newspaper reports tell of extensive looting, including "the National Guard& stripping everything of value in Chinatown."

At the same time, the police and National Guard were unleashed against any Chinese suspected of looting. Historian Connie Young Yu recounts that her great-grandfather was suspected of looting in his own store and bayoneted. A white crowd stoned to death a young man who was trying to salvage items from his home.

Chinese refugees quickly flooded relief camps in San Francisco, Alameda and Oakland. As the Chinese exited Chinatown, city officials sought to prevent them from returning. A committee of top leaders was quickly established that focused exclusively on the permanent relocation of the Chinese, finally settling upon Hunter's Point as a likely new location.

The Overland Monthly editorialized: "Fire has reclaimed to civilization and cleanliness the Chinese ghetto, and no Chinatown will be permitted in the borders of the city.... it seems as though a divine wisdom directed the range of the seismic horror and the range of the fire god. Wisely, the worst was cleared away with the best."

But for the active fight waged by the Chinese community and actively supported by the Chinese consulate, this racist prediction might have been fulfilled.

The San Francisco Examiner reported, "The committee's protestations that what it intends is for the benefit of the Chinese is received with suspicion on the part of the Chinese." In fact, few Chinese voluntarily took advantage of relief help when they discovered it meant being held as virtual prisoners in squalid, segregated camps. Despite their estimated population of 60,000, only 186 Chinese refugees remained at the Fort Point camp by May 8.

Meanwhile, Chinatown merchant/property owners who owned one-third of the Chinatown property organized to defend their rights. Dupont Street Improvement Club representatives pointed out that trade in Chinatown the previous year had amounted to $30 million, that the Chinese paid their share of municipal taxes and that property owners could rent to anyone they wished.

The Chinese government's consulate also made clear its intention to rebuild on its property in San Francisco Chinatown and to protect the rights of overseas Chinese.

Although many Chinese residents were never able to return, the power elite's plan to destroy Chinatown was foiled by a combination of Chinese resistance and the City's desire for Chinatown taxes. That latter desire merged with the interests of Chinese merchants in shaping the new Chinatown around a tourist theme park. But at least Chinatown was saved for many of its residents.

My family, like many others, finally settled in Oakland, where they were greeted by the likes of the Oakland Herald: "One of the evils springing from the late disaster to San Francisco, one that menaces Oakland exceedingly, the great influx of Chinese into this city from San Francisco. Not only have they pushed outward the limits of Oakland's heretofore constricted and insignificant Chinatown, but they have settled themselves in large colonies throughout the residence parts of the city, bringing with them their vices and their filth."

To frustrate Oakland's racist redliners, my great-great grandfather anglicized his name from Lee Bo-wen to Lee Bowen and was thereby able to record his purchase of a home in what was then the segregated, lily-white Fruitvale district. Thousands of other Chinese took advantage of the destruction of San Francisco's records to claim U.S. citizenship.

We failed to learn the lessons of the San Francisco earthquake before Katrina. We must learn the lessons of both now.

It should be crystal clear that disasters are not purely natural events: they can be caused or seriously aggravated by human action like global warming, racism, poor city planning, economic inequality, incompetence, greed, politics and war.

When a disaster like the SF earthquake or Katrina hits, your average person empathizes with the appalling loss and pain of the victims, and joins in to help by volunteering with rescue and reconstruction efforts, contributing money or any number of other humanitarian acts.
But many businesses and politicians act like sharks in bloody waters: they know that disasters open up new opportunities to remake the city in their interests, to make vast sums of money and to reorganize political power in their favor. They know these events provide a chance to rid themselves of poor communities, especially communities of color, that they consider a blight on their vision for the city and an obstacle to their own enrichment.

Disasters not only reveal hidden inequalities but also grossly aggravate the existing power imbalances between rich and poor, between white and non-white. The power elite has usually planned ahead for disaster, suffers less and recovers faster from the shock. They have lawyers, bankers and politicians, ready to fight for their interests.

For most of us, the most vital response to natural disasters--before, during and after the event--is organizing our communities and workplaces to survive, rebuild and fight for our interests against the predators in our midst. In areas susceptible to disaster, it is critical to integrate disaster planning into our day to day organizing against gentrification and for social justice.
For example, in the Bay Area we should include planning for the next big earthquake in the ongoing struggle against the gentrification of the Bay View, West Oakland and other poor communities in the region.

And of course the fight in the Gulf region is still at fever pitch. It is crucial to support the fight to prevent the transformation of New Orleans from a largely black working class city into a gentrified theme park featuring jazz, creole food and gambling.

*Bob Wing is an Oakland Bay Area based activist and writer. Thanks to Nicole Derse, Donna Linden, Richard Marquez, Jane Kim and David Ho for organizing the Ruin, Rubble and Race symposium in San Francisco that inspired and informed this article.

Elections Fever

Elections Fever
By Jordan Flaherty
April 17, 2006

The coming days will bring another step towards the new New Orleans. On April 22, voters in the city (Absentee and in-state satellite voting began last week) will choose between 22 mayoral candidates, as well as sheriff, city council, and other positions. If no candidate in a race receives more than 50%, there will be a run-off between the two highest vote-getters on May 20. Elections have always been a big deal here in the state that gave the nation Clinton campaign manager James Carville and Gore campaign manager Donna Brazile, but this election feels more weighted with significance. While local media has made a division between the “serious” candidates and less likely contenders such as Manny 'Chevrolet' Bruno (“A troubled man for troubled times”), the truth is that in New Orleans politics, even the front runners are, if nothing else, uncensored. “Early on, the media sorted based on name recognition and financial backing,” says community organizer and mayoral candidate Greta Gladney. “But they haven’t presented the full picture. Yes, we have some crazy people who qualified. But there are also some important messages from candidates that aren’t receiving attention. And among the main contenders, you have some crazy people running too.”

In a city where the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow-era racist laws are still alive and well, where former Klansman David Duke received alarmingly high percentages of the vote in the city’s white neighborhoods when he ran for governor, where Mardi Gras parades were desegregated just over 10 years ago, and most schools and neighborhoods remain deeply segregated, themes of race are bound to dominate the mayoral contest. Peggy Wilson - a white former city councilwoman who is seen as one of the leading candidates - so obviously represents white racist New Orleans, it’s almost refreshing. Phrases other white politicians might say in an unguarded moment are her talking points. With her relentless racially coded attacks on public housing residents and “welfare queens,” she sends a clear message about the real themes of this election, and what’s at stake. Wilson clearly feels that the Black vote will be suppressed. "I figured the demographics might have changed now and I could run,” she told the Times-Picayune in a recent interview. Wilson’s political future, and that of the other candidates, will ride on the answer to a question everyone is asking: how many of New Orleans’ former residents will be able to vote.

Everyone expects far less African Americans to vote in this election than anytime in decades. Congressman John Conyers has called it “the largest disenfranchisement in the history of this nation.” According to a local voting rights coalition that includes the ACLU of Louisiana, NAACP, ACORN and others, the guidelines for absentee voting “are unclear, complicated, and conflicting.” Looking at the hurdles placed in the way of potential voters, I have no doubt that if I were displaced and attempting to vote, I would give up. As one advocate told me, “you practically need a legal consultation to figure out how to vote. It would be easier if they just instituted a poll tax.” The changed demographics of the city, brought about by the forced expulsion of most of the population, has complicated surveying. Ron Forman, who in recent surveys pulls one percent of the Black vote, is seen as one of the front-runners, and received the endorsement of the Times-Picayune, our daily paper.

The paper’s enthusiastic endorsement of Forman is indicative of the city’s divisions. The Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer today for its breaking news reporting and its public service, and while their reporting in the months post-Katrina was breathtaking, excellent and vital, many Black residents question what public the paper actually serves. “There is an historic disconnect between the community and the paper,” one former Times-Picayune reporter told me. “I don’t think they reflect the city and I think most people inside, working at the paper, would agree with me…I know 50% more about the city now than I ever did when I worked as a reporter.”“There was a moment, post-Katrina, where all of us in the city had the same interests and concerns,” a long-time community activist confirmed. “During that time, the Picayune finally became the newspaper of the whole city. That time has ended, unfortunately, and they’ve gone back to their old ways.”

At a debate last month sponsored by the African American Leadership Project, issues of race were front and center. Before candidates spoke, community organizers, including Steve Bradberry of ACORN, Beverly Wright of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and Khalil Shahyd of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, gave powerful commentary on the racial contours of the disaster and aftermath. During the debate, candidates often spoke candidly about race in the city, such as when mayoral candidate Tom Watson, a community leader and outspoken advocate for evacuees and criminal justice reform, said “I live in a mixed neighborhood uptown, and white people wont talk to me. I walk my dog, and they’ll talk to my dog and not to me.”Mayor Nagin, who was elected four years ago with a minority of the Black vote, is now seen by many as their only chance to keep Black control of city government. “People of color think if they don’t vote for Nagin they’ll be completely cut out of the process,” Gladney tells me.

“I’m not confident any of the front-runners will do anything to help African Americans and in particular the lower 9,” says Gladney, referring to her neighborhood, the lower ninth ward. “I’m seeing a reluctance towards bringing Black people back.”I recently visited Renaissance Village, an evacuee community of over 500 trailers located North of Baton Rouge on land owned by a youth prison. Residents I spoke to were aching to come home. “Last year I was a middle income American, a homeowner – I never imagined I’d come to this,” said Hillary Moore Jr, a former city employee and New Orleans property owner exiled in a small trailer in the middle of the complex. Living alone, Moore barely fits in his trailer. When he talks about the family of five living next door, I can’t imagine how they could possibly squeeze in.As with all of the residents I spoke with, Moore was unhappy in his trailer home. “Why would they buy this for as much money as they paid? This thing is designed for a weekend – can you imagine someone trying to live in here for 6 or 7 months?” he asked.

I asked him why he agreed to move in. “When you’ve been living in a gymnasium with 100 plus people, a travel trailer sounds like a mansion to you, and when they tell you sign here so you can end standing in line to get a shower, you don’t question anything, you sign and you jump at the opportunity.” An over-capacity housing market from Baton Rouge to New Orleans makes other options scarce.On the day I visited, residents voiced some of their recent complaints, most involving the logistics of living in this isolated, underserved community: the cafeteria serving the complex is scheduled to be closed; and management had threatened to stop fixing the washing machines, which were being vandalized. Many of the occupants had no means of transportation in and out, and the only bus service was to Wal-Mart and back.Residents, displaced from their own neighborhoods, are attempting to form new community in the camp, but there are obstacles, high among them being the stress and pressures of living in such close and uncomfortable conditions. “Living here, you meet people under unusual circumstances,” Moore explains politely. Many people I spoke with complained about children running wild in the camp. Imagining the youth, already traumatized from the disaster and evacuation, trying to adapt to life in these prison-like conditions (we had to be signed in by security guards, and press are not permitted), behavior problems seem inevitable.

Not long after moving in, Moore and others organized a resident’s council. “We got tired of a lot of things Keta (the contractor company managing the park) was doing and we decided to organize because we realized there is strength in numbers,” he tells me. The residents’ council has an elected board and open meetings every week.Despite all obstacles, New Orleans’ survivors keep organizing and fighting, whether exiled in FEMA-paid trailer parks, or internally displaced within the city. Two weeks ago at the St. Bernard housing development, located just a few blocks from where Jazz Fest happens every year, former residents and supporters confronted the police and broke through the fence surrounding their former homes. For some, it was the first time in months they’d been able to see their apartments.Terry Scott, a Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) employee working in the complex was sympathetic. “We want them back. Without them living here, we don’t have jobs.” However, Scott told me, at the current pace, it would be years before most residents would be allowed back. “It’s been seven months, and they’re still working on Iberville (the smallest and least damaged complex). Every corner of New Orleans, you have HANO housing, but they haven’t even started on the Lafitte,” he said, referring to another mostly-undamaged complex, second in line for repair. For now, thousands of livable units, including those at St Bernard, sit empty, with fencing around them and guards patrolling.

“We’ve been having mold, mildew and backed up sewers for years,” Pamela Mahogany, a St Bernard resident told me. “I’ve been here 42 years and it’s been a hazard the whole time. They never cared before. This is part of their goal to tear our development down.”For residents like Mahogany, community is what they miss most about their homes at St Bernard. “They say it’s unsafe here. When I lived here I didn’t have a burglar alarm. Now I have one, ‘cause I don’t know the people around me. They say people here didn’t have jobs. Guess what. I’m a nurse. I go to work every day.”Terry Scott, the HANO employee, agreed. “People say this is a high crime area. The truth is you could’ve walked right through here any time and be fine.”These elections are vital. But the truth is, what’s really going to bring people back to our city are the people themselves, fighting on the front lines to come home. In hundreds of small struggles, in grassroots organizing and demonstrations around the city, the fight continues. As Beverly Wright, director of Dillard University’s Deep South Center for Environmental Justice said during the African American Leadership Project’s mayoral forum, “they’ve underestimated the determination of people like me to fight to our last breath."

Sunday, April 16, 2006

FEMA: La. Homes Must Be Raised Off Ground

Tell us something we don't know. We've been raising our homes off the ground for years!

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Bill Cosby Tells Blacks to Give Up Crime

And I feel like gagging once more as Mr. Cosby, a man who has avoided racial issues like the plague, has now made himself into a social commentator on Black issues. Ugh!

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Seven Months After Katrina

Seven Months After Katrina: Sleeping in Your Car in, in Front of Your Trailer, in Front of Your Devastated Home, Tales of Lunacy and Hope from New Orleans

In New Orleans, seven months after Katrina, senior citizens are living in their cars. WWL-TV introduced us to Korean War veteran Paul Morris, 74, and his wife Yvonne, 66. They have been sleeping in their 2 door sedan since January. They have been waiting that long for FEMA contractors to unlock the 240 square foot trailer in their yard and connect the power so they can sleep inside it in front of their devastated home. This tale of lunacy does not begin to stop there. Their 240 square foot trailer may well cost more than their house. While FEMA flat out refuses to say how much the government is paying for trailers, reliable estimates by the New York Times and others place the cost at over $60,000 each.

How could these tiny FEMA trailers cost so much? Follow the money. Circle B Enterprises of Georgia was awarded $287 million in contracts by FEMA for temporary housing. At the time, that was the seventh highest award ofKatrina money in the country. According to theWashington Post, Circle B was not even being licensed to build homes in its own state of Georgia and filed for bankruptcy in 2003. The company does not even have a website. Here is how it works. The original contractor takes their cut and subcontracts out the work of constructing the trailer to other companies. Once it is built, they subcontract out the transporting the trailers to yet other companies which pay drivers, gas, insurance and mileage. They then subcontract out the hookups of the trailers to other companies and keep taking cuts for their services. Usually none of the people who make the money are local workers.

With $60,000 many people could adequately repairtheir homes. Why not just give the $60,000 directly to theelderly couple and let them fix up their home? AskCongress. FEMA is not allowed to give grants of that much. Money for fixing up homes comes from somewhere else and people are still waiting for that to arrive. While many corporations are making big money off of Katrina, Mr. and Mrs. Morris wait in their car.

Craziness continues in the area of the right to vote. You would think that the nation that put on elections with satellite voting boxes for Iraqis and Afghanis and Haitians and many others would do the same for Katrina evacuees. Wrong. There is no satellitevoting for the 230,000 citizens of New Orleans who are out of state. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund, the Advancement Project, ACORN and the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund have all fought for satellite voting but Louisiana and the courts and the U.S. Justice Department have said no. The rule of thumb around here is that the poorer you are, the further you have been displaced. African Americans are also much more likely to be poor andrenters – the people who cannot yet come back to a city where rents have doubled. They are the ones bearing the burdens of no satellite voting.

The people already back are much more affluentthan the pre-Katrina New Orleans. The city is also much whiter. Many of those already back in New Orleans are not so sure that all of New Orleans should be rebuilt. The consequence of that is not everyone will be allowed to return. Planners and politicians openly suggest turning poor neighborhoods into greenspaces. No one yet has said they want to turn their own neighborhood into green space – only other people’s neighborhoods – usually poor people’s neighborhoods. Those who disagree are by and large not here. New Orleans has not been majority white for decades, but it is quite possible that a majority of those who are able to vote in the upcoming election will be white. Thus the decisions about the future ofNew Orleans are poised to be made by those who have been able to get back and will exclude many of those still evacuated. Guess what type of plans they will have for New Orleans? There are many, many more tales of lunacy all over town as all systems have melted down: criminal justice, healthcare, public education, churches, electricity, water, garbage, our environment – you name it, it melted down and is not yet fully back up.

But, there are also clear signs of hope. Across New Orleans neighborhood groups are meeting every weekend planning their own comebacks. People catch rides back into town and visit ruined neighborhoods and greet neighbors and together make plans to recover. Because governmental action and contractors are so slow, groups are looking to their own resources and partnering with churches and community groups and universities and businesses to fill in the gaps where the politicos have not yet beenable to respond. The citizens themselves are our greatest hope. We also have allies that give us hope.

We have been amazed and refreshed by the thousands of college students who took their springbreak in New Orleans helping our elderly and uninsured families gut houses, clean up streets and advocate for justice with Common Ground Relief, the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund, Catholic Charities, ACORN and many other church and civic groups. Even law students! Over 1000 law students helped provide legal aid and are providing the first comprehensive documentation of abuses of local and out of townworkers by businesses. Over 100 clergy from across the US visited New Orleans with the PICO Network, as did hundreds of other people of faith with the Jeremiah community. The Protestant Women are here now and the InterfaithWorker Justice group meets here soon. Together, these groups raise the voices of their faith communities and call for justice in the rebuilding of our communities.

On the national level, we see rising support from numerous social justice groups. Several created the Katrina Information Network, an internet advocacy group that enables people across the country to take action with us to influence all levels of governmentin the rebuilding effort. We are inspired by the veterans and allies who marched from Florida to NewOrleans to highlight the diversion of money from ourcities to war efforts. Yes, we have lunacy in New Orleans. But there are also signs of hope. Whether lunacy or hope will triumph in NewOrleans is yet to be determined. But we appreciate those of you who are working in solidarity with us to try to keep our hope alive.