September 9 / 11, 2005
What is to be Done?
The American Left and the Battle of New Orleans
By STEVEN SHERMAN
While most of the predominantly white peace movement has been energetically preparing for an anti-war march on September 24, a massive natural' disaster has unfolded in New Orleans and the Gulf Region. The horrible spectacle of tens of thousands of people, mostly poor, mostly African American, left behind to wither and die as they waited and waited for a rescue response has powerfully thrust the issue of racism back onto the American political radar. Once again, a predominantly white movement, mostly focused foreign policy issues, is challenged to respond to a domestic crisis involving people who don't look much like those who come to our meetings and demonstrations. To put it bluntly, are we, like the neoconservatives around George Bush, more comfortable with struggles far from the shores of the US than with overcoming differences locally in order to remake and rebuild the American nation?
The initial response of the peace movement has been encouraging. . . . Still, this initial response, while laudable, is only the tip of the iceberg. . . .
Perhaps the most strategic group is Community Labor United, which is calling for grassroots oversight of the relief process. Their statement reads, in part, "The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants and the wealthy white districts of New Orleans like the French Quarter and the Garden District. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans. . . ."
Anyone who has followed grassroots mobilizations over the last decade cannot be surprised at the existence of Community Labor United. Similar coalitions of labor unions, church groups, non-profits, and other activist organizations have been forming all over the country. . . . The predominantly white groups often seem most energized about foreign policy issues; the community-labor coalitions often focus on things like living wage campaigns or education or housing issues. To the degree that people tend to hang out with those they are most comfortable with, there is a good deal of self-selection and homogenization. Although virtually all of the predominantly white peace groups I've participated in have had angst-ridden sessions lamenting the lack of diversity among our membership, I've never seen this situation dramatically change. . . .
There have already been some positive developments. Houston indymedia has begun to set up a radio station for the Diaspora. The liberals at True Majority have solicited donations for Community Labor United, a far more potent response than Moveon's petition to George Bush asking him to stop blaming the victims (why not at least ask the Democratic leadership to come up with a really strong aid/anti-poverty package, as Michael Lerner has demanded?). Locally, people are talking about demanding that Durham bring some rundown houses up to code to facilitate the housing of evacuees, thus facilitating better living conditions for evacuees and general improvement in the city.