The New Orleans City Council faced a baptism of fire today and showed the kind of courage not seen in political leadership around here in a long time. The members voted unanimously to approve the demolition of the various public housing developments, and did it in the face of a mob scene.
We made national news throughout the day. Fights broke out in the council chamber and police could be seen restraining this one, fighting that one, arresting another. Television cameras and boom microphones were recording all this, while outside the chamber crowds were breaking through the gates which police had locked since all seats were filled and there was no more room. “We deserve the right to be heard,” sounded out from the crowd. “They filled the seats with their own people.” “Is this land a democracy or a dictatorship?”
The local evening news shows the crowd being pepper-sprayed and someone being tasered. Police turned water hoses on the mob and used mace on some of the worst agitators. When the cops handcuffed the gates the second time, the crowd broke through again.
There is no reasoning with people acting like this. Later, as some of the injured spoke to the cameras, you got the impression they were all innocent bystanders, there to participate peacefully in a democratic process and completely surprised at the reaction of the police.
All I know is what I got through the media but it appeared that few of the activists were actual residents of those projects, and that many were not even from New Orleans. There was a public demonstration to be made and those attract a certain class of individuals like honey does flies.
Turn off the television cameras and most of the demonstrators would go home.
Later, the mayor and the entire city council stood together for the news media to give a report and answer questions. We thoroughly agree with their assessment that today, a major step was made for the long-term good of this city.
Our leaders showed real leadership today, and that is something to be proud of.
Brian Williams led tonight’s NBC Nightly News with the story of this day in our city. At the end, the reporter on the scene said, “And where was Mayor Ray Nagin in this? He was nowhere to be seen. Later, he said, ‘This was the City Council’s day.'”
The first I knew of this melee, I was having a late hamburger at the McDonald’s on Read Boulevard in New Orleans East, just before spending two hours drawing fifth graders at Read Elementary School. The televisions in the little restaurant were tuned to a national news program covering the story. At the bottom of the screen a line read: “Chaos in New Orleans.” Outside, the rain was pouring down. A messy day on several levels.
My host this afternoon, the teacher who had invited me to his class, had sent instructions on how to find the school. Driving through dead neighborhoods and past abandoned strip malls, I passed a construction site for a new bank, turned right through hurricane fences at a sign pointing to Abramson High School. That institution is no longer there, but an elementary school and a middle school now occupy the grounds. Modular buildings–each one huge, containing several classrooms–covered the ground. There was no pavement, but gravel, and with the downpour which continued all afternoon, anyone venturing through the parking lot needed a boat or boots.
The teacher–in his first year after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina–had taken the city up on its attractive invitation for courageous teachers to come help us. He had prepared me for what I found inside the classroom: noise and chaos. The children were sweet and respectful and appreciative, but noisy and unruly and almost completely out of hand. (I’m not sure if anyone will believe both parts of that sentence, but it was so.) The teacher, perhaps too mild-mannered and sweet-natured for his own good, was almost hoarse from calling after them. And yet, he seemed to be taking it all in stride. Maybe that is because he is 45 years younger, but I would not have lasted a week.
Later, I stepped across the hall and drew for another rookie teacher whose classroom atmosphere was identical to the first. I said, “How do you keep your sanity?” She laughed. “We don’t.” I asked where she was from. “Minneapolis.”
We have so many heroes down here. None are more special than these young teachers who come at great inconvenience to invest their lives in our children.
You don’t have to be a first-responder to be a hero in New Orleans these days. We see them every day and at every level–from the classroom to the council chamber.
A local television station ran a rather bizarre segment from Thursday’s “riots” in the City Council’s chambers. A black female attorney named Tracy Washington, I believe, was shown interrupting council proceedings to heckle council member Stacy Head. The woman stands in the crowd, raises her arms, points at Head, and loudly accuses her of various injustices. For her part, Ms. Head calmly stands, takes a sip from her water bottle, then smiles in the direction of heckler Washington, waves and blows her a kiss.
The reporter says that was what set off the eruption of anger and invective. All bedlam broke loose in the chamber. Council president Arnie Fielkow rapped his gavel repeatedly, then called for law enforcement officers to restore order. Police swarmed all over the chamber and several people were arrested or evicted.
Ms. Washington was shown telling the reporter, “By making fun of us, Stacy Head incited a riot. That’s the kind of racist behavior….blah, blah, blah.”
Hello? Let me get this straight. you heckle her and when she responds–not with even a word–but with a wave and a kiss, then SHE is resonsible for YOUR rage and your misbehavior? And her action was racist?
The logic of that eludes me.
At the news conference Thursday afternoon, Head was asked about attorney Washington’s accusations and behavior. She pointed out that Ms. Washington has repeatedly fought this public housing issue at every level–in the courts, in the chamber, and elsewhere–and has lost every time. Perhaps she was saying there is no reasoning with her.
Later, on a radio call-in program where the phones were lit up for hours, an attorney opposed to the demolition said there is no excuse for such behavior, that this is what the judicial system is all about. If Ms. Washington does not like what the council is doing or a decision of a lower court, she can always appeal to a higher court.
The logic used by attorney Washington is what I find so interesting. No matter what I personally do, no matter how bizarre my behavior or how ugly my words, if you respond negatively, then you are responsible for everything that follows.
Pardon the little history parallel here. On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln, seeking the nomination for president, spoke at Cooper Union Hall in New York City. Among other points he scored was this: (not an exact quote) “Political leaders from the southern states point out that if the nation elects me as president, then their seceding from the Union will have been our fault. The great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us.”
Then the future president uttered a most intriguing line in that speech, one we find completely fascinating, coming as it does so long before this kind of slang became all the rage. He said, “That is cool.”
Lincoln added, to reinforce his point, “A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you, and then you will be a murderer!'” Those who took notes on the speech recorded that the audience caught the irony of that and erupted in laughter.
Attorney Washington was not the first and won’t be the last to blame others for their irrational behavior. All we can do is what Lincoln’s audience did: laugh.
Look for the protesters to try to block the demolition of the 4,000 public housing units by chaining themselves to fences, hiding in the vacant buildings, and forming human chains across streets. This is probably not a happy time to be a police officer in this city, but never have we needed our law enforcers to be wiser, more careful, and to exercise greater discipline and courage.