Leadership in the Crescent City

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.

Friday morning….

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.

1 thought on “Leadership in the Crescent City

  1. I am writing this comment to expose Tracy Washington’s hypocrisy. Ms. Washington is the attorney for the Treme Charter School Board that runs the McDonogh # 42 school. Ms. Washington is the person who fired me from the position of Mathematics teacher. She did this without giving me any reason for letting me go. Does Ms Washington really care about the children of New Orleans? She shows here that when she is in power she does the same thing that she claims others are doing to the less fortunate -not considering their needs.

    The school has been without a Math teacher for the 8th grade students since December 20 when I was fired over the phone by Ms Washington. This board says that they are in the process of finding a replacement teacher but still has not done so. Math teachers are very hard to find. The board president has a blog site that gives a little more on the subject. Please go to the site at http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/starting-over/ this is very interesting reading. Read the comments from December and January.

    Below is a copy of my comment on the site:

    I was the Mathematics teacher for the 8th grade students. My name is Mr. Peaden.

    My writing here will not be very scholarly because I am not trying to be scholarly, I am only trying to put down some of my ideas. And besides I am essentially a Math and technical person.

    Before this school year started, I was asked to consult with the teachers of McDonogh #42 school on how to effectively bring Mathematics into all of the classes. I was very busy with my businesses that my wife, my son and I run. I did however agree to make myself available to provide consulting services to the school and to the teachers.

    I met with many of the teachers about a week before school started. I asked what kind of help each teacher needed in the area of Mathematics. I started a folder on each teacher so that I would be most efficient in providing the services needed to each teacher. I agreed to make myself available to each teacher in the classroom to help bring Mathematics to life for the students. I also agreed to do searches to find just the lessons a teacher might need to teach a certain subject in Mathematics. I got a very positive reaction from each teacher about them getting this kind of help.

    Two days before school was to begin, the principal told me that there were no 8th grade teachers to start the school year. She asked if I would please take the job of teaching these students. This was not what I had in mind when I agreed to consult. I knew that I could help many students if I were allowed to consult all over the school. I had plans to not only directly help the teachers, but I planned to tutor both top and bottom performing students. My plan was to help the teachers to teach the bulk of the students in the middle, I would bring up the bottom students to catch up to the middle, and I would bring the top performers to even higher levels. The former principal and I talked at length about my plan to help raise the performance and thus the scores of the entire school in the area of Mathematics.

    I reluctantly agreed to take the 8th grade class. Reluctant because I knew that I could reach more if I had been allowed to consult.

    My wife and I worked very hard to get a classroom ready for me to teach. My wife is much better than I am on decorating. We found that the classroom we had completely decorated did not have a working A/C unit and so we started over in another classroom.

    School started and within a few of days, I had about 34 students. The charter calls for each classroom to have no more than 20 students. The principal could rely on me to take whatever needed to be taken because I am that kind of person and because I am her brother-in-law. A brother-in-law who greatly respects what she had accomplished over the years in teaching students. I also have been helped by her during the years I myself taught. She has given me much excellent advice over the years.

    Dr. Smith, we three have talked over plans for utilizing my skills at McDonogh #42 school while sitting around my pool and eating my BBQ.

    When my students arrived in class on the first day of school, these students were angry and did not want to be in school and did not want to be told what to do. Some put their heads down on the desk and went to sleep. The level of vulgarity from student to student was tremendous and the level of disrespect to me and any other adult was very high. This was a very tough first day, and I called 5 parents on my cell phone to please come to the school to hold up your child

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