Thursday, September 28, 2006

An activist perspective: Part 2

Well I'm at day 7 of my Darfur awareness champaing and it's really been going better than expected! Sadly today, my idiot self forgot to bring the sign! But I stil passed out the flyer's, which I took advantage of sticking them in locker's. One of the assistant principles, whom I like, said that he was told about ''a girl wearing a huge sign'' and had a feeling that it was me. Teacher's have continued to congratulate me on my stance. My geometry teacher invited me to join the African/Hatian American club, since they might be able to help me with Darfur awarness, which the members totally agree on! Sometimes, my mind drifts and trying to contemplate the massive human suffering in Darfur: women and girls getting raped, whole families murdered, children starving and that's just the tip of the iceburg! I can feel my heart sinking with despair because the world is witnessing a sequel of Rwanda. It's like I said, ''Those who don't remember history, are doomed to repeat it.'' Obiously the world hasn't learned it's lesson of Rwanda and other genocides in the past, which doesn't surprize me the least bit sad to say. I will say this again and again if I have too: I will be DAMNED if I'm going to stay silent while genocide is occuring. If and when my children and grandchildren will ask me If I did anything about Darfur, I'll be proud to sat that I did do something to wake up my classmates into doing something for Darfur.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

Individual Responsibility to Protect

LONDON: Never Again London's contribution to International Peace Day was a conversation which bought forward thinking from the Kivu retreat in February 2006 on the individual Responsibility to Protect (iR2P). This report is my perspective on the discussion and doesn't by any means encompass everything.

Fred introduced the background to Never Again and the traditional set of problems surrounding intervention on genocide. He outlined some of the ways that individuals could be involved in crisis response and ways that individuals working in spheres where they have to be neutral might also be able to follow their own consciences.

There is no doubt that the Responsibility to Protect agenda presents many problems, but iR2P presents the opportunity to engage with those problems and finding concepts that everybody agrees with. This might mean stepping away from the problems themselves initially and simply engaging in dialogue, avoiding making assumptions or demanding commitments that individuals may be unable to make.

What emerged from this strand of conversation was the vision of a rich, complex discussion going on around a crisis in which the level of interest and ideas makes it impossible for policy makers to say that there is no interest or political will to do anything. It doesn't necessarily mean needing to sign up to simplistic analyses, but listening to every actor and every solution suggested in order to find a way forward.

The Responsibility to Protect agenda, by its nature as a state responsibility, brings a level of disconnect between the victims of a crisis and the heroes with the answers. It is impossible for refugees, youth or armed militias to have a voice in the security council unless they can somehow be represented by a channel of communication. Without the input of the people most centrally involved in a crisis, it is very difficult to propose solutions that will be any more nuanced than just 'send in the troops'.

The international responsibility does of course include challenging the culture of inpunity and states must hold each other accountable. Unless citizens of countries vocalise their wish for heads of countries to uphold acceptable standards of care towards citizens in other countries then they are very unlikely to engage in criticism of one another.

Given the level of academic research around the failures to protect populations from genocide, the steps to prevention are now fairly clear.

First is monitoring risk factors. If risks are identified, there isn't a need to over-react but there has to be in-depth research on the ground, links built up with groups on the ground and diaspora groups. Making these contacts in a time of calm makes them easier to pick up in times of chaos and confusion and you are more likely to know who to trust. These functions should be carried out by the new UN Special Adviser on Genocide, but groups like Never Again have a role in gathering youth contacts and information and channeling this to the adviser if appropriate.

Although this monitoring can make its own contribution to genocide prevention, the time may come when the risk factors of genocide and violence escalates. This is the time for individual mobilisation. Campaigns in support of simple messages are often the most effective in gathering massive support, but we discussed how this might be disempowering to all parties. A more complex individualised approach would be able to take in all ideas and allow for more flexible approaches to each conflict. We discussed how questions might be formulated to bring the most useful answers and thought that the approach of questioning would serve a variety of purposes: resources would be put into finding out the answers from the individual's own countries and politicians and the media would realise there was interest in an issue and be more likely to give it attention. The collection of answers from different countries can be easily shared in projects like the Never Again wiki, allowing for cross reference and the asking of further questions.

Following on from this mass mobilisation, the iR2P framework sees individuals who are well placed in policy circles starting to make recommendations that should be more reactive and sophisticated with the involvement of their individual involvement, rather than being constrained by the institutional bars to individual conscience.

Fred's vision, which was well received by everyone in the group, was that this approach has the potential to use the exisiting architecture of diplomacy and policy-making and that nobody should be excluded from the process: genocide prevention should not be the preserve of any specific group. We were working with the assumption that all people condemn crimes against humanity and genocide and that they wouldn't put their self interest before the protection of a group. That assumption needs examining; perhaps it is appropriate to use any levers to persuade people that it is appropriate to intervene and perhaps it is inappropriate.

There is another assumption that awareness, and the demonstration that people care, will lead to action by heads of states. As we have seen, this is not necessarily the case. A much more reactive process is needed to ensure action is appropriate, swift and correctly resourced. People using their critical faculties and engaging with the realities of politics but still demanding action, might make it more likely to happen.

There is already a great deal of expertise in many of these fields. iR2P offers a chance to 'join the dots' and piece together complex situations, while recognising that they are complex. It takes the improved communication opportunities available to us to fundamentally change the basis of activism and democratic participation and, perhaps, succeed in preventing genocide where previous generations have failed.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

A activist's prespective

With the impending crisis happening in Darfur and the looming disater that was about to unfold if the AU withdraws, I decided that now is the time to make my voice be heard by any means necessary. On Monday during class, I was looking for something when I saw some poster boards and suddently an idea struck my mind that would help me spread the word on Darfur. And so I made a poster that read ''Save Darfur'' on the front and ''400,000 dead and counting. Get up! Stand up! Never stay silent!'' The night before, I flet a bit anxious of what would be the reactions of people when I would wear the sign. But I knew I had to do it. So I went to school on Tuesday and added some photos to better make the point (graphic photos) As soon as I walked out of the library wearing the sign, people stared at me reading the sign which I felt it was working. At PE, i walked around the court with the sign, nervous as anything. As I was walking, I thought about those children in Darfur whom watched their parents be killed and are all alone with no one to love or care for them. I thought about Rwanda and the bodies rotting in the sun and of Senator Dallaire trying to warn the world of the genocide. That's what kept me going. Some students asked me about Darfur and I told them in which I had to make an example of the Holocaust and ''Hotel Rwanda'' but they seemed quite interested about Darfur. For the rest of the day my teachers were really impressed with me on Darfur and students came up and asked me about it.
On Day 2 of my campainge, I needed to speak with the teacher in charge of the school's newspaper. I had sent him a letter before and wanted to send another letter. As I handed it to him, he explained that he thought that anyone with a heart and a brain like mine, would care for such an issue and that was admirable. But, unfortunatly, he couldn't publish anything about Darfur because the newspaper only dealt with what's happening around the school. I understood completly, but as I walked out of the room, tears came streaming down my face. My heart was so full of sorrow for Darfur and I thought that it seemed so hopeless to be speak out on something that was happening millions of miles away. I quickly deleted that thought from my head because my voice was ten times stronger than those in Darfur and I HAD to speak out, or I would be guilty of the worst crime of all: Staying silent in the face of genocide.
Day 3 went really well. More students asked me about Darfur and I explained to them and told them to spread the word and do some research of there own. Teachers also came up to me and told me on what a great thing I was doing and I also told them to spread the word with there students. My creative writing teacher even invited me to address one of her classes since they were learning on the Holocaust.
I'll continue wearing the sign up until next week. I know what I'm doing is not much, but to me, it's sure beats the hell out of not doing anything. I just hope that the Darfurians know that the world and myself won't rest this genocide is stopped!

Reflections on the International Day of Peace

NEW YORK- Today, 21 September, is the International Day of Peace - a day to celebrate the ideals of peace, observe global ceasefire and practice non-violence. To celebrate, we at Never Again International have organized a series of globally connected local events in 5 countries- Britain, Canada, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and the United States.

At Speak Out for Peace, the New York City event I'm involved in organizing, there will be a diverse lineup of poets and musicians all performing on works around the theme of peace. I really wish we could share what we are doing with the global Never Again community. Every single piece of the event was donated- from volunteer planning time, to the venue space, to the free performances, to physical materials (donated drinks, paper for programs, etc). It's wonderful to see what inspired labor and generosity in our communities are able to achieve and produce without funding from institutions or rich individuals. It's incredibly inspirational to think about- and I feel tremendously blessed to be inspired by individuals like my friends, family, colleagues and community members whom I can admire from a close distance.

I'm writing to practice a bit what it is I'm going to say to open the event, which is most of the text of this blog. I want to inspire attendees to really take part in this symbolic day heart, mind, spirit and body because it can only become a reality if everyone on our planet embraces its meaning and breathes life into it. World peace does not come from grandiose declarations from podiums at press conferences, but out of convictions born in each of our minds and hearts that guide our speech and actions. The fact that this day is being celebrated is in itself a testament to the fact that a personal decision made by an ordinary individual has far reaching global effects. Jeremy Gilley's decision to found Peace One Day, launching a global campaign to get a fixed calendar date for one day where there would be no violence or killing, was both a personal one about his career and an altruistic one with the intent of improving the world. As with all things in life, our creative ideas have a gravitational force of their own- and voila! 7 years after he began his campaign, hundreds of celebrations of peace are occuring in all 192 member states of the United Nations on the day he worked so hard to get established.

This power that we all possess as individuals - the fact that our thoughts and beliefs give birth to the shared reality we and those around us live in - is incredibly empowering and emboldening but not something that we are often encourage to think about and use. A powerful example of the connection between the local and the global is what the United States did with the understandable pain, anguish, sadness, confusion and outrage resulting from experiencing the horrific and criminal acts of September 11, 2001. Those emotions have given birth to a global "War on Terror" that has unleashed pain and destruction on many more lives- instead of helping us evolve into a more just society that is able to avoid crimes against humanity. So what we think and feel as well as how we react to the world around us on any given day does make a difference in the way that the world turns- more than we realize.

But of course, I'm preaching to the choir here. We at Never Again believe and value the individual and the personal- and this belief lies at the heart of our mission of connecting young people and individuals around the world to dialogue and collaborate with each other for peace. That's why the NY team is bringing together the talented lineup of poets to inspire attendees- we want to make them think, laugh, cry, feel good. That's why we're setting up the Peace Wall because we want to get people to think and we want to hear those thoughts. And of course, we ultimately want to involve attendees in our work in the future.

So today, 21 September, let's renew our personal commitment our mission, to a more peaceful world. Let's celebrate our achievements as a movement. And let's challenge ourselve by doing one thing- big or small- to make that inner commitment and belief a reality. I'm sure you can all think of one thing you can do!

Remember: "Another world is not only possible, she is on her way." -Arundhati Roy

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Countdown for Darfur

"In many ways it is unfair but it is nevertheless true that this genocide will be on your watch. How you deal with it will be your legacy,Your Rwanda, Your Cambodia, your Auschwitz."
Oscar winning actor George Clooney and Noble peace prize winner and Holocaust survivor Eile Wiesel, adressed the UN Security Council on Thursday about the already devastating three year genocide in Sudan's Darfur region, which has claimed over 400,000 lives. George and his father, Nick a journalist, went to Darfur a couple of months back to interview victims and see for themselfs the conditions that Darfurians were living in.
Currently, some 7,000 African Union soldiers are in the region but is running out of manpower, finances and equipment. Its mandate expires on September 30 which is less than three weeks away.
So far the Sudanese government have flat out refused to let a UN peacekeeping force in Darfur, in which the UN passed a resolution for a robust UN force. Sudan's president Omar al-Basher has even went as far as saying that government troops will fight off UN peacekeepers.
Secertary General Kofi Annan is stepping up the pressure towards the Sudanese government to stop the killings and let peacekeepers enter the region. It would certaintly do go for Annan since he has until December when he steps down for his reputation is pretty much still tainted with Rwandan blood. I'm sure he doesn't want Darfurian blood etheir.
Several celebrities have been speaking out against the genocide, like actress Mia Farrow, Don Cheadle(Hotel Rwanda) Samantha Power among others.
This genocide is very simalar to Rwanda but the one difference I think is the media attention and how so many people aroung the world are protesting to stop the slaughter. If nothing is done within the next three weeks, millions will die and Darfur will go down in history as the genocide that could be stoped but no one did. Thus another tainted legacy for the UN.
It's time for the upsatnder's to take there places and scream for Darfur and hopefully with a little help from Hollywood, millions of lives can be saved.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Katrina: A Year Later, A Year Longer

Continuing to Ignore the Crying Out Loud and Choosing to Forget the Crying in Silence

NEW ORLEANS: “You from FEMUR?” “No sir, I am definitely not from FEMA.” The old man with his backwoods Mississippi drawl and placid, but suspicious eyes gave me an up and down gaze—taking in the pasty white neo-missionary polo shirt and badly bent ball cap pasted with logos of the organization I was working for—and told me to come on in to his FEMA trailer. Had I been wearing a large billboard on my chest proclaiming “I am neither FEMA nor the Red Cross!” I would still be looked upon with a mixture of frustration, suspicion and apathy by many of the residents, workers and volunteers roaming the FEMA and commercial trailer parks and residential blocks in southern Mississippi, also known as the Gulf Coast.
There is good reason for all the negative feelings and traumatized apathy that is apparent in so many of the Gulf Coast and Southeastern Louisiana (especially New Orleans) communities. A year has passed since the Hurricanes of 2005, namely Katrina but also Wilma and Rita, ravished this area of the country and thousands upon thousands of people are still living in conditions unfit for even the most beastly of genetic makeup’s. A year later families of 8 or 9 are still stuffed sardines in aluminum packaging and aging, wonderfully, wrinkled widows are still suffocating alone in nauseating, government procured—and government neglected—boxes. With little foresight, these trailers, clearly not ready for long-term living nor for the growing potential of more hurricanes in the near future, have become living mausoleums baking in the sun. Not dissimilar to the actual mausoleums that give so much personality and grace to New Orleanean cemetery’s. Its just that these mausoleums having living, breathing capable human beings in them.
Having returned to the south for the second time this year to help conduct a children and family health survey for those affected and displaced by the hurricanes, I found myself curious as to what kind of progress, or lack thereof, had been made since my last visit (confined to Louisiana) in February. I am not sure what I was looking for. How do you measure “progress” with anything, especially since I only had vague encounters with these regions the month before the hurricanes hit? Was I looking for obvious signs of rebuilding or fewer trailers? Was I hoping to encounter people who were less PTSD’d (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder—made famous by our Vietnam vets and our genocide of the indigenous populations of what is now America) than before? How can one tell anyway—by numerically counting how many fewer times an old man, with barely any prompting breaks into uncontrollable crying? I am not sure what I was looking for, but whatever it was I did not find too much of it. Maybe somewhere in this commentary “progress” will prevail through interpretation.
Anyway, this time we conducted the survey on the Gulf Coast in communities like Waveland, Pascagoula, Gautier, Biloxi, Bay St. Louis and Picayunes (none of which are pronounced the way they look on paper). Upon entering Mississippi from Louisiana I thought it would make sense to drive into some of the ravished communities before attempting to interview anyone from those communities. Though it can never match what the victim-survivors have gone through it would put some perspective on where they have come from and who they may be. Along the coast there just seems to be destruction, only a year later it is better hidden as many of the debris has been removed somewhere—if not out to sea. Foundations are still rooted and 6-step stairways still stand like pathways into some kind of undefined and tortuous future. The Gulf Coast (especially right on the water) before the hurricanes was a hotbed of casinos, chain fast food places and restaurants and nineteenth century plantation/mansion homes. Just inland one would find the working class and poor neighbourhoods, in other words the communities where the chains, casinos and second-home mansion owners found their employees to exploit. Many of the people in these areas also worked in sea-based industries that were also badly hit and remain so due to so much contamination and toxic waste and run-off brought on by the hurricanes and negligent environmental policies by administrations past and present.
In a disturbingly sadistic way, it was almost enjoyable to see the decimated casinos, McDonalds, Waffle Houses and Angus Steakhouses. Actually, I couldn’t see them because all that remained were parking lots and road signs exclaiming “-AF—E H-US-“ or “CA-I— MAG-C” as they lay bent on the beachfront. But it did not take many interviews and encounters with people at different moments to realize the importance of these industries to the Mississippi economy. For many, these were the only job options and for many they had to work at more than one of these places to survive; in fact, for so many who work at these places they were still eligible for welfare (a great irony of our “great” nation, or another great reason to roll your eyes and get up and do something: to have 2-3 income family’s that still need welfare and have few to no health benefits). It was with great sadness, but by no means coincidental, that while I was down south the national poverty index based on household incomes, and other economic factors, was published in USA Today. Mississippi ranked dead last (no pun intended) and the other states most affected by the hurricanes, Louisiana and Alabama, were not far behind—or ahead as the case may be.
It should then come as no surprise to hear about the Walmart-ization of the economy in the south that had started well before the hurricanes, but has gone into full-throttle since the hurricanes and further perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Almost every community, small or large, houses a super Wal-Mart—now the leading employer in the south I am sure. These super centers offer every reason to not ever have to go anywhere else to consume in these towns and cities. You can fill up your gas, get your groceries and greens, get your hair and nails done and have a bite at McDonalds simply by entering one of these exorbitant oasis, that prominently stand in the working class towns. Therein, with their sheer grandiose and convenience, Wal-Mart makes it impossible for the ma and pa shops, stores, and cafes to re-open or even attempt to rebuild after the hurricanes. What reason would there be? Our capitalist economy that thrives on competition has shut you down not due to some kind of competitive incompetence but because a nature made, but humanly cultivated disaster has destroyed everything you have and everything you know. You have no way of recouping your loss and Wal-Mart has air-conditioning and clean bathrooms. How can you top that? Especially when you have to go home to the trailer trenches in the evening and hope that the drug addict in the trailer next door does not have a bad meth trip that night and decide to trash everything you have clung desperately to for the last year. Simply speaking, Wal-Mart isn’t providing any “progress” but neither are the gulf-shore oil companies and casinos that were truncating these communities long before Katrina came along and reminded America of the differentiating manifestations of poverty that are most pervasive in the south.
I regress. For the survey, we were interviewing people in the FEMA and commercial trailer parks and in trailers on the properties of those most-affected by the hurricanes. Unlike those in Louisiana, it seemed like a lot of the trailer parks were actually relatively close to services, infrastructure and the communities from which people were displaced. In fact, many of the children I encountered were even able to attend the same school they were at before the hurricanes—that is if they were even enrolled. But the closeness did not necessarily equate to better access to the services. The trailer parks sat eerily behind Wal-Mart’s or smack in the middle of some hurricane-smashed strip mall; or maybe it was behind the destroyed VA or in the shadow of an intrusive casino in Biloxi. Like in Louisiana in February, where residents were facing the cutting of free gas and fuel into the trailers, in Mississippi residents were beginning to get their water shut off if they did not start paying for it. And like the Louisiana residents, many people are not making the extra income to pay for such “extravagances,” excuse me, necessities like water and gas. So what is to be done? Thankfully (I mean this in the most ironic of ways, of course), Anheuser-Busch, better known as Budweiser beer, was proudly and prudently providing free water to current trailer residents both on the Gulf Coast and in New Orleans. Funny thing about it is that the water came in clearly defined beer cans—except they said water on them (has anyone ever tried water from a beer can? Creepy…). Hmm, lets try to articulate all the ways beer-sponsored-water could be seen as problematic: 1) Alcohol abuse is already rife in these extreme conditions so something about water in beer cans just doesn’t seem conducive to solving that problem. 2) Kids are drinking from what amounts to beer cans. 3) The police, security and landlords, who already over police these areas and suspect everyone of everything will now have more reason to unreasonably break down doors and interrogate residents who are suspected of anything from being publicly drunk to trying to survive in shitty conditions. The list can go on; I almost wish I had one of the cans so I could sip on what I would presume to be some of the most addictive and enticing water one can drink. For whatever reason this makes me think of the Bush HIV/AIDS PEPFAR policy of not providing money to NGOs that distribute condoms; that is, it seems to be countering a problem by making so many other problems worse! FEMA seems to be okay with the beer can waters.
The communities that found the trailers on properties were the kind of areas that provides service to an imagination that has read extensively about (or experienced—if you have) the Civil Rights Movement or watched movies like Mississippi Burning and Deliverance: these are areas mostly full of poor and working-class white families where the roads are made of dirt and rough around the edges and where it is not uncommon, in fact it is more than common, to see the rebel confederate flag flying proudly—be it on a house still standing or on a pile of rubble next to a “Jesus shed” and sign reading “Trespassers will be shot without question” or “I will shoot to kill Theavs; Beware of owner + gun” in sprawling spray-paint. Meeting a southerner in this area, who immediately knows I am a Yankee with my walk and my talk and sees me pondering the revelatory flag with great remorse and sorrow, will tell me that it represents pride in the south and not racist ideology. I marvel with sympathy anyone that can convince him or herself that that may be near the truth. In my time in the south over the last 14 months, I have never seen a Black person with a confederate flag on a shirt, house, car, pocketbook, or pen; or riding with a bumper sticker that aggravates by stating “Don’t blame us, we voted for Jefferson Davis.” Our people responsible for safety and security (of which there was not much of either) told us to be aware of the trailer parks what with their brothels, addicts and crime; but my fear for life came in these back-country areas, where the hair stood on my neck and my knuckles got dry white every time a sun-burnt white guy came up to me and said “What ya doing here?” or “Lemme borrow your phone, son.” And I definitely thought about ditching the whole project when an old man with a rebel flag on his table, was telling me how he took 10-12 pills a day for various ailments, was the sole guardian to five grandchildren and then took me by the shoulder into his room to show me the shotgun the length of my body that he uses to protect his block from “those troublemakers.” At least in the trailers there were always plenty of people around and we knew we were being stared at from behind broken windows and not from behind six-foot high shrubs and 1952 model school buses that have been rusted and long abandoned on a back road to anywhere but where it was. Maybe this is why when I was the driver in a car with two Black women in the backseat and two White men in the front and was pulled over in a rent-a-car with supposedly dim taillights by a White Mississippi cop, I feared I would be part of the plot to a bad ABC miniseries—thankfully, my judgment was wrong as usual (though, I still don’t think there was any “real” reason to pull me over).
The problems we saw within these communities were not disparate to those in Louisiana. A year after the displacement people are eroding into further depression, stress and anxieties as the survival period transitions into the watch and wait period. Dementia seems to be invasive, doctors are over-prescribing anti-depressants that can eventually slip into other dependencies if the actual depression or PTSD ever dissipates and lung/respiratory illness, especially in children, seem to be abrasively on the rise. Blood pressure and other heart-related problems are serving notice. There is a glut of sadness; it is visible in the sagging, glum eyes and it is heard in the tonalities and rupture in the voice of the individual that is talking. Illness arises from the cramped quarters, the germs, the toxic water and sewage lying stagnant beneath the trailers. Juxtapose that image upon the famous depiction of slaves in the Atlantic passage crowded into the undercarriage of a large slave-ship, then in turn juxtapose it on an image from the Superdome in New Orleans the week after the hurricanes and you may understand—though really, you and I probably cannot ever understand. Supposedly, the official Katrina death count has stopped, but if you have been following the news in the last year or talked to those affected by the hurricanes you will find out that people are still dying every single day, directly due to those hurricanes. I heard stories of suicide, heart attacks and people who had simply lost the will to carry on the struggle each day.
Imagine, just a long period of not knowing and not being allowed to know what is happening to the system around you. It has been a year! No one is providing answers to your questions—partly because there are no real answers and partly because the people who should know are incompetent or experiencing PTSD too. Either way you get the short end of the stick because you were close to poor before and your voice has probably never really mattered. Some people have been told they must move out by the end of this month or this year, some people think they have 24 or 36 months and some people think they will receive more help to find a new place to live and help with job placement. But no one is really sure, even the management in charge of the parks. In some areas it seems the only thing going up are high priced, chic-y condos.
Unlike in Louisiana, that is mostly those from New Orleans, on the Gulf Coast there does not seem to be as stark a polarization of Black versus White for those inflicted with Katrina. Many of those worse affected were poor, working and middle class Whites, unlike in and around southeast Louisiana where it seemed the predominant amount of directly affected and displaced persons were Black (walking around New Orleans today the upper class, mostly White communities seem almost unaffected by the hurricanes, life as normal, except with fewer Black people around). Everyone is getting screwed—though it was quite obvious that in the neighbourhoods most people were White and kind of rebuilding, while the parks were a good mix of everyone being miserable and frustrated. It would be shortsighted though to not think race has played a big part in the rebuilding and “renewing” of southern Mississippi. Race is entrenched (it cannot be “avoided”), much more egregiously so than in the north and west where we just pretend to know about race relations and we deal with the “other” and overcome our own social, economic and political dialogues in our fake and unrealistic ways. As an aside: take a step further and look out how the mass displacement of mostly Black families will further make attempts at genealogical research much tougher for generations to come. For families that migrated during the “Great Migration” of the first part of the twentieth century this may be difficult enough, but the families now may never have left the south. Now they are in Houston, Atlanta, Salt Lake City or Lafayette and their siblings, parents and children are likewise in divergent locations of time and space. Will the local, state or federal government pay for the family reunions? Doubtful if they even care. This may buttress a dialogue on they way race has been used to deprive the right of return to so many people displaced by the hurricanes.
The right of return is currently being denied to people all over the Gulf Coast and Southeastern Louisiana, namely New Orleans—racial overtones flow through this denial. Currently, in New Orleans there is a great disorder over housing occurring. Through some controversy, and much finger pointing (I am still not sure what level or branch of government is making these decisions), home owners and other residents were given one year from the date of the hurricane (August 29th, 2005) to return to their home or show signs of rebuilding on their property. If there were no visible signs of “renewal” the house, or foundation, etc would be demolished and cleared by the city (or is it the state or is it Halliburton, uh, the federal government?). There are massive lists of people queuing to have their homes gutted, mostly by volunteer organizations and church groups, and that is considered one sign of “renewal.” Many people are simply hiring someone to mow a lawn and make it look like progress is being made. Most of the neighbourhoods that this is happening to were very working class pre-Katrina and mostly decimated by Katrina, therefore there is a lot of work to be done. But the signs proclaiming, “We’re coming back!” are no longer sufficient for the bureaucracies.
Then there are all the Catch-22’s of rebuilding or “renewing:” 1) No one wants to return to a community where there are no services available, like water and electricity, and also markets, banks, gas stations and other stores, so old residents may be waiting for this to happen first. 2) Besides the service needs, it is hard to move back to a community that is without a community. A community is not a community without children in the streets, old people sitting on porches and cars in the driveway. No one wants to be the first inhabitant to return because they may be alone and unsafe; this predicament is impeding return. 3) Residents who have been moved upstate or out of state cannot afford to return to see what their property looks like, therefore they cannot begin to “renew” if that is what they desire to do. 4) Housing and zoning laws have changed since the hurricanes making it harder for low-income earners to get any benefits and making it easier for big business to make land grabs (like the imperial figures that get a kick out of gentrification and Starbucks-on-every-corner idealism). 5) Poor and working class people are simply unwanted in contemporary New Orleans even though, for contradictions sake, they are highly needed and, thus, in demand. The White communities, whoops I mean the upper class and rich communities, seem not to have too much of a stake to further the rebuilding process. While they rightly claim the want for the “renewal” of the cultural and spiritual zeal of New Orleans, there is not enough being done to welcome back the displaced or even work with those who are still in New Orleans. The community groups I encountered seemed to have only a little upper-class involvement (though I am sure mysterious “benefactors” exist). The activism is coming from those who were already a part of larger class, racial, social, and political struggles before the hurricanes and who have no choice but to be a part of the same struggles now. Life goes on in the richer neighbourhoods, with glorious oak trees and southern magnolias, while elsewhere the strange fruit continues to swing from the poplar trees. Who wants to go back to this?
It must be pointed out that there is some life, “rebirth” and “renewal” in New Orleans. While there, I got an opportunity to volunteer for an organization for a few days called the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (, co-founded by a brilliant New Orleanean, Malcolm Suber. Before the hurricanes he did after school programming for under-served/resourced/privileged/etc schools in New Orleans. When the hurricanes hit, he gathered other like-minded social and cultural activists who were still in New Orleans and started this organization. I happened to be there as the year anniversary of the floods was to be commemorated; so this was everyone’s focus. They had organized a march from where the levee broke in the Lower Ninth Ward to Congo Square in the heart of the city—some three miles. Displaced persons came from all over the country for the memorial, followed by libation, reading the names of the deceased, the march and then the rally with music, speakers and more. Seeing many of the displaced come back to the ward for maybe the first time since the hurricanes was heart-wrenching, but there was still enough feelings and talk of hope that not all was loss. Standing among the ruins, friends and neighbors reunited with long embraces and undulations of joy. I remember watching the images of the displaced coming back to New Orleans to vote in April: the polls were not just a place of politics, but a place of laughter, reminiscing and discussions of the future. That’s what this gathering on August 29th, 2006 felt like. Obviously, as a bystander—on the outside looking in, in more ways than one—I cannot ever come close to knowing the feelings of so many of the people surrounding me that day. How am I to know what it is like to handwrite a name at the bottom of the list of Katrina’s deceased because the name is not already on the list? How can I really understand or acknowledge my surroundings when I can get on a train, bus or plane any time I want and get away from it all (physically, at least)?
Irony was embellished on the day of the commemoration, as the presence of the never-elected president was omnipresent throughout the city. He who hath forgot and ignored the people of the Gulf Coast, New Orleans and poor neighbourhoods around the country and world once again photo-op’d in the Big Easy. His entourage and “secret” services unapologetically shut down the roads that had already been marked for various marches, parades and other events. Ours was re-routed by the friendly National Guard who has overrun the city without regard to the actual safety of its citizens. The president came, made some promises (uh, that he had already made and neglected), apologized for having screwed everything up (uh, at the same time as passing blame as usual), and told the citizens (uh, the hand picked ones) that their city (uh, the rich part of it) would be great again (uh, as long as big business, corporations and the oil companies are allowed to be involved). He made his way to the Lower Ninth Ward to prove that he doesn’t hate Black people (uh, none were around because no one is living there a year later!), rolled up his shirtsleeves and left town. Over the coming days he would not mention the hurricanes, New Orleans or the Gulf Coast once, but go on a calculated series of diatribes to make clear where America stands on the war on terror as we head to the fifth anniversary of September 11th. His aim: to boost GOP chances in the fall, scare people into believing him again and to drive out “Islamo-fascists” (uh, contradiction in terms, sir) and other ideologues and liberals who subvert his war on the poor (uh, I mean terrorists). Katrina was once again forgotten. This time it only took a day. And by the end of this past week something like $80 billion more was added to the Iraq war chest to bring the total over half a trillion dollars I believe, while we are left to look under our seat cushions and in momma and poppy’s nightstand for extra coins lying around that can go to rebuilding and “renewing” the south, fixing the federal education and health care systems, and saving our pensions, homes, children and other superfluous (deemed by the powers that be) extremities of our country.
I regress. All along in New Orleans, there was a salient silence, some kind of incongruent quietness about the whole place. I was in New Orleans for the start of Mardi Gras this year (not undulating my pectoral muscles, but doing health survey interviews in hotels for the displaced) and now on the commemoration. These were events that should have brought loudness, drunken stumbly-ness and music that would make your feet move and butt shake even if you were under anesthesia. While the music was there and some parades were there (I had to choose one day between attending the Black Men of Labour Parade and the Southern Decadence Parade—Black Pride versus Gay Pride, I will leave your imagination open to which one I chose), the quietness was loud enough to make one go crazy in thought. Maybe the cumbersome presence of the National Guard to ruin any gathering had an effect or maybe it really is that the city is still half full, if that, from its pre-Katrina days. I was lucky enough to see some of New Orleans before Katrina and there always seemed to be something happening. The silence was intense, especially when rounding a corner in the heart of a business district and there, nonchalantly, stood an urban FEMA trailer park. These were probably housing many who had been moved out of the hotels and motels back in March. The people left in the city cannot avoid such reminders, and people visiting, working or volunteering are deluged on many street corners with overwhelming signs that a lot of work is yet to be done, that a lot of justice has yet to come, and that a lot of “renewal” and reconciliation will need to happen in order for this unique city to gain any of its once formidable self back again.
With buildings and people standing still in time, it is difficult to find revelatory “progress.” Walking out of the old-time Sanger Theatre in Biloxi after viewing Spike Lee’s “When the Levees Broke” is a surreal experience these days. Part of the documentary shows the destruction of downtown Biloxi and when the theatre doors open, that’s where you are; the eerie streets, still devoured by natures act sitting stationary in the imagination and in reality. Six months and now a year later, I have had an opportunity to carry witness to the activism (and government digression) on all matters Katrina—both in the south and in New York City—and I am troubled by what is not being done, as well as hopeful of what could be done. In February my camera lens was trying hard to find a solitary red rose or stuffed teddy bear with coated-marble eyes to show that colour can come from darkness. This time it found the tall green grass and sunflower plants, magnolias and impromptu sidewalk memorials blooming around New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. There are people crying and dying in the streets to bring about the social justice that has been so deserved (though “deserve” sounds too paternalistic) over centuries. But more can always be done. There are plenty of organizations doing good work down south, and there are plenty of community-based organizations doing good work to fight the Katrina in your backyard, too. Keep the pressure on whoever is in power or in control of the everyday life in your neighbourhood (if this is not so obvious, read a real history book or pick up a real newspaper). Tell your parents, children, siblings, colleagues, friends and enemies that more needs to be done—whatever that may mean in their and your context. Incite change or raise consciousness and awareness through any means necessary: in an email, a magazine, letter to the editor, speech, passing conversation, class, art, music, or incite through the way you carry yourself in everyday life or role-model for the children and youth you have, encounter or work with. In questioning what you will do, I am by all means questioning what I will do—and answers do not come easy. While assumptions and presumptions abound in this commentary, we are all responsible for the actions and inactions we take. Take this for what you will.

jed oppenheim

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Innocence for sale: The human trafficing problem

MIAMI: In 1865, the thirteenth Amendement was passed in which it states that slavery and involentary servitude were banned. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN in 1948, also states in Article 4 that no one is to be forced to slavery and also banning the slave trade. But now around the world, children and people are being sold and bought in the new era of modern day slave trade. People are being lured into trafficing for many reasons which includes in some cases physical force, false promises of a job oppotunity, and marriges in foreign countries. According to the US State Department, approximatly 600,000 to 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders every year. Millions are in other countries. Trafficing victims suffer physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, threats against themselfs and family, Passport theft, health problems, and even death. But it not only effects victims it also underminds the health, safety, and security of all nation where trafficing is taking place. Child sex tourism is another common problem in which foriegners take part in sexual acts with children whom could be as young as 8 or 9 years old. Predators come from all over the world and most cases hold prominate positions. Previous cases include an retired US Army general, a dentist, teachers, and a University Professor. Children in these conditions suffer almost the same as trafficing victims but they also suffer drug addiction, diseases like HIV/AIDS, unwanted pregnancy, and maluntrition. The United States are taking some steps into stopping human trafficing. For example, they passed several bills one of which helps convict trafficers for as much as 30 years in prison. The Department of Health now cerrtifiying victims so they may qualify for the same assistance as refuges. The US is helping and contributing funding for other countries to prevent human trafficing which includes special housing and work training centers for victims, training Custom official to reconizing trafficing victims and so many other things. Now more than ever, it;s important that all of us learn more about this devastating international crime of human trafficing because it's quickly becoming the crime buisness of the future.

Monday, September 04, 2006

All falls down: Reflections on 9/11

MIAMI: It's been 5 years since the devastating attacks on September 11 occured and I can still remember where I was when it happened: I was in the seventh grade and I was in my Homeroom class, when my teacher's son came in told him to turn on the television. The first thing I saw was two twin towers and a plane went straight through the north tower. I, and along all my other classmates were shocked and confiused of what was happening but as the news report went on, we found out that terrorists highjacked comercial planes and one of them went through the World Trade Center. Another two planes crashed on the Pentagon and one was headed to Washington D.C. but was diverted to a field in Virginia. My eyes were locked on the t.v. set watching the events unfloding. Some time later another plane hit the South tower in which I was begining to think was just an earlier footage of the North tower being hit. But I knew I was sadly mistaken. Then at 10:28AM when I was in my Math class trying to do my work but couldn't because the television was on, the North tower(Or the South tower. I can't remember) collapsed. As I watched, CBS reporter Dan Rather said in a weary voice I'll never forget, "The World Trade Center has collaped."

Since then, I've been trying to come to terms with what happened and why. Even though I didn't know anyone of the over three thousand people whom lost there lives on that day, these people were our neighbors, friends, people whom were just at the wrong place at the wrong time. Many times, I've(along with every other American) have asked, why would terrorist do this to us? What did we do to them? Through the years, I thought that terrorist were inhuman, whom just wanted to destroy and kill all Americans for the hell of it, but recently, in the Conclution of the book "Shake Hands with the Devil" and of reading "A Problem from Hell: America and the age of Genocide" now I've started to see things in a totally different light. Senator Dallaire writes that people in the First world have the tendancy of thinking there more human than people in the Third world, which might be one of the contributing factors why the world was so passive to respond to the Rwandan genocide. When he went to Sierra Loene in 2001 for CIDA, he describes a rage he saw in the eyes of the children that were suffering under the brutal regiem of Charles Taylor (whom is currently being held in the Hague for crimes against humanity) He explaines that because the youth in contries like Chechnia and Middle Eastern contries are suffering under curruption, war, genocide, famine, and other worldly disasters, they grow up under extreme violence and feel anger towards the world and resort towards violence in order to survive and warns that if this isn't solved, then the world will be nothing but a repeat of Rwanda, 9/11, the Congo, Siera Leone and the Middle East. And in "A Problem from Hell" Samantha Power explains why the UN and the United States are wary of responding to genocide and which survivors of such crimes don't make good neighbors and they too resort to taking out their rage against the world. To me it makes so much sence. If were going to win the "War on Terror" the US can't be in this self-intrest bubble, we shouldn't be able to move mountians to protect just our own sovergnty, we as humans have to help out one another because NO human is more human than the other no matter where they live or who they are. Don't get me wrong, I'm not a terrorist smpathyzer. What they did on 9/11 was very wrong and cruel, but the fact of the matter is that the world has turned a blind eye on the suffering and the plight of millions of people whom suffer so much in places like Rwanda, Darfur, and other place around the world. Now more than ever, this generation have to rise above race, color, religion and say in a loud voice "Enough is enought!" in reaching out a hand of humanity to those whom need it the most.

September 11 is another date in American history which will live in infamimy. A date which we saw the best and worse of human play out in front of the world. A warning and a lesson to the world of the consecuenses of self-intrest. We must be able to spill our blood for humanity and put the good of it above everything else. For the sake of the future and of the children.

Blogger's note: I would appreciate if you all let me know your opinions and thoughts. Thanks!