Wednesday, September 14, 2005

A Crossroads of Conscience

A Crossroads of Conscience
The Peace and Justice Movement and Hurricane Katrina
by Naomi Archer
September 14, 2005

Standing on a road littered by broken glass and splintered shingles in the Algiers community of New Orleans, it's impossible not to wonder, "Where is everybody?" But the search isn't to find the residents of the Algiers. Members of the neighborhood wander in and out the new but understaffed wellness clinic on Techie Street. Instead, the eyes scan the horizon, searching for a whirlwind of progressive relief equal to the storm winds and political hot air that have created this disaster.

Where is the progressive left during this crisis?

In particular, where are the hundreds of groups and individuals that make up the peace and justice movement? As thousands of mostly poor, black and brown residents of southern Louisiana and Mississippi work through a highly publicized struggle for human dignity and basic relief, a critical mass of mostly white peace and justice progressives have turned the focus of their gaze from the Gulf coast to a weekend of protests in Washington DC. Instead of talking about direct action in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, Algiers, or in Gulfport, Mississippi, they talk about symbolic protest on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Meanwhile, the shocking news continues to flow out of Algiers and other communities that have endured military martial rule, corrupt police, racist "cracker squads" and ethnic cleansing. It was only yesterday that dead bodies were removed from the streets of Algiers. Just today, Food Not Bombs visited communities that have received no assistance at all. Community activists continue to send out calls-to-action and emergency aid requests. If the progressive left doesn't understand what is happening in the aftermath of Katrina, it can only be from willfully ignoring the disturbing news coming out of the area.

It is frustrating to realize the donation of a few bags of clothes and the monetary equivalent of a good meal are enough the ease the conscience of too many people who will spend hundreds of dollars to travel to DC while the shell-shocked on the Gulf coast struggle simply to survive and reclaim their neighborhoods from storm damage, poverty, and government neglect.

Observing the manic buzz around the D.C. protests and the vibrant but overworked activists on the ground in the disaster zone, it would seem a large majority of the peace and justice crowd would rather hob-nob in DC with the rich and famous than get their hands dirty on the Gulf Coast. The stereotype of the "elite left" becomes a bit more tangible in this instance.

There is both sadness and irony in the lack of mass relief action by the progressive arm of the left. It is sad because thousands of people have courageously faced a powerful storm and years of government negligence only to face a tide of inaction by the very same lefties that preach the end of racism and poverty.

It is ironic that a whirlwind of direct progressive action in the relief area would do more to demonstrate the values and principals of the left than any protest. What could be more embarrassing to Bush than thousands of progressives in the relief area, uniting with local communities, and being visible witness to the criminal actions of the government and their corporate profiteers? More importantly, it is precisely this sort of conscious action that challenges stereotypes and builds solidarity across historic divides. Ultimately, it is the moral and just thing to do.

Though its been two weeks since Katrina hit this area, a Federal relief effort that has been both criminal and racist continues to leave people without food, clean water, medical care, or respect. The fluffy media stunts of Bush, FEMA and the military hide the truth on the ground that there is not enough medical personnel, food distribution, or will to meet the immense need.

If the massive network of peace and justice organizations, individuals and activists won't meet the need of those who suffer, then who will? And meeting the need involves more than simply writing a check or giving away a box of old clothing. The failure of the Government's relief infrastructure means that groups and individuals will have to fill that void by providing mutual aid hand-to-hand, face-to-face, in the relief area.

And with local community leaders making desperate pleas for actual volunteers, one wonders when this need will arrive. In two more weeks after the DC protests? With knowledge that people's lives hang in the balance, that sort of neglect is as heinous as FEMA's much publicized inaction. This is a historic crisis, and it can only be answered by historic action.

The progressive community has reached a crossroads of conscience. To ignore both the human calamity and human courage that is occurring on the Gulf coast in favor of a political protest, would be a moral failure of historic proportions. To change this failure into a historic moment of solidarity and compassion is still in reach. But a whirlwind of change as life-altering as Hurricane Katrina must blow through the peace and justice movement in a short period of time. Choosing the right road will take courage and strength. The survivors of this disaster have shown these qualities time and time again. Those of us in the peace and justice movement will dishonor them, and ourselves, by displaying anything less.

To support the Common Ground relief effort in Algiers and elsewhere, call 504-368-6897 or 512-297-1049. The more people that volunteer, the more people can be reached. Packages can be sent to Common Ground, PO Box 3216, Gretna, LA 70054.

Naomi Archer is a global justice organizer and spiritual activist from Asheville, NC working for the Common Ground relief effort in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. She can be reached at 828.230.1404 or Blog at Website at


Blogger Don Snabulus said...

In addition to giving millions, the "progressive movement" has:

* offered thousands of homes via MoveOn's Hurricane Housing

* Sent vital supplies via Veterans for Peace who have set up camp near Lake Pontchartrain

* People like Harry Connick Jr. and Sean Penn were on the ground rescuing people while the very stars who get hammered by the GOP press are giving millions upon millions of their own money

* Progressive charities such as Mercy Corps and Northwest Medical Teams have been in the area since shortly after the storm hit.

* Craig's list has resources for helping Katrina victims on person-to-person basis.

Things are happening, but they aren't reaching the notice of the media, as usual. Doing good things does not always attract notice unless you have a budget to advertise it. As a global justice activist, you should know that.

Many people who are in anti-war groups are also involved with these other charities. It doesn't make sense for Code Pink to have an action when its members are already volunteering for the Red Cross, churches, American NGOs, etc.

In short, I don't think the progressive movement is as heartless as you think. I am quite proud of them actually because they will still be around when the helping fad fades and people start looking at their struggling countrypeople as annoyances rather than brothers and sisters.

10:26 AM  
Blogger Richard said...

I know that the hurricane has been catastrophic, but this post is unfair, as I've read and heard about several progressive organizations that have helped provide assistance to victims as well as plan to participate in the protests in DC.

In other words, the post is based upon an either/or proposition that is not true.

I must also delicately note that there are Iraqis that suffer from the occupation every day, they lack power, like people in the Gulf, they lack food, like people in the Gulf, they face the privatization of many of their communities, just like people in the Gulf, but on a much larger scale, they are detained all across the country, possibly as many as 20,000, in conditions that are, as hard to believe as it is, worse than the conditions confronted by the people in the Gulf.

Not to mention, of course, that the US military is subjecting Iraqis to indiscriminate violence every day. So, even if a progressive organization decided to emphasize the protests against the war over going to Louisiana, it is, in my view, a legitimate decision, because the Iraqis have suffered, and continue to suffer, in a way beyond even what is being experienced in the Gulf.

But, as I said, many progressive organizations are doing both, and, I must candidly say, there is something politically self-centered, bordering on xenophobia, to suggest that a progressive organization is somehow acting inappropriately if they happen to place the suffering of the Iraqis on an equal footing with the people of the Gulf, especially given the fact that, objectively speaking, the suffering of Iraqi people, by any objective measure, is significantly worse.

--Richard Estes

10:33 AM  
Blogger Long-Haired Jesus said...

Where is the progressive left during this crisis?

Okay, the other comments have been nice. I'm going to try being direct.

What the hell are you talking about?

At a time when thousands of progressives are donating money to hundreds of different organizations (in my case the Red Cross) you blast people for making a political protest in D.C. instead of...what? Wading through the water and fishing out bodies? Making some big, public, (and yes, political) show of support for the people in New Orleans, but at the same time they aren't allowed to make a big, public (and political) statement in D.C.?

Factoid: D.C. is where the lawmakers are. This is where they work. Congress does not do any work in Louisiana. Therefore, a massive protest in New Orleans (if you can find a suitable marching ground) might not have the same impact.

Also, have you considered that the 'progressive movement', unlike the Republican juggernaught, is not some colossal entity that marches in lockstep and devours talking points from a big thinktank like the Heritage Foundation. We aren't a dragon, we're a hydra. There are people who focus on women's rights, others on Iraq, others on civil name it. There is work for ALL of us out there. Running from disaster to disaster for a photo-op is best left to the President, thank you very much. Some of us prefer to make our donations privately and humbly, not so that people will say, "Wow, what nice people progressives are" but because it's the right thing to do. End of story.

Also, as Don Snabulus mentioned, the "progressive movement" has done quite a lot. Your blog post cited no statistics I could think of, merely faceless people wondering "Where is the progressive movement?"

Well it's already there, if you care to look. Also "Big Ed" on Air America has his own relief fund which he pledges goes 100% to the victims of Katrina--not to 'administration'. That's just one example that wasn't mentioned, and I guarantee you there are more, if you choose to look.

We get beat up on enough without you giving the Freepers another blog post to crosslink and say (without any evidence whatsoever) "Yeah, where are all the liberals, anyway?"

2:37 PM  
Blogger Long-Haired Jesus said...

One other thing.

To ignore both the human calamity and human courage that is occurring on the Gulf coast in favor of a political protest, would be a moral failure of historic proportions.

Or you're just full of it. That's option three. I get enough of the 'false choices' from the Right, I don't need to hear it from someone who, presumably, is on 'my side'.

As if it's truly a choice between one or the other. It's not. BOTH can be done. Now, sure, the people in D.C. won't be in New Orleans at the same time, but they probably donated money already, and this is a short-term protest. New Orleans will be a long-term problem. Long enough for everyone to get involved.

it would seem a large majority of the peace and justice crowd would rather hob-nob in DC with the rich and famous than get their hands dirty on the Gulf Coast

This is just offensive. If I could go to D.C. for a protest and get invited to some gala with the 'rich and famous' that would be awesome. Maybe I could get my opinions across face to face, maybe I could even get the media involved. But for anyone who has attended a protest knows, it's "hard work" (to quote the unPresident), involves hours of marching, tired feet, hassles with police, sore throat, and (sometimes) bad weather. The closest anyone in a protest usually gets to the "rich and famous" is looking at the monuments of Washington.

Instead, you get to walk side by side with people like you. Many of them poor, bussed in (at little expense to themselves), and basically just regular folks.

And look, no disrespect intended to the victims of Katrina, and my heart truly does go out to them. But I'd rather that we not forget about Iraq, our deficit spending, and other key issues in the world over Katrina. Katrina does not mean "stop all other activities and focus on nothing but Katrina's aftermath." The aftermath of Katrina will be there, long after Bush is even in office.

People make a difference in many different ways. You belittling how people choose to participate does nothing for the progressive movement, nor for your own cause.

3:01 PM  
Blogger Richard said...

I understand that people are emotional about what happened in the Gulf, all of us are.

But, perhaps you should examine some of the events planned for the protests in DC. Quite a number of people plan to engage in civil disobedience, and, let me assure you (as someone who knows), spending time in an overcrowded jail cell is not an opportunity to "hobnob with in DC with the rich and famous"

For some reason, intuition maybe, I suspect that the real issue here is that we are dealing with a "global justice activist" that supports the occupation, a North Carolina version of Marla Ruzicka, the woman who worked for Global Exchange, and then left so that she could set up her own non-profit in Iraq that collaborated with the Occupation Authority

because, in my experience, this type of overheated rhetoric ridiculing protest against the war, with no acknowledgement of the violence and brutality associated with it, is often utilized as a means of trying to discredit the antiwar movement, without destroying one's credibility in front of a progressive audience by revealing that you do, in fact, support the occupation.

FYI: a lot of people that you are helping probably have friends and relatives in the US military. You might want to think about whether it's a good idea for people to protest to end the occupation so that they can return home without being killed or permanently crippled, or just psychologically impaired, because of what they have done, or seen done, to Iraqis

--Richard Estes

3:27 PM  
Blogger ...lg... said...

while i don't know that this post is entirely fair, i do disagree with the defensive nature of the reactions to it. ms. archer is calling attention to the essence of this crisis, which is that if it does not mark a true turning point for this country what will?

Factoid: D.C. is where the lawmakers are. This is where they work. Congress does not do any work in Louisiana. Therefore, a massive protest in New Orleans (if you can find a suitable marching ground) might not have the same impact.

the fact that this comment has mistaken archer's call to action for a call to protest is perhaps indicative of a failure of imagination on the left. not only is there a moral imperative to do everything in our power to help those who are suffering right now; it is also absolutely critical that we act individually and collectively in a way that refuses to allow for the type of strengthening of the grip of the status quo that occured after 9/11 (which will in turn lead to more and greater suffering in the near future). i am not saying by any stretch that i really know what this means we ought to do - but i am saying that if it is simply business as usual, we may as well quit now. whether or not you take offense at some of the accusations archer makes, the questions she puts forward are worthy of consideration - this is a critical moment - are we doing all we can _right now_?

4:48 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

Gosh, you're right! Those whitey progressive national organizations have droppped the ball again! Except for Food Not Bombs (direct action? My! What would the red won't-deliver-aid-past-FEMA cross think!), or ACORN, or Hurricane Housing, or Habitat for Humanity, or your own organization... Oh wait, is that the anti-war coallition that organized these marches months ago suddenly demanding, in the wake of the hurricane, reconstruction not war? Say it ain't so!

Most white progressive anti-war types that are being lambasted here live in cities that are taking in Katrina victims, if you can get past the barbed wire and the national guard you can just sign a check out to a family of your choice. I mean, I know plenty who already have but if we didn't shout it from the rooftops and say, "Look at how awesome us whitey progressives are!" I guess it doesn't count.

Ok, and where do you protest the massive giveaway to politically connected contractors, rather than, say, a housing voucher program for Katrina victims who've lost everything and can no longer go bankrupt thanks to this syncophant Democratic party? Why, I believe you do that hobknobbing with the jackboots in Washington.

In Washington! Perhaps the free mumia crowd can find some snappy slogan for how the New Orleans/Iraqi reconstruction efforts are just massive transfers of wealth to the wealthy, but if not somebody else will. Thankyou.

False choice fallacy indeed.

5:58 PM  
Blogger buermann said...

Hm. And this post seems especially trite considering Katrina provided cover for the Rumsfeld-manufactured hurricane that swept through Tal Afar the other weekend, but I digress.

6:21 PM  
Blogger Boris Epstein said...


I am fully with you as far as your argument that direct action is more effective, more necessary, etc. than street protests - especially in the face of a disaster like Katrina. But why is it just the left you are adressing?

I think anyone with a conscience should od what they can to help the victims - largely abandoned by their government as you have aptly observed.

Let us help those people. 100%.

We can sort out our differences later.


5:29 PM  
Blogger William Dwyer said...

On September 7, you said, "Now please go tell all your friends and let's 1) create change by providing real relief to the suffering of these people and 2) kick these criminals out of Washington DC before they kill more people!"

First of all, REAL relief is something that is going to take time to provide. With the obstruction of the inept Bush administration out of the way, relief might come faster, but houses aren't rebuilt overnight.

Here in Michigan, we are doing all we can to help the hurricane victims, but in case you haven't noticed, Michigan has the highest unemployment rate in the nation right now. We'd like to do more, but we're doing all we can to keep our own heads above water (no pun intended).

Instead of contradicting yourself by encouraging people to "kick these criminals out of Washington DC" and then a week later criticizing us for protesting in DC instead of helping hurricane victims, you should realize that those of us who will be protesting in DC are doing what we can to "kick these criminals out of Washington DC."

12:46 PM  

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