Post-Katrina Politics in New Orleans

A new documentary looks at the racial, economic, and cultural divisions the storm brought to the Big Easy.

Three diehard Saints fans during the miraculous 2010 championship. This is a still image from the movie Getting Back to Abnormal. 
National Journal
Charlie Cook
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

Not every­one should watch the doc­u­ment­ary Get­ting Back to Ab­nor­mal, to be aired on PBS next week. If you are someone who loves vis­it­ing New Or­leans for the great food, ter­rif­ic jazz, and un­par­alleled night­life, or for the unique his­tory and ar­chi­tec­ture, and you don’t want that idyll­ic im­age com­plic­ated in any way, you should prob­ably avoid the film. However, if you are up for a strong dose of what passes for real­ity in an of­ten seem­ingly un­real place, you should con­sider tun­ing in.

Get­ting Back to Ab­nor­mal is a look at the stark ra­cial, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al di­vi­sions that char­ac­ter­ize post-Kat­rina polit­ics in New Or­leans. The film­makers tell the story through the lens of a 2010 City Coun­cil con­test in a dis­trict that is 60 per­cent Afric­an-Amer­ic­an, and that in­cludes the im­pov­er­ished and be­lea­guered Lower Ninth Ward. The prot­ag­on­ists are Stacy Head, the con­tro­ver­sial, shoot-from-the-lip white in­cum­bent, and Corey Wat­son, a black min­is­ter who is no shrink­ing vi­ol­et, either. Ra­cial ten­sions lie just be­neath the sur­face, with many whites see­ing city gov­ern­ment as cor­rupt and dys­func­tion­al, while many blacks in the dis­trict re­sent that they are rep­res­en­ted on the City Coun­cil by not just a white per­son but one who is prone to mak­ing either polit­ic­ally in­cor­rect or in­flam­mat­ory state­ments (de­pend­ing on your point of view).

A still im­age from the movie Get­ting Back to Ab­nor­mal. (An­drew Kolk­er)

An­oth­er key fig­ure in the film is Bar­bara La­cen-Keller, a flam­boy­ant Afric­an-Amer­ic­an polit­ic­al op­er­at­ive and com­munity act­iv­ist who works for Head and who serves as the in­cum­bent’s emis­sary to the black com­munity. La­cen-Keller of­ten deals with the con­sequences of Head’s words and ac­tions, wheth­er Head is tak­ing on — usu­ally Afric­an-Amer­ic­an — city of­fi­cials whom the coun­cil­wo­man sees as at least in­com­pet­ent, if not cor­rupt, or is just say­ing things that many of her con­stitu­ents find of­fens­ive.

The doc­u­ment­ary, part of the Pub­lic Broad­cast­ing Sys­tem’s ac­claimed POV (Point of View) series, was made by four ac­com­plished film­makers: Louis Al­varez, An­drew Kolk­er, Peter Oda­bashi­an, and Paul Stekler. It premiered at the 2013 South by South­w­est Film Fest­iv­al in Aus­tin, Texas, but was held for air­ing on PBS un­til the elec­tion year. Al­varez, Kolk­er, and Stekler have teamed up be­fore, on the duPont-Columbia award-win­ning film Louisi­ana Boys, Raised on Polit­ics, and all four (in­clud­ing Oda­bashi­an) col­lab­or­ated on the Pe­abody-, Emmy-, and duPont-Columbia-win­ning Vote for Me: Polit­ics in Amer­ica, the best doc­u­ment­ary about polit­ics that I have ever seen (it aired in the fall of 1996).

At times, the film is ad­mit­tedly un­com­fort­able to watch. This is not Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton; these are not the polit­ics of the civics classes we all took in school. Since many of New Or­leans’s poorest Afric­an-Amer­ic­an res­id­ents fled the city dur­ing or after Hur­ricane Kat­rina — quite a few of them nev­er to re­turn — a pop­u­la­tion and polit­ic­al power shift has oc­curred in the city: 22 con­sec­ut­ive years of black may­ors gave way in 2010 to the elec­tion of Mitch Landrieu (con­tem­por­an­eous with this City Coun­cil race). A City Coun­cil long con­trolled by a black ma­jor­ity sud­denly found it­self with a 5-2 white ma­jor­ity. No group likes to give up power, and dur­ing the 2010 Dis­trict B City Coun­cil race at the cen­ter of this film, the trans­ition was just be­gin­ning. Dur­ing the same peri­od, the city made the con­tro­ver­sial de­cision to close down four huge pub­lic-hous­ing pro­jects in in­cred­ibly poor neigh­bor­hoods, in part be­cause of the de­cline in the city’s pop­u­la­tion, but primar­ily to break up con­cen­tra­tions of crime and urb­an de­cay. Mixed-in­come hous­ing was built to re­place the pro­jects, and of­fi­cials placed strict re­stric­tions on res­id­ents, with the rules de­signed to pre­vent the neigh­bor­hoods from de­clin­ing again in­to crime and drug cen­ters. Some res­id­ents saw these rules as a heavy-handed at­tempt by the city to run the lives of those who agreed to live there.

{{ BIZOBJ (video: 5072) }}Spliced throughout the film are plenty of col­or­ful, only-in-New-Or­leans per­son­al­it­ies, and the sense that for hun­dreds of years, res­id­ents and politi­cians neg­lected to ad­dress mount­ing prob­lems un­til the city be­came es­sen­tially dys­func­tion­al. Bob Mar­shall, out­doors ed­it­or of The Times-Pi­cay­une, uses a rather vivid meta­phor to de­scribe the be­ha­vi­or of New Or­leans’s cit­izens: “A guy sees smoke and fire and gets up and looks out his win­dow and real­izes that his kit­chen is on fire — he’s up in the front room. He says, “˜Well, I’m gonna watch the end of the Saints game, but the fire­men’ll get here even­tu­ally.’ And he goes and sits down and opens an­oth­er beer and watches the Saints game.” Mar­shall con­cludes the story by say­ing the guy thinks, “He’s gonna take care of it later be­cause someone al­ways takes care of it, and we’ve al­ways lived like this and it’ll be OK.” Oth­ers liken the pre­vail­ing at­ti­tude with­in the city to that of those who would rather en­joy a good meal, go to a Mardi Gras parade, or go party than con­front a press­ing prob­lem. What is cer­tain here is that this is a film un­like any you have ever seen be­fore.

What We're Following See More »
CYBER THREATS INCREASING
Clapper: ISIS Will Try to Attack U.S. This Year
1 days ago
THE DETAILS

“Leaders of the Islamic State are determined to strike targets in the United States this year,” Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told a congressional panel today. Clapper added that “al-Qaida, from which the Islamic State spun off, remains an enemy and the U.S. will continue to see cyber threats from China, Russia and North Korea, which also is ramping up its nuclear program.”

Source:
CLYBURN WEIGHING HIS OWN NOD
CBC PAC to Endorse Clinton This Morning
5 hours ago
WHY WE CARE

The Congressional Black Caucus PAC will formally endorse Hillary Clinton this morning, and “nearly a dozen CBC colleagues will descend on” South Carolina next week in advance of that state’s important primary. Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC), the highest ranking black member of Congress, reversed his earlier position of neutrality, saying he’ll make a decision “later in the week.” Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) has pointed out that the CBC PAC is not the same things as the CBC itself, while the Intercept notes that 11 of the 20 board members of the PAC are lobbyists.

Source:
MORE TENSIONS ON KOREAN PENINSULA
Senate Votes 96-0 to Sanction North Korea
4 hours ago
THE LATEST

In a unanimous vote Wednesday night, the Senate echoed the House’s move last month to stiffen sanctions against North Korea. The bill “would sanction anyone who engages in, facilitates or contributes to North Korea’s proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, arms-related materials, luxury goods, human rights abuses, activities undermining cyber security and the provision of materials for such activities.” Senate Democrats said they expect the president to sign the bill. In related news, after South Korea suspended operations at a jointly run power station in the North, Pyongyang declared the area a military zone and cut off a hotline between the two countries.

Source:
THE QUESTION
How Large Is Hillary Clinton’s Delegate Lead?
4 hours ago
THE ANSWER

Three hundred fifty-two, thanks to superdelegates pledged to Clinton, and the vagaries of the delegate allocation process in early states. Not bad, considering her results have been a virtual tie and a blowout loss.

Source:
HE’D SIPHON OFF DEM VOTES
RNC Chief Would Welcome Bloomberg
3 hours ago
THE DETAILS

“The lead­ers of the Re­pub­lic­an and Demo­crat­ic na­tion­al com­mit­tees on Wed­nes­day weighed in on the pro­spect of an in­de­pend­ent pres­id­en­tial run by” former New York City May­or Mi­chael Bloomberg (I). “DNC Chair­wo­man Debbie Wasser­man Schultz sug­ges­ted that the former New York City may­or’s pri­or­it­ies are already ‘well cared-for’ in the Demo­crat­ic plat­form, while RNC lead­er Re­ince Priebus wel­comed the idea, say­ing Bloomberg would si­phon off votes from the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ate.”

Source:
×