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 »
Kristol Recruiting National Review’s David French for Third-Party Run
10 hours ago

"Two Republicans intimately familiar with Bill Kristol’s efforts to recruit an independent presidential candidate to challenge Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have told Bloomberg Politics that the person Kristol has in mind is David French -- whose name the editor of the Weekly Standard floated in the current issue of the magazine.

French is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. According to the website of National Review, where French is a staff writer, he is a constitutional lawyer, a recipient of the Bronze Star, and an author of several books who lives in Columbia, Tenn., with his wife Nancy and three children."

Jerry Brown Backs Clinton
12 hours ago

California Gov. Jerry Brown endorsed Hillary Clinton today, calling her "the only path forward to win the presidency and stop the dangerous candidacy of Donald Trump." While praising Sen. Bernie Sanders' campaign, Brown said "Clinton’s lead is insurmountable and Democrats have shown – by millions of votes – that they want her as their nominee. ... This is no time for Democrats to keep fighting each other. The general election has already begun."

Clinton Says Voters Still Hung Up on Gender
15 hours ago

In a New York Magazine profile, Hillary Clinton said she still encounters misogyny at her own events: “‘I really admire you, I really like you, I just don’t know if I can vote for a woman to be president.’ I mean, they come to my events and then they say that to me.”

Trump Vows Not to Change
15 hours ago
Trump Won’t Debate Sanders After All
4 days ago

Trump, in a statement: “Based on the fact that the Democratic nominating process is totally rigged and Crooked Hillary Clinton and Deborah Wasserman Schultz will not allow Bernie Sanders to win, and now that I am the presumptive Republican nominee, it seems inappropriate that I would debate the second place finisher. ... I will wait to debate the first place finisher in the Democratic Party, probably Crooked Hillary Clinton, or whoever it may be.”