God Willing … A Spike Lee Joint

This week marks both the 5th year anniversary of Katrina and Spike Lee’s return to New Orleans and the people whose stories he helped bring to light in the aftermath of the Republican made disaster.

shadowandact.com

I have watched the 4 hour documentary twice now and am still processing the radical difference in tone Lee’s documentary takes from all the much more celebratory documentaries/news specials produced by mainstream media. (I am also still processing some of the personal stories and the flashbacks Lee’s documentary induced, so we are going to focus on other things in this post.) While some have dismissed Lee’s work as polemic, the results of recent studies on New Orleans cannot be ignored. According to one such research project, white people have returned to New Orleans in greater numbers than black people, mixed race and white neighborhoods have been largely rebuilt or sustained less damage so they were easier to bring back, and white transplants to the area are enjoying a middle class lifestyle that has actually made costs of housing, food, and other essentials inflate beyond the means of original residents. Black residents or former residents in the study have less housing options, less economic security, higher rates of suicide, drug addiction, violence, homelessness, and incarceration. Many cannot and have not returned due to widescale gentrification and intentional rezoning and rebuilding policies that have neglected rebuild in the 9th ward, closed down public housing, and failed to re-open schools in traditionally black, poor, areas of NOLA. There’s is not a story of recovery, it is one of intentional abandonment and current displacement. Add to that the BP spill, which Lee’s film shows is hitting working class and subsistence level creole and immigrant fishermen the hardest and the story of recovery begins to look a lot like a gigantic lie.

In fact, as I watching Spike Lee’s film, I found myself thinking about the tsunami. I was teaching an activism course at the time as well as participating in several Ford funded faculty reading groups. I remember that the campus lit up with concern for tsunami victims and that my class organized a donation drive as part of their final project. All of our book groups were redirected toward discussions of how to help and organizations to support. And all of this was done in the spirit of altruism and deep concern for fellow human beings, not some paternalistic charity model. But when the giving was done, the posters, updates, and discussions came to an end. When the world stopped looking, the government swooped in and used a little known or used statuette to reclaim beach front property and build high end resorts, restaurants, and other tourist oriented businesses to capitalize on the new found interest in the region. Like former first Lady Bush’s comment that the hurricane would help Nola finally get rid of its problems and her son’s belief that this was an ideal opportunity for big businness, the post-tsunami government felt the same way, displacing thousands of working class and subsistence survivors permanently in the name of “progress” “recovery” and “rebuild”. And also like Nola, the story is not solely about victims and re-victimization, many people received some aid or even enough to start to rebuild their lives, but the story only Lee seems willing to tell is about how many did not.

hbo.com

As someone who has kept a close eye on Katrina and its aftermath, someone who like many black Americans took to heart how easily the national and state government could turn on black people with guns, militarization, and life-ending indifference, nothing in Spike Lee’s film is new. There have been multiple rallies over the loss of low income and public housing in New Orleans reported here on the blog. The mental health crisis hit home for me as someone with family members who served both displaced Nola residents and then people still in the city during and after the initial crisis and I wrote about the clinics that were trying to make up the slack for the closing of the only mental health crisis center in poor black neighborhoods as well as what that closure meant over 1.5 years ago here on the blog. And while Lee’s film only touches briefly on women’s issues in favor of focusing on the violence being experienced by young black men in the city, I also wrote about the particular impact Nola had had on women and children and the work that New Orleans’ based feminists were doing to create women’s centers, health clinics (which granted could not find a trans positive physician but were not guilty of “killing trans women” as some claimed on the internet), domestic and sexual violence support groups and safe spaces, and feminist libraries here on the blog. So having spent so much time writing about what is going on in New Orleans, Spike Lee’s film seems fairly mild to me given what he could have included. He did not indict the Red Cross, who as I wrote here, sat on housing funds for displaced people until the cycle for that funding almost ran out. Nor did he talk about the 100,000s of pounds of aid that was never distributed, looted, or shipped elsewhere by FEMA when doing his comparisons to Haiti in the film, whose people, as I wrote here and everyone else wrote about in the news, suffered and died waiting for dispersal of aid. He did not mention the number of women who have been raped, beaten, or abused by their partners, strangers, or the police during and after Katrina as part of a predictable trend in crisis and crisis aftermath around the world; but of course, in this case, I think that was because Spike seldom mentions women’s issues in his films. Nor did his discussion of medical needs in the community extend to the discussion of what happened to both the HIV population and trans people whose access to meds was limited during Katrina until queer and inclusive clinics stepped in and whose access now remains under-reported or addressed.

So why such animosity or ambivalence about Lee’s version of events vs the happy-go-lucky promos flooding my tv every night for 5 years later specials? Why is it that when interviewers bring up the issues that remain, intelligent reporters like Brian Williams respond by talking about all the good going on in New Orleans? Is it because we need a feel good story after so much devastation? Or is it because, once again, we as a culture want to minimize longstanding racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and transmisogyny and how it played out in the aftermath of Katrina, not just the event itself? And more to the point, we want to be able to blame the victims who are still suffering so that we don’t have to ask why they are suffering, who benefits from their suffering, and why prosperity seems to be mapped on racial as well as class lines?

Ultimately, I think it is both impulses. I think we do want to see a New Orleans that has returned to the magic and splendor of its hey day. We want to honor survivors of Katrina who say they want to talk about growth and recovery not pain and abandonment, they want their city to be remembered for the good times not the lows. But we are also invested in a narrative in which black people are always guilty and poor people have invited their own suffering and where the people and systems that abuse them go unnoticed or with a simple slap on the wrist. More so than ever, this nation has divided in ways that highlight racial hatred and victim blaming and shifted the language of oppression to crown the oppressors as the most oppressed. Spike Lee’s film refuses that narrative with a force that makes it hard to ignore and so we are left with the only dismal most people can imagine “polemic” because after all, it is Spike Lee. But I would encourage you to watch this film carefully. Pay attention to the cited studies and actions and then look them up yourself (using more than wikipedia and blog posts). I think you’ll find that Spike Lee’s “If God is Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” is quite tame compared to what is really going on in New Orleans.

The film next airs on HBO this Friday and Sunday and will play throughout the month

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Some specific issues I will raise in a follow up post

  1. the smugness of Brownie, which seemed to mirror BP
  2. Lee’s discussion of BP which will forever stand for “Bitch Please” from here on out
  3. LSU’s implication in the closing of the major hospital serving poor and working class people of color and mental health patients in the name of profit
  4. why Brad Pitt seems to be the mainstream media’s take away moment from this film  … grrr …
  5. how this event sent the message that black lives don’t matter & what Lee’s film tells us about the people left to survive after such an intimate lesson

Haiti Still Rebuilding

I promised to write a post on the first of every month about Haiti until the crisis was over. I missed last month because I was just generally MIA the entire month anyway. That does not mean that rebuilding in Haiti is not still going on or that people in the U.S. have largely moved on to the next thing. In the face of the Gulf Crisis in particular, including flooding in the surrounding areas, it’s hard not to see why compassion fatigue has set in. But, as is my way, I would not doubt that fatigue would wipe Haiti off the immediacy map anyway.

So what is going on in Haiti?

1. Wycleff Jean for President …

limelight.org

First Wycleff Jean has made it known he is considering running for President. When Fernandez originally took office in the Dominican Republic there was some complaint that he was from New York not RD. His focus on transnational issues, “Americanized” sense of blackness and identity, and his progressive ideas were all things that his opponents attacked in his original campaign and to a lesser extent in his subsequent campaign that ousted Mejia. Some people have pointed to Fernandez’s success in uniting factions in RD and changing racial and socio-political discussions for the better, particular in terms of his ability to advocate for a more respectful place at the table of U.S. foreign affairs, as a reason why transmigrants might make more globally successful presidents for the Caribbean. Given that Haiti shares the island, comparisons between Jean’s potential bid and Fernandez’s presidency seem to make some sense as well. However, Jean is first and foremost an entertainer not someone deeply involved in politics and governance like Fernandez. His charity has come under scrutiny more than once over financial issues that range from general lack of knowledge about establishing proper status for the organization and pay structures for its employees to the more disconcerting accusations about the use of funds. His own involvement has been critiqued from multiple sides and should be evaluated in the context of his newly stated political aspirations. Regardless of whether you see him being politicized by his needed philanthropic work in Haiti or his charity work as a stepping stone to a political career, I think questions have to be asked about Yele in light of this announcement. And I don’t think asking those questions distracts from the work Yele or Jean himself did in Haiti during the earthquake crisis; work this blog helped to highlight. More than that, if you do interpret the bulk of questions surrounding Yele as lack of knowledge, then how does that reflect on Jean’s ability to run the much larger budget of a nation-state?

2. Women Rebuild

Women were amongst the hardest hit by the earthquake. Not only did they make up 50% of the heads of households in Haiti but they were early reports of sexual assault and child trafficking that spoke to the targeting of women in the aftermath by relief workers and opportunists alike. Women and children also outnumbered men in the relief camps but footage coming out of Haiti pointed to several young men bullying them out of food lines and food, water, medicine and sanitation shortages leading to the death of newborns, pregnant women, and small children, leaving surviving mothers with classic PTS and depression. These conditions have been documented around the world in refugee camps that do not provide enough security or gender related supported to women. However, both women and men involved in the relief effort in Haiti have pointed out basic ways that women can and should be supported:

The Merlet International Feminist Solidarity Camp, named after a famous Haitian feminist killed in the earthquake, also worked to combat some of these issues. It was organized by women’s groups in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the LACs region, and the Global Fund for Women with the goal of ultimately being run exclusively by Haitian women. The camp helped coordinate women’s centered relief efforts coming through the Dominican at a time when relief was still sitting untouched at the Haitian airport. It also provided a holistic health center for women to deal with both physical and emotional issues related to the earthquake.

Both International women’s organizations and NGOs within Haiti and the Dominican Republic began helping women in Haiti from the beginning of the Earthquake. I mentioned these organizations in prior posts including links to their donation lines but here is a video of the work that was being done in February.

MUDHA’s work is particularly important because it is a well-established women’s organization focusing on women’s rights and equality in both RD and Haiti. Their work in the Dominican Republic in particular has been critical to ensuring both Haitian women and Haitian descended women receive services, funding, education, and health care that have largely been denied them in the Dominican Republic. Their partnership in the relief efforts with Haitian Women for Haitian Refugees also helped bring a needed transnational element to their work, including support of Haitian women fleeing the earthquake, Haitian transmigrants in the U.S. and RD, and women’s organizing in general. You can read more about the efforts women are engaging in on the border of the Dominican and Haiti from the perspective of the Director of the Women and Health Collective here (Spanish only). As you can see from the interview, the majority of the displaced are women and they face major antihaitianismo hurtles despite the relief efforts.

According to Dir. Galvan, 6 months later, Haitian women also continue to face problems with lighting and security in camps in Haiti despite the promise of money to fix these issues. They also do not have enough access to jobs, food, or milk for their children. Their complaints about sexual assault have not been taken seriously enough nor have changes to protect against further assault. Nor has enough money been spent on women’s specific mental health needs in the aftermath. Worse there is limited to no access to birth control or post-birth or post-abortion services in the camps. Yet women are banding together to demand representation, services, and inclusion in the rebuild including 7 demands presented specifically to the government and the relief workers in Haiti.

Revista Amauta/Roberto Guerra

While women centered NGOs and women’s organizations are small but strong in Haiti, many of them do not represent queer women, and women make up a very small percentage of the government itself. Since the government is re-establishing its ability to make decisions about funding and rebuilding efforts in the aftermath, female representation in the government is critical. Haitian women have begun to advocate for themselves in light of this situation, along with pre-existing women’s political organizations, Vital Voices has emerged as an organization by and for Haitian women that is helping fund the campaigns of over 70 women for office. They are also working on educating women about political participation and its import and getting women registered to vote. Vital Voices receives training and money from international sources but also provides training and leadership from within Haiti; meaning, that they are in charge of the organization and work on an exchange of skills model rather than allow international funders to dictate what happens.

The Centre National des Equipments, which is in charge of government sponsored infrastructure rebuilding, has also centered women in the rebuild efforts. The majority of their workers are women and in the aftermath of the earthquake leadership has extended job and training offers to women in the capital. According to the Seattle Times, 85 trainees/65 women were on site clearing rubble within hours of the earthquake. Their work, and CNE’s in general, is helping to challenge gender stereotypes about women’s work, leadership, and strength. With so many displaced women, it is also providing an opportunity to regain self-sufficiency and develop new and needed skills. CNE’s salaries also represent middle class incomes for women who may not have other entry points into similar economic status. Though it comes with the potential for engendered conflict between men and women, and even domestic violence, it also represents economic freedom and the chance to make new lives for women and their children at a time when those lives seem nearly impossible.

In the day to day existence of Haitian post-earthquake, women have also taken on many of the roles ensuring the nation’s survival. These women have provided food, education, and care in communities that were the last to receive international aid as well as those still depending on displaced camps. According to Bell, they are

Street vendors, factory workers, farmers, professionals, and unemployed, they compose a national force which has sustained hungry, wounded, and abandoned survivors. Though they may be on the razor-thin edge of survival themselves, though they may already be caring for many, women have been finding and cooking food for strangers, taking in children left orphaned and others left homeless, and seeking out medical assistance and health care or improvising their own. Some have taken it upon themselves to organize education or recreation sessions for children, who have little to do since Port-au-Prince’s schools have closed. ‘It’s just our social obligation,’ said one woman.

These women, and all of the women involved in organizing in Haiti, represent individual and collective efforts that speak to the power and resilience of Haitian women in the face of tragedy.

Here are the donation links I posted in the past for women’s organizations working in Haiti.