Revolution #100, September 9, 2007

The Real Story Behind Bush’s Photo-Op

It was one of those “news moments” that make you just yell out in anger and total disgust: The second anniversary of Katrina, George W. Bush in New Orleans for a photo op. And not just anywhere in New Orleans. He’s in the Lower Ninth Ward, the poor, Black neighborhood hardest hit and most thoroughly abandoned right after Katrina and in the two years since. And not just anywhere in the Ninth Ward. Bush is at Martin Luther King Elementary—a school that authorities did all they could to PREVENT from being rebuilt. Bush has the arrogance and nerve to stand in this school and say, “We’re still paying attention. We understand.”

The mainstream press dutifully helped deliver Bush’s message, failing to even mention the real story behind the re-opening of this school—that the ONLY reason the school was saved was because people fought AGAINST government officials every step of the way.

Six months after Katrina, thousands of student volunteers, organized by Common Ground, came to New Orleans during spring break to clean up. On March 16, 2006, outside MLK School, 300 gathered wearing Tyvek suits and respirators, chanting and holding up signs. 85 volunteers risked arrest for trespassing by going inside the padlocked school. The government had refused to do anything to clean up the school and volunteers and residents basically said: If the government won’t do it, we’re going to take things into our own hands.

The volunteers raked leaves and debris from the entrance and pounded tools on the pavement. Then as police gathered across the street, they entered the building and began scooping up piles of mud and debris. Outside, 150 Howard University students joined the crowd.

A couple of weeks later I was in New Orleans with another crew of students cleaning up MLK school. Authorities had finally allowed volunteers back into the school. When I first went inside, it was heartbreaking to see the classrooms that had been allowed to sit there for over six months. Everything had been rotting and getting toxic while the government refused to clean it up… and then refused to let volunteers clean it up! Organizers told me that even after volunteers were allowed inside all kinds of obstacles were put in their way. For example, they were made to sift through pile after pile of noxious books and school supplies, literally counting everything, down to every crayon and pencil, for insurance and government bureaucratic purposes.

Upon entering, the first thing I encountered was a large dead fish on the steps which had purposely been left untouched as a stark reminder of the flood and government neglect. I almost fainted because of the poisonous fumes when I lifted my breathing mask up for a few seconds while I shot photographs of the dozens of student volunteers filling wheelbarrows of soggy books, papers, and toys. After two days, the last couple of classrooms had been completely cleared out.

Student volunteers accomplished in a few weeks a major step toward re-opening the school—IN SPITE of the school board, city officials and other authorities who tried to stand in the way or sabotaged this with padlocks, the threat of arrests, bureaucracy, and official predictions that it would take three to five years to repair the damages.

What stands out in all this is the utter worthlessness of the system—AND not only the need but the possibility of revolution, and of a radically different society.

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