adventuresinthedeepsouthofamerica2012

Just another WordPress.com site

Margaret Thatcher & Ronald Reagan – A Requiem for the People – The 80’s


 Margaret Thatcher & Ronald Reagan – A Requiem for the People –The 1980’s

In 1979 Britain, Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government was elected. Two years later, Ronald Reagan’s Republican government also took office. What happened during their simultaneous reign was an extraordinary confluence of political ideology and friendship that rebuilt the special relationship between the countries. At the same time their polices had a major economic impact on black and poor communities on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both PM Thatcher and President Reagan were supporters of the deregulation of public institutions and they reformed the role of government and became champions of privatisation. The military played a big role in their popularity in actual conflict or in the cold war with Communism. They both believed in personal responsibility to rise above adversity and knew how to play this message to their political base.
Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female premier and had swept to power by promising economic stability and trade union reform. Britain had ground to a halt following strike action in protest to Callaghan’s Labour government in 1978 called the Winter of Discontent and PM Thatcher was intent and succeeded in crushing the power of the trade-unions. Her policies would affect a generation of people’s lives for richer or for poorer. She privatised the natural monopolies of gas, electric and water as well public institutions such as British Telecom and British Rail. She removed many of the restrictions on the financial markets to free the economic markets, which led to the financial powerbase in the former industrial wasteland of East London which is now Canary Wharf. She began a programme of selling off council housing allowing thousands to own their own home for the first time and fuelling a housing boom. However fewer new houses were built creating a housing shortage on local authority waiting lists. Many manufacturing jobs were lost in the industrial centres of Britain, which meant those who did not take the academic route out of poverty found their escape route blocked.
Thatcher’s government introduced tougher law and order measures and curbs on immigration. This reflected her concerns of Britain being ‘swamped’ by immigrants during her election campaign, which but was eerily reminiscent of Enoch Powell’s inflammatory speech. [Source No? http://www.youtube.comwatch?v=sHhKI5ijnxQ%5D.
The Iron Lady emerged victorious after a war with Argentina in the disputed seas of the South Atlantic called the Falklands Islands. A domestic war continued with the Provisional IRA (Irish Republican Army) who had received financial backing for their bombing campaign from Irish-Americans through Noraid. The IRA attempted to assassinate her and her cabinet at the Conservative Party Conference at Brighton in 1984, which left five dead. As well as the military and special forces there was The Police Force who were directly in the frontline of violent disturbances such as the miners’ strike of 1984-85, the poll tax riot of 1990 and a number of inner-city riots throughout the early-1980’s. (See Chapter 9)
Her political soul-mate President Reagan’s revelled in his role as leader of the nation. He was determined to give Americans confidence in themselves, something that had been eroded after the presidencies of Nixon, Ford and Carter.
Reagan’s economic programmes dubbed Reaganomics, introduced several polices that meant America’s poor were worse off and reduced welfare spending. Tax cuts were given to the richest with the theory that they would use their wealth in spending that would trickle-down to the poorer communities. Their deregulation of the financial system to free the markets also made huge financial gains for the private sector. Some commentators argue that in these heady days lies the portent of the 2008 banking crisis and current economic decline. There was not enough financial control by successive governments and it has been the public sector through its local governments that have had to pay the bill for private gain from the public purse.
 Maggie, Ronnie and Me
Black people on both sides of the Atlantic were statistically to be found at the bottom of the economic ladder PM Thatcher and President Reagan’s policies had affected them directly. Basic services worsened and unemployment, poverty rates, poorer health and education outcomes and crime increased leaving rising black numbers in prison. The use of and selling of drugs increased, especially when the highly addictive cocaine derivative crack reached Britain after devastating black communities in America. Relations with the police deteriorated especially amongst the young and increasingly a generation became cut-off from the wider society, with their own life-style, culture and codes of living in gangs. Many refused to reap the sacrifices of the civil-rights era and simply did not use their hard-fought right to vote. Poverty was colour-blind and many people were dropping out and tuning into crime, drugs or both to become socially excluded.
New words were used by the media to summarise the dis-enfranchised. Dole scroungers, welfare cheats and the Underclass for the underserving poor. Welfare queens were used to castigate the growing number of single mothers. Some got rich on the nation’s assets with the selling off of the Post Office creating British Telecom and selling off of the railways which my family had worked in. Those who were (or escaped across the social divide had their own media branding, with words such as Yuppies (Young Upwardly Mobile Professionals) and Buppies their black equivalent. With their flash cars, sharp, Miami Vice styled outfits and use of brick-size mobile phones there were plenty of winners as well as losers from these new social and employment conditions.
It was into this environment that I emerged as another statistic. Failed comprehensive education, living in sub-standard housing, unemployed, a teenage father, no money, in debt and worst of all I felt I had little control over my bleak future. Of the country I lived in, it felt like I was watching a family at Christmas, unwrapping their presents and carving a turkey whilst I watched with my face pressed against the glass, my stomach and rage growling. There was too higher price to pay for the prosperity of the rich, and fast-emerging new rich that made up Thatcher’s Britain which was adopting the American system of winners and losers. Enterprise appeared to be valued over welfare at any price; it was a fresh war on the same narrative of the struggles of rich and poor class warfare that have been highlighted since the writings of Karl Marx.
From America I was hearing similar tales the in rap music of social poets like Public Enemy. Both countries appeared to be becoming more divided between the haves and the have -nots fuelled by the words of PM Thatcher who once said ‘there is no society only individuals.’ Reagan’s ended the cold war with the Soviet Union which led to a global rejoicing at the fall of the Berlin wall and communism but his spending on the military, began the spiral of huge government debt. His policy of reducing the role of federal government however has become the Tea-party’s key single issue.
The Iron Lady and the Great Communicator continue to divide opinion, but both have enduring legacies. For their supporters it evokes a time of enterprise and strength, where their leaders commanded the world’s attention proud of their nation’s values they espoused. But many in Britain and America’s poorer communities never got to share in the wealth they created and are still feeling the scars and the impact of their actions.

Extract From my book ‘My American Odyssey – From the Windrush to the White House’ Revised 11th April 2013 following the death of Margaret Thatcher 8th April 2013
Roger Griffith

Advertisements

Why The World Needs Four More Years of President Obama


WHY THE WORLD NEEDS FOUR MORE YEARS OF PRESIDENT OBAMA

Far be it from me to stand in the way of democracy, but on the eve of the most important vote for a generation I have to urge the American public to return President Obama to office for another four years.

Like many I shed tears when he was elected in November 2008, and then travelled to Washington DC to witness first-hand his inauguration. Some may say I’m biased after watching Dr Martin Luther King’s living incarnation stride purposefully into the White House and I accept that charge. However I prefer to say that I am part of a global family that Obama not only reached in America but touched hearts and souls across the world.

After the balloons and ribbons had been taken down however it became clear that reality would not only bite but take chunks out of the dream of hope and change.

First came the Tea Party and their coded call to ‘Take back America!’ We are in the 21st century and thankfully outlandish racist comments are deemed unacceptable. However those with a trained eye could see, that just as slavery had mutated to segregation in the past, America was entering yet another phase of the virulent germ of racism. 

Next came the personal attacks, where Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News waged war against Obama on their airwaves through a series of right-wing hosts and politicians. The mis-truths were relentless ‘He’s not born in America! He’s a Muslim! He wants to give away our money to those who are not entitled! Together the American right gathered and labelled him with the worst words you could call an American politician… a socialist! My comment would be that if Obama is a socialist he is a lousy one as his light-touch regulations and hand-outs to Wall Street have proven. Lastly came Mitt Romney a Mormon millionaire and Republican challenger whose stance on a series of policies, give human substance to the term shape-shifting.  

Whether you thought that President Obama walks on water or is now leading America into oblivion, there lies a sense of disappointment, that he has not lived up to his promise. This has much to do with the unfair burdens of expectation that we all placed upon his sole shoulders.

His record depends on whose story you believe. American unemployment is stubbornly high, but in a global economic downturn could have been worse without his stimulus package. The war is in Iraq has officially ended but drone attacks continue in Afghanistan. Osama Bin Laden is dead but Guantanamo Bay is still open. No American tanks rolled during the Arab spring uprising yet atrocities continue in Syria. He has allowed gays to fight in the military without persecution yet stonewalled on climate change. Wall St got a helping hand from the government but many are in poverty and in receipt of food stamps.

His first policy was to sign an equal pay act for women in tribute to his Mum, wife Michelle and his daughters, but the recession has meant more women are unemployed under Obama. Millions more Americans have access to healthcare but many wonder whether he went far enough. The key issue of the economy has been difficult to turn around however two unpaid for wars that have cost trillions are now on the books. As I try to remind my American friends and family during my visits this year, even George Osborne can’t disagree with the analysis that apart from a few emerging powers like Brazil and India, much of the global economy is at best bumping along the bottom of a worldwide recession.

So the truth is he is a politician not blessed with superpowers and as one likely to delight and disappoint in equal measure. Obama has spent his life bridging gaps and as the son of a black Kenyan and white mother from rural Kansas, he is used to building coalitions and consensus, something that made his path to the White House so appealing to so many. However middle ground is not always popular in the White House, where the Power of Presidency must not only be seen and heard but felt.  

My case for four more years of Obama is based not on the negative campaigning that both candidates have shamelessly spent billions attacking each other on but simply this. As those four years have unfolded I have seen the positive effects of his presidency at first hand. At the community radio station and social enterprise where I work in St Pauls, Bristol – Ujima Radio, we have been able to engage young people from all backgrounds, races and places about politics in ways which mean something to them. We have informed them that the right to vote and represent the people is an important democratic principle which many have died for and not just something that rich white men do. In my travels to America to research my book From The Windrush to the White House I have seen in jazz-joints in New Orleans to barber-shops in New York the pride and self-esteem of black people rise. It is still remains a remarkable feat that less than fifty years after they were denied the vote a black man is running the country.  

But most of all Obama has proved that the impossible can be possible. That as in both the London Olympics when we cheered our heroes and heroines, that regardless of our differences, issues and indeed politics we can unite and celebrate the embodiment of what the human spirit can produce when we all pull together rather than push apart.

It is for that reason we need President Barack Hussein Obama to finish the job he promised to deliver and be more than just a fleeting dream.

Roger Griffith – Author of From The Windrush to the White House – Chair and Presenter on Ujima Radio CIC

Image

Postcards From the Deep South: No 5 – The Selma to Montgomery March


Wrote this for a newspaper different style. Enjoy

============================================================================

Walking in the Footsteps of Giants-

The Selma to Montgomery Annual Bridge March: 4th March 2012 

by Roger Griffith

“Sweet home Alabama” goes the song. For many in the Deep South although it may have been home it certainly wasn’t sweet, as they tackled the legacy of slavery that was segregation. No greater man then Nelson Mandela would cite the civil rights struggle led by Dr King as an inspiration in his fight against Apartheid. So I find myself here to pay tribute to the many unsung men, women and children of all races who literally devoted their lives to the battle for social justice. 

The first weekend of March each year a commemorative event called the ‘Selma Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee’ is held attracting several high-profile participants. These have included the then Senator Barack Obama and President Bill Clinton.  The Olympic torch was symbolically carried across the bridge on its way to the Atlanta games in 1996.

I begin my journey in Selma at the foot of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on US Highway 80. Selma was the scene of ‘Bloody Sunday’ where on 7th March 1965 violent beatings were handed out to marchers by Alabama state-troopers.

  • Selma 1965

Selma had been chosen as a target by Dr King’s team and local activists to highlight the lack of voting rights for African-Americans which included race-biased literacy tests, poll taxes and intimidation. The events in Selma were preceded by the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson who was killed protecting his family from the feared Alabama state-troopers. Thousands of demonstrators gathered to march the fifty miles from Selma to the Alabama state capital Montgomery. They had begun their peaceful protest in prayer leaving from the Brown Chapel AME Church and began to walk up the incline of the Edmund Pettus Bridge on US Highway 80. They found their path blocked by a sea of blue shirted armed state-troopers, some on horseback, whilst crowds of white segregationists looked on as if it were sport. When demonstrators refused to disperse, tear-gas canisters were released and in the melee that ensued, the state-troopers beat them mercilessly with their Billy-clubs and electric cattle prods causing scores of injuries. This was just the beginning and it took two further marches before the demonstrators reached Montgomery. However their refusal to be defeated would claim the lives of white Unitarian Minister James Reeb who was shot in the head by Ku Klux Klan members and housewife Viola Liuzzo whose only crime was to drive some of the black marcher’s home.

  • Selma 2012

The leader of the march in 1965 was civil-rights campaigner John Lewis who would become the black congressmen for Georgia, himself the victim of several brutal beatings during the civil rights struggle. As I walked toward the towering infamous metal struts of the bridge, I saw thousands gathered filing across the bridge. I am warmed not only by the spring sunshine but at the show of global unity through the presence of many Caribbean flags held by local school-children, including my parent’s Guyanese flag fluttering proudly in the wind. The mood was respectful yet jubilant as we started on the short incline and across the bridge to walk in the footsteps of those giants that had gone before us. I look down toward the flowing Alabama River beneath me and suddenly it’s as if I am transported back to those infamous black and white images.  I imagine the crunching sounds of truncheons on flesh and bone and watching racists braying savagely, delighting in the mayhem. I envisage the acrid taste of tear gas swirling in the air and the ensuing blind panic of the protestors trying to flee to safety through the gas to avoid a charging State-troopers horse or truncheon. I shake off an involuntary shudder and am returned to the present. With chants of “we shall overcome” ringing in my ears I bow at the monument to the marchers and later witness a new memorial unveiled to a humbled Reverend Jesse Jackson.  

  • Montgomery 1965-2012

Dr King had missed the first march in Selma but he and thousands of protesters decided to finish the march as a tribute. They marched for a week camping by roadside by night, running the gauntlet of racists by day. Dr King ended the march in Montgomery the city where Rosa Parks had begun the bus boycott in 1955. He symbolically spoke on the very same steps where the Confederacy was founded after refusing President’s Lincoln request to end slavery. The man standing by Dr King’s side on the fateful day he was shot in Memphis, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Martin Luther King III and the Reverend Al Sharpton recreate Dr King’s gesture just yards from Dr King’s old church the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church. They called not only to be watchful against racism, but also for the fight for social and economic justice to continue in the face of tough new immigration laws, new voter restrictions, growing numbers of African-Americans in prison and clampdowns on workers’ rights.

  • Interview with Reverend Jesse Jackson

After receiving an award for his work from the people of Selma, I caught a brief moment with Reverend Jackson and asked him about the global significance of Selma and its impact.  ‘Selma raised the right to vote and human rights standard. It redefined voting as a human right around the world. So the blood shed in Selma unleashed a force that made democracy go viral. So we fight for democracy whether in Britain or South Africa it’s the same movement.’

It was a truly humbling experience to be at the scene where blood and many sacrifices were shed to ensure I have the right to vote. President Johnson passed the Voters Rights Act in August 1965 – the same month of my birth – and later that year the first Race Relations legislation was passed in Britain and a reminder to always cast a vote. Regardless if you choose not to select a candidate, it is still a right that many around the globe are still fighting for.

It is nearly 150 years since the end of slavery in America, 47 years since the Selma march led to President Johnson to sign in the Voter’s rights Act of 1965 and there is an African-American president in the White House, yet being here today I realise the struggle for equality continues.

18th March 2012

Postcards From the Deep South of America No 4 – The Good, The Bad & The Re-building of New Orleans


 I vowed to return to the areas which had been devastated by Hurricane Katrina and with the frolics of Mardi Gras over, I undertook the true purpose of my visit to see how the communities most affected by Hurricane Katrina had been affected. The communities of St Bernard’s Parish, Holy Cross, The 9th Ward and Lower 9th Ward in the east of the city also provides a window on America’s social issues, so seven years after Katrina and five years after my last visit I returned to see how the rebuilding process had fared.

 Visit to the Lower 9th Ward

 I began in the Lower 9th Ward and much I have a personal loathing for the southern tendency to name many of their monuments after people who were intent on keeping segregationist Apartheid like systems in place if they had won the civil war even that is preferably to naming a community after something that sounds like someone couldn’t be bothered to name.

 I was welcomed by a feisty Canadian Laura Paul of lowernine.org who are one of the many non-profit organisations that have come to help re-build these communities. That rebuilding process has been boosted by celebrities such as Brad Pitt and Sean Penn who have utilised their fame to ‘Make it Happen’ raising awareness so that donors and volunteers can help to return these proud communities a sense of home.

 At first many failed to return, mainly because there was very little for them to return back for. Whilst the areas in the French Quarter and Downtown are looking as pristine as ever there is very little to show for the $80bn bill that Katrina left the city with.

Laura is a Montreal native and arrived here having quit her financial role in Corporate America and came to New Orleans to volunteer. She vividly remembers entering the region on the same I-10 road I arrived from. Only when she was got to Biloxi, Mississippi the bridge was missing. ‘It was like a scene in a disaster movie, an eight-lane highway just ending in the river!’ It reminded me that not just New Orleans had been hit several other towns and states too. Laura was no different to any of the locals in treating strangers with suspicion and inquisitiveness (due to my accent everyone expects me to be white.) However I quickly gained her confidence especially when I explained my community consultancy work which she said was much needed in the city. She began by giving me a list of failings since Hurricane Katrina. Insurance abuses where homes that had been swept away that had been asked for collision damage certification, government trailers (temporary housing) that had caused illness, local labour programmes that were supposed to have 35% quotas but had less than 5%, the litany of grievances were lengthy. The one thing I hadn’t expected was the bureaucracy in place. Simple things like home deeds and birth certificates which we were missing took at least 18 months to replace. ‘It’s difficult to understand just how difficult it is to get these documents when your home and your family have been scattered to the four corners of the earth.’ Laura explained.  

Laura takes me on a tour around the area starting with the Lower 9th has a high proportion of homeowners 65%) which makes the rebuilding and identifying which property belongs to who difficult to address for the authorities. The first thing that strikes me and is also true to a lot of homes of the south is how similar they are in structure to the housing in the West Indies. One and two storey homes are dotted about on plots of land with some are built on the ground and some raised on concrete stilts away from any future floods ‘People tell me this doesn’t look like America.’ Laura says and I agree. my Mum would be right at home here in one of the rebuilt newer developments as she would where she has lived in Georgetown, Guyana or in St Phillip’s Barbados. 

Whilst avoiding the many pot-holes Laura points to the Jackson Barracks, which is the home of Louisiana National Guard preposterously positioned in the Lower 9th. The Jackson Barracks was also flooded (the National Guard were stationed in Iraq at the time) but their buildings have been totally rebuilt at a cost of over $300 million. As I Iook behind the security fencing I might as well be looking at another country. I’m reminded of the many all-inclusive luxury complexes in the West Indies as a place totally divorced off from its locality. The close proximity of the rebuilt government barracks – remember the levee failure was down to the Army Corps – overlooking the hotchpotch of housing on the other side of the fence fuels Laura’s anger and I sympathise.  As outsiders to America this is red meat for us both, coming from solid but admittedly disappearing links to social justice and government provision.

Later I return alone to talk to a group of male-workers who are giving Steve a local home-owner a hand to repair his devastated home.  As we speak another tour bus drives by and I feel awkward but Kevin and Mike are relaxed and soon tell me how hard it was to settle after Katrina. ‘People were sent to Houston and damn near every other place in America without being told where they were heading, but man this is home to us.’ Kevin a proud African-American is wearing an Obama T-shirt. ‘How is he doing?’ I can’t resist asking. ‘Oh he doing the best he can, with the way things are…’ Kevin replies succinctly showing more understanding for the President than any Fox News reporter would give.  

 The Village Community Centre  

A few days later I’m at The Village in the Lower 9th at a community project that doubles as a community centre for the local community. Spring break is next week and scores of volunteers will arrive from around America to help the locals. I’m shown their sleeping quarters which resemble barracks as it holds around forty Red Cross beds, which are more comfortable than they look.

Whilst I wait, Slim an ageing but lithe Creole ‘born and bred in the Lower 9th’ takes me on a walking tour. Slim has orange-brown skin and world travelled grey eyes and is proud that he has visited London. His Creole blood lines have African-American, American Indian (Blackfoot and Cherokee) and Caucasian ties.  As we walk he points out the derelict buildings on the main road. ‘That used to be KFC that used to be the cleaners, that was the building merchants …’ the list goes on. The only fully rebuilt buildings are the numerous churches from every denomination all of whom run community programmes. We reach the Cast Iron Soul Food Restaurant, a café really, and again I feel like I’m back to the basic rural charm of the West Indies. Even though it’s a hot day I opt for the local delicacy, Gumbo Soup. The soup is delicious boiled down okra, tomatoes, bell peppers, crab claws, pork, beef, German sausage, prawns, onions, rice laced with a variety of spices. I wasn’t even that hungry but few of you will be surprised that moments later I was soon shaking the last drops of the bowl into my upturned mouth. The female owner comes out to greet me as news of the Englishmen in the restaurant drifts into the kitchen exchanged with beautiful aromas. I already know the answer but I’m compelled to ask anyway. ‘Where are the city officials?’ ‘They uptown,’ comes the short reply (Uptown being about five miles away Downtown – don’t ask.) It’s only five miles and fifteen minute drive but it might as well be a city away. I’m reminded of the arguments I used to have with my housing bosses and my mantra remains true, ‘If you want to know what is going on in any area, you have to get your boots on the ground.’

Five hours late (you thought I was bad), the Village co-ordinator a portly Mac McClendon arrives. he has been at the hospital where a relative has been unwell and is noticeably tired but apologetic. Mac also takes me through the labyrinth of New Orleans politics and that the Village receives even less funding than most of the other’s relying entirely on volunteers and on this we make a connection as I give him an outline of running a community radio station, to garner local interest. He spares Laura’s organisation but is largely critical of other volunteer organisations and their interaction with the local community. ‘Before Katrina there were 10 community organisations now there are 36.’ On the slow rebuilding he says ‘Anywhere in the world real estate near water 15 minutes from Downtown is prime-time location and what I’m telling you is that this place is being left to rot and then the developers will clean up.’ I’ve a personal loathing for conspiracies, but this conspiracy has plenty of supporting evidence. We tour St Bernard’s Parish which is 95% white and was hit hardest. All the pleasantries of suburban America have been restored through the infrastructure of good roads, banking institutions, shopping malls, fast food joints, restaurants and most importantly a state or the art new school. ‘Look at that sports-field it’s beautiful we supposed to have eight schools rebuilt in the Lower 9th we got one.’ On this occasion however Mac saves his criticism not for the people of St Bernard’s but the local people failing to make decisions at the community meetings he organises. ‘We argue over where to place the fire station, over in St Bernard’s they managed to put their differences aside and work together.’ A familiar tale I think as news of St Pauls Carnival’s decision reaches me from the UK.      

Re-Constructing New Orleans  Post Katrina   

Since my last visit I would expect to see many signs of redevelopment especially in a country with such vast resources and there are signs particularly it has to be said in the predominately white St Bernard’s Parish (95%). But less than two miles down the road in the Lower 9th Ward (95% black) that pace of change seems very slow and depends on whether you can get assistance from benevolent an organisation.

Billions of dollars money has been committed post-Katina but when I ask where the money has gone my answers are met only with a weary shrug and followed by a complex Orwellian labyrinth of tales of corruption, mis-management and conspiracy. Wherever I travel in New Orleans and whoever I talk to corruption is spoken of as a matter of fact. Be it the government agencies handing large rebuilding contracts to major players like Halliburton, who simply took a huge chunk and passed on the contract to others, who sub-divided it up again till there was little left for quality materials, insurance claims that went unpaid, builders ripping off elderly homeowners in these poorer communities to Police taking backhanders for parking offences it appears endemic. 

New Orleans was already a city with failing schools, high crime and unemployment rates and the present global economic downtown doesn’t make it any easier. But this is the richest country in the world that is rightly ready to criticise an African dictator for mis-appropriating funds. But that’s America for you, you can love her for a bit but then she finds a way to disappoint you with her inconsistencies and vast gaps between reality and rhetoric. It’s at time like this as I travel around her borders I have to remember the mantra that this is a nation of contradictions.

 The Good, The Bad & … The Re-building

It’s a clear case of the Good, the Bad and the rebuilding… The good well that goes to Brad Pitt’s Make It Happen Project. The Hollywood Maverick put his good looks to work and has raised $35m in donations to make brand new homes. Hollywood gives you a lot of contacts and as well as Angelina Jolie. Brad encouraged a team of architects to come in and design new homes and there are some wild and wacky structures. For the architects amongst you it’s a bit like a low-rise version of Berlin after the fall of the wall, an architect’s playground with no uniformity and lots of wild and wacky structures. Laura calculates that $35m would last her organisation 140 years as the lowernine.org try to make the most of every cent raised.

The bad is an obvious one seven years on, there are still wrecks of homes and reminders of former lives but the situation has improved since my last visit. However considering in 2007 it resembled Kabul this is not much of a standard-bearer. These husks stand abandoned, unloved, roofs caved in, windows smashed, unhabituated. The negative point to having Hollywood homes in the Lower 9th is that it raises expectations that other organisations cannot begin to match.

The rebuilding is in the commitment given by Laura’s project and Mac’s sterling community work to not just rebuild homes but lives. Both are not devoutly religious but are working as modern day missionaries driven to do something to help simply because they feel they have to and where renumuarion is secondary. As Mac puts it when I ask him why he stays having run successful businesses in the past, he replies simply ‘I’m living my purpose.’ How many of us can say that?

Details of their organisations are:

Laura Paul – http://www.lowernine.org

Mac McClendon – www.lower9thwardvillage.org

Roger Griffith AKA – The G-Man

9th March 2012

Postcards from the Deep South of America No 3 – The Other Side of the Quarter, Hurricane Katrina, Summer 2005


Hello my name is Roger Griffith and I am writer researching about the Deep South of America for my book from the Windrush to the White House. I’m travelling through seven southern US states. Follow me on twitter – rogerg44 and for more information on my book go to http://www.2morrow2day.com/from-the-windrush-to-the-white-house.html

 I first came to New Orleans in 2007 having watched horrified as the coverage came in on TV and then Spike Lee’s excellent HBO documentary When the Levees Broke. The effect of Hurricane Katrina on the people of New Orleans had a vast effect on me, so much so that when it came to me writing my book about America and the Deep South I decided to include an overview of the whole disaster especially for those who aren’t familiar with the story. The following are yet to be edited extracts from my book ‘From the Windrush to the White House – Just to give you a little flavour of the city, the disaster and why I’m here.

CHAPTER SEVEN – LOUISIANA & THE POVERTY STORM OF NEW ORLEANS 

New Orleans – A Unique American city

‘New Orleans, the capital of Louisiana, and the only city or town of importance within the State, is a of considerable interest, from its history, its position, and its general character, so different from that of any other of the United States, or indeed any other place on the American continent.’ Those words could have been written today but were written in 1839 by the former MP turned abolitionist James Silk (J.S.) Buckingham in his book A Journey through the Slave States of North America. Buckingham travelled through the Deep South gathering evidence of ‘the horrifying conditions of slaves and the cruelties of their owners.’[1] Slavery created a boom period for the city, due to its great trading port, making New Orleans the third largest city in America at the time of Buckingham’s visit.

 Over 170 years later, I emerge along Interstate-10 (I-10) and view the famed Superdome dominating the New Orleans skyline. I first came to New Orleans in February 2007; eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina had devastated the city. I was there to experience Mardi Gras but I never forgot the stories of heroism, loss of loved ones, ruined homes, belongings and broken promises that were told to me during my stay. More than any other American city, New Orleans is a city about the other America or as the great creator urban TV chronicles such as The Wire and Treme, David Simon describes it as ‘the America that got left behind.’ Even before Hurricane Katrina New Orleans mixture of urban decay, racial segregation, corrupt politicians, violent crime and economic disparities between rich and poor were largely ignored. When Hurricane Katrina struck in August 2005 it literally blew open a new window of shame in America’s darker history. Nothing in modern day history demonstrates America’s inequality, in one of America’s poorest states and in a city that is predominately black. Hurricane Katrina would for me illustrate that the amount of green dollars that you held could mean the difference between life and death. Whilst I could never claim to know what it was like to survive a hurricane, I could relate to living in the shadow of the masses, largely ignored until a significant issue that made headlines around the world that would capture government’s brief attention as happened with the 1980’s inner city riots. For the residents of New Orleans Hurricane Katrina’s visit in the summer of 2005 that left 1800 dead and destroyed thousands of lives it will never be forgotten.  

Before the Storm

 It was often said by pessimistic predictors that there are three major disasters waiting to befall America. The first occurred with 9/11 and after several attempts the Twin Towers were brought to the ground. If The San Andreas fault ever ruptures the earthquakes that will befall Southern California will need Superman to repair it as he did in the 1977 film. The last of the Doomsday triple-bill, is the failure of the levees in New Orleans leading to a major flood of the city. Sadly this was not only predictable but as the people of New Orleans will tell you preventable. Living in such a hilly city in Bristol I’m often amazed how saucer-flat the city is. New Orleans sits below sea-level and is protected from the waters that border the city by huge concrete barriers called levees.  Imagine you are one of the many poor in a city that has a 60% black population in a city of 500,000. Every day you watch many of your unemployed fellow citizens, passing the signs of urban decay like the cardboard cities of the homeless on daily basis. Imagine living in the bottom of a gigantic shallow bowl surrounded by water and all that protects you from the water are those levees. Imagine due to your poor health or low income that you are incapable of leaving the city and you have to wait in a hospital or nursing home totally dependent on the authorities for survival. Imagine you have no physical means of leaving the city, or – as was told to me – decide to stay to protect your home or look after your loved ones. Imagine one of America’s most violent hurricanes battering Louisiana and the Gulf region. Next imagine the floating debris of the storm like oil-tankers and industrial barges being used like battering rams by Katrina to smash huge holes in those levees. Finally imagine water pouring through those holes and into that shallow bowl that you call home, until it gradually fills up. Then and only then can you begin to imagine what happened when Hurricane Katrina struck.

 Ÿ  Tropical Hurricanes

Each year the World Metrological Organizations has a list of names to christen the world’s hurricanes alternating, between male and female name until it became Katrina turn. Katrina began life in the Caribbean off the coast of the Bahamas on 23rd August 2005, before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. She gave the authorities fair warning of her intention, scything a wave of devastation 400-miles wide causing havoc in  Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, Texas and Alabama before reaching Louisiana. The metrological society has five categories of hurricane with Category 5 its maximum strength. The experts predicted Katrina would reach Category 5 with winds of over 150 mph. The three bodies of water – The Gulf of Mexico, The Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain – that surround New Orleans were whipped into frenzy by the winds and these waters began to flood into the city.  

 In America in times of a disaster there is a complex chain of command between the branches of local, state and federal government. This inhibited the disaster plan causing communication break-down, red-tape and incompetence to shackle much needed scarce resources. After receiving briefings from the weather-experts, President Bush placed in command, one of his oil friends Michael Brown as head of FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency).  The charismatic Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin would have to request help from the Louisiana Governor, Kathleen Blanco, who in turn would request help from President Bush and FEMA. Of those who were ill and left behind many suffered from schizophrenia, or had a mental illness. Many others did not have access to gain information from the Internet, television or radio. Those who like Fox News wondered why the residents didn’t leave after Mayor Nagin’s announcement did not count the 100,000 people who did not own cars, or did not have the money to leave. In addition the mandatory warning came just 24 hours before the heavy rains fell. Those who did leave blocked and clogged the roads and were trapped bumper to bumper in scenes reminiscent of a Hollywood disaster movie. From the very outset it was clear that the local authorities, the government and New Orleans residents themselves were totally unprepared for the chaos Hurricane Katrina was going to bring.

 Returning back to my fellow esteemed British chronicler of the Deep-South J.S. Buckingham, I came across this fascinating entry, written nearly two-hundred years before Katrina would begin its cycle of devastation. ‘The waters sometimes break through… The last calamity of this kind that happened, was in May, 1816, when the levee was broken through at a spot called McCartney’s plantation about nine miles above New Orleans. It spread its devastation, however quite down to the city; and Mr Gibson an eye-witness of the scene, says he remembers seeing hundreds of the dwellings of New Orleans deserted by their owners and tenants and furniture and drowned animals covering the whole of the grounds in the back part of the town.’ As the saying goes the more some things change, the more some things stay the same.

 Roger Griffith

7th March 2012

Postcards from the Deep South: No 2 Mardi Gras Madness


 Hello my name is Roger Griffith and I am writer researching about the Deep South of America for my book from the Windrush to the White House. I’m travelling through seven southern US states. Follow me on twitter – rogerg44 and for more information on my book go to http://www.2morrow2day.com/from-the-windrush-to-the-white-house.html

Arriving in New Orleans after a long 12 hours on the road, with ten of them at the wheel and driving through five US states (it took me six hours to get out of Florida alone literally thought I was on the road to nowhere!) the question I ask myself, is was it worth the trip? Well G-Man you bet your sweet ass is was! There was no to time to get over ‘road-lag’ as the party of Mardi Gras was in full swing. Not that it ever stops here in the Big Easy. As I was to find out the locals lure you with the forbidden fruit of more party’s. ‘Oh you must stay for Jazzfest in May, then Essence (RnB festival) is coming in the summer and next month there is the French Quarter Festival … (the fiends!) the revelry never seems to stop.

Mardi Gras is the jewel in New Orleans crown. Its title is French for Fat Tuesday and it’s held each year just before Ash Wednesday as a prelude to Lent. As its title suggests it is French in origin. Whilst on Shrove Tuesday in Britain we are flipping pancakes, across the globe some of the biggest Carnivals in the world take place in predominately black communities and cities of Port of Span Trinidad, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and here in New Orleans.

I am self-confessed Carnival-holic and veteran of many Carnivals and have been enjoying a good knees-up, since I was five and hoisted high on my late-fathers shoulders through the streets of London at Notting Hill Carnival. My graduation ritual means I go each year as well as dancing long into the early hours of the next morning at St Pauls Carnival, Bristol and once memorably perhaps the best Carnival so far (don’t get annoyed Rio you’re up next) at Trinidad Carnival in Port of Spain in 2001. This was my second Mardi Gras in New Orleans with my first in 2007. That was just eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina had struck and although I had a great time that Mardi Gras seemed to take place by sheer force of human will, with the city refusing to be defeated and many residents still traumatised. This time however the whole city seemed to be ready to party and enjoy the hot sun-filled day.

Like their party sisters in Rio de Janerio and Trinidad these Carnivals are held traditionally forty days before lent and also as in Rio and Trinidad, the locals take their Carnival very, very seriously spending the entire year preparing costumes and floats as well as saving to hand out presents (known as throws). The events had started weeks in advance at balls, ceremonies and pageants with rather surreally the election of the Monarchs – a King and Queen – in a tradition that goes back to the French aristocracy and naturally pre-guillotine! Two of the biggest floats (known as Krewes) Rex and Zulu elect their Monarchs amid lavish rituals and the Krewes double up as social clubs undertaking charity work through the year backed by local businesses. The events turn into several unofficial parties across the city culminating on the parade route in Canal Street in the heart of New Orleans Centre (Downtown).

That surreal feeling stays with you all day as New Orleans is turned into a stage with many people in masks and fancy dress costumes acting out their role. This includes men dressing up as the Ugly Sisters (no remarks please just read!), and others ghosts, ghouls, Goldilocks and even Wicked witches. Even the local New Orleans TV station reporters (Fox, ABC, NBC affiliates) cover the event from morning till night reporting on various places in the city, meaning blissfully there was not a reality TV show in sight. The parades started to roll their way Downtown toward Canal St from 8 am from various points in the city. The big super-Krewes such as Zulu, Rex and Orpheus have hundreds of people attached to them  including full Marching bands, dance troupes and many others in fancy dress costumes pulled by gigantic trucks as seen in Smoky and the Bandit (Editor-showing your age their G-Man!) with smaller ones pulled by tractors.

Unlike say London the whole city gets involved as Mardi Gras is a Louisiana public holiday. The Mayor (a proper one like Boris or Ken not the ceremonial types who opens fetes) receives each Krewe with the other city and state dignitaries at a special staging post. Special welcome is given to New Orleans favourite sons the American Football Team the New Orleans Saints who have their own procession and readily join in the fun.  The Saints are revered in this one-city sports team and their charity work after Hurricane Katrina in raising the spirits of the city is affectionately recalled. During Hurricane Katrina their home the giant Superdome was designated a place of refuge and thousands took shelter for days enduring inhospitable conditions, whilst the authorities floundered. (See postcard No 3 for Katrina background) The Saints were once the worst team in American Football but when they won the Superbowl in February 2010 it was known as the Miracle in Miami.

I had literally a huge shot and taste of New Orleans the night before in Bourbon St at Lundi Gras so I was a little late getting to the party (Ed -no change there then) but I planned to go the distance. I was joined in my taxi-shuttle to the city-party by ‘Big Mark’ from the Bronx in New York City and we struck up an immediate friendship. We opted to go into the projects (public housing) to see the ‘other Carnival’ where the TV cameras don’t take you… It was a good old fashioned bloc party, with kids playing on street corners, BBQ cooking up steam and Sound systems booming amid the throngs.  

Chief among this party were the Indians An African-American Krewe or calling themselves a tribe, who trace their ancestry back to the co-habituating between the Native Americans and the slaves centuries ago. Part of New Orleans surface-charm is the mixing of cultures that has gone to produce Cajuns, Creole cultures here in Louisiana. The Indians are in full, very heavy costumes and their march through the streets is more akin to watching a ceremony or ritual.

Being hungry is the real sin in this city and we grabbed some food at a delightful open air BBQ. For a foodie like me the smoky-ribs, BBQ chicken, Rice and Macaroni cheese could have come straight from the Caribbean but the seasoning was different. We made our way to where the main parade route on Canal St was ending and which resembled a throbbing mass of humanity. A colourful riotous cavalcade of parades weaved their way joyously past us. The Krewes threw their throws: beads, toys, giant teddy bears, American Footballs, sweets, Frisbees, even novelty bras (no not like that, that is reserved for Bourbon St only.) It was great fun and Mark and I kept catching the throws as they rained out of the sky and gave them to the swarms of children around us. The police are an in full physical presence and as night feel a police car with flashing patrol lights ended the procession, followed by a spectacular firework show. Our party wasn’t over however we headed for Bourbon Street the main artery of the French Quarter.

Bourbon Street is the epicentre for tourists (no self-respecting local is found there outside of Mardi Gras night). Bourbon Street is the aptly named party street and home of the Killer B’s – Blues, Bared Boobs, Booze and Beads thrown from the balconies above. On your way in you are  met by protesting American religious zealots complete with picket signs and loud speakers, who and claim that Hurricane Katrina was Gods way of punishing New Orleans for all the sin it brings. They add to the surreal atmosphere and make a strange spectacle to the noise and naturally attract every sinner toward them to taunt them. On the many balconies above us as is tradition girls flashed their boobs in exchange for beads from the mass throng below them. On the streets there were plenty of ladies decorating their naked torsos in a wonderful display of natural artistry (Ed -yeah right!)

With over a million attending this year one, report says that Mardi Gras earns the city $1 billion a year (source – http://www.mardigrasneworleans.com/faq.html#one) so it makes good economic sense as well as a great party. The bars kept pouring, the music kept pounding and we die-hard patrons consumed all around us. At around 4am Mark and I agreed we should head back to hotel. It was a great day, night and party. Simply and wonderfully bizarre! Now when did they say the next festival begins…?!!

Roger Griffith

4th March 2012

Postcards from America – No 1 Arrival


Hello my name is Roger Griffith and I am writer researching about the Deep South of America for my book from the Windrush to the White House. I’m travelling through seven southern US states. Follow me on twitter – rogerg44 and for more information on my book go to http://www.2morrow2day.com/from-the-windrush-to-the-white-house.html

There is nothing quite like taking off from the UK and going somewhere hot during a harsh British winter. Hey don’t hate on the brotha, I’m not writing this to mock you, after all I want you guys to stay with me and read about my travels for the next month or so. It’s just a simple acknowledgement to note my relief and I’ll say joy at buckling in that seatbelt, and feeling the G-Force of the jumbo jet as it leaves the runway and soars into the air. Anyway before you get annoyed at me, one or two of you are to blame for me writing this. Two years ago, after my redundancy from Bristol City Council, I went around the world (Asia, Australia and yes America) for four months and ‘un-officially’ wrote of my travels. Apparently one or two of you enjoyed it as before I left arrived in Florida a few you asked ‘are you going to blog again, Roger?’ ‘Erm no…’ I heard myself reply. ‘I’ve got so much to do, research the book, stay in touch with two businesses in 2morrow 2day and Ujima Radio as well as family and friends back home. However guilt and the fact that you guys are hard task masters got the better of me and as you may have guessed I secretly enjoy writing them. A lot has changed since that adventure and this time it wasn’t purely fun. I was going for a long adventure across the Atlantic to the Deep-South of America. Although beginning in Florida to catch up with my brother Jason and his family and friends, the key point was to spend a good chunk of time completing the research to my book ‘From the Windrush to the White House.’ 

 The book chronicles the journey of my parents and their counterparts who left the Caribbean in the 1940/1950’s to help Britain rebuild after World War II. They are affectionately known as the Windrush Generation after the first ship that sailed from Jamaica in 1948. At the same time of their struggles in Britain, Dr King was undertaking an historic battle for civil rights and the book tells that story as well as looking at many modern day issues such as Hurricane Katrina and the impact of poverty on black communities in New Orleans during President Obama’s first term http://www.2morrow2day.com/from-the-windrush-to-the-white-house.html It had been three years since I came up with the idea of the book after attending Obama’s inauguration in Washington DC, and I not only witnessed that but celebrated my good friends Janet and Rory’s Teape (formerly Janet Allen ex Gladiator Champ and Bristol City Council employee from Whitehall Bristol) birth of their daughter Olivia born on that same historic day of 20th January 2009 in Virginia. I had, had to postpone last year’s trip and with the potential of Obama’s last year in office (More of that as we travel) it was now or never. The time is clearly is now and I am grateful to the many of you who have encouraged me to continue my journey. Other people like to be tested by Mother Nature,climbing mountains or across water. Me? I love to travel to different places, sampling new environments, meeting new people and sampling plenty of the local produce! On this trip I have planned to travel through seven of the ten US states that I cover in the book that make up the American Deep South.

The Deep-south is a mystical, wonderful place. At times in its past it has been violent and turbulent place and certainly no place for black man to be travelling alone. (Skip this bit Mum) The states I am visiting are in order of travel, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia. In previous trips I have covered North and South Carolina and Virginia/Washington DC.

After a smooth Virgin flight from Gatwick and depositing my adult son with his Grandmother and my sister for a mini family break I arrive Stateside, greeted by my long lost friend the hot Florida sun. Due to my many visits and my brother living there I immeadeately feel at ease and find it easy to acclimatise.  After the ritual of passing Orlando customs, I am eventually cruising south along the I4 in my Chrevolet Malibu in T-Shirt, sunglasses and sun hat (yes Debbie and Lindsey the sun-hat rides again Ha-ha!). I’m driving on the right, well that’s the wrong side of the road for us Brits at a steady 70 mph in case Highway Patrol wants to talk about the cold (Editor ok G-Man enough of heat references already). An hour and a bit later I’m embracing my brother Jason at his Tampa home and asleep within the hour!

I’m up at 5am the next day in part woken by my 15 year-old nephew Jason Junior as my brother has to undertake the school run at 6am. I go along for the ride and it is dark and surreal watching the (children? many are taller than me) weave their way in the dark to the pick-up point and then climb aboard one of those yellow school buses as seen in Freddie Kruger’s Nightmare on Elm St or for younger readers Heath Ledger’s Joker in the Dark Knight!

Although we share the same language there are always one or two differences to get used to and I am reminded constantly  to slow down my words (which makes me sound posher than Prince Charles at a Polo match) and also think out each sentence  ‘What have you got on today’? I ask Jason Junior’ ‘Err T-shirt and shorts, Uncle Roger?’ came the unsteady but polite reply ‘No I meant at college!’ I laughed. One thing that unites us though is the cost of Petrol. (it’s called Gas here, don’t ask) each time you blink another cent goes on the price. Although it is comparatively cheap it’s gone up to $3.50 from $2.70 (30%) since my last visit to the US and just like in the UK that price varies (in New York it is over $4 a gallon). President Obama is getting the blame and it is true Gas has doubled since he took office, as the Americans struggle with the economic crisis and as we know oil is the lifeblood of this country.  The political atmosphere is rancid with poison and hate and that is just the Republican race to see who goes up against the Prez in November! To me it is always good for a laugh though (later Obama is called a snob for wanting American children to go to college by Rick Santorum ). The primary reason I believe Obama will serve a second term is a lack of a credible alternative candidate. The First Lady, Michelle Obama fares more favourably and she is celebrating Black History Month which is during February in America at a fantastic BET Awards ceremony which honours, Stevie Wonder, Spike Lee and The Red Tails of Tuskegee, Alabama. Those magnificent men in their flying machines were the first fighting black airmen who fought over Germany in the 2nd  World War and changed the notion of black soldiers and in their way the idea of black people as skilled aviators. I’m pleased as they are on my list of the many places to visit on during my travels.

 Next day I catch up with friends at the beach and basking in the sun my brother is so lucky to have this heat on tap! We end the day together in a rowdy St Petersburg bar but I close early as I have a ten-hour drive to New Orleans the next day as its Mardi Gras Carnival season. We all know I love a good party but I’m also there to see how the city is faring after Hurricane Katrina’s struck in 2005.

 Roger Griffith – AKA The G-Man

24th February 2012

Read more…

Post Navigation