Monday, August 29, 2011

New Orleans' Tragedy and Triumph on 6-Year Katrina Anniversary

New Orleans' Tragedy and Triumph on 6-Year Katrina Anniversary

By Michael Deibert

Huffington Pos
Posted: 8/29/11 10:53 AM ET

(This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post, where it can be read here)

When five New Orleans police officers were found guilty earlier this month of a series of murders, shootings and a subsequent cover-up in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, it seemed a symbolic coda to a catastrophic act of nature that descended upon the Crescent City six years ago today, abetted in its destruction by human failings both at the time and since.

The officers were convicted of killing two people and wounding four others on September 4, 2005 on the Danziger Bridge, an expanse that spans the city's industrial canal, in the chaos of a city largely left to fend for itself after being deluged by a Category 5 hurricane that the entire federal and state government saw coming but did little to prepare for.

Seventeen-year-old James Brissette and forty-year-old Ronald Madison were killed that day, though the conditions that set the stage for their killings had been in place long before and, despite progress in many areas since the storm, a number of them of them remain today.

But despite the city's population having been cut nearly in half since the hurricane, and though large sections of neighborhoods and landmarks such as the former Six Flags amusement part sit eerily abandoned, the heart of the city where jazz was born is still beating.

There is probably no city in the United States that possesses greater physical beauty than New Orleans. From the great mansions of the Garden District, to the latticed-balconies fronting the former pirate haunts of the French Quarter, to the creole cottages in the Marigny and Bywater neighborhoods existing in various states of dilapidation, for much of its compact central area New Orleans represents a perfect merging of architectural ideas, similar to the aesthetic wholeness one finds in a place like Paris.

Likewise, its music and cuisine, unique and defiantly redolent of the city's individual flavour and history, make it a fascinating cultural quirk in a national landscape that is increasingly bland and homogenized.

But the revelry and indulgence take place to a backbeat of violence and urban dysfunction so severe that last year the city's homicide rate clocked in at 10 times above the national average, on par with those of violence-racked locales such as Guatemala, where warring street gangs and drug cartels do daily battle.

The prevalence of violent crime in the city would be a challenge for any police force, no matter how well-trained and equipped, but it has proved especially taxing for the 1,395-member New Orleans Police Department (NOPD), whose own struggles have often mirrored the city's larger ills.

An investigation of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) published in March by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) concluded that "basic elements of effective policing--clear policies, training, accountability and confidence of the citizenry--have been absent for years" and that "constitutional violations span the operation of the entire Department."

The city's mayor Mitch Landrieu, the scion of a Louisiana political dynasty that includes a former mayor (Moon Landrieu) and a current United States senator (Mary Landrieu), came into office in May 2010 with a wave of optimism. He promptly appointed as the city's new police chief Ronal Serpas, who had previously served as police chief of Nashville but a sea of crises, some of them rooted in Katrina and beyond, awaited them.

On Sept. 2, 2005, four days after Katrina made landfall. Henry Glover, an African-American resident of the Algiers section of the city, was shot by an NOPD officer.

When bystanders took the grievously wounded Glover to an improvised police station, they were surrounded by policeman who handcuffed them along with Glover, who bled to death. Glover's body was then driven in a car commandeered by a policeman who burned both the vehicle and Glover's body after setting it aflame with a traffic flare.

Serpas' second in command, Assistant Superintendent Marlon Defillo, retired last month after criticism about his actions in the Glover case grew to a crescendo. A 33 page report from State of Louisiana's Department of Public Safety and Correction concluded that Defillo "repeatedly failed to acknowledge that the circumstances as presented to him were sufficiently suspicious as to require follow up" and that his actions "were neither reasonable or responsible."

This March, two NOPD officers received stiff sentences in connection with the case.

Further complicating matters, wealthy New Orleaneans have institutionalized the peeling off of active-duty police officers into what here are known as "paid details," whereby officers are allowed to work for private companies or individuals while in NOPD uniforms.

The DOJ report called the system an "entrenched and unregulated" phenomenon that facilitated corruption within the department. But the city's elite have been loathe to change it, no matter how much it undermines the capability of law enforcement over the urban landscape as a whole.

To his credit, Serpas in May announced that the NOPD was creating a civilian-administered Office of Police Detail Services that would set restrictions on how many hours officers could work and how they would be paid.

And amid the struggles, there are signs of hope.

The NOPD is currently in the process of negotiating a consent decree with the DOJ, a measure by which a federal judge would mandate and oversee that the report's dozens of recommendations be implemented. A newly invigorated body, the New Orleans Office of the Independent Police Monitor, is also now charged with overseeing the behavior of the NOPD and allegations of police misconduct.

This year, standardized test scores for students in the Recovery School District (RSD), a special state-wide school district administered by the Louisiana Department of Education and which took over most of the city's schools after Katrina, improved for the fourth year in a row.

Students from schools still within the Orleans Parish School Board - whose institutions mostly now fall within the mandate of the RSD - also improved.

This marks a dramatic change in momentum for a city that for decades had failed to provide even the rudiments of a good education to its youth, and one in which early interventions are the key to reducing the appalling homicide rate the now stalks its streets.

For much of its history, the aura of New Orleans has been informed by the interplay of light and shadow, comedy and pathos. A city at least partly built of the legacy of slavery nevertheless helped produced the most ebullient and expressive of African-American idioms, and continues today to hold a mirror up to the country at large of some of its best and worst qualities.

The struggle to rebuild New Orleans - and the debate about what kind of New Orleans that will be - continues six years on, as the winds and rain of a once-mighty storm grow ever more distant, but never fully disappear.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Notes from Haiti's Long Hot Summer

Notes from Haiti's Long Hot Summer
Posted: 8/23/11 07:00 PM ET

By Michael Deibert

(This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post, where it can be read here)


Throughout what has been a dolorous summer in the Haitian capital, the image of the Caribbean nation's new president has gazed out at passersby from billboards and murals affixed to walls that did not topple during the country's apocalyptic January 2010 earthquake.

Depicting a man with a bald pate and broad smile, with messages such as "Nouvelle Haiti" and "Bienvenue au pouvoir" stenciled painstakingly next to them, the murals' optimism belies the intense political struggles of the first three months of the rule of Michel Martelly, a well-known singer who performed under the moniker Sweet Micky.

"I love President Martelly, I voted for President Martelly, so did my mother and my sister," says Carlos Jean Charles, who resides in Camp Toussaint, a 2,800 person collection of fragile tents set up in front of Haiti's once-grand National Palace, which still lies in ruins 18 months after the tremor.

"I think Martelly has a good heart," Charles says, echoing the statements of others in the camp. "But the problem is the parliament. Those people have been doing this shit for 25 years, fighting for power. They don't give him a chance."

A day after he was sworn in this May, Martelly announced that he was submitting the name of Daniel Rouzier, a businessman and devout Catholic, to serve as his Prime Minister, only to have the nomination rejected by parliament a month later.

On July 6th, Martelly announced that his new pick for Prime Minister would be attorney and former Minister of Justice Bernard Gousse, at which point 16 of Haiti's 30 senators announced, before the nomination had even been considered, that Gousse was also to be rejected, which he was earlier this month.

So the country, where an estimated 634,000 survivors of the quake still live in makeshift settlements in and around the capital, remains without a government.


The situation is reminiscent of the the first mandate of the man that Martelly replaced as president, René Préval, in the late 1990s. During that era, following the resignation of Préval's Prime Minister, the post remained vacant for nearly two years as an opposition-dominated parliament rejected successive nominees in an effort to deprive the Préval government of oxygen.

It is a modus operandi that is being repeated today in Haiti, but under much worse conditions and this time with the parliament dominated by members of Préval's own coalition (several of them elected in highly disputed circumstances), though the amount of control the former president still exerts over the disparate group of legislators is a matter of some debate.

"The population who voted for Martelly perceived the change he offered as drastic change, a complete rupture from the way things were done in the past," says Marilyn Allien, the director of La Fondation Héritage pour Haïti, the Haitian chapter of the anti-corruption organization Transparency International.

"But the way things were done in the past was very good for some people. There are people who thrive when corruption and impunity prevail, and it doesn't serve them at all if a new leader comes in and tries to institute the rule of law."

A political novice who ran on an education platform and whose very distance from Haiti's rancid political class was a large part of his appeal, Martelly has relied on a close circle of advisors, some of questionable reputation, to give him counsel when dealing with parliament.

Lurking in the background to all of this are Haiti's two recently-returned former leaders, Jean-Claude Duvalier and Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Duvalier, the scion of a family dictatorship started by his father François that ruled Haiti for 29 years, was chased out of the country in 1986 amidst an uprising that has yet to fulfill its promise of democracy, social and economic justice. He returned to Haiti from his long exile in France in January to the outrage of those who suffered at the hands of his regime.

Aristide, a former Catholic priest, was at the forefront of the anti-Duvalier movement and became Haiti's president in 1991, only to be ousted in a military coup seven months later.

Restored to the presidency by a US-led military intervention in 1994, Aristide turned over the reins of government to Préval in 1996. He was returned to power during a violence-wracked ballot in 2000, with his second mandate marked by high levels of official corruption and political violence before he too was overthrown by an armed insurrection after months of large-scale street protests against his rule.

Since his return to Haiti from exile in South Africa in March, Aristide has been largely silent, though some in the camps and elsewhere have darkly suggested they see his hand in the parliamentary maneuvers currently underway.

Further complicating the mix, the 12,000 person United Nations mission in Haiti, in place since June 2004 and known by the acronym MINUSTAH, has probably reached the nadir of its reputation during its time in the country.

Once welcomed as a bulwark against political chaos, the mission has seemed adrift since the earthquake, which killed nearly 100 of its personnel including the head and deputy head of the mission.

A cholera epidemic which has killed more than 5,800 people since last October, has been linked to the mission, with a June report by a group of of epidemiologists and physicians in the journal of the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said that evidence "strongly suggests" that the cholera strain had been brought to Haiti by UN peacekeepers.

Often unfairly derided as "turista" (tourists) by Haitians, the mission now appears to be largely living up to the scathing sobriquet, with some of its members a feature in some of the capital's more expensive hotels, getting loudly intoxicated and carousing often only feet away from the meager encampments of those made homeless by January 2010's tremor.


Shortly before I visited Haiti this month, I had made plans to visit with an old friend.

Jean-Claude Bajeux, the co-founder of the Centre Oecuménique des Droits de l'Homme (CEDH), was also a former Minister of Culture, a militant for human rights and democracy and a great Haitian patriot.

Virtually his entire family had been killed by François Duvalier, sending him into a long exile during which he received a PhD from Princeton University in the United States, and lived and taught in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

He fought against both the Duvalier family dictatorship and the military juntas that followed and, in more recent times, against the violent anarcho-populism with which Aristide attempted to rule the country. Well into his twilight years, when most men of his age would be playing with their grandchildren, I would see Bajeux bravely march in demonstrations at times when it was physically dangerous to do. Lately he had provided an important analytical voice to Haiti, critiquing not only Haiti's political machinations but those of outsiders involved in the country, as well.

Bajeux passed away, if not exactly unexpectedly, then rather suddenly, earlier this month at the age of 79, before I had a chance to see him. His goal of an inclusive, transparent and just political system in Haiti is still an unrealized dream.

Shortly before he died, in a conversation with a friend, Bajeux had time enough to deliver a simple charge.

"My generation is passing away," Bajeux said. "We did all we could. Now it is up to you."


There can be a sense of tragic timelessness in Haiti, an impression that one gets when driving northwards from the capital along Route Nationale 1, where tent camps now ring either side of the road, and which meanders along the Côte des Arcadins and into the agricultural heartland of the Artibonite Valley.

As one drives, to the left the Caribbean Sea glitters blue-green, and resorts from when Haiti was once a tourist destination - now largely empty save for Haiti's wealthy and the moneyed foreigners in the country - front the ocean. Skiffs with canvass sails ply the channel between the mainland and the immense, isolated Île de la Gonâve in the bay.

Back in the capital, ebullient Creole evangelical hymns still reverberate in the mornings from the mountainsides and ravines that crisscross the city, and radios still pump out a non-stop diet of sinuous konpa music of the kind that first brought Michel Martelly to prominence along with the driving racine rhythms of vodou and endless political chatter.

Given the long odds he faces, there is something moving about the faith of ordinary Haitians that Martelly is the figure who will transform their immensely difficult lives. And, despite what one may read, the Haitians, even in the wake of the extraordinary amount of suffering that has been foisted on them in recent years, are not a defeated people.

The mood in Haiti today reminds one of the wanly flickering orange glow of the kerosene lamps that Haiti's market women - known as ti machann - use to illuminate their wares as they work late into the night. One can see them by the roadside, hoping for one more customer, one more sale, one more ray of life.

Haiti is like that, too, persevering ever onward as long as the slenderest flicker of hope remains.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

What James Craig Anderson's Killing Means to America

What James Craig Anderson's Killing Means to America

By Michael Deibert
Posted: 8/9/11 05:19 PM ET

(This article was cross-posted on the Huffington Post, where it can be read here)

Where in the world do at least seven people participate in a brutal and fatal sectarian attack against an innocent working man whose only crime is to be part of a targeted minority? And where in the world would only one of those people then be charged with murder, and only one other charged with "simple assault," despite ample evidence that those involved set out to commit extreme violence that evening?

Syria? Libya? The Democratic Republic of Congo?

Welcome to 21st century Mississippi.

According to police, early on the morning of June 26th, James Craig Anderson, a 49 year-old African-American auto plant worker in the city of Jackson, Mississippi, was set upon by a group of white teenagers who beat him while screaming "White Power." Then one of them got behind the wheel of a Ford F250 green pickup and ran Anderson over, killing him.

The teenagers, seven in all, are alleged to have been led by 18 year-old Deryl Dedmon, and, according to police, they had left an all-night party in the neighboring upper-class white enclave of Rankin County with the sole intention of finding an African-American to attack.

The horrifying security camera footage of the murder -- showing Anderson repeatedly attacked by multiple teens before being run down - is matched only by the blithe disregard of the alleged killers themselves. After the attack, police say that Dedmon drove along with his two female passengers to a McDonald's to meet with the rest the group and, according to witnesses, bragged "I ran that nigger over."

Far from being the quiet loner type, it seems there were plenty of signs that Dedmon was a menace.

Brian Richardson, the white pastor at Rankin County's Castlewoods Baptist Church, told reporters after the Anderson slaying that he had told police and school officials that his own son had been the victim of violent bullying by Dedmon for a period of two years, and that Dedmon and his friends frequently targeted people in the community with homophobic and racial slurs.

Most chillingly, Richardson said that he told police that it was "painfully clear that [Dedmon] was going to injure someone severely or possibly kill someone." Richardson also added that if Dedmon was not taken off the streets "it's going to happen again."

The "taken off the streets" part is important because, almost unbelievably, after being freed on a $50,000 dollar bond, Dedmon is now subject to house arrest under an $800,000 bond. In other words, he is not yet in prison despite being accused of taking part in a grotesque and premeditated racial assault that Hinds County District Attorney Robert Shuler Smith has called a hate crime.

Judge William Barnett, the Mississippi magistrate who decided that Dedmon, despite Brian Richardson's prescient previous warnings, posed no danger if sent back home from prison, also saw fit to reduce the charges against John Aaron Rice, also 18, the only other person charged in the case, from murder to simple assault. Rice is now free on $5,000 bond.

How can this be? How can more than half a dozen teenagers take part in such a fatal racist attack in a region and a nation with a history of racial violence and most of them just be allowed to walk away from it?

For some time now, there has been a dangerous historical amnesia developing in the United States, and nowhere has this appeared to be more concentrated than in the South, where I make my home. In Mississippi, it's a historical revisionism that starts at the top.

Mississippi's current governor, former Republican National Committee chairman Haley Barbour, opined as recently as last year that the omission of any mention of slavery from a proclamation on Confederate History Month by Virginia Republican Governor Bob McDonnell was "just a nit...not significant." and, in a memorable turn of phrase, didn't "matter for diddly."

Later that same year, when interviewed by the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, Barbour said that, during his youth, the segregationist White Citizens' Council in his native Yazoo City "was an organization of town leaders" that in his view kept the peace.

[Barbour's statement now seem particularly ill-advised as, on June 12, 1963, civil rights activist and U.S. army veteran Medgar Evers was gunned down in Jackson, Mississippi - the same town where James Craig Anderson was beaten to death - by White Citizens' Council member Byron De La Beckwith. Beckwith was tried three times before finally being convicted for Evers' murder in 1994. He would later die in prison. Evers himself is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.]

In November of last year, a "secession ball" in the South Carolina city of Charleston celebrated that state's exit from the union 150 years ago - an exit that heralded the beginning of a civl war in which over 600,000 Americans lost their lives - and was mirrored by similar events in Montgomery, Alabama and elsewhere.

In perhaps a more famous incident from April 2009, Texas governor and likely Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, speaking to a rally of Tea Party supporters in Austin, said
that Texas had entered the United States with the understanding that "we would be able to leave if we decided to do that."
Perry forgot, perhaps that, against the advice of its wise founding father, Sam Houston, Texas did leave the Union to join the Confederacy in 1861/ Everyone saw how well that worked out.

The South is not alone in this historical revisionism. Minnesota Congresswoman and Republican Senatorial candidate Michele Bachmann recently signed a pledge from an Iowa-based group called The Family Value which proclaimed that "a child born into slavery in 1860 was more likely to be raised by his mother and father in a two-parent household than was an African-American baby born after the election of the USA's first African-American President."

All of which is perhaps a roundabout way of saying this: If in this context and all these years later James Craig Anderson's murder counts for so little that his alleged killers -- at least one of whom has been accused of presenting a credible and ongoing threat to the community -- are allowed to savour their freedom even as Anderson's family mourns his loss, then justice in Mississippi doesn't count for much more now than it did in Medgar Evers' time, and the grotesque romanticizing of an era of racial hatred and enslavement still has far deeper roots among some in our country than we are willing to admit.

In some ways, Mississippi remains the most misunderstood of American states. It has proven to be one of the great producers and repositories of American culture, producing writers such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Richard Wright and Eudora Welty (who spent most of her life in the country where the Anderson killing took place), and musicians of the caliber of Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf and Elvis Presley. Indeed, much of what the rest of the world understands as American creativity can be traced back to the delta and hill country of the state.

I write these lines in New Orleans, a city which was at least partially built on slavery and where, in July 1864, a mob opposed to giving African-Americans the vote, aided by New Orleans police, attacked a political meeting in a riot that killed at least 37 people, all but three of them black.

Almost exactly one hundred years later - following the murder of of civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner by members of the Ku Klux Klan - the folk singer Phil Ochs (frequently lambasted as a northern interloper though he was in fact born in Texas) wrote one of his best songs, "Here's to the State of Mississippi." In it, Ochs sang that, in Mississippi, "the calender is lying when it reads the present time."

That may or may not still hold true. The course of the trial of those accused of murdering James Craig Anderson will tell us a great deal, though, about how much work we still have to do.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

On the passing of Jean-Claude Bajeux

On the passing of Jean-Claude Bajeux

By Michael Deibert

I was sitting in my study in New Orleans working on a book about the Democratic Republic of Congo when I heard the news that Jean-Claude Bajeux had passed. Bajeux, co-founder of the Centre Oecuménique des Droits de l'Homme (CEDH), former Minister of Culture, militant for human rights and democracy and great Haitian patriot, was 79.

Since I started visiting Haiti in 1997, I got to know Bajeux and his wife, Sylvie, over the years, both of a generation that fought hard against the 1957-1986 Duvalier family (father François and son Jean-Claude) dictatorship and the military juntas that followed. Subsequently supportive of the candidacy of Jean-Bertrand Aristide at the head of a broad democratic movement, Bajeux endured Haiti’s 1991 coup until Aristide’s return by a United States-led multinational military force in 1994, at which point he served as Minister of Culture. At one point, like Aristide himself, Bajeux was a priest who later left his role in the church, and he would become among Aristide’s foremost critics as the latter veered towards a particular brand of corrupt and violent anarcho-populism that reminded many like Bajeux of the elder Duvalier.

Bajeux, who received a PhD from Princeton University in the United States, lived and taught in both Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic in the past, and in recent years, the CEDH did important work in helping to draw attention to the plight of Haitians deported from the United States, often for very minor infractions, back to Haiti.

Well into his later years, I would see Bajeux bravely march in demonstrations at times when it was physically dangerous to do so in cities like Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, and Cap-Haïtien in the country’s north.

Both the younger Duvalier and Aristide are now back living freely in Haiti, having never been held to account for the terrible suffering that they subjected the Haitian people to. I imagine that it must have been a difficult pill to swallow for someone such as Bajeux, who worked all his life to try and make Haiti’s political system more responsive and accountable to its people.

Likewise, the game-playing and politicking of Haiti’s political class, which recently rejected the second nominee of Haiti’s president, Michel Martelly, for the post of Prime Minister, has never seemed more irresponsible or indifferent to the lives of the country’s citizens, who lived in dire poverty and dislocation even before Haiti’s devastating January 2010 earthquake.

In Haitian Creole there is an expression upon the passing of a great figure that “a great mapou has fallen.” Mapous are the massive, sturdy trees that one finds in the Haitian countryside, and great spiritual signifiers to the country’s vodou faithful, as well.

In recent years, the older generation of Haiti’s democratic activists that opposed the Duvalier regime, like those they once opposed, have begun to pass away, secure in their energies and convictions but unable to outrun what Andrew Marvell called “time’s winged chariot.”

One must remain hopeful that a younger generation will now pick up the legacy of collective struggles and personal sacrifices that men like Jean-Claude Bajeux left them and try and forge a more equitable and just future for Bajeux’s beloved country. There could be no better tribute.

Domi byen, JC.

Michael Deibert
New Orleans, August 2011

Michael Deibert is a Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University and the author of Notes from the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.