The New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is a festival, not a protest rally. But in the Big Easy a couple of weeks ago, while sometimes understated, anger at the powers that be who were responsible for the flooding and the death and chaos after Hurricane Katrina was as ubiquitous as the great music and the gratefulness of the vendors and locals, who kept thanking the tourists for coming.
When a plane flew overheard pulling a big sign reading "Impeach Bush," many in the crowd cheered. "Make Levees, Not War," graced T-shirts and buttons.
Bruce Springsteen told the crowd that the day before "I saw sights I never thought I'd see in an American city." He then dedicated a song titled "How Can a Poor Man Stand Such Times and Live?" to "President Bystander." The crowd cheered him.
Jazzfest might not have happened at all this year without corporate sponsorship. Eager for some positive publicity after the nefarious effects of its oil and gas extraction industries, Shell Oil is reported to have paid millions to improve its image in the wake of Katrina. A coalition of fishing interests, conservation groups and environmentalists distributed flyers, stickers and shirts telling Shell "Thanks for the music--Don't kill our fish."
While I helped her and her colleagues move back into their offices and apartments, Dead Man Walking author and native Louisianan Sister Helen Prejean expressed concern, shared by many, that the city's leaders will rebuild it into a Disneyland parody of itself for tourists and developers. The adverse combination of short-sighted local political power, corporate influence over the local congressional delegation, inattentive federal authorities, a dislocated population unable to afford to return and rebuild, and what appears to be an exhausted or otherwise complacent electorate bodes ill for the future of the Gulf Coast.
All over the city, and especially in the Lower Ninth Ward, there are still houses on top of cars, whole neighborhoods just gone. Traffic signals on major boulevards are still dark. You can still walk through wealthy and poor neighborhoods and not encounter another human being. Sometimes the silence is only broken by the bark of dogs, once pets, now hungry and feral. Nearly half of the city's population has not returned. In March, the Bush administration admitted it could take 25 years for the city to recover.
Meanwhile, the only comprehensive outreach visible in the Ninth Ward is Common Ground, a local volunteer organization offering programs such as free health and social services and coordinating volunteer efforts like gutting and cleaning homes. They are doing heroic, creative work with the dispossessed. (Visit www.commongroundrelief.org.)
The Gulf Coast needs new leadership that addresses the impact of oil and gas extraction, global warming, institutional racism, and that fosters responsible flood control and development policies that put equity, ecological sustainability and the well-being of people above profit.
The musicians at Jazzfest offered other answers. Jazzman Allen Toussaint led the audience in a chant: "Home, home, everybody come home."
Later, when Springsteen sang the chorus to "My City of Ruins," the audience raised their hands in the air and joined it.
"Come on, rise up!" we sang in hope, "Come on, rise up!"