Thursday, March 30, 2006

The Seven Month Itch

Yesterday I checked out as I do every day. Down on the lower left there is a little section that pulls a post out of one of the local forums. They're always interesting to read. Clearly the guy in charge of choosing has some fun with it. Sometimes the posts are articulate and well thought out, sometimes they're joyful odes to New Orleans, sometimes they're strident "We WILL Rebuild" comments, and others, well, let's just put it this way: They are nasty in their tone. I always wonder if the people who post some of this stuff are the kind of people who can only spew their hatred when there is an anonymous name and a screen between them and the people that they painted their target on.

Yesterday's choice was a jewel from the Westbank forum. I had sent it to a couple people with no comment as it needed none. By this morning I had been sent a copy of it from six different people, all in various parts of the United States. I was intrigued that so many folks from disparate places had all noted this particular little post. What's the post say?

"There are too many undesirable types walking and trying to drive their
newly bought cars around the Westbank, and I for one don't want them here no
more. If I see any suspcious thugs walking about in my once thugless
neighborhood, I call 911 ASAP. These stupid refugees don't know how to drive the
cars that FEMA helped them purchase, and I certainly give them the dirtiest look
whenever I get the chance." -unorules » West Bank

Put a giant (sic) at the end of that. I changed nothing although I was dying to correct the spelling of suspicious after I smacked him upside his head! I rarely read the Westbank forum as there is an overload of this kind of rhetoric on it, and this particular poster is regularly in the forefront of the venom spitting types. What he said was awful. But it bothered me beyond that.

So far this morning I've been sent six copies of this post (although the private email discussions of this have been great fun), an article from the New York Times about crime rising here in New Orleans (which I mentioned in an earlier post, referring to it as the "Houston/New Orleans gang foreign exchange program"), and an article from AP about Houston wanting the evacuees to go home.

Perception. Many have written about the perception people outside of New Orleans have of us here. I even mentioned in the post about driving through Texas, that we actually were concerned with that perception and how it might impact us as we blithely drove around with our Mardi Gras beads on the rearview. Would people think we were criminals? Would people think we were looking for a handout? Maybe they'd look in the back of the car for a kid who might be a burden on their school system, or a shotgun that we might be planning to use.

There is no question that there were problems before the storm, during the storm, immediately after the storm, and that they continue now, seven months later. What's bothering me is the way it's being reported and the smug xenophobic tone I'm seeing in the press.

The bozo who wrote the post above, while definitely representing a certain point of view here, particularly on the Westbank ("Keep all those filthy Eastbank people out! Put the Gretna cops back on the Bridge!"), there are a lot of us who don't share that point of view. But someone out there who reads this post might mistakenly think that we ALL feel that way. A real perception problem.

The headline on the AP story was "'City That Sleeps' Sick of Big Easy Transplants?
Some Say Katrina Evacuees Are Wearing Out Welcome in Houston." SOME say. The article outlined some of the real problems that Houston is facing with the influx of more than 100,000 former New Orleanians. However, there were many people interviewed for the article who said that most of the evacuees they'd met were NOT criminals, and one woman, a truly compassionate soul said, "They're not thinking about how long it's going to take one family to get back on their feet." Some of the most idiotic statements quoted in the article were out of the mouths of high school kids from both cities who were having trouble adjusting to each other. Unfortunately many people will only read the headline, then head for the water cooler and tsk tsking all the way say, "Houston is sick of those people from New Orleans and want them to go home." Swell. Another perception problem, for both cities in this instance. Houstonians are either A. Cold bastards who don't care, or B. Long suffering samaritans who are now resenting their generosity to a bunch of criminals from New Orleans. From what I can tell, most of the people in Houston are just trying to figure out how to deal with the changes in their city as we are trying to deal with the changes in ours.

Meanwhile, back at the New York Times, "As Life Returns to New Orleans, So Does Crime." There is no doubt about it. And yes we have to pay attention. But that headline just burned me. Is this really a surprise? Of course not. Put enough people together on a piece of real estate, and some are bound to be criminals of one kind or another. Must New Orleans always be referred to as some sort of pitiful Sodom and Gomorrah with her streets overflowing with blood, booze and drugs? While I am certainly not advocating that the negatives be shoved under the rug, or not reported, I just wish there was a bit less sensationalism and little bit more balance. (Please spare me the emails about media bias. I've been there so many times I could make a form letter response!)

That having been said, those of us here have to quit ignoring the perception others have of us. If we see something like that post, we need to refute it. We need to write some letters to publications letting them know that most of us in New Orleans are not racist, reactionary maniacs, nor are we all criminals skating through the justice system with our hands out to social services once we're released.

It was the seven month mark yesterday. Some around here have started calling it the "watermark," typical of a particular brand of dark humor found here since the storm. There is so much that has to be done here. So many people and decisions falling through the cracks of bureaucracies. If we don't do something to change the "outsider's" perception of us, we're really going to make our already uphill battle even steeper.

And just for the record, today's Boston Globe has an article saying that the murder rate there has reached a ten year high after a "miraculous" drop in the 1990's. They are debating whether immigration has anything to do with it (most are saying no), and local politicians and law enforcement officials are trying to figure out what to do about it. Boston? Ya don't say!


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