Let’s play word association.
I say New Orleans. The first word that pops into your mind is…
…Saints, it being the start of the regular season. Or
…gumbo if you know roux. Or
…hurricane if you’re a meteorologist or a drunkard.
But for the tender hearted among us who love justice, have hope, and believe in the goodness of the good people of New Orleans, the word that has become as stuck to New Orleans as gnats on a South Georgia windshield is…
Post-Katrina, even before the waters overtopping the levees finished pouring into the city, reporters filed stories referencing the resilience of New Orleans. As the disaster dragged on, the media was determined to turn a story of death and destruction into an uplifting story of hope. Stories about resilience – of the people, the city, and the culture – did the trick.
Every anniversary, another wave of resilience stories. In 2006, CBS News reported that Resilience Lets Katrina Survivors Cope. Two years out, a report chronicled Recovery, Renewal, & Resiliency. The next year, environmentalists presented Lessons for Community Resilience. The 4th anniversary featured Still Here, a book celebrating “courage, resilience, and hope.” At five years, Obama Calls New Orleans a ‘Symbol of Resilience’ on Katrina Anniversary. Last year’s anniversary saw the release of the book Resilience and Opportunity. And this morning, I woke up to NPR interviewing a professor whose Katrina experience inspired him to research and write Building Resilience.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of raising up stories of a people’s resilience. I spent a year doing it myself, mucking around the American South pestering people about community resilience.
But boy howdy, can it get irritating.
In the words of a New Orleanian friend, “The next person who calls me resilient, I’m gonna stab in the neck so he can see for himself what it is to be resilient.”
My friend has (thus far) refrained from any stabbing, but her point is well taken – focusing on resilience can distract from the question of responsibility. When we celebrate resilience, we focus the spotlight on the people who got screwed over. The institutions that did the screwing over take the opportunity to slink off into the shadows.
Cops and Cellblocks in post-Katrina New Orleans.
For all the talk of resilience in post-Katrina New Orleans, there’s one resilience story that has not been told enough. It’s the story of the thing that’s been trying to slink off into the shadows. It’s the story of the criminal justice system, and the presumptions of violence and criminality that undergird it. Continue reading