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New Orleans, déja vu!
Posted: Wednesday, September 7, 2005

by George Alleyne,

"We hold these truths to be self evident that all men are created equal...": Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence

The United States government's callous dismissal of the suffering of the residents of New Orleans, as evidenced by its belated response to the damage and hurt wrought by hurricane Katrina, was also there 40 years ago in September of 1965, when the levees broke and tens of thousands had to flee their homes.

The only difference is that while in 1965 it had been an unconcern for Afro-Americans, this time around poor whites were affected as well. Nonetheless, the principal victims of the US Government's "couldn't care less" attitude 40 years ago and this time around were black Americans. That the wealthiest and certainly most powerful nation today could have taken several days to respond to the 2005 tragedy of New Orleans, is a serious indictment not only of the government itself but countless Americans who were indifferent to the delay.

I was on a visit to the United States in the September of 1965 and had flown in to New Orleans a day or so after the levees had been breached. New Orleans, in 1965, as I would discover on flying in from Washington DC, was a standard bearer of white racism. I would get an insight, albeit fleeting, into how Afro-New Orleans citizens must have felt. But that they should have received such callous treatment 40 years later, when the focus of the entire world was on the US, amazed and puzzled.

I had travelled by shared limousine from the airport to my hotel, the Sheraton Charles, and had accepted with grace the driver's suggestion that I ride up front with him. He had recognised, he stated, from my accent that I was a foreigner and as a New Orleans resident was anxious to point out to me the landmarks of his city.

The following day I met by pre-arranged appointment with a representative of the State Department who offered the caution that I should not visit Bourbon Street.

The first place I headed for following on the meeting was Bourbon Street, and sought to enter a restaurant, when I saw an Afro-American standing in the doorway. I had heard many racial negatives re Bourbon Street over the years that I thought that the presence of a black American, whom I assumed to be a patron encouraged a dismissal of what I had heard.

"What do you want, bub?" he enquired, and I replied I had come to order a glass of beer and a snack. "They ain't going to serve you here, bub," was his immediate response, and in the background I noted the grinning face of a Euro-American, presumably that of the owner. I pointed out it was public place and that I was entitled to be served. "They ain't going to serve you here, bub," he repeated. Suddenly, it occurred to me that the chap must have been a bouncer, whose job it would have been to forcibly prevent my entry, and that he was embarrassed that I was clearly a foreigner and he would have had to be the one to "defend" the white racist structure.

I bade him "good day" and determined I would not seek entrance to another establishment on Bourbon Street.

I looked into a succession of business places on my way up Bourbon Street, and on reaching one higher up the road, I heard a voice singing out: "What do you think you are doing black nigger?"

I headed, from directions given me at the Sheraton Charles, to the Vieux Carré, the old French Quarter. What struck forcibly was that officialdom rather than discourage this nonsense, not only allowed it to flourish, but as I would soon discover was itself part of the problem.

In the Vieux Carré there were scores of Afro-Americans, who had fled the districts in which they lived to escape the flood waters which had threatened their lives when the levees broke. Many had no place to sleep and no provision, I would learn, had been made for them by City, State or Federal officials.

I spoke with several of them, without shelter in a strange environment. And with the enquiring mind of the journalist I asked questions of those around me. Mine was shorn of hostile intent, only a desire to seek out the truth, the facts of the situation in which these displaced unfortunates had found themselves. The year 1965 was virtually at the height of the civil rights days. The US then, as it is today, was already the world's richest country.

Yet, in so many ways it had turned its collective administrative back on these wretched people - and had done so again until a relative few days ago. When I was about to leave New Orleans the same limousine driver, who had taken me from the airport to my hotel, came to drive me back to the airport. There was only one passenger in the limousine at the time, a Euro-American. The driver recognised me immediately, told me he hoped I had enjoyed my visit and once again asked me to sit up front.

With the events of Bourbon Street and the horrible disregard shown for those who had to flee their homes and areas when the levees broke, I declined. Instead, I opted to sit in the back seat.

The driver, unhesitatingly, walked across to the passenger of European descent and apologised for my sitting in the same seat as he was. En route to the airport he collected two Euro-American women at a motel and insisted that they sit up front with him.

They entered the limousine grumbling that they could not understand why they could not sit in the passenger section of the car, particularly when there was so much room.

I smiled to myself. I wish to make this clear that if I have written at some length of what I had personally endured, it was simply to drive home what many Afro-Americans and other non Euro-Americans living in New Orleans and other parts of Louisiana have had to go through.

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