Tuesday, December 7, 2010


I just finished reading Walker Percy's Lancelot.

I received the book as a gift about eight years ago but was scared off by the description on the back cover, which struck as slightly too close to my life, inclinations, and fears of the future at the time.: "Lancelot Andrewes Lamar, a disenchanted liberal lawyer, finds himself confined in a mental asylum with memories that don’t seem worth remembering . . ."

Still not entirely disenchanted and managing to keep myself out of the asylum, I was recently inspired to revisit the book. (I lost the paperback that I had been given but had since bought an old "discard" hard copy from the New Orleans Public Library, which seems a fitting vessel for reading Walker Percy, one of the city's finest writers.)

In the book, Lancelot, the lawyer, teases through the details of his life and the world with a critical lens as he explains how he came to burn down his home, an old River Road mansion. The truths expressed by the narrator reminded me of how frequently it is the case that people with nothing left to lose, people at the very bottom of life, are most free to express truth.

Here are a few of my favorite passages:

In New Orleans I have noticed that people are happiest when they are going to funerals, making money, taking care of the dead, or putting on masks at Mardi Gras so nobody knows who they are.


New Orleans! Not a bad place to spend a year in prison - except in the summer. Imagine being locked up in Birmingham or Memphis. What is it I can smell, even from here, as if the city has a soul and the soul exhaled an effluvium all its own? I can't quite name it. A certain vital decay? A lively fetor? When I think of New Orleans away from New Orleans, I think of rotting fish on the sidewalk and good times inside. A Catholic city in a sense, but that's not it. Providence, Rhode Island, is a Catholic city, but my God who would want to live in Providence, Rhode Island? It's not it, your religion, that informs this city, but rather some special local accommodation to it or relaxation from it. The city's soul I think of as neither damned nor saved but eased rather, existing in a kind of comfortable Catholic limbo somewhere between the outer circle of hell, where sexual sinners don't have it all that bad, and the inner circle of purgatory, where things are even better. Add to that a flavor of Marseilles vice leavened by Southern U.S.A. good nature. Death and sex treated unseriously and money seriously. The Whitney Bank is as solemn as the cemetery is lively. Protestants started Mardi Gras, you know. Presbyterians take siestas or play gin at the Boston Club. Jews ride on carnival floats celebrating the onset of Christ's forty-day fast.

I like you banal little cathedral in the Vieux Carre. It is set down squarely in the midst of the greatest single concentration of drunks, drugheads, whores, pimps, queers, sodomists in the hemisphere. But isn't that where cathedrals are supposed to be? It, like the city, had something else even more comforting to me, a kind of triumphant mediocrity. The most important event which occurred here in all of history was the John L. Sullivan-Jim Corbett fight. Three hundred years of history and it has never produced a single significant historical event, one single genius, or even a first-class talent - except a chess player, the world's greatest. But genius makes people nervous, including the genius, so he quit playing chess and began worrying about money like everyone else. It is altogether in keeping that the famous Battle of New Orleans was fought after the war was over and was without significance.


Have you ever watched onlookers at the scene of violence, an accident, a killing, a dead or dying body on the street? Their eyes shift to and fro ever so slightly, scanning, trying to take it all in. There is no end to the feast.


I knew a married couple once who were bored with life, disliked each other, hated their own lives, and were generally miserable - except during hurricanes. Then they sat in their house at Pass Christian, put a bottle of whiskey between them, felt a surge of happiness, were able to speak frankly and cheerfully to each other, laugh and joke, even make love. But that is crazy. Why should people be miserable in good weather and happy in bad? Surely not because they are sinners in good weather and saints in bad. True, people help each other in catastrophes. But they don't feel good because they help each other. They help each other because they feel good.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

In Memoriam Ms. Blettner

When I was a sophomore in college, I became obsessed with the vanity of human existence. As with extremists and polemicists before me, the Bible became the sword I would wield to prove my point. I would quote the Preacher from Ecclesiastes, “Vanity of vanities, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun?” I asked my music professor Elizabeth Blettner to advise an annual thesis paper I wanted to write on the subject. She worked with me over the course of the spring on the paper. An essay that would have otherwise taken the darkest view on the human condition and the futility of human action became, instead, under her influence, a thoughtful meditation on the balance in life. In our conversations, she was terribly enthusiastic about Ecclesiastes’ other well known maxim, “To everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven,” and pointed to how things in the world were seemly and related to the whole, when perceived with Wisdom, and were, for that reason, beautiful. She pointed out that Vanity in Ecclesiastes could be weighed against the value of Wisdom, “the Tree of Life,” in Proverbs. With her guidance, I wrote an essay that made clear that the Preacher was right that the risk of vanity and folly in life were overwhelming but that by turning life into a struggle to achieve Wisdom and Truth we can stay out of the “shadows of vanity” and “choose life over death.”

Ms. Blettner, with whom I had not spoken since leaving college more than a decade ago and who died earlier this year, appeared to my nineteen year old eyes to be living the proposition that she convinced me of and which concluded my paper. I got to know her – though only as a teacher – over a year of the most intense and sublime hours of my life sitting in her music tutorial, listening to Mozart, Bach, and Schubert. She was odd and old fashioned, with long elaborate dresses, thick grey hair worn in long braids under a kerchief, and frequently wearing either a nervous or troubled expression. But that look was sometimes quickly replaced by a smile that hinted at both mischief and ecstasy when things, a note of music or a comment from a student, came at the right time, showed that the stars were aligned and that the world (at least of her classroom) reflected some greater order. For my part, I was a high school dropout who had only a year or so earlier opted for drug rehab to avoid juvenile prison, whose admission to this college, the only one that would have him, shocked his parents and reflected the moral commitment of the college to accept anyone who applied and to use books and ideas to transform them into better people. Given our contrast, and the fact that she appeared to me to be some kind of mystic or angel, the attention that she gave to me, both on my paper and in class, felt more like spiritual guidance than education. We would listen to a Mozart piano sonata, two or three times, and she would point things out but would be coy about what she saw as most significant, and you would speak up, point out the repeating patterns, that it began and ended in the same place, how some small part of it related to the whole, or how it all related to some other bigger whole, and she became bright like the sun with joy because she loved so dearly small things that reflected the whole, things that begin and end in similar places. When you are a lost teenager, when the world of music, art, and beauty offer salvation, you grow towards that light, you hope it shines on you, and you bask in it when it does.

In my time with Ms. Blettner, she would say little things about her life, about studying philosophy in the mountains at Penn State, about her niece – her “namesake,” and she would be unable to repress certain views – like her shock when I was taking notes in margins of my Bible as though it were any other book. But every minute she spent with me, whether she was talking about Mozart, the Bible, or political squabbles in the music department, made me believe that maybe I was a good person, something that I seriously doubted (even more than I doubted the goodness of the bigger world), and that I could follow truth and beauty and avoid the snares of ignorance and vanity. She seemed so good, so full of truth, and she seemed invested in me and my thoughts. So I must not be all that bad, I hoped.

Though Ms. Blettner has not been in my life for a long while, her influence had deep marks on my daily life. Many of the things that I enjoy most, that cast away vice and vanity and make life worth living, are things that I learned from her. For me, works like Mozart’s Magic Flute or Bach’s St. Matthew Passion remain powerful responses to the Preacher inside me.

I have heard that the last month of Ms. Blettner’s life was filled with music and singing from her guests – former students and colleagues – who visited her at her hospice. I suspect many of the pieces that she taught us were played, as they have been in my home. In memorial, I resolved to someday teach these same pieces to my daughter, now one year old, and look forward to smiling excitedly when she finds something special or beautiful for herself in an opera or a piano sonata that I first heard with Ms. Blettner. And if she could see it, I am sure that she too would smile at how her end was a beginning for another and how all these little parts of life relate seamlessly to some glorious and beautiful whole.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Welcome Prize

The day is still young but this anti-Latino David Vitter attack advertisement is the most offensive thing I have seen so far . . .

God knows that people come to this country from Latin America to be mocked and caricatured, for free hand outs, to commit crimes, and for limousine rides. Surely not to work hard, to improve the lives of their children, and to participate in civic life in a great democracy, like my grandmother's parents, who immigrated from Eastern Canada in the 1920's and who had children in Massachusetts and New York that became American citizens by virtue of the 14th Amendment, now under threat.

Vitter's implicitly attacks the family histories and American identities of anyone whose family origins began outside this country (and that's quite nearly all of us), including many of us whose families have long shed any hint of foreign origin.

But for anyone who has an aunt, or a grandma, or a great grandma who spoke English with a little accent by virtue of having been born in some other country, you should be very offended.

Monday, September 13, 2010

"We have authority by martial law to shoot looters"

I wrote an op-ed for the Times Picayune about the nexus between Mayor Nagin's panicked post-Katrina declaration of martial law, the now clearly false and exaggerated claims made by Nagin and former New Orleans Police Superintendent Eddie Compass of a lawlessness among citizens that included racially tinged fantasies of armed attacks on Children's Hospital and baby raping in the Superdome, and the simultaneous attack on the citizenry by the NOPD that left eleven unarmed people shot, including five fatally, and 16 officers charged with involvement in the incidents or subsequent coverups.

It appears in tomorrow's paper:

Martial law? There's no such thing: A guest column by Billy Sothern

Speaking out, cleaning up_2

In the wild days after Hurricane Katrina, when a perverse game of telephone turned the actual chaos and misery occurring here into fictions of mobs invading Children's Hospital and shooting down medical helicopters, word was reportedly spread among the rank and file of the New Orleans Police Department, "We have authority by martial law to shoot looters."

It has been reported that there is now an internal NOPD investigation as to whether a "shoot looters" order was in fact given. Whether or not such an order or authority was carried out is not known at this time. What we do know is that, in the end, at least 11 unarmed people were shot by NOPD officers in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina under seriously questionable circumstances.

Of those, five died and can be rightfully added to Hurricane Katrina's 1,500-plus death toll in Louisiana. And 16 NOPD officers are now charged with federal criminal violations related to these incidents and the subsequent cover-ups.

One would think that if martial law was in fact permissible under Louisiana or U.S. law, that we would be hearing that various of these shootings were justified under that theory. In fact, martial law doesn't exist in our state and there is no authority under any law in this country that would justify shooting civilians who do not pose an immediate threat of death or serious bodily harm to officers or others.

Martial law -- literally, the law of Mars, the God of War -- is a suspension of existing civil laws and authority during a time of war or when civil authority has ceased to function, which suspends the ordinary administration of justice.

Generally, it places all legal authority in the will of the commander of an army and "is established and administered in a place or district of hostile territory held in belligerent possession, or, sometimes, in places occupied or pervaded by insurgents or mobs," in the words of Black's Law Dictionary.

Because our system of government is predicated on the rule of law, there are few historic precedents for martial law in America's history books. Tellingly, the example most often pointed to is President Lincoln's Civil War suspension of Habeas Corpus, a common law right of judicial review of a prison or death sentence, when Lincoln also established military courts in the South and West.

These measures were rejected by the United States Supreme Court, which said that even the Civil War did not justify what was essentially the imposition of martial law by Lincoln: "Civil liberty and this kind of martial law cannot endure together; the antagonism is irreconcilable; and, in the conflict, one or the other must perish."

If Abraham Lincoln, the president of a fractured country at war with itself, didn't have the constitutional authority to declare martial law, it can be safely assumed that a mayor or a police chief or captain, even in post-levee failure New Orleans, also lacked that authority.

So it's hard to know what the mayor, Ray Nagin, was saying when he told a journalist, "I've already called for martial law in New Orleans," as was recently rebroadcast in PBS's stunning "Law and Disorder" documentary on Frontline. If indeed any police officers even heard this order, they were obviously in no position to research the constitutionality of the claim at the law library of the Louisiana Supreme Court. Instead, they would have understood that the mayor was telling the world that he had lost the city to "insurgents" and "mobs" and that they needed to take it back without regard for the normal rules.

In the defining moment of crisis, when panic and passion were already so likely to overcome judgment, it appears that those in charge illegally threw out the rule of law. That they might have panicked and believed the rumors and very worst exaggerations about the citizens of our city is no excuse. The problem with the Law of Mars is that it easily confuses the blood of the guilty with the blood of innocents.

Of the many lessons learned from the chaos and confusion following Katrina, we now know that sometimes the only protection we really have is the rule of law. We abandon it at our peril.

Billy Sothern is a criminal defense attorney in New Orleans and the author of "Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City." His email address is billysothern@gmail.com.

Monday, August 30, 2010

There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better.

Five years ago, I was in Oxfordtown waiting out the storm.

Sitting back in my house in New Orleans, all this time later, I still feel lucky to be here. From where I sit, I see four cypress doors with old rim locks, brown and white porcelain knobs, and transoms above, an old river clay brick fire place that used to provide heat when this room, now my office, was the back of a slave quarters, and a double hung window looking out to a Japanese magnolia, a mimosa tree, and endless cat's claw vine consuming everything in its path beneath a blue sky. It is an unexceptional New Orleans room but better than any room anywhere else.

From Bob Dylan's Chronicles, Volume 1:

I showed up in New Orleans in early spring, moved into a large rented house near Audubon Park, a comfortable place, all the rooms fair sized, furnished quite simply, wardrobe cupboards in just about every room. We couldn’t have come to a better place for me. It was really perfect. You could work slow here. They were waiting at the studio, but I didn’t feel like jumping into anything. Sooner or later I’d have to get to the point but I could try it on another day. I brought a lot of the songs with me, I was pretty sure they would hold up veil.

Right now, I strolled into the dusk. The air was murky and intoxicating. At the corner of the block, a giant, gaunt cat crouched on a concrete ledge. I got up close to it and stopped and the cat didn’t move. I wished I had a jug of milk. My eyes and ears were open, my consciousness fully alive. The first thing you notice about New Orleans are the burying grounds - the cemeteries - and they're a cold proposition, one of the best things there are here. Going by, you try to be as quiet as possible, better to let them sleep. Greek, Roman, sepulchres- palatial mausoleums made to order, phantomesque, signs and symbols of hidden decay - ghosts of women and men who have sinned and who've died and are now living in tombs. The past doesn't pass away so quickly here. You could be dead for a long time.

The ghosts race towards the light, you can almost hear the heavy breathing spirits, all determined to get somewhere. New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don't have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there's a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There's something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can't see it, but you know it's here. Somebody is always sinking. Everyone seems to be from some very old Southern families. Either that or a foreigner. I like the way it is.

There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There's a thousand different angles at any moment. At any time you could run into a ritual honoring some vaguely known queen. Bluebloods, titled persons like crazy drunks, lean weakly against the walls and drag themselves through the gutter. Even they seem to have insights you might want to listen to. No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem. Gardens full of pansies, pink petunias, opiates. Flower-bedecked shrines, white myrtles, bougainvillea and purple oleander stimulate your senses, make you feel cool and clear inside.

Everything in New Orleans is a good idea. Bijou temple-type cottages and lyric cathedrals side by side. Houses and mansions, structures of wild grace. Italianate, Gothic, Romanesque, Greek Revival standing in a long line in the rain. Roman Catholic art. Sweeping front porches, turrets, cast-iron balconies, colonnades- 30-foot columns, gloriously beautiful- double pitched roofs, all the architecture of the whole wide world and it doesn't move. All that and a town square where public executions took place. In New Orleans you could almost see other dimensions. There's only one day at a time here, then it's tonight and then tomorrow will be today again. Chronic melancholia hanging from the trees. You never get tired of it. After a while you start to feel like a ghost from one of the tombs, like you're in a wax museum below crimson clouds. Spirit empire. Wealthy empire. One of Napoleon's generals, Lallemaud, was said to have come here to check it out, looking for a place for his commander to seek refuge after Waterloo. He scouted around and left, said that here the devil is damned, just like everybody else, only worse. The devil comes here and sighs. New Orleans. Exquisite, old-fashioned. A great place to live vicariously. Nothing makes any difference and you never feel hurt, a great place to really hit on things. Somebody puts something in front of you here and you might as well drink it. Great place to be intimate or do nothing. A place to come and hope you'll get smart - to feed pigeons looking for handouts.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise

An essay I wrote for Salon about Spike Lee's new documentary and New Orleans five years after Hurricane Katrina.

"If God Is Willing and da Creek Don't Rise": Spike Lee's riveting look at New Orleans, now

The filmmaker's new documentary argues that the troubled, extraordinary city holds the key to our redemption

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

death i think is no parenthesis

Earlier this month we stayed in a pleasant little cottage on Peaks Island in Maine. The house had belonged to a somewhat recently deceased woman for many years and her things - her white furniture, artwork, photographs, and books - kept the place Christina's Cottage, which is what everyone called it. While the home was unmistakeably her's and left a strong impression of her as a person, we felt comfortable there and had some vague sense that we liked her from her house, her things, and the impression it left about how she lived her life.

The first night we were there, when Nikki had fallen asleep upstairs, I picked out an anthology of poems from the bookcase and went to a dogeared page. I imagined that Christina had read the poem years earlier, that it had moved her, and that she marked the page to remember it. I too was moved, thought of my wife upstairs and the woman and her children who had lived there.

I read it to Nikki in the morning. She said that it was her favorite E.E. Cummings poem, which she hadn't read in years, and that it reminded her of her sister, who passed away years earlier.

since feeling is first

E.E. Cummings

since feeling is first
who pays any attention
to the syntax of things
will never wholly kiss you;
wholly to be a fool
while Spring is in the world

my blood approves,
and kisses are a better fate
than wisdom
lady i swear by all flowers. Don't cry
—the best gesture of my brain is less than
your eyelids' flutter which says

we are for each other: then
laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph

And death i think is no parenthesis

Monday, June 21, 2010

Treme - John Boutte

I enjoyed watching the finale of Treme last night and think that the show is an important reflection of both the spirit and culture of New Orleans and the difficulties that we face as a city and a country.

But, putting all that aside, I think that there is one inarguable truth about Treme that everyone should agree on. John Boutte, who sings the opening song and who has been featured throughout the first season, deserves to be famous. He sounds like Sam Cooke (which was joked about in the finale), while still sounding distinctly John Boutte. I hope that he still plays for free at DBA on Saturdays if he gets huge but I will still count myself lucky to have seen him there so many times if he doesn't.

I frequently find myself bitching about all of New Orleans' troubles but John Boutte is way up on my New Orleans gratitude list, along with roast beef po-boys (I would say oyster po-boys but that has become complicated recently), Mardi Gras, and long pine floorboards, that make it more than worth the effort.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Shakedown Your Congressman!

I lack the words to express my frustration at the continued environmental devastation caused by the oil gushing into the Gulf, destroying peoples' lives, killing animals, and devastating the already compromised wetlands that are essential New Orleans' capacity to withstand hurricanes.

So outrage is not even vaguely sufficient to articulate my response to hearing Texas Representative Barton apologize to BP CEO Hayward today during the Congressional hearing on the spill and to lambaste the Obama administration for compelling BP to create a $20B fund to compensate the people and governments impacted by the gusher:

"It is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown, in this case a $20 billion shakedown."

This has received a great deal of press today, almost exclusively critical, but it bears mentioning that this is not an isolated Republican perspective but, in fact, the Republican Study Committee, a group of over 100 Conservative Republican congressmen, issued a similar statement yesterday calling the BP fund a "Chicago Style Political Shakedown."

We are drowning in oil along the Gulf and maniac Conservatives remain so committed to their pro-corporate, liberterian ideology that they take BP's side against the people who will see some benefit, however inadequate, from this fund.

As cynical as I am, I was surprised to see Gulf Coast politicians on the list of Republican Study Committee members. Call them or email them and register your disgust:

Steve Scalise (LA-01)
Connie Mack (FL-14)
Jeff Miller (FL-01)

Monday, May 10, 2010

A Digit A Day

As my efforts to make Louisiana a more humane and less brutal place when it comes to the use of capital punishment have been largely unsuccessful, I am considering taking a new tack and instead proposing the use of physical, bodily mutilation as a deterrent for criminals and as a way to encourage law abiding behavior among the criminals that prey on Louisiana's defenseless citizens.
No, I have not changed my view on Bobby Jindal's proposal to mandate castration for child sex offenders and remain opposed to such a sanction on the basis that it would demean our contemporary standards of decency while being entirely ineffective in deterring sex offenders, most of whom do not expect to be caught and therefore are unafraid of an improbable punishment.
I propose that, instead, we save such punishments for the corporate executives of the companies that exploit our state's natural resources. With the largest oil spill in history gathering and expanding in the Gulf of Mexico still spewing oil, three weeks after the initial explosion at the Deep Water Horizon oil platform, I have a proposal that is penologically sound, that will encourage a quick resolution to the continuing flow of oil, and which will deter other corporate heads from allowing their companies - all rational actors, I was taught in law school - to allow similar catastrophes.
Here is what we shall do: For every day the oil continues to flow up from the sea bed - destroying the lives of tens of thousands who rely on the Gulf for their livelihood, ruining the habitats of hundreds of species of birds and animals that lives in the wetlands and barrier islands, further degrading wetlands that protects south Louisiana from hurricanes which were already undermined by oil company canals and pipelines - British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward loses a digit. A digit a day. He can choose, start out with pinky toes if he wants, but if doesn't do something to end the flow quickly, he'll find himself with no fingers or toes left and we'll have to get creative. Either with him or maybe we'll start with the Transocean or Halliburton CEO's.
There guys are all Conservatives, I am sure, big believers in accountability who, when they achieve political office, have no regard for the "whining" of my clients on death row. They are the ones that believe that harsh punishments like mass incarceration and the death penalty are the only social programs worth keeping to solve our societal ills. And it's not like we are going to kill them. We'll just leave them fingerless, toeless lessons to corporate heads everywhere that the people who are impacted by their choices are not simply abstractions that exist in profit and loss statements. And, also unlike my clients, these guys are people who we can expect really take risks and contingencies into account before they act so our brutality will have a genuine deterrent effect. Maybe it will put a little fire under Hayward ass, get a solution to this month old problem before the elderly and children along the coast have to be moved inland to protect them from the carcinogenic benzene wafting in with the afternoon breeze. And if it doesn't, at least my anger that my city smells like a goddam gas station will be appeased, however slightly.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Is Louisiana part of our country or isn't it?

Rachel Maddow's closing remarks on her May 3, 2010 show broadcast from Venice, Louisiana were a powerful expression of both what the Gulf Coast and Louisiana face from this enormous natural disaster and also what Americans face with minimally regulated capitalism. To be clear, powerful corporations are making choices everyday that put our lives at risk and they calculate our suffering into their profit and loss statements and, frequently, it's cheaper to create misery than to spend money preventing it. (Who knows what corners were cut, what "efficiencies" realized, in the construction of the "fail safe" blow out preventer that should have closed the flow of oil in this type of disaster. I wouldn't be surprised if we end up finding out that an additional $100,000 part could have prevented this multi-billion dollar disaster.) The government, with the collective interests of the people at heart, is the only way that all of us little ants can stand up and demand that these corporations consider our safety and wellness when they are digging wells, making products, and trading mortgages and securities.

The Conservative Era, from Reagan to Bush (and now, Obama), has created a landscape that would make Upton Sinclair blush. Once the oil is capped and the Gulf is cleaned (if that is even possible), something real needs to be done to clean up Washington D.C. and its stink of corporate influence, which has already managed to pollute almost everything there. Until then, I will sooner eat oil covered gulf shrimp than buy anything that comes out of those fetid waters.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

A transcript of the closing of the May 3 Rachel Maddow Show:

So, here we are again on America's Gulf Coast, the Louisiana shoreline reporting on an environmental, economic and human catastrophe. This fragile stretch of our country being ripped apart again just as the wounds of the last disaster were beginning to heal here -- that of course was hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the barrier islands off the coast here and leveled much of Venice, Louisiana, where I'm sitting tonight. That was 2005. Here we are again in 2010.

If there's a unifying truth in this state, in this region, it is that the wetlands are the only means of survival. Nobody argues this point. Republicans, Democrats, nobody argues this point.

The wetlands are to the Gulf Coast what bumpers and crumple zones are to cars. It's a buffer against the impact, an absorber of destructive energy, a giant protector against disasters. Wetlands slow and weaken hurricanes before they reach places like New Orleans. They support wildlife. They support human economy. They are incredibly, incredibly fragile, and they have to be preserved if they are going to preserve us. The marshes were built by nature over thousands of years, built by the Mississippi River's floods which left settlement in fresh water. That pushed the edge of the continent out into the Gulf of Mexico by as much as 100 miles.

But since, the 1950s, the pursuit of profit has forced 8,000 miles of marshes to yield to manmade canals -- essentially, to make oil exploration and shipping easier. It's estimated that the state of Louisiana loses 25 square miles of wetlands every year. If we were losing that much land to another country, we would be at war.

America has a choice to make about the State of Louisiana. Is Louisiana part of our country or isn't it? Because if Louisiana is part of America, then the American people and the American government have to begin to defend Louisiana against American greed, and multinational greed. Because yes, legally it's the job of BP, the oil company, to clean up this disaster that looms over this wetlands behind me right now.

But who among us believes that any company really wants to defend America, as much as we as a nation want to defend us? The gain sucked out of the sea bed here is private, it's profit, it supersedes to these pesky little regulatory bodies called countries, but the risk here, again, the risk here as always isn't private. It's public, it's national, it's American. It's borne by Louisiana again, literally borne by the land here and by the people here. The incentives all line up neatly for the companies who profit up a natural resources here to take what they can and damn the consequences.

For us as a country, if we believe in Louisiana, somebody's got to stand up against those companies on behalf of the public, the land, the people, the country.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010


I wrote this piece in late 2007 for an issue of Orion Magazine that collected essays from writers across the world about the impact of climate change on their immediate lives. (Orion did not end up publishing it.) The essay focuses on land use in New Orleans but the overarching theme, hubris, seems timely in light of the environmental crisis in the Gulf of Mexico. I don't think it can be repeated too many times: Katrina's impact on New Orleans (a consequence of levee failures, greedy and thoughtless modern development of flood prone areas, environmental degradation of the wetlands, etc.) and the oil geyser in the Gulf were both man made disasters, failures of engineering, imagination, and respect for the natural environment.

Pandora’s Box in New Orleans

In our creation myths, the Divine grows weary of the small, weak, and overreaching efforts of man and finds it necessary to bring about a grand, humbling event. In Greek mythology man was punished for presumptuously accepting Zeus’ stolen fire from Prometheus by being left to suffer the ills from Pandora’s box. In Genesis we see the vision of man discontent with the bounty provided him consuming the one thing denied by God and, as a result, cast out of paradise and into a world of suffering. Hubristic at our core believing in our hearts that we too are Gods, mankind is yet to be humbled.

I live in a Great American City – New Orleans – that has recently suffered an enormous catastrophe that might have highlighted our more modern brands of hubris. In the myriad causes of the disaster we see many consequences of our vast disrespect for the natural world. We walled in the reluctant Mississippi River for a thousand miles with levees and starved Louisiana’s coastal wetlands of the sediment from which they were created, thus degrading nature’s best storm buffer. At the behest of powerful development interests, we have literally stolen earth for over a century by busily draining thousands of acres of swamps with modern pumping devices to build tract houses below sea-level. We have carved up the already struggling wetlands with shipping canals that allow salt water to infect the brackish wetlands and, more to the point, allow oil interests to extract fossil fuels from below the beds of the wetlands causing the ground beneath to subside. In a world of rising seas from global warming that will only increase the risk of bigger, more powerful storms in the future, our city seems to have learned little from our suffering.

Before the twentieth century, the people who planned and built the historic sections of the city that our visitors are most familiar with were not armed with technology to drain or wall off nature so they built with nature rather than against it. Their good sense resulted in one of the most arresting images to come out of post-Katrina New Orleans, rivaling even the widely publicized photos of a dog eating a bloated human body: a diptych of maps that appeared in The Times Picayune, one showing the current city with those areas that flooded cast in blue and the other showing the pre-twentieth century city. The blue areas in the former were all just beyond the historic footprint of the city and, without exception, none of the flooded areas had been deemed habitable by the city’s fathers.

Without the tools to try to fight nature, and with a consequent respect and deference for its powers, the city's fathers had built their city on the high ground along the Mississippi created from millennia of alluvial silt deposited on the river’s banks as it crept along its crescent shaped turn. And even there, they built on piers, elevating structures several feet above the ground and likely future floods.

For want of a plan that would have prevented the foolish redevelopment of the city’s catastrophically flooded twentieth century neighborhoods, the city has allowed individuals to rebuild as they please. Now here and there among the rows of boarded up slabs homes in the miles of devastation are picture-perfect renovations with manicured gardens and owners who hope and believe that levees can be built bigger and pumps stronger to keep nature – growing ever more furious - at bay. They are encouraged by our leaders who refuse to tell people things that they don’t want to hear or tell us that we should bow our heads to anything. They are emboldened by our technologies, our supposed strengths, that in their noxious by-products, including our belief that they have allowed us to make the natural world after our image and desires, have only put us at greater risk of crumbling into the sea. Believing as we do, we won't back down from this fight and, if history is any lesson, we won't win.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Second Line

The Treme premiere depicted, I thought quite convincingly, the first post-Katrina second line parade three months after the flood.

I was at the real life first second line on November 26, 2005 (at least I thought it was the first) and wrote about it for The Nation a month or two later. It was the Black Men of Labor second line, originally scheduled for September 5, 2005 but delayed - not canceled - by the storm and executed in pretty spectacular fashion less than three months later. It was pretty terrific.

Nikki took phenomenal pictures, one of which ended up in my book. Here is what I wrote at the time:

A Second-Line Revival

By Billy Sothern

January 25, 2006

"In this place, there's a custom for the funerals of jazz musicians. The funeral procession parades slowly through the streets, followed by a band playing a mournful dirge as it moves to the cemetery. Once the casket has been laid in place, the band breaks into a joyful 'second line,' symbolizing the triumph of the spirit over death. Tonight the Gulf Coast is still coming through the dirge, yet we will live to see the second line." --George W. Bush, September 15, 2005

Word spread in bars, coffee shops and by way of New Orleans' independent radio station, WWOZ, that there was going to be a second line at 10 Saturday morning starting at Sweet Loraine's on Saint Claude Avenue. The parade was with the Black Men of Labor, who second-line annually on Labor Day. There were to be two brass bands, The Hot 8 and To Be Continued, a group of teenage musicians.

By the time I arrived at the closed bar, an odd assortment of recently returned city residents were milling about on the sidewalk and the trash-strewn neutral ground. Amid duct-taped refrigerators and piles of moldy sheetrock, residents of the surrounding neighborhoods where the second-line culture has lived for generations watched with anticipation as the pre-parade drama unfolded. Gutter punks, their faces tattooed and pierced, were dressed for a postapocalyptic ball, with girls in tutus and dresses and men in top hats. Middle-aged music aficionados were also mixed into the crowd, wearing vintage "Jazzfest 88" T-shirts that testified to their authentic love of New Orleans' music. The whole scene was under the magnifying glass of 100 cameras and a dozen video cameras, recording the moment for posterity.

One documentarian, in a Yankees hat and with a large movie crew, was especially conspicuous. The storm had blown in Spike Lee, a genuine national celebrity. In a city that is just as eager to revere its own local celebrities--like Mister Quintron, an indie musician and inventor of the Drum Buddy; rock-star celebrity chef Susan Spicer; and the late Ernie K-Doe, singer of the 1960s R&B classic "Mother-in-Law" and self-proclaimed "emperor of the world"--Spike Lee attracted little more attention than the rest of the many cameramen as he worked on his new documentary, When the Levees Broke. No one had come to Sweet Loraine's to gawk at stars other than the dozen or so men in yellow shirts who were set to perform their distinctive dance up and down New Orleans' streets.

As we waited for the parade to start, an off-the-cuff press conference began, with cameras converging around the dapper men and people asking questions about the meaning of the second line after the storm. As New Orleanians are rarely at a loss for words these days in explaining their plight and the significance of their lives and culture (nothing like being left for dead by the rest of your country to make you realize that you have to speak up for yourself), Fred Johnson, one of the founders of the thirteen-year-old Second-Line Club, wearing a black fedora and dark glasses, responded at length, linking New Orleans' black cultural traditions to those of his ancestors, who were slaves in Louisiana. "Slaves created gumbo from the scraps off the table out of what no one else wanted," he said. "The big house didn't know what the little house was doin', but when they found out, it became a cuisine." He enunciated "cuisine" with slight mockery and derision but also with understanding--as, of course, who wouldn't want gumbo?

Not everyone was eager to listen to talking, though. Interrupting the monologue, a lanky middle-aged black man announced, "I came here to dance! Where's the music at?" He was soon placated by the booming moan of Bennie "Big Peter" Pete tuning his tuba. A heavy black woman with a tiny Nike backpack and big gold earrings, with a faint tattoo of an M on her hand, was ecstatic at the sound: "Bring me back home. Waah, waaah, waah, waaah. I been waiting to hear that. I been hearing it in my sleep."

As The Hot 8 tuned up, the Black Men of Labor disappeared into Sweet Loraine's, and the excitement of the promise of real New Orleans culture after months in the monoculture of Jackson, Houston and Pensacola spread among the crowd.

The Hot 8 began playing "E Flat Blues," and tears came to people's eyes as they gathered around outside, waiting for the second-liners to emerge from Sweet Loraine's. Then each player burst through the doors, one by one, like the hometown team coming onto the basketball court at the beginning of the game. Each man, dressed in the same yellow-and-black outfit, expressed an individual character coming through the darkened doors. Some sauntered, some strutted, and one particularly inspired dancer walked and danced in a squat with his butt almost on the sidewalk. Cheers for each of them were barely discernible over the loud brass.

When the last man was through, we began to walk, en masse, down Saint Claude Avenue, a street that runs through the now famously devastated Ninth Ward. The parade turned up Saint Bernard Avenue, and the brown, chest-heigh waterline became evident on the facades of people's old wood-frame shotgun houses.

As the band finished up "Paul Barbarin's Second Line," the dancers quickly headed into Mickey's Next Stop Bar, followed by about fifty paraders, all wanting a quick beer. It was unclear whether the bar just happened to be open at 11:15 on the parade route or whether these were normal hours in this near-vacant, crumbling neighborhood. But certainly, the few late-morning drinkers inside must have been surprised at all the company.

As sometimes happens here, we got sidetracked at the bar. This time the delay was justified by the fact that two critical components of the second line--beer and hot sausage po' boys, typically sold from the beds of pickup trucks following the parade--were absent.

The band got going again with a slow dirge as the parade resumed slowly up Saint Bernard into Tremé, one of the oldest black neighborhoods in America, where free people of color built homes in the mid-eighteenth century. We passed the neighborhood grocery store, the old Circle Grocery, which had become an emblem of New Orleans' post-Katrina chaos and was shown beneath deep water with nauseating frequency on CNN from the elevated interstate that runs next to it. The sad music captured the feeling so many of us had as evacuees looking at elements of our everyday lives turned upside down and projected to a national audience to tell the story of this terrible natural disaster.

The band, however, refused to dwell on this mood for long and commenced a rousing "I'll Fly Away," just as it passed under the interstate. With the sound trapped beneath the highway, the acoustics exploded. The band stopped marching and played even harder, as everyone cheered ecstatically.

When the song ended, the parade turned onto Claiborne Avenue, which runs under the highway and which served for generations as the center of commerce and social life for Tremé. It had been a wide neutral ground and once had elegant oaks under which families often picnicked. But the oaks were cut down and the neutral ground was paved for parking when the highway was built above Claiborne Avenue in the 1960s as part of a backward "urban development" plan. Recently, the oaks have reappeared as murals on the massive, concrete cylinders that support the highway, providing imagined shade to the many persistent families who still picnic there on lawn chairs, just as their great-grandparents did.

On the corner of Claiborne and Columbus, the parade made a left and lingered for a moment under the interstate again before the band and the Second Liners scurried over to Antoinette K-Doe. She was sitting on the corner in front of the Mother-in-Law Lounge, which she opened with her late husband as a venue for New Orleans music and tradition. Even before K-Doe's death, in 2001, it was a museum of artifacts from his career--it even contained a life-size K-Doe in one of his old '60s outfits. Almost all of the many images that adorned the walls featured K-Doe--with rare exceptions, including a painting of Christ. Since K-Doe's passing, Antoinette has been more open about the fact that the lounge is, and always was, a shrine to her legendary spouse.

Miss Antoinette is a revered figure in New Orleans among musicians of all stripes, from brass bands to indie rockers. In addition to her years as K-Doe's "wife, his manager, his secretary, his bartender, everything," as she described it to me recently, she is also a cousin of Lee Dorsey, the writer and singer of the New Orleans anthem and '60s R&B hit "Ya-Ya," as well as a singer and dancer in her own right.

All of the musicians and dancers stopped to check in with Miss Antoinette, offering condolences for the extensive flood damage that the lounge and K-Doe's old black limo suffered in the storm. She remained smiling, optimistic and proud in all of her exchanges as she sat against the bright-colored murals of musicians on the exterior cinderblock walls of the lounge. In sharp contrast, everyone could easily see past Miss Antoinette, through the doorway, into the gray and gutted lounge. As empress of all of this, Miss Antoinette greeted Spike Lee as she did everyone else, and posed with him for a picture taken by one of his crew, seemingly for him to hang on his office wall.

We got going again, down Columbus Street, a block that three months earlier had been an open-air drug market but that had since been abandoned to flooded cars and garbage, including a flood-darkened Ziploc bag with "pickled lips" handwritten on the white label. On the next block down, in the fenced-in schoolyard of the McDonough 35 High School, the parade approached a group of young black men in orange jumpsuits with "OPP" stenciled in black block letters on the chest. These men, prisoners of the Orleans Parish Prison, which only three months earlier had left hundreds of men to drown in their cells in the rising water, ran to the high, chain-link fence and danced to the rhythm of their home, their neighborhoods, with their fists in the air. Cute women in pigtails and handmade "Make Levees, Not War" T-shirts danced in the sunny street on the other side of the fence, framed against the burned-out shell of an old Creole cottage.

The Hot 8, no strangers to urban criminal justice, stopped and began a special performance for the men behind the fence, playing an impromptu "Let My People Go." This act of solidarity reminded me of the band's own loss when a year earlier, only about five blocks from the schoolyard, The Hot 8's trombone player, "Shotgun" Joe Williams, was killed by police. (Though the media made much of his nickname in justifying the shooting of this unarmed man, anyone familiar with local jazz could explain that "shotgun" is a colloquialism for the trombone.) While the band was scheduled to play to a mostly white, upper-middle-class crowd in the French Quarter later in the day, it is unlikely that audience received the same kind of passionate and personal performance that The Hot 8 gave for the men in the orange jumpsuits.

The parade wrapped up its tour of the Tremé in front of the Back Street Museum, a museum of New Orleans' black cultural history in the shadow of the old Saint Augustine Church, where generations of Tremé musicians were baptized. The staff had made red beans and rice, which they gave to the dancers and musicians, and then to everyone else. Some activists circulated a petition for Category Five hurricane levee protection, and others informed the crowd of a march the following week to protest the city's lack of commitment to rebuild poor neighborhoods. They passed out fliers with the South African antiapartheid anthem "Nothing Without Us Is for Us" providing the details. Everyone seemed optimistic and at home, and unlike almost any other place where New Orleanians congregate, no one talked at all about moving away.

We had, for a moment, lived up to the President's prediction and triumphed over the spirit of death with a second line through a city that had been left to die as he watched from the big house, while his wife no doubt explained to him that what we have down here is "culture."

(See photos of the second-line parade by New Orleans artist Nikki Page here.)