Hustling Backwards

Because I spend a lot of my evenings working at home and reading up on the day’s news, I watch a fair amount of TV. Or rather, I hear a lot of TV in the background of my room, staying half tuned in to the sitcoms and news shows. The other night, I was half-watching a special on Hurricane Katrina, and while it was nothing I didn’t know already, it hit me hard.

Working in the news media, I’ve been pretty acutely aware that the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina was approaching. Like every other media outlet, my show has been planning its coverage for the big day, although I do think we haven’t covered it the way others have. We have reports from around the world, comparing the earthquake in Gujarat to the flooding of New Orleans. We have the voices of evacuees displaced by the storm mixed with stories of street vendors displaced by the World Trade Center bombings. I think these illustrate the idea that Katrina and its mismanaged aftermath, to borrow a phrase, was an extreme example of the current disaster we’ve been in for decades – the disaster of racism, classism, and environmental mismanagement.

But as the TV flickered in the background, I was pulled away from work to the screen by the images that hit me so hard a year ago. The desperation. The mothers begging for water to give their thirsty babies. The old people sleeping on the baggage carousel at Louis Armstrong airport. The thousands sleeping pell-mell on the floor at the Superdome, the clogged toilets and mountains of garbage and sheet-covered bodies outside what was supposed to be a safe haven.

And while I’ve been planning our reporting on the hurricane, I had managed to forget the feelings I had watching those images a year ago. The shame, anger, despair, and devastation – those had faded.

And that’s an outrage. I suppose we can’t live in a constant state of shame, despair, and fury. But a year on since the Hurricane, the “national conversation” about race and class that we were supposed to have? I’m still waiting, and if Katrina wasn’t going to spark it, I don’t want to be around for whatever disaster will finally make America face up.

The NBC special had Brian Williams saying “When you walk by a body lying face fown on the street outside the Superdome, you know that something has come unravelled.” Oh, that’s when you know? You didn’t have a hint when all the faces drawn and desperate at the Superdome were black. You didn’t get a clue when the schools were failing, when the unemployment rates are through the roof, when working people can barely make enough to survive.

The NBC special aired the 28th, the day before the storm hit. On the actually Katrina anniversary, I was really struck by the near-total lack of coverage on the major TV networks. That day being a Tuesday and thus a work-night, I tuned into PBS, which was showing a new documentary not on Katrina, but much more topically, on the current disaster. It’s called Waging A Living, and its about how impossible it is for working people to live in America. And it profiles three women and one man, living not on the brink of poverty but well underwater, despite their superhuman efforts to survive.

It particularly killed me that these were women, all with children, all so proud and strong and fierce, and so damn familiar. They are the women who follow the rules, love their kids, work ungodly hard, even make time for school. And all they get for it is massive credit card debt, high blood pressure, and deep, deep grief at not being able to hold up the sky.

One woman is raising five kids; she works for child services, and she herself was sexually and physically abused as a kid. When, after four years at $8.25 an hour, she gets a raise to $11, she loses food stamps and Medicaid benefits. One child is sick; she can’t afford his $191 prescriptions (for 2 drugs) with her new salary. Her rental is subsidy is cut, raising the rent by $149 – more than the total amount of the raise. As she says, the harder she works, the harder it gets. Hustling backwards.

Another is a waitress, going through a divorce. She’s losing her home, her car, and her kids are losing it too from the stress and the crisis. You see the direct line between the financial precarity and the family breakdown. Family values is economic justice, plain and simple.

I know this isn’t the most radical position, but I do actually believe in the promise of America. For all its terrible flaws, for its slave-holding origins, America was founded – even if just in name only – on the whimsical notion that the pursuit of happiness is a fundamental right. Brian Williams didn’t specify just what had come unravelled when he saw the body in the street, but it’s something very fundamental – it’s America’s own idea of itself. For the people dying in the streets, on their roofs and in their attics, the pursuit of happiness was irrelevant; it was the pursuit of life itself, and the American government failed them. But as Waging a Living illustrates so intensely, that failure did not by any stretch of the imagination start late last August.

Much has been made of the media coverage of Katrina and its aftermath. And I could join the chorus and go on forever about the media’s misrepresentations and obfuscations of who is responsible for the abuse of New Orleans’ residents. But that’s a straw man. It’s like saying Survivor is bad because it split people by race. No. Survivor is bad because its a ridiculous waste of our public airwaves that too rarely make time (or funding) for riveting human relevant stories like the one on PBS tonight.

The women in this movie are so goddam cheerful and strong, and there are millions of them all over the place, and the closest we’ve come to showing them on TV in the last 15 years is Roseanne and then the Katrina coverage. I used to work on economic policy issues, and sometimes I wonder whether I should have stayed there, because working in the media feels far from the real world sometimes. But then I see TV programs like this, and I remember why the fights for a media justice matter the hell out of the damn thing. It’s because with a just media, we would not be able to hide from the current disaster.

One woman in this movie says that the best part was when she got evicted, and then social services came through for her, her adult daughter with cancer, her four grandkids, and her own young child. The best part, she said, was that someone finally heard that I needed help. Just to be clear, she is saying that the best part was when her whole family lost their family home. Yeah.

For thousands in New Orleans, no one heard the requests for help – during the storm, before, or since. And I say requests on purpose. It’s not a plea, it’s not a desperate wail. These requests for help, from the people in New Orleans and the working poor all over the country – they’re a demand of people who believe in themselves, a battle cry of people fighting hard to live.

The waitress mom in Waging a Living encapsulated in four words the way I feel about life in America right now. “I’m independent. I’m not free,” she says. I certainly consider myself to be strong and independent. But with our rights to communicate, control our bodies, live in a half-affordable home, and earn enough to feed our families all under attack, this doesn’t look like freedom. It’s more like we’re all hustling backwards.

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