Five years ago this week, as I watched Michael Brown stand shiny and clean on camera and receive one of the worst alleged atta-boys of all time, I knew in my gut he was being set up.
I remember the physical discomfort between “Brownie” and the President. I remember the way those words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” came out of the mouth of the FEMA chief’s ultimate boss and the look on Brown’s face. You can see in that instant he knows a hell of a lot more than he can share. It was painful. The words were condescending, and artificial and inappropriate and awful on every level; and they highlighted a yawning reality canyon between those two men as well as between the federal government and the states.
Much has been written and expressed in other — often artistic — forms about how the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina removed any mask we might be wanting to put on our fundamental lack of progress around racial disparities. I can’t disagree. The literal black and white disgrace that was FEMA’s total disconnect with the very kind of situation it exists to manage is burned on our nation’s history. No one can say the authorities on every level “didn’t know” it was going to be a disaster. Extensive records exist that verify the proper people knew exactly what was poised to go down.
I still have no accounting for what exactly fell apart. Michael Brown’s continued efforts to explain it only seem to make things worse by ripping off what frail bandage we had on the memories and yet leaving no more healing in its place.
Mike Hale of the New York Times said it well when he described Spike Lee’s portrayal of the aftermath (emphasis added is mine):
Released just a year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” was a thrilling achievement: both intimate and magisterial, angry and eloquent, an indictment and a testament, it represented a high point in the career of its director, Spike Lee.
It was definitively racial. But as a West Virginian, I saw more. I do believe it was racial in New Orleans, but I feel some of the same kinds of nausea at home, where the U.S. Census measures our population at over 94% white. I think the most powerful common denominator is a profound disregard for human life when that life is uneducated and living in poverty.
I want to believe that if some natural disaster befell West Virginia, that the cavalry would come. That the nation would turn on the television and see our plight and send every resource to save us. What I saw 5 years ago in New Orleans scared the hell out of me, because I no longer have that belief. I think some populations are considered disposable and not worth the effort and expense, and as much as I don’t want to believe it, Katrina took away my suspension of disbelief.
The Sago mine disaster was a perversion of this grinding fear. Every day in West Virginia (and around the world) human beings go deep underground and risk their health and their lives so I can use my laptop (see The Short Ladders for some stats on our state’s educational attainment, or lack thereof). There is a lot of drama around rescues once people are in trouble, but very little evidence that the nation is serious about reducing dependence on coal or that most coal companies themselves see these human beings as something more than replaceable commodities.
I’ll conclude where I began, with the “heck of a job” video clip and Michael Brown. I don’t know anything about Mr. Brown. He may be a negligent incompetent monster, but that seems less likely than he was one man at the helm of a critically important federal agency that the powers that be had no real interest in leveraging during Katrina.
The question remains why, and if it would have been the same story in the Hamptons.