Thursday, September 08, 2005

Managing the image instead of the relief

The Los Angeles Times reports that FEMA is trying to block the press from publishing photos of the dead in New Orleans. Now, I actually have a hard time with these photos - they're disturbing, they're sad, they're hard to look at, and - trust me on this - they're particularly hard to handle if you are searching for loved ones and you might know the person in the photograph. But the point is, information matters. To stop the photos or the reports is not an act of decency as FEMA claims, it is an act of censorship. These tactics reek of the same image management interest that has the Pentagon spending its time controlling photos of soldiers' coffins rather than figuring out ways to bring soldiers home alive.

These attempts at image control come just as the general buzz has built crediting the mainstream press for finally showing some chutzpah. After all, if it weren't for the television cameras, bloggers, and reporters showing the devastation in the Gulf Coast, Bush and Cheney might still be on vacation.

It does appear that the powers who prefer managing information to managing relief are succeeding in stopping a low power FM radio station from broadcasting about relief efforts.

There are also reports that PayPal has blocked accounts that were set up to funnel funds to the Red Cross and other aid organizations. Some think the huge volume of donations triggered PayPal's fraud detection systems.

The receding floodwaters will reveal things no one wants to see, but we must look. Our legacy of failure to provide for our most vulnerable and marginalized people was revealed by the floods themselves, and we must look.

We must look at the ways previous decisions shaped what happened and to whom. We must act now - publicly, privately, individually, and collectively - to prevent such devastation from being reintroduced or reinforced in our communities. As we continue to provide relief and recovery we must also think about how we rebuild - not just our cities but our public priorities and policies, our philanthropic and civic institutions, and our communities - with a commitment to equity and racial justice that will make them stronger and safer for all of us.

Here's the good news. Equitable and humane efforts at bringing relief are coming from all points on earth, from all kinds of people, and in all kinds of ways. The institutions that have so completely failed our poor will also fail to stop truly just commitments to relief and rebuilding.


Anonymous said...

I hope you are right that the institutions that have failed to this point will be unable to stop a just rebuilding effort. Life would be easier, and the job more effectively completed, if government institutions turned their attention to this repair. It's time for us to see the power of unified action, with the government providing the funds and listening to the public's voice, while nonprofits shape that debate and carry out much of the work.

While I do not mourn an opportunity to point to the shortcomings of this president and his administration, I also acknowledge that without his support the rebuilding will be as slow and misdirected as the Ground Zero redevelopment in New York. Governor Pataki and Mayor Bloomberg have not given this important (but substantially smaller) development effort the attention it deserves. The nonprofit community does not have access to the millions in Federal funds, and thus they are unable to make progress without government participation.

Let's make the Gulf Coast rebuilding an example of learning from our previous missteps. We need all levels of government and the social sector working together to rebuild from the devastation. It's time for President Bush to tackle this effort as his lasting legacy.

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks Rob. I didn't mean to imply that government suport and funding isn't needed here - it is critical and it must be done - failing in the past doesn't let any of us off the hook now. But the leadership and demand that justice be done must come from us, just as the real succor and support for people is coming from individuals, community groups, and networks of civic institutions. This administration will not, on its own, see past further opportunities for private enterprise to benefit and we must not let them take over now when we know where their intentions will take them.

This must be an occasion for people to come together across racial lines, political divides and other differences and demand something better. The floods revealed our collective failures.