In one of the episodes in HBO’s Treme, there’s a scene where Clark Peter’s character Albert “Big Chief” Lambreaux emerges from a darkened street in full Mardi Gras Indian Chief regalia. I think it is a beautiful scene, because out of the desolate landscape emerges something beautiful, overwhelming, and completely unexpected. It marks an important and iconic scene in the show – the character Lambreaux is doing this as a protest to the way things are, and a demonstration of the promise of the way things should be.
When the episode aired, I remember a lot of comments on the internet about how contrived the scene was. Nothing like that would really happen, I remember several threads testifying. It simply wasn’t plausible, they said.
Those internet comments struck me as odd for one simple reason – something very much like that scene happened to me years prior to the Treme episode. It was on a day I will always remember, November 4, 2008. What feels in my memory like sometime between 8 and 9PM Central Time, national media called the Commonwealth of Virginia for Presidential candidate Barack Obama, and with Virginia they called the whole Presidential election.
My friends back in Georgia will tell you that after I heard his speech at the DNC in 2004, I told anyone who would listen that Barack Obama would be President one day. The incredulous students in the RSD school where I taught should remember me telling them throughout the primaries that Obama was likely to end up the winner. You could say I was excited the evening of the election. In addition to my UGA ballcap and Dirty Coast “GEAUXBAMA” shirt (which I will proudly wear until it falls to tatters many years from now), I had my US flag outside on the porch flagpole.
I would need it. Once the election was called by more than one national news organization, I grabbed the flag and ran down LePage Street to the intersection with Broad. I wasn’t the only one cheering when I got there. What I remember as a barber shop across the street was emptying out. People were stopping their cars, honking horns, and asking if the news was real through the tears in their eyes. Just as I crossed over to the neutral ground on Broad, a gentleman wearing jeans and the evening’s t-shirt walked into the streetlight on Bayou Road. He was wearing a Mardi Gras Indian headdress and holding a giant feathered spear.
The next few minutes were a blur in my memory, but I’m glad I got to enjoy it in that moment. Back then I had a crappy flip phone, so there was no temptation to pull up social media and miss the experience while trying to post pictures on Twitter. No, that night I just got to dance with the impromptu crowd and cheer along with a bunch of strangers sharing a beautiful moment. If Heaven don’t sound like that when you get there, you ought to ask for your money back.
The moment and the memory ebb after someone from the barbershop asked if he could carry my flag. He was a Vietnam veteran with tears in his eyes because he never thought he’d see the day an African-American was elected President. How on Earth could I say no? I will remember for the rest of my life the small crowd marching away towards Esplanade, behind a Chief’s headdress and a waving Stars and Stripes.
I often find myself thinking back to that memory, that moment 8 years ago. As our now two term President prepares to leave office and hand over the awesome power of the state to his polar opposite, I’m going to need memories like these over the next 48 months. I could not know on that day just how much the election of Barack Obama would serve as a protest to the way things are, and a demonstration of the promise of the way things could be. How could I know how enraged so many of my fellow Americans would become and reject the vision I saw as that promising future?
It should have been obvious from the start that this would be different. Instead of a moment of triumph and a celebration of a new, more diverse, more prosperous America, the election of Barack Obama now looks more like a desperate Hail Mary pass to preserve the fairy tale of the nation we always thought we were. Who knew that, despite the President’s best efforts to fix the things we all know are problems, all that would do is force us to face the uncomfortable truths about the nature of the problems themselves. A lot of people are emotionally invested in that fairy tale did not take the last 8 years kindly.
For me, I’ve learned more about my country in the last 8 years than any other time in my life. It feels like we don’t actually want an Executive who works within the Constitutional government of checks and balances alongside co-equal Legislative and Judicial branches, operating in a Federal system where the Several States also have enumerated powers. No, many Americans seem to want a Hero Wizard King who can read our minds and deliver exactly what we want without us having to be introspective about the costs. It seems like our national conversation is less about fixing things, and more about blaming someone else for not fixing things. I’m not a big believer in false equivalency, but if there was ever a dynamic where “both sides do it” this would be the one. The history of the Obama administration is a record of such moments, despite the President’s constant reminder that many of the problems facing our nation are local and state issues over which he has little control, but where we citizens can affect tremendous change to make our own communities stronger.
We see how it works from our own neighborhoods all the way to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
For years, people all over America have been demanding the President Do Something about Syria and the butchery of children in Aleppo. Few people are sure what our nation is doing in Syria right now, and what our national options are and what they would cost, but many people I talk to are sure we are not Doing Enough of whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. In a similar way, people all over New Orleans demand that the city Do Something about violent crime and the children who are dying on our streets right here. Few people are sure what our city is doing right now, and what our local options are and what they would cost, but many people I talk to are sure we are not Doing Enough of whatever it is we are supposed to be doing. In both cases, we can see how easily each can be turned into issues to score political points without posing any actual solutions that would work. We can see the result in the President-Elect and the Louisiana Attorney General both grandstanding on these respective issues.
If we, the People, aren’t able or willing to get engaged and involved in governing ourselves at the local level, how on Earth is the President of the United States going to fix things on the other side of the planet in a country where six or seven different factions, including Russia, are in a shooting war? If we can’t make it to the City Council Criminal Justice committee meeting on January 20 at City Hall on Perdido Street, are we willing to go to war with the Russian Federation to save Aleppo’s children?
That’s a tough conversation to have, but it is an important one. We will face many of these in the coming 48 months, and we figure out what kind of country we want to be by deciding what kind of city we want to live in.
If you think Guantanamo Bay is illegal detention and waterboarding is torture, how can we fix that at a national level if New Orleanians can’t exert control over Orleans Parish Prison and Louisiana can’t stop Evangeline Parish from indefinite detention of suspects?
How do you propose we save the parts of Obamacare that keep our family and friends insured if we can’t save Charity Hospital, and the state has to bring in a private contractor to manage the UMC?
How are we going to argue against favorable trade status with China when we’re about to dump millions of dollars worth of plastic beads on New Orleans’ streets that were made in Chinese factories?
How are we going to respond to the next financial mechanism fueled real estate bubble when our city’s current affordable housing policy is giving tax breaks to out of town developers to build luxury apartments?
When do those tax breaks – and all the others – cross the line from economic development to economic drag, as the costs to provide city services are moved onto the shoulders of homeowners and renters instead of getting a return from the projects with the highest value and the deepest pockets? If you’re wondering why people voted the way they did in November, just remind yourself New Orleans isn’t the only place this kind of thing happens.
Those are just some of the uncomfortable conversations we’re going to be having over the next 48 months – locally, statewide, and nationally – and there will be no hiding from it. Electing Barack Obama was our last chance for someone else to fix those things without too many of us having to get involved and get to this work. I guess there was just some assumption that the President could wave a magic wand and make things happen, and all the activists already working on these issue would hash out the details. Now we’re waking up to the fact that wasn’t a realistic expectation.
It was a beautiful moment though. This is something I think about when I consider a series of upcoming moments – the protests we will undoubtedly see around New Orleans and the United States come Inauguration Day. I’m not sure if I’m going to go. I wonder if my limited free time is better served asking hard questions at public meetings or writing my elected representatives to tell them my thoughts.
If I do go, you’ll find me easily. I’ll be the guy in the UGA ball cap, the GEAUXBAMA shirt, holding aloft the Stars and Stripes.
Patrick Armstrong lives in Mid-City and has been a NOLA TrashMOB volunteer for 3 years. His views are his own and do not reflect official positions of any organizations or groups he is a part of. He posts inane musings on Twitter @panarmstrong.