Jan 172017
Patrick Armstrong

Patrick Armstrong

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.

  10 Responses to “Patrick Armstrong: America at the end of our beautiful Obama dream”

  1. Thank you, Pat!

  2. Great article. I love your description of Nov 4, 2008!
    I would caution everyone not to draw broad conclusions from the election about Americans. Almost 3 million voted for Hillary, so the majority voted against Trump and his bigoted and hateful platform.
    When change occurs in anything (economic, biological, environmental, emotional, etc.) it does not change proportionately. It is like a pendulum trying to but never reaching equilibrium. Every once in a while something pushed the pendulum too far in one direction (bigotry, hatefulness, unwarranted fear). It will swing back, and keep swinging.

    • Hey, Dana, thanks for reading!

      While HRC did get over 65 million votes, which was almost 3 million more votes than the other guy, there are still 62+ million voters out there who did vote for that other guy.

      I know a bunch of those folks on a very personal level, and their reaction to the Obama Presidency and embrace of the next administration – and what it stands for – are nothing short of jarring to me.

  3. Patrick, I don’t know you, nor do I know a thing about you other than what I read in your articles. I’m a newcomer to Midcity, and one of the reasons I moved here was to be around a diverse group of folks with open minds and good hearts. Midcity has always embodied that to me, and I’m glad you’re among those folks. I want to tell you that your articles have always stood out and struck me as extraordinarily wise and articulate and compelling and incisive, none more so than this one. Thank you. I wonder, have you ever considered running for public office?

    • Thanks for reading, Shawn, and thank you very much for the kind words!

      As for office, I consider it all the time, usually when I’m angry about this or that issue. When I calm down, I remember the more important thing is making sure the community gets engaged with their elected decision makers, whoever they may be. Right now there’s just such a disconnect, and I think that’s part of the problem on the right and the left.

      Participatory democracy requires our participation, after all. Otherwise decisions will be made without us.

    • Ditto to Shawn O’Brien’s above comment! 🙂

  4. Wish I could have seen you on that election night. We were having a party at our house to celebrate as well, with tremendous pride. That was the first election where I had “skin in the game.” Your example for all of us of local political engagement is a constant reminder to me that I am not fulfilling my civic duty. I haven’t figured out where that “duty” should be just yet, but I do know that these next years are going to be horribly taxing on all of us. Know how very proud I am to love you and call you my family. You make me want to be a better person. Alli is a very fortunate woman to have married so well.

    Love you,

  5. Proud to be your neighbor and friend. Great job on this, Pat.

  6. As a teacher you would think shutting down the overpaid bureaucrats at the Dept of Education and giving states more control, thereby increasing teacher pay, is a good thing. Top it off with the NOLA Charter schools administrators being overly paid as well. What about the children you say you care about?

    As for wondering about the rule of law, Obama did not uphold the immigration laws! Don’t your neighbors deserve more pay that will come when there aren’t enough employees to go around and companies have to pay more to get them and keep them?

    The USA is the best system in the world because of the Rule of Law. Yet, for the last 8 years, it was ignored. You people in Mid-City need to strap in because the ride is about to begin. The destination is not regarded as a “Safe Space.”

    • Hello, Eric,

      I made a promise to myself not to let comments like yours go, because leaving them as they are simply promote the misconceptions and fake news upon which they are based.

      Anyone that has been involved with K-12 education, or education at any level, can tell you that those decisions are made by the states, and the conditions of any public school system is primarily the responsibility of the local school board and the state board of education. This is one reason some states are awful at educating schoolchildren (like Louisiana) and some states are very good at it (like Massachusetts).

      The DOE in Washington serves mainly as a compliance office on Federal laws and grant funding tool to which states can apply.

      You can also repeat “rule of law” all you want, but unless you actually cite the laws and their enforcement mechanisms and results, all that offers is an empty talking point. The New Orleans Police Department and the Orleans Parish Prison/Orleans Justice Center are both under consent decrees with the US Department of Justice because deep investigations demonstrated consistent evidence that civil rights guaranteed by the US Constitution were not being upheld. The DOJ also recently found evidence that Evangeline Parish was not operating in a Constitutional manner, either, and had ignored legally mandated 4th Amendment protections for over 20 years.

      There is a reason I cited those examples in this op-ed – I am very familiar with the “rule of law” and the actual workings of the criminal justice system. I’m also very familiar with individuals who use phrases like “strap in” and intentionally misuse phrases like “safe space” and how they often aren’t actually worried about the rule of law, they are interested in removing the protection of Constitutional civil rights from specific groups of people.

      But thanks for reading!

 Leave a Reply

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>