(Guest blogger Ken Foster is a founding member of SilenceIsViolence, an organizer of last year's March for Survival on City Hall, and the author of several books, including Dogs I Have Met: And the People They Found.)
On the street outside the Ritz-Carlton last Friday evening, I stood among a group of about 75 people protesting the award of distinction to Mayor Nagin, which was being bestowed on him by a mysterious Excellence in Recovery committee (headed by the Mayor's official photographer, Bernardo) at a party in developer Stewart Juneau's penthouse. While most of the guests snuck in through a secret entrance, we gave out our own statuettes to people on the street, many of whom were too busy working, rebuilding and raising families to have heard the news of our Mayor's excellence.
"Would you like an award?" I asked a young woman pushing a child in a stroller along with her girlfriend. "It's for excellence in recovery," I explained. "Don't you think you deserve it?" A smile spread across her face as she took the fake Oscar from me. "I do!" she said. "But why are you doing this?" "They're giving an award to the mayor right now, inside." This was the first she'd heard of it. "To him?" she said. "After everything he's done?" She then began to list some of Nagin's most atrocious blunders as she continued down the street with her award in hand.
With one award left, a man in a white, Tom Wolfe-inspired suit asked if he could have one. "I'll trade you," he said, waving the official engraved party invitation in his hand. In fact, the small sample of people I talked to admitted they were only attending for free food and drinks. I called Karen Gadbois over, to see if she wanted to use the invitation. She declined. I offered it to Veda Manuel, who with Musa Eubanks had been holding the largest sign: WE'RE STILL HERE YA' BASTARDS. She declined. I studied the invite: no dress code listed, admit two. It seemed a shame to waste it....
Admittedly, I was not dressed for a party, but in a rumpled dress shirt and slightly faded cargo pants, didn't I look a bit more recovery-ready than most of the crowd who'd walked in? Hadn't numerous people associated with the awards insisted that they meant to honor the everyday New Orleanian? And hadn't Juneau insisted that he considers his penthouse a public space?
I grabbed a friend and we shared an elevator with Chris Rose. Someone asked aloud which of us would get tossed from the party first. A third couple joined us in the elevator. "So are you a friend of the mayor?" he was asked. "I'm just here for the drinks," he said. A note at the penthouse instructed us to return to a ballroom on the third floor, where I flashed the invite, shook hands with a smiling Mr. and Mrs. Juneau and stepped into the extremely dark room. I caught a glimpse of overstuffed plates and realized that last thing I wanted was to eat. I just wanted to see who was there.
I'm not unfamiliar with the mayor. In fact, I often think back to the spring of 2007, when he met with a small group to discuss the crime problems that had inspired a march to City Hall. He sat mute for most of that meeting, occasionally offering his thoughts and objectives in the form of Sphinx-like riddles. "We need to remember that we all just pawns in a much bigger game," he said at one point and I was struck with the idea that he sincerely believed what he was saying.
So it should come as no surprise that the NOPD immediately escorted me from the party. They led my friend and I back to the elevators, rode with us to the lobby, and held open the door. "Just for the record," I asked, "who instructed you to remove us?" It was Bernardo, he said. With that, we were returned to the street, where the little people belong. And Mayor Nagin, like Marie Antoinette before him, partied on.