Usually when the word “bully” is used in the vicinity of City Hall the reference is to the reigning mayor and not to the mayor’s correspondents.
To have been elected, all mayors must have some diplomatic skills; but to govern they also have to be tough. Some mayors could be ornery behind the scenes. (I was once invited to a media lunch hosted by Dutch Morial on the day after he was reelected to his second term. I thought this was going to be a victory event filled with visions of his next four years. Instead the mayor went into a tirade, arguing that since he had served so effectively in his first term he should not have been pushed into a runoff for re-election. I won’t tell you all that he said, but trust me, he was angry. All of us left that lunch feeling bullied, if not verbally bludgeoned, yet there were other times when he could be charming. And yes, overall, he was a good mayor.)
Bullying as an issue made headlines last week when the current mayor, LaToya Cantrell, reacted to a letter from the Jefferson Parish Chamber of Commerce complaining that the city should have more communication with neighboring parishes before canceling events, such as the Jazz Fest, which had already been rescheduled for October. The Jeff Chamber said that cancellation of Fall events was going to delay area economic recovery by months. That was followed by a group of New Orleans businesspeople who published an open letter in the TP/Advocate arguing that for the city’s sake the economy had to be reopened.
Saying she would not be bullied, Mayor LaToya Cantrell argued for health considerations having the priority. Still, the Jeff Chamber, represented in the letter by the group’s president Todd Murphy, had the right and the wisdom to make its case because its mission is about business. And those who signed the group letter were doing their job when talking about survival.
There is no right side or wrong side to this argument, neither is there bullying. Certainly, health trumps economic revival but another alternative is finding ways for both to happen simultaneously. Wouldn’t it have been nice if instead of cancelling the lucrative, popular and extremely diverse Jazz Fest, plans would have been announced to make the event even safer? People are already getting used to that in their everyday lives with wearing masks and maintaining those distances. By October many of these procedures would have been very common to most people. Financially, the fest could have also put some cash back into the city’s accounts and would have sent a message to the world that New Orleans is no longer a city to stay away from.
But back to bullying. All of the world’s great political movements are the result of some force making its will known to authority. It may have been the peasants versus the monarchs; the Bolsheviks against the Czars. King George III must have found the American colonists to be very impolite (if not bullying) when they dumped the tea in Boston Harbor and fired their muskets at Lexington and Concord. Outrage at slavery forced a civil war and even cost an American President his life.
Years later the civil rights movement would lead to demonstrations at public lunch counters. Fire hoses and police dogs were directed at demonstrators. And if Martin Luther King was a bully never was it expressed so eloquently as in his “I Had a Dream” speech.
I had admired Ms. Cantrell because of her early involvement in the neighborhood movement, particularly the Broadmoor area. There were some delicate moments in the months after Hurricane Katrina and decisions had to be made about redevelopment. Thank God for the activists who, with smart planning and strategic bullying, kept their neighborhoods whole.
When arguments are made to reopen the city there will always be the voices saying that we should not move so fast. Yes, we know: health over the economy. But we implore the political leaders to find ways that both can happen without compromising the other. Please liberate our city and our lives as quickly as possible. And that’s not bullying; that’s begging.
BOOK ANNOUNCEMENT: Errol’s Laborde’s books, “New Orleans: The First 300 Years” and “Mardi Gras: Chronicles of the New Orleans Carnival” (Pelican Publishing Company, 2017 and 2013), are available at local bookstores and at book websites.
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