Tuesday, January 19, 2010


By Kelly Jean Cogswell

I watch the news every night, while trying not to -- grey limbs sticking out of rubble, buzzing flies, and the groans of the wounded. I imagine Port-au-Prince like Gettysburg, only earth versus flesh, with tens of thousands dead in the space of a couple of miles and a couple of days, and in a hundred years you'll still hear stories of farmers plowing up bones.

9/11 was nothing. Here, the infrastructure of an entire nation was destroyed in minutes. Roads, jails, hospitals, police stations, government buildings and schools were reduced to dust filtering through the air, and the privileged who were trapped with their cell phones called for help before slowly giving way. Haitian President Preval has all but disappeared. I can't imagine how long it will take to restore even basic order.

Already, we see living men and boys fight over plastic packages of cookies, bottles of water, and whatever they pull from the ruins. Gang leaders are back in the slums ruling over the living and dead like Emperor Jones but with automatic weapons. Women don't dare to roam the streets, or battle for food. They and their kids are the most vulnerable to disease and starvation, and will probably comprise the majority of the second wave of dead.

And yet, and yet. On the TV, I see a man framing a house from timber pulled from the ruins. A woman boils water from a creek, and a boy scales fish. A neighborhood has organized itself, with young men sent to gather food and water for the rest. They close off the street for the night so people have somewhere safe to lay down their plastic tarps and sleep because their houses are shaky structures, or rubble. Beforehand, they sprinkle the street with water to quiet the dust.

In Jacmel, a small neglected city that spent the first several days after the quake without medical support or searchers, the Cine Institute students that are left are documenting their crippled city and struggling recovery efforts. Everywhere, journalists are twittering their stories, trying to get their own voices out. People survive however they can, and Haitians have had more practice than most, between the disasters of Mother Nature and the tyranny of men.

Monday, six days after the earthquake hit Haiti, was Martin Luther King day in the U.S. On Facebook Sarah Schulman offered a quote, "Lamentably, it is an historical fact that privileged groups seldom give up their privileges voluntarily."

MLK was talking about the need for street activism and Direct Action. But the truth to what he said extends even to the relief effort in Haiti, where the U.S. took charge of the airport, and asserted their own priorities, bringing in search and recovery equipment first, then U.S. military and their supplies, and only lastly humanitarian aide that is taking far too many days to reach the hungry, thirsty, suffering hands of Haitians.

I suppose the system was already in place long before Obama took office, and the military isn't known for its flexibility, or willingness to work and play with others. Still, it's hard to watch the director of an orphanage press a few cracker crumbs into the mouths of her dying children while warehouses of Brazilian food and French medicine accumulate just across the border in the Dominican Republic because some asshole general thinks expired protocols are more important than starving Haitians.

Privilege comes in all shapes. And it's not so much that we Americans need to give up ours as we need to learn to share, and relinquish the underlying assumption of superiority. We need to see laterally instead of in ladders and pyramids that not only feed racism, homophobia and nationalism, but poison our relationships even with our neighbors under the guise of America's competitive spirit.

If we open our pockets generously and temporarily when disaster strikes, I suspect it's often because it feeds our sense of privilege and grace as we bestow our gifts from our perch on Mount Olympus to the struggling mortals below.

As such, I had mixed feelings when I read reports LGBT-cruise lines like Atlantis, Olivia, and RSVP were coordinating fundraising efforts because as Judy Dlugacz, President and founder of Olivia Companies, explained to PR Newswire, many queers have stopped in Haitian ports on their vacations and that, "It is important that as LGBT Americans, we come together to show our community's solidarity and support for those living through this unimaginable disaster."

In fact, it's not "those" the LGBT community has to support, but us. A considerable chunk of suffering Haitians are queer. A hundred percent are human, just like us Americans who have intimate links to the troubled, bloody history of Haiti. I wonder what would happen if just once we looked at the TV like it was a mirror, and recognized our own faces staring back in grief.

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