One of the ways I know I live in Mississippi and not New York or Paris is that the people — not individuals but groups of people — don’t seem inclined to mass demonstrations. I find the calm of the people of the State of Mississippi astonishing in the wake of a disaster where there is a yachting, snooty British face to make into a mask to put on a doll to hang in effigy.
Why are they not more feisty, more pitchfork-waving? Why do I not hear the click of the cocking of the myriad guns that they fiercely claim the right to bear?
In 1986, when I lived in Paris and participated in the student strikes of that year with the other students at the Sorbonne, the news came on the radio one early morning that the cops had killed one of the kids demonstrating, beating him to death with billy clubs. Within a half hour I heard shouting underneath my apartment window. A hundred thousand people awakened by the news had gathered with signs and were shouting the name of the mayor of Paris — they called him a bastard, and shouted, “Le peuple aura ta peau” — The people will have your hide.
In New York, during the nineties, I worked organizing demonstrations for a human rights organization, and I promise you that New Yorkers, too, have a clamor that comes out relatively quickly from within them whenever the city’s troubles bubble up, like — I don’t know, so much uncappable oil from the Gulf.
Yet here we are a month into a disaster of Biblical proportions which, unlike a hurricane, cannot be blamed on an act of God, but quite simply an act of over-ambitious man, in support of the coffers of a foreign country, to the detriment of Americans, local Americans, Americans who qualify to belong to Sarah Palin’s short list of “true” Americans, Mississippians, no less, and right here, right here in Mississippi — I hear no shouting in the streets.
On the air waves, I hear right-wing radio pundits lamenting the imagined “judicial activism” of Supreme Court Nominee Kagan and the horrors of Brown V. Board of Education admiration in thinly veiled racism and by obtuse arguments like: if the founders didn’t predict the Internet, then the Constitution cannot apply to it. On the local airwaves, I hear no grand outcry for the head of anyone on a platter regarding British Petroleum. The silence would make one think that no such spill had affected anyone in the region.
On the local left-wing radio, I hear practical discussions about pragmatic steps that people can take to join wildlife rescue teams, about problems long-term related to the environment. No cries for the death of a corporate Satan.
The governors of the affected states called (surprisingly late in the game) for a day of prayer. My church prayed.
Admittedly, the effects of the disaster have not yet been fully felt. Tourism on the Gulf in Mississippi, a source of income for the cities there, is at an absolute standstill, but one bad season might not kill off such tourism entirely. However, no one can say with certainty the long-term consequences to those communities. Fishing along the coast has been prohibited, but no one knows for how long, nor can anyone say with certainty how long the fishermen will have nothing viable to catch there.
Admittedly, I live inland, hours away from the disaster, and I don’t have an eye-witness account to offer here. However, this state feels itself as one, unlike New York State, where upstate and downstate are constantly at war. So why have I yet to see a single sign that demands anything, anything at all, related to this disaster?
I have a few ideas why it may be that they have not responded with the elan I might have expected (or desired). Possible explanations include:
- Everyone — even The New York Times — hails the posture adopted by Governor Haley Barbour in the wake of this catastrophe as a non-partisan promoter of this state’s industry. Barbour is a Republican with ambitions, and he is habitually criticized by the Left for having his priorities wrong regarding state expenditures, for adopting policies that disenfranchise the poorest Mississippians, but here, in this instance, I hear little criticism locally on the Left of the Governor’s actions. The people generally think that the state government is on the right side of this question.
- The fishing industry on the Gulf had dwindled to a shadow of its former self already for reasons wholly unrelated to this disaster. Inland operations — cat fish and craw fish farming — are more common and profitable sources of fish these days in Mississippi.
- While I doubt that many people on the Right around here would say so, Obama’s insistence that BP put 20 billion in escrow over time to address claims against the company, coupled with BP’s grudging but voluntary participation in said escrow fund, has put people’s minds at ease regarding the immediate needs of those most affected by the spill. On right-wing local radio, I heard a whining complaint about Obama demanding this from BP, but the speakers were quick to point out that BP was honoring the government’s request without seizure of their assets. They apparently like it when corporations volunteer for things.
- People around here believe that God is on their side. They believe that God is going to see them individually and collectively through whatever they have to face. This is not a posture that generally engenders mass demonstrations in the streets of the capitol.
- The capitol itself is not very big. Unlike Paris or New York, a crowd would hardly pour into any grand town square and overflow. There are more people living in the Brooklyn than the whole state. A demonstration would be smaller necessarily than the ones I have seen in the past.
- These folks recently survived Katrina. Whatever BP’s destruction has wrought, it feels less catastrophic than the last disaster.
- The people in Mississippi realize that the oil industry is one of the larger employers of people locally. Even though BP’s practices were negligent, not the norm, many people in the oil industry realize that an accident could conceivably happen at the company for which they work, too. Everyone in Mississippi benefits to some degree from the revenue the oil industry generates. Hence, the posture of the oil-company-demonizing environmentalist feels like something that local people cannot afford.
- Among employers in Mississippi, there are a large number of foreign companies. This state provides some of the cheapest manufacturing labor in the country, and many foreign companies build factories here. Hence, the foreignness of British Petroleum feels familiar, not like an attack by foreigners off the coast.
- People in Mississippi consider shouting bad manners. They consider complaining bad manners. They have good manners, on the whole.
- The media has been prevented in certain instances, from what I have heard through the grapevine, from going on certain beaches with cameras, from taking certain photographs, and perhaps, despite the non-stop media blitz, they have not seen the image — the girl running while napalm burns her, the firemen, policemen, and EMT workers raising the flag in the rubble — that will provoke a greater outrage. However, the people have eyes to see for themselves. This is local news.
Another idea that I have considered but rejected — perhaps the passivity of the people of Mississippi regarding this matter has more to do with the time in which we live, where people are more likely to join groups on Facebook than to march down the street, but then I think that no — that doesn’t make sense. Martin Luther King, when he was visiting another Gulf state, Alabama, while he sat in Birmingham Jail wrote that the argument that a particular time has come or has not come yet for justice is false, that time itself is neutral, that people make the time do whatever they will make it do. Hence this quiet, which I do not believe to be some sort of calm before a storm, remains mysterious to me.
Maybe it’s just too hot outside to demonstrate.