We Have to Talk About Ray Nagin

When Beth suggested the we look into former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin’s fate post “When the Levees Broke,” I felt a sense of dreadful anticipation. I knew corruption was the inevitable conclusion conclusion to his story, but after listening to his charismatic interview juxtaposed with heartfelt interviews with survivors of Katrina who spoke of loss and devastation, I felt more upset than I expected. I’ll do my best to summarize concisely. Ray Nagin tooks bribes and personal payout in exchange for awarding rebuilding contracts to large corporations in the wake of Katrina’s destruction of New Orleans. His corruption apparently started before Katrina hit, and his sentencing began in 2014.

Political editor of the alternative magazine Gambit originally excused Nagin’s behavior. He posited that the all-encompassing hurricane could crush anyone’s resolve, but he soon amended his view of the former governor, saying, “He did not enjoy the work of being the mayor. He only enjoyed being the mayor.” This same article, provided by USA Today, revealed that there was a deep sense of betrayal from New Orleaneans who believed Nagin to be the one politician who was incorruptible.

In researching articles that ranged in details from an extremely detailed account of what Nagin would experienced when he surrendered on his first day at the prison to announcements that a federal judge agreed that he was very poor and needed to be assigned a public defender. The question I kept coming back to was overly simple: What does this mean in the context of our class? Is Nagin an effigy? A scapegoat? A pariah? The conversations surrounding his conviction were certainly a purge of violent sentiment. There was a sense that a wrong had been righted, but only through the net effect of causing pain to people who had already seen too much of it.

Ray Nagin was not the only one at fault for the devastation and lack of quick and effective response to Hurricane Katrina, but he paid one of the highest prices for his misdeeds out of any government official. In some ways, his conviction was the closest government concession that its response to Katrina was extremely flawed and full of oversight and personal greed. His incarceration was a public sacrifice, satiating New Orleaneans’ need to see some consequences. To do this, however, the cycle of remembering and forgetting presented by Roach dictated that those feelings of being foresaken by one’s own government had to be dredged up again. Nagin’s incarceration doesn’t invoke a feeling of satisfaction for me. In the face of all of the insurance claims that went unfulfilled and the FEMA trailers that sat empty for months after the storm, it feels futile and ineffective.

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