Read Jarvis DeBerry’s best Illuminator columns of 2020

6 columns for the Illuminator’s first 6 months of publication

A line of people in New Orleans seeking free COVID-19 testing wraps around the block in this photo from June 30. A survey conducted by LSU'S Reilly Center finds that COVID-19 and the economy are at the top of Louisiana residents' concerns. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)

The June 23, 2020 launch of the Louisiana Illuminator also marked Editor Jarvis DeBerry’s second act as an opinion writer in Louisiana.  DeBerry wrote opinions for 20 years at The Times-Picayune, and after almost a year writing columns for cleveland.com helped launch the Illuminator.

His column appears weekly on the website.  Six months into publication, here are six DeBerry columns worth re-reading.

  1.  America promised to learn lessons from Hurricane Katrina, but the events of 2020 say it didn’t

Whether we’re gasping for breath because of COVID-19 or because of police brutality (or have suffered from both as George Floyd did), whether we’re struggling to breathe because we’re surrounded by petrochemical plants or because jobs are gone, the rent is due and the U.S. Senate adjourned without extending federal unemployment help, Black communities and poor communities continue to catch more hell than others.

Louisianians often use Hurricane Katrina as a way of marking time. We say a certain thing happened before the storm or after the storm. But when the thing is excess suffering visited upon the most vulnerable, there is no pre-Katrina or post-Katrina.

It is as it always was.

2. Nursing home-visitation bill addresses a real problem in a problematic way

Unlike so many other bills Louisiana’s Republicans have introduced during this hastily called special session, Rep. Tony Bacala’s legislation actually attempts to address human suffering. Real suffering. Not the let-down that comes from seeing one’s favorite bar locked tight or the fogging-up of eyeglasses that comes with wearing a properly fitted face mask. But real suffering: the kind of bone-deep sorrow that follows not being there for loved ones at the moment that they might be most afraid.

Even though it’s meant to address very real suffering, Bacala’s bill is still another Republican attempt to weaken the governor’s authority.

Given how sympathetic everybody is to people who’ve been kept away from their dying loved ones, the amount of resistance to Bacala’s bill was remarkable.

3. The ongoing pandemic requires a strong government response, not platitudes about personal freedoms

Many Americans have swallowed whole the myth of rugged individualism, the belief that the needs, wants, desires of the individual are paramount and that subverting those desires for the good of society puts a person somewhere between a hippie and a communist. But there’s no way out of this pandemic if we don’t first acknowledge the fact of our interconnectedness.

And acknowledge that we have laws governing public health for a reason.  Individuals can’t always be trusted to know the healthiest and safest things to do, and even if we do know, we can’t always be trusted to do them. You can subject the public to hours upon hours of crash-test dummy footage, but you’re still going to need to make it a law to wear seatbelts if you want maximum compliance.  If it weren’t against the law to drive drunk, then even more people would be driving drunk — even though there’s no question about how dangerous that is for individual drivers, their passengers and everybody else on the road.

4. Arsonist’s absurd argument that he picked churches made up of wood, not churches made up of Black people

It is often the case that people who do the most despicable things against Black people argue that they’re not racist — as if racism is worse than the despicable thing they did. That’s what Holden Matthews and his defenders have done since he was identified as the culprit: insist that he just  hated Christians, not Black people.

Disturbingly, the U.S. government seems to have taken the same position. Federal prosecutors didn’t accuse Matthews of carrying out the crimes with a racist intent. We must wonder if the decision to not suggest Matthews had a racist motivation reflects the current Justice Department’s discomfort with acknowledging the violent racism that continues to plague the country. Whatever the reason, the feds convinced a grand jury to just indict Matthews on three counts each of intentional damage to religious property and using fire to commit a felony.

But it’s impossible for Black churchgoing folk anywhere in this country to see their church on fire and not assume one or more racists is responsible.

5. Fairness demands new trials for those convicted by split juries, but fairness won’t come without pain

The U.S. Supreme Court issued its opinion in Ramos v. Louisiana almost 18 months after Louisianians overwhelmingly supported an amendment requiring unanimous verdicts in jury trials. That ruling put an end to split verdicts in Oregon and Puerto Rico, but does it mean anything to Louisiana?

Not if people convicted by split juries don’t get new trials. If the Supreme Court outlawed something Louisiana had already stopped doing and decides it only applies to cases going forward, then, for Louisiana at least, the ruling banning split-jury verdicts is empty and symbolic.

6. In the case of Ka’Mauri Harrison, it’s the Jefferson Parish School Board versus everybody with sense

On March 12, Louisiana children were happily going to school. On March 13, the governor, responding to alarming COVID-19 numbers, ordered them closed.  If school officials forgot to think of the many ways their rules would need to be adjusted for virtual environments, we’d understand.  But rather than admit being unprepared, Jefferson Parish would rather save face by treating children mercilessly.

Attorney Chelsea Cusimano said she repeatedly asked “for all policies and procedures that apply to COVID learning.”  But not until Friday’s meeting, she said, did school system officials claim to have informed parents of virtual-learning rules with  automatic text messages sent Sept. 4 and 11.

“Embedded in all of these documents was one document with one line that says all campus policies and procedures apply to virtual-learning students,” Cusimano said. “That’s the only thing anywhere — and it was done via robo text.”

The Harrisons have no memory of such texts, she said.

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