A couple months before New Orleans flooded, I remember walking through my neighborhood on a beautiful weekend afternoon and hearing music.
I followed the sound a couple blocks, to where about thirty people, all of them Black, followed a few musicians through the streets. They were mourning the death of a loved one, New Orleans-style. Most folks were wearing custom t-shirts with a picture of the deceased. Next to the photo were the words “sunrise” along with the date of his birth, and “sunset,” above the date of his (recent) death — he was 20. Also on the shirt were the words, “No More Drama.”
On the back, the shirts were individualized, with the relation of the wearer to the deceased. One woman’s shirt said “momma.” A few teenagers had shirts that said “cuz.” A small child’s shirt said “daddy.”
Despite their loss, they were dancing through the streets. When the band finished their final song, everyone danced their hearts out. I don’t know what else to say, except that’s how we do it in New Orleans, and the image of those people mourning through celebration sticks with me as I see New Orleans today, struggling with so much loss and tragedy.
Cornel West, who has visited New Orleans often, said shortly after the city was flooded, “New Orleans has always been a city that lived on the edge, with Elysian Fields and cemeteries and the quest for paradise. When you live so close to death, behind the levees, you live more intensely, sexually, gastronomically, psychologically. Louis Armstrong came out of that unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American civilization. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragicomic lyricism that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm. Charlie Parker would have killed somebody if he had not blown his horn. The history of black people in America is one of unbelievable resilience in the face of crushing white supremacist powers.”
More than anywhere else in the US, New Orleans is a city where people live in one neighborhood their whole lives, where generations live in the same community. According to a recent census, of all US cities, New Orleans ranked second in the percentage of its population born in the state, at 83 percent. (Santa Ana, Calif., was first; Las Vegas last.) 54 percent of the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward had been in their homes for 10 years or more, far above the national average.
All of this is to say that New Orleans is not just a tourist stop. New Orleans is a unique culture, one that is resilient, and with a history of community and resistance. And, despite everything, resistance continues.
The People’s Hurricane Fund has been doing direct outreach and organizing in cities across the US for their People’s Tribunal and March for Justice, scheduled for December 8-10 in Jackson, Mississippi and New Orleans. They have organized communication centers in Jackson and New Orleans with plans for centers in Houston, Baton Rouge and Atlanta.
On a national level, organizations such as colorofchange.org have mobilized thousands of people to pressure politicians, and the Congressional Black Congress has worked to keep this issue alive, both through legislation, and through joining protests, as Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney did by showing up for a march from New Orleans to Gretna a few weeks ago.
Meanwhile, just days after DC organizers announced plans for a protest at FEMA headquarters, FEMA officials announced that they were pushing back the date after which they would stop paying for hotels for Gulf Coast evacuees from December 1 to December 15. Continued pressure from across the US caused them to move the date again, to January 7.
Here in New Orleans, volunteers with the Common Ground Collective have set up neighborhood distribution centers with food and supplies, have served hundreds of people in their free health clinic, setup a media center complete with a community radio station, and embarked on a project to rehabilitate houses in the Ninth Ward. This week, hundreds of volunteers have arrived to continue this work, most of them staying on mattresses on the floors of warehouses and houses, sometimes thirty or more to a room.
Any convergence of hundreds of mostly young and white activists in a overwhelmingly Black community is bound to bring skepticism and controversy, and Common Ground has received criticisms from some local organizers. However, Common Ground in many ways represents a big step forward for the global justice movement. Rather than coming in, leading a protest, and leaving, activists were invited by Malik Rahim, a longtime community organizer, and have followed through and done real work in communities. They have been true to their commitments, and have shown by example that people with a vision of radical change and social justice can put FEMA or Red Cross to shame.
Finally, yesterday saw a major legal victory in the struggle for housing.
According to the statement from the New Orleans Grassroots Legal Network, lawyers representing a range of organizations, “brought suit against the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, Orleans Parish, and Jefferson Parish on behalf of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, UNITE-HERE Local 50-2, SEIU Local 21, ACORN New Orleans, and individual tenants being victimized by landlords post-Hurricane Katrina. Because of the immense pressure that has been placed on the government and the landlords by the people, Plaintiffs were able to achieve the following result from this lawsuit:
(1) All evictions in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes are immediately stayed — meaning, all eviction proceedings in Orleans and Jefferson Parishes stop immediately against residents who are not in the area and whose whereabouts are unknown to landlords.
(2) Under the judge’s order, FEMA is required, upon request, to provide to the Orleans and Jefferson Parishes, current contact information for the tenants who landlords are seeking to evict. Upon this contact information being provided by FEMA, the Parishes have to provide written notice of eviction to the tenants at the tenants’ most current addresses. Tenants then have at least 45
days from the date of the mailing of the notice respond to the eviction action.
“This victory means that displaced people have an almost two-month reprieve from having to face loss of their personal property and their homes. This victory also means that for the first time FEMA has finally agreed to provide information to protect survivors. This is huge.
“But overall, this case is just another step that the Grassroots Legal Network has taken to bring recognition that people who have suffered the worst impact by the natural and government disaster of Hurricane Katrina have a right to return to their homes. This victory also provides an opportunity for political and social rights activists to organize with grassroots people to assert pressure on those in power to respect their humanity.”
All of this leaves me feeling, for the first time in a while, that all of this fighting really does mean something, and New Orleans lives on.
Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. This is his eleventh article from New Orleans. You can contact Jordan at [email protected] Jordan’s previous articles from New Orleans are at http://www.leftturn.org/articles/SpecialCollections/katrina.aspx
Based on conversations with organizers and community members, Left Turn Magazine has compiled a list of grassroots New Orleans organizations focused on relief, recovery, social justice and cultural preservation that need your support. The list is online at
Other Resources for information and action:
Reconstruction Watch — http://www.reconstructionwatch.org/
United Houma Nation — http://www.unitedhoumanation.org
Saving Our Selves coalition — http://www.sosafterkatrina.org
Miami Workers Center — http://www.theworkerscenter.org/
Common Ground — http://www.commongroundrelief.org
Peoples Hurricane Fund — http://www.communitylaborunited.net
Resource for Journalists — http://www.katrinainfonet.net
justice fro New Orleans — http://www.justiceforneworleans.org/
New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team — http://www.no-heat.org/
Great commentary and first-hand reports from New Orleans:
Catherine Jones’ Blog from New Orleans is at: http://floodlines.blogspot.com/
Abram Himmelstein’s Blog from New Orleans is at: http://blogs.chron.com/exile/
Walidah Imarisha’s blog from New Orleans (and elsewhere) is at: