Last New Yearâ€™s Eve, a Black Georgia Southern University student named Levon Jones was killed by bouncers in the Bourbon Street club Razzooâ€™s. The outrage led to near-daily protests outside the club, threats of a Black tourist boycott of New Orleans, and a city commission to explore the issue of racism in the French Quarter. Despite widely-publicized advance warning, a â€œsecret shopperâ€ audit of the Quarter found rampant discrimination in French Quarter businesses, including different dress codes, admission prices, and drink prices, all based on whether the patron was black or white.
â€œThe French Quarter is not a place for Black people,â€ one community organizer told me pre-hurricane. â€œYou donâ€™t see Black folks working in the front of house in French Quarter restaurants or hotels, and you donâ€™t see them as customers.â€
Just north of the French Quarter, a few blocks from Razzooâ€™s, is the historic Treme neighborhood. Settled in the early 1800s, itâ€™s known as the oldest free African-American community in the US. Residents fear for the post-reconstruction stability of communities like Treme. â€œThereâ€™s nothing some developers would like more than a ring of white neighborhoods around the French Quarter,â€ said one Treme resident recently. The widespread fear among organizers is that the exclusionary, â€œtourists onlyâ€ atmosphere of the French Quarter will be multiplied and expanded across the city, and that many residents simply wont be able to return home.
Chui Clark is a longtime community organizer from New Orleans, and was one of the leaders of the protests against Razzooâ€™s. He now stays in Baton Rougeâ€™s River Street shelter. â€œThis is a lily-white operation,â€ he reports. â€œYou have white FEMA and Red Cross workers watching us like weâ€™re some kind of amusement.â€ Despite repeated assurances of housing placements from Red Cross and government officials, the population of the Baton Rouge shelters does not appear to be decreasing, according to Clark. â€œYou have new arrivals all the time. Folks who were staying with families for a week or two are getting kicked out and they got no where else to go.â€
I went to the River Road shelter as part of a project initiated by Families and Friends of Louisianaâ€™s Incarcerated Children to help displaced New Orleans residents reconnect with loved ones who are lost in the labyrinth of Louisianaâ€™s corrections system.
Everyone I met was desperately trying to find a sister or brother or child or other family member lost in the system. Many people who were picked up for minor infractions in the days before the hurricane ended up being shipped to the infamous Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where itâ€™s estimated over 90% of the inmates currently incarcerated will die within its walls. Most of the family members I spoke with just wanted to get a message to their loved ones, â€œTell him that weâ€™ve been looking for him, that we made it out of New Orleans, and that we love him,â€ said a former East New Orleans resident named Angela.
While Barbara Bush speaks of how fortunate the shelter residents are, in the real world New Orleans evacuees have been feeling anything but sheltered. One woman I spoke with in the River Street shelter said that sheâ€™s barely slept since she arrived in the shelter system. â€œI sleep with one eye open,â€ she told me. â€œIts not safe in there.â€
According to Christina Kucera, a feminist organizer from New Orleans, â€œissues of safety and shelter are intricately tied to gender. This has hit women particularly hard. Its the collapse of community. Weâ€™ve lost neighbors and systems within our communities that helped keep us safe.â€
Where once everyone in a neighborhood knew each other, now residents from each block are spread across several states. Communities and relationships that came together over decades were dispersed in hours.
Kucera lists the problems sheâ€™s heard, â€œthere have been reports of rapes and assaults before evacuation and in the shelters. And that’s just the beginning. There are continuing safety and healthcare needs. There are women who were planning on having children who now no longer have the stability to raise a child and want an abortion, but they have no money, and nowhere to go to get one. Six of the thirteen rape crisis centers in Louisiana were closed by the hurricane.â€
One longtime community organizer from the New Orleans chapter of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence has written, â€œWe have to have some form of community accountability for the sexual and physical violence women and children endured. I’m not interested in developing an action plan to rebuild or organize a peopleâ€™s agenda in New Orleans without a gender analysis and a demand for community accountability.â€
We are already unsettled, and now Hurricane Rita threatens a new wave of evacuations. Astrodome residents are being out on buses and planes. While communities continue to be dispersed, some New Orleanians are staying and building. Diane “Momma D” Frenchcoat never evacuated out of her Treme home on North Dorgenois Street, and has been helping feed and support 50 families, coordinating a relief and rebuilding effort consisting of, at its peak, 30 volunteers known as the Soul Patrol.
“I ain’t going nowhere,” one Soul Patrol member told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper in a september 18 article about Momma D. “I’m the son of a bricklayer. I’m ready to cut some sheetrock, lay some block, anything to rebuild the city.”
Asked about her plan, Momma D had these words, “Rescue. Return. Restore. Can you hear what I’m saying, baby? Listen to those words again. Rescue, return, restore. We want the young, able-bodied men who are still here to stay to help those in need. And the ones that have been evacuated, we want them to come home and help clean up and rebuild this city. How can the city demand that we evacuate our homes but then have thousands of people from across this country volunteering to do the things that we can do ourselves?”
Community organizers like Momma D in Treme and Malik Rahim, who has a similar network in the Algiers neighborhood, are the forces for relief and rebuilding that need our help. The biggest disaster was not a hurricane, but the dispersal of communities, and that’s the disaster that needs to be addressed first.
Yesterday a friend told me through tears, â€œI just want to go back as if this never happened. I want to go back to my friends and my neighbors and my community.â€ Its our community that has brought us security. People I know in New Orleans donâ€™t feel safer when they see Blackwater mercenaries on their block, but they do feel security from knowing their neighbors are watching out for them. And that’s why the police and national guard and security companies on our streets havenâ€™t brought us the security weâ€™ve been looking for, and why discussions of razing neighborhoods makes us feel cold.
When we say we want our city back, we donâ€™t mean the structures and the institutions, and we donâ€™t mean â€œlaw and order,â€ we mean our community, the people we love. And that’s the city we want to fight for.
Jordan Flaherty is an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. This is his sixth article from New Orleans. To see the other articles, go to www.leftturn.org. You can contact Jordan at [email protected].