Talk show hosts, right wing radio ‘shock jocks’, newspaper editorialists, and a host of other local and national pundits lampooned and attacked New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin’s comments at the city’s truncated January 16th Martin Luther King Jr. parade. At the march, whose Mayorial appointed organizers abandoned the traditional starting point of the city’s battered Lower 9th ward, Nagin exclaimed that New Orleans should remain a “chocolate,” that is a majority Black, city. The superficial, and absurd commentary following the Mayor’s speech, such as former Louisiana Senator John Breaux comparing Nagin’s comments to Trent Lott’s lauding of Strom Thurmond’s defense of Jim Crow, has obscured the real insights into the workings of post civil rights class and racial domination that Nagin’s comments provide.
I argue the comments, rather than representing a real goal, reflect the attempt to manage the central contradiction of New Orleans — and by extension the U.S.’s — post-civil rights Black political leadership: how to appear to serve the interests of the Black working class majority, while simultaneously meeting the real economic, political, and social interests of the predominately white ruling corporate elite. That is, the controversy should not be over the comments per se — the goals of which this writer, and the grass roots movement he is allied with, supports — but the hypocrisy that lies behind them.
Neo-Apartheid Capitalist Rule in New Orleans: A View from the Bottom
The city’s central, racialized, class contradiction has been evident since Ernest ‘Dutch’ Morial became New Orleans’ first African American mayor in 1977 — as part of a new generation of Black mayors “taking city hall” across the country in majority Black cities such as Atlanta, Detroit and Washington D.C. The elder Morial, who took power just as the Federal government began its neoliberal austerity and privatization drive, worked to manage and impose this agenda on the city’s predominantly Black working class. His successors, Sidney Barthelemy (1986-1994), and his eldest son, Marc (1994-2002), presided over the deepening of the racist neoliberal class offensive that hit the city’s Black working class majority with particular ferocity.
Let’s briefly look at this brutal, pre-Katrina record: City employment — the opening up of which was one of the concrete gains of the Civil Rights Movement — dropped from approximately 10,000 in the mid 1970s, to just over 5,000 a quarter century later. City sanitation workers, who had a union contract, saw their jobs privatized under the Barthelemy administration, with workers, especially the “hoppers” that throw garbage, becoming temporary, “casual” workers with no benefits or job security.
While public employment dried up, and manufacturing collapsed, the growth engine of the local economy became the low waged and non-union tourist industry — and the local Black political leadership worked to keep it that way. On behalf of white corporate interests that dominate the industry, the mayor and city council opposed and blocked any attempts to facilitate unionization and increase wages. For example the city worked with the hotel-motel association and restaurant lobby to overturn a living wage referendum that had passed in 2002 with over 65% support. In a further attack on Black workers the local political leadership even opposed mild, often toothless, AFL-CIO-sponsored “labor peace” agreements, which would have provided a labor code of conduct for hotels operated on city property or receiving subsidies — a long list. At the same time, in an attempt to create another form of “labor peace,” the Marc Morial administration worked to crush an independent union organizing drive among his own city employees, 40% of whom earned less than the federal poverty level for a family of four in 1998 — up from 20% ten years earlier. In this effort, and key to understanding the way comprador rule is managed, Morial counted on the support of the ‘progressive,’ and ACORN-aligned, Local 100 of the Service Employees International Union, the largest and most active public employees union in the city. Local 100 and its ‘chief organizer,’ ACORN founder Wade Rathke, refused to aid the drive in 1998 after workers approached the union, and helped to isolate these workers from other insurgencies, such as the then active union drive at the large Navy shipyard-contractor, Avondale.
The increasing attacks on workers, their movements, and standard of living proceeded in tandem with an enormous expansion of the local state repressive apparatuses. For example, the local prison population grew from 1,000 inmates in the early 1970s, to over 7,000 thirty years later. While overall city employment shrunk, the police force grew, with Marc Morial touting as one of his main accomplishments his creating “the largest department in history” at 1,700 cops. One of his main campaign promises, if he had been allowed to run for a third term, was to increase the force to 2,000 — a goal that the powerful tourist industry saw as necessary. In addition, in a further attempt to meet the concerns of the ruling elite and contain Black workers, Morial brought in police consultant Jack Maples, who had helped develop the Guiliani administration’s ‘zero tolerance’ policing regimen. Maples helped to develop a similar program to harass Black youth and workers in New Orleans. The Nagin administration continued Morial’s pioneering work by placing police surveillance cameras in public housing projects and other poor Black working class communities.
The Destruction of Public Housing
Of all the racist, anti-working class neoliberal attacks led by New Orleans Black Mayors, the one that stands out as among the most heinous and criminal is the 1990s assault on public housing. During the 1990s and into the 00s, Marc Morial, who now presides as president of the National Urban League, oversaw the destruction of approximately half of New Orleans’ stock of 14,000 public housing apartments. In the mid 1980s, public housing had been home to over 60,000, mostly African Americans, approximately 20% of the Black working class. In the face of resident calls for improved public housing, job opportunities, and an end to police brutality, the city, working closely with the Clinton administration responded with demolition.
In the case of the St. Thomas project, the city and local housing authority, using the Clinton administration’s cynically entitled ‘HOPE VI’ grant program, ‘revitalized’ the development by reducing the number of public housing units from 1,500 to under 200. Adding to the misery, biased entrance criteria have made it very difficult for many former residents to return for even the limited number of units available. In place of the development, expensive condos and high-end rentals, out of reach for many Black working class residents, are arising as part of the redevelopment effort. Like the crushing of the union drive, the Black political leadership relied on community ‘activists,’ such as Barbara Major, who now co-chairs the Bring New Orleans Back Commission, to gain the consent of tenant leaders and help sell the downsizing. While hundreds of poor Black families lost homes and were removed from the center of the city, white developers such as real estate moguls Joseph Canizaro and Pres Kabacoff, reaped tens of millions in profits, and government subsidies, respectively, from the class and ethnic cleansing of the St. Thomas.
Nagin’s Response to the Hurricane: More of the Same
Ray Nagin’s performance before, during, and after the hurricane is consistent with his predecessors’ total lack of concern for the interests of Black working class people and the subordination of these leaders to the dictates of Washington and the ruling corporate elites. Lets begin with preparation. Although it was clear well before the hurricane that the city was not prepared to evacuate, or care for a large section of the community, when a large storm hit, the Nagin administration did nothing. He did not use his position — nor did his predecessors — to publicly demand, or help mobilize the populace to demand, federal intervention, or provision of necessary resources, for a disaster everyone knew was coming. Nor did he mobilize the resources at hand, such as school and city buses, to be used in case of an emergency evacuation.
During and in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, as has been revealed, Nagin adhered to orders and directives coming from Homeland Security and FEMA that aid not be provided to evacuees at the superdome and convention center. Authorities did not want these sites to become magnets for people desperately seeking help. Nagin not only did not criticize the decision, but he helped to enforce it by mobilizing his police force to block people, such as local activist and author Lance Hill, from ferrying aid to those abandoned at the convention center. Furthermore, he contributed to the demonization of the evacuees by claiming “animalistic behavior’ was taking place at the convention center and superdome, even though the Times Picayune later acknowledged reports of wanton murder and rapes were greatly exaggerated. In the end, Nagin was as culpable as the Red Cross, which also went along with the starvation plan, by refusing to disobey the government and come to the aid of poor New Orleanians.
Like his predecessors, who helped to institute vicious cuts in city employment and public housing dictated by Washington, Mayor Nagin dutifully implemented their orders. By use of his police force, and quiescence in the face of, literally, murderous policies coming from Washington, the poorest sectors of New Orleans Black working class faced another attack at the hands of the post-civil rights, Black comprador ruling elite.
The Bring Back New Orleans Commission:
Making Transparent Black Comprador Rule
Maybe no other measure symbolizes the essence of Black comprador rule than the composition of the Nagin-appointed Bring New Orleans Back Commission. The unelected, seventeen member commission, empowered to create a thoroughgoing reconstruction plan for the city from school to housing, is not representative of the city by either race, gender, political sympathies, nor, especially, class. Furthermore, the real power on the seventeen-person commission rests with an inner circle of elites including real estate mogul Joseph Canizaro, Tulane University President Scott Cowen, shipbuilder Donald “Boysie” Bollinger, local utility company CEO Dan Packer, and businessman James Reiss. As an October 29th New York Times article reported, quoting Canizaro, the real decisions and plans are hatched at a weekly luncheon where “a few friends of the mayor…gather to help the Mayor with advice and such.” They are part of group who want, as James Reiss told the Wall Street Journal in early September, “a city rebuilt …in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.” To many that was interpreted as an ethnic and class cleansing agenda for this 70% African American city of 460,000 pre-Katrina residents.
Here too, we see parallels with pre-Katrina New Orleans. The committee builds on the elite “Committee for Better New Orleans (CBNO),” formed in 2000, which was spearheaded by Canizaro, and his close associate, community activist Barbara Major. Some of the same neoliberal plans, undemocratic maneuverings, and pseudo democratic hearings, were also evident in this earlier formation.
Unsurprisingly, the Commission, a bastard offspring of the CBNO, which to legitimate itself brought on community activist Barbara Major as co-chair of the commission, and jazz great and native New Orleanian Wynton Marsalis to lead the commission’s cultural committee, have proposed deeply unpopular measures. For example, in early January the commission’s urban planning committee, headed by Canizaro, unveiled their plans which called for turning into ‘green areas’ many working and middle class neighborhoods, in this pre-Katrina 70% majority Black city, if these communities did not recover in only four short months. Especially targeted for ‘green space’ designation was the almost all-Black lower 9th ward and New Orleans east. The report called for using eminent domain powers to take the homes of working class homeowners that refused to go along. Furthering the attack on public housing, the report called for turning into “infill development areas” for commercial and industrial projects lands where several housing developments now stand. The local housing authority, HANO, quickly worked to implement these elite engineered blueprints — a week after the plans were unveiled the authority’s federal receiver announced the placing of a Home Depot store on part of the C.J. Peete housing development!
The education committee, headed by Tulane president Scott Cowen, and taking advice from the Rand corporation, called for furthering efforts toward use of charter schools and breaking the power of teacher unions through greater ‘flexibility” and enhanced power of school principals. These plans follow up on those taken by Governor Blanco, and the school board, which, in the aftermath of the hurricane, fired all the district teachers, broke the union contract, and had the state take over almost all the schools in the district whose some 60,000 pre-Katrina student population was over 90% African American. The latter measure allows the state to contract schools out to non-profit or for-profit companies — if the Governor even decides to ever open them again. Tulane University has been the beneficiary of these measures, being awarded a contract to run the facility that formerly housed the all-Black, working class, neighborhood high school, Fortier. Under the new, Tulane-run high school, all the former students at the high school are expelled, while the children of full time Tulane employees and those from three other elite private universities, are admitted.
Commission reports have been met by widespread, and intense, opposition by residents. One response directed at Canizaro by an African American homeowner at a packed January 11th public hearing on the urban planning report encapsulated the feeling of many about the commission, its members, and recommendations: “I hate you.” At a public forum held by city councilperson Cynthia Morrell, who represents the Gentilly and New Orleans east neighborhoods targeted for demolition, residents clearly stated their hostility to plans to bulldoze their homes and communities. One white New Orleans east resident, who identified himself as a Republican, said he had a “gun and was ready to use it against anyone that tries to take my home.” At the same time, Lower 9th ward residents rallied to stop efforts by the city to demolish their homes without permission. With the help of attorneys Ishmael Muhammed and Bill Quigley, residents were able to obtain an injunction against any further efforts.
The Martin Luther King March: Nagin Abandons the Lower 9th Ward
In the midst of a hostile reception to the recommendations of the Mayorial appointed commission, Nagin began preparing for the annual MLK parade. Here too he faced opposition. Andy Washington, an 84-year-old veteran of the civil rights movement, and active member of the anti-war, pro-public housing group, C3/Hands Off Iberville, confronted Nagin at a public forum for evacuees held by the Mayor in Atlanta in early December. Washington challenged the Mayor on whether he would hold the traditional MLK march — which is the largest single public event in the Black community, bringing out tens of thousands of people yearly — beginning at its traditional starting point of the devastated Lower 9th ward. Furthermore, he challenged Nagin to have the march continue to its original end point, Canal street. In 1990, following pressure from tourist and real estate interests unhappy with large numbers of Black people on the city’s main thoroughfare, then-Mayor Barthelemy rerouted the march.
Nagin responded to Washington in an email, telling the octogenarian, and his group, Hands Off Iberville, to “chill out”. The Mayor and his official MLK committee would decide if, when, and where the march would be held. Nagin’s stonewalling and inaction did not stop Washington and grass roots activists with Hands Off Iberville. Washington and the group mobilized in the community and nationally, to invite people to come to the Lower 9th and continue the over thirty-year tradition of starting the MLK march in this now beleaguered community. This would be, they argued, a powerful message of solidarity to Lower 9th ward residents facing attacks to permanently destroy their community and prevent any rebuilding efforts. National endorsement included those from the Harlem Tenants Council, Workers Democracy Network, and the Campus Antiwar Network, while locally the Forest Park Tenants Association, the Baton Rouge based anti-war group CAWI, and the anti-eviction group NO-HEAT, signed on as well.
The march organizers, in the calls they sent out for the event, demanded the federal government carry out a comprehensive rebuilding effort to reconstruct schools, hospitals, public housing, as well infrastructure in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. This plan would be implemented through a democratically controlled public works program financed through a tax on oil companies and immediate withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan. Above all, they argued, that the hurricane should not be used as a pretext to alter the racial and class demographics of the city, which is the underlying agenda of the official, Nagin-appointed Commission.
Unsurprisingly the Nagin administration, and his official MLK committee, abandoned the traditional route. The refusal to hold the march from the Lower 9th ward was symbolic of the real plans his administration, and the interests he is allied with, have for the city: destruction of Black working class communities like the Lower 9th ward, and complete neoliberal dismantling of all public services, such as public housing, education, and health care, so that Black working class people cannot return. Thus, in reality, Nagin is not for a “chocolate city,” as he claimed at the abbreviated MLK march in New Orleans that came no-where near the heavily Black 9th, 8th and 7th wards that the march usually traverses. This should have been the controversy by the media. Grass roots activists, such as those represented by C3/Hands off Iberville, are for a chocolate city; they are opposed to using the hurricane as a pretext to impose a pre-existing elite agenda of class and ethnic cleansing. The national controversy should be over Nagin’s hypocrisy — calling for the return of Black working class people, yet in practice doing everything to prevent that outcome. The words uttered by this Black comprador leader, beholden to large white capitalist interests, was to confuse and insulate himself from the growing working class anger the plans hatched by his official “Bring New Orleans Back” Commission have generated.
The Community Continues the March
Despite the official abandonment of the march and the Lower 9th ward, the community continued the tradition. With few monetary resources, and most of the Lower 9th ward and Black working class community still dispersed in the diaspora, community organizers were able to mobilize several hundred protestors to carry on the tradition and send a powerful message to Nagin and the entire country. Attendees included Mrs. Ethel Wicker, a Lower 9th ward resident and head of the Non-Violent Association of the Lower 9th ward. In a testament to how deeply rooted the tradition of the MLK march is, Wicker traveled from Baton Rouge where she is now exile, to attend the event. Wicker, whose stepdaughter, Kim Groves, was murdered on orders of NOPD cop Len Davis after filing a complaint of police brutality, said the Lower 9 would rise again. “We’re coming back, and they can’t stop us,” she exclaimed.” Pam Deshiell, another Ninth Ward resident leader put the blame clearly at the feet of capitalist interests who had plundered the environment for the disaster: “The people who caused this man-made disaster are the US Army Corps of Engineers, the Port of New Orleans, which fought so hard to keep the Mississippi Gulf Outlet open, and the maritime industry, who tried to keep the channel open & prevailed. They are responsible; they need to be held accountable.”
After a one-hour rally the marchers left the starting point at about 10 am, and marched across the industrial canal and continued up to the Iberville public housing development. Although the development took very little damage, developers have been pushing to have it ‘revitalized,” into a ‘mixed income’ community, i.e. push out the existing residents. In addition, the housing authority, which is now controlled by the federal government, has dragged its feet in reopening the Iberville apartments, which sit on the site of the former Storyville red light district. In front of the handsome red brick townhouses of this historic development resident Annette Davis greeted the marchers, thanking them for their support, and emphasizing, “people need public housing more than ever.” The group continued up to and along Canal street, breaking a 15 year absence of the march continuing to the city’s signature avenue. The marchers stopped at the former Woolworth store to commemorate where sit in demonstrators had fought Jim Crow segregation in the early 1960s, and to reconnect contemporary anti-racist current struggles and activists with their historical antecedents. The march ended at the FEMA compound in the French quarter, the face of the federal government in the city. There the marchers presented their demands for a mass public works program, immediate reopening of public housing, and making the rich pay for it all.
The Black Working Class Must Take Power
The official reconstruction plans, which have support from Washington, are really deconstruction plans for the Black working class majority of New Orleans. Capitalist elites, with support from Nagin, are using the hurricane to deepen the racist, neoliberal agenda of austerity and privatization, and the ethnic and class cleansing of the city. Yet, in the face of these attacks working class people are fighting back. The Vietnamese community’s rebuilding of their New Orleans east community without official support or sanction, the heated denunciations at public hearings of the Commission’s plans, and the Hands Off Iberville-led MLK march from the Lower 9th ward in defiance of the official committee, are examples of this emerging fight back. People are learning, as long time anti-police brutality activist Malcolm Suber said at the MLK march, that
the government abandoned us, left us here to die. We had to depend upon ourselves to save ourselves. And today we know we have to depend on ourselves and our unity to rebuild our homes and our lives, even against the government.
In the end, in this majority Black city, this world cultural treasure, it will take a Black working class-led movement to create a racial and economically just rebuilding. Relying on the Black comprador elite, whether in the form of a Nagin, or a Morial, for political leadership — or just as bad, the white hopefuls — will bring disaster for the Black working class majority. If this political movement does not emerge, the racist capitalist plans that Bush and his favorite “pioneer club” contributor, Joseph Canizaro, have for the city will be implemented. This would have grave implications not just for the Black working class people of New Orleans, but for the whole U.S. working class. The prophetic words of late Black Marxist auto worker and author James Boggs, which explains the intertwined fate of Black and white working class people, have particular prescience in the aftermath of Katrina:
“…the black revolution, even though it is not an all-American revolution in the sense that it involves all the Americans who are oppressed, it is still an American revolution in the sense that it threatens to wreck the whole system by which the United States has operated. In fact, although black Americans are a minority in the United States, they represent as great a threat to the American system as the African majority represents to the system in South Africa. Because once the bottom of a system begins to explode, the whole system is threatened with overthrow. Once those at the bottom of the ladder refuse to stay there, then all those who have been climbing on their backs up the ladder are in danger of losing their place on the ladder. The whole system of climbing up out of your class on the backs, first of the Negroes and then anyone else whom you can exploit, even members of your family — which it what Americans mean by the “classless society” — is now threatened.”
An injury to one is an injury to all.
Jay Arena is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Sociology at Tulane University. He is also a long time community and labor activist in New Orleans, and an active member of the anti-war, pro-public housing group C3/Hands Off Iberville.