Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections on the Ten Year Aftermath of the Federal Flood, by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs

Trying to sum up my thoughts on the 10th anniversary of Katrina has proven to be more difficult than I ever imagined. A few months ago, when I decided it was worth it to take a step back, think about what I’ve witnessed over the past ten years, and how I understand these pieces fitting together within a longer history of racialized violence and resistance, it seemed like an easy assignment. It is the exact sort of thing that I have been trained to do. But figuring out how to actually articulate my thoughts became more and more emotionally charged and messy as the days passed by and the barrage of Katrina media coverage has grown exponentially each day. I have given up on this assignment a number of times already as I’ve alternated between feeling too raw (even as a non-New Orleanian) to productively write and questioning if any of my thoughts are worth sharing at all.

But, I know I will regret not capturing what I have to say now, at this particular moment as myself and so much of the city and broader Gulf South are being forced to remember not only August 29, 2005 but the losses and changes of the past ten years. I’d rather put down some messy and imperfect reflections of this moment than none at all, so here they are.

For the past nine years, every time I drive on 1-10 towards the West Bank and look up at the Superdome, the same image pops in my head. It’s of looking up at the Superdome in the summer of 2006 watching tiny little figures (who I would later learn were likely immigrant workers) atop of the Dome connected to ropes fixing the roof so it would ready for the 2006 Saints football season.[i] I remember how that summer the image of the folks fixing the Superdome,[ii] while houses still sat in the middle of the street in the Lower Ninth, tap water threatened to give one giardia, and Katrina refrigerators littered the city, served as a daily reminder of what city elites’ vision of the future of New Orleans was and was not to be.

That image probably only lasted a few months but it and dozens of others from the first months and years following the storm continue to shape how I see New Orleans as she speeds towards the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, or what People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and many others made sure we rightfully referred to as the Federal Flood. Mitch Landrieu and his conspirators are doing everything they can to make sure we forgot such images. There is no room in the success story of New Orleans for the remembrance of thousands of Black folks abandoned on roofs and highway overpasses or the unapologetic shootings of Black men by NOPD and white vigilantes or of the proliferation of homeless encampments across the city as the crisis of homelessness reached epic proportions in 2007[iii] or of the bulldozing of the WPA era public housing developments still filled with the countless possessions of thousands who never were able to come home.[iv]  For Mitch and his ilk, these are the moments are best left forgotten[v] as the city moves forward and proves its ‘resiliency’ to the world. Reproducing the old liberal notion that the past does not shape the present, every where you turn is the disavowal that the ‘triumph’ of the city is predicated on the ongoing state sanctioned and extralegal violence, exploitation, and dispossession of Black New Orleanians.

Yes, this celebrated new New Orleans follows in the long tradition of New Souths remaking themselves time and time again through the dirty secret of all New Souths—their so-called successes have always been built upon the infrastructure of Jim Crow.[vi]  

And indeed the last ten years have much in common with the dismantling of Reconstruction and the rise of the Jim Crow regime of the New South. The framework of Reconstruction is not only familiar but was intentionally employed by numerous social justice organizations in the wake of the storm. Tracking back to both the promises of Radical Reconstruction and the ‘Second Reconstruction’ of the Black Freedom Movement, so many grassroots organizations named that the city’s rebuilding needed to be done as a “just reconstruction” if there was any hope of transforming the structures that created the conditions for such devastation to occur. Indeed, I was just one of thousands upon thousands of mostly, but not entirely, white Northerners who were called, moved, encouraged, recruited to come to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to support the reconstruction effort not dis-similarly from the Northern activists who went South in the 1860s and 1960s.[vii]

What’s more, community activists further followed in the best of the internationalist impulse of the Black Radical Tradition and other liberatory anti-racist movements in calling upon the most radical edge of human rights organizing, in the tradition of Paul Robeson and Malcolm X. People demanded that Gulf Coast residents be understood as internally displaced persons with the accompanied right of return, right to housing, right to healthcare, right to education, right to a living wage, right to a healthy environment and the right to collective self-determination. In doing so, Gulf South organizers highlighted that the experience New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents were facing had to be understood in a global frame of how climate change was (and would continue) wrecking havoc on vulnerable communities the world over.

Against such bold and visionary organizing were the other plans for the city. For a whiter and wealthier New Orleans. It feels hard to imagine it now, and perhaps I was just naive at the time, but I really believed that the organizing work across the city was going to be able to stop this land grab. But the racial capitalist state, at both the local and national level, was strong. HOPE VI was to destroy public housing exacerbating the city’s housing shortage, the busting of the teachers’ union and refusal to reopen Charity Hospital ensured that unknown numbers of New Orleanians (often women, usually Black) were unable to come home as their jobs were eliminated, Road Home was not only a disaster but the homeowners who did receive funds received them in a racially uneven manner, and so on and so on. With local folks busy trying to rebuild their homes and lives, and the weakening of solidarity networks over the years,[viii] to say nothing of the political depression experienced by many (including myself) as the losses accumulated, the capacity to confront the racialized neoliberal agenda for the city was limited (but never completely diminished).  

In all of this, I see 2010 as one of the turning points of the city. During the previous five years, although the agenda for the city had clearly been set, it still had not come to full fruition.[ix] But then coupled with the incredible soul-lifting Super Bowl win was the historically low voter turnout for the mayoral election that brought Mitch Landrieu into office as the first white mayor since his father held the position in the 1970s.

Following the election, you could hear white folks unabashedly rejoicing at having a white mayor for the first time in decades. And again, following in the tradition set forth in the dismantling of Reconstruction, white folks justified their glee as not about racism but about *finally* having politicians running the city who weren’t corrupt or incompetent, neatly ignoring the fact it was only Black elected officials who were targeted for such investigations.[x]  

Although the policy programs of Landrieu were not too dissimilar from the pro-business, neoliberal agenda that Nagin had promoted since 2002, their abilities to marshal outside resources were markedly different. While this difference can be partially understood as the timing of their respective administrations in the rebuilding landscape, we cannot and should not overlook how the city having white political leadership influenced the ways outside investors viewed New Orleans. Confidence in the city soared with Mitch in office and new capital flowed in to take advantage of the speculative boom. This private investment alongside the continued funneling of federal recovery dollars into private enterprises such as the St. Roch Market, demonstrated again the goal of the city’s recovery was capital accumulation on the backs of Black and poor New Orleanians.

I could go on at length about the heart-breaking experience of watching this most recent manifestation of the city disinvesting in Black New Orleans in favor of the new New Orleans over the past three years or so. The uptick in policing Black youth, notably transgirls, in the corridors targeted for ‘revitalization’; the ongoing commodification and marketing of the city’s Black cultural traditions even as Black musicians and other cultural workers struggle to make ends meet; the city’s auctioning off of property for exorbitant rates rather than investing in housing for working class and poor residents; the expansion of tourist rentals and the accompanied creep of drunken dude bro tourists that have made neighborhoods unrecognizable even to folks like myself and my friends who moved here in 2006 and 2007. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for folks who are actually from here.

Perhaps one of the things that most marks this most recent period to me is the extent to which the storm and its aftermath had faded and forgotten to the extent that many of the newest arrivals I talk with don’t even seem to consider themselves as living in a post-disaster environment. Yes, the houses are no longer strewn in the middle of the road. Humvees do not roll up and down streets. Katrina X’s on houses are hard to spot these days. But this is still a post-disaster world. Every single one of us who has come since the storm are here because of Katrina and what it did to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast whether we recognize it or not. This is not to feel to guilty, but to squarely and honestly assess where it is that we are so that we can think to the best of our abilities about how to best be and move in this incredible, complicated, magical, and contradictory place.

Because even with all the losses New Orleans has sustained in the last decade, it still is not lost. Just as it is a disservice to New Orleans and the Gulf South to forget the violence that folks have experienced here and in the broader Katrina diaspora, it is a disservice to ignore the wins of grassroots organizing from the shrinking of Orleans Parish Prison by several thousands beds to the recent win of higher wages for city contract workers.[xi] The current mobilizations of activists to disrupt the narrative of the city’s recovery and resiliency, to highlight the tremendous organizing work of the past ten years, and to come together to envision new just futures for the region reminds us that the work of movement building is never over. New Orleans organizing continues to build upon the city’s long legacies of resistance, that stretch back to slave revolts and Homer Plessy’s contestation to the solidification of Jim Crow, while creatively pushing for a city that does not continue to displace and exploit the people who’ve made it what it is over the centuries. 

This is what still gives me hope. This is how I can imagine moving forward. Not forgetting the past or ignoring what is happening around me. But thinking critically, learning from the brilliance of people here, and finding ways to support the work of materializing the still unrealized project of abolition democracy and collective freedom.

[i] I must admit, I held a grudge at the Saints for this special treatment until the 2009/2010 NFL Season and their Super Bowl win. 
[ii] Which we should not forget as also the site of much suffering by Katrina survivors in the aftermath of the flood.
[iii] During the summer and fall of 2007, a number of homeless folks came together to form a homeless union called Homeless Pride that set up a political encampment to demand an end to homelessness across from City Hall in Duncan Plaza until they were evicted by the city under the guise of park renovations. More about Homeless Pride can be found here:
[iv] I will never forget that a week or so following the storm I called up an old friend from New Orleans who was collecting donations to get to the folks she knew who had lost everything (it was already known not to trust FEMA or the Red Cross). During our conversation, I asked her if her friends were ok and she told me that there were a bunch of folks she couldn’t get in touch with, but she knew they’d be ok since they’d been in the projects which were some of the sturdiest building in the city being three stories high and brick (a rarity in New Orleans). 
[v] Or even celebrated as with the raising of public housing or the mass firing of teachers to break the teachers union and pave the wave for the complete charterization of the New Orleans school system.
[vi] By Jim Crow, I mean the full range of racialized and gendered exploitative violence aimed at containing and controlling the recently freed Black population of the South upon the dismantling of Reconstruction by members of the plantation bloc and New South industrialists alike, buttressed by the support of Northern capitalists: de jure segregation, mass disenfranchisement, criminalization of Black communities and the expansion of the state’s policing and penal power, widespread sexualized violence, dismantling of collective ownership structures, disinvestment in education and other social services, privatization of state services, free trade, and the rise of precarious labor (which in the case of Louisiana included the recruitment of Chinese coolie labor to do the former work of enslaved people). Otherwise the prototype of what we call neoliberalism today. For more on this, everyone should read everything Clyde Woods ever wrote, beginning with Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta.
[vii] I am not trying to imply that everyone who showed up to volunteer was a radical anti-racist activist. That is far from the truth. But something did indeed occur in the scale of response by primarily young folks who identified doing volunteer work as politically important work. This politicized volunteering tapered off as time wore on with less volunteers, and less organizations, framing the rebuilding New Orleans as an anti-racist or Left or social justice project. 
[viii] To this day, I wonder how my own participation and advancement of certain political strategies contributed to the drying up of national support for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, particularly amongst the white activist-y Northerners similar to me. At the time it seemed important to emphasize to out of town volunteers that the conditions that gave rise to the disaster were not exceptional to New Orleans but could be found wherever they were from—thus the necessity of them focusing their activism home. And while I still generally agree with this framing, I wonder what could have happened if we had more firmly articulated that doing work at home required sticking with New Orleans for the long haul of what was sure to be a difficult and protracted recovery. This is hitting me particularly hard right now as I’ve realized in the last few weeks that no one I know is aware of any Katrina commemorative events happening outside of the Gulf Coast (I still hope I’m wrong on this front).
[ix] In the fall of 2009, I sat in an urban planning class where the different redevelopment schemes were presented to me of various “revitalization corridors” which include Tulane Ave, Freret Street, St. Claude, OC Haley, and Broad. At the time most of them seemed outlandish and unlikely, and now almost six years later I’ve seen them materialize, if unevenly.
[x] I am forever indebted to Du Bois’s discussion in Black Reconstruction about how white elites created and promoted the myth of Black Republican politicians as corrupt and incompetent in order to justify the ousting of Black political leadership and the reinstatement of white supremacist power during so-called Redemption for helping me articulate this connection. And noting this connection does not mean that I was a fan of everyone who was ousted following the storm, but that we cannot ignore that the targeting of corrupt politicians in the South has more often been about the diminishing of Black political power than about honest and principled politics.   
[xi] For a fantastic description of the wide-range of organizing happening in New Orleans today check out Jordan Flaherty’s recent article “A Movement Lab in New Orleans”

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