Monday, December 29, 2014

Black Lives Matter in the Best Films of 2014

More than 100 years after the birth of cinema, it sometimes feels like every story has been told. But the best films of 2014 dared to break out of their genres, explore new ways of filmmaking, and inspire viewers. Some of them even provided tools for popular understanding of our current political moment. This year, Selma, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and Out In The Night all told stories of a criminal justice system harming Black communities, while Dear White People used satire to address racist power structures. Documentaries like The Great Invisible and Citizenfour attacked government and corporate malfeasance, science fiction films like Snowpiercer helped imagine future revolutions, and Pride delivered a lesson in movement solidarity.

Below are my top 14 films of the year. As always, many of them didn’t receive the distribution they deserved, but will no doubt live on as more audiences discover them online.

14 – Dear White People – After months of hype and viral videos, Dear White People had a lot of anticipation to live up to. While the film focused narrowly on life at an elite, mostly white, college, it managed to pull in a wider range of issues and themes. This fresh and original film served notice that writer/director Justin Simien, and his talented young cast, are rising talents to watch.

13 - Whiplash - Damien Chazelle’s Sundance award winner was a tense, brutal drama about a young man and his mentor/teacher. Or, as Barbara Herman called it, the “best homoerotic S&M film about jazz drumming you'll see this year.”

12 – Coherence – This film slipped under most critic’s radar, but filmmaker James Ward Byrkit’s debut about alternate realities is a smart and challenging low-budget sci-fi mind-bender. It’s the kind of film you want to watch again right after it ends, to keep unlocking its puzzles.

11 – The Babadook – Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut is the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. In a genre often dominated by male filmmakers and sexist tropes, Kent’s film is a breath of fresh air, and a truly terrifying balance of psychological and supernatural horror that keeps you in the dark, jumping at shadows.

10 – Edge of Tomorrow – It’s not often that a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise makes my list, but Doug Liman, director of Bourne Identity and Go, among other films, is a filmmaker who knows how to make an old genre come alive. Edge of Tomorrow is a rare find; a smart and exciting Hollywood sci-fi thriller.

9 – The Great Invisible – So much has been written and filmed about the BP Drilling Disaster of 2010, that it’s shocking to find stories that haven’t been told. But filmmaker Margaret Brown (who also went behind the scenes of Mobile, Alabama’s racially segregated Mardi Gras in 2009’s The Order of Myths) has given this disaster the documentary it deserves, with stunning access to both families on the Gulf Coast, and to men with money and power who work within the oil industry.

8 – Snowpiercer – Reportedly, a clash between Korean director Bong Joon-ho and distributor Harvey Weinstein kept this stunning film from wide release. Snowpiercer is a thrilling allegory of class struggle in a dystopian future that puts The Hunger Games to shame.

7 – Tales of the Grim Sleeper – Before seeing this documentary, I’d never heard of the Grim Sleeper, an alleged serial killer arrested in South Central Los Angeles in 2010. This film presents a case that the race, gender and class of the victims meant the news media and police were not interested in stopping the killer. Over a period of more than two decades, scores of women, almost all of them Black street-based sex workers and/or drug users, were raped and killed while the police and media turned a blind eye. Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield talks to a coalition of Black women activists in South Central LA who worked to pressure the police and media to pay attention. He also talks to women on the street who encountered (and narrowly escaped) the killer. One woman gave police a sketch of the man, and led officers to his block more than a decade before he was caught, but the LAPD apparently did nothing with the information. Other women Broomfield finds were afraid to even talk to the police. This film is a disturbing and difficult companion to the Black Lives Matter movement.

6 – Out in the Night – The Jersey Four, a group of young African American lesbians who were vilified in the media and aggressively prosecuted after they fought back against a hate crime, is an incredibly important story. And filmmaker blair dorosh-walther has created a powerful and urgent film that captures the lives and families of these young women, and shows a criminal justice system more interested in attacking them than protecting them. This film needs to be widely seen.

5 – Citizenfour – Filmmaker Laura Poitras was already making a film about (and had been a victim of) US government surveillance when Edward Snowden came to her. Long before this film came out, she had already made history by helping bring Snowden’s revelations to a worldwide audience. All this film needed to do to secure its place in history was to be a record of those revelations. But Poitras chose instead to make a film that takes the viewer inside a historical moment, making this not just important for what it tells, but also an example of bold and creative filmmaking.

4 – Selma – Ava DuVernay’s last film, Middle of Nowhere, made my 2012 best-of list with a moving story of families affected by the prison industrial complex. That it’s nearly unprecedented for a Black woman filmmaker to make a big budget Hollywood film shows how far we haven’t come, and this film gives a glimpse of what we’ve been missing. While Selma may not give enough weight to the grassroots activists of SNCC, and (despite the cries of some historians) may be too respectful to President Johnson, ultimately this is a powerful document of an important historical moment. 

3 – Pride - If you like uplifting films about inter-movement solidarity and class struggle, this British crowd-pleaser from Matthew Warchus is perfect for you. A moving, funny, charming, film based on a true story of gay activists in the 80s that built an alliance with striking miners in Thatcher’s Britain.

2 – Boyhood – Enough has been written about Richard Linklater’s bold and wise film that there’s no reason to add my praise. But even without the concept of watching actors age over a period of twelve years, this film feels like the culmination of what Linklater has been building towards throughout a career that started with the formal experimentation of Slacker and continued to push against narrative boundaries from Waking Life to A Scanner Darkly, Before Sunrise, and Fast Food Nation.

1 – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu announced himself as a talent to watch with his debut Amores Perros, but nothing in his career to date comes close to the triumph of this film. Behind the film’s play within a play storyline lies a filmmaking tour de force that succeeds on every technical level and leaves the viewer breathless, with no wasted moment or misstep.

Among other notable films this year: Concerning Violence feels more like a doctoral thesis than a movie, but if you are interested in the history of anti-colonial struggle in Africa, and want to see old footage of Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara, and hear narration based on text by Frantz Fanon read by Lauryn Hill, then this film may be perfect for you. Jodorowski’s Dune, directed by Frank Pavich, documents a brilliant film that almost existed, but even without being made proved itself more influential than most films ever can hope for. Gareth Evan’s The Raid 2 (part one made my 2012 list) continued to beat all of Hollywood action films at their own game. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler was as creepy as its name, and can be read as a blistering attack on both local TV news and capitalism. David Fincher’s Gone Girl was either built upon misogynist stereotypes, or a comment on stultifying roles of patriarchy. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Iranian feminist vampire film, is moody, clever and surprising.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marcus Jones, Father of Jena Six Student, Killed in Truck Accident

Marcus Jones, father of Mychal Bell, one of the defendants in the Jena Six case, was killed yesterday in a highway accident, according to local news reports.

In 2007, six high school students became an international cause. Tens of thousands of people from around the US descended on Jena, a small town in northern Louisiana, to protest against racial injustice.

Six Black youth facing decades in prison over a school fight involving a white youth who had no serious injuries symbolized an unjust system in some of the same ways that today Ferguson Missouri has come to represent police abuses. The fight occurred not long after white students had left nooses under a tree in what was seen as a warning to Black students. Mychal Bell was the first (and, ultimately, only) of the six youth to face trial, he was convicted and spent nearly ten months in prison before his sentence was overturned.

Marcus Jones was a dedicated, passionate, and outspoken advocate and activist for his son and the other young men, appearing frequently on radio and TV and speaking frankly about racial dimensions of the case, calling the charges a "modern day lynching."

According to a report today in the Jena Town Talk:
A Jena man helping a friend move some wooden pallets died Saturday afternoon on La. Highway 8, according to Louisiana State Police. Marcus W. Jones, 43, died in the incident, although troopers aren't sure exactly how yet. Around 5:41 p.m., troopers responded to a crash on La. 8 after a 2007 Chevrolet pickup truck, driven by 22-year-old Brittany N. Walker of Jena, struck Jones, who was lying in the eastbound lane. Walker tried to avoid hitting Jones, who was wearing a black jacket and black pants, reads the release. A friend of Jones' arrived at the scene, telling troopers that Jones had been helping him move wooden pallets. Jones had been standing in the bed of the friend's pickup truck, holding down the pallets, according to the release. The friend said that, when he arrived at his destination, Jones no longer was in the truck. The friend had been retracing his path, searching for Jones, when he came upon the scene.

In the years since the case, the six young men who had been facing life in prison went on to various colleges, including Grambling State, University of Louisiana at Monroe, Southern University, and Hofstra. One of the youth went on to work for Southern Poverty Law Center. Mychal Bell just graduated from Southern University, days before his father's death.

Photos by Jordan Flaherty.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Gulf Coast Communities Join People's Climate March

From our friends at Advocates For Environmental Human Rights:

Groups to Urge a Southern Initiative on Climate Change at People’s Climate March and Summit

From Texas to Maryland, a delegation of students and professors of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), environmental and social justice advocates, leaders of faith-based organizations, and survivors of Hurricane Katrina will join the People’s Climate March and Summit in New York, which precedes the United Nations Climate Summit.

“The painful experiences of Hurricane Katrina compel us to change our thinking that a climate treaty will save the day,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. She was displaced for two years from her home and predominantly Africa American neighborhood in New Orleans, which were under eight feet of water during Katrina. “We need a southern initiative on climate change that supports the people who are most vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and tornadoes and most likely to suffer from racial, social, and economic inequities which set back our ability to be climate resilient,” she said.

Although some of the loudest voices denying climate change in the US Congress and Senate come from southern states, the delegation points to the critical role that the South has in climate change. Much of the fossil fuel energy produced in the United States come at the expense of communities in the South, where there is significant air and water pollution and coastal erosion. In both scale and magnitude, climate-related disasters in the South outnumber those in other regions of the country. In addition, the largest number of people who are less likely to rebound from a climate-related disaster as a result of social and economic disadvantages live in the South.

“A southern initiative is critical to the United States making and keeping a commitment on climate change,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Policy at Texas Southern University in Houston. “The work of people, organizations, and institutions represented in this delegation is about climate action as part of the long fight for human rights and civil rights to bring about racial, gender, environmental, economic, and social justice in this country,” he said.

Members of the delegation have organized teach-ins at Empire State College on Saturday, September 20. The first teach-in focuses on how HBCUs can support communities in being climate resilient and effective advocates for transforming environmental and economic policies. This teach-in is followed by a workshop on the actions being taken by organizations in the south to sustain communities and ecosystems.  The delegation will be near the front of the People’s Climate March on Sunday, September 21, where organizers have reserved space for marchers who hail from communities on the frontlines of climate change.

“The People’s Climate March and Summit are about our human rights and how we want to live free from the control that the oil, gas, and coal industries currently have over our laws and economy,” said Monique Harden, who co-directs Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans. “This is a critical time as our coastal cities in the South are projected to be under water if we don’t take control,” she said.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Protest Against Police Violence Takes Over French Quarter Police Station

On Thursday, August 14, New Orleans activists held a moment of silence in solidarity with protests in Ferguson, Missouri, at 6:00pm in Lafayette Square. After the silent vigil, hundreds of attendees initiated a spontaneous protest march.

The march grew as it went, as people spontaneously joined and at least 400 people protested in the French Quarter, pausing across from Jackson Square, where speakers included a cousin of Mike Brown, the young man killed by police in Ferguson.

The march then traveled to the NOPD 8th District station, where at least 200 activists occupied the police station and spoke against law enforcement violence.

While news of the takeover of a police station spread across the US on social media, the local media for the most part failed to cover the protests, just as they had ignored the 600 people marching for justice in Palestine two weeks before. This media silence is part of a long history of New Orleans white media companies ignoring struggles led by people of color.

Photos by Abdul Aziz. Videos by Foster Bear Films, So-Called Media, and Jordan Flaherty.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Hundreds in New Orleans Protest Against Israeli War Crimes

At least 600 New Orleanians joined in a protest in support of justice for Palestine. The event, called #AStreetcarNamedGaza, began at the New Orleans streetcar stop at the Carrolton and Canal Street. As nearly five streetcars were filled with activists, organizers made connections between the civil rights history of New Orleans, which involved desegregating the streetcars, and the current fight for human rights in Palestine.

As protestors got off the streetcars at Canal Street and Decatur, they were joined by hundreds more protestors and marched through the French Quarter, ending at Frenchmen Street. The Palestinian community in New Orleans has a long history of standing up for justice.

A Street Car Named Gaza from Alaa Esmail on Vimeo.

Photo by Mohan Ambikaipaker. Video by Alaa Esmail.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Louisiana State Representative Austin Badon Announces He Wants to Engage in Sex Trafficking

Louisiana state representative Austin Badon (a Democrat representing New Orleans East) is the sponsor of House Bill 1158, which he says was written at the direction of local law enforcement, to further penalize solicitation, whether it is panhandling, prostitution, or hitchhiking. According to an article on, Badon said that police "needed something to be able to stop (prostitutes), question them and find out what they're doing."

The proposed law has already received national attention for the mean-spirited way it targets the poorest people in our communities. The website ThinkProgress noted:
The bill’s author, State Rep. Austin Badon (D), told Post TV that he hoped that banning begging will somehow lead to fewer poor people on the streets. He doubted that many were in actual need, saying, “they’re paying their cell phone bills, they’re paying their computer bills. It’s a racket.” Badon is echoing a familiar trope — that panhandlers are living large from others’ charity. But it’s not based on any actual research. In fact, a major study of panhandlers in San Francisco last year found just the opposite: the vast majority make $25 a day ($9,125 per year) or less. That meager income is largely used to eat. Nearly every beggar — 94 percent — said they used the money they receive for food; less than half used it for drugs or alcohol.
But giving police new tools to harass the poor and desperate is just one aspect of the bill. According to, Badon also bragged that his bill would allow for sex workers to be "hassled by the cops," forcing them to move to another place or another state.

This statement by Badon that he seeks to force women to cross state lines should cause concern for many reasons. One definition of trafficking is forcing someone to cross state lines to engage in prostitution. From his statement, it seems this is Badon's intention - and that he intends to use the force of the state of Louisiana to back up his scheme.

This is not the first time police have been used to force sex workers to cross state lines. In a famous case in Washington, D.C. in 1989, police rounded up sex workers and forced them to march to the Virginia state line, until a couple of Washington Post reporters spotted them, at which point the police ran off.

A 2008 report called Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C. highlighted the way in which policies like "prostitution free zones" end up harming those already at the margins, and "pose serious threats to health and safety of community members identified or otherwise targeted as sex workers." Louisiana has already become notorious for targeting and harassing sex workers by making them register as sex offenders (a practice that finally ended last year), conducting mass arrests, and increasing criminal penalties.

It seems Rep. Badon has declared this to be "attack and dehumanize women week." He also has been pushing a bill, HB 1274 that, according to one recent article:
Would allow the state to prohibit a family from ending medical treatment for a comatose or incapacitated pregnant woman. Badon's bill would bar the removal of a pregnant woman from life support if the obstetrician examining her “determines that the pregnant woman's life can reasonably be maintained in such a way as to permit the continuing development and live birth of the unborn child.” If it becomes law, this bill would mandate that a brain-dead pregnant woman remain on life support for the rest of her pregnancy, regardless of her family’s wishes or how far along the pregnancy is. This could mean up to 40 weeks of a loved one remaining on life support.
We hope Badon and the Louisiana legislature will reconsider their plan to make life worse for those already living on the edge.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Protests This Week Show Dissent on New Orleans Criminal Justice System

Two upcoming protest marches have revealed divisions among New Orleanians in their views of police and the criminal justice system. Organizers of an LGBT March and Rally Against Hate and Violence, scheduled for this Wednesday at 8:00pm, and Slutwalk New Orleans, scheduled for this Saturday at 10:30am, have both advertised and embraced a police presence as part of their events, bringing criticism from other activists.

The facebook description of the LGBT March announces that the New Orleans police "will be there to escort us and protect us." The full description reads:
Please join us for a rally and a march to show the presence of the LGBT community in the French Quarter. As I am sure many of you know, there have been several recent anti-gay hate crimes in New Orleans and especially in the French Quarter and the Marigny. There have been many robberies as well. It is time that we start to show our connection to our community. We need people to see that we are united in our commitment to each other. We need them to know that if someone in our community has been victimized that we are there to support each other, either by getting people to report crimes that have been committed or by helping them to report the crimes if they feel that cannot do it on their own. During this march, the NOPD will be there to escort us and protect us. This is a great opportunity to get to know your local police. I encourage signage and your presence to show that we can be united and that it is the responsibility of us all to overcome these crimes in our neighborhood. So please join us on a walk through the French Quarter starting at the entrance to Armstrong Park at the corner of N. Rampart and St Ann.
In response, activists - including members of New Orleans Black & Pink, Critical Resistance, and other local organizations - have organized a rally with a more critical view of the police. They have released a statement that notes the harm done by law enforcement.
Our home is the incarceration capital of the world. One in 86 adult Louisiana residents is in prison. Approximately 5,000 African-American men from New Orleans are in state prisons, compared to 400 white men. Our city jail, Orleans Parish Prison, is a site of rape and violence that a Human Rights Watch report called "a nightmare" for LGBTQ individuals. Incarceration has not made us safer as a community— and in fact does not deter crime. When our community members are locked away, it tears at the social fabric that holds our community together. Children grow up without parents at home, lovers long for their partners, and groups miss their members.  
These activists have organized an alternate march and rally, called the LGBTQ March and Rally For Safety In Solidarity, aimed at presenting a different path towards community safety.
Supporting each other in the face of violence does not have to take the form of reporting to police. Community safety comes from solidarity and liberation. It comes from ensuring that all people have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, employment, and education. We hope that through dialogue we can address concerns of all members of our community and arrive at empowering solutions together.
This division in the LGBTQ community is not new. Writing in the book Captive Genders, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade discussed the participants in the Stonewall Rebellion, who rioted against police:
Could these groundbreaking and often unsung activists have imagined that only forty years later the "official" gay rights agenda would be largely pro-police, pro-prisons, and pro-war - exactly the forces they worked so hard to resist? Just a few decades later, the most visible and well-funded arms of the "LGBT movement" look much more like a corporate strategizing session than a grassroots social justice movement. There are countless examples of this dramatic shift in priorities. What emerged as a fight against racist, anti-poor, and anti-queer police violence now works hand in hand with local and federal law enforcement agencies, district attorneys are asked to speak at trans rallies, cops march in Gay Pride parades. The agendas of prosecutors - those who lock up our family, friends, and lovers - and many queer and trans organizations are becoming increasingly similar, with sentence- and police-enhancing legislation at the top of the priority list. Hate crimes legislation is tacked onto multi-billion dollar "defense" bills to support US military domination in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Despite the rhetoric of an"LGBT community," transgender and gender-non-conforming people are repeatedly abandoned and marginalized in the agendas and priorities of our "lead" organizations.
Saturday's "Slutwalk"is part of an international movement against rape culture. The movement began in Toronto, in response to statements from police officers that placed blame on women, and their their outfits or behavior, for being raped. Despite its goals and history, the movement has often been criticized for using language that excludes women of color. Shortly after the movement began, Canadian organizer Harsha Walia wrote this analysis:
Slutwalk runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of ‘liberated’ women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist façade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women’s sexuality and links a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice – the palatable “I can wear what I want” feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.
The history of Slutwalk as a mostly white movement that excludes women of color is also highlighted by the timing and location of this year's march and rally. The rally begins at Congo Square at 10:30am. At the same place and time, an annual event called the Celebration of the African American Child is scheduled for the park, while just a few blocks away and a half hour earlier is an immigrants' rights march, sponsored by the New Orleans Congress Of Day Laborers.

On March 27, the organizer of New Orleans Slutwalk announced that law enforcement would be part of the event.
I am so super, special, extra excited to announce that representatives from several departments of the ‪#‎NOPD‬, and quite possibly other law enforcement agencies, will be joining us prior to the walk to discuss crime prevention and victims assistance in New Orleans!!!! For those of you who know the history of the SlutWalk movement...this is HUGE! HUGE!!!!!
While no counter protest has been planned for Slutwalk, this announcement brought responses similar to those expressed by critics of the LGBT march and rally. One commentator wrote, "the presence of the NOPD is offensive, threatening and problematic... Feminist politics without a racial/class analysis is not in fact feminist." The NOPD has been criticized in the past year for statements that blame women for sexual assault, and NOPD officers have frequently been charged with committing sexual assaults.

In response to online criticism, the Slutwalk organizer wrote:
I don't need to be "schooled" on feminism or why some might be offended or disturbed by the presence of law enforcement. I am well aware of the distressing behavior and actions of many within the NOPD and other agencies in this city. What I DO know is that as SlutWalk started because law enforcement failed the community, establishing dialogue with the police in this city is a starting point. Do I expect their presence to magically do away with racism, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, or any other issues we have with law enforcement? No. But I do know that without dialogue, none of those issues will ever be addressed.
Solidifying the links between these marches, today the organizer of the Slutwalk march posted a facebook invitation to the LGBT March and Rally Against Hate and Violence.

The conflicts revealed in these demonstrations are not new, but in the context of gentrification and displacement, a culture of police violence and an out of control city jail, they come at a time in our city when these issues evoke particular pain and passion. Organizers of the LGBTQ March and Rally For Safety In Solidarity do not see themselves as protesting the other march, but rather "calling in," to build a safer community without the devastating effects of the prison industrial complex.

Statement From LGBTQ March and Rally For Safety In Solidarity

For more information on the reasons for this statement, see this link.

As members of the LGBTQ community in New Orleans, we support the safety and well-being of our community and of all New Orleanians. We believe that increased police presence and the continuing expansion of the prison-industrial complex is not the way to make our community safer.

The LGBT March and Rally Against Violence to be held Wednesday, April 2 calls for strategies that put our community members at more risk, not less. From Compton's Cafeteria riots and the  Stonewall Rebellion in the 1960s to the work of contemporary groups such as INCITE!: Women, Gender Non-Conforming, and Trans People of Color* Against Violence, Critical Resistance, Women with a Vision, BreakOUT!, and Black & Pink, LGBTQ people have taken stands against police violence and harassment. Increasing police involvement in our community threatens the safety of many of us.  

We ask that the goals of your march be changed to call for real safety for all of us through solidarity, rather than false solutions of policing and jails. We are also calling for dialogue with the march organizers and the wider LGBTQ community.

Policing, surveillance, and imprisonment target specific groups of people: people of color, transgender, genderqueer and gender-nonconforming people, street youth, and sex workers. The state of Louisiana still has a "Crime Against Nature" law on the books, and this law is used against the LGBTQ community, including in Baton Rouge where police were found to be using this law to target gay men. In New Orleans, 82 people have been charged with "Solicitation of a Crime Against Nature" in the last two years, resulting in a felony conviction with required sex offender registration. This law, which unjustly criminalized in large numbers low-income Black women and transgender women of color, was challenged by Women With a Vision and the Center for Constitutional Rights, who won a victory in 2012 that removed approximately 700 individuals from the sex-offender registry.

A 2010 study published in the journal Pediatrics found that in our schools, LGBTQ youth are more likely to be suspended, arrested and imprisoned. The report published by the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana, Locked Up & Out: LGBTQ Youth and Louisiana’s Juvenile Justice System, shares the stories of what happened to many of these young people in Louisiana.

A 2012 study by the National Coalition of Anti-Violence Programs found that transgender individuals experience three times as much police violence as non-transgender individuals, and those numbers are even higher for transgender people of color. In New Orleans, organizations such as BreakOUT! and Women With A Vision have documented patterns of discrimination from the NOPD against the LGBTQ community, including rampant police profiling and threats of using condoms as evidence of prostitution, especially against transgender women of color.

Here in New Orleans, the US Department of Justice found that the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) has discriminatory practices against the LGBTQ community and specifically addressed these issues in the Federal Consent Decree. This followed organizing by LGBTQ youth of BreakOUT! in their campaign, “We Deserve Better.” The campaign also resulted in the adoption of Policy 402 on the 44th Anniversary of the Stonewall riots, which prohibits the profiling of people on the basis of gender identity, gender expression, and sexual orientation. These victories only came after years of grassroots organizing by LGBTQ youth, and yet with continued police harassment, much more remains to be done. 

Our home is the incarceration capital of the world. One in 86 adult Louisiana residents is in prison. Approximately 5,000 African-American men from New Orleans are in state prisons, compared to 400 white men. Our city jail, Orleans Parish Prison, is a site of rape and violence that a Human Rights Watch report called "a nightmare" for LGBTQ individuals. Incarceration has not made us safer as a community— and in fact does not deter crime. When our community members are locked away, it tears at the social fabric that holds our community together. Children grow up without parents at home, lovers long for their partners, and groups miss their members.  

Policing and incarceration is also a tool of gentrification and displacement, adding to a hostile environment for working class African-American residents still recovering from Hurricane Katrina. We can look to the examples of the controversies in Chicago's Boys Town neighborhood and New York City's West Village. In Boys Town, perceived increase in violence led to white gay men calling for more police patrols, and in doing so the LGBTQ youth of color who hung out near the community center in the neighborhood were unfairly targeted by the increased police. That effort did not support the unity of the LGBTQ community. A similar situation evolved in the West Village in New York City, where residents, many of whom were white, affluent gay men, responding to incidents of violence, pushed for Quality of Life policies. FIERCE, an LGBTQ youth of color organization, has campaigned against these policies, stating: "To this day, LGBTQ youth who go to the pier have reported sharp increases in police harassment, false arrest and racial and gender profiling - usually for just being in the neighborhood...This emphasis on policing drew massive resources from other social services and education that have the potential to actually address poverty and safety. In fact, under Giuliani and continuing through the years of the Bloomberg administration, the only 'public service' that increased funding was 'criminal justice.'"

Here in New Orleans, we've already begun to see the impact of massive gentrification projects on low-income LGBTQ communities of color. The targeting of transgender women on Tulane Avenue by the NOPD continues to put some of our city's most vulnerable populations at even greater risk for violence and danger. For many LGBTQ communities of color, increased policing and increased use of surveillance equipment means increased risk of harm.

Supporting each other in the face of violence does not have to take the form of reporting to police. Community safety comes from solidarity and liberation. It comes from ensuring that all people have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, employment, and education. We hope that through dialogue we can address concerns of all members of our community and arrive at empowering solutions together.

Occupy NOLA

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition Blocks Jail Entrance - Calls For Urgent Action in Response to Jail Conditions

From a press release from the Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition: 

Orleans Parish Prison Reform Coalition (OPPRC) members and supporters gathered today at 10:00am at the intersection of Tulane & Broad, and marched to the Intake & Processing Center at 730 S. Dupre St. where they partially blocked the jail entrance and called for a moratorium on admissions to a facility where conditions continue to be inhuman, unconstitutional and life-threatening. 

OPPRC suggests that the City needs to find other alternatives rather than continuing to house people in an “unsafe and violent jail” and called for urgent steps to be taken in an open letter to Susan Guidry and other members of the City Council's Criminal Justice Committee released on March 13, 2014. In the letter, OPPRC asserts that “We cannot simply continue to expose individuals who are in custody or individuals who work at the jail to these extremely dangerous conditions.” Within ten days of the letter's release another individual died in custody following a fight between prisoners in the jail's temporary housing unit known as "the tents."

OPPRC claims that the consent decree has not resulted in significant improvement in the conditions in the jail, citing the first report of the federal monitoring team which found that inmates in OPP “continue to experience severe problems with shoddy medical care, violence and a general attitude of apathy toward their grievances.”

OPPRC also is renewing its call for Mayor Landrieu to declare the jail to be in a state of emergency, thus triggering the release of persons held for minor, non-violent crimes.  “Many of the people currently in OPP pose zero risk to public safety- as evidenced by the fact that they would simply be released under hurricane evacuation conditions. Instead, they are held in OPP, on taxpayer’s money, where they are in danger of being beaten, raped, stabbed, or possibly even killed in the jail,” said Yvette Thierry. “We cannot in good conscience hold people subject to this dehumanizing violence. The City is responsible for their safety. The Mayor has the responsibility to stop this bloodshed.”

There have been 25 in-custody deaths in OPP since 2009, and up to 73 inmates a month are sent to the emergency room.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Workers Protest Dangerous Conditions at Iberville Redevlopment

Today, dozens of people joined in support of workers at the construction site at the former Iberville public housing development. Two workers from the site spoke of unsafe conditions and low pay at the site. 

From The New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice:

Durr Construction has not cared enough about New Orleans to ensure that Choice Neighborhood Initiative workers have the proper equipment to decontaminate themselves from lead, asbestos, and mold before getting on public transit and returning to their families. Workers are not even paid a living wage.

Two brave Choice Neighborhood Initiative workers stood up to report serious heath and safety hazards to the community and to the City of New Orleans.  Upon delivering the details of their complaint to the community a delegation of community members marched to Aimee Quirk’s office to deliver a detailed complaint to Aimee Quirk, the Director of the Office of Economic Development for the City of New Orleans.  She accepted the letter in person but still has not responded to the explicit request to schedule a meeting with the worker complainants, Stand with Dignity, and Durr Heavy Construction to resolve health and safety violations and full and fair employment standards.  

Patrick and Junior are standing up to demand a better deal for New Orleans- they are putting their family’s livelihood on the line to make sure that New Orleans has better opportunities. They need your help to win a better deal for New Orleans, and a better deal for our community’s safety.

"I am a walking hazard - they don't even have a decontamination area to remove the asbestos, lead, and mold I encounter every day. My health and the health of my family is worth far more than $12.75 per hour." - Patrick Delaney, Choice Neighborhood asbestos abatement worker.

"It took me over a year to get this job but the only protection that they provide me is a paper dust mask - even though I encounter mold, lead and asbestos on a daily basis. And for all of these risks I am only paid $10 per hour - and so far only work 32 hours per week - $1,000 per month barely keeps the lights on." - Reginald Junior, Choice Neighborhood demolition worker.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Response From The Glambeaux

The letter below is a response to the commentary by Gianna Chachere, Glambeaux: Taking Cultural Appropriation Too Far, published yesterday on this blog.


Thank you for sharing your thoughts with the online community. Many of the Glambeaux forwarded me your article, and I feel very strongly that this issue is an opportunity for dialogue and I am glad to address it. I hear your statements and see your perspective. I know that it's impossible to divorce the historical implications from the physical act of just carrying a torch in a parade, and I am aware that there are people in the community who are hurt. I'd like to respond with two ideas, because it appears that there are two issues at stake: whether the tradition should still exist at all because of the nature of its origins, and whether or not any new group of people should be allowed to participate in the tradition. Some of these thoughts have already been expressed in an open letter on the Glambeaux Facebook page, but I’m expanding upon those ideas here.

To address the first issue, I do think that this is an opportunity to question what has evolved over time since the origin of the flambeaux and ask why the tradition still exists. I think that it's possible to reconcile the flambeaux's exploitative origins when we consider the fact that some of the veteran flambeaux carriers today are proud of what they do, have been doing it for years, and sometimes have had family members that have been in the parades for generations. Some of them have made a deliberate choice to view the torch bearing as an art and a skill of which they are proud, and I think they are entitled to own their own story. At times, an exploited group of people can take ownership of something by changing their perspective about it and thus changing the intent and meaning behind their actions. In the case of the flambeaux, this new ownership has been made possible because the context of the march and Mardi Gras has changed; the torches are no longer viewed as a menial labor and are now a form of entertainment, and Mardi Gras is now inclusive of everyone.

Since it is an undeniable fact that some of the traditional flambeaux regard their participation in the parades with pride, we want to pay respect to those men and their perspective. It is because of this respect that we have made some purposeful choices from the beginning to honor the traditional flambeaux. The Glambeaux are only marching in one all-female parade, and Muses is still retaining the traditional flambeaux in the parade as well. Muses has also chosen to place the traditional flambeaux ahead of us in the parade line-up because we understand that they came first and we want to honor that.

The women in my group have not taken on this job lightly. We have been training for this march for two months, because we do understand that it’s a responsibility as well as a privilege. We have been introduced as a group to four traditional flambeaux carriers who spent some time teaching us some of their signature moves and giving us safety tips. At the end of our meeting we applauded these men and they applauded us back. The spirit of the meeting was one of mutual admiration, respect, and collaboration. 

When I had the idea to form this group, I did a lot of research on the history of the flambeaux. I was prepared that this conversation about cultural appropriation and entitlement was going to happen and I am glad to participate in the dialogue. What I hoped people would see, though, is that the conversation I wanted to have first was about how a group of women taking on this task, regardless of their race, makes people uncomfortable. I wanted to open the conversation with a discussion about female empowerment as the lens through which to view the other elements of the issue.

We have encountered some very serious resistance from older New Orleanians about the idea that we, as women, are physically unable to carry the torches. We have also been told that we are going to be more of a danger than the men are. Maybe it will come as a surprise to some that we are encountering this kind of gender discrimination. I wonder if some New Orleanians' perspectives are going to be dramatically shifted when they look at this group of women flambeaux and for the first time are forced to confront the question of why our community still expects to see only African American men in the role when virtually every other aspect of Mardi Gras has been integrated. If the problem is that the role of the flambeaux reminds us of an uglier period in history, then shouldn't we want to revise the tradition to reflect the standards of society today? When an old white woman tells me I can't carry the torch, is she saying that because she's used to seeing a black man stooping over to pick a coin up off the ground? If that's the case, then I am more than happy to challenge that person's view of the world. I want a person like that to see me on the parade route and feel uncomfortable and realize that there is institutionalized racism still happening in our city. In this respect, I hope you will agree that what we're doing has the potential to be a catalyst for positive change and greater awareness, and that a statement about feminism can be used as a tool to shed light on other issues in a helpful way. 

Cultural appropriation is an emotional topic. I do understand where people are coming from, because I see what their fears are and fear is a powerful emotion. They fear that they will be forgotten or not given the credit that they are due. They fear that we are mocking their history or being disrespectful. They fear that we are new kids in town who don't understand New Orleans. On that note, I’d like to take the opportunity to broadcast a more accurate picture of who the women are in this group.

We are made up of social workers, dedicated social justice activists, professionals, artists, creators, healers, mothers, teachers, volunteers, and strong leaders in our chosen careers and our community. We all care deeply about this city and our place here. Some of the Glambeaux are native New Orleanians, and many of us, myself included, have lived here for many years and consider this to be our chosen home. We are friends with our neighbors, we dance at second lines, we open our homes during festivals, and we volunteer our time for causes that are dear to our hearts. We are not a group of hipsters taking something out of its cultural context, nor are we trying to be ironic. 

Mardi Gras traditions have evolved and changed a lot over time, the way that all things in life are wont to do. Our statement is about feminism, though I do realize that it cannot be divorced from the cultural, racial, and class issues that are wrapped up in the history of flambeaux as well. That's why there has been some pushback. Change is hard, but it can be less hurtful if there is a respectful dialogue. We know that we are coming from a place of love and female empowerment. Some members of the community may need some time to understand that. Some of them may never understand it. 

The flambeaux have existed for over 150 years and are part of the complex cultural legacy of New Orleans. I think the question that's really on the table is how can we, as a community, come to a consensus about going forward with a perspective that is just and inclusive for everyone? In an ideal world, where real healing can happen, we can acknowledge and respect the gravity of the past, mourn for the wrong that has been done, and then make some decisions about how to work on our issues together to determine how we want to feel in the future. At the end of the day, I think it’s important to remember that the spirit of Mardi Gras today is about celebration, joy, and togetherness in the community. There is room for everyone in the Mardi Gras tradition. Let's not forget that historically, Mardi Gras itself came to us from another culture, and our expressions of Carnival in New Orleans are different than the ways it's celebrated in other parts of the world. Mardi Gras, by design, is a living and breathing phenomenon that incorporates and absorbs new twists on old traditions every year.

Thank you again for your letter. I hope that even if you cannot agree with my position that at least you may be able to see that our group takes this issue very seriously and endeavors to treat it with the consideration it deserves.


Dani Johnson
Founder of the Glambeaux

Photo by Bart Everson, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.