Rebel Survivors: The Vietnamese of New Orleans East won a grassroots victory nobody expected

"IT'S EITHER GOING TO BE A COMMUNITY CELEBRATION or a protest with people getting arrested," says 22-year-old Minh Nguyen without a hint of irony in his voice. It's a rainy August night in New Orleans East, and Nguyen is speaking to a room of about 40 teens and twentysomethings who call themselves the American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA). Nguyen, who chairs the group, is presenting the two scenarios that could play out on the morning of Tuesday, Aug. 15. This is when residents anticipate the closing of the Chef Menteur Landfill, a dumpsite located only a half mile up the road from the Village de l'Est neighborhood, the heart of the Vietnamese American community of New Orleans East. Opened in February 2006 under an executive order signed by Mayor Ray Nagin, the unlined landfill was created to hold over a fourth or New Orleans' Katrina debris. According to community members, most of what is being dumped is unsorted waste, and some fear that toxins are already seeping into the soil--a Louisiana wetland, no less. But the mayor's executive order is set to expire on the evening of Aug. 14, and after months of community protest, bolstered by political pressure from New Orleans city council members and environmental groups throughout Louisiana, Nagin has stated that he will not seek a renewal of his order. All signs point to the closing of the landfill come the morning of Aug. 15. But Nguyen and his fellow organizers do not presume anything. For there are several wild cards still at play, including the possibility that the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality (LDEQ LDEQ - Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality)--an agency that many residents had originally counted on as an ally--may actually assert its authority in keeping the site open. So VAYLA is now preparing for plan A and plan B: the former, a celebration in honor of the community's victory should the landfill be closed; the latter, a massive protest that will include a human blockade at the landfill entrance, effectively preventing the trucks that dump at the site each day from entering.

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In the case of a protest, arrests are an absolute certainty. The ardent hope in the room is that those in power will simply find it politically untenable to keep the landfill open. Yet tonight one also senses that the VAYLA members are itching for a good fight. There is spirited talk of what it will take to miss work and school in order to do "jail time." And it's not just youthful exuberance or devil-may-care posturing that drives the talk. After being displaced for months, these youth understand what there is to lose in life.

"The landfill is a hard slap in the face," says Steven, 16. "It's like the mayor was saying he didn't care how difficult it was for us to get back here." Steven and his parents, who for 20 years worked as crabbers in the Gulf Coast, initially evacuated to Houston before relocating to Southern California. There his parents made a decision to permanently relocate to the west coast. They assumed that the shrimp and crab industries of the Gulf had been decimated by Katrina. But by December, only two months after his family's relocation, Steven began to show clinical signs of depression. A once straight-A student, he found himself unable to concentrate on schoolwork. Before long, he couldn't muster the mental and physical energy to go to classes. His visits to a therapist did little to help him. Finally, he pleaded with his parents to give New Orleans another try. Steven's family returned to Village de l'Est at the beginning of the new year. Along with their neighbors, they gutted and rebuilt their home. Then came the landfill.

Katrina had dumped the waters of the Intercoastal Canal into the living rooms and bedrooms of Village de l'Este. And no sooner had the community returned than the mayor ordered a thousand trucks each day to dump Katrina trash in its backyard.

The morning of Aug. 15 turned out to be a celebration. Nearly 250 residents and allies gathered at the shuttered gates of the landfill, cheering its closure. With the anniversary of Katrina less than two weeks away, the victory out East served as a vital boost for those concerned with the right of return and a just reconstruction in New Orleans. But it also took many New Orleanians by complete surprise. By January, as most displaced residents were only beginning to trickle back into the city to pick up the pieces of their lives, the normally low-key Vietnamese of New Orleans East were already four months into their return and rebuilding process. The community was so well organized that it was able to mobilize over 400 protestors to the steps of City Hall for the first landfill rally. For all the news of returnees scraping by without basic resources such as electricity and running water, the residents who took to City Hall that day somehow managed to arrive with sleekly printed signs and T-shirts denouncing the landfill. Nobody--neither the elected officials nor the protestors' supporters outside--was prepared to see this level of organization.

Soon the struggle over the landfill grabbed headlines in The New York Times and other major print media outlets. Meanwhile the TV news networks followed the story week-to-week, anxiously awaiting its final outcome. New Orleans East, hardly known as a hotbed of activism, had overnight become something of a beacon for a grassroots movement determined to assert the rights of the most marginalized Katrina refugees.

As an Asian American community subsisting in a New Orleans long divided by the black-and-white fault line--the depth of which was fully exposed by Katrina-the residents of Village de l'Est are especially susceptible to enlistment as a model minority wedge. Yet a deeper and more clear-eyed examination of the conditions that led to the community's impressive organizing efforts reveals that the landfill struggle is not so much an example of model minority-ism as it is a model example of what its takes for the grassroots to win in post-Katrina New Orleans. Indeed, as a "success story" it is, by turns, a lesson in why intergenerational and multiracial collaborations are indispensable, a crash-course in the distinct political history of the Southeast Asian refugees, and a startling example of just how quickly the longstanding politics of a community can shift.

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"The landfill struggle, everything we're fighting for out here--this is about the Vietnamese and the Blacks together," asserts James Bui. The Gulf Coast regional director of the National Association of Vietnamese American Service Agencies (NAVASA), Bui has these days grown accustomed to fielding questions about Black-Asian relations in New Orleans. He is quick to stay on message: The Vietnamese Americans are not in this for themselves; and they will not be cast against African Americans. The topic comes up quite a bit when one considers that pre-Katrina New Orleans East was approximately 75 percent Black, with Village de l'Est representing the sole Vietnamese American majority (yet, even here, Blacks constituted well-over a third of the neighborhood). Post-Katrina, however, the return of Black residents to the East has, per capita, paled in comparison to that of the Vietnamese. And although most returnees are in the same boat when it comes to the rebuilding of homes, public schools and hospitals, the Vietnamese Americans have been exceptional in their quick reopening of ethnic community institutions and businesses. As a startling example, 75 percent of the Vietnamese businesses are now open in the East, compared to less than 10 percent of Black-owned businesses. To be sure, the disparity along racial lines can seem rather stark at times. And according to Bui, these differences are only exacerbated by a mainstream media that insists on viewing the organizing efforts out East as strictly a "Vietnamese thing." These media accounts often leave out salient details such as the extent to which the political strategy that led to the closure of the landfill was directed by a coalition of groups known as Citizens for a Stronger New Orleans East, which consists of both Vietnamese- and Black-led groups. Or the fact that the Southern Christian Leadership Council leant invaluable support to Queen Mary of Vietnam Catholic Church--the religious, cultural, and political hub of the Vietnamese community of New Orleans--as the latter coordinated return and rebuilding efforts. Or, finally, that Father Thi Vien Nguyen, head of the church, has made it a point to demonstrate multiracial solidarity by attending the rallies, town hall meetings and community events put on by Black community groups seeking the right to return and the opening of schools and health centers. "These are the things you're not reading about in the Times," says Bui.

And then there's the matter of where to put the remaining Katrina debris now that Chef Menteur landfill is closed (as well as the question of where to move the mountain of trash that currently sits at the site). LDEQ and the Waste Management Corporation, which runs the landfill, have their sights set on Waggerman, a multiracial, working-class town on the outskirts of New Orleans. Although officials have assured residents there that the site will be fully certified and properly lined, local resistance to the dumping has already begun. "I'm completely with them," says Father Vien, suggesting that the Vietnamese American community would stand squarely with the protestors of Waggerman should dumping commence there.

"I don't see any resentment of the Vietnamese coming from the Black community or any other community," says Norris Henderson. "What I see is an example of what we all can do if we hang in there together." Henderson serves as the director of Safe Streets, Strong Communities, a New Orleans grassroots group that is leading the organizing efforts to reform the dysfunctional NOLA prison and criminal justice system, a system that overwhelmingly targets young Black men. Having served over 27 years in prison himself, Henderson began his organizing career as an inmate, working from the inside to successfully win prison reforms under the most difficult circumstances. Henderson knows perseverance when he sees it: "Most people don't think you can win. They're too quick to become defeatist. But [the Vietnamese Americans] had a common goal and they were persistent--they had what it took."

Yet, in assessing all that it took, one cannot overlook the Catholic church as a generative force behind the social and political networking. Built in the mid-1980s, Mary Queen of Vietnam is the largest Vietnamese Catholic church in the United States. "We were lucky," Father Vien remarked. "The church was not badly damaged and this allowed us to get back in [to Village de l'Est] to coordinate the return and rebuilding effort." Indeed, for those returning only weeks after the storm, the church served not only as temporary shelter, but as the site for food and clothing donations, as well as a clearinghouse for information on the whereabouts of missing family and friends.

Along with the church, there is also the community's long history of uprooting and displacement to consider, a past that may shed some light on their precipitant, against-all-odds return in Katrina's wake. This is embodied in an 88-year-old woman from Village de l'Est who goes by the nickname Ba Tam (Grandma Tam). When boat rescuers knocked on Ba Tam's house on the Wednesday following the massive flood, she told them that she was feeling too weak to evacuate; she would prefer to rest for a little while, and then leave with the last boat carrying Father Vien and the other priests coordinating the rescues. But nobody informed Father Vien. By Thursday, Ba Tam realized that she had been left alone in Village de l'Est. She survived by catching fish swimming in the flooded waters--having been "shocked" by the salt water from the Intercoastal Canal, the fish swam slowly and were rather easy to catch. Then, Ba Tam cured the fish on the scorching roof tops of abandoned cars. In time she had enough food to last her a month. She would be stranded for a total of eight days. According to Father Vien, surviving like this was nothing new for Ba Tam. Her life as a refugee had long ago prepared her for this.

"Before Katrina, I guess you could call us libertarians," says Father Vien. "Our attitude toward government was: You don't bother us, and we won't bother you." But Katrina ushered in a new era. "It was impossible for us to not speak up," he said. "We realized that if we speak, the powers will listen. They would have to heed the people's voice. We had a responsibility to contribute, to push for government accountability."