Rebuilding Resistance: Organizing Lessons From One Year After The Devastation of New Orleans

    It has been a year since Katrina. Half of the people of New Orleans remain dispersed around the US. Vast stretches of the city lie empty. Bodies are still being found in the devastation of the lower ninth ward. Suicide rates have tripled. The national guard is still patrolling the streets. Most schools and hospitals—especially those serving poor people—are still closed.

 

This anniversary has brought one last influx of media attention, but after that—barring another round of horrible devastation—the national spotlight will begin to move on. A few months down the line NPR and The New York Times will reassign their reporters. Progressive and liberal foundations will redirect their money to the next urgent priority. Activist volunteers will be going back to school or onto the next volunteer hub.

Corporations, nonprofits, NGOs, workers centers, charities, researchers, religious organizations, unions, the media, and many other players have dedicated huge amounts of money and resources into New Orleans. We are engaged in heated battles with nationwide implications over issues such as health care, education, public housing, and criminal justice.
The forces lined up in these struggles have had dramatic successes and failures. For radicals and progressives, there are important organizing lessons to be learned on tactics, strategy, and more. It is vital to our movements not just that we care about what happens in New Orleans, but that we learn from it.

Community resistance

Organized resistance has risen spontaneously wherever New Orleanians have found themselves, including in hotels, shelters, and trailer parks. There have been organizing committees elected in the New Orleans convention center while floodwaters were still rising, in an evacuation camp just outside of New Orleans hours after the storm, and on a bus during evacuation. In many ways, the organizing and activist community has been trying to catch up ever since.
Last spring I visited Renaissance Village, an evacuee community of over 500 trailers located north of Baton Rouge on land owned by a youth prison. “Last year I was a middle-income American, a homeowner—I never imagined I’d come to this,” declared Hillary Moore Jr., a former city employee and New Orleans property owner exiled in a small trailer in the middle of the complex.

Not long after moving in, Moore and others organized a residents’ council. “We got tired of a lot of things Keta [the contractor company managing the park] was doing and we decided to organize because we realized there is strength in numbers,” he explained. The residents’ council has an elected board and open meetings every week.

Throughout the city and its diaspora, there is a still-fresh history of civil rights organizing. People from this tradition—especially the more grassroots and non-hierarchical, Ella Baker-inspired part of the movement—are a vital part of New Orleans’ grassroots movements and culture who have been leading much of the current wave of resistance, as well as inspiring many volunteers and supporters.

This is a vital part of local history. Mattheo “Flukie” Suarez, a Mississippi Freedom Summer activist and New Orleans Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizer told New Orleans’ Gambit newspaper last year, “One of the interesting stories that’s never been told, in my opinion, is that wherever you went across the South, there were always New Orleans people working in the civil-rights movement…Practically anywhere you went, there was someone from New Orleans working.”

There are also community traditions such as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, mutual aid institutions founded in the Black community in the reconstruction era that continue to this day. These associations have been an important link in sustaining community as the city has rebuilt. In everything from supporting the survival of the city’s culture to rebuilding and organizing, these institutions have been vital, and almost completely ignored and undervalued by city and federal governments.

There has also been inspiring resistance from other communities of color in the area, such as the Vietnamese community, who have struggled to rebuild despite a lack of support from FEMA and other agencies, and have had notable successes in fighting a landfill near their community in New Orleans East. New Orleans’ Latino community, much larger now than pre-Katrina, has led inspiring organizing around workplace issues, confronting exploitative employers and winning.

Corporate left

It has been dramatic to live in New Orleans during this time of intense struggle and witness the divide between paid and unpaid workers on the ground. Some of the most inspiring stories of resistance have involved people without any organizational affiliation or responsibility to corporate backers. For example the Soul Patrol—a group of young Black men in the seventh ward neighborhood organized by longtime community organizer Mama D—began relief and reconstruction days after the storm, and to this day have received almost no funding.

Left and liberal foundations have already spent millions of dollars earmarked towards the Gulf. But according to recent reports, most of that money did not go to New Orleans-initiated projects, and in fact much of it went to the same east and west coast nonprofits who have traditionally received the majority of grants—organizations with more experience in writing funding proposals and pleasing the funding networks.

The reality is, many groups that do the most powerful work don’t know how to—or don’t have time to—write press releases or grant proposals or fundraising emails or design websites. Other organizations write beautiful mission statements and speak very well and come across very committed, but have no roots in the community, are completely misguided, and do very little. New Orleans has been filled with top-down, non-accountable, well-funded organizations, from giants like Red Cross and Save the Children to smaller nonprofits.

New Orleans—and the south in general—has a long history of outsiders spending large sums of money for organizing without community leadership or involvement. Efforts like this almost always fail. An example of this is the AFL-CIO’s infamous “HOTROC” campaign in the late 90s, which cost million of dollars and brought in countless organizers over a period of several years, all with the aim of organizing New Orleans’ multi-million-dollar hotel and tourism industry. The campaign didn’t organize a single worker. Without community input, these efforts are usually misdirected from the start. Meanwhile, vital local efforts go unfunded and unsupported.

Community rising

Grassroots, people-of-color-led organizations—most of them in existence since pre-Katrina—have fought on the ground and organized tens of thousands of New Orleanians in the struggle for community-led relief, reconstruction and return, with comparatively little attention from funders or media. The following efforts are only a handful of examples of this:

    INCITE Women of Color Against Violence has brought delegations of women of color organizers from around the US to support their Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, which involves establishing a women’s health clinic and resource center.
    Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, a Black-led grassroots environmental justice organization, has worked with local social justice organizers to bring a human rights framework and analysis to the grassroots struggle, while also actively engaging with these struggles themselves, such as by bringing local community members to the UN to present testimony about the US government’s human rights violations in New Orleans.
    The African American Leadership Project has organized community forums that brought radical and progressive policy proposals from the grassroots directly to the mayor and city council, and in doing so has reframed some of the policy debates.
    People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and People’s Organizing Committee have brought in mass numbers of volunteers—including hundreds of students from historically Black colleges—to engage in direct organizing.

These organizations have challenged not only the elite priorities in the reconstruction of our city, but the foundations and structure of corporate reconstruction and profiteering. They have also been aided by direct organizing support from many principled allies from across the US—groups like Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Critical Resistance, Catalyst Project, and many others.

Other more traditional nonprofits have also done vital work. For example, in the months since their founding, a criminal justice reform coalition called Safe Streets Strong Communities has combined a grassroots organizing strategy—working directly with the incarcerated, formerly incarcerated, and their family members—with political pressure and legal support. In their first months, they succeeded in radically transforming the city’s indigent defense board from a corrupt and negligent home of cronyism to a body staffed with criminal justice reform advocates, while simultaneously becoming a force in city and state government and mobilizing a grassroots base.
Among progressive and radical communities around the US, perhaps the most widely known post-Katrina relief organization is the Common Ground relief collective.

Thousands of volunteers—most sleeping on floors in recently reclaimed and cleaned buildings with makeshift electricity and sometimes without running water—have come into work with Common Ground. They have gutted hundreds of houses and established several ongoing projects, including bio-remediation, a community garden, and wetlands restoration.

As a large group of mostly-white volunteers in a majority Black city facing mass displacement, they have also received a lot of criticism. “Activists gain a certain credibility by coming here,” cautions Bridget Lehane, discussing the analysis of the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, a thirty-year-old antiracist organization based in New Orleans that she works with. “They can go home and talk about what they’ve seen and done here, in this historic moment and place, and gives them a status, but what are they leaving behind?”

I’ve only lived in New Orleans a few more years than the Common Ground volunteers. In many ways, the issues they face are ones that I have grappled with since I moved here, as a white activist attempting to be in solidarity with and accountable to a community that I am divided from by layers of privilege. My hope is that these visitors will take their experience and knowledge gained from New Orleans back to their communities and not only spread the lessons learned, but also revitalize organizing in their home cities.

Neighborhood associations

The ever-shifting dynamics of power in the city are profoundly expressed in the rise in prominence and influence of another institution of New Orleans’ communities—neighborhood associations. These organizations—most of which existed pre-Katrina—have seen their membership numbers and involvement multiply. They have had real successes in designing their own plans for rebuilding and resisting the destruction of their neighborhoods, and there are progressive forces working in these groups. They have also become important as a place for everyone from politicians to architects and designers and planners to foundations and others to go to for input.

This is a potentially encouraging development, in that these neighborhood associations represent a real possibility of direct democracy and community involvement. However, with so much of the city still displaced, the membership of these organizations is biased towards who is back, which in return reflects the racialized nature of this disaster. For example, even neighborhoods that are majority African American, such as Gentilly and Broadmoor, were represented in this process by neighborhood associations that are—in my observation—majority white.

As the planning process has continued, these issues have risen even further to the forefront. A year into the process, tens of millions of dollars in grant money has been promised by the Ford foundation and other large funders, but it’s unclear who will get that money, or who will decide. Meanwhile, not only have there been power struggles between the Mayor and the governor on this issue, the mayor and city council have each hired separate planners, reflecting deep divisions on the part of both politicians and local elites.
Other devastated Gulf cities such as Biloxi finalized their plans many months ago. But in New Orleans, even people deeply involved in the process remain confused about where it’s heading, and whether it will coalesce along one big plan for the whole city, or many different plans, differently funded and hotly contested. These neighborhood associations have been the frontline battleground of this struggle.

Continued struggle

This has been a sad time for anyone from New Orleans, or anyone that cares about the people of the city. It has been a time of increased drinking and depression. Tensions have been high and violent crime is rising. But it has also been a beautiful and inspiring time. The people of New Orleans are standing up and fighting back in an historic struggle for justice, joined by progressive allies from around the world, and reinforced by a tradition and culture of resistance.

Every time I see a family moving back to the city, I am inspired by this small act of resistance and courage, this dedication to community and to the further life of the city. Every day, I see other little acts of resistance, in secondlines and other cultural expressions. I see people going to wha