You Can’t Kill the Spirit: A Forum with Three Women Organizers from New Orleans

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moderated by Ingrid Chapman, courtesy of Left Turn

Catalyst Project organized a panel at this year’s National Conference on Organized Resistance, featuring Mayaba Liebenthal, Amber McZeal, and Maya Dempster, who discussed their lives and political work post-Katrina, in New Orleans and as evacuees, from the challenges of survivor organizing to their visions for justice in the Gulf Coast. This is an excerpt from that forum, which was moderated by Ingrid Chapman, transcribed by Dee Ouellette & Jen Collins, and edited by Molly McClure.

Ingrid: Where are you living, and what work are you doing now?

Mayaba: I live in New Orleans and work with INCITE: Women of Color against Violence and Critical Resistance [CR]. INCITE seeks the liberation of women of color by challenging domestic violence and recognizing that the state is often the perpetrator of much of the violence against women, women of color especially. CR is a prison abolition group working against the prison industrial complex and modern-day slavery. We’re trying to figure out what it actually looks like to have true community accountability.

Amber: I work with Survivors for Survivors in the Bay Area, which started in 2005 by an evacuee/journalist/historian from New Orleans, C.C. Campbell Rock. Survivors for Survivors assists with the unmet needs of the 2,000 families still displaced in the Bay Area, currently 16,000 displaced overall in California. We deal with requests anywhere from a food card to an electricity bill to a cell phone bill to rent. Survivors for Survivors started a work-for-hire catering company called “A Taste of New Orleans” intended to help provide self-sustenance for evacuees. I also work with a play of stories from the Katrina Diaspora called “Stardust and Empty Wagons” that was staged in San Francisco.

Maya: I’m living in New York City and working with the Solidarity Coalition of Katrina and Rita Survivors. We had about 5000 displaced individuals to the New York City area. We have weekly meetings and a monthly united front meeting, which is a platform for all of the other not –for-profits in New York City area to get together and focus on basic needs of survivors still not being met. We’re focusing more on media now because it’s a way for us to touch more individuals. I also work with Ghetto Dreams Movement, which is a music/movie/entertainment organization, originally based in New Orleans, that we use to bring awareness to survivors’ issues in New York City Area. Ghetto Dreams Movement also creates jobs for displaced individuals.

Mayaba: CR is working on an amnesty campaign for prisoners of Katrina. When OPP [Orleans Parish Prison] got flooded all of the evidence got washed away, and thousands of people’s cases never went to trial. We’re trying to get amnesty for people still inside, and all charges dropped. INCITE initiated a project called the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative [WHJI] which is opening a women’s clinic, a multidimensional project that sees service as part of a larger reproductive justice model. In our approach, the clinic is part of a political process, so if you test positive for lead poisoning, there’s also a space for you to organize around the fact that the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] didn’t clean up the lead. We want the healthcare at the clinic to be a space to take action, so you can create a sense of agency around your body and a holistic sense of self, for yourself and for your community.

Ingrid: What are some of the major issues facing the communities you organize?

Amber: One of the biggest issues is getting in touch with everyone to organize them. Within my community itself, the 2000 people in the Bay Area, we still don’t have a list of those people. We put up posters and go to church events where survivors gather, but it’s pretty much word of mouth and few people will come to those events because they’re not looking for consolation from a priest right now. They’re looking for the basic three: jobs, shelter, food. And they’re looking for justice.

Mayaba: What happened with Katrina and what’s going on with the land grab in New Orleans are like a microcosm of the overall state of the US today. You can go into every inner city community and they are suffering the same way. I go to Detroit and they are having the same problems that we are having in New Orleans, and they didn’t have a natural disaster, right? We’re losing affordable housing. We’ve lost affordable housing. Our communities are over-policed. We’re policed up and it doesn’t make us any safer. We can’t get public education. We’re being denied access to health care. Workers’ rights are being stepped on all over the place and the breakdown of our communities is huge. So what are the issues facing us? We’re being stomped. We’re trying to rebuild at a time where no one really wants us to rebuild.

Amber: They brought police and enforcement to New Orleans before they started bringing other resources to actually sustain life. That doesn’t promote safety --- that says to the people of New Orleans that you are a threat. After I evacuated, I wanted desperately to return to the city. A few of us were lucky enough to have a hotel room in the city [paid for by FEMA]. When that was taken away, there was nothing put in place of it. It was about a two-month period of “this is going to be the last day that FEMA will pay for your hotel.” Not knowing where you’re going to sleep at night leaves you in a very confused, clouded state of mind. I do believe that it was purposeful. There was no incentive to return home. There still isn’t. Our hearts are home but there’s no incentive there. And what we have to do is create incentives to return home and a way to return home.

Maya: In New York, similar to everywhere there are displaced people, the feeling towards evacuees at first was welcoming, but when the cameras stopped rolling that’s when the help stopped. Keeping your head clear is very important just to be able to function, because there was never a time we had to actually cry over our city. We just kept running, kept going, kept going and all of a sudden it was a year had passed and we were still moving, still trying to find housing, still trying to just live. Those things were interrupted greatly. Life has not returned to normal, there is no sense of normalcy. We’re still not OK.

Ingrid: How does gender play into the challenges facing your communities and the people that you work with?

Mayaba: Women of color bear the brunt of disasters: natural disasters, state-inflicted disasters, state-enforced disasters. Women of color are at the intersection of sexism and racism, and this perspective is often times ignored or separated, like you walk into one area and you’re a woman and you go over here and you’re black and somehow never the twain shall meet. The lack of gender analysis is particularly problematic in the organizing work in terms of trying to transform society into a way that we want to live our lives. We need that analysis of racism and sexism to develop community accountability strategies for a functional stateless society. We need to be able to ask: why are women of color affected like this? Why are we the highest rising HIV population, the fastest growing population in prisons? We know that domestic violence goes up after disasters. Yet few services have actually been put in place to help to change this or alleviate any of these conditions.

Black women are loved in theory but not in practice. There is a lack of visibility of us as women of color, outside of symbolic imagery. You saw Black women crying on TV during the flood, disempowered, the most disenfranchised person you could find. Organizations will work “on your behalf” but when you say what you need yourself it doesn’t matter. At the INCITE clinic, nearly 90 percent of our funding has come from individual donors and people who support us. Foundations? Not into it. Non-profits? Not into it. Yet they have all been asking what we need and what we want to do, and when we finally say it we’re ignored.

Ingrid: What would justice in the Gulf Coast, and justice for displaced Katrina survivors look like to you?

Maya: A good start would be some admittance to the neglect, to the government failing their citizens. It wouldn’t change what happened but it’s a good start. The treatment of people of African descent by the government, national guard, state police, and other states’ police is dehumanizing and unacceptable. I had eight sheriffs hold shotguns to my head at about 9:30 at night. This was while the curfew was still in effect. The curfew was for midnight but nevertheless that still occurred. Imagine just leaving your house, getting in your car, and eight sheriffs jump out, put shotguns to your head, and tell you to get on the ground. Focusing on Mardi Gras parties is not important when there are numerous murders on a daily basis. The focus needs to change so the city can heal.

Amber: New Orleans is where my home was and my heart is. Maya hit on something when she said “New Orleanians are not new to neglect.” That is a problem. The hundreds of thousands who are displaced are accustomed to being neglected. Which is why giving voice to survivors through “Stardust and Empty Wagons” is crucial. We’re used to being told to shut up, or being killed in order to be silenced. The government moves like molasses, like we say in the south, and molasses moves very, very slow. And slow is not going to work right now. As fast as the hurricane hit and the levees blew and the people were out, that’s as fast as we needed to move to be back in. Since it’s all knocked down let’s rebuild it the right way. We can start to curb our addiction to oil and electricity now by switching over to solar paneling on all the houses. Then New Orleans can be a model for the rest of the country.

Ingrid: What do you feel inspired about?

Maya: I find this forum to be extremely inspiring, and also very healing. Every time we get to speak and share these stories with different people it helps the healing process, and helps to invoke change.

Amber: You can’t kill the spirit and that’s what New Orleans culture is about. That’s what second lines are about. We don’t die. It doesn’t matter what you do to my body. I will still carry joy.

Ingrid: What is the role of allies in the struggle for justice in the Gulf Coast and for survivors?

Mayaba: When allies come to New Orleans, it’s really important to do work in your own communities as well, especially to undo the racism that we’ve been taught and that’s reinforced with every breath and step we take. We had a rally about ending the violence in New Orleans that felt like a Klan rally---it was the most pro-police white thing that I’ve ever seen in my life. A woman had a sign saying “Thugs are Terrorists.” What I want is for people to look into your own communities and organize around that kind of mentality. You don’t need to come to New Orleans to do that.

Amber: Allies can leverage the resources they have to the ends that we need, like connecting organizations to technical support. Allies can act as liaisons connecting us to opportunities like this to tell the truth as we see it. If you fight the same issues of housing and gentrification in your own town, make the connections to what’s happening in New Orleans. We need tangible sustainability. Stop giving your money to the Red Cross, to these corporations who run commercials with Aaron Neville songs and sad pictures. That is not what we look like. Do I look like that to you? New Orleanians don’t like pity. We’re a very proud people. Demand that the U.S. adhere to the U.N. guidelines for internally displaced peoples. Police the U.S. on the grounds of crimes against humanity because that’s what’s going on. Demand that Blanco release the LRA [Louisiana Recovery Authority] funds that she’s been sitting on and accruing interest for the past year. These funds are for the Road Home program, which has no incentive for renters, which all of us happen to have been. The majority of New Orleanians were renters, but these funds would only allocate a hundred and fifty thousand dollar grant to every homeowner whose property was damaged or lost to rebuild their home. Become knowledgeable of what’s going on, like Big Easy money profiteering. The same companies in Iraq right now are the companies doing recovery efforts and getting the no-bid contracts in New Orleans.

Ingrid: How does the struggle in New Orleans impact the broader struggle for justice in this country?

Mayaba: We’re at a very remarkable moment to be able to change the entire framework that we use to talk about injustice. We can talk about what happened in Katrina as human rights issues, which gives the US an international context and an international language. We’re actually at a time where we can align our social movements in this country with the human rights and social movements of everywhere else.

Maya: Katrina was the largest migration of African-Americans since slavery. I can’t help but think that had that not been the case we might have gotten a little bit more of a dignified response from the media, from the government. Aid wouldn’t have taken so long, and not arrived. Most hurricane survivors didn’t even receive the $2000 that was supposed to aid in your immediate needs let alone monies for personal property loss or any kind of personal assistance. Most people got nothing but leaving their homes and never returning.

Amber: 9-11 was a disaster with a one-mile radius. Katrina hit a hundred and forty miles of coastline. 9-11 directly affected a few thousand people. Throughout the Gulf we’re talking over a million people directly affected, between the two hurricanes from Lake Charles to the Mississippi and further north. Yet you see in the news a lot of attention placed on “oh he bought a car with his FEMA money” for those who did receive the personal property money, a lot of judgment about what they did with it. It’s these little things that hurt after a while.

Ingrid: How can people support your particular organizations?

Amber: Bring “Stardust and Empty Wagons” out for a performance or for a reading--- all the proceeds go to the immediate needs of evacuees. If you know evacuees in your area, connect them to either resources or technology to be connected with other evacuees. It’s huge, it’s crucial. Community was a big factor for New Orleans and the pain that we feel right now is the unraveling of our culture. Culture is our life.

Mayaba: The New Orleans Women’s Clinic is opening, any and all fundraising is appreciated. CR has a video called “I Won’t Drown on that Levee and You Ain’t Gonna Break my Back.” We need to raise awareness about what happened in the prison, what’s still happening. Get the word out about organizing on the ground, because the news is not getting out about how much grassroots activity is happening there. If people knew that, it would undermine every intention and plan that the government has for the city.

Maya: We have a collaboration of different musicians from New Orleans that make up the Ghetto Dreams Movement, ready to do shows and perform. We have media for sale, there are two albums. They are songs of inspiration, and days before hurricane Katrina. This music is very healing to us, so if you see that, support it.

Amber: We need reparations. You can even change the name, because the needs have changed. I don’t need a mule. I don’t know where I would put a mule.

Mayaba: Would the mule now be a Honda? I’d like a hybrid.

Mayaba Liebenthal is a Black feminist anarchist and human rights advocate committed to creating projects institutions that support self-determined and sustainable communities development. A New Orleans resident, she is a member of various community based organizations including INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, and Critical Resistance. She is a contributor to the South End anthology, What Lies Beneath Katrina: Race and the State of the Nation.

Amber McZeal is a native New Orleanian by way of Lafayette, Louisiana. She currently resides in Berkeley, California where she is a volunteer public and community relations director with the social justice activist group Survivors for Survivors, a survivor initiated non-profit organization assisting hurricane survivors with needs still unmet by the national recovery agencies. Prior to Katrina she was a student of jazz performance at Southern University in New Orleans. She is continuing her studies in sound therapy in California.

Maya Dempster is a writer artist and activist. She is a New Orleans resident via New York City right now. As a survivor of Katrina and Rita she now works closely with New York Solidarity Coalition of Katrina/Rita Survivors to aid evacuees in the struggle for social justice.

Catalyst Project is a center for political education and movement building based in the San Francisco Bay Area, committed to anti-racist work in majority white sections of left social movements with the goal of building multiracial left movements for liberation. Since Katrina, Catalyst has made solidarity with the Gulf Coast a major part of our work.