"I don't think it's right that you take
our properties. Over my dead body. I didn't die with Katrina."
- Lower 9th Ward resident Caroline Parker.
I don't know you, but I hate you. I'm going to suit up like I'm
going to Iraq and fight this."
- New Orleans East resident Harvey Bender, referring to the author
of the city commission's "rebuilding" plan.
The overwhelmingly Black
New Orleans diaspora is returning in large numbers to resist relentless
efforts to bully and bulldoze them out of the city's future. "Struggle
on the ground has intensified enormously. A number of groups are
in motion, moving against the mayor's commission," said Mtangulizi
Sanyika, spokesman for the African American Leadership Project
(AALP). "Increasing numbers of people are coming back into
the city. You can feel the political rhythm."
Mayor Ray Nagin's commission has presented residents
of flood-battered, mostly African American neighborhoods with
a Catch-22, carefully crafted to preclude New Orleans from ever
again becoming the more than two-thirds Black city it was before
Hurricane Katrina breached the levees. Authored by Nagin crony,
real estate development mogul and George Bush fundraiser Joseph
Canizaro, the plan would impose a four-month moratorium on building
in devastated neighborhoods like the lower Ninth Ward and New
Orleans East. During that period, the neighborhoods would be required
to come up with a plan to show how they would become "viable"
by reaching an undefined "critical mass" of residents.
But the moratorium, itself, discourages people from
rebuilding their neighborhoods - just as it is intended to do
- thus creating a fait accompli: residents will be hard pressed
to prove that a "critical mass" of habitation can be
"It's circular reasoning," said the AALP's
Sanyika. They talk about "some level of neighborhood viability,
but no one knows what that means. What constitutes viable plans?
What kinds of neighborhoods are viable? Everywhere you turn people
are trying to rebuild, but there is this constraint."
The commission is empowered only to make recommendations,
but with the help of corporate media, pretends their plan is set
in stone. "They keep pushing their recommendations as though
they are the gospel truth," said Sanyika, who along with
tens of thousands of other evacuees has been dispersed to Houston,
five hours away. "There is confusion as to all of these recommendations,
issued as if they are policy. The Times-Picayune contributes to
that confusion. None of this is a given."
Activists believe the way to play this situation
is for residents to forge ahead on their own. "Trying to
figure out the logic of that illogical proposal is a wasted effort
- all you're going to do is wind up going in circles," said
Sanyika. He emphasizes that the commission's recommendations are
not binding on anyone - certainly not on the majority Black city
council, which claims authority in city planning matters. They're
not buying the nonsense. "The city council has rejected it.
Nagin says ‘ignore it.' I think it's dead in the water,"
The city council has attempted to block Nagin's
collaboration with corporate developers - a hallmark of his tenure
- voting to give itself authority over where to place FEMA trailers.
(Only about 5,000 of a projected 25,000 trailers arrived, say
community activists.) Nagin vetoed the bill, but the council overrode
him. The council has also endorsed equitable development of neighborhoods, rather than shrinking the city. "We [the
African American Leadership Project] are developing a resolution
to that effect," said Sanyika. Odds are that it will pass
- but the question is, who wields power in post-Katrina New Orleans,
where only one-third of the city's previous population of nearly
half a million has returned?
It is in this context that one must view Mayor Nagin's
to a mostly Black crowd gathered at City Hall for a Martin Luther
King Day march, on Monday: "I don't care what people will
say - uptown, or wherever they are. At the end of the day, this
city will be chocolate…. This city will be a majority African
American city. It's the way God wants it to be. You can't have
New Orleans no other way. It wouldn't be New Orleans."
Ray Nagin is probably the most disoriented person
in the country, these days - the fruit of his own venality, sleeziness,
and opportunism. A corporate executive, sports entrepreneur and
nominal Democrat, he contributed to the Bush campaign in 2000
(Democrats dubbed him "Ray Reagan") and endorsed a Republican
candidate for governor in 2003 (see BC November
20, 2003). Now he doesn't have a clue as to where the power
lies or where his base is centered. "Nagin is playing a game,
trying to have it both ways," says the AALP's Sanyika - but
his options are shrinking as fast as the city envisioned by his
buddy, Joe Canizaro, with whom he habitually worked hand in hand,
but whom he now tells Blacks to "ignore."
Who's in charge in New Orleans?
Canizaro is clearly the center of gravity on the
"mayor's" commission which, although integrated,
is essentially a corporate concoction. The commission's slogan,
"Bring New Orleans Back," is a euphemism for bringing
the city "back" to the days before Black rule by erecting
multiple barriers to the return of Black residents. Of course,
even when Black mayors hold titular office in New Orleans, Canizaro's
crowd runs the show. His bio,
posted on the commission's website, shows Canizaro to be the major
domo of the city's real estate, development, banking, and pro-business
political machinations. Canizaro is also a Trustee and former
Chairman of the Urban
Land Institute, the planning outfit that is determined to
turn Black neighborhoods into swamp.
Since shortly after New Years, the commission has
been feverishly working to appear to be an empowered governmental
entity, tasking subcommittees
to present reports and recommendations several days a week on
Government Effectiveness, Education, Health and Social Services,
Culture, and Infrastructure. What Black New Orleans had been waiting
for was presentation of the Urban
Planning Committee Final Report, Wednesday, January
11. An overflow crowd at the Sheraton Hotel hissed Mayor Nagin
and booed the hated Canizaro. Others cursed and vowed that they
would be exiled only over their dead bodies.
"Four Months to Decide" read the headline
of the Times-Picayune, on the day of the official unveiling of
the commission's recommendations, a blueprint for the displacement
of hundreds of thousands. In the packed hotel spaces, residents
alternated between rage and deep anxiety at the ultimatum. "I
don't think four or five months is close to enough time given
all we would need to do," said Robyn Braggs. "Families
with school-age children won't be able to even return to do the
work necessary until this summer."
Cities with 25,000 or more displaced New Orleans residents
include Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, Memphis, and Baton Rouge. Others
are scattered to the four winds. Their children will be enrolled
in far-flung schools until the June deadline.
Former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial, currently
president of the National Urban League, called the commission's
scheme a "massive red-lining plan wrapped around a giant
land grab." With the situation so uncertain, and time so
short, homeowners will have difficulty settling with their insurance
companies in time. Said Morial:
And what about renters, who made up well over half
of residents? Such people have no place in George Bush's "ownership
society" - especially if they are Black. Bush put his smirking
stamp of approval on the corporate plan during an oblivious visit
to New Orleans, last week. "It may be hard for you to see,
but from when I first came here to today, New Orleans is reminding
me of the city I used to visit."
Apparently, the president doesn't read newspapers
because he is blind - except to the cravings of his class. Bush's
Gulf Opportunity Zone Act provides billions in tax dodges for
(big) business, while the threatened permanent depopulation of
Black New Orleans would eliminate the possibility of return for
the nearly 8,000 (small) Black businesses that served the neighborhoods.
Self-styled Black capitalists take note: this is the
nature of the beast. Bush fronts for a class for which Katrina
is not a catastrophe, but an opportunity. They believe devoutly
in "creative chaos" - the often violent destruction
of the old, so that new profits can be squeezed from the rubble.
Through their Catch-22 ultimatums, they are deliberately inflicting
additional "creative chaos" on the displaced people
of New Orleans. The fact that the victims are mostly Black, makes
it all the easier. Or so they assume.
Grassroots community groups, along with platoons of
non-native volunteers, are refusing to acquiesce to the greatest
urban theft in American history. At a conference organized by Mtangulizi Sanyika's African American Leadership
Project and affiliated organizations, progressive urban planners
explored ways to make the new New Orleans a better place for the
people who live there, rather than for ravenous corporations and
new populations. The experts included Dr. Ed Blakely, of the University
of Sydney, Australia; MIT's Dr. Phil Thompson, housing aide to
former New York Mayor David Dinkins; and Abdul Rasheed, who helped
rebuild the flood ravaged Black town of Princeville, North Carolina
after a hurricane in the Nineties.
The coalition also held a Town
Hall meeting attended by leaders of 15 national organizations,
including Dr. Ron Daniel's Institute of the Black World, Nation
of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, and movers and shakers from the
Progressive Baptist Convention and the National Baptist Convention
USA. National co-sponsors included the Hip Hop Caucus, Black Voices
for Peace, the Black Family Summit of the Millions More Movement,
and the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN).
(Dr. Robert Bullard, of the NBEJN-affiliated Environmental
Justice Resource Center at Clark-Atlanta University, has published
the grim but very useful report:
"A Twenty-Point Plan to Destroy Black New Orleans.")
Neighborhood groups are mobilizing to confront the
racist/corporate onslaught. "Every other day some major event
is happening," said Sanyika. Various groups held marches
during MLK weekend, carrying signs such as "We're Back,"
"Stop Displacement," and "Rebuild With People."
On February 7th, a National Mobilization of progressive
forces will descend on the U.S. Capitol in Washington to pressure
Congress to halt the juggernaut of expulsion and give substance
to the people's Right to Return. Although there are literally
thousands of large and small Katrina-related projects operating
throughout the nation, many of the New Orleans organizers are
handicapped by the fact of their own displacement. A great moral
and political challenge presents itself to Black and progressive
America: Will they rise to the occasion in the face of a real,
imminent, well-defined crisis - as opposed to the general conditions
addressed by the Million Man and Millions More rallies? February
7th will be a test of Black political resolve and cohesion. And
there will be many more.
Meanwhile, New Orleans in some ways resembles a poignant
scene from bygone wars, when lists of the dead were published
on public walls. The "Red
Danger List" is posted in local papers, designating properties
that are "in imminent danger of collapse" and, therefore,
subject to demolition without the consent of the owners. To date,
over 5,000 buildings have been red tagged.
Map" is a kind of municipal schematic of a cemetery,
delineating the parts of the city that will be caused to die.
Residents on the wrong side of the lines will be unable to get
flood insurance, which certainly means no meaningful investment
can occur in those areas. The map was last published in 1984,
and is now being updated.
You can be sure that Black folks are not in charge
of the mapping.
Katrina has shown us many things. One, is the hollowness
of the purely electoral Black strategy (and its cousin, lobbying)
that followed the shutdown of mass movements after the death of
Martin Luther King, Jr. It is a great irony that, while we rant
at FEMA's inability (or unwillingness) to respond to the Katrina
crisis, Black America finds itself desperately searching for the
"people power" tools to effectively counter the post-Katrina
The citizens of New Orleans are paying the cost for
the mistakes of the late Sixties and early Seventies, when aspiring
electoral and corporate officeholders convinced Black folks that
mass movements were no longer necessary. Progress would trickle
down from the newly acquired heights. Popular political capital
could be wisely invested in the few, the upwardly mobile.
What we got was chicken-with-his-head-cut-off Ray
Nagin and his many counterparts in plush offices across Black
America. We must invent Black Power all over again, under changed
conditions. New Orleans in its present state is the worst possible
place to start - but that's where we're at.
BC Publishers Glen Ford and Peter
Gamble are writing a book to be titled, Barack Obama and the
Crisis in Black Leadership.
of the African American Leadership Project, can be contacted at