New Orleans represents a challenge to African
Americans, unprecedented since the epic struggles of the Fifties
and Sixties. The perverse
reality, to which African Americans must rise, is that the man-made
disaster in the Gulf provides what may be the last chance to
build a real Movement, encompassing the broadest sectors of Black
America. Cruel history presents the catastrophe as an unwanted
opportunity, a test of Black people’s capacity for the operational unity
craved by the vast bulk of African Americans. The pain and anger
in Black America is all but universal, and demands collective action,
the outcome of which will largely define the true State of Black
America as it has evolved over the last two generations.
Let us put it bluntly: If Black America fails to configure its
human, organizational and material resources to effectively resist
the theft and ultimate disfigurement of New Orleans, then we
will be forced to confront the existence of fundamental, crippling
flaws in the African American polity.
There is much reason for optimism. Movements
often need monsters, and George Bush and his minions are a
horror show. The Katrina
debacle plunged Bush’s Black approval rating to 12 percent, as
measured by the prestigious Pew
Research Center. That’s only slightly above what most pollsters
consider the approval category’s irreducible minimum - "about
as low as you can go," according to Joint Center for Political
and Economic Studies senior analyst David Bositis. Few doubt
that the administration’s callous and ineffectual handling of
the Katrina crisis ("negligent homicide," charged Black
Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia
McKinney) caused the near-evaporation of Bush’s thin Black
(An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll taken earlier
in September showed only two percent of Blacks approved of
However, the poll included only 89 African Americans, too small
a sample to be considered reliable.)
All African American eyes are on New Orleans, that once-flawed,
now devastated jewel of the Diaspora whose people have been dispersed
to the far corners of the United States: Alaska, Utah and, literally,
who knows where, in addition to large Black population centers.
The dissolution of a major African American city - far eclipsing
in scale the destruction of Black
Tulsa in 1921 - has seared the collective Black psyche. The
pain and anger in Black America is all but universal, and demands collective action
effectively coordinated by those who purport to be leaders. In
the process, new leadership - and hopefully, a "new" New
Orleans that is fit for mass Black habitation - will emerge.
Reversing the Slide
Until the watershed year of 1965, which saw both passage of
the Voting Rights Act and the Watts, Los Angeles rebellion, most
Black Americans, especially in the South, were focused on the
elimination of Black voter disenfranchisement and legal segregation.
The Civil Rights Movement was not propelled by a laundry list
of issues - rather, its overarching project was the defeat of
By the time of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination
and passage of the last major civil rights legislation in 1968
Housing Act), the Jim Crow project seemed essentially completed
- although still requiring years of mopping up operations. However,
Black Power projected an additional set of demands, much more
complex and varied, and calling forth a murderous government
response that added yet another layer of Black grievances. While
the beneficiaries of the Civil Rights Movement - those African
Americans whose circumstances allowed them to walk through newly
opened doors - sprinted to higher living standards and elected
and corporate offices, mass Black incarceration became the order
of the day in every state of the union, ravaging the very fabric
of the bottom half of African American society and threatening
to destabilize the half that were doing relatively well.
Although the historical Black
Political Consensus survived the sea change that followed
the death of Jim Crow, the scope of both Black aspirations and grievances
expanded dramatically, reflecting the diversity of the upwardly
mobile Black sectors’ often frustrated dreams and the multiplying
injuries endured by the left-behind, criminalized Black population.
The Black Movement devolved to various sets laundry lists with
often radically different orders of priority, depending on which
Black sector was doing the listing. Most African Americans can
agree on most items on the list - after all, the Black Political
Consensus remains intact - but not on which items are most compelling.
Thus, the diversity of the forces set loose in the Black polity
by the death of Jim Crow, while not centrifugally spinning African
Americans out of a common orbit, has resulted in sometimes dramatic
mismatches in political priorities among Black sectors.
We have traveled a great distance from the
simple elegance of the chant: "What do we want? Freedom!
When do we want it? Now!"
As a consequence, efforts to forge "unity" across
the Black spectrum inevitably produce long lists of the What
We Believe and What We Demand type, drawn up in order of the
priorities of whichever group or tendency dominates the gathering.
Usually, such lists are broadly inclusive, demonstrating that
those in attendance respect and share the concerns of their brothers
and sisters representing other Black sectors or political schools
of thought. However, laundry lists can only lead to operational unity
among those who give high priority to the same items. Other,
pro forma line item endorsements add up to not much more than
a well-meant "Amen."
A Common Focus
There can be no question that millions of
African Americans are eager to find their own specific mission
within the context
of a broad Black movement, as proven beyond doubt by the 1995
and 2005 "Million" rallies - events that drew multiples
of the (integrated) 1963 March on Washington crowd. The problem
is, these searchers find themselves still without a mission at
the end of the rally.
This October’s Million More Movement rally
produced a 10-point Issues
Statement, while Nation of Islam leader Min. Louis Farrakhan
offered his "Covenant
with God, Leadership and Our People." Essentially,
both documents are generalized versions of the usual laundry
lists - useful for their inclusiveness, just as the rally was
worthwhile as "a mass reaffirmation of the existence of
an African American polity, a form of Black nationhood that
yearns for unity and autonomy in the struggle against white
supremacy, and for its own sake." (see BC, "MMM:
The Quest for a Movement," October
But most of all, the huge throng wanted an action plan for New
"Katrina" was on virtually every speaker’s lips -
the crowd-arouser. From Dr. Ron Daniels, of the Institute of
the Black World, who reported that 30 heads of national Black
organizations had convened to assist the Katrina families; to
CME Bishop Henry Williamson, who assured the vast audience that
his denomination was deployed in the Gulf region in strength,
providing aid and ministry; to the (whacky) songstress Erykah
Badu, who made sense to the crowd only when she invoked "Katrina";
to Min. Farrakhan, who proposed a one dollar per week contribution
to a Millions More Movement Disaster Relief Fund; to Congressional
Black Caucus chairman Mel Watt’s announcement that the CBC would
soon introduce "a specific piece of legislation, restoring
the families of the Gulf area…a goal that is definable" -
speaker after speaker, representing the broadest spectrum of
African American sectors, disciplines and political tendencies,
made common cause with Black New Orleans.
"Katrina" - shorthand for the tortures
inflicted on the helpless by nature and man, and the planned
of a great Black city - has the potential to ignite a movement
much wider and deeper than the campaigns to Boycott South Africa
and Free Nelson Mandela, solidarity actions that breathed life
into broadly-based Black politics in the Eighties. Katrina touches
home and history, friends and family; it revealed the Black condition
in the raw. The exodus of multitudes speaks to the Old Testament
cultural framework that is wired into the consciousness of even
the most secular African American. On the scales of historical
group memory and symbolism, the five days of video-taped Black
debasement in New Orleans will weigh as heavily on the African
American psyche as the dogs and water hoses of Birmingham.
Katrina-related activities have proliferated
beyond the countable, to become an obligatory action item on
every authentic Black
organization’s agenda. The expanding universe of Katrina projects
in some respects already resembles the pre-1960 Civil Rights
Movement - a focus of all Black people’s deep concern, but inchoate,
not yet fully formed.
In a relatively short period of time, the 1950s Civil Rights
offensive was transformed into a great engine of social change.
In the current era, however, it is the Right that is on the domestic
and global offensive. A Katrina-spawned movement will begin,
of necessity, as a broad, Black-anchored resistance.
The Fight to Return
Every strata of Black America - all of which were physically
represented on the Capitol Mall, October 15 - shared a soul-deep
identification with Mtangulizi Sanyika, of the African American
Leadership Project, as he outlined the New Orleans Citizen Bill
of Rights. In abbreviated form, the displaced citizens demand:
the right to return; to retain their right of citizenship in
the city; the right to shape and envision the future of the city;
the right to [fully] participate in the rebuilding of the city;
the right to quality goods and services; the right to affordable
neighborhoods; the right to be paid
a livable wage; the right to increased economic benefits; the
right to preferential treatment in…work associated with rebuilding
the city; the right to contracting preference; the right
to an environmentally clean and hurricane safe city; and the
right to preserve and continue the rich and diverse cultural
traditions of the city. (See the full text of the document at
the bottom of this page.)
The 12-point Bill of Rights fits wholly within
the Black Political Consensus, and could serve as a guide to
citizens of virtually
every American city. Indeed, the document contains most of the
elements of BC’s recommendations for urban "democratic
development…to preserve and further empower the huge and strategic
Black and Brown presence in the central cities" (More on
Thus, a true national movement to defend
and support the citizens of New Orleans, if sustained, would
infuse millions with the
lessons and logic of a new urban politics that elevates human
and citizenship rights above corporate rights. A movement that
is immersed in the language, spirit and values of the New Orleans
Citizen Bill of Rights would refine and clarify the African American
conversation, and also alter the prisms through which non-Black
Americans perceive the world. That’s what real movements do;
it’s what the Civil Rights Movement did. In a real sense, the
New Orleans document takes the rights gained by the decades-ago
movement to what Black folks used to call "a higher level."
However, the Bush regime recognizes none
of these rights - not for New Orleans citizens, nor for people
anywhere on the planet.
Rushing like a storm surge, the Bush men and the corporations
they serve saw the breach of the city’s levees as a grand opportunity
to flood the region and nation with reactionary rollbacks of
citizen and worker protections, to impose by "emergency" measures
Hard Right programs that could not pass congressional muster.
Bush Bum-rushes the Gulf
"Whether or not by design, the
administration has used the tragedies of hurricanes Katrina
and Rita to waive, bend, and break federal laws that protect
our civil rights, worker rights, public health and safety,
while suspending rules that help small and minority-owned businesses," said
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference
on Civil Rights (LCCR), in a letter to
key congressional committees.
Among the administrations offenses
against law and decency:
wages for construction workers in the Gulf states by indefinitely
the Davis- Bacon Act, which guarantees workers are paid the
region’s prevailing or average wage. Suspending wage protections
for Gulf Coast workers allows all contractors, regardless
of whether or not the work relates to cleanup and reconstruction,
to pay as little as $5.15 hour.
procurement practices, which has resulted in the award
of several multi-million dollar no-bid contracts that hurt
local small, minority, and women owned businesses.
equal opportunity employment initiatives for workers
in the Gulf states through an exemption from some
existing Affirmative Action Program (AAP) requirements
for new federal contractors dealing with Hurricane
hurricane to create a private and religious school voucher
program that could allow federal money to be used to promote
- Allowing a temporary waiver of environmental
protections in the Gulf Coast region and supporting additional
environmental suspensions at the expense of the health and
safety of Katrina survivors, particularly the poor, disabled,
and minority populations.
- Rebuilding segregated and inaccessible
- Enforcing immigration laws during
search and rescue.
The latter outrage demonstrates
the Bush men’s pure, devilish cynicism and howling racism. While
allowing reconstruction contractors to import low-wage, non-citizen
workers from Latin America, Homeland Security’s immigration
agents conduct raids that
single out Latino-looking residents of emergency shelters.
Having failed to get congressional
approval for a federal school voucher program except in the
colony of Washington, DC, Bush seeks to establish a de facto
national voucher system by dispensing half a billion dollars
to private schools that enroll the far-flung children of displaced
Thwarted over the years by the U.S.
Supreme Court in their jihad against affirmative action, the
Bush crowd decrees that such programs will be cleansed from
the Gulf by emergency fiat.
Bush policy is the precise opposite
of the New Orleans Citizen Bill of Rights. The lines of struggle
have been drawn in the muck left by Katrina.
Wade Henderson, speaking for the LCCR and 60 other civil rights, labor and advocacy organizations, declared: "Instead
of directly meeting the rebuilding challenges created by Katrina,
the administration has chosen the moral equivalent of a Trojan
Little George Wallace,
standing in the Alabama schoolhouse door in 1963, seems tame
At least Governor Wallace was faithful to some version of the
rule of law, albeit perverted. Bush recognizes no law, at home
or abroad. His regime’s lawlessness has created a host of allies
for a new Black movement to call on, should it choose to -
from a far longer list than was ever available to Dr. King.
For Whom Katrina Tolls
"If New Orleans is rebuilt as an
enterprise zone, private investors will wait for the government
to clean up the mess
and then build luxury condos to replace affordable housing.
They'll turn New Orleans into a theme park, with its former
residents unable to afford to come back." - Rev. Jesse
Jackson, Sr. in the Chicago Tribune, October 11, 2005.
It does not have to be that easy. But the ethnic cleansing of
New Orleans will surely be accomplished in the absence of a mass
Black movement, mobilizing elements of all African American classes
and disciplines, the broadest range of large and small organizations,
and the forging of strategic alliances with non-Blacks.
Activists should understand that the Battle for New Orleans
will take place over years - and that the Bush-corporate assault
is well-advanced. In a brilliant article first
posted on the website of the Clark-Atlanta University-based Environmental
Resource Center, EJRC director Robert D. Bullard and Beverly Wright, a Katrina survivor
who directs the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at
Dillard University, spelled out what the nascent movement is
"Hurricane Katrina has opened the floodgate
of land speculation and redevelopment scenarios that plan ‘for’ rather
than plan ‘with’ the storm victims. What gets built and redeveloped
(and for whom) and who participates in the re-building process
are major economic justice issues. A small group of private companies,
nongovernmental organizations and members of think tanks have
divided up ‘pre-completed’ no-bid contracts. A predatory form
of ‘disaster capitalism’ exploits the desperation and fear created
by catastrophe to engage in radical social and economic engineering."
The Right’s "radical social and economic engineering" cries
out for a massive Black response that is equally sophisticated
and comprehensive - and backed by masses of fired-up people.
The liberation of a once-great Black city from the grip of land
pirates acting in concert with the federal government, is no
easy task. However, the struggle must be joined, since the outcome
may well decide the fate of urban - and therefore Black - America.
Katrina hurled New Orleans into a kind of
time machine, instantly fast-forwarding the city to an advanced
stage of the gentrification
process. The "Negro-removal" stage was skipped entirely,
courtesy of the floodwaters. In real-time cities, poor and working
people drift away house by house, block by block, with very little
drama, to points…unknown. An incremental exile, a piece by piece
theft of community, then a final, anti-climactic fait accompli.
In maddening contrast, the Katrina drama
has fixed our attention on the sheer precariousness of the
Black condition. Like Ebeneezer
Scrooge, we see the future of our cities - and we ain’t in it.
A specter from the urban future screams at us in the present,
in the form of a quarter million displaced African Americans
and a valuable hole where a cultural center of Black America
used to be.
Suddenly, Black folks are waking up, shaking - and universally
Where There’s a Will, There Must
Also Be a Plan
The collective Black human and material infrastructure is exponentially
more developed than in 1955, when the African American working
poor of Montgomery, Alabama sustained a bus boycott that humbled
Jim Crow in the former capital of the Confederacy; or in the
years that followed, when a tiny group of progressive Black preachers
embarrassed a racist superpower in the eyes of the world, forcing
Uncle Sam to leave his white supremacist clothes in the closet;
or in 1964, when mere hundreds of young people invaded the fortress
of Mississippi with virtually no money in their pockets and little
backup during Freedom Summer.
The best and the brightest of the era were at the core of activism,
but there were not many of them, and even less cash. The resources
that Blacks and their allies can bring to bear in the Battle
for New Orleans are on a different order of magnitude than 40
years ago. At long last, and at such high cost to the people
of the Crescent City, one senses a general Black will to
A true national movement has as many components as the polity,
itself. The Battle for New Orleans will require lawyers, researchers,
city planners, architects, social scientists, psychologists,
financiers, educators, pension fund managers, liberation theologians,
culture workers, athletes, medical practitioners, criminal justice
experts, chefs, t-shirt designers, micro- and macro-organizers,
as solid a front of Black politicians as can be assembled - and
hundreds of thousands of foot soldiers in struggle.
A vision of the new New Orleans
is also required- a full-blown counter-vision to the condo-studded "theme
park" corporate blueprint, one that will inspire both those
displaced from the city and the African American movement at-large.
In BC’s final edition of the five-part series, "Wanted:
A Plan for the Cities to Save Themselves" (July
29, 2004), we sketched some of the steps that must be taken,
and questions that must be answered in the quest to build a healthy
city, a place that exists for the benefit of those who live there.
Much the same process applies to the task of rebuilding and restoring
New Orleans under the auspices of its largely displaced citizens.
"We must present the fullest picture of
the [new] city’s demographic, physical, and economic layout and
activity: where different populations live; how dollars move;
where people work, and what types of work they do; where they
shop; how they move around the city; what public or private institutions
anchor which neighborhoods, and what activity do they create;
what is the state of the housing stock, and where; how many businesses
exist; who owns them, and who do they employ, and where do the
employees live; what is the state of infrastructure (streets,
water, sewage, phone and cable telecommunications, mass transit
lines, etc.), and who does the infrastructure serve; what are
the physically attractive (and, therefore, valuable) sites and
vistas, and who owns/controls them; how are police deployed;
where are the schools…?"
If African Americans fail to develop a plan for New Orleans,
they will have no effective role in the final product of reconstruction,
whatever the exertions of a reinvigorated Black movement.
Black America is challenged to make Katrina/New Orleans the
center of gravity around which an inclusive African American
movement revolves - a unifying nexus and vision that draws together
organizations and previously unaffiliated individuals, especially
youth, in common cause. There are plenty of tasks for us all.
African American Leadership Project & The New
Orleans Local Organizing Committee & The Greater New
Orleans Coalition of Ministers
Citizen Bill of Rights’
1. All displaced persons should maintain the "Right
of Return" to New Orleans as an International "Human
Right." A persons’ socioeconomic status, class,
employment, occupation, educational level, neighborhood
residence, or how they were evacuated should have no bearing
on this fundamental right. This right shall include the
provision of adequate transportation to return to the city
by the similar means that a person was dispersed. THE
CITY SHOULD NOT BE DEPOPULATED OF ITS MAJORITY AFRICAN-AMERICAN
AND LOWER INCOME CITIZENS, and must be rebuilt to economically
include all those who were displaced.
2. All displaced persons must retain their right of citizenship
in the city, especially including the right to vote
in the next municipal elections. Citizen rights to the
franchise must be protected and widely explained to all
dispersed persons. The provisions of the Civil Rights Act
of 1965 should be examined and enforced in this regard.
3. All displaced persons should have the right to shape
and envision the future of the city. Shaping the future
should not be left to elected officials, appointed commissions,
developers and/or business interests alone. We the citizens
are the primary stakeholders of a re-imagined New Orleans.
Thus, we MUST be directly involved in imagining the future.
Provisions must be included to insure this right.
4. All displaced persons should have the right to participate
in the rebuilding of the city as owners, producers,
providers, planners, developers, workers, and direct beneficiaries.
Participation must especially include African-Americans
and the poor, and those previously excluded from the development
5. In rebuilding the city, all displaced persons should
have the right to quality goods and services based
on equity and equality. Disparities and inequality must be
eliminated in all aspects of social, economic and political
life. It should be illegal to discriminate against an individual
due to their income, occupation or educational status, in
addition to the traditional categories of race, gender, religion,
language, disability, culture or other social status.
6. In rebuilding the city, all displaced persons should
have the right to affordable neighborhoods, quality
affordable housing, adequate health care, good schools, repaired
infrastructures, a livable environment and improved transportation
and hurricane safety.
7. In rebuilding the city, workers,
especially hospitality workers should have the right
to be paid a livable wage with good benefits.
8. In rebuilding the city, African-American
should have the right to increased economic benefits and
ownership. The percentage of Black owned enterprises MUST
dramatically increase from the present 14%, and the access
to wealth and ownership must also be dramatically improved.
9. In rebuilding the city, African-Americans
and any displaced low income populations should have the right
to preferential treatment in cleanup jobs, construction
and operational work associated with rebuilding the city.
10. In rebuilding the city, the right
to contracting preference should also be given to
Community Development collaboratives, community and faith-based
corporations/organizations, and New Orleans businesses
that partner with nonprofit service providers and people
of color. No contracts should be let to companies that
disregard Davis-Bacon, Affirmative action and local participation.
Proposed legislation to create a "recovery opportunity
zone" should specifically include Community Development
organizations and minority firms as alternatives to the
no bid multi-national companies. Over the last 30 years,
such firms have demonstrated their capacity to successfully
build hundreds of thousands of quality affordable housing,
and neighborhood commercials and businesses and service
11. In rebuilding the city, priority must be given to the right
to an environmentally clean and hurricane safe city,
rather than the destruction of Black neighborhoods or communities
such as the lower 9th ward. Priority must also be given
to environmental justice, disaster planning and evacuation
plans that work for the most transit dependent populations
and the most vulnerable residents of the city.
12. In rebuilding the city, priority must be given to the right
to preserve and continue the rich and diverse cultural
traditions of the city, and the social experiences
of Black people that produced the culture. The second line,
Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, creative music, dance
foods, language and other expressions are the "soul
of the city." The rebuilding process must preserve
these traditions. THE CITY MUST NOT BE CULTURALLY, ECONOMICALLY
OR SOCIALLY GENTRIFIED. INTO A "SOULLESS" COLLECTION
OF CONDOS AND tract home NEIGHBORHOODS FOR THE RICH. We
also respectfully request that the CBC initiate its own
Commission to thoroughly investigate all aspects of the
physical and human dimensions of the Katrina disaster.
Spokesperson: Mtangulizi Sanyika, AALP Project Manager can
be reached via Email: [email protected].
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