New Orleans: Community resistance before and after Katrina

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Grassroots resistance runs deep in New Orleans, but it isn't always immediately visible to outsiders.

In this excerpt from his new book Floodlines, Jordan Flaherty, provides a firsthand account of grassroots organizing, culture and resistance in New Orleans.

I didn't really understand community until I moved to New Orleans. It is a city of kindness and hospitality, where walking down the block can take two hours because you stop and talk to people on every porch. Extended families and social networks fill the gaps left by city, state, and federal governments that have abdicated their responsibility for the public welfare. Folks you walk past on the street not only ask how you are, they also wait for an answer. New Orleans is a place where someone always wants to feed you.

Organizing in New Orleans looks different than it does in other places. It is more about building community and family, about sharing stories and meals. For people from New York or California, it can often be frustrating-the pace is different, as people often try to build a broad consensus and really get to know each other before moving forward. Many times here, I have gone to a three-hour meeting, and at the end of those three hours the only agenda item we've accomplished has been introductions.

The organizing landscape runs deep and wide, and there are a range of ways in which people come together. One of the key features of New Orleans organizing is the story circle-a process whereby people communicate and come together by telling personal stories on a theme. Story circles were developed by the Free Southern Theatre (FST), which formed out of SNCC and Freedom Summer in the mid-'60s as the theatrical branch of the civil rights movement. John O'Neal, another movement elder in New Orleans, is legendary for his work as a co-founder of the FST and for a lifetime at the intersection of social justice and performance. O'Neal helped develop the story circle in his work with the FST and described it this way: "When we tell stories we are sharing with each other how we put things together. When we share stories we share whole parts of ourselves. Stories come charged with the spirit of the teller and have lives of their own." Coming together around our stories, and through that commonality finding a mutual path for moving forward, is a central aspect of New Orleans organizing in ways that I haven't found elsewhere.

Kalamu Ya Salaam, a brilliant and world-renowned poet and educator, co-founded a project called Students at the Center that utilizes the story circle in their work. Students at the Center places the needs and situations of students at the center of its approach in order to give them what they need to create powerful writing. As described by Jim Randels, a teacher and co-director of Students at the Center, "FST developed the Story Circle because it was dissatisfied with audience feedback sessions after their performances. They wanted a more democratic process that included all voices. They also wanted to emphasize story rather than argument, understanding that stories tend to bring people together, to help them find common ground or at least to understand each other."

Freedom Schools are another tactic from the civil rights movement that continues as an integral part of New Orleans organizing. The schools were set up in the South by movement activists to help educate the community outside of the state-run schools, which were not aimed toward liberation but toward maintaining the status quo. The Freedom Schools' curriculum was designed to further mass participation in the movement for equality. Classes, often taught by college student volunteers, focused on voter registration campaigns as well as generally encouraging independent thinking.

Movement veteran Jerome Smith educates children through a cultural organization he founded in 1968 called Tambourine and Fan. Dedicated to preserving and continuing Black New Orleans traditions, Smith describes Tambourine and Fan as a continuation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools, that is, an education project aimed at empowering young people to take an active role in struggles for justice, as well as educating them about Black cultural traditions. Programs designed on the Freedom School model exist across the United States, but the tradition is especially strong in New Orleans. The New Orleans chapter of Children's Defense Fund (CDF) hosts Freedom Schools inspired by this model (as do CDF chapters across the country), and the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB), an antiracist training collective, has long incorporated Freedom Schools into their work.

Comedian Dave Chappelle's parents had a hand in starting PISAB in 1980, along with Jim and Diana Dunn, Ron Chisom, and other community organizers and scholars. Kool Black (aka Robert Horton), a core trainer with the organization, was one of many young men who joined the organization as a result of their community work in neighborhoods like the St. Thomas public housing development. He joined in the '90s, and soon became a leader of PISAB's Freedom Schools. "We believe that skills alone are not enough to become an organizer," he told me, describing the organization's philosophy. "You have to understand the culture and time we live in. Just because you develop skills, that doesn't make you a better organizer. If you don't address the issue of racism, then you just become a skillful racist."

For Kool, the Freedom Schools help pass on the revolutionary spirit and knowledge to a younger generation. "We developed Freedom Schools, modeled on the freedom schools that came out of the '60s, to take a message of antiracism to a younger audience. Kids as young as nine years old would participate. We would help kids get clarity on institutional power as it relates to racism. That experience helped shape my political perspective."

New Orleanians affiliated with INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, a national coalition of radical feminist activists of color, have been active on issues of law enforcement violence through collaborations with organizations like Critical Resistance, a national prison-abolition organization with a New Orleans chapter, and the National Coalition to Free the Angola Three, which worked to free three imprisoned New Orleans members of the Black Panther Party. INCITE also held a national conference here in the spring of 2005, an historic gathering of radical feminists from around the United States who came to New Orleans to connect and strategize on issues of state violence and violence within our communities.

Grassroots resistance runs deep in New Orleans, but it isn't always immediately visible to outsiders. It is often based deeply in community, involving elders passing on knowledge to a new generation or people who have known each other all their lives coming together to take action. "People who want to come in solidarity should be respectful with when and how they enter a community," said Kool Black. "There was a lot of organizing in St. Thomas; we developed a lot of leaders. The people who were nine to twelve years old when we started, in seven years, led that program, and were the staff. That was the intention, to pass it on to that next generation of leaders."

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist and community organizer based in New Orleans. This excerpt is from his book Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six published by Haymarket Books. Reprinted with permission.

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