New Orleans: A Choice Between Destruction and Reparations

David Billings
Date Published: 
July 22, 2007


There is this monument to white supremacy in New Orleans. It is called the Liberty Monument. It commemorates the 1871 Battle of Liberty Place in which local white militia attempted to wrest control of the city from the Reconstruction forces after the Civil War. Thirty-three militia were killed. In their honor, this monument stood at the foot of Canal Street for over 125 years. It stood even as the city became majority African-American in population and even as successive black mayors attempted to have it removed. It was finally moved-around the corner-in 1999 to a spot just outside the city's French Quarter and next to its waterfront. The Liberty Monument survived Hurricane Katrina.

Just about everything else in New Orleans was destroyed.

The Liberty Monument symbolizes New Orleans to me. During the thirty-four years I lived in the city, from 1971 to 2004, that monument reminded me of who really controls the city. White people do. We own it all.

Before Katrina, black folks staffed New Orleans. Black folks worked it. But white folks ran it. The statistics are startling. Less than a third of the population of Orleans Parish was white (27%) and two-thirds was black (66%), but according to local nonprofit agencies, almost all of the wealth in New Orleans has been held in the hands of whites-mostly the very rich white folks who have been there for generations and profit handsomely from its resources: the river, oil and gas, tourists. Theirs are the houses of the stately Garden District and st. Charles Avenue, and the tucked-away, hidden enclaves of the French Quarter. They survived Hurricane Katrina.

Just about everything else in New Orleans was destroyed.

Here are two scenarios for New Orleans.

SCENARIO I: New Orleans as a new Disney World

New Orleans will be a different city when it is rebuilt. Old money will stay wealthy. But new money will rebuild New Orleans and get even richer. The future of New Orleans will be Disney World: not the California or Florida version, but a raunchier version-more like Vegas or Rio. It will be replete with gambling casinos and restaurants galore. It will have music clubs and second-line parades. Bourbon Street will have strippers and Cafe du Monde will still sell beignets, but it will all be fake. "Faux New Orleans," if you will. Sanitized, commercialized, tourist-flavored New Orleans available to all at a price only a few will be able to afford.

It will have to import its funk.

Workers will have to be trained to dance in second-lines and flambeaux carriers will be outlawed as fire hazards. Mardi Gras parades will continue on St. Charles and down Canal Street, but the bands will be hired and brought into town and the crowds will be made up of people from the Midwest and points north. Few locals will remain.
Just about everything else in New Orleans will be destroyed.

In this scenario, there is no way all those poor folks are going to be allowed to return home. The poor folks you saw screaming for help on television. The people who were trapped on rooftops and nursing homes and hospitals and evacuation centers as the waters rose and the food and drinking water ran out.

They will be dispersed across America. They are not the type of poor people likely to elicit this country's sympathies. Not for very long.

The United States likes poor people to be docile and compliant, certainly grateful and appreciative for the help given them. However late and however limited this help might be.

But many of New Orleans flood victims were anything but grateful. They were angry and frustrated over years of neglect, injustice and unfair treatment. While Katrina was the most recent example of institutional breakdown when it came to poor black people in New Orleans, it was not the first.

In 1927, during the Great Mississippi River Flood so well chronicled in John Barry's book Rising Tide, the levees were bombed to save the French Quarter and the Central Business District at the expense of the poor and working-class people of the city's Ninth Ward and the immediate areas adjacent to them, St. Bernard Parish.

Hurricane Betsy in 1965 would breach the levees again and flood those same areas. One would be hard pressed to find any living resident of the Ninth Ward who does not believe those levees were again bombed to save the rich white parts of town.

Yet New Orleans has a long history of resisting white rule and control. The largest rebellion by enslaved Africans in the United States took place in 1811 right outside New Orleans. Forces led by Charles Deslondes marched on the city. They were called murderous savages and looters. They instilled deep fears in the white folk. Governor Claiborne called out the military. Deslondes was captured, his followers killed and hanged. They were beheaded and their skulls stuck on fence posts as a gruesome reminder of what happens in New Orleans to lawless thugs, looters, anarchists.

At the opening of the 20th century, Robert Charles, a young black man from Woodville, Mississippi, was so outraged when he witnessed everyday official brutality and murder of African-Americans in New Orleans that he set out to kill white people. Barricaded in a Central City house, he managed to shoot twenty-seven white people, including seven police officers. What he also struck was those deep fears buried in the psyches of white people of black men with guns. Massive reprisals of whites against African-Americans resulted in scores of black deaths.

In 1972, Mark Essex, a twenty-three-year-old Navy veteran from Emporia, Kansas, went on a shooting spree that ended on the top of a Howard Johnson's hotel across from the New Orleans City Hall. Essex, African-American, held off the entire police department and National Guard of New Orleans (at that time still almost totally white in an already black-majority city). Essex killed five police officers, including the Deputy Chief Louis Sergo. Black people watched from chairs they set up across the street from the Howard Johnson's. They were not afraid since they knew Mark Essex was not shooting at them. When Essex was finally killed, 200 bullets were found in his body.

So when Hurricane Katrina struck and the city flooded, the poor people who shoved and pushed, shouted and cried, knew what was happening. Alternating between being scared senseless and enraged, they knew this was not the first time the systems of the state had failed them. It was just the latest.

New Orleans' poorest people have been dealt with as nothing all their lives. Jobless for generations, they were ignored by the city's schools. At the time Katrina struck, 50% of New Orleans adults aged eighteen to sixty-five were virtually illiterate (sources: 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey and www. Before Katrina, 65% of New Orleanians were renters. Most public housing had already been gutted. Five years prior to Katrina's ravages, a federal policy of neglect and disinvestment we can call "Hurricane HOPE VI" had already destroyed four major public housing developments named Desire, Florida, Magnolia, and St. Thomas.

Poor black people were in the way before Katrina and they would be in the way afterwards. They have no claim on the new New Orleans.

The new New Orleans will be filled with mixed-income developments, subsidized and guaranteed by the government. These mixed-income communities will be carefully monitored to control the percentages of poor people in any given neighborhood. As Congressman Richard Baker (R-LA; 6th Congressional District, Baton Rouge) was overheard saying shortly after the storm waters wiped out huge swaths of the city: "Mother Nature accomplished what we couldn't. She emptied the housing projects of New Orleans."

The people in charge of New Orleans didn't give a damn about poor black people. So some of the poor black people didn't give a damn either. Somewhere deep in their psyche they knew they could all be locked up and forgotten and white folks would not shed a tear. So some of them broke into white folks' homes and businesses. One don't-give-a-damn deserves another.

In this scenario, a rebuilt New Orleans will be a free-market paradise rooted in unbridled capitalism and anti-public-sector values. Finally, in the heretofore most unlikely of American cities, public officials can hand out private school vouchers
rather than reconstruct a failed public school system. Finally, they have an opportunity to put faith-based initiatives to work because black preachers have lost their base. Because everything else in New Orleans has been destroyed.

Or has it?

Let's take a look at:

SCENARIO 2: Reparations for New Orleans now!

Why not rebuild New Orleans as the first major down payment of reparations forĀ· the descendants of Africa kidnapped and enslaved in the Americas? Instead of a New Orleans Disneyland built by riverfront developers for condo-buying real estate investors and pleasure seekers, let New Orleans represent a counter-diaspora. Let's rebuild the city with African-Americans and other peoples of color in the lead as a testimony to this nation's efforts to destroy white supremacy once and for all. Let's guarantee that those families spread so far afield by Katrina will design and lead the reconstruction. Let's implement a Second Reconstruction. And this time we will get it right.

Let's rebuild New Orleans with equity in mind, rooted in the strengths that made it America's most unique city. Let's use government resources to invest in and preserve some of America's greatest cultural heritages.

Let's rebuild City Hall in Louis Armstrong Park-in the heart of Treme, the oldest African settlement in the United States. Build it around Congo Square, the one location that Africans were allowed to gather for celebration, dance, and (unbeknownst to white people) organizing-not as a neglected artifact of slavery past, but as the cultural rooting of a liberated future. Far-fetched notion? Well, Congo Square survived Katrina. Not everything in New Orleans has been destroyed.

There are thousands ready to rebuild and who have a plan.

Community labor United (CLU) is one. CLU is organizing evacuees to actively participate in the rebuilding of New Orleans. In their call to action, just four days after the storm, CLU stated, "We will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants and the wealthy white districts of New Orleans .... We will not stand idly by while the disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans."

The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond is another. It .has called for an investigation by the United Nations. "This calamity demonstrates how racism
manifests itself in every institution in this country," said Ron Chisom, co-founder of the twenty-five-year-old organization headquartered in New Orleans. Core trainer Daniel Buford said from the West Coast office of the Institute, "We need the United Nations to oversee an international public works campaign similar to the post-tsunami rebuilding efforts in South Asia and the Pacific. We can't allow this tragedy to become a 'cash cow' for those who always benefit from war and crisis ... Only an international body can guarantee that."

There are many others steeled for resistance. Many of us who love New Orleans, despite its racist history, are looking toward building its future with anti-racist fervor.

Not everything in New Orleans has been destroyed.

Alas, the Liberty Monument still stands. Protected by its proximity to the huge concrete barriers that hold the Mississippi at bay, it is a constant reminder of the axiom that regardless of how much things change, some things remain the same.

David Billings is a core trainer and organizer with The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond. He is an ordained United Methodist minister, and in 1986 co-founded European Dissent, a collective of white anti-racist activists. A native of McComb, Mississippi, David lived in New Orleans for three decades, moving to New York City in 2004.

Reprinted from the Newsletter of the Fellowship of Reconciliation.

Next: Timeline 1444-2005