White Antiracist Organizing in New Orleans: European Dissent after Katrina

Rachel Luft
Date Published: 
June 1, 2007
White Antiracist Organizing in New Orleans:
European Dissent after Katrina:

Rachel E. Luft with European Dissent
New Orleans
June 2007

In February, 2006, in the uptown (unflooded) home of long-time European Dissent member Jyaphia Christos, participants in the white antiracist collective came together for our first official meeting since Hurricane Katrina made landfall in August, 2005. Many of us had only recently returned to New Orleans and hadn’t seen each other since the storm. We spent hours going around the room and hearing each other’s stories: who had evacuated and who had stayed, who had lost a home or worse, how our families were doing. The meeting had been called not only because of our great need to see each other’s faces and to start to anchor ourselves again, but because we were all deeply alarmed by the new boldness with which racism was exposing itself in the city since the storm. It was happening at the level of interpersonal interaction as well as city, state, and national policy, as if the fact of new white majority status in New Orleans had given whites permission to say out loud and publicly what they had only whispered behind closed doors before Katrina. This new cultural norm was very disturbing, though we knew it was ultimately the rapid succession of policy decisions about housing, infrastructure, healthcare, criminal justice, and other institutions that would determine the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, as well as the future of the city. “You know,” said Jyaphia, as we went around the room, “there are only two kinds of people living in New Orleans now: the devastated, and the comfortably devastated.” Comfortable devastation meant we had witnessed the loss of our neighborhoods from television sets instead of from overpasses, and were able to purchase new items to replace ruined things. Comfortable devastation was still devastating, but we knew she was talking about the kind of comfort that can make the difference between life and death, and also that the difference was usually drawn along racial lines. Late into the night we talked about how to turn this collective comfort, despite the disorienting levels of devastation, into collective resistance against the racist manifestations of hurricane recovery.

European Dissent (ED) is a New Orleans-based, white antiracist collective with strong ties to The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond (PISAB). PISAB is a Black-led, multiracial, multicultural organization devoted to national and international antiracist training and organizing. Since its founding in 1980, PISAB has been committed to a model of antiracist activity that relies on movement building, grassroots organizing, cultural expression, and historical accountability. While convinced that multiracial efforts are key to “undoing racism,” PISAB has also developed race-conscious strategies that prioritize leadership of color and that further SNCC’s (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) injunction of 1966 that white people should work especially in white communities. PISAB co-founder Ron Chisom is known for asking groups if they’ve ever seen a hundred whites speak out about racism without people of color present. He whittles it down from fifty to twenty to ten as he challenges whites to decide what kind of responsibility they will take for racial justice. Most of the European Dissent co-founders were close members of the PISAB community in the early days, and, in 1987, unable to find already existing white groups that shared their interest in both organizing and the relationship building involved in transforming white culture and community, with PISAB’s blessing they decided to form a white antiracist collective.

During the early years, ED members spent a great deal of time sharing their families’ histories in a conscious effort to study and remake whiteness, as well as to build the trust and respect they knew were frequently lacking among white activists who were used to looking to people of color for validation. They also participated in several local antiracist campaigns, most notably the fight against former KKK leader and avowed white supremacist David Duke’s run for U.S. Senate and then governor, as well as using the group for support and strategy as they organized against racism in their respective workplaces, religious organizations, families, etc. The core of ED’s mission was to remain accountable to and to take leadership from antiracist communities of color, specifically from PISAB. This twenty year relationship and the clear lines of communication and political authorization it nurtured has helped European Dissent endure over a generation.

When we met in February, 2006 and shared our post-Katrina experiences, observations, and reflections, we were building a collective antiracist analysis of what was happening before our eyes. New policy was being announced daily in the city, and over the course of the next months we would yearn for a comprehensive strategy for resisting its racism, as well as for presenting an alternative vision for rebuilding. While we continued to talk about the need for an overarching antiracist response to storm recovery, we got back to work doing what we knew: local organizing close to home. This effort was greatly enhanced by an ongoing collaboration with Bay Area-based white antiracist organizers from The Catalyst Project and the Challenging White Supremacy workshop. Both groups sent organizers to New Orleans, who then became an intrinsic part of a post-Katrina ED. Our first significant collective effort was political education at Common Ground.

Common Ground
During the winter months of 2005-6 core trainers from PISAB had begun meeting with volunteers from Common Ground, a grassroots recovery network that had sprung up in the weeks after the storm. Malik Rahim, New Orleans native and former Black Panther, had put out the call that led to the national volunteer groundswell that became Common Ground, and by the winter hundreds of mostly white volunteers had come to the city. PISAB began to organize some of the long term volunteers in the Common Ground Health Clinic on the West Bank of the Mississippi River and Common Ground Relief on the East Bank, to foster accountability to the local communities of color in which they were embedding themselves. By February Common Ground was preparing for an alternative Spring break, expecting thousands of volunteers to spend a few days or weeks gutting houses, distributing supplies, participating in bioremediation, or doing intake at the Clinic.

PISAB, The Catalyst Project, Challenging White Supremacy, and ED together nurtured an Anti-Racist Working Group (ARWG) within Common Ground that survives to this day. As part of the big spring push, PISAB organized one day antiracism workshops throughout the month of March for clusters of incoming Common Ground volunteers. ED members participated heavily during this period, helping to train the workshops; running white caucuses for the mostly white volunteers and training ARWG members how to do it; helping ARWG volunteers set up a Community Speakers’ forum for local organizers of color to speak to Common Ground and intermittently speaking at Common Ground ourselves; and providing overall mentorship to ARWG and Common Ground in an ongoing capacity. The goals of ED were fourfold: to help volunteers understand the storm and the recovery through an antiracist lens; to nurture volunteer ability to make connections between the disaster of Katrina and their own pre-Katrinas in their home communities so that they might stay involved in movement activity; to continue to support the local work of organizations of color that didn’t have nearly the press, resources, or volunteer power of Common Ground; and to attempt some damage control against the unintended consequences of thousands of whites descending on a still reeling community of color. ED continues to mentor ARWG members, as well as to steer volunteers and resources to local organizations of color.

Acting On Our Principles
In the sixteen months since our first post-storm regathering, ED has undertaken a number of additional efforts to further the antiracist rebuilding of New Orleans. We continue to support the work of the People’s Institute and other local organizations of color by helping to organize and do logistics for undoing racism workshops, making an effort to facilitate the involvement of both residents of color and white volunteers, and participating in other activities in conjunction with PISAB, such as the US Social Forum. We also attend the events and actions of other local organizations committed to racial justice and run by people of color, and direct resources that come our way to them, especially The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, INCITE and the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, The People’s Organizing Committee, Survivors’ Village, Safe Streets, Strong Communities, and Critical Resistance.

A second way in which ED has been involved is by taking a public stand against racist displays. This includes attendance at public demonstrations, other organizations’ meetings, and letters to the editors of local papers (more on this below). A third aspect of our work is to cultivate antiracism and leadership development among long term volunteers who continue to come to New Orleans in large numbers. Some participate in ED for the period they are in the city. In working together to develop accountability in whatever they have come to New Orleans to do, we are excited to be a part of their evolution as antiracist leaders. A fourth dimension of our work is to model antiracist white collectivity for the many individuals and organizations nationally who seek us out with questions about their Katrina-related activity or about their own antiracist efforts more broadly. Some of these have been referred to us by PISAB for follow up, and others know someone who knows someone. While ED has gone through many stages since its inception (a founding member marveled that “a number of times the light would almost flicker and go out, and then be revived”) what we offer is an example of a long term, stable relationship of accountability to a single organization of color, and perseverance, both of which we have come to believe are at the heart of white antiracist activity. Finally, ED serves as a clearinghouse of information, problem solving, and exploration of some of the many issues surging through the region. ED members share our antiracist struggles in our own respective shops, such as working in the public schools, undertaking coalition building among local radical organizations, or trying to reopen public housing. In so doing we troubleshoot, get feedback and support, are called to account, and remember why we do what we do. Frequently these things happen with good food and good humor. In this way we move constantly between the individual and the collective dimensions of this work.

During this current stage of ED, we realize we are finding our way as a group of recently  - if comfortably – devastated people and our new dear allies, under conditions which lurch from unthinkable to heartbreaking. Often in the last twenty two months we have been overwhelmed by the challenges involved in putting our own lives back together, as well as in helping to create the conditions of a just recovery for all of us. We have struggled to find the best way to participate in light of our personal and collective strengths and weaknesses. One example from early spring 2007 helps to describe this process.

As New Orleans residents continue to return home to a city with almost no affordable housing and shuttered public housing developments, no public hospital and almost no mental health services, and reduced child care services and public transportation, the crime rate has inevitably risen. Despite the fact that a majority of victims of crime are Black, and that a majority of community leaders promoting “safe streets” long before the storm were also Black, white public outcry about crime and safety as represented by the media has spiked and often been racialized, especially after a white woman with strong community ties was murdered in her home. Concerned with the implicit racism of the public discourse, and with the explicit directives it produces about the city being better off if certain residents do not return, ED members began to attend “anti-crime” community meetings and demonstrations. Carrying a banner that reads “White People Against Racism and For Social Justice in New Orleans:  European Dissent of The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond,” and signs connecting a decrease in crime to just living conditions, ED sought to disrupt the appearance of white unanimity, as well as to engage other whites about the real causes of crime.

Despite these efforts, ED’s activity was clearly a drop in the bucket of a growing issue whites were quickly rallying behind. In March 2007, Gambit Weekly, a local magazine which presents itself as alternative, ran a deeply disturbing article on the self-arming of white men since the storm. The cover image was of a white man pointing a gun directly through a target to the reader, but the article included no commentary on the racial context and implications of such behavior. A local organizer of color sent out a public email asking, “Where is the movement of white people holding other white people accountable for their racism? ….[W]here are my white allies?” Immediately a Catalyst organizer and a friend of color whipped out a draft of a letter to the editor and sent it to the ED listserve. Over the next twenty six hours, in a rapid flurry of emails, no fewer than a dozen ED members offered suggestions, rewrote paragraphs, incorporated each other’s ideas, and voted on the most strategic way to sign the letter (highlighting locals over non-locals and people with organizational affiliations). It was pulled together at the end by a new, non-local ED member who had moved to the city for six months to support social justice activity, and who frequently stepped in to ease the load on locals. The letter made the Gambit deadline and the cut, and appeared in the magazine the following week.

This action, humble as it was, well reflects ED’s resources and limitations as an organization. While many members had made efforts to participate in anti-crime events and supported the work of local criminal justice reform organizations, ED itself had taken no leadership role in the growing racialization of crime discourse. Additionally, it was not until hailed by an organizer of color that ED responded to a specific affront. Once called to action, however, ED demonstrated a remarkably decentered and collective process, with well over a quorum doing what they could quickly and efficiently with no grandstanding or recognition seeking. Despite the many generational, ethnic, gender, religious, and subcultural differences among ED members, a strong allegiance to a set of shared antiracist principles made the actual production of a statement a strikingly streamlined effort with no disagreement or distraction along the way. Further, the action helped ED clarify for itself some working parameters regarding our capacity and our tactics during a time of great demand and disorientation about where to put our efforts. It was becoming clear that for the time being we were not going to be able to promise long term collective involvement with any organization aside from PISAB, despite the fact that most of us as individuals were closely aligned with other justice groups. We also were not going to become focused on a single issue, despite several attempts to do so, such as to create a unified strategy around neighborhood planning. We were all in agreement, however, that we wanted to respond to the needs of organizers of color, that making public, collective statements in the name of antiracist whiteness met our aim of disrupting the appearance of white racist unity, that we could rally with frequent bursts of short term energy, and that our flattened leadership and shared commitments made for a politically satisfying collective process.

As we enter the current hurricane season, and begin to prepare for the second Katrina anniversary, we recognize that despite our wounds we are tighter as a collective than we have been for years. We are closer and stronger because of the increased commitments the horrors of the storm developed in us, the inspiration that comes from seeing what our neighbors in New Orleans are doing under deeply challenging circumstances, and the infusion of energy, commitment, and solidarity of new friends and allies from around the country.