Black and poor residents are excluded from the city elections and they're
still finding bodies, but America has lost interest
'There are two types of power," said Linda Jeffers, addressing an accountability
session of New Orleans mayoral candidates at the city's Trinity Episcopal church.
"Organised money and organised people." Since Hurricane Katrina, the
battle between those two forces has shaped the struggle to rebuild New Orleans.
With mayoral elections on Saturday it is set to intensify.
The one thing both sides seem to agree on is that neither wants the city to
return to the way it was before the hurricane. The people of New Orleans, most
of whom are black and many of whom are poor, want schools that will educate
their children, jobs that will pay a living wage, and neighbourhoods where capital
investment matches the large pools of social capital created by their churches
and close-knit communities. Organised money has something else in mind: the
destruction of many of those communities and permanent removal of those who
lived in them, a city that follows the gentrification patterns of racial removal
and class cleansing that have played out elsewhere in the US.
Under these circumstances, the organisation of people has been impressive. Grassroots
groups have done a remarkable job of gathering those scattered throughout the
country into a political constituency. Jeffers spoke to an audience of more than
500 people who had been bussed in from Tennessee and elsewhere in Louisiana, as
well as over 1,000 who watched the session on satellite in Austin, Dallas, Houston
and San Antonio. Five days later Jeffers, a leader with the Industrial Areas Foundation
(IAF) who moved from New Orleans to Houston after Katrina, schlepped through the
unforgiving Houston heat distributing food and signing up evacuees for their absentee
ballots. Meanwhile organisations have been ferrying people from neighbouring states
to satellite polling stations dotted around Louisiana for early voting.
But the circumstances have been dire. Evacuees in Houston exist in a constant
state of bureaucratic harassment. Last week the Federal Emergency Management Agency
(Fema) in effect issued 25,000 eviction notices to evacuees in Houston. Almost
half have no health insurance because they lost their jobs in the storm; more
than one in eight children have been going without prescribed medication. Contrary
to Barbara Bush's infamous predictions, this is not working out very well for
In this context, the New Orleans mayoral elections have particular significance.
Whoever wins will have the task of mediating between organised people and organised
money, and therefore shaping the priorities for rebuilding the city. But by
almost any standard these elections are neither free nor fair. Fewer than half
the city's residents have returned. Yet requests for polling stations to be
set up in the major towns outside the state where many have resettled were rejected
by the federal courts. "You're telling me they can do it in Iraq but they
can't do it here?" said Walter Milton, a leader with the IAF.
As a result, people have to either travel hundreds of miles to vote or organise
a postal vote. The overwhelming majority of those most adversely affected are
once again black and poor. So Jim Crow is on the ballot. But this is the New
South with a new, more subtle, but no less effective, racism. Black demands
for full citizenship no longer fall foul of the law of the land but instead
the law of probabilities. They were more likely to be flooded, more likely to
be displaced, the least likely to be able to return, and therefore the least
likely to be able to vote.
With organised people thus thwarted, organised money has asserted itself with
great effect. The current mayor, Ray Nagin, was the candidate of big business.
He came to power in 2002 with a minority of black support and the overwhelming
backing of whites and the business community. But he rejected a plan by the
Urban Land Institute in November. The institute presented a map with three "investment
zones". The areas earmarked for mass buyouts and future green zones, and
the last to be invested in, were overwhelmingly populated by African-Americans
and the poor. New Orleans needed a smaller footprint, it said; but it would
be big enough to kick out African-Americans and the poor.
When Nagin balked at the plan, business looked for a new standard-bearer. Its
favoured son this time is Ron Forman, head of the Audubon Nature Institute.
But as a backup, business interests are also investing in the local political
aristocracy in the guise of Mitch Landrieu. Landrieu, Louisiana's lieutenant
governor, is the brother of Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana senator, and the son
of Moon Landrieu, New Orleans's last white mayor, who left office in 1978. So
the people have a vote, but business has picked both the incumbent and the two
Unlike Nagin, both Landrieu and Forman are white. With little to choose between
the three on substantive issues, the decision may come down to the symbolism
of race. Given everything that happened and continues to happen after Katrina,
this is probably inevitable: given the needs of the city, it is regrettable.
It will take more than melanin to rebuild the city; indeed it is an obsession
with melanin that continues to destroy it.
Only this time, no one is watching. Like teenagers discovering sex, the American
media developed an intense fascination with the mundane facts of American life
following the hurricane: namely, the glaring disparities in race and class that
persist and pervade. Having gorged themselves on the undeniable evidence of
glaring disparities in race and class, they soon got sick and went to sleep.
Up in the mostly white and wealthy Garden District, the Boulangerie on Magazine
Street offers a delicious choice of croissants. Down in the ninth ward they
are still finding dead bodies - nine in March, some half-eaten by animals, plus
But there is no dramatic backdrop to the systematic and systemic exclusions
of African-Americans this time around. It's as though corpses have to be floating
down the street and thousands stranded without food or water before racism is
once more worthy of note here. "I came down off my rooftop and I walked
through the waters," said Jeffers. "And now I feel like they're taking
me back on to the rooftop." The organised people of New Orleans keep trying
to move to higher ground: the organised money keeps trying to sell the land
from under their feet.