Over five years since the catastrophe of hurricane Katrina, communities in New Orleans are still struggling to rebuild and return. Shocking images of Katrina broadcast globally continue to communicate the growing economic, social and racial fault lines in America. Beyond the headlines, community organizing and resistance to post-Katrina economic shock treatment of key public institutions, including the school systems and public housing, have drawn battle-lines illustrating broader contemporary struggles against hyper-capitalism.
On culture, artists in New Orleans are playing a critically important role in building a culture of community resistance for key political struggles, while creative, dynamic sounds and boundary challenging artistic practices — which have made New Orleans famous for the arts — continue to shape the front lines of contemporary culture in North America.
Author and community activist Jordan Flaherty explores culture, community and resistance in Floodlines, an inspiring read on Katrina and all the under-reported stories of social justice struggles in the years after the storm. Flaherty writes in a lyrical style, illustrating a deep connection to the arts, while also communicating the urgent realities facing the poor majority in New Orleans, a predominantly African-American city — realities that today have fallen far from the headline glare.
Floodlines is a key read for anyone interested in reading a critical contemporary history on Katrina and also for all involved in community organizing. It is an eye-opening examination on the hope, struggles and conflicts that revolve around community-led movements for social justice.
Community activist and Art Threat contributor Stefan Christoff had the opportunity to speak with Floodlines author Jordan Flaherty during a recent visit to Montreal.
Art Threat: In Floodlines you highlight community struggles and resistance in New Orleans surrounding hurricane Katrina, can you point to some key struggles you focus on in Floodlines and their importance for communities across the U.S. and in Canada.
Jordan Flaherty: U.S. policies on healthcare, education and criminal justice in someways presents a dystopian future for Canada, as many policies are first tried in the U.S. and then exported globally through structural adjustment programs via the IMF and World Bank. Today privatization policies are being applied and enforced in the U.S., striking communities like New Orleans.
A back and forward between different countries and contexts is taking place, different strategies to push privatization, militarization and the criminalization of the poor. All these issues were projected in hyper speed in New Orleans. Struggles around the privatization of education really came forward after Katrina.
In New Orleans overnight around 7500 teachers and employees, basically the entire staff of the public school system was fired. An entire school system radically disrupted in New Orleans, from a system under the control of local school boards, to a system of charter schools or state controlled schools, a major move toward a free market school system.
On criminal justice, the first state institution to restart after the storm in New Orleans was the city jail, a bus station was transformed into a city jail. Prisoners were also left behind as the waters were rising during the storm or shipped upstate to prisons like Angola, a former slave plantation where it is estimated that over 90% of the prison population will die behind bars.
Our public hospital in New Orleans was immediately shut down after Katrina.
After the storm you had 80% housing damaged in New Orleans but the public housing was mainly undamaged, but public housing was quickly boarded-up post storm by people in power who tried to take that opportunity to close public housing. Congressman Richard Baker, a prominent Republican said after the storm, “we finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans, we couldn’t do it, but God did.”
People in power took advantage of the situation to push forward rapid reforms on all of these issues.
In listening to you outline the board changes across the social structure of New Orleans after the storm Naomi Klein’s thesis outlined via The Shock Doctrine comes to mind, can you expand on reality of hyper capitalism enforced on New Orleans post Katrina?
Certainly Naomi Klein’s framing in The Shock Doctrine has been an important lens through which to look at the situation and what we faced in New Orleans after the storm.
On the teachers, the union that they were all members in was the largest union in the city, it was 80% African American, so it was a foundation of African American middle class life in the city. After Katrina the union cease to exist, all the teachers were fired and so that move hit the social-economic well being of so many in the community.
In New Orleans public schools were already in trouble prior to Katrina but you had two different views about what was wrong with the school system, many community members thought that the problem was the lack of public funding for the schools, the bad pay for teachers, the crumbling infrastructure, while people in power thought the problem was that the teachers union had too much power that there was too much local control.
So opportunists took advantage of the storm to completely wrest the school system out of local control, to effectively shutdown a public school system for New Orleans. So the firing of teachers, attacking the teachers union, taking the schools out of school board control, were all steps in their plan to try out free market experiments on the education system.
Officials openly spoke about the New Orleans school system as a blank slate. As poet, educator and civil rights activist Kalamu ya Salaam said, “it wasn’t a blank slate. It was a graveyard. They are experimenting on people’s bones.”
Civil rights lawyer Tracie Washington referenced Tuskegee the notorious experiment on African Americans in the 20th century, that like all the major changes in New Orleans post-Katrina, was done without consent.
One of the most painful things for the people of New Orleans was that these radical reforms on the school system were pushed through without any desire from authorities to get consent from the parents, the teachers, the students, no consultation with people most impacted.
Lack of serious response by U.S. government and state institutions to Katrina lead to widespread outrage around the globe. Although the intense economic and structural reforms push by the government and corporate sector on New Orleans after the storm, the changes to the school system, to public housing, a whole different layer of brutality was not as widely debated or understood, can you reflect on this point?
On the schools there are many political forces in the U.S. who what to see such changes nation wide, there is a massive push for charter schools happening across the U.S.
Waiting for Superman, the new film by the director who made the Al Gore documentary An Inconvenient Truth, really pushes charter schools. So you see an interesting coalition pushing charter schools, there are some progressive people involved, who see it as bringing community control to school systems, however many privatizers are very cynically using charter schools as a back door way to privatize public school systems.
Many forces across the U.S. are arrayed behind this push for charter schools. In New Orleans, for example, city government, state government and federal government, along with many private foundations, are all pushing for charter schools.
The Gates Foundation, The Walton Foundation and many of the major billionaires in the U.S. are behind this push for charter schools.
Opera just gave $1 million to a charter school in New Orleans. The head of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, just gave $100 to charter schools in New Jersey. So wealthy elites are putting major resources into this push for charter schools. Often times integral to this charter school push is breaking the teachers unions, breaking the power of the teachers unions in society, breaking local control. Another key part of that charter school push are the questions; how can we make profit from education, and how can charter schools be used as a step toward full privatization?
Back to New Orleans, many post-Katrina policies administered on the city really seem to revolve around squeezing profit from public systems. So we talked about how this played out for the school system, but could you expand on what post-storm policy looked like for public housings and other elements of public life in New Orleans.
On housing New Orleans experienced a part of a broader nation wide push in which corporate forces are trying to destroy the very principal of housing as a right, or the right to affordable housings. So for example in Atlanta, all of the public housing is now gone; there is no more public housing in the city. In New Orleans almost all of the public housing is gone, and in New Orleans this change happened after Katrina.
Public housing in New Orleans was some of the best built in the city and largely undamaged by the storm. Across the city, 80 percent of housing was damaged by flooding but the public housing was mostly undamaged and yet people in power put gates over that housing and used those gates to keep people from coming back home, one of the many obstacles that kept many people displaced from the city from returning.
Today at least 100,000 people from New Orleans are not able to return home. The former population in New Orleans was 450,000, and the current population is around 355,000. Some of the current population are people that moved to New Orleans post-Katrina, so well over 100,000 people have been displaced.
Many African-Americans that once lived in New Orleans want to return but feel they are being kept out by economics. Often the public housing people once lived in is closed, or if they owned a home and didn’t receive any compensation money to rebuild, or their job in the city no longer exists, it becomes virtually impossible to return. All these economic measures have literally kept people from returning.
Could you relay some of the human stories projected in your book? You highlighted that approximately 100 000 people are not able to return to the city, wondering if you could translate what this meant at a human level?
One of the things that makes me saddest about New Orleans is that so many of the incredible people that the city needs so much have been kept from returning.
Sunni Patterson is an amazing poet, spoken word artist and social justice activist. To many people she is the voice of New Orleans. If you listen to almost any young poet in New Orleans there is a Sunni Patterson influence. Today, Sunni is displaced to Houston, along with tens of thousands of others from New Orleans. Sonny is someone who loves New Orleans so much but is not able to return.
Many people who had been in New Orleans for generations found it difficult to return, while many people who just moved to the city or moved there after the storm found it easy to stay.
Given that you arrived in New Orleans a few years prior to the storm, I was wondering if you could compare the feeling on the streets before and after the storm, and describe the differences you feel walking in the city.
Some areas like the French quarter, or the business district where the hotels are, or the garden district, have changed very little. Those areas were not hit heavily by flooding and received a disproportionate amount of rebuilding money, so those areas have not changed a great deal.
But then if you look at former residential African-American neighbourhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward you can feel the emptiness and absence. In the Lower Ninth Ward, where the levy break happened, thousands of people once lived there — block after block of houses, a full residential neighbourhood. Over fifty percent home ownership, a predominately African-American area, a working class to middle class neighbourhood.
Now there are maybe twenty houses and the rest is a demolition zone, overgrown weeds sometimes higher than stop signs. Occasionally you will see steps leading up to a home that is no longer there, a foundation for a home that is gone. Many homes were hit by the storm and then subsequently demolished.
Despite the devastation after the storm people in New Orleans continue to organize for justice, a major theme in your book. Could you reflect on how the post-Katrina reality in New Orleans points to the grassroots spirit in the city, the spirit to fight back.
Actually this recent period in New Orleans points to the heart of many struggles.
Floodlines was largely inspired by the idea to communicate these stories about community resistance in New Orleans out to the world. There are warning signs for everyone in the example of New Orleans, while there are also inspiring stories on important and beautiful organizing.
So many people have returned to New Orleans against great odds. In the city we have seen people fighting for justice and winning some real concrete victories on various issues, especially on the issue of police violence.
People struggled for years against the wall of official silence about incredible police brutality around Katrina and beyond. Now we are beginning to see changes. People won a victory in the creation of an independent monitor over the police department and the U.S. Department of Justice intervention and filing of charges against police officers involved in violence and killings against civilians after the storm.
All this movement and change happened at an official level because people at the grassroots refused to be silent and refused to stop fighting.
Culture from New Orleans celebrated globally has often been linked to struggles for justice, both today and in the past, the struggle for emancipation and against slavery. Can you point to some of the ways you feel that New Orleans artists embody cultural resistance today?
This is a crucial point to the story of New Orleans.
In many ways the very history of these art forms — jazz funerals, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, Mardi Gras Indians, all very specific African-American community and cultural traditions basically unique to New Orleans — were created through a community using art to resist the dominant white supremacist culture.
Throughout African-American communities in New Orleans you have Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs — black community institutions originally formed in the reconstruction era of New Orleans. Clubs act both as a vehicle to facilitate culture but also as a space to benefit the community, to provide insurance for people in the community, to buy books for kids at school, that is the roots of these institutions.
They were also the vehicle that preserved jazz funeral second lines, roving street parades that we have every weekend in the city, with anywhere from one to six brass-bands, with a few hundred to thousands of people all completely taking over the street in a swarm of dancing. An incredible tradition that really came about as a forum of claiming public space and cultural resistance.
Even more modern musical traditions like hip hop find New Orleans roots in bounce music, which was developed through block parties mostly in the poor neighbourhoods. It was first called project music because it came from the housing projects.
Block parties often started because one person on the block couldn’t make rent, so the community would have a party where everyone came together and paid a couple dollars, at the end of the night that money would go to help that person pay the rent.
So in New Orleans, culture was preserved and musical traditions were amplified and multiplied through community parties that were also about social aid.
Hurricane Katrina illuminates many profound failures by political and economic power in the U.S. to deal with the crisis and displacement, rooted in a broader history of economic and racial oppression. However, Floodlines focuses not on victimizing people but really on the ability for community power and resistance to overcome incredible odds.
New Orleans points to so many important lessons for social movements. Battles about public control versus corporate control over key social institutions will be mirrored in many other struggles, not just in the U.S. but internationally.
We are already seeing the main players from New Orleans move on to other countries and disaster zones. Many of the corporations that profited from Katrina moved on to profit off of the Haiti earthquake.
Even our school superintendent Paul Vallas, who re-engineered the New Orleans school system towards privatization through the growth of charter schools, was brought in to advise in Haiti after the earthquake, and again brought in to advise in Chile after the earthquake. We are seeing the same players again and again around the world.
The criminalization of the people of New Orleans after Katrina must also be remembered. Suddenly the mainstream media’s depiction of people changed from them being survivors to being criminals or looters. In both New Orleans and Haiti you saw the criminalization of disaster survivors and the militarization of the relief effort, with U.S. troops being deployed in both situations.
We really need to learn lessons from New Orleans for future situations. I think the economic system we live under thrives from disasters and that they are an inevitable and intrinsic part of the system . We need to learn how to respond effectively through struggle to these disasters.
In Floodlines you present stories of struggle from New Orleans, and you are touring your book, sharing these stories from your heart. I was wondering if you could talk about your experience in touring Floodlines, your travels and links that you have been able to build through your tour as an activist.
Before Katrina I had actually written only a little, and was not a journalist or a writer. However, when the storm happened I was living in New Orleans, so I wrote about my experiences and the situation on the ground.
My words described a different reality than the mainstream media depiction and that initial writing that I did was forwarded around the world and translated into several languages.
Organizers who I really respected in New Orleans encouraged me to keep writing, to keep uplifting these stories that weren’t being told in the mainstream. So for me, travelling around, bringing this book to different communities and trying to communicate these stories of resistance in New Orleans is a continuation in my initial efforts to amplify grassroots voices.
Floodlines is trying to support community voices in New Orleans by spreading the word on unreported struggles and the lessons being learned after Katrina that can be valuable in many other contexts.
It has been absolutely incredible travelling around, connecting with activists throughout the country, seeing how there are many similarities between struggles, and learning how people are facing similar obstacles in different places, not just in terms of police, or privatization, or corporations, but also in relation to the very structural problems that we have within our movements.
In the U.S. we are dealing with the non-profit industrial complex and the ways that social movements have become increasingly accountable to corporate or foundation funding, rather than directly to their constituency.
In touring Floodlines I have connected with people involved in incredible resistance in many places, from Latino parents in Chicago who held a sit-in to save a community school there — resisting the city’s plans to sell it to a private school — to organizing and marching against police brutality in Pittsburgh.
Travelling allows you to see first hand how similar issues are coming up across the country, and the ways people are struggling around North America really encourage you to make sure that we learn lessons from the struggles in New Orleans while working to build unity in our movements.
For more information on Jordan Flaherty and the book Floodlines visit floodlines.org.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Photos by Abdul Aziz.