The resistance of New Orleans

September 10, 2010

Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six is the work of writer and community organizer Jordan Flaherty--a book whose alternative title, says playwright Eve Ensler, might, "in the tradition of Howard called A People's History of the Storm.

Flaherty lived through Hurricane Katrina and the man-made disaster that followed and his book tells that story. He expertly weaves together the history of the struggle for justice in New Orleans, analysis of the unique culture and community of the city, and an account of the organizing of ordinary people in the aftermath of the Katrina catastrophe. Here, we publish an excerpt from the first chapter of the book.

We won't bow down
Not on that ground
You know I love to hear you call, my Indian Red

-- From "Indian Red," traditional Mardi Gras Indian Song

I WAS fortunate. I had food and water and even a battery-powered radio. I stayed in the apartment of an acquaintance--a solid concrete building in the Midcity neighborhood. I had friends to house me in the immediate aftermath and a place in the city to return to not long after that. Thanks to a forged press pass, I was able to get back into the city a couple weeks after the disaster, while military checkpoints kept most people out.

In the days beforehand, Hurricane Katrina went very quickly from a vague weather warning to a major threat. The storm formed on August 23, 2005. On August 25, it hit Florida as a category one storm, the weakest hurricane rating, just above a tropical storm (the strongest hurricane rating is category five). By the morning of Friday, August 26, the storm had entered the Gulf of Mexico, but had also been downgraded to a tropical storm and was not thought to be heading toward Mississippi or Louisiana. The situation changed very quickly after that. By the next morning, the storm had developed winds of well over one hundred miles per hour, moving it up to a category three storm. Trackers were also now predicting that the storm was heading to the Mississippi/Louisiana coast--possibly directly to New Orleans. Most people in the city had not heard anything about the storm prior to Saturday morning. Suddenly, stores were closing, supermarkets and gas stations were packed, events were cancelled, and evacuations were underway.

By the time most people woke up on Sunday morning, Katrina had become a category five storm, with sustained winds of 175 miles per hour and gusts up to 215 miles per hour, and it was apparently pointed directly at New Orleans. Mayor C. Ray Nagin had ordered a mandatory evacuation, urging those who couldn't afford to leave the city to report to the Superdome as a "shelter of last resort." Television and radio reports were describing worst-case scenarios involving a city under twenty feet of chemically tainted water, with water snakes and alligators swimming through downtown New Orleans. It sounded impossible.

Friends and family asked if I would be leaving. Many people were looking for places to stay in the region--because of the massive amount of traffic, it can take ten hours to drive a hundred miles during an evacuation. Perhaps because I grew up in Miami and remembered hurricanes from my childhood as not a big deal, I chose not to leave. Even before the storm, I believed that natural disasters are not equal-opportunity threats. Dangerous weather is much more hazardous for people with less sturdy housing and in higher-risk areas (lower ground in New Orleans, for instance). If a home is flooded or hit by a tree, the elderly, children, and those with illnesses are at higher risk of death, injury, or other complications. At the time, staying in the city felt like a safe and certainly more affordable choice for me. I didn't believe the worst-case scenarios. We had heard similar predictions about Hurricane Ivan just the year before, and Ivan had bypassed New Orleans entirely.

As the warnings on television grew shrill, I decided to relocate from my apartment to a sturdier location: a complex developed from an old can factory in the Midcity neighborhood. There I stayed in an apartment leased by a friend of a friend of a friend who had left town but put out an open invitation for folks to stay at her place. The American Can Company Building, a project of developer Pres Kabacoff, was five stories high and made of concrete and brick. It stood about twenty-five blocks from the apartment in the Treme neighborhood I lived in at the time. There were seven of us in the apartment, and four cats. Some of us were friends and some had never met. What we and everyone else in the building had in common is that we were among the tens of thousands of New Orleanians who stayed behind. Many of those remaining in the city wanted to leave but couldn't afford to.

Residents still in the city sought out the sturdiest structures they could find. Thousands found refuge in the bricks and mortar of the city's public housing developments, which had long been known as some of the safest places in the city during a storm.

The Can Company felt very safe. There was even a rumor going around that it had generators, so we wouldn't lose power. In the hallways, I met some other friends of mine who didn't live in the building but were also staying there because it was so sturdy--Greta Gladney, a community activist from the Lower Ninth Ward, Jim Randels, an educator and director of the youth education program Students at the Center, and Jonathan Traviesa, a photographer with unruly white hair who lived in a shotgun apartment across the street.

On Sunday, August 28, Governor Kathleen Blanco appeared on television and urged us to "pray" the hurricane down to a category two. That was disconcerting, to say the least, but we still felt cautiously optimistic about the coming storm. Nervous, but safe. We had faith in the system of levees surrounding the city, which in retrospect seems naïve. At the time, President Bush was on vacation in Texas, his absence setting the stage for a federal response that was at best negligent.

The worst of the storm passed in the middle of the night and early morning. From within our solid housing, it didn't sound that bad, and I slept through most of it.

To this day, it is commonly thought that New Orleans was hit by a category five storm. However, although it registered as a category five in the Gulf, Katrina slowed quite a bit when it hit land, and also turned east in the last moments, largely missing the city. The winds that did strike us went no higher than category two. Since the levees were supposed to be strong enough to withstand at least a category three storm, the city should have been safe. Had the Army Corps of Engineers done their job, and had funding for levee maintenance not been cut by Congress during both the Bush and Clinton administrations, the ensuing disaster would not have happened.

THOSE WHO have not lived in New Orleans have missed an incredible, glorious, vital city--a place with an energy unlike anywhere else in the world, a majority-African American city where resistance to white supremacy has cultivated and supported a generous, subversive, and unique culture of vivid beauty. From jazz, blues, and hip-hop to secondlines, Mardi Gras Indians, jazz funerals, and the citywide tradition of red beans and rice on Monday nights, New Orleans is a place of art and music and food and traditions and sexuality and liberation.

I love secondlines and jazz funerals--every jazz funeral is also a secondline, that is, a parade with a brass band, but not every secondline is a funeral. The name "secondline" comes from the formation for a funeral procession: the family and other mourners, as well as the musicians, form the first line (or "main line"), and everyone else is the second line. Hundreds of secondlines are held in New Orleans every year. Sometimes there are just a couple dozen people, crossing a few blocks in about an hour; sometimes there are thousands of people and three or more brass bands, traversing several miles over the course of four or five hours. The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, Black community institutions that originated during the Reconstruction era, put on secondlines nearly every weekend, but anyone can throw a secondline--all you need is a brass band. If you travel more than two blocks, people will come out and join you.

The city has more than forty Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and each club designates one Sunday out of the year to throw a parade. The Sunday secondlines start at noon or one p.m. and each takes a different route, but most travel through the African American neighborhoods of either Central City uptown or the Sixth and Seventh Wards downtown. The members of the sponsoring Social Aid and Pleasure Club are at the center of the parade, wearing matching outfits--sometimes changing uniforms once or twice along the way--and dancing the entire time. If you are walking down the street and you see a secondline coming, it looks like a flood of people that will sweep you away, washing over every part of the street, sidewalk, and even the front porches of houses with an ecstatic energy.

At every secondline, a few folks will pull coolers filled with beer, soda, and water for sale, and along the route people barbeque food--sometimes to sell, sometimes just for themselves and friends. Although police officers clear traffic in front of the parade and follow behind it, the area within the parade feels like a lawless but communal utopia where people can smoke pot and drink and act foolish and no one will bother them.

Historian Ned Sublette observed, "A second line is in effect a civil rights demonstration. Literally, demonstrating the civil right of the community to assemble in the street for peaceful purposes. Or, more simply, demonstrating the civil right of the community to exist." The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs are exactly what their name implies--societies dedicated to supporting their community and facilitating good times. Through those good times they help perpetuate a very specific culture and pass it down from generation to generation. Most of these organizations arose as mutual aid societies in the late 1800s, and much of their purpose lay in providing basic needs such as burial insurance for their members. By upholding this mission of supporting and uniting their communities, the clubs are a large component of what makes New Orleans unique, and new "S&P" Clubs continue to be formed. Through the parades that each club throws, they transform a revolutionary act--taking control of the streets--into something everyday.

One of my favorite holidays of the year doesn't show up on calendars outside of New Orleans. It's the last Sunday in November, when the Lady Buck Jumpers, the wildest and fiercest Social Aid and Pleasure Club, takes to the streets. (Some S&P Clubs are all men, some are all women, and some are mixed. Some clubs are all young, some are all older, and some have members ranging from eight to eighty.) Based in the Gert Town neighborhood, the Lady Buck Jumpers are a strong, powerful group of women of all ages who dance harder and better than any other secondline crew. Everyone who loves secondlines knows that the Buck Jumpers bring a great time, and their annual parade is always one of the biggest of the year, with thousands of people crowding the streets, dressed in their most fabulous outfits, and dancing like it's their last day on earth.

In 2006, the club wore matching camouflage suits in honor of Soulja Slim, a legendary local rapper who was shot and killed on Thanksgiving Day of 2003. As Buck Jumpers president (and Soulja Slim's mother) Linda Porter described it, "The ones here are jumping for the ones gone and the ones to come."

At global justice protests and other demonstrations, people frequently chant, "Whose streets? Our streets!" And at those gatherings it can feel like a new world is being created simply through the reclaiming of public space as a liberated zone. In New Orleans, we get that feeling every Sunday. And it's beautiful.

More than anywhere else in the United States, New Orleans is a city where people often live in one neighborhood their whole lives and multiple generations can live on the same block. All of this is to say that New Orleans is not just a tourist stop. New Orleans has a unique and resilient set of cultures, with a history of place and a legacy of resistance. This city is defined by its difference, its cultural separation from the rest of the United States. Shortly after the city was flooded, Cornel West wrote:

New Orleans has always been a city that lived on the edge...with Elysian Fields and cemeteries and the quest for paradise. When you live so close to death, behind the levees, you live more intensely, sexually, gastronomically, psychologically. Louis Armstrong came out of that unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American civilization. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragicomic lyricism that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm. Charlie Parker would have killed somebody if he had not blown his horn. The history of Black people in America is one of unbelievable resilience in the face of crushing white supremacist powers.

Often called North America's African city, New Orleans is steeped in traditions both African and Caribbean. This rich background can be attributed in part to the legacy of French colonialism, which--while still brutal and racist--allowed enslaved Black people to buy their freedom. These legal differences, as well as a strong "maroon" culture of escaped slaves, enabled African cultural traditions to be maintained in New Orleans in a way that they weren't elsewhere in the United States. For instance, the existence in New Orleans of a neighborhood of free Black people as early as 1725--Faubourg Treme, generally just called Treme--makes it unique among U.S. cities.

NEW ORLEANS is a small city shoehorned between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain. Aside from New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward, which are separated from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal, and Algiers and English Turn, which lie on the other side of the Mississippi, most parts of town can be easily reached by bicycle. This geography helps create a sense of closeness, as if we're all neighbors and together in our trials. The same families have frequently lived next door to each other for several decades. Imagine this and you begin to understand the special kind of familiarity experienced here. "Before the interstate highways were put in, it wasn't on the way to anywhere, so people were very isolated," explained Tulane University professor Felipe Smith. "[Our] whole family and acquaintance universe was centered around New Orleans. It just became like an echo chamber."

With food, music, cultural traditions, and holidays that are distinct from the rest of the United States, New Orleans sometimes seems like a country unto itself. People around the United States have heard of Mardi Gras, but unless they've lived in a city that celebrates Carnival, they don't really know what it's like. For starters, there are several different incarnations of Mardi Gras. Some are public spectacles, others are shrouded in secrecy. New Orleans Mardi Gras celebrations are a marathon, not a sprint--they take up about a month out of the year, with planning and preparations often taking much longer.

The actual day of Mardi Gras is the last day before Lent (the "Fat Tuesday" of excess before the fasting or other self-denial that begins on Ash Wednesday). Ash Wednesday comes forty days before Easter, not counting Sundays. Easter falls on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the first day of spring (what that has to do with Jesus' rebirth I'll leave to the Biblical scholars). In effect, this means the date of Mardi Gras can range anywhere from February 3 to March 9.

In New Orleans, Mardi Gras season can be said to begin after Twelfth Night (also known as Epiphany) on January 6. Although the parades don't begin until a couple weeks before Mardi Gras, the whole city is on a relaxed schedule for all of January and sometimes (depending on the date of Mardi Gras) February as well. That relaxed schedule continues into the spring with various festivals--the largest and most famous of which is Jazz Fest--and then into the summer, which is so hot everything slows down. Actually, compared to the rest of the United States, New Orleans is on a relaxed schedule all year long.

New Orleans has other holidays that are all its own. For example, the cultural tradition of Mardi Gras Indians has four holidays: Mardi Gras, St. Joseph's Night--a traditional Italian Catholic holiday that has been claimed by New Orleans's Black community--and Indian Sunday, which actually falls on two separate days, one uptown and one downtown. Both occur in late spring.

On these holidays, the Mardi Gras Indians, as they are called--Black men, predominantly, and some women--dress in elaborate costumes that they have spent all year designing and constructing. The costuming originated as a tribute to Native American communities, to acknowledge the support they provided to Black people during the times of slavery. Native communities served as stops on the Underground Railroad, offering refuge for those escaping from slavery, and there is a long history of intermarriage between the communities. Like secondlines, this is a neighborhood tradition--put together by community members for the benefit of others in that community. People spend thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours, all to engage in a tradition with their neighbors and whoever else might come by.

Most historians date the Mardi Gras Indian tradition to the Reconstruction era, while others trace its roots back as far as the mid-1700s. It is a beautiful and hypnotic collection of complicated, intricate, and mysterious rituals. Two tribes, or "gangs," meet in the street, in full costume, and challenge each other. Different members pose threateningly, issue challenges through song, words, and movement, and engage in a performed battle that feels dangerous, even though it mainly involves singing and dancing. It is intense, breathtaking, and utterly unique. Within the Mardi Gras Indian tradition there is a familiar roster of songs, and most people from New Orleans know them. Many contain titles or lyrics that sound meaningless to outside observers ("Two Way Pocka Way"), but the words often have historical meaning--for example, as references to routes to the Underground Railroad--or serve as signals to what is happening in the confrontation between the two gangs.

The meetings of these Indian gangs used to involve actual physical violence, but legend has it that the violence was brought to an end through the efforts of Allison "Tootie" Montana, a community elder and "chief" of one of the tribes, who became known as the "Chief of Chiefs" in recognition not only of his skills at costuming and performing, but also of his transformative and unifying effect on the entire community and tradition.

On Sunday evenings, in small neighborhood bars and other gathering spots in the city's Black neighborhoods (especially Central City and the Seventh Ward), New Orleanians gather for a tradition called Indian practice. These gatherings are in preparation for the music, dancing, and rituals involved on the days that the Indians parade. A crowd of people from the community, which can easily reach a hundred or more, packs close and sweaty into a small bar, all singing and chanting and drumming and dancing together to the classic songs of Black Mardi Gras, like "Indian Red": "Here comes the Big Chief / Big Chief of the Nation / The whole wild creation / He won't bow down / Not on that ground / You know I love to hear you call, my Indian Red." Indian practice happens throughout almost the entire year, getting more intense--and crowded--as Mardi Gras approaches.

Perhaps the most famous of the Indian songs is "Iko Iko," which was a hit song in the '60s, has been covered many times, and occasionally turns up in films and other pop culture. But the local version feels different, both ancient and new. When you hear Mardi Gras Indians sing, "My flag boy told your flag boy / I'm gonna set your flag on fire," it feels like a real, albeit theatrical threat. The lyrics often vary, as Indian chiefs improvise new words, sometimes going on for what seems like hours, telling stories, boasting, relating history, all within the context of a song.

As with many New Orleans traditions, some conventional gender roles are subverted. The highest praise you can give to a male Mardi Gras Indian is to call him the "prettiest."

The big Mardi Gras parades are thrown by associations called krewes, the earliest of which were founded in the pre–Civil War era. Comus, one of the original krewes, was made up of the elite white leadership of the city. One early Comus parade, in 1873, was dedicated to mocking both Darwin's theory of evolution and Oscar J. Dunn, Louisiana's first Black lieutenant governor. The Krewe of Zulu, which parades on Mardi Gras day, is one of three Black parades and the only one to roll down St. Charles, the main street of uptown New Orleans. According to legend, Zulu was started in 1909 to mock the white Mardi Gras traditions. Among the most shocking aspects of the Zulu parade, at least for out-of-towners, is that krewe members wear blackface, afro wigs, and grass skirts.

Each krewe appoints a new king every year. This is a ceremonial position--the king presides over the krewe's ball and rides on a special float in the parade. For krewes like Comus, the king is generally a krewe member and therefore part of the local elite. Other krewes, like Zulu, often reach outside their membership--past kings of Zulu have included Louis Armstrong and Spike Lee.

Most white krewes remained segregated until 1992, when the city council held hearings on the issue and ruled that, in order to use municipal resources and parade on Mardi Gras, they had to desegregate. Comus was one of three white krewes that chose to stop parading rather than integrate. The Comus krewe still exists, although without parading, and throws an exclusive Mardi Gras ball every year.

For a certain sector of New Orleans society, the king of Mardi Gras is King Rex, of the mostly white krewe of Rex, which parades on Mardi Gras day, just after Zulu. "People say we're one New Orleans," said political advisor Vincent Sylvain, "but we have two kings of Carnival. Take away King Zulu or King Rex and see what happens."

There is a lot more to Mardi Gras than the French Quarter. Mardi Gras can be found all over the city in private, invitation-only balls and informal neighborhood parades and parties. There are Mardi Gras traditions specific to nearly every neighborhood and community, a series of cultural customs ranging from King Cake, an extremely sweet confection usually made with cream cheese filling and eaten from Twelfth Night through Mardi Gras day, to the lewd displays of Krewe Du Vieux, an artist-organized parade through the Marigny and French Quarter neighborhoods that marks the beginning of parade season, a few weeks before Mardi Gras. Dogs walk in the "Barkus" parade, a spoof of the giant Bacchus parade and a huge annual event in its own right. Punks and artists parade in Krewe Du Eris, the anarchist parade, a winding, costumed spectacle replete with giant marching band and no police permit. Drag performers and fabulous costumes define the St. Ann parade, which travels from the Bywater to the Quarter early on Mardi Gras morning. It is all-participants/no-spectator, and features the best costumes of the year.

The cultural traditions of Black Mardi Gras play a defining role in the holiday for many New Orleanians. They encompass everything from the Krewe of Zulu and Mardi Gras Indians to the Skeletons, who parade in the early morning and were allegedly devised in the 1800s as a way to scare children away from bad behavior, and the Baby Dolls--grown women dressed like sexualized Victorian-era dolls, a tradition rumored to have been started by sex workers during the era when prostitution was decriminalized in New Orleans.

The Black traditions of New Orleans have thrived despite opposition from the police and the power structure of the city. In fact, in some cases Black folks have carried on these traditions precisely as acts of defiance. You might think the people who create the art that has defined this city, who invented jazz and made billions of dollars for New Orleans's tourist industry, would be honored and supported. You'd be wrong.

As one example, in the months after Katrina, the city raised the permit fees for secondlines to several thousand dollars, which threatened to severely limit the tradition, until the local ACLU affiliate sued on behalf of the Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. During most secondlines, block parties, and other neighborhood events in the Black community, the police generally come through at some point, sirens blaring, to disperse the crowds. Usually the disruption occurs when the event is about to end, but it can come at any time. This kind of official harassment never seems to happen at cultural events with mostly white crowds. For example, White Linen Night, an annual outdoor arts event in the city's arts district on Julia Street, would never be subject to this kind of police behavior.

Mardi Gras Indians have faced some of the worst police repression. In the spring of 2005, as the Indians were parading on St. Joseph's Night, scores of officers descended on the scene and disrupted the event, frightening the children present and arresting several of the performers. "Take off your fucking feathers or go to jail," officers reportedly told the Indians.

Soon after, at a city council hearing on the incident, Allison "Tootie" Montana, the Chief of Chiefs, addressed the room. At eighty-two years of age, Montana had been a Mardi Gras Indian chief for five decades. He captivated the assembled crowd with details of a long history of police repression tied to racial discrimination, beginning with a police crackdown at his very first Mardi Gras many decades ago. Tootie ended his speech: "This has to stop." And those were his final words. He stepped back from the microphone and collapsed to the floor. Tootie was pronounced dead of a heart attack shortly afterward.

His funeral was a moving combination of cultural celebration and political demonstration. Thousands of people came out, dressed in all manner of costume, to commemorate the life of this brave fighter for freedom. As a longtime community leader, organizer of Downtown Indian Sunday, and friend of Montana's, former Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) organizer Jerome Smith inflamed the crowd, saying, "This is about a life that has passed, but it is also about the struggle against institutionalized racism in our city." The link between culture, especially that of Black New Orleans, and the movement for liberation was clear to everyone in attendance.

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