Friday, August 28, 2015

Reflections on the Ten Year Aftermath of the Federal Flood, by Lydia Pelot-Hobbs

Trying to sum up my thoughts on the 10th anniversary of Katrina has proven to be more difficult than I ever imagined. A few months ago, when I decided it was worth it to take a step back, think about what I’ve witnessed over the past ten years, and how I understand these pieces fitting together within a longer history of racialized violence and resistance, it seemed like an easy assignment. It is the exact sort of thing that I have been trained to do. But figuring out how to actually articulate my thoughts became more and more emotionally charged and messy as the days passed by and the barrage of Katrina media coverage has grown exponentially each day. I have given up on this assignment a number of times already as I’ve alternated between feeling too raw (even as a non-New Orleanian) to productively write and questioning if any of my thoughts are worth sharing at all.

But, I know I will regret not capturing what I have to say now, at this particular moment as myself and so much of the city and broader Gulf South are being forced to remember not only August 29, 2005 but the losses and changes of the past ten years. I’d rather put down some messy and imperfect reflections of this moment than none at all, so here they are.

For the past nine years, every time I drive on 1-10 towards the West Bank and look up at the Superdome, the same image pops in my head. It’s of looking up at the Superdome in the summer of 2006 watching tiny little figures (who I would later learn were likely immigrant workers) atop of the Dome connected to ropes fixing the roof so it would ready for the 2006 Saints football season.[i] I remember how that summer the image of the folks fixing the Superdome,[ii] while houses still sat in the middle of the street in the Lower Ninth, tap water threatened to give one giardia, and Katrina refrigerators littered the city, served as a daily reminder of what city elites’ vision of the future of New Orleans was and was not to be.

That image probably only lasted a few months but it and dozens of others from the first months and years following the storm continue to shape how I see New Orleans as she speeds towards the 10th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, or what People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and many others made sure we rightfully referred to as the Federal Flood. Mitch Landrieu and his conspirators are doing everything they can to make sure we forgot such images. There is no room in the success story of New Orleans for the remembrance of thousands of Black folks abandoned on roofs and highway overpasses or the unapologetic shootings of Black men by NOPD and white vigilantes or of the proliferation of homeless encampments across the city as the crisis of homelessness reached epic proportions in 2007[iii] or of the bulldozing of the WPA era public housing developments still filled with the countless possessions of thousands who never were able to come home.[iv]  For Mitch and his ilk, these are the moments are best left forgotten[v] as the city moves forward and proves its ‘resiliency’ to the world. Reproducing the old liberal notion that the past does not shape the present, every where you turn is the disavowal that the ‘triumph’ of the city is predicated on the ongoing state sanctioned and extralegal violence, exploitation, and dispossession of Black New Orleanians.

Yes, this celebrated new New Orleans follows in the long tradition of New Souths remaking themselves time and time again through the dirty secret of all New Souths—their so-called successes have always been built upon the infrastructure of Jim Crow.[vi]  

And indeed the last ten years have much in common with the dismantling of Reconstruction and the rise of the Jim Crow regime of the New South. The framework of Reconstruction is not only familiar but was intentionally employed by numerous social justice organizations in the wake of the storm. Tracking back to both the promises of Radical Reconstruction and the ‘Second Reconstruction’ of the Black Freedom Movement, so many grassroots organizations named that the city’s rebuilding needed to be done as a “just reconstruction” if there was any hope of transforming the structures that created the conditions for such devastation to occur. Indeed, I was just one of thousands upon thousands of mostly, but not entirely, white Northerners who were called, moved, encouraged, recruited to come to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast to support the reconstruction effort not dis-similarly from the Northern activists who went South in the 1860s and 1960s.[vii]

What’s more, community activists further followed in the best of the internationalist impulse of the Black Radical Tradition and other liberatory anti-racist movements in calling upon the most radical edge of human rights organizing, in the tradition of Paul Robeson and Malcolm X. People demanded that Gulf Coast residents be understood as internally displaced persons with the accompanied right of return, right to housing, right to healthcare, right to education, right to a living wage, right to a healthy environment and the right to collective self-determination. In doing so, Gulf South organizers highlighted that the experience New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents were facing had to be understood in a global frame of how climate change was (and would continue) wrecking havoc on vulnerable communities the world over.

Against such bold and visionary organizing were the other plans for the city. For a whiter and wealthier New Orleans. It feels hard to imagine it now, and perhaps I was just naive at the time, but I really believed that the organizing work across the city was going to be able to stop this land grab. But the racial capitalist state, at both the local and national level, was strong. HOPE VI was to destroy public housing exacerbating the city’s housing shortage, the busting of the teachers’ union and refusal to reopen Charity Hospital ensured that unknown numbers of New Orleanians (often women, usually Black) were unable to come home as their jobs were eliminated, Road Home was not only a disaster but the homeowners who did receive funds received them in a racially uneven manner, and so on and so on. With local folks busy trying to rebuild their homes and lives, and the weakening of solidarity networks over the years,[viii] to say nothing of the political depression experienced by many (including myself) as the losses accumulated, the capacity to confront the racialized neoliberal agenda for the city was limited (but never completely diminished).  

In all of this, I see 2010 as one of the turning points of the city. During the previous five years, although the agenda for the city had clearly been set, it still had not come to full fruition.[ix] But then coupled with the incredible soul-lifting Super Bowl win was the historically low voter turnout for the mayoral election that brought Mitch Landrieu into office as the first white mayor since his father held the position in the 1970s.

Following the election, you could hear white folks unabashedly rejoicing at having a white mayor for the first time in decades. And again, following in the tradition set forth in the dismantling of Reconstruction, white folks justified their glee as not about racism but about *finally* having politicians running the city who weren’t corrupt or incompetent, neatly ignoring the fact it was only Black elected officials who were targeted for such investigations.[x]  

Although the policy programs of Landrieu were not too dissimilar from the pro-business, neoliberal agenda that Nagin had promoted since 2002, their abilities to marshal outside resources were markedly different. While this difference can be partially understood as the timing of their respective administrations in the rebuilding landscape, we cannot and should not overlook how the city having white political leadership influenced the ways outside investors viewed New Orleans. Confidence in the city soared with Mitch in office and new capital flowed in to take advantage of the speculative boom. This private investment alongside the continued funneling of federal recovery dollars into private enterprises such as the St. Roch Market, demonstrated again the goal of the city’s recovery was capital accumulation on the backs of Black and poor New Orleanians.

I could go on at length about the heart-breaking experience of watching this most recent manifestation of the city disinvesting in Black New Orleans in favor of the new New Orleans over the past three years or so. The uptick in policing Black youth, notably transgirls, in the corridors targeted for ‘revitalization’; the ongoing commodification and marketing of the city’s Black cultural traditions even as Black musicians and other cultural workers struggle to make ends meet; the city’s auctioning off of property for exorbitant rates rather than investing in housing for working class and poor residents; the expansion of tourist rentals and the accompanied creep of drunken dude bro tourists that have made neighborhoods unrecognizable even to folks like myself and my friends who moved here in 2006 and 2007. I can’t even imagine what it’s like for folks who are actually from here.

Perhaps one of the things that most marks this most recent period to me is the extent to which the storm and its aftermath had faded and forgotten to the extent that many of the newest arrivals I talk with don’t even seem to consider themselves as living in a post-disaster environment. Yes, the houses are no longer strewn in the middle of the road. Humvees do not roll up and down streets. Katrina X’s on houses are hard to spot these days. But this is still a post-disaster world. Every single one of us who has come since the storm are here because of Katrina and what it did to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast whether we recognize it or not. This is not to feel to guilty, but to squarely and honestly assess where it is that we are so that we can think to the best of our abilities about how to best be and move in this incredible, complicated, magical, and contradictory place.

Because even with all the losses New Orleans has sustained in the last decade, it still is not lost. Just as it is a disservice to New Orleans and the Gulf South to forget the violence that folks have experienced here and in the broader Katrina diaspora, it is a disservice to ignore the wins of grassroots organizing from the shrinking of Orleans Parish Prison by several thousands beds to the recent win of higher wages for city contract workers.[xi] The current mobilizations of activists to disrupt the narrative of the city’s recovery and resiliency, to highlight the tremendous organizing work of the past ten years, and to come together to envision new just futures for the region reminds us that the work of movement building is never over. New Orleans organizing continues to build upon the city’s long legacies of resistance, that stretch back to slave revolts and Homer Plessy’s contestation to the solidification of Jim Crow, while creatively pushing for a city that does not continue to displace and exploit the people who’ve made it what it is over the centuries. 

This is what still gives me hope. This is how I can imagine moving forward. Not forgetting the past or ignoring what is happening around me. But thinking critically, learning from the brilliance of people here, and finding ways to support the work of materializing the still unrealized project of abolition democracy and collective freedom.

[i] I must admit, I held a grudge at the Saints for this special treatment until the 2009/2010 NFL Season and their Super Bowl win. 
[ii] Which we should not forget as also the site of much suffering by Katrina survivors in the aftermath of the flood.
[iii] During the summer and fall of 2007, a number of homeless folks came together to form a homeless union called Homeless Pride that set up a political encampment to demand an end to homelessness across from City Hall in Duncan Plaza until they were evicted by the city under the guise of park renovations. More about Homeless Pride can be found here:
[iv] I will never forget that a week or so following the storm I called up an old friend from New Orleans who was collecting donations to get to the folks she knew who had lost everything (it was already known not to trust FEMA or the Red Cross). During our conversation, I asked her if her friends were ok and she told me that there were a bunch of folks she couldn’t get in touch with, but she knew they’d be ok since they’d been in the projects which were some of the sturdiest building in the city being three stories high and brick (a rarity in New Orleans). 
[v] Or even celebrated as with the raising of public housing or the mass firing of teachers to break the teachers union and pave the wave for the complete charterization of the New Orleans school system.
[vi] By Jim Crow, I mean the full range of racialized and gendered exploitative violence aimed at containing and controlling the recently freed Black population of the South upon the dismantling of Reconstruction by members of the plantation bloc and New South industrialists alike, buttressed by the support of Northern capitalists: de jure segregation, mass disenfranchisement, criminalization of Black communities and the expansion of the state’s policing and penal power, widespread sexualized violence, dismantling of collective ownership structures, disinvestment in education and other social services, privatization of state services, free trade, and the rise of precarious labor (which in the case of Louisiana included the recruitment of Chinese coolie labor to do the former work of enslaved people). Otherwise the prototype of what we call neoliberalism today. For more on this, everyone should read everything Clyde Woods ever wrote, beginning with Development Arrested: The Blues and Plantation Power in the Mississippi Delta.
[vii] I am not trying to imply that everyone who showed up to volunteer was a radical anti-racist activist. That is far from the truth. But something did indeed occur in the scale of response by primarily young folks who identified doing volunteer work as politically important work. This politicized volunteering tapered off as time wore on with less volunteers, and less organizations, framing the rebuilding New Orleans as an anti-racist or Left or social justice project. 
[viii] To this day, I wonder how my own participation and advancement of certain political strategies contributed to the drying up of national support for New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, particularly amongst the white activist-y Northerners similar to me. At the time it seemed important to emphasize to out of town volunteers that the conditions that gave rise to the disaster were not exceptional to New Orleans but could be found wherever they were from—thus the necessity of them focusing their activism home. And while I still generally agree with this framing, I wonder what could have happened if we had more firmly articulated that doing work at home required sticking with New Orleans for the long haul of what was sure to be a difficult and protracted recovery. This is hitting me particularly hard right now as I’ve realized in the last few weeks that no one I know is aware of any Katrina commemorative events happening outside of the Gulf Coast (I still hope I’m wrong on this front).
[ix] In the fall of 2009, I sat in an urban planning class where the different redevelopment schemes were presented to me of various “revitalization corridors” which include Tulane Ave, Freret Street, St. Claude, OC Haley, and Broad. At the time most of them seemed outlandish and unlikely, and now almost six years later I’ve seen them materialize, if unevenly.
[x] I am forever indebted to Du Bois’s discussion in Black Reconstruction about how white elites created and promoted the myth of Black Republican politicians as corrupt and incompetent in order to justify the ousting of Black political leadership and the reinstatement of white supremacist power during so-called Redemption for helping me articulate this connection. And noting this connection does not mean that I was a fan of everyone who was ousted following the storm, but that we cannot ignore that the targeting of corrupt politicians in the South has more often been about the diminishing of Black political power than about honest and principled politics.   
[xi] For a fantastic description of the wide-range of organizing happening in New Orleans today check out Jordan Flaherty’s recent article “A Movement Lab in New Orleans”

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Protest New Orleans' Celebration of White Supremacy

"United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state."

These words are carved into the base of a monument celebrating white supremacy, near the heart of downtown New Orleans. The inscription is covered with a new plaque, but the monument remains.

As civil rights lawyer Mary Howell has noted, this is likely the only monument in the US that celebrates the killing of police officers. However, the New Orleans Police Department has never objected to this monument, perhaps because it celebrates the killing of Black police officers by white supremacists.

A local blog describes the history behind the monument. The full history is worth reading, but here are some highlights:
The “Battle” of Liberty Place was essentially a coup in which the White League of New Orleans deposed the state’s Republican governor by force...the White League in New Orleans organized an impromptu army on the morning of September 14, 1874 to seize the government of Louisiana itself. The battle was reminiscent of the Civil War, with units of the White League engaging a defensive, racially integrated State Militia and Metropolitan Police force. Hours into the fighting, the White League was able to flank their opponents and seize the Cabildo (still the seat of government at the time) and Arsenal. The Republican governor elect, William Pitt Kellogg, and General James Longstreet, commander of the militia and police force in the battle, took refuge in the federal customhouse, a building that the White League was rightfully wary of taking by force. Three days later, federal troops arrived in New Orleans and the White League capitulated. As with the Lost Cause movement’s later reinterpretation of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, the White League found a way to interpret their surrender to federal forces as a moral victory.
The monument was erected in 1891, at a time when the gains of reconstruction had been mostly crushed and white supremacists were in power and celebration. The plaque pictured above was added in 1934.

It was not until the 1970s that the city began a push to hide this ugly history, first with the addition of an explanatory plaque, and finally, via the city's first two Black mayors, attempts to take down the monument.
In 1981, Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor, ran into opposition in his attempt to have the monument taken down and instead had it surrounded by tall shrubs and the 1934 addition covered with a slab of granite. In 1989, street repairs and the construction of a shopping center forced the monument’s relocation to a storage facility, where many in city government hoped to keep it indefinitely. However, in 1991 a David Duke supporter grew impatient with the city’s lack of energy in seeing the monument reinstalled. Since federal funds had been used in the street improvements, the law stipulated that the historic monument be returned to a historically accurate location.
The 1991 struggle came at a time when New Orleans Mardi Gras was still officially segregated, before the city council voted to force all white Mardi Gras krewes to integrate. At least two krewes, Momus and Comus, chose to stop parading rather than integrate.

Today the monument stands at the corner of Iberville and Badine Street, just a block from Canal and North Peters. Although the words about white supremacy have been covered, the top of the statue still notes that it commemorates the names of members of the White League. The monument has frequently been the target of graffiti, most recently in 2012, when protestors against police violence spraypainted the names of Justin Sipp, Wendell Allen, and Trayvon Martin.

Mayor Landrieu recently said he "believes it is time to look at the symbols in this city to see if they still have relevance to our future." This Sunday, June 28, at 4:00pm, local activists have called for an action called white people against white supremacy (see link for location info).  As cities across the US are re-examining their confederate histories, perhaps this monument will finally come down once and for all.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Colonialism, White Liberalism, and Palestine: A Conversation in Gaza with Dr. Haidar Eid

Below are two short films based on conversations in Gaza in 2009 with professor Haidar Eid, a leader of the Palestinian movement for boycott, divestment, and sanctions. The interview was filmed by documentarian Lily Keber, edited by Marin Sander Holzman, with narration by Palestinian poet Rafeef Ziadah, music by journalist/organizer/musician Stefan Christoff, graphics by Jacob Flom, and directed by Jordan Flaherty. They were released this week on The Laura Flanders Show in commemoration of the 67th anniversary of what Palestinians call the Nakba, or catastrophe, when an estimated 700,000 Palestinians were displaced and hundreds of Palestinian towns and villages were depopulated or destroyed.

The Laura Flanders Show is available in the US on LinkTV and some community access TV stations and internationally on the TeleSUR News Network and the TeleSUR English Network.

Boycott Divestment & Sanctions: An Interview in Gaza with Haidar Eid - Part One

White Liberals and Colonialism: Interview with Haidar Eid - Part Two

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Three Correctional Officers at Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola Sentenced for Abusing Inmate and Cover-Up

From a press release from the US Department of Justice

Three former correctional officers with the Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana, were sentenced today before United States District Judge James J. Brady for the Middle District of Louisiana for abusing an inmate and engaging in conduct to cover up the criminal conduct.  Mark Sharp, 33, received 73 months.  Kevin Groom, 47, was sentenced to one year probation and a $500 fine.  Matthew Cody Butler, 29, received two years probation and a $3,000 fine.

According to court documents filed in connection with their guilty pleas, on January 24, 2010, defendants Groom, Sharp and Butler were on duty as correctional officials when they learned that an inmate had escaped from his assigned location.  Shortly after the defendants joined the search for the escapee, the inmate surrendered to prison officials. The inmate was handcuffed behind his back and placed in the back of a pick-up truck to be transported to the medical unit.  Groom, Butler, and Sharp escorted the inmate on the back of that truck.  During the drive to the medical unit, Sharp repeatedly struck the inmate with an baton.  During the ensuring investigation of the inmate’s complaint that officers had abused him, Groom and Butler engaged in various conduct to cover up the assault.

Sharp pleaded guilty to violating the civil rights of the inmate and to making false statements to the FBI.  Groom pleaded guilty to falsifying records in a federal investigation and making false statements to the FBI.  Butler pleaded guilty to misprision of a felony.

Another former officer, Jason Giroir, also pleaded guilty on May 29, 2013, to falsifying a report and making a false statement to the FBI.  He will be sentenced separately on January 29, 2015.

“The vast majority of American law enforcement officers conduct themselves with honor,” said Acting Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta for the Civil Rights Division.  “But when law enforcement officers abuse inmates and attempt to cover-up their misconduct, the Department of Justice stands ready to hold those officers accountable for their conduct.”

“It is unfortunate that the defendants’ criminal activities threaten to overshadow the courageous and outstanding work performed every day by the vast majority of law enforcement officers, both inside and outside the penal system,” said U.S. Attorney J. Walter Green for the Middle District of Louisiana.

“This thorough and patient investigation  not only resulted in the full accountability of all correctional officers involved, but also demonstrated unwavering adherence to the procedural rights of the victim and accused,” said Special Agent in Charge Michael J. Anderson of the FBI’s New Orleans Office.

The investigation in this matter was conducted by Special Agent Taneka Harris of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and prosecuted by Civil Rights Division Trial Attorney AeJean Cha and Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert W. Piedrahita.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Black Lives Matter in the Best Films of 2014

More than 100 years after the birth of cinema, it sometimes feels like every story has been told. But the best films of 2014 dared to break out of their genres, explore new ways of filmmaking, and inspire viewers. Some of them even provided tools for popular understanding of our current political moment. This year, Selma, Tales of the Grim Sleeper, and Out In The Night all told stories of a criminal justice system harming Black communities, while Dear White People used satire to address racist power structures. Documentaries like The Great Invisible and Citizenfour attacked government and corporate malfeasance, science fiction films like Snowpiercer helped imagine future revolutions, and Pride delivered a lesson in movement solidarity.

Below are my top 14 films of the year. As always, many of them didn’t receive the distribution they deserved, but will no doubt live on as more audiences discover them online.

14 – Dear White People – After months of hype and viral videos, Dear White People had a lot of anticipation to live up to. While the film focused narrowly on life at an elite, mostly white, college, it managed to pull in a wider range of issues and themes. This fresh and original film served notice that writer/director Justin Simien, and his talented young cast, are rising talents to watch.

13 - Whiplash - Damien Chazelle’s Sundance award winner was a tense, brutal drama about a young man and his mentor/teacher. Or, as Barbara Herman called it, the “best homoerotic S&M film about jazz drumming you'll see this year.”

12 – Coherence – This film slipped under most critic’s radar, but filmmaker James Ward Byrkit’s debut about alternate realities is a smart and challenging low-budget sci-fi mind-bender. It’s the kind of film you want to watch again right after it ends, to keep unlocking its puzzles.

11 – The Babadook – Writer/director Jennifer Kent’s debut is the scariest movie I’ve seen in years. In a genre often dominated by male filmmakers and sexist tropes, Kent’s film is a breath of fresh air, and a truly terrifying balance of psychological and supernatural horror that keeps you in the dark, jumping at shadows.

10 – Edge of Tomorrow – It’s not often that a Hollywood blockbuster starring Tom Cruise makes my list, but Doug Liman, director of Bourne Identity and Go, among other films, is a filmmaker who knows how to make an old genre come alive. Edge of Tomorrow is a rare find; a smart and exciting Hollywood sci-fi thriller.

9 – The Great Invisible – So much has been written and filmed about the BP Drilling Disaster of 2010, that it’s shocking to find stories that haven’t been told. But filmmaker Margaret Brown (who also went behind the scenes of Mobile, Alabama’s racially segregated Mardi Gras in 2009’s The Order of Myths) has given this disaster the documentary it deserves, with stunning access to both families on the Gulf Coast, and to men with money and power who work within the oil industry.

8 – Snowpiercer – Reportedly, a clash between Korean director Bong Joon-ho and distributor Harvey Weinstein kept this stunning film from wide release. Snowpiercer is a thrilling allegory of class struggle in a dystopian future that puts The Hunger Games to shame.

7 – Tales of the Grim Sleeper – Before seeing this documentary, I’d never heard of the Grim Sleeper, an alleged serial killer arrested in South Central Los Angeles in 2010. This film presents a case that the race, gender and class of the victims meant the news media and police were not interested in stopping the killer. Over a period of more than two decades, scores of women, almost all of them Black street-based sex workers and/or drug users, were raped and killed while the police and media turned a blind eye. Veteran documentarian Nick Broomfield talks to a coalition of Black women activists in South Central LA who worked to pressure the police and media to pay attention. He also talks to women on the street who encountered (and narrowly escaped) the killer. One woman gave police a sketch of the man, and led officers to his block more than a decade before he was caught, but the LAPD apparently did nothing with the information. Other women Broomfield finds were afraid to even talk to the police. This film is a disturbing and difficult companion to the Black Lives Matter movement.

6 – Out in the Night – The Jersey Four, a group of young African American lesbians who were vilified in the media and aggressively prosecuted after they fought back against a hate crime, is an incredibly important story. And filmmaker blair dorosh-walther has created a powerful and urgent film that captures the lives and families of these young women, and shows a criminal justice system more interested in attacking them than protecting them. This film needs to be widely seen.

5 – Citizenfour – Filmmaker Laura Poitras was already making a film about (and had been a victim of) US government surveillance when Edward Snowden came to her. Long before this film came out, she had already made history by helping bring Snowden’s revelations to a worldwide audience. All this film needed to do to secure its place in history was to be a record of those revelations. But Poitras chose instead to make a film that takes the viewer inside a historical moment, making this not just important for what it tells, but also an example of bold and creative filmmaking.

4 – Selma – Ava DuVernay’s last film, Middle of Nowhere, made my 2012 best-of list with a moving story of families affected by the prison industrial complex. That it’s nearly unprecedented for a Black woman filmmaker to make a big budget Hollywood film shows how far we haven’t come, and this film gives a glimpse of what we’ve been missing. While Selma may not give enough weight to the grassroots activists of SNCC, and (despite the cries of some historians) may be too respectful to President Johnson, ultimately this is a powerful document of an important historical moment. 

3 – Pride - If you like uplifting films about inter-movement solidarity and class struggle, this British crowd-pleaser from Matthew Warchus is perfect for you. A moving, funny, charming, film based on a true story of gay activists in the 80s that built an alliance with striking miners in Thatcher’s Britain.

2 – Boyhood – Enough has been written about Richard Linklater’s bold and wise film that there’s no reason to add my praise. But even without the concept of watching actors age over a period of twelve years, this film feels like the culmination of what Linklater has been building towards throughout a career that started with the formal experimentation of Slacker and continued to push against narrative boundaries from Waking Life to A Scanner Darkly, Before Sunrise, and Fast Food Nation.

1 – Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) – Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu announced himself as a talent to watch with his debut Amores Perros, but nothing in his career to date comes close to the triumph of this film. Behind the film’s play within a play storyline lies a filmmaking tour de force that succeeds on every technical level and leaves the viewer breathless, with no wasted moment or misstep.

Among other notable films this year: Concerning Violence feels more like a doctoral thesis than a movie, but if you are interested in the history of anti-colonial struggle in Africa, and want to see old footage of Amilcar Cabral and Thomas Sankara, and hear narration based on text by Frantz Fanon read by Lauryn Hill, then this film may be perfect for you. Jodorowski’s Dune, directed by Frank Pavich, documents a brilliant film that almost existed, but even without being made proved itself more influential than most films ever can hope for. Gareth Evan’s The Raid 2 (part one made my 2012 list) continued to beat all of Hollywood action films at their own game. Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler was as creepy as its name, and can be read as a blistering attack on both local TV news and capitalism. David Fincher’s Gone Girl was either built upon misogynist stereotypes, or a comment on stultifying roles of patriarchy. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, the Iranian feminist vampire film, is moody, clever and surprising.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Marcus Jones, Father of Jena Six Student, Killed in Truck Accident

Marcus Jones, father of Mychal Bell, one of the defendants in the Jena Six case, was killed yesterday in a highway accident, according to local news reports.

In 2007, six high school students became an international cause. Tens of thousands of people from around the US descended on Jena, a small town in northern Louisiana, to protest against racial injustice.

Six Black youth facing decades in prison over a school fight involving a white youth who had no serious injuries symbolized an unjust system in some of the same ways that today Ferguson Missouri has come to represent police abuses. The fight occurred not long after white students had left nooses under a tree in what was seen as a warning to Black students. Mychal Bell was the first (and, ultimately, only) of the six youth to face trial, he was convicted and spent nearly ten months in prison before his sentence was overturned.

Marcus Jones was a dedicated, passionate, and outspoken advocate and activist for his son and the other young men, appearing frequently on radio and TV and speaking frankly about racial dimensions of the case, calling the charges a "modern day lynching."

According to a report today in the Jena Town Talk:
A Jena man helping a friend move some wooden pallets died Saturday afternoon on La. Highway 8, according to Louisiana State Police. Marcus W. Jones, 43, died in the incident, although troopers aren't sure exactly how yet. Around 5:41 p.m., troopers responded to a crash on La. 8 after a 2007 Chevrolet pickup truck, driven by 22-year-old Brittany N. Walker of Jena, struck Jones, who was lying in the eastbound lane. Walker tried to avoid hitting Jones, who was wearing a black jacket and black pants, reads the release. A friend of Jones' arrived at the scene, telling troopers that Jones had been helping him move wooden pallets. Jones had been standing in the bed of the friend's pickup truck, holding down the pallets, according to the release. The friend said that, when he arrived at his destination, Jones no longer was in the truck. The friend had been retracing his path, searching for Jones, when he came upon the scene.

In the years since the case, the six young men who had been facing life in prison went on to various colleges, including Grambling State, University of Louisiana at Monroe, Southern University, and Hofstra. One of the youth went on to work for Southern Poverty Law Center. Mychal Bell just graduated from Southern University, days before his father's death.

Photos by Jordan Flaherty.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Gulf Coast Communities Join People's Climate March

From our friends at Advocates For Environmental Human Rights:

Groups to Urge a Southern Initiative on Climate Change at People’s Climate March and Summit

From Texas to Maryland, a delegation of students and professors of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), environmental and social justice advocates, leaders of faith-based organizations, and survivors of Hurricane Katrina will join the People’s Climate March and Summit in New York, which precedes the United Nations Climate Summit.

“The painful experiences of Hurricane Katrina compel us to change our thinking that a climate treaty will save the day,” said Dr. Beverly Wright, Executive Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Dillard University. She was displaced for two years from her home and predominantly Africa American neighborhood in New Orleans, which were under eight feet of water during Katrina. “We need a southern initiative on climate change that supports the people who are most vulnerable to hurricanes, droughts, heat waves, and tornadoes and most likely to suffer from racial, social, and economic inequities which set back our ability to be climate resilient,” she said.

Although some of the loudest voices denying climate change in the US Congress and Senate come from southern states, the delegation points to the critical role that the South has in climate change. Much of the fossil fuel energy produced in the United States come at the expense of communities in the South, where there is significant air and water pollution and coastal erosion. In both scale and magnitude, climate-related disasters in the South outnumber those in other regions of the country. In addition, the largest number of people who are less likely to rebound from a climate-related disaster as a result of social and economic disadvantages live in the South.

“A southern initiative is critical to the United States making and keeping a commitment on climate change,” said Dr. Robert Bullard, Dean of the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Policy at Texas Southern University in Houston. “The work of people, organizations, and institutions represented in this delegation is about climate action as part of the long fight for human rights and civil rights to bring about racial, gender, environmental, economic, and social justice in this country,” he said.

Members of the delegation have organized teach-ins at Empire State College on Saturday, September 20. The first teach-in focuses on how HBCUs can support communities in being climate resilient and effective advocates for transforming environmental and economic policies. This teach-in is followed by a workshop on the actions being taken by organizations in the south to sustain communities and ecosystems.  The delegation will be near the front of the People’s Climate March on Sunday, September 21, where organizers have reserved space for marchers who hail from communities on the frontlines of climate change.

“The People’s Climate March and Summit are about our human rights and how we want to live free from the control that the oil, gas, and coal industries currently have over our laws and economy,” said Monique Harden, who co-directs Advocates for Environmental Human Rights in New Orleans. “This is a critical time as our coastal cities in the South are projected to be under water if we don’t take control,” she said.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Protest Against Police Violence Takes Over French Quarter Police Station

On Thursday, August 14, New Orleans activists held a moment of silence in solidarity with protests in Ferguson, Missouri, at 6:00pm in Lafayette Square. After the silent vigil, hundreds of attendees initiated a spontaneous protest march.

The march grew as it went, as people spontaneously joined and at least 400 people protested in the French Quarter, pausing across from Jackson Square, where speakers included a cousin of Mike Brown, the young man killed by police in Ferguson.

The march then traveled to the NOPD 8th District station, where at least 200 activists occupied the police station and spoke against law enforcement violence.

While news of the takeover of a police station spread across the US on social media, the local media for the most part failed to cover the protests, just as they had ignored the 600 people marching for justice in Palestine two weeks before. This media silence is part of a long history of New Orleans white media companies ignoring struggles led by people of color.

Photos by Abdul Aziz. Videos by Foster Bear Films, So-Called Media, and Jordan Flaherty.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Hundreds in New Orleans Protest Against Israeli War Crimes

At least 600 New Orleanians joined in a protest in support of justice for Palestine. The event, called #AStreetcarNamedGaza, began at the New Orleans streetcar stop at the Carrolton and Canal Street. As nearly five streetcars were filled with activists, organizers made connections between the civil rights history of New Orleans, which involved desegregating the streetcars, and the current fight for human rights in Palestine.

As protestors got off the streetcars at Canal Street and Decatur, they were joined by hundreds more protestors and marched through the French Quarter, ending at Frenchmen Street. The Palestinian community in New Orleans has a long history of standing up for justice.

A Street Car Named Gaza from Alaa Esmail on Vimeo.

Photo by Mohan Ambikaipaker. Video by Alaa Esmail.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Louisiana State Representative Austin Badon Announces He Wants to Engage in Sex Trafficking

Louisiana state representative Austin Badon (a Democrat representing New Orleans East) is the sponsor of House Bill 1158, which he says was written at the direction of local law enforcement, to further penalize solicitation, whether it is panhandling, prostitution, or hitchhiking. According to an article on, Badon said that police "needed something to be able to stop (prostitutes), question them and find out what they're doing."

The proposed law has already received national attention for the mean-spirited way it targets the poorest people in our communities. The website ThinkProgress noted:
The bill’s author, State Rep. Austin Badon (D), told Post TV that he hoped that banning begging will somehow lead to fewer poor people on the streets. He doubted that many were in actual need, saying, “they’re paying their cell phone bills, they’re paying their computer bills. It’s a racket.” Badon is echoing a familiar trope — that panhandlers are living large from others’ charity. But it’s not based on any actual research. In fact, a major study of panhandlers in San Francisco last year found just the opposite: the vast majority make $25 a day ($9,125 per year) or less. That meager income is largely used to eat. Nearly every beggar — 94 percent — said they used the money they receive for food; less than half used it for drugs or alcohol.
But giving police new tools to harass the poor and desperate is just one aspect of the bill. According to, Badon also bragged that his bill would allow for sex workers to be "hassled by the cops," forcing them to move to another place or another state.

This statement by Badon that he seeks to force women to cross state lines should cause concern for many reasons. One definition of trafficking is forcing someone to cross state lines to engage in prostitution. From his statement, it seems this is Badon's intention - and that he intends to use the force of the state of Louisiana to back up his scheme.

This is not the first time police have been used to force sex workers to cross state lines. In a famous case in Washington, D.C. in 1989, police rounded up sex workers and forced them to march to the Virginia state line, until a couple of Washington Post reporters spotted them, at which point the police ran off.

A 2008 report called Move Along: Policing Sex Work in Washington, D.C. highlighted the way in which policies like "prostitution free zones" end up harming those already at the margins, and "pose serious threats to health and safety of community members identified or otherwise targeted as sex workers." Louisiana has already become notorious for targeting and harassing sex workers by making them register as sex offenders (a practice that finally ended last year), conducting mass arrests, and increasing criminal penalties.

It seems Rep. Badon has declared this to be "attack and dehumanize women week." He also has been pushing a bill, HB 1274 that, according to one recent article:
Would allow the state to prohibit a family from ending medical treatment for a comatose or incapacitated pregnant woman. Badon's bill would bar the removal of a pregnant woman from life support if the obstetrician examining her “determines that the pregnant woman's life can reasonably be maintained in such a way as to permit the continuing development and live birth of the unborn child.” If it becomes law, this bill would mandate that a brain-dead pregnant woman remain on life support for the rest of her pregnancy, regardless of her family’s wishes or how far along the pregnancy is. This could mean up to 40 weeks of a loved one remaining on life support.
We hope Badon and the Louisiana legislature will reconsider their plan to make life worse for those already living on the edge.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Protests This Week Show Dissent on New Orleans Criminal Justice System

Two upcoming protest marches have revealed divisions among New Orleanians in their views of police and the criminal justice system. Organizers of an LGBT March and Rally Against Hate and Violence, scheduled for this Wednesday at 8:00pm, and Slutwalk New Orleans, scheduled for this Saturday at 10:30am, have both advertised and embraced a police presence as part of their events, bringing criticism from other activists.

The facebook description of the LGBT March announces that the New Orleans police "will be there to escort us and protect us." The full description reads:
Please join us for a rally and a march to show the presence of the LGBT community in the French Quarter. As I am sure many of you know, there have been several recent anti-gay hate crimes in New Orleans and especially in the French Quarter and the Marigny. There have been many robberies as well. It is time that we start to show our connection to our community. We need people to see that we are united in our commitment to each other. We need them to know that if someone in our community has been victimized that we are there to support each other, either by getting people to report crimes that have been committed or by helping them to report the crimes if they feel that cannot do it on their own. During this march, the NOPD will be there to escort us and protect us. This is a great opportunity to get to know your local police. I encourage signage and your presence to show that we can be united and that it is the responsibility of us all to overcome these crimes in our neighborhood. So please join us on a walk through the French Quarter starting at the entrance to Armstrong Park at the corner of N. Rampart and St Ann.
In response, activists - including members of New Orleans Black & Pink, Critical Resistance, and other local organizations - have organized a rally with a more critical view of the police. They have released a statement that notes the harm done by law enforcement.
Our home is the incarceration capital of the world. One in 86 adult Louisiana residents is in prison. Approximately 5,000 African-American men from New Orleans are in state prisons, compared to 400 white men. Our city jail, Orleans Parish Prison, is a site of rape and violence that a Human Rights Watch report called "a nightmare" for LGBTQ individuals. Incarceration has not made us safer as a community— and in fact does not deter crime. When our community members are locked away, it tears at the social fabric that holds our community together. Children grow up without parents at home, lovers long for their partners, and groups miss their members.  
These activists have organized an alternate march and rally, called the LGBTQ March and Rally For Safety In Solidarity, aimed at presenting a different path towards community safety.
Supporting each other in the face of violence does not have to take the form of reporting to police. Community safety comes from solidarity and liberation. It comes from ensuring that all people have access to basic necessities such as food, shelter, employment, and education. We hope that through dialogue we can address concerns of all members of our community and arrive at empowering solutions together.
This division in the LGBTQ community is not new. Writing in the book Captive Genders, Morgan Bassichis, Alexander Lee and Dean Spade discussed the participants in the Stonewall Rebellion, who rioted against police:
Could these groundbreaking and often unsung activists have imagined that only forty years later the "official" gay rights agenda would be largely pro-police, pro-prisons, and pro-war - exactly the forces they worked so hard to resist? Just a few decades later, the most visible and well-funded arms of the "LGBT movement" look much more like a corporate strategizing session than a grassroots social justice movement. There are countless examples of this dramatic shift in priorities. What emerged as a fight against racist, anti-poor, and anti-queer police violence now works hand in hand with local and federal law enforcement agencies, district attorneys are asked to speak at trans rallies, cops march in Gay Pride parades. The agendas of prosecutors - those who lock up our family, friends, and lovers - and many queer and trans organizations are becoming increasingly similar, with sentence- and police-enhancing legislation at the top of the priority list. Hate crimes legislation is tacked onto multi-billion dollar "defense" bills to support US military domination in Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. Despite the rhetoric of an"LGBT community," transgender and gender-non-conforming people are repeatedly abandoned and marginalized in the agendas and priorities of our "lead" organizations.
Saturday's "Slutwalk"is part of an international movement against rape culture. The movement began in Toronto, in response to statements from police officers that placed blame on women, and their their outfits or behavior, for being raped. Despite its goals and history, the movement has often been criticized for using language that excludes women of color. Shortly after the movement began, Canadian organizer Harsha Walia wrote this analysis:
Slutwalk runs the risk of facilitating the dominant discourse of ‘liberated’ women as only those women wearing mini-skirts and high heels in/on their way to professional jobs. In reality, capitalism mediates the feminist façade of choice by creating an entire industry that commodifies women’s sexuality and links a woman’s self-esteem and self-worth to fashion and beauty. Slutwalk itself consistently refuses any connection to feminism and fixates solely around liberal questions of individual choice – the palatable “I can wear what I want” feminism that is intentionally devoid of an analysis of power dynamics.
The history of Slutwalk as a mostly white movement that excludes women of color is also highlighted by the timing and location of this year's march and rally. The rally begins at Congo Square at 10:30am. At the same place and time, an annual event called the Celebration of the African American Child is scheduled for the park, while just a few blocks away and a half hour earlier is an immigrants' rights march, sponsored by the New Orleans Congress Of Day Laborers.

On March 27, the organizer of New Orleans Slutwalk announced that law enforcement would be part of the event.
I am so super, special, extra excited to announce that representatives from several departments of the ‪#‎NOPD‬, and quite possibly other law enforcement agencies, will be joining us prior to the walk to discuss crime prevention and victims assistance in New Orleans!!!! For those of you who know the history of the SlutWalk movement...this is HUGE! HUGE!!!!!
While no counter protest has been planned for Slutwalk, this announcement brought responses similar to those expressed by critics of the LGBT march and rally. One commentator wrote, "the presence of the NOPD is offensive, threatening and problematic... Feminist politics without a racial/class analysis is not in fact feminist." The NOPD has been criticized in the past year for statements that blame women for sexual assault, and NOPD officers have frequently been charged with committing sexual assaults.

In response to online criticism, the Slutwalk organizer wrote:
I don't need to be "schooled" on feminism or why some might be offended or disturbed by the presence of law enforcement. I am well aware of the distressing behavior and actions of many within the NOPD and other agencies in this city. What I DO know is that as SlutWalk started because law enforcement failed the community, establishing dialogue with the police in this city is a starting point. Do I expect their presence to magically do away with racism, transphobia, sexism, misogyny, or any other issues we have with law enforcement? No. But I do know that without dialogue, none of those issues will ever be addressed.
Solidifying the links between these marches, today the organizer of the Slutwalk march posted a facebook invitation to the LGBT March and Rally Against Hate and Violence.

The conflicts revealed in these demonstrations are not new, but in the context of gentrification and displacement, a culture of police violence and an out of control city jail, they come at a time in our city when these issues evoke particular pain and passion. Organizers of the LGBTQ March and Rally For Safety In Solidarity do not see themselves as protesting the other march, but rather "calling in," to build a safer community without the devastating effects of the prison industrial complex.