Last New Year’s Eve, a Black Georgia Southern University student named Levon Jones was killed by bouncers in the Bourbon Street club Razzoo’s. The outrage led to near-daily protests outside the club, threats of a Black tourist boycott of New Orleans, and a city commission to explore the issue of racism in the French Quarter. Despite widely-publicized advance warning, a “secret shopper” audit found rampant discrimination in French Quarter businesses, including different dress codes, admission and drink prices, all based on whether the patron was black or white.

“The French Quarter is not a place for Black people,” one community organizer told me pre-hurricane. “You don’t see Black folks working in the front of house in French Quarter restaurants or hotels, and you don’t see them as customers.”

Just north of the French Quarter, a few blocks from Razzoo’s, is the historic Treme neighborhood. Settled in the early 1800s, it’s known as the oldest free African- American community in the U.S. Residents fear for the post-reconstruction stability of communities like Treme. “There’s nothing some developers would like more than a ring of white neighborhoods around the French Quarter,” said one Treme resident recently. The widespread fear among organizers is that the exclusionary, “tourists only” atmosphere of the French Quarter will be multiplied and expanded across the city, and that many residents simply won’t be able to return home.

CHAOS IN THE SHELTERS

Chui Clark is a longtime community organizer from New Orleans, and was one of the leaders of the protests against Razzoo’s. He now stays in Baton Rouge’s River Street shelter. “This is a lily-white operation,” he reports. “You have white FEMA and Red Cross workers watching us like we’re some kind of amusement.” Despite repeated assurances of housing placements from Red Cross and government officials, the population of the Baton Rouge shelters does not appear to be decreasing, according to Clark. “You have new arrivals all the time. Folks who were staying with families for a week or two are getting kicked out and they got no where else to go.”


Everyone I met was desperately trying to find a sister or brother or child or other family member lost in the system. Many people who were picked up for minor infractions in the days before the hurricane ended up being shipped to the infamous Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where it is estimated over 90 percent of the inmates currently incarcerated will die within its walls. Most of the family members I spoke with just wanted to get a message to their loved ones, “Tell him that we’ve been looking for him, that we made it out of New Orleans, and that we love him,” said a former East New Orleans resident named Angela.

WOMEN TWICE VICTIMIZED

As Barbara Bush speaks of how fortunate the shelter residents are, in the real world New Orleans evacuees have been feeling anything but sheltered. One woman I spoke with in the River Street shelter said that she’s barely slept since she arrived in the shelter system. “I sleep with one eye open,” she told me. “It’s not safe in there.”

According to Christina Kucera, a feminist organizer from New Orleans, “issues of safety and shelter are intricately tied to gender. This has hit women particularly hard. It’s the collapse of community. We’ve lost neighbors and systems within our communities that helped keep us safe.”

Where once everyone in a neighborhood knew each other, now residents from each block are spread across several states. Communities and relationships that came together over decades were dispersed in hours. Kucera lists the problems she’s heard, “There have been reports of rapes and assaults before evacuation and in the shelters. And that’s just the beginning. There are continuing safety and healthcare needs. There are women who were planning on having children who now no longer have the stability to raise a child and want an abortion, but they have no money, and nowhere to go to get one. Six of the thirteen rape crisis centers in Louisiana were closed by the hurricane.”


REBUILDING

While communities continue to be dispersed, some New Orleanians are staying and building. Diane “Momma D” Frenchcoat never evacuated her Treme home, and has been helping feed and support 50 families, coordinating a relief and rebuilding effort consisting of, at its peak, 30 volunteers known as the Soul Patrol.

“I ain’t going nowhere,” one Soul Patrol member told the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper in a September 18 article about Momma D. “I’m the son of a brick- layer. I’m ready to cut some sheetrock, lay some block, anything to rebuild the city.”

Asked about her plan, Momma D had these words, “Rescue. Return. Restore. Can you hear what I’m saying, baby? Listen to those words again. Rescue, return, restore. We want the young, able-bodied men who are still here to stay to help those in need. And the ones that have been evacuated, we want them to come home and help clean up and rebuild this city.”

Community organizers like Momma D in Treme and Malik Rahim, who has a similar network in the Algiers neighborhood, are the forces for relief and rebuilding that need our help. The biggest disaster was not a hurricane, but the dispersal of communities, and that’s the disaster that needs to be addressed first.

Yesterday a friend told me through tears, “I just want to go back as if this never happened. I want to go back to my friends and my neighbors and my community.” It’s our community that has brought us security. People I know in New Orleans don’t feel safer when they see Blackwater mercenaries on their block, but they do feel security from knowing their neighbors are watching out for them. And that’s why the police and national guard and security companies on our streets haven’t brought us the security we’ve been looking for, and why discussions of razing neighborhoods makes us feel cold.

When we say we want our city back, we don’t mean the structures and the institutions, and we don’t mean ‘law and order.’ We mean our community, the people we love. And that’s the city we want to fight for.

Jordan Flaherty is an organizer with the Service Employees International Union and an editor of Left Turn Magazine (leftturn.org).