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<nettime> The Sudden Stardom of the Third-World City
Paul D. Miller on Fri, 31 Mar 2006 19:43:03 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> The Sudden Stardom of the Third-World City


Hi Rana - it was with pleasure that I read your post - FINALLY, the 
list is getting exciting again.

I was just in New Zealand with Suketu, and am happy to report his 
book "Maximum City" won the Kiriyama Prize, which is a kind of 
Pacific Rim/South Asia equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in the U.S.


New Zealand, which gets about 80% of it's energy supplies from solar, 
thermal, hydro, and wind power, is a great example of a European 
society that is coming to grips not only with the upcoming energy 
crisis that the West has fueled, but also, it's at least got a level 
comfort with diversity and multiculturalism than almost anything one 
can find in Europe.

All I can say is yeah, Europe is tired, America is tired. The theory 
scene is waaaay tired.

Rana, all I can say is please post more! Andreas, Keith - Rana is a 
guy... It's been really funny to see you both refer to him as a 
her.... Cultural Sensitivities 101, eh?

Paul


ps.
In light of the issues I think that Rana has broached on the list, I 
think I'll post an article by Mike Davis on New Orleans - America's 
own Third World city, right in the heart of the Red States! Rana - 
try visiting there sometime!


http://www.thenation.com/doc/20060410/davis The Nation
[from the April 10, 2006 issue]

Who Is Killing New Orleans?

By MIKE DAVIS

Afew blocks from the badly flooded and still-closed
campus of Dillard University, a wind-bent street sign
announces the intersection of Humanity and New Orleans.
In the nighttime distance, the downtown skyscrapers on
Poydras and Canal Streets are already ablaze with
light, but a vast northern and eastern swath of the
city, including the Gentilly neighborhood around
Dillard, remains shrouded in darkness.

The lights have been out for six months now, and no one
seems to know when, if ever, they will be turned back
on. In greater New Orleans about 125,000 homes remain
damaged and unoccupied, a vast ghost city that rots in
darkness while les bon temps return to a guilty strip
of unflooded and mostly affluent neighborhoods near the
river. Such a large portion of the black population is
gone that some radio stations are now switching their
formats from funk and rap to soft rock.

Mayor Ray Nagin likes to boast that "New Orleans is
back," pointing to the tourists who again prowl the
French Quarter and the Tulane students who crowd
Magazine Street bistros; but the current population of
New Orleans on the west bank of the Mississippi is
about the same as that of Disney World on a normal day.
More than 60 percent of Nagin's constituents--including
an estimated 80 percent of the African-Americans--are
still scattered in exile with no obvious way home.

In their absence, local business elites, advised by
conservative think tanks, "New Urbanists" and neo-
Democrats, have usurped almost every function of
elected government. With the City Council largely shut
out of their deliberations, mayor-appointed commissions
and outside experts, mostly white and Republican,
propose to radically shrink and reshape a majority-
black and Democratic city. Without any mandate from
local voters, the public-school system has already been
virtually abolished, along with the jobs of unionized
teachers and school employees. Thousands of other
unionized jobs have been lost with the closure of
Charity Hospital, formerly the flagship of public
medicine in Louisiana. And a proposed oversight board,
dominated by appointees of President Bush and Governor
Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, would end local control over
city finances.

Meanwhile, Bush's pledge to "get the work done quickly"
and mount "one of the largest reconstruction efforts
the world has ever seen" has proved to be the same
fool's gold as his earlier guarantee to rebuild Iraq's
bombed-out infrastructure. Instead, the Administration
has left the residents of neighborhoods like Gentilly
in limbo: largely without jobs, emergency housing,
flood protection, mortgage relief, small-business loans
or a coordinated plan for reconstruction.

With each passing week of neglect--what Representative
Barney Frank has labeled "a policy of ethnic cleansing
by inaction"--the likelihood increases that most black
Orleanians will never be able to return.

Lie and Stall

After his bungling initial response to Katrina, Bush
impersonated FDR and Lyndon Johnson when he reassured
the nation in his September 15 Jackson Square speech
that "we have a duty to confront [New Orleans's]
poverty with bold action.... We will do what it takes,
we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens
rebuild their communities and their lives."

In the event, the White House sat on its pledges all
autumn, mumbling homilies about the limits of
government, while its conservative attack dogs in
Congress offset Gulf relief with $40 billion worth of
cutbacks in Medicaid, food stamps and student loans.
Republicans also rebelled against aid for a state that
was depicted as a venal Third World society, a failed
state like Haiti, out of step with national values.
"Louisiana and New Orleans," according to Idaho Senator
Larry Craig, "are the most corrupt governments in our
country and they always have been.... Fraud is in the
culture of Iraqis. I believe that is true in the state
of Louisiana as well."

Democrats, apart from the Congressional Black Caucus,
did pathetically little to counter this backlash or to
hold Bush's feet to the fire over his Jackson Square
pledge. The promised national debate about urban
poverty never took place; instead, New Orleans, like a
great derelict ship, drifted helplessly in the
treacherous currents of White House hypocrisy and
conservative contempt.

An early, deadly blow was Treasury Secretary John
Snow's refusal to guarantee New Orleans municipal
bonds, forcing Mayor Nagin to lay off 3,000 city
employees on top of the thousands of education and
medical workers already jobless. The Bush
Administration also blocked bipartisan measures to
increase Medicaid coverage for Katrina evacuees and to
give the State of Louisiana--facing an estimated $8
billion in lost revenues over the next few years--a
share of the income generated by its offshore oil and
gas leases.

Even more egregious was the flagrant redlining of black
neighborhoods by the Small Business Administration
(SBA), which rejected a majority of loan applications
by local businesses and homeowners. At the same time, a
bipartisan Senate bill to save small businesses with
emergency bridge loans was sabotaged by Bush officials,
leaving thousands to face bankruptcy and foreclosure.
As a result, the economic foundations of the city's
African-American middle class (public-sector jobs and
small businesses) have been swept away by deliberate
decisions made in the White House. Meanwhile, in the
absence of federal or state initiatives to employ
locals, low-income blacks are losing their niches in
the construction and service sectors to more mobile
outsiders.

In stark contrast to its neglect of neighborhood
relief, the White House has made herculean efforts to
reward its own base of large corporations and political
insiders. Representative Nydia Velazquez, who sits on
the House Small Business Committee, pointed out that
the SBA has allowed large corporations to get $2
billion in federal contracts while excluding local
minority contractors.

The paramount beneficiaries of Katrina relief aid have
been the giant engineering firms KBR (a Halliburton
subsidiary) and the Shaw Group, which enjoy the
services of lobbyist Joe Allbaugh (a former FEMA
director and Bush's 2000 campaign manager). FEMA and
the Army Corps of Engineers, while unable to explain to
Governor Blanco last fall exactly how they were
spending money in Louisiana, have tolerated levels of
profiteering that would raise eyebrows even on the war-
torn Euphrates. (Some of this largesse, of course, is
guaranteed to be recycled as GOP campaign
contributions.) FEMA, for example, has paid the Shaw
Group $175 per square (100 square feet) to install
tarps on storm-damaged roofs in New Orleans. Yet the
actual installers earn as little as $2 per square, and
the tarps are provided by FEMA. Similarly, the Army
Corps pays prime contractors about $20 per cubic yard
of storm debris removed, yet some bulldozer operators
receive only $1. Every level of the contracting food
chain, in other words, is grotesquely overfed except
the bottom rung, where the actual work is carried out.
While the Friends of Bush mine gold from the wreckage
of New Orleans, many disappointed recovery workers--
often Mexican or Salvadoran immigrants camped out in
city parks and derelict shopping centers--can barely
make ends meet.

The Big Kiss-Off

In the fractious, take-no-prisoners world of Louisiana
politics, broad solidarity of interest is normally as
rare as a boulder in a bayou. Yet Katrina created an
unprecedented bipartisan consensus around twin demands
for Category 5 hurricane protection and mortgage relief
for damaged homes. From conservative Republicans to
liberal Democrats, there has been unanimity that the
region's recovery depends on federal investment in new
levees and coastal restoration, as well as financial
rescue of the estimated 200,000 homeowners whose
insurance coverage has failed to cover their actual
damage. (There has been no equivalent consensus and
little concern for the right of renters--who
constituted 53 percent of the population before
Katrina--and of public-housing tenants to return to
their city.)

Yet by early November it was clear that saving New
Orleans was no longer high on the Bush agenda, if it
had ever been. As Congress headed toward its Christmas
adjournment, the Louisiana delegation was in panic
mode: A Category 5 plan had disappeared from serious
discussion, and there were doubts about whether the
damaged levees would be repaired before hurricane
season returned. (In early March engineers monitoring
the progress of the Army Corps's work complained that
the use of weak, sandy soils and the lack of concrete
"armoring" insured that the levees would again fail in
a major storm.)

Congress ultimately voted to provide $29 billion for
Gulf Coast relief. Yet as the Washington Post reported,
"All but $6 billion of the measure merely reshuffled
some of the $62 billion in previously approved
Hurricane Katrina aid. The rest was funded by a 1
percent across-the-board cut of non-emergency,
discretionary programs." The Pentagon won approval for
a whopping $4.4 billion in base repairs and other
professed Katrina-related needs, but Congress cut out
the $250 million allocated to combat coastal erosion.
Meanwhile, Mississippi's powerful Republican troika--
Governor Haley Barbour and Senators Trent Lott and Thad
Cochran--persuaded fellow Republicans to support $6.2
billion in discretionary housing aid for Louisiana and
$5.3 billion for Mississippi, with red-state
Mississippi getting five times as much aid per
distressed household as pink-state Louisiana.

Louisiana received another blow on January 23, when
Bush rejected GOP Representative Richard Baker's plan
calling for a federally guaranteed Louisiana
Reconstruction Corporation, which would bail out
homeowners by buying distressed properties and
packaging them in larger parcels for resale to
developers. Local Republicans as well as Democrats
howled in rage, and the future of southern Louisiana
was again thrown into chaos. Although the
Administration eventually promised an additional $4.2
billion in housing aid, the appropriation continues to
be fought over by Texas and other jealous states.

The Republican hostility to New Orleans, of course,
runs deeper and is nastier than mere concern with civic
probity (America's most corrupt city, after all, is
located on the Potomac, not the Mississippi).
Underlying all the circumlocutions are the same
antediluvian prejudices and stereotypes that were used
to justify the violent overthrow of Reconstruction 130
years ago. Usually it is the poor who are invisible in
the aftermath of urban disasters, but in the case of
New Orleans it has been the African-American
professional middle class and skilled working class. In
the confusion and suffering of Katrina--a Rorschach
test of the American racial unconscious--most white
politicians and media pundits have chosen to see only
the demons of their prejudices. The city's complex
history and social geography have been reduced to a
cartoon of a vast slum inhabited by an alternately
criminal or helpless underclass, whose salvation is the
kindness of strangers in other, whiter cities.
Inconvenient realities like Gentilly's red-brick
normalcy--or, for that matter, the pride of
homeownership and the exuberance of civic activism in
the blue-collar Lower Ninth Ward--have not been allowed
to interfere with the belief, embraced by New Democrats
as well as old Republicans, that black urban culture is
inherently pathological.

Such calumnies reproduce ancient caricatures--blacks
running amok, incapable of honest self-government--that
were evoked by the murderous White League when it
plotted against Reconstruction in New Orleans in the
1870s. Indeed, some civil rights veterans fear that the
1874 Battle of Canal Street, a bloody League-organized
insurrection against a Republican administration
elected by black suffrage, is being refought--perhaps
without pikes and guns, but with the same fundamental
aim of dispossessing black New Orleans of economic and
political power. Certainly, a sweeping transformation
of the racial balance-of-power within the city has been
on some people's agenda for a long time.

The Krewe of Canizaro

Power and status in New Orleans have always been
defined by membership in secretive Mardi Gras "krewes"
and social clubs. In the early 1990s civil rights
activists, led by feisty Councilmember Dorothy Mae
Taylor, forced the token desegregation of Mardi Gras,
and some of the clubs reluctantly admitted a few
African-American millionaires. Despite some old-guard
holdouts, Uptown seemed to be adjusting, however
grudgingly, to the reality of black political clout.

But as post-Katrina events have brutally clarified, if
the oligarchy is dead, then long live the oligarchy.
While elected black officials protest impotently from
the sidelines, a largely white elite has wrested
control over the debate about how to rebuild the city.
This de facto ruling krewe includes Jim Amoss, editor
of the New Orleans Times-Picayune; Pres Kabacoff,
developer-gentrifier and local patron of the New
Urbanism; Donald Bollinger, shipyard owner and
prominent Bushite; James Reiss, real estate investor
and chair of the Regional Transit Authority (i.e., the
man responsible for the buses that didn't evacuate
people); Alden McDonald Jr., CEO of one of the largest
black-owned banks; Janet Howard of the Bureau of
Government Research (originally established by Uptown
elites to oppose the populism of Huey Long); and Scott
Cowen, the aggressively ambitious president of Tulane
University.

But the dominating figure and kingpin is Joseph
Canizaro, a wealthy property developer who is a leading
Bush supporter with close personal ties to the White
House inner circle. He is also the power behind the
throne of Mayor Nagin, a nominal Democrat (he supported
Bush in 2000) who was elected in 2002 with 85 percent
of the white vote. Finally, as the former president of
the Urban Land Institute, Canizaro mobilizes the
support of some of the nation's most powerful
developers and prestigious master planners.

In a city where old money is often as reclusive as Anne
Rice's vampires, Canizaro poses as a brave civic leader
unafraid to speak bitter but necessary truths. As he
told the Associated Press about the Katrina diaspora
last October: "As a practical matter, these poor folks
don't have the resources to go back to our city just
like they didn't have the resources to get out of our
city. So we won't get all those folks back. That's just
a fact."

Indeed, it is a "fact" that Canizaro has helped shape
into reigning dogma. The number of displaced residents
returning to the city is obviously a highly variable
function of the resources and opportunities provided
for them, yet the rebuilding debate has been premised
on suspicious projections--provided by the RAND
Corporation and endlessly repeated by Nagin and
Canizaro--that in three years the city would recover
only half of its August 2005 population. Many
Orleanians cynically wonder whether such projections
aren't actually goals. For years Reiss, Kabacoff and
others have complained that New Orleans has too many
poor people. Faced with the dire fiscal consequences of
white flight to the suburbs, as well as three decades
of deindustrialization (which has given New Orleans an
economic profile closer to Newark than to Houston or
Atlanta), they argue that the city has become a soul-
destroying warehouse for underemployed and poorly
educated African-Americans, whose real interests--it is
claimed--might be better served by a Greyhound ticket
to another town.

Kabacoff's 2003 redevelopment of the St. Thomas public
housing project as River Garden, a largely market-rate
faux Creole subdivision, has become the prototype for
the smaller, wealthier, whiter city that Mayor Nagin's
Bring New Orleans Back commission (with Canizaro as
head of the crucial urban planning committee) proposes
to build. BNOB is perhaps the most important elite
initiative in New Orleans since the famous "Cold Water
Committee" (which included Kabacoff's father) mobilized
in 1946 to overthrow the "Old Regulars" and elect
reformer deLesseps Morrison as mayor. BNOB grew out of
a notorious meeting between Mayor Nagin and New Orleans
business leaders (dubbed by some "the forty thieves")
that Reiss organized in Dallas twelve days after
Katrina devastated the city. The summit excluded most
of New Orleans's elected black representatives and,
according to Reiss as characterized in the Wall Street
Journal, focused on the opportunity to rebuild the city
"with better services and fewer poor people."

Fears that a municipal coup d'etat was in progress were
scarcely mollified when at the end of September the
mayor charged BNOB with preparing a master plan to
rebuild the city. Although the seventeen-member
commission was racially balanced and included City
Council president Oliver Thomas as well as jazz
musician Wynton Marsalis (telecommuting from
Manhattan), the real clout was exercised by committee
chairs, especially Canizaro (urban planning), Cowen
(education) and Howard (finance), who lunched privately
with the mayor before the group's weekly meeting. This
inner sanctum was reportedly necessary because the
full-panel meetings did not allow a frank discussion of
"tough issues of race and class."

BNOB might have quickly imploded but for a shrewd
outflanking movement by Canizaro, who persuaded Nagin
to invite the Urban Land Institute to work with the
commission. Although the ULI is the self-interested
national voice of corporate land developers, Nagin and
Canizaro welcomed the delegation of developers,
architects and ex-mayors as a heroic cavalry of
expertise riding to the city's rescue. In a nutshell,
the ULI's recommendations reframed the historic elite
desire to shrink the city's socioeconomic footprint of
black poverty (and black political power) as a crusade
to reduce its physical footprint to contours
commensurate with public safety and a fiscally viable
urban infrastructure.

Upon these suspect premises, the outside "experts"
(including representatives of some of the country's
largest property firms and corporate architects)
proposed an unprecedented triage of an American city,
in which low-lying neighborhoods would be targeted for
mass buyouts and future conversion into a greenbelt to
protect New Orleans from flooding. As a visiting
developer told BNOB: "Your housing is now a public
resource. You can't think of it as private property
anymore."

Keenly aware of inevitable popular resistance, the ULI
also proposed a Crescent City Rebuilding Corporation,
armed with eminent domain, that would bypass the City
Council, as well as an oversight board with power over
the city's finances. With control of New Orleans
schools already usurped by the state, the ULI's
proposed dictatorship of experts and elite appointees
would effectively overthrow representative democracy
and annul the right of local people to make decisions
about their lives. For veterans of the 1960s civil
rights movement, especially, it reeked of
disenfranchisement pure and simple, a return to the
paternalism of plantation days.

The City Council, supported by a surprising number of
white homeowners and their representatives, angrily
rejected the ULI plan. Mayor Nagin--truly a cat on a
hot tin roof--danced anxiously back and forth between
the two camps, disavowing abandonment of any area while
at the same time warning that the city could not afford
to service every neighborhood. But state and national
officials, including HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson,
applauded the ULI scheme, as did the editorial page of
the Times-Picayune and the influential Bureau of
Government Research.

The BNOB recommendations presented by Canizaro in
January faithfully hewed to the ULI framework: They
included an appointed redevelopment corporation,
outside the control of the City Council, that would act
as a land bank to buy out heavily damaged homes and
neighborhoods with federal funds, wielding eminent
domain as needed to retire low-lying areas to greenbelt
("black people's neighborhoods into white people's
parks," someone commented) or to assemble "in-fill"
tracts for mixed-income development a la River Garden.
Other committees recommended a radical diminution of
the power of elected government.

On the crucial question of how to decide which
neighborhoods would be allowed to rebuild and which
would be bulldozed, BNOB endorsed the concept of forced
buyouts but equivocated over process. Instead of the
ruthless map that the Bureau of Government Research
wanted, Canizaro and colleagues proposed a Rube
Goldberg-like temporary building moratorium in tandem
with neighborhood planning meetings that would poll
homeowners about their intentions. Only those
neighborhoods where at least half of the pre-Katrina
residents had made a committment to return would be
considered serious candidates for Community Development
Block Grants (CDBGs) and other financial aid.

Canizaro presented the report to Nagin in front of a
public audience on January 11. The mayor said, "I like
the plan," and he complimented the commissioners for "a
job well done." But most locals found little charm in
the Canizaro report. "I will sit in my front door with
my shotgun," one resident warned at a jammed meeting in
the Council chambers on January 14, while another
demanded, "Are we going to allow some developers, some
hustlers, some land thieves to grab our land, grab our
homes, to make this a Disney World version of our
homes, our lives?" Predictably, Nagin panicked and
eventually disavowed the building moratorium. Soon
afterward the White House torpedoed the Baker plan and
left BNOB with only the state-controlled CDBG
appropriation to finance its ambitious vision of New
Orleans regrouped around a dozen new River Gardens
linked by a high-speed light-rail line.

But Canizaro doesn't seem unduly worried. He has
reassured supporters that the ULI/BNOB plan can go
forward with CDBGs alone if necessary; in addition, he
knows that independent of the local political weather,
there are powerful external forces--lack of insurance
coverage, new FEMA flood maps, refusal of lenders to
refinance mortgages and so on--that can make permanent
the exodus from redlined neighborhoods. Moreover, as
anyone versed in the realpolitik of modern Louisiana
knows, nothing is finally decided in New Orleans until
some good ol' boys (and girls) in Baton Rouge have
their say.

Power Shift

Even before the last bloated body had been fished out
of the fetid waters, conservative political analysts
were writing gleeful obituaries for black Democratic
power in Louisiana. "The Democrats' margin of victory,"
said Ronald Utt of the Heritage Foundation, is "living
in the Astrodome in Houston." Thanks to the Army
Corps's defective levees, the Republicans stand to gain
another Senate seat, two Congressional seats and
probably the governorship. The Democrats would also
find it impossible to reproduce Bill Clinton's 1992
feat, when he carried Louisiana by almost exactly his
margin of victory in New Orleans. With a ruthless
psephologist like Karl Rove in the White House, it is
inconceivable that such considerations haven't
influenced the shameless Bush response to the city's
distress.

New Orleans has always vied with Detroit when it comes
to the violent antipathy of white-flight suburbs toward
its black central city, so it is not surprising that
representatives from Jefferson Parish (which elected
Klan leader David Duke to the state legislature in
1989) and St. Tammany Parish have particularly relished
the post-Katrina shift in metropolitan population and
electoral power. Both parishes are in the midst of
housing booms that may consolidate the hollowing out
and decline of New Orleans.

For her part, Governor Blanco, a Democrat, has
expressed little concern about this fundamental
reconfiguration of Louisiana's major metropolitan area.
Indeed, her immediate, Bush-like responses to Katrina
were to help engineer a state takeover of New Orleans
schools and to slash $500 million in state spending
while sponsoring tax breaks (in the name of economic
recovery) for oil companies awash in profits. The
Legislative Black Caucus was outraged at Blanco's
"complete lack of vision and leadership" and went to
court to challenge her right to make cuts without
consulting lawmakers. But Blanco, supported by rural
conservatives and corporate lobbyists, remained
intransigent, even openly hostile, to black Democrats
whose support she had previously courted.

Poor people have no voice inside the Louisiana Recovery
Authority, whose gaggle of university presidents and
corporate types appointed by Blanco is even less
beholden to black New Orleans voters and their
representatives than the Canizaro krewe. The twenty-
nine-member LRA board, dominated by representatives of
big business, has only one trade unionist and not a
single grassroots black representative. Moreover, in
contrast to Nagin's commission, the LRA has the power
to decide, not merely advise: It controls the
allocation of the FEMA funds and CDBGs that Congress
has provided for reconstruction.

According to interviews in the Times-Picayune, leading
members of the LRA believe that the sheer force of
economic disincentives will shrink the city around the
contours proposed by the Urban Land Institute. The
authority has thus refused to disburse any of its
hazard mitigation funds to areas considered unsafe, and
presumably will be equally hardheaded in the allocation
of CDBG spending. At a special session of the
legislature Governor Blanco emphasized that the state,
not local government or neighborhood planning
committees, will retain control over where grants and
loans go.

But Blanco and the elites may have overlooked the Fats
Domino factor.

'No Bulldozing!'

Like hundreds of other flood-damaged but structurally
sound homes, Fats Domino's house wears a defiant sign:
Save Our Neighborhood: No Bulldozing! The r&b icon, who
has always stayed close to his roots in working-class
Holy Cross, knows his riverside neighborhood and the
rest of the Lower Ninth Ward are prime targets of the
city-shrinkers. Indeed, on Christmas Day the Times-
Picayune--declaring that "before a community can
rebuild, it must dream"--published a vision of what a
smaller-but-better New Orleans might look like:
"Tourists and schoolchildren tour a living museum that
includes the former home of Fats Domino and Holy Cross
High School, a multiblock memorial to Katrina that
spans the devastated neighborhood."

"Living museum" (or "holocaust museum," as a black
friend bitterly observed) sounds like a bad joke, but
it is the elite view of what African-American New
Orleans should become. In the brave New Urbanist world
of Canizaro and Kabacoff, blacks (along with that other
colorful minority group, Cajuns) will reign only as
entertainers and self-caricatures. The high-voltage
energy that once rocked juke joints, housing projects
and second-line parades will now be safely embalmed for
tourists in a proposed Louisiana Music Experience in
the Central Business District.

But this minstrel-show version of the future must first
defeat a remarkable local history of grassroots
organization. The Crescent City's best-kept secret--in
the mainstream press, at least--has been the resurgence
of trade-union and community organizing since the
mid-1990s. Indeed, New Orleans, the only Southern city
in which labor was ever powerful enough to call a
general strike, has become an important crucible of new
social movements. In particular, it has become the home
base of ACORN, a national organization of working-class
homeowners and tenants that counts more than 9,000 New
Orleans member-families, mostly in triage-threatened
black neighborhoods. ACORN's membership has been the
engine behind the tumultuous, decade-long struggle to
unionize downtown hotels as well as the successful 2002
referendum to legislate the nation's first municipal
minimum wage (later overthrown by a right-wing state
Supreme Court). Since Katrina, ACORN has emerged as the
major opponent of the ULI/BNOB plan for shrinking the
city. Its members find themselves again fighting many
of the same elite figures who were opponents of hotel
unionization and a living wage.

ACORN founder Wade Rathke scoffs at the RAND
Corporation projections that portray most blacks
abandoning the city. "Don't believe those phony
figures," he told me over beignets at Cafe du Monde in
January. "We have polled our displaced members in
Houston and Atlanta. Folks overwhelmingly want to
return. But they realize that this is a tough struggle,
since we have to fight simultaneously on two fronts: to
restore people's homes and to bring back their jobs. It
is also a race against time. The challenge is, You make
it, you take it. So our members are voting with their
feet."

Not waiting for CDBGs, FEMA flood maps or permission
from Canizaro, ACORN crews and volunteers from across
the country are working night and day to repair the
homes of 1,000 member-families in some of the most
threatened areas. The strategy is to confront the city-
shrinkers with the incontestable fact of reoccupied,
viable neighborhood cores.

ACORN has allied with the AFL-CIO and the NAACP to
defend worker rights and press for the hiring of locals
in the recovery effort. Rathke points out that Katrina
has become the pretext for the most vicious government-
supported attack on unions since President Reagan fired
striking air-traffic controllers in 1981. "First,
suspension of Davis-Bacon [federal prevailing wage
law], then the state takeover of the schools and the
destruction of the teachers' union, and now this." He
points to a beat-up green garbage truck rattling by
Jackson Square. "Trash collection in the French Quarter
used to be a unionized city job, SEIU members. Now FEMA
has contracted the work to a scab company from out of
state. Is this what Bring New Orleans Back means?"

ACORN also went to court to insure that New Orleans's
displaced, largely black population would have access
to out-of-state polling places, especially in Atlanta
and Houston, for the scheduled April 22 city elections.
When a federal judge rejected the demand, ACORN
organizer Stephen Bradberry said it's "so obvious that
there's a concerted plan to make this a whiter city."
The NAACP agrees, but the Justice Department denied its
request to block an election that is likely to transfer
power to the artificial white majority created by
Katrina.

It would be inspiring to see in this latest battle of
New Orleans the birth pangs of a new or renewed civil
rights movement, but gritty local activism has yet to
be echoed in meaningful solidarity by the labor
movement, so-called progressive Democrats or even the
Congressional Black Caucus. Pledges, press statements
and occasional delegations, yes; but not the
unfaltering national outrage and sense of urgency that
should attend the attempted murder of New Orleans on
the fortieth anniversary of the Voting Rights Act. In
1874, as historian Ted Tunnell has pointed out, the
failure of Northern Radicals to launch a militant,
armed riposte to the white insurrection in New Orleans
helped to doom the first Reconstruction. Will our
feeble response to Hurricane Katrina now lead to the
rollback of the second?





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