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'New Orleans is our Gettysburg'
Published on Saturday, April 22, 2006 by the Black Commentator
'New Orleans is our Gettysburg', A Generation's Defining Event
by Glen Ford and Peter Gamble
 

This Saturday's elections in New Orleans represent yet another element of the vast crime committed against Black America. With as many as 300,000 residents, overwhelmingly African American, strewn about the country in government-engineered exile, the elections are an insult to the very idea of democracy, and to the dignity of all Black people.

This farcical exercise in faux democracy will no doubt be followed by corporate media declarations that New Orleans is returning to "normalcy" - the same term that the media bandied about when the city held a shrunken Mardi Gras, in February.

Behind that bland word, "normalcy," lies a wish list and narrative that sees white rule as normative in America - the way things should be - and Black electoral power as an aberration, a kind of organized pathology in which people are assumed to be up to no good. Despite Katrina's vast damage to Louisiana infrastructure and commerce, there is a current of elation among white elites and common folk alike, at the winds and waters that cleansed New Orleans of its two-thirds Black majority, which was seen as a sore on the body politic, a den of Otherness and iniquity.

The white American narrative, which begins with national "democratic" elections after the birth of the republic in which only a tiny fraction of the population - white male owners of substantial property - could vote, bestows mythic significance to the electoral exercise, no matter how bogus and profoundly undemocratic. Thus, two ink-dipped elections in U.S.-occupied Iraq are heralded as benchmarks of progress, despite the deepening and widening conflict and misery that afflict the Iraqi people. In New Orleans, the mystical mantra of elections in which the majority of the population cannot fully participate, is equated with a kind of "recovery" from the storm and flood - when no such thing has occurred.

But the whites of New Orleans are free of the overwhelming Black presence - free at last! - a prerequisite for the creation of a "new" and "better" city. Some speak openly of the new lease on life that the dispersal of Black residents has afforded the high-ground whites that have found themselves the new majority. (See "New Orleans Elections Fever," April 20, 2006 ). When their rule is sanctioned by this weekend's elections, "normalcy" will be just around the corner.

"At the same time that they were talking about holding elections, they were holding evictions," said Rev. Lennox Yearwood, chairman and CEO of Washington-based Hip Hop Caucus , who has immersed his organization in New Orleans political organizing and relief work. "What needs to happen is the organizing of our people, wherever they are."

The task is formidable, because the entire national and state white power structure is determined to be permanently rid of those exiled by Katrina. The Louisiana state legislature has rushed to put New Orleans schools up for sale, to preclude the return of Black families. The bill states that "the recovery district may sell any property which the school district determines will not be used for providing educational services on or before August 29, 2006."

"Recovery district." What a deformation of the English language. The white powers-that-be want only to "recover" New Orleans for themselves, and ensure that there will be no place for even the most determined Black exiles to return to. The white search for "normalcy" is, in reality, an ongoing crime against humanity. Saturday's election is intended to bestow respectability to the crime.

However, a bleached New Orleans will never be legitimate to African Americans, who understand that they have been collectively raped of their personhood, not by weather, but by man. Bogus elections provide a false facade of due process - a fragrance to hide the stench of raw expulsion of a people - but it does not fool a single African American anywhere in the nation.

In the words of University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson , Katrina " could very well shape this generation of young people in the same way that the assassinations of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King shaped our generation" - the men and women who developed their political consciousness in the Sixties.

Rev. Yearwood agrees. "People are becoming much more political," said the 36-year-old minister. "The common person in Houston, Atlanta, New Orleans is much more engrossed in politics, in the spirit of self-determination. I'm encouraged."

Katrina is becoming a rallying cry for all of Black America, creating a new generation of activists. "I'm beginning to see more Fannie Lou Hamers emerging," said Rev. Yearwood. "People don't need more organizations telling them what to do. They are saying, Just give me the tools and I'll get the job done."

While the powerful conspire to make a fait accompli of the New Orleans diaspora, the results of which will be certified by the most undemocratic election since passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, the political consciousness of Black America is being transformed. A horrible lesson has been relearned: Katrina "suggested to Blacks the utter lack of the liberal possibility in the United States," says Prof. Dawson. We must strike out on our own path, with whatever allies are willing to make common cause with us. The New Orleans election will never be "closure" for us.

"New Orleans is our Gettysburg," said Rev. Yearwood. "If we lose there, we lose all the marbles."

The forces arrayed against a Black return to New Orleans do not realize that they have set in motion the entire national Black polity. Just as President John Kennedy inspired western Europeans when he declared "Ich bin ein Berliner" ("I am a Berliner") in 1963, all Black people see their fates entwined with the New Orleans diaspora - "I am a New Orleanian."

We understand that the enforced exile of hundreds of thousands of our brothers and sisters is an assault and disenfranchisement of us all, and that we cannot afford to lose in this twilight struggle. Defeat is not an option. As Rev. Yearwood put it: " You can live in LA - you lose. You can be in New York - you lose. If we lose in New Orleans, we lose it all."

Black Commentator Publishers Glen Ford and Peter Gamble are writing a book to be entitled, Barack Obama and the Crisis of Black Leadership.

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