A Radical New Orleans: Why Here? Why Now?

By Veda Kaye

Building a movement requires shifting emotions, not spreading facts. The facts are clear enough: our schools are no longer educating our children, our economy no longer provides good jobs for those who need them, our planet is being destroyed, our government serves corporations, not citizens, our criminal justice system is racist and corrupt, and the current adult population of America is the most drug addicted, medicated, depressed generation ever. It’s easy for people to admit things are bad. It’s difficult to get them to believe there’s something meaningful they could do to accelerate change.

This is not to discount the many people who work hard everyday. Organizations that function as non-hierarchical, consensus based enterprises are springing up all around the country and filling essential needs within their communities. New Orleans is no different. The NOLA Free School Network, the Really Really Free Market, the New Orleans Restaurant Opportunities Center, Books 2 Prisoners, the Day-Laborer’s Congress, the Catholic Worker’s house and this newspaper are all examples. They give the people involved glimpses of what our community could be if people took radical ideals seriously.

At times, the intensity of organizing these projects can prevent discussion of larger goals. But what else would drive someone to sit in conversation about three sentences for four hours? It takes conviction that this counter culture could grow. It takes belief that these rough sketches of a future community are making progress towards the society we dream about. And it takes a faith that such meager contributions can actually have an effect on all those terrifying, heart breaking facts.

But this faith is fragile. Without results and growth, these small scale projects won’t last. It is not one thing that makes a movement grow or die. But dedication to expanding the reach of these programs is an essential aspect of survival. This points to a challenge for radical organizers. After all, it’s relatively easy to recruit those who are already invested in radical values. It’s difficult to build bridges with other communities that may share interests but have extremely different ideals. If a radical society is to flourish, it will need to put down roots. It will need to reach across class, race, culture to become infused with a community’s way of life. New Orleans should be that place.

To start, New Orleanians have long been aware of how dysfunctional government can be. While the world watched in awe at the ridiculous behavior of the federal, state and city government post-Katrina, most natives weren’t surprised. Citizens had put up with a crumbling infrastructure, rampant crime, corrupt politicians, corrupt police, and failing schools for years. Corrupt politics has such a long history people here are almost completely numb to it. Many citizens hold politicians to the same standards they would hold their own uncles. Nepotism is not seen as a negative—of course politicians are going to hire their family, ‘that’s what I would do’. New Orleanians have trouble rousing the anger necessary to shun buffoons like Renee Gill-Pratt. Luckily, radicals have enough anger to go around. We need to be shouting and demonstrating, and plan direct non violent actions so that citizens can start to see the difference between justified anger and the vindictive rage that is played out in the streets.

New Orleans is also uniquely suited to radical economic projects. Unlike many American metropolitan areas, New Orleanians often reject corporate businesses. When I was in 6th grade, a Starbucks moved next door to our beloved Maple St. PJ’s. All of my classmates and I boycotted it for years in favor of the local chain. New Orleanians are ingrained with a preference for what’s local, what’s traditional, what’s human. It’s the reason things like Mr. Okra and Haase’s shoe store can exist while the rest of the country builds more Wal-Marts.

Even investors in New Orleans’ aren’t always rational with their investments. There are countless rich patrons who throw money away to keep New Orleans institutions alive—the Prytania theatre being one example. They do this because they care so passionately about New Orleans’ existence as a unique cultural wonder. If we can effectively draw the connection between corporate exploitation and New Orleans’ eventual demise, perhaps we can galvanize upper middle class support for radical economic projects.

Plus, New Orleans’ culture values community, creativity, and celebration over ambition and monetary success. Our primary industry, tourism, would seem to allow those involved to enjoy New Orleans’ many wonderful celebrations. But in actuality they end up missing a lot of them because they have to work for the tourists that come to enjoy it. The tourism industry relies on its workers having a positive view of the city. This adds to the pervasive denial among citizens of just how horribly the city is being governed. The structure of the tourism industry is exploitative and oppressive for all who are involved. Individuals have to balance the demands of their managers with the demands of their customers, forced to please both as their salaries are often caught in the middle. These New Orleanians believe in ‘live and let live’ and stay in the city because they love it. But they aren’t actually getting to taste the kind of freedom that New Orleans suggests because they are trapped within the tourism economy. We should push for organizing

And now, for the first time in decades, waves of young people have moved to New Orleans from around the country. People interested in changing the school system are experimenting with charter schools. Urban farmers are attempting to bring fresh food to our citizens. Artists and creative types are creating new communities of graphic design and video making. A lot of money and time has been invested in strengthening New Orleans neighborhood organizations and networks. Buzzwords abound that New Orleans could be a ‘center of non-profit innovation’ and ‘social entrepreneurship’.

Yet, despite the unprecedented change in the past few years, many of the old problems are not being solved. Our environment is still being desecrated, our schools haven’t improved significantly, our citizens are still murdering each other on a regular basis and our infrastructure is crumbling. As radicals, we know this is because these ‘innovative solutions’ are the same hierarchical, ego-driven, false left solutions that prevent  those who want to make positive changes in their communities from questioning the status quo. All of these innovators and young seekers who came to make their mark on the city need to be shown with urgency that non-radical solutions (i.e. solutions that don’t address the root causes of our problems) are not just pointless, but harmful. If we can create successful alternatives that are radical, we can show these caring individuals a way out of their dead-end strategies and with tact recruit their energy and connections to our cause.

Perhaps most importantly, the city of New Orleans is poised to become a ‘front-line’ community as global warming wreaks its havoc. The wetlands of Louisiana are some of the fastest disappearing landmass in the world, with a football field of marsh being lost every 38 seconds. Every year since Katrina we have seen a rise in the likeliness of a storm like Katrina invading our gulf once again. As the seas continue to get hotter, those chances only rise. The Army Corps of Engineers has shown for decades that the are incompetent, lazy and fundamentally incapable of protecting New Orleans and its wetlands from these threats, and yet they continue to be our first line of defense.  The BP oil spill devastated our coastal fisheries and wildlife. It also showed that the claws of the oil industry are so deeply imbedded in our region’s psyche it will take much more than letters to our congressmen to pry them out. And yet the non-profits in place to organize environmental change in our region advocate almost solely for lobbying. The issue is so urgent, so dire, it’s hard to see how anything short of non-violent protest and direct action could be effective. We desperately need radical environmental organizers if we are going to survive.

Building movements takes emotions, not facts. The city of New Orleans is deeply and persistently loved by its citizens. The strength of New Orleanians’ love for their city is as strong an emotion you’ll find anywhere in this country. But love without action is empty. The city of New Orleans is deeply and persistently loved by its citizens.The radical community can show this love how to act in ways that approach root causes of problems and empower citizens to make changes in their communities. It is an incredible challenge to expand the reach of radical ideas and organizations. But it is one we must take on if we take our beliefs seriously. And there’s no better place to do that than right here in New Orleans, LA.