Saturday, August 25, 2007

Latest News

Home razing angering owners in New Orleans

Katrina victims feel trapped by trailers

And in other news of injustice from the Pelican State.

Racism and Resistance:The Struggle to Free

The Jena Six

By Jordan Flaherty

August 14, 2007

Almost a year ago, in the small northern Louisiana town of Jena, a group of white students hung three nooses from a tree in front of Jena High School. This set into motion a season of racial tension and incidents that culminated in six Black youths facing a lifetime in jail for a schoolyard fight. The story that has unfolded since is one of racism and injustice, but also of resistance and solidarity, as people from around the world have joined together with the families of the accused, lending legal and financial support, adding political pressure, and joining demonstrations and marches.

The nooses were hung after a Black student asked permission to sit under a tree that had been reserved by tradition for white students only. In response to the three nooses, nearly every Black student in the school stood under the tree in a spontaneous and powerful act of nonviolent protest. The town's district attorney quickly arrived, flanked by police officers, and told the Black students to stop making such a big deal over the nooses, which school officials termed to be a "harmless prank." Walters spoke in a school assembly, which like the schoolyard where all of this had begun was divided by race, with the Black students on one side and the white students on the other. Directing his remarks to the Black students, District Attorney Reed Walters said, "I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of a pen."

The white students who confessed to hanging the nooses never received any meaningful punishment. Nor did the white students who months later beat up a Black student at a school party, nor did the white former student who threatened two Black students with a shotgun. But, after these incidents, when Black students got into a fight with a white student, six Black youths were charged with attempted murder, and now face a lifetime in prison. The white student was briefly hospitalized, but had no major injuries and was socializing with friends at a school ring ceremony the evening of the fight. The accused students may not have been involved in the fight, but they were known to be organizers of the protest under the tree. They were also star athletes in the school football team, and had no history of discipline problems.

The Black students were arrested immediately after the fight, in December of last year. School officials and police officials took statements from at least 44 witnesses. The statements do not paint a clear picture of who was in the fight. Statements from white students refer to a group of "Black boys," but most testimonies are unclear as to the identities of who was involved. Some of the arrested youths are not implicated in the fight at all. Despite this, when Mychal Bell, the first youth to go to trial, refused to take a deal in exchange for testifying against his friends, he was quickly convicted by an all-white jury. Bell's public defender Blane Williams, visibly angry at Bell and his parents because the youth did not take the deal, called no witnesses and gave no meaningful defense. This attorney's behavior gives a vivid example of our nation's broken and underfunded public defender system. Some have called Jena a throwback to the past, but in fact Jena presents a clear vision of the current state of our criminal justice system.

In Paris Texas, a white teenager burns down her family's home and receives probation, while a Black student shoves a hall monitor and gets 7 years in prison. Genarlow Wilson, in Atlanta, is sentenced to ten years in prison for participating in consensual oral sex with a 15 year old when he was 17. Like these and many other cases, the case in Jena is textbook proof that there are still two systems of justice functioning in this country, one for Black people, and one for white. The unpunished incidents in the days and months leading up to the fight clearly demonstrate that the students of Jena would never have faced charges if white students had beaten a Black student.

Local Resistance

Immediately after the arrests, parents of the accused began organizing. Their call, "Free the Jena Six," was initially heard by activists from other parts of Louisiana, such as the Lafayette public access TV show, "Community Defender," which was the first media from outside their immediate area to give coverage of the case. Noncorporate media has been vital in spreading word of the case, beginning with blogs and YouTube videos, which then led to articles in grassroots publications and high profile stories on Democracy Now and in The Final Call. LaSalle parish, where Jena is located, is 85% white.

The town is still mostly segregated - from the white barber who refuses to cut Black hair to the white and Black parts of town, separated by an invisible line. LaSalle is also one of Louisiana's most wealthy parishes, with small oil rigs in many back yards contributing to area wealth. The parish is a major contributor to Republican politicians, and former klansman David Duke received a solid majority of local votes when he ran for governor in 1991 - in fact, he received a higher percentage of votes in LaSalle parish than in any other part the state. Jena was also the former site of a notoriously brutal youth prison, which was closed after years of lawsuits and negative media exposure. The prison is now scheduled to be reopened as a private prison for the growth business of immigrant detentions.

Only one church in town has allowed the parents to hold meetings. There has been local pressure on family members and their allies to stay quiet. However, in the face of opposition, their voice has grown louder. Without an infrastructure of support, without any paid organizers, this struggle was initiated and is still led by six courageous families. Three hundred supporters, most from the immediate region, but some from as far away as California, Chicago and New York, descended on Jena on July 31 to protest District Attorney Reed Walters' conduct and call for dismissal of all charges. The largest groups included Millions More Movement delegations from Houston, Monroe and Shreveport, and nearly fifty members of Families and Friends of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children from Lake Charles and New Orleans. Other delegations from across Louisiana included members of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence, Critical Resistance, Common Ground and Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. The demonstration marched through downtown Jena - reported to be the biggest civil rights march the town of 2,500 residents has ever seen - and delivered a petition with 43,000 signatures to the District Attorney's office.

In the two weeks since the demonstration, more major allies have begun to come on board. The Congressional Black Caucus - representing 43 members, including Senator Barack Obama - issued a statement calling for charges to be dropped, while the city of Cambridge Massachusetts passed a resolution in support of the families of the Jena Six. Al Sharpton and other national leaders have visited Jena, while Jesse Jackson brought the support of members of the state legislative Black caucus., which has coordinated much of the outside support, has gathered 60,000 signatures on a petition to Louisiana Governor Blanco, calling for her to pardon the accused, and investigate District Attorney Reed Walters. Blanco, a Democratic governor elected with the overwhelming support of Black residents of Louisiana, responded with a condescending statement, tersely informing petitioners, "The State Constitution provides for three branches of state government - Legislative, Executive, and Judicial - and the Constitution prohibits anyone in one branch from exercising the powers of anyone in another branch." This is the same governor who, as Katrina approached, urged gulf coast residents to "pray the hurricane down" to a level two. When New Orleans was flooded and people were trapped in the New Orleans Superdome and convention center, she informed the nation that she was sending in National Guard troops, and "They have M-16s and they're locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so, and I expect they will." More recently, Blanco created a program to bring federal money to homeowners rebuilding after Katrina – the "Road Home" – that has been a dismal failure on every level.

Mychal Bell's sentencing is currently scheduled for September 20. The families are planning another demonstration for that date, and also have assembled a legal team for Bell and the other youths. National organizations such as Southern Poverty Law Center and NAACP joined initial supporters such as Friends of Justice (from Tulia, Texas) and ACLU of Louisiana. Legal expenses for the youths could be hundreds of thousands of dollars, and funding is still needed. Except for Mychal Bell, who has a bail hearing scheduled for September 4, all of the youths are out on bail. The case of Jena Six has served as a wake-up call on the state of US justice. It shows vividly the racial bias still inherent to our system. But is has also shown something else. That this group of families refuses to be silent in the face of injustice, and that hundreds of thousands of other people around the world have chosen to stand with them. Together they have said that we are drawing the line, here, in Jena Louisiana.

Jordan Flaherty is a New Orleans-based journalist and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. His May 9, 2007 article from Jena was one of the first to bring the case to a national audience. Please see http:// and for more coverage of the Jena case.

Resources:Donate to support the legal defense fund:

Jena 6 Defense Committee

PO BOX 2798

Jena, LA 71342

Donate online at:

Sign the petition at:

For more information or to offer concrete support,


Media coverage:

The Final Call:

NPR (News and Notes):

Democracy Now:

Mychal Bell, who has been behind bars since December of 2006, has asked to receive letters from supporters.

Please write to:

Mychal Bell

Inmate, A-Dorm

LaSalle Correctional Center

15976 Highway 165

Olla, LA 71465-4801

YouTube videos in support of the Jena Six:

Support Organizations:

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Louisiana population down 5 percent after Katrina

NFL 2006: Saints excite and inspire their ravaged city

Judge demands answers on Katrina housing

Families blame more deaths on Katrina

Catastrophic Failure
Foundations, Nonprofits, and the Continuing Crisis in New Orleans

By Jordan Flaherty

December 16, 2006

Fifteen months after New Orleans became an international symbol of governmental neglect and racism, the city remains in crisis. Students are still without books, healthcare is less available to poor people than ever, public housing is still closed, and infrastructure is still in desperate need of repair. In an open letter to funders and national nonprofits released yesterday, a diverse array of New Orleanians declared, “From the perspective of the poorest and least powerful, it appears that the work of national allies on our behalf has either not happened, or if it has happened it has been a failure.”

In conversations this week with scores of New Orleans residents, including organizers, advocates, health care providers, educators, artists and media makers, I heard countless stories of diverted funding and unmet needs. While many stressed that they have had important positive experiences with national allies, few have received anything close to the funding, resources, or staff they need for their work, and in fact most are working unsustainable hours while living in a still-devastated city.

Research backs up the anecdotal reports. A January 2006 article in The Chronicle of Philanthropy argued that the amount given to post-Katrina New Orleans was “small-potato giving for America's foundations, which collectively have $500-billion in assets.” The article also asserted, “just as deplorable as the small sums poured into the region are the choices foundations have made about where the money should go.” In other words, very little of the money had gone to organizations directed by or accountable to New Orleanians. In discussions this week, one prominent New Orleans-born advocate and lobbyist called this phenomenon the “Halliburtization of the nonprofit sector.”

A February report from New York City’s Foundation Center points out that the Red Cross, which raised perhaps two billion dollars for Katrina relief despite widespread accusations of racism and mismanagement, “ranked as by far the largest named recipient of contributions from foundation and corporate donors in response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita,” receiving almost 35% of all aid. At the time of the report, another 35% of the money the foundations designated had not been spent. The Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund, Salvation Army and United Way together made up another 13%. The rest was generally spread between other national relief organizations.


After nearly fifteen months of shuttered storefronts, a block of Black-owned businesses in New Orleans celebrated a rebirth this week. The street, on Bayou Road in the seventh ward neighborhood of New Orleans, is a hopeful sign in a city where 60% of the population remains displaced and many businesses are shutting down or moving. As recently as August, most of the area remained shuttered and empty. Now, almost every shop is open. The Community Book Center, a vital neighborhood gathering spot in the middle of the block, reopened this week, despite still having no front windows and a floor in major need of work. “Step carefully,” Vera Warren-Williams, the owner, warned guests as they entered the store during the reopening celebration.

Neighborhood spaces like the Community Book Center have long been a vital part of New Orleans organizing, serving as a gathering place for people and ideas. The revitalization of Bayou Road is just one example community pulling together – friends and strangers coming by to help gut houses, clear debris, cook food. Anything to help, as the people of New Orleans struggle together against incredible odds in a city that was already devastated by poverty and privatization and neglect pre-Katrina.

Although Community Book Center is a crucial resource, spaces like these have received little outside support.Foundations, according to the Chronicle article, “seem to have been preoccupied with the issue of accountability. Many foundations wondered how they could be certain that grants to local groups would be well spent and, therefore, publicly accountable.”While those are reasonable concerns, many in New Orleans see a double standard in this view. The Chronicle writer goes on to state, “the question of accountability didn't seem to bother the large foundations that gave so generously to the Red Cross, which had a questionable record of competence to begin with and attracted even more criticism in the aftermath of Katrina over its unwise use of funds, high administrative costs, and lack of outreach to minorities.”

Many feel that the message from major funders has been that New Orleanians cannot handle the money appropriately. “Twenty seven years running a business, and they don’t trust us with money,” Jennifer Turner of the Community Book Center, comments, when asked about her feeling towards national funders. “They think we’re all stupid or corrupt.”In the aftermath of Katrina, the people of New Orleans were depicted in the media as “looters” and violent criminals, or as helplessly poor and ignorant. In other words, as anything but a trustable partner in the rebuilding of their city. Even today, many news stories about New Orleans post-Katrina focus on FEMA payments that were misused or obtained through fraud, rather than the bigger story of corporate fraud.

Many feel this media depiction, and the bias and racism that it in many cases reflected, is in part to blame for the reluctance of major funders to give money directly to the people most affected.“They figure if they give poor people money they’ll buy crack and cigarettes,” People’s Organizing Committee and People’s Hurricane Relief Fund co-founder Curtis Muhammad summarized.


At a small corner bar in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood, community activists and organizers from grassroots base-building organizations such as Critical Resistance, the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition and Safe Streets/Strong Communities gathered to celebrate a victory. After a year of organizing, protesting and lobbying, Safe Streets won city funding for an independent monitor over the city’s notoriously corrupt and violent police department.The Safe Streets victory is the result of several years of struggle by many organizations and individuals. More importantly, it is a part of an overall effort grounded in, and led by, those most affected. While there has been some funding for base building organizations such as those listed above, it has been pennies compared to the hundreds of millions directed elsewhere.

For a region of the country that has been historically underfunded, these issues are nothing new. “I’m very much afraid of this ‘foundation complex,’” civil rights organizer Ella Baker said in 1963, referring to the changes happening then in the structure of grassroots movements.In an article in an upcoming South End Press anthology about New Orleans post-Katrina, members of INCITE Women of Color Against Violence write, “Though hundreds of nonprofits, NGOs, university urban planning departments, and foundations have come through the city, they have paid little attention to the organizing led by people of color that existed before Katrina and that is struggling now more than ever.”

Echoing this analysis, the Chronicle of Philanthropy article complains of a “long-term lack of concern and neglect that foundations that operate nationally and in the Gulf Coast region have shown for poor and minority Gulf Coast residents, even as some grant makers proudly strutted their awards to national antipoverty and antiracism programs.”The INCITE authors posit that successful organizing is rooted in the community and takes long time to bear fruit. Mainstream funders don’t appreciate this, and, “a look at who and what gets funding in New Orleans, from foundations to support work, reveals the priorities of these foundations and the entire nonprofit system. Organizations that represent their work through quick and quantifiable accomplishments are rewarded by the system. Foundations are not only drawn to them but are pressured by their own donors to fund them.”

For many in the nonprofit field nationally, post-Katrina New Orleans has been an opportunity for career advancement. While local residents have been too overwhelmed by tragedy to apply for grants, a few well-placed national individuals and organizations have not hesitated to take their place in line. Although some have no relation to New Orleans, they often have previous relationships with the foundations, as well as resources that translate into easier access to funding, such as development staff, website designers, and professional promotional materials.


Foundations are not to blame for the continuing crisis in New Orleans, nor do they possess a special responsibility to help the city. However, many foundations have expressed a desire to support New Orleans’ recovery, and funding is desperately needed on the ground. Because of this, their actions have taken on added scrutiny from people in New Orleans.Foundations are an integral part of the current structure of US nonprofits, a system that INCITE has called the Nonprofit Industrial Complex, to emphasize the intersecting, dependent and corporatized ways in which the system is constructed. It is a system in which organizations are frequently pitted against each other for funding, where organizers are discouraged from being active in their own community, and where accountability to and leadership from those most affected has become increasingly rare, and in many cases, the priorities of the “movement” are guided by those with money rather than being led by those most affected.

Perhaps the biggest lesson of Katrina for people concerned about social justice is that the structures of US movements are in serious crisis. As the director of one base-building organization posed the question, “what’s wrong with the 501c3 structure that everyone could come down for a 5 day tour but no one could come to actually do the work for a month? What’s wrong with a 501c3 structure where everyone is already so under resourced and then tied to projects and promised outcomes that the biggest disaster this nation has seen in decades occurs and no one can stop what they are working on to come down and help? What’s wrong with the foundation world that they have to produce 207 fancy glossy interview reports to their board in order to shuffle a few thousand dollars our way?”One thing that is clear is that the current paradigm simply doesn’t work. Without community accountability, projects aimed to bring justice to that community are weaker and sometimes counterproductive.


Writing in the South End Press book, INCITE members argue that the structure of a non-accountable movement stopped organizations from responding more capably to the disaster when it happened, and that a movement more responsive to local community would have been more effective. “

Community organizing and community –based accountability are the things we have left when the systems have collapsed,” they argue.Many organizers told me that, in dealing with foundations, they were expected to be responsive to the foundations instead of to any concrete needs on the ground. “Its not just that you have to jump when they tell you to jump,” the manager of one organization told me, “you also have to act like you wanted to jump anyway.”

Again, these issues are not new - more than forty years ago, Fannie Lou Hamer, civil rights leader and co-founder of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, complained. “I can’t see a leader leading me nowhere if he’s in New York and I’m down here catching hell.” “What’s wrong with our movement and our organizations,” the director of another grassroots organization asked me, “that they couldn't collaborate and coordinate and offer us some organized plan of assistance instead of asking us to do more and more to help them help us? What’s wrong with funders that they couldn't coordinate, the way they ask us to, so that they could come down once, together, and not on 15 separate trips?”


When asked for solutions, many in New Orleans called for allies to bring a deeper respect for the experiences of the people on the ground. Others expressed an overall need for movements to move away from reliance on foundations and large donors.Several organizers highlighted the examples of positive experiences. “National Immigration Law Center (NILC) came here in a principled way, looking to hire someone local, and to support already existing local projects,” Rosana Cruz, who works with NILC and the New Orleans Worker Justice Coalition, explained. “Advancement Project does litigation led by and in support of grassroots organizing campaigns. OXFAM is a major international organization, but they came in and worked responsibly with small organizations on they ground they had previous relationships with. And they made multi-year commitments. They didn’t just come and dump money – or worse, come and promise money then disappear, as some did.”

“Ironically, many of the folks who have come through for us are Southern groups, who are themselves under resourced,” the managing director of one organization told me. “Organizations like Project South and Southerners On New Ground (SONG) have been stronger allies than many larger national groups.” The Chronicle article asks foundations to play a role in “strengthening nonprofit organizations that serve low-income people and African-Americans, as well as other minorities…America's foundations need to move from a policy of neglect of the nation's most vulnerable organizations to one of affirmative action, an approach that will mean changing the way many foundations do business.”

“I would ask national organizing groups to send a staff person down for 6-12 months,” begins the executive director of another organization, “I would also recommend all progressive and liberal foundations with Katrina money to do an analysis of funding and jointly release the results along with the plan for funding in 2007 and 2008.”Others listed specific needs they felt were unmet. “We need seed money, technical training and leadership development,” explained Mayaba Liebenthal, an organizer active with the New Orleans chapters of Critical Resistance and INCITE.”

The stakes are far beyond New Orleans. This is a struggle with national and international implications. If the people of New Orleans are supported in their struggle, it will be a victory against profiteering and privatization. Questions of race, class, gender, education, health care, food access, policing, housing, privatization, mental health and much more are on vivid display. “Everyone is here right now, or has come through,” Curtis Mohammed comments, referring to the vast array of organizations and individuals who have visited the city. “If the movement continues to grow, New Orleans will be seen as a turning point.” But, despite all of the resilience on display here, the people of New Orleans can’t do it alone.

Resources Mentioned In Article:

1) Letter From New Orleans Grassroots:
(Note: Letter will soon move to:

2) CorpWatch Report:

3) After Katrina: What Foundations Should Do, By Pablo Eisenberg, in The Chronicle of Philanthropy:

4) Foundation Center report:

Sunday, December 10, 2006

News and an Interview

Audit says FEMA squandering Katrina aid

Community Justice Interview with Robert “Kool Black” HortonBy Jordan Flaherty with Jacqueline SoohenRaised in New Orleans’ St Thomas Public Housing Development, Robert “Kool Black” Horton is a dedicated community organizer and father, as well as a former hip-hop artist and current gospel choir singer. He began his organizing career as a founder of Black Men United for Change, a grassroots community-based organization that initiated local responses to community problems. For fifteen years, he has been a trainer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based anti-racist training organization. He is currently Campaigns and Project Director for Critical Resistance, a national prison-abolition organization. This Saturday and Sunday, Critical Resistance is sponsoring a Weekend of Reconciliation and Respect, featuring a keynote address by former political prisoner, professor Angela Davis. For more information on the Critical Resistance Amnesty Campaign, please see

Jordan Flaherty: What is your organizing background?

Robert “Kool Black” Horton: I’m a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve been doing work dealing primarily with issues effecting Black men, particularly in public housing. I started with an organization called Black Men United for Change, in the St. Thomas public housing development about 15 years ago.Black Men United for Change was part of a larger effort that was taken on by the St. Thomas Residents Council and the St. Thomas Irish Channel Consortium, to do grassroots organizing and educate people about what was happening in their neighborhoods, to deal with issues around teenage pregnancy prevention, the high risk of HIV in the community, and also issues around tenant’s rights as public housing residents. These meetings would go beyond conversation on these issues, into dialogue about housing issues, the murder rate, police brutality, drugs, employment - those kind of basic things people need for their survival. So because this community was already pretty organized, we had one or two retreats and Black Men United for Change was established. We started by bringing employers to the table to help brothers get jobs. We acted as a job referral, and we had about 60 or 70 people connected with our organization that we were able to find work for.Then we started working on these issues of crime and policing. The murder rate was so crazy, there were two areas in particular, one was called Death Alley, and the other one was called Cutthroat. You didn’t want to be in these neighborhoods after dark. The murders were occurring, and there was no intervention. The police would come out and lay the yellow tape down and draw the chalk lines but this was after the blood was spilled, and we felt it was too late by then. We realized that, had someone stepped in sooner, we could save lives.So Black Men United for Change developed a community-policing model called the St. Thomas peacekeepers, which was conflict resolution based on the relationships we had with folks in that neighborhood.A person would get killed, for instance, on a Tuesday evening. But it didn’t start then. It was initiated a few days earlier, on a Friday or Saturday night at the neighborhood block party or a dice game. And because no one said anything then, it was allowed to filter over later.We had a large presence wherever there were community events or large gatherings.

We would be present in the neighborhood, and because we had relationships with the people involved, we knew how to approach them and get them to at least listen and some to some sort of reasoning. There were times where the situation was too complicated for us to get involved, or we were too close to the situation - then we would bring in an outside, neutral, party.As a result of our work, we began to watch the murder rate drop in St. Thomas, from 31 murders to zero, in a three-year period. The murder rate was about 31 people when we began – that’s 31 killed in one year, just in the St. Thomas development. That went down to fourteen the next year, then to six, then zero.

We were also able to address police brutality. There were rumors that people were being targeted and gunned down by the New Orleans police department. There was this group (of police) called the headhunters, who rode around with black baby doll heads on the hood of their police car. We were able to deal with that matter and have those officers removed from out of not only St. Thomas, but the entire 6th district police area, because they were terrorizing not only St. Thomas, but also the other public housing sites in that district.

JF: How would you describe Police/Community Relations in New Orleans?

KB: Folks are being criminalized. When the issue of race in particular comes into play, the New Orleans police department is not unique. When you look historically, the police department has been one of the biggest terrorists in our neighborhoods, and that’s across the country, and those relationships haven’t changed much. The faces of politicians have changed, that’s it

.JF: What do you mean when you say your community was already organized?

KB: New Orleans has been doing organizing for years, and people who want to come in solidarity should be respectful with when and how they enter a community. There was a lot of organizing in St. Thomas; we developed a lot of leaders. The people who were 9 to 12 years old when we started, in 7 years, led that program, and were the staff. That was the intention, to pass it on to that next generation of leaders.

JF: St. Thomas was later torn down, and the former residents were dispersed across the city. Now, HUD is talking about demolishing virtually all public housing in the city. Are public housing residents being demonized?

KB: People are being blamed for crime. They say that crime is a public housing issue. Ask yourself, where did the dollars for housing go? We saw our greatest deterioration in public housing and downsizing of funding and staff in the 1970s and 80s. This was a backlash to integration. Fifty percent of St. Thomas was vacant. The money was pulled out of public housing. The staff was downsized.“Hope VI” (the federal program to transform public housing) is a joke. This country is getting out of the public accommodation business. Look at health care; look at charter schools and the privatization of schools. The country is downsizing from public responsibility. Public education was developed for white people initially. In the 60s, people of color integrated the system, and it became time for the government to get out of that service.

JF: What was your work after Black Men United For Change?

KB: I also worked with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. I’m what’s called a core trainer – I’ve been training with them almost all of my years as an organizer. They do Undoing Racism workshops, a training model to become an antiracist organizer. We believe that skills alone are not enough to become an organizer. You have to understand the culture and time we live in. Just because you develop skills, that doesn’t make you a better organizer. If you don’t address the issue of racism, then you just become a skillful racistWe developed Freedom Schools, modeled on the freedom schools that came out of the 60s, to take a message of antiracism to a younger audience. Kids as young as 9 years old would participate. We would help kids get clarity on institutional power as it relates to racism. That experience helped shape my political perspective.

Now I’m working with Critical Resistance. I appreciate how they work as an organization: nonhierarchical, and conscious of issues of accountability.Being one who went through the criminal justice system I know what it means to be on the inside of those walls just as much I know how important it is to be on the outside bringing light to the inhumane treatment people get on the inside.

JF: What is Critical Resistance’s current campaign?

KB: Amnesty for prisoners of Katrina is the campaign Critical Resistance has taken on. We are asking for forgiveness for all charges of those who were arrested for so-called looting, for trying to survive after the stormWe have people a year later who still haven’t seen the inside of a courtroom, mainly because the court system was destroyed. The evidence was washed away, records have deteriorated, public defenders were laid off, and people are lost in the system. People cannot prepare for trial because evidence has been destroyed. A young man appeared last week who was lost in the system for thirteen months. They just found him. How many other cases are there like that? The law says the District Attorney is supposed to accept or deny charges within 60 days for state charges, yet there are people missing in the system for months. There’s no real rehabilitation, just warehousing.

Camp Greyhound (The prison set up in New Orleans greyhound bus station in the first week post-Katrina) is not the best way to rebuild New Orleans – and yet it was the first piece of infrastructure rebuilt in the wake of Katrina. We need food, shelter, clothing, and jobs. We need that for the right of return, for people to have safe communities.

JF: What is your experience with the criminal justice system?

KB: December 1 of 1988, I was arrested for drugs and a gun charge. Just like many teenagers, I made a mistake. I was 19, there were things pushing me into that kind of lifestyle. But I made choices for myself and I decided not to have myself pushed into that system.

JF: How long were you incarcerated?

KB: I only did two and a half years. That’s mainly because growing up I was always around folks that talked about the plight of black folks in this country, and the issues that are impacting us. That spirit, the lessons from those conversations, would visit me in prison.I want to say this, as it relates to amnesty: For two years before Katrina, I was unemployed. I could not find work in this city. For something that happened 18 years ago, I couldn’t get a job in this town. When does a person pay his debt to society? I served two years in prison. I’ve worked with youth around this country. I’m involved in all kinds of civic organizations, I made a complete change in my life and I still can’t get work. Now there’s legislation saying if you’ve ever been convicted you cant get financial aid for school. How does this effect people who are trying to turn their life around? What are we talking about when we talk about safety?When I was in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), I stayed in what was called “Tent City,” which has now been re-erected, post-Katrina. It was a makeshift jail outside. It was 14 degrees and we were sleeping outside on cots without a heater. OPP had at that time at least12 different facilities in this city. We should question that – why are there so many jails in one town?

Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate in the state. We also have the third poorest education system in this country. With the No Child Left Behind act, people are being pushed out of school.What’s going to be the focus when we rebuild this city? Is the focus on bricks and mortar, or people? There’s a lot of talk about levees and infrastructure and hotels and businesses, but very little talk about bringing people back and making sure they have wages and benefits, a quality education and health care. Politicians and media talk about crime and safety, but there’s another agenda, and that agenda has racism written all over it. There’s no plan to bring people back to this city. People have been planning to remove the poor Blacks of this city. Using the issue of crime has been one way to do it. So it’s another mass gentrification scheme. Right now, they’re talking about tearing down public housing that could provide housing and right of return for 5000 families, but developers are talking about money-making schemes right now, and planning to benefit from other’s misery.

JF: What happened to St. Thomas?

KB: St Thomas was a painful experience for me. It helped me understand this thing called community organizing, so that’s positive. But it is painful because of the end results. They said they would turn our community into a mixed income community. Community folks that participated didn’t know the scope of what they were dealing with. Developers ended up gentrifying and developing the community out of existence.

JF: What are the organizing lessons you’ve learned in New Orleans post-Katrina?

KB: One lesson I’ve learned is that this is bigger than me. We can’t use the model we used to use. We have to look for different models. We can’t see the issue of prisoners as a civil rights issue; this is a human rights issue.

Monday, December 04, 2006

New Orleans News

Nagin picks director for recovery office

200,000 returned to N.O. by August

Louisiana legislature to take up insurance crisis

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Some Updates

FEMA homes were destroyed in storage

Football eases Katrina victim's move

New Orleans park recovers, but slowly

Sunday, October 15, 2006

33 Katrina victims still unidentified

33 Katrina victims still unidentified

La. voters to weigh fate of levee boards

Continuing Crisis in New Orleans' Schools
By Jordan Flaherty
From Left Turn Magazine, Fall 2006

This week I visited New Orleans’ John McDonogh High School, where students organized a press conference to call attention to the conditions at their school. At the school, which is is one of 17 former city schools now under state control, security guards outnumber teachers, school lunches are sometimes served still frozen, and many textbooks and other vital supplies are unavailable. The state-run school district began hiring teachers just weeks before the school year started, and is still short 21 teachers in its five high schools. “Our school has 39 security guards and three cops on staff, and only 27 teachers,” one McDonogh teacher with 250 students on her roll explained. Young, untrained, security guards were involved in three fights with students in two days last week, she added.

“Being at John Mac feels like I’m in prison,” one of the John McDonogh students declared to the assembled media and allies. “The bus ride to school feels like a trip from court to jail.”Post-Katrina New Orleans has become a battleground in the national fight over competing visions for the future of urban education. In September of 2005, with the city evacuated and all the schools closed, with no parents or students or teachers around, suddenly anything became possible. Instead of making gradual changes to an existing system, there was no system, and virtually no rules or limits on what could be changed. “The framework has been exploded since the storm,” confirms New Orleans-based education reform advocate Aesha Rasheed. “It’s almost a blank slate for whatever agenda people want to bring.”

Before the storm and displacement, New Orleans had 128 public schools, 4,000 teachers and 60,000 students. The system was widely regarded as in crisis. Three quarters of eighth-graders failed to score at the basic level on state English assessments. In some schools, JROTC, the high school military recruiting program, was a mandatory class, mostly because funding wasn’t available for other programs. Ten school superintendents in ten years had been fired or quit. Many parents, especially white parents, had pulled their kids out of the system—almost half of the city’s students were enrolled in private schools and parochial schools. Advocates accused the most underfunded schools of functioning as little more than a warehousing program for Black youth.

While the city’s private schools saw almost 90% of their students return, public school enrollment is at fewer than 25,000, less than half the previous levels. For those that have returned, they are attending a system completely different from the one they left, what some have referred to as a grand experiment in school reform, with more than 30 out of the 53 schools open this fall transformed into charter schools. In other words, it has become a system that now consists of a majority of publicly-funded schools freed from many of the rules and oversight that previously applied to public schools in the system.

Transformed System

From the beginning, many saw the post-Katrina landscape as an opportunity to reshape the city. Days after New Orleans was flooded, The Heritage Foundation, a right-wing think tank based in Washington, DC, was already advocating for vouchers and “market solutions” to the city’s education problems.For advocates, the radical transformation of New Orleans’ education system has created a new field of concerns. They worry that the new administrations running the schools are inexperienced and unprepared to take over the New Orleans system. “They say this is an experiment,” Tracie Washington, NAACP lawyer and education advocate, explains, speaking about the plans of advocates of charter schools. “Tuskegee was an experiment. We have reason to be suspicious of experiments.”

The question of the role of the teachers’ union—previously the largest and perhaps strongest in the city—is another contentious issue tied up in the dispute over charters. The School Board voted in fall of 2005 to lay off all but 61 of the 7,000 school system employees, and in June let the teachers’ union contract expire with little comment and no fanfare. Those rehired at charter schools return without their union.For many New Orleanians, the union represents an important Black-led political base advocating for justice within the education system. “Elites of the city may prefer the teachers don’t come back because they represent an educated class of Black New Orleans, with steady income, seniority, job protection,” Jacques Morial, community advocate and brother of former mayor Marc Morial, said at a recent forum.

According to education activists, students whose parents are able to actively advocate for them have been able to get into better public schools, but for those who have difficulty managing the system of applications and red tape, their options are reduced. “Suffice it to say that the old system worked for people with higher education, with more resources,” Mtangulizi Sanyinka project manager of New Orleans’ African American Leadership Project tells me. “It wasn’t that the system didn’t work at all, it didn’t work for poor people.”“There is an access barrier,” Rasheed confirms. “In the old New Orleans, charters were an island in a sea of city schools. That’s no longer the case. There’s currently a big group of kids that don’t have a school. Some think it was one or two thousand in the spring semester. That’s a lot considering you had only 12,000 total enrolled.”

Pre-Katrina, thousands of kids every year didn’t pre-register for any school—they simply showed up at their neighborhood school on the first day, and the school found them a place. Now, most of those neighborhood schools don’t exist, and those that do are no longer obligated to place students who just show up.

Crossed Boundaries

Nationwide, the fight over charter schools has crossed traditional boundaries of left and right, with many progressives supporting charter schools as a potential tool for community control of schools, and an opportunity to try education strategies that would not be possible through the common bureaucracy of public schools. Opponents see charter schools as a back-door strategy used by conservatives to undermine public schools, and to create a two-tiered “separate but equal” hierarchy within the public school system.The struggle over what form the education system will take is also fundamental to the larger issue of who will return and when. At forums, at neighborhood meetings, and throughout the city and its Diaspora, parents are anxious. In Houston and Atlanta, displaced parents are asking if their kids will have a school if they return.

In the city, high school students at some of the most underfunded schools have formed an organization, the Fyre Youth Squad, to advocate for change in the schools. The group organized this week’s press conference, and many adult allies have attended the group’s twice-weekly meetings at John McDonogh to support the student’s organizing efforts.Students and their allies are fighting to not be left behind, but it’s an uphill struggle with more questions than answers. Despite all of the promises from charter school advocates, Tracie Washington, NAACP lawyer and education advocate, is suspicious of their motives. “If you kick me out of my kitchen because you say you can cook better than me,” she says, “then your gumbo better taste better than mine.”

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Saints reflect on season of displacement

The team that everyone loves...and hates, is bringing new hope to New Orleans.

Arm Against Katricians

Arm Against 'Katricians,' Gun Dealers Tell Houston

Hurricane evacuees protest as hostility spills out over rising crime rates in the city.

By Miguel Bustillo, Times Staff Writer
September 18, 2006

HOUSTON — When the "Katricians" rise up in violence, Houstonians had better be packing some serious heat.That's the inflammatory message of a new gun-shop commercial on the radio that gives Hurricane Katrina evacuees a vaguely alien-sounding name, and advises Texans to take up arms to defend themselves against crimes committed by the newcomers.

"When the 'Katricians' themselves are quoted as saying the crime rate is gonna go up if they don't get more free rent, then it's time to get your concealed-handgun license," warns the radio ad by Jim Pruett, who co-hosts a bombastic talk-radio show and owns Jim Pruett's Guns & Ammo, a self-styled "anti-terrorist headquarters" that sells knives, shotguns, semi-automatic rifles and other weapons. As Pruett describes the dangers posed by "Katricians," glass can be heard shattering, and a bell tolling ominously.

The radio spot highlights what many gun-store owners say is a hot trend in Houston: trade in weapons amid a surge in the homicide rate that police attribute to the more than 100,000 hurricane evacuees still in the city. Though the gun sale reports are largely anecdotal, Texas officials said applications for concealed-weapons permits were up statewide: 60,328 from Jan. 1 to Sept. 1 this year, compared with 46,298 for the same period last year.

The Houston Police Department estimates that one in five homicides in the city now involves Katrina evacuees — as suspect, victim or both. Many Houston residents, including some evacuees, are worried that crime will only get worse once housing and other public assistance end.Hurricane evacuees and the nonprofit groups that have been helping them rebuild their lives are saddened by what they see as a growing tendency in Texas to stereotype the predominantly African American newcomers as hoodlums, based on the crimes of a few.

Parnell "Herb" Herbert, a spoken-word artist and community organizer from New Orleans who wound up in Houston after the hurricane, said he chafed at being called a Katrina evacuee because he believed the label had taken on a negative connotation in the media and did not describe who he was."I am not a Katrina evacuee; I am a New Orleanian living in Houston. I am a father, a grandfather, a Vietnam vet," Herbert said."Now this guy wants to call me a 'Katrician' or 'Katrinanite' or whatever, which sounds like Martian or something," he added. "It's frightening to see what is happening. When we were brought here from Africa, we were dehumanized."

Though evacuees see the over the generalizations, they are no longer surprised to hear them expressed. This month, Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman, a cigar-chomping humorist and musician running a populist campaign, joined the chorus of anti-evacuee sentiment. "The musicians and artists have mostly moved back to New Orleans now," Friedman said. "The crackheads and the thugs have decided to stay here. They want to stay here. I think they got their hustle on, and we need to get ours."Friedman later clarified that he was not calling all evacuees in Texas crackheads and thugs, and his campaign disclosed that the independent candidate had been housing a New Orleans musician friend since the storm.

Nonetheless, evacuees and activists accused him of pandering to voters' racial prejudice.Hostility toward evacuees also spilled out during an emotional community meeting in west Houston on Aug. 30, when a packed crowd of 1,700 demanded that Mayor Bill White send the Louisianans home. The west Houston area has been housing the majority of evacuees, and has been particularly hard hit by the increase in homicides. Houston's Police Patrolmen's Union, which is in a nasty political fight with Police Chief Harold Hurtt, has put up billboards that portray the city as unsafe.

In that climate, many gun dealers report strong sales and maintain that customers are citing an evacuee-fueled crime rate as the reason they are choosing to arm themselves."When crime rates shoot up, business goes up. It's that simple," said Art May, 50, owner of the Republic Arms shop. "Right now, with the news talking about crime being high in Houston because of all the Katrina people, people who have been putting off getting a gun are finally coming in. These aren't people looking for high-dollar hunting rifles. They're looking for weapons of self-defense."

May said he believed gun buying had peaked, because his sales, which were up 50% at one point, had slowed in recent weeks. Some gun dealers questioned whether there ever was a trend, saying that although sales were strong just after the storm, they quickly trailed off.But at Jim Pruett's Guns & Ammo, in a strip mall on the northwest outskirts of town, the staff said business was booming, thanks in part to Pruett's ad.The store has always sold its gear with a sense of humor: Its website plays "Bad Boys," the theme from the television show "Cops," and advises, "Be polite and courteous, but have a plan to KILL everybody you meet." The walls are lined with pistol-grip shotguns and semiautomatic rifles, and glass cases full of oversize knives and handguns for seemingly every taste — from $400 pistols to a massive tiger-striped Desert Eagle for $1,600.

During the lunch hour on Friday, Pruett, 62, played a recording of his radio spot and sounded quite pleased with himself. "God, that's great," he said. As he sat behind the counter, beneath coils of ornamental razor wire along the ceiling, he said he did not consider his commercial racist and had no regrets."The storm washed up a lot of people who live off crime and getting the loot," he said. "The people who are here and have gotten jobs, that's a wonderful thing. They're Houstonians now. But the people who are still unemployed a year later, who are just sitting around doing nothing, they're 'Katricians.' That's the way I see it."