About ten years ago, Michael Moore complained that while US leftists raced to Nicaragua to pick coffee, they did not come to his hometown of Flint Michigan when it was being destroyed by plant closures. There was some truth to this. The Central America solidarity movement, which consumed quite a bit of the energy of the predominantly white progressive movement in the eighties, was far better organized and dynamic than any parallel movement against plant closures (and other effects of Reaganism) domestically. But Moore’s statement has always struck me as unfair. Revolutionary movements in Nicaragua and El Salvador, under constant attack from US-backed terrorists, called on North Americans to directly assist them. It was to the credit of people who went to those countries that they responded to this call. Where was the similar leadership in Flint? Even in Roger and Me, Moore’s poignant documentary about that city, he provides little evidence that community or union leadership was able to articulate a strategy to fight back, let alone incorporate activists unfamiliar with the city.
Now a new situation with some parallels presents itself. While most of the predominantly white peace movement has been energetically preparing for an anti-war march on September 24, a massive natural’ disaster has unfolded in New Orleans and the Gulf Region. The horrible spectacle of tens of thousands of people, mostly poor, mostly African American, left behind to wither and die as they waited and waited for a rescue response has powerfully thrust the issue of racism back onto the American political radar. Once again, a predominantly white movement, mostly focused foreign policy issues, is challenged to respond to a domestic crisis involving people who don’t look much like those who come to our meetings and demonstrations. To put it bluntly, are we, like the neoconservatives around George Bush, more comfortable with struggles far from the shores of the US than with overcoming differences locally in order to remake and rebuild the American nation?
The initial response of the peace movement has been encouraging. People are constantly repeating that the National Guard, which could have helped, was bogged down in the quagmire in Iraq. People are also talking about the way money to rebuild the levee in New Orleans was instead diverted to Iraq. Locally (the Piedmont of North Carolina), activists are frantically raising funds to deliver three busloads of goods to New Orleans, and to return with three busloads of evacuees to our region. I’m confident similar efforts are underway in many places. Still, this initial response, while laudable, is only the tip of the iceberg.
It is not a simple question of funds, or the competency of George W. Bush. It is also worth noting the alarming way order has been restored in New Orleans. The New York Times, for example, yesterday had on their website a picture of a makeshift prison for looters as an appropriate illustration of the return of order. Democracy Now has reported that many National Guard seemed more intent on restoring order’ than engaging in rescue missions.
Reports are also trickling in that refugee camps parallel prison-like conditions. As in Iraq, liberation seems to mean more policing and incarceration. The US, having liberated’ Iraq, is now intent on reorganizing it according to priorities such as neoliberal draining of capital to the US and the construction of permanent military bases. Iraqis who stand in the way of these plans are regarded as dangerous insurgents’. Now that New Orleans has been rescued’, what priorities will be embedded in its rebuilding? Who will be regarded as dangerous obstacles to democracy?
These comparisons are intended to highlight the contours of the political struggles soon to come up around New Orleans. These questions are, concretely, a part of the same set of questions inspired by the occupation of Iraq. In order to sustain an unsustainable lifestyle and power position, the dominant groups in the US must reorganize spaces all over the country and the world. Necessarily this involves producing chaos, pushing a lot of people around, and locking up many others.
This struggle, however, differs from the crisis in Flint in the 80s because community leadership exists on the ground, and now in the diaspora. A list of grassroots groups involved in hurricane relief, some based in New Orleans, others based elsewhere, can be found at http://www.sparkplugfoundation.org/katrinarelief.html. Perhaps the most strategic group is Community Labor United, which is calling for grassroots oversight of the relief process. Their statement reads, in part, “The people of New Orleans will not go quietly into the night, scattering across this country to become homeless in countless other cities while federal relief funds are funneled into rebuilding casinos, hotels, chemical plants and the wealthy white districts of New Orleans like the French Quarter and the Garden District. We will not stand idly by while this disaster is used as an opportunity to replace our homes with newly built mansions and condos in a gentrified New Orleans. Describing themselves, they say “Community Labor United (CLU), a coalition of the progressive organizations throughout New Orleans, has brought community members together for eight years to discuss socio-economic issues. We have been communicating with people from The Quality Education as a Civil Right Campaign, the Algebra Project, the Young People’s Project and the Louisiana Research Institute for Community Empowerment.
Anyone who has followed grassroots mobilizations over the last decade cannot be surprised at the existence of Community Labor United. Similar coalitions of labor unions, church groups, non-profits, and other activist organizations have been forming all over the country. Several characteristics are striking. First, these groups tend to combine the politics of class, environmentalism, and race, moving beyond the old hand-wringing about what is the truly most profound oppression (the validity of this sort of analysis has been amply born out in New Orleans over the last week, when an environmental calamity hit a poor community of color). Secondly, while some key activists in these coalitions may be members of various socialist groupings, they are not typically dominated by them. Nor are they typically a mobilizing tool of the Democratic Party. They have much more autonomy than groups that grew out of efforts to create a Marxist Leninist party or came together to campaign for African American mayors in the seventies and eighties. Furthermore, national coordination among them is relatively weak. Thus they are well positioned to make pragmatic decisions about local situations, and whether there are politicians or other establishment forces that they can make provisional alliances with.
Finally, less happily, there is a considerable gulf between these coalitions, which are often predominantly people of color, and the predominantly white progressive movement. This gulf does not have its roots in political analysis (both groups broadly agree that American capitalism is responsible for wars abroad, racism and environmental degradation at home, etc) so much as in priorities and social composition of groups. The predominantly white groups often seem most energized about foreign policy issues; the community-labor coalitions often focus on things like living wage campaigns or education or housing issues. To the degree that people tend to hang out with those they are most comfortable with, there is a good deal of self-selection and homogenization. Although virtually all of the predominantly white peace groups I’ve participated in have had angst-ridden sessions lamenting the lack of diversity among our membership, I’ve never seen this situation dramatically change.
What I’d like to suggest is that the imminent battle over the future of New Orleans presents both unprecedented challenges and opportunities for these two groupings–community-labor organizations rooted in communities of color, and the predominantly white peace groups”to come together and shape public debate in the US. Challenges, because struggle will have to be organized in an impoverished diaspora. Make no mistake that the powerful would like to make a bunch of important decisions before New Orleans’ citizens have time to regroup and put forth their own proposals. Opportunities, because the question of the future of New Orleans puts on the table with particular starkness questions about the future of urban space and community in general in the US. The failings of our current political economic system to meet people’s needs have been starkly laid bare. While there are dozens of worthy struggles nationwide that one could support, much like prioritizing ending the occupation of Iraq, it is incumbent to strike where the defenses of empire are weakest. Furthermore, those of us beyond New Orleans have a crucial role to play in amplifying the local voices and strengthening their hand.
There have already been some positive developments. Houston indymedia has begun to set up a radio station for the Diaspora. The liberals at True Majority have solicited donations for Community Labor United, a far more potent response than Moveon’s petition to George Bush asking him to stop blaming the victims (why not at least ask the Democratic leadership to come up with a really strong aid/anti-poverty package, as Michael Lerner has demanded?). Locally, people are talking about demanding that Durham bring some rundown houses up to code to facilitate the housing of evacuees, thus facilitating better living conditions for evacuees and general improvement in the city.
On September 24th, when tens of thousands will be protesting the war in DC, Jobs with Justice (the largest national formation of community-labor groups) will be holding its annual meeting in St. Louis. Although this scheduling conflict was unintentional, it is redolent of the way the peace movement and the community labor movement are on separate tracks, despite parallel analysis. The looming battle of New Orleans gives us an unprecedented opportunity to bring these two tracks of the American left closer together. Natural disasters are often the spark for fresh forms of organizing. After all, it was the response to the failure of earthquake relief in Nicaragua that triggered the inexorable march to revolution in that country seven years later.
STEVEN SHERMAN is a sociologist who lives in Chapel Hill North Carolina. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org