For an outsider who arrived in New Orleans earlier this week, an ideal window onto current conversations in the post-Katrina city offered itself this weekend: a surprisingly intimate conference on the future of New Orleans. Rising Tide started out 8 years ago as a reflection of the online community that grew up in response to Hurricane Katrina. Its activist roots are apparent in the string of conversations they have hosted on racial and environmental justice, the charter school movement, big oil. The presence of large numbers of social media geeks wielding various techy instruments makes for a quirky atmosphere that is vaguely in tension with ideas of authenticity and geographically situated neighbourhoods frequently invoked by panellists. But the commitment of the organizers is impossible to miss. And the need for bloggers to cross the distances often sustained by online conversation and meet face to face was movingly put at the Ashley Morris award ceremony mid-way through the day.
The day began with a thoughtful and fascinating panel from MelaNated, an art collective for writers of color, which touched on all kinds of discomforting topics for those who reside on the outskirts of their objects of interest. Being honest about what you don’t know seemed like good advice.
The second session plunged into one of the most controversial developments in post-Katrina New Orleans: the proliferation of charter schools (i.e. public schools with devolved powers and budgets which mean that their principals become CEOs who often behave more like the heads of private companies than public schools). The comment made by educational campaigner Aesha Rasheed summed up the tenor of this conversation: ‘here we are with the reality that we have…’ The lone voice that continued to contest that reality was the one parent on the panel (teachers were oddly not represented) whose instinct to question the desirability of charter schools seemed fully vindicated by the chaotic portrait that emerged of the New Orleans school ‘system’ (as one panellist pointed out, the decentralization that enables charter schools makes them fundamentally opposed to the kind of standardization that a fully functioning system requires).
The expertise on this panel was impressive – Jaimme Collins’ legal perspectives managed to be both sharp and impassioned, Steve Beatty’s and Marta Jewson’s work covering charter schools for The Lens and holding them to public account is clearly vital, and Aesha Rasheed is unquestionably committed to public schools, even if she sees the dismantling of the pre-Katrina system as a positive step. But words like ‘privatization’ and ‘neoliberalism’ were conspicuous by their absence, hovering just beneath the surface of the single voice of parental scepticism. This absence was particularly ironic given the constant recourse to ideas of shared values, principles, goals: all panellists agreed on the need for a standardized application system – currently being configured as the ‘OneApp’ – to enable equal access to a system that enables schools to pick and choose students as they please and thus appropriate the mantra of ‘choice’ for themselves (as is the case with many ‘public-private initiatives’ – as they’ve been named in the UK – which transform services into commodities and citizens into consumers). All panellists agreed that charter schools need to be held up to public scrutiny. And all felt that there needed to be some kind of shared understanding of what it means to provide quality education. But ‘here we are with the reality we have.’
This reality has yielded some astonishing and inspirational developments in post-Katrina New Orleans, and is in fact part of the reason that Rising Tide came into being. As editor of The Lens Steve Beatty explained, in 2006 residents across New Orleans began to find a voice, both on and off line. The wave of community organizing that defended the city against attacks from the euphemistically named Bring New Orleans Back Commission – which proposed converting large areas of the city’s historic neighbourhoods into green spaces – and various other demolition projects (sadly the campaign to save New Orleans’ public housing projects, long threatened by city elites, was less successful) has made the city a hub of engaged citizenship. The incessant meetings that go on in neighbourhoods across New Orleans is testimony to the fact that people are thinking and talking about how they want to live in ways that are almost unthinkable in places that have not suffered equivalent devastation. But, as Beatty implied on Saturday, this activity leads to exhaustion. As a number of panellists suggested in this session on charter schools, parents have to work much harder to be involved in the new decentralized system, which hosts in excess of forty school boards, as opposed to one. Charter schools are a good example of the deeply paradoxical nature of what some have claimed to be a renewal of democracy in post-Katrina New Orleans: they point in the direction of the ‘do it yourself’ society, otherwise known as ‘the Big Society’ in the UK, where a shrinking government sells off the public commons and calls upon its citizens to step into their shoes. This is the kind of society that makes one not exactly nostalgic for old centralized hierarchies, but certainly aware that the rhetoric of horizontal relationships and flows – that has become a staple of our political aspirations as well as academic scholarship – has played nicely into the ideology of the market. Participatory democracy is hard to argue with as an ideal, but it stops being a good thing when there are no genuinely public bodies left to scrutinise.
This is a good moment for the entrance of General Russel L. Honoré, a reassuring figure of vertical power structures if ever there was one. Honoré is the man widely regarded as having restored some order to the post-Katrina city after other authorities had patently failed the Gulf Coast. He is the ‘John Wayne dude’ (Ray Nagin) who ordered his officers to put their guns down, thus turning the tide of an atmosphere poisoned by the imperatives of ‘law and order’ as opposed to ‘search and rescue’. This veritable hero made for a novel keynote speaker, confiscating mobile phones and ordering his audience to ‘stand up and repeat after me: “Give me liberty or give me death.”’ The revolutionary war turned out to be a touchstone of Honoré’s address, which used the figure of the evil British colonial administration as the organizing trope of tyrannical power throughout his talk. Those in the audience (like me) obliged to raise their hands in response to the question of whether there were any British people in the audience were (if I heard correctly) told to ‘get over it.’
The resurrection of this rather tired symbol of national unity – the British baddie – recalls an army for whom many African Americans and Native Americans opted to fight for, sensing that their freedom would not be served by the Americans. It also recalls the anti-government roots of much US ideology, which began, after all, in a revolt against British taxation. The British Empire was responsible for oppression and atrocities the world over, but Anglo-American settlers started out as part of the same bloody settler-colonial project which they continued with zeal after Independence. That is not to say that the Declaration of Independence did not encompass a truly radical vision of equality and nationhood that far surpassed anything imagined in the Old World. But that vision was and remains an unrealized dream. The American claim to have been tyrannized by the British is consequently a rather strained appropriation of innocence. Despite this, Honoré’s talk turned out to represent the most radical challenge to the status quo articulated at this meeting, precisely because it called on the need for government legislation to regulate capital.
Honoré’s central message concerned the need for environmental justice in the face of flagrant and criminal corporate irresponsibility, primarily on the part of Louisiana oil and gas industries. These industries, according to Honoré, are responsible not only for the depletion of the Louisiana wetlands, which have historically formed a natural barrier against hurricanes, but have also poisoned the air and the water and shown little regard for safety standards. The term ‘climate change’ was conspicuously absent from Honoré’s narrative, and he repeatedly affirmed his (‘foolish’ – did I hear right?) liking for the gas in his tank that runs his car and the oil needed to run his truck. He just ‘wants it to be safe!’ For Honoré this is a simple matter, requiring industry regulation rather than any drastic changes in consumer behaviour to mitigate the more devastating effects of climate change. But his suggestion that elected officials should not be allowed to take money from these industries seemed to hit at the heart of the corruption of American democracy.
Oil and gas money ‘distorts democracy’; ‘it corrupts our education’; ‘This democracy will never work so long as it is being bought.’ Honoré was asked a key question in response to his suggestion that students must be mobilized in this fight for democracy: how to mobilize a student body for whom student loans have grown exponentially in the last few decades, and whose political activism has diminished in inverse proportion. How to mobilize a population who believe that their fiscal futures rely on staying away from controversy and radicalism? Rather simplistically Honoré suggested that students ought to ‘get over it’ (like the British) and ‘stand up for what is right’ (in fact it may have been at this point that the audience was asked to stand and repeat: ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’) But his message was no less powerful: ‘This is your war. This is your time. This is your cause.’ Sadly Honoré seemed to bat to one side the call that he might run for governor, but his address forcefully made the case for the need for movement leadership of some kind, even in the age of online horizontal organizing – perhaps tempered by the advice in his own new book: Leadership in the New Normal (2012).
Honoré’s address sounded the usual clarion call to American exceptionalism: ‘people around the world’ are looking to the United States; ‘We’ve got to show them that in a democracy you can turn the situation around.’ This idea is deeply ironic for so many reasons, not least because the United States leads the world in the corruption of political life by lobbying. That this might contradict some democratic ideals is a fair point, but it has been some time since the US could claim to be a credible ‘light unto the nations’. But what was really fascinating at Rising Tide was the articulation of this nationalism in the midst of a conference about the future of New Orleans, a city that has not been associated with an ‘American future’ since the end of the nineteenth century.
The day’s final panel on tourism highlighted the city’s long association with tourism, that has largely sold the city (and particularly the French Quarter) as a kind of cultural museum gesturing back to various aspects of the imperial past – Spanish and French colonial periods, West African traditions – that arguably contain the origins of jazz and a host of other more recent African American cultural contributions distinct to the city. This construction of New Orleans as past is indicative of a kind of colonial relation, whereby the colonized subject might be imagined as having a romanticized, exotic past but is denied a future. Consequently this panel involved another complex conversation about authenticity, where the knotty intersections between tourism and culture were debated and deconstructed, and where important concepts about ‘bottom-up’ and ‘top-down’ culture were put on the table and explored. Some of the ideas here mirrored those aired in the first panel, where the need to ‘defend New Orleans’ in respect to the rest of the nation emerged as a burden placed on New Orleanians as well as a source of pride.
The literature on the city is riddled with the conflict between its exceptional status vis a vis the US and the various ways in which it might be seen as representative. Certainly the post-Katrina idea that the city might be seen as a laboratory for the national future is seductive – given New Orleans’ rather unique trajectory, its propensity to rebel against national norms – as well as dangerous given the myriad neoliberal ‘opportunities’ it promises. Spearheading the charter school movement would be a rather sad legacy for a city so steeped in what Clyde Woods has explored as its ‘blues tradition’. Championing environmental justice, a living wage and labour rights – as a number of people suggested throughout the day – would be a more fitting riff on American democracy.
New Orleans. Louisiana. The United States. The world? This seemed to be the disjunctive chain of command – one that moves both forwards and backwards – suggested by many participants who defended New Orleans against a neglectful state and nation but who nonetheless paid lip service to that state and lauded the values of that nation, however corrupted by practice those values might be. Where was the wider world? Sometimes it was hard to spot. Perhaps in relation to this conference we might name it the internet, which possibly really is a utopian zone that disassembles these hierarchies and breaks down those places called insides and outsides. But the myriad and compelling insider discourses articulated at Rising Tide suggest that there are roots that run deeper.