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Talkin’ Revolution

‘Talkin’ revolution’ – that’s a ‘nice’, ‘safe’ activity, says Jerry Ward, who had been invited to speak of his early involvement as a student in the Free Southern Theater, founded in 1963 in Mississippi as part of the civil rights movement, and commemorated here in New Orleans, where it eventually moved, 50 years later. ‘It’s easy to talk.’ I had been thinking something similar before arriving at Friday’s panels, only because the organizers of the wonderful 3-day event to commemorate and celebrate this radical theatre’s history had chosen a provocative title.

Academics in particular do a lot of talking about revolution and theorizing radical politics without necessarily demonstrating a great deal of commitment to the everyday messiness of actual political engagement. This particular instance of ‘talking revolution’ on a university campus (Tulane) was taking place amidst an array of other activities including dance performances, a civil rights bus tour and a variant of the Free Southern Theater’s own formalistic invention: the story-circle. I was a bit sorry that the only part I was able to attend consisted of the ‘academic’ sessions. Little did I know.

The day began with the singing of freedom songs, a theme that continued into the first roundtable discussion that was concluded by a song sung by FST founder John O’Neal. This discussion was presented as an opportunity to listen and learn from our ‘elders’, a sign of respect I hear a lot over here that is markedly absent from discourse at home. The ‘elders’ certainly took advantage of their position in that what began as friendly reminiscences evolved into a very frank and sometimes difficult intra- and intergenerational dialogue. Moving to New Orleans, FST founder Doris Derby stated – to her New Orleanian descendants and hosts – was a mistake. In fact, it was a major reason for her leaving the FST. ‘Me and Doris have not been entirely honest here’, says O’Neal, conspiratorially, with regards to this move that he (and the late Gilbert Moses, the third FST founder)  supported and Derby did not: ‘as a woman we expected her not to have an opinion’ (it was not entirely clear that Derby was in on this conspiracy: sadly I wasn’t able to stay for the day’s final session dedicated to the experiences of FST women). And then later, did I hear Jerry Ward say: ‘[contemporary?] African American theatre is pathetic’? A slightly tricky pronouncement given that his audience was in large part made of up people committed to making those entities that have been inspired by FST work.

‘Theatre is dead’, claimed Kalamu ya Salaam, an FST alum whose influence on the black arts scene in New Orleans and beyond cannot be over-estimated. It seemed that in the second panel as well, polite dialogue had been traded in for some very honest and uncensored conversations. Conversations that seemed to live up to Salaam’s challenge that art always be engaged, despite the costs.

‘When you speak the truth you don’t get the support’, Carlton Turner, director of art collective Alternate ROOTS, agreed; though his insistence on theatre’s continuing power to engage community and re-engage democracy was un-fazed by Salaam’s apocalyptic pronouncement. If you continue to push the hard questions you end up on Watch List and having your conversations taped, Turner said. You keep on being deprived of money but you continue in spite of that.

A difficult dialogue to hear for academics in the arts and humanities who face shrinking job opportunities and increasing dependence on external grantmakers. In the UK, the government’s ‘impact’ agenda, which is calling on academics to demonstrate the relevance of their research beyond the ivory tower, should be about just the kind of social engagement these artists are calling for, constantly posing the question: ‘what values are you bringing into this space?’ (Turner). In reality, ‘impact’ insults both academic researchers and the wider publics that they ought to engage. It downgrades the function of research in the arts, both as an important endeavour in its own right – as a contribution to knowledge and cultural memory – and as a crucial part of teaching students, which is the principal task of arts and humanities departments. ‘Impact’ also proposes a patronizing, top-down approach to public engagement, a one-way exchange whereby the academic delivers knowledge to the people, with little consideration for community needs or reciprocity. Worst of all, ‘impact’ is about the marketization of knowledge: how can your research contribute to the UK economy?

A very different model of academic engagement had an important presence on this second panel: Jan Cohen-Cruz is an artist, scholar and former director of Imagining America, which is a consortium of US universities that have come together to work to realize the goal that higher education contribute to the greater public good, by supporting engaged scholarship and creative practice. Read their recently launched journal, Public, here. IA has been involved in all kinds of community engagement projects, including HOME, New Orleans, a project in which Cohen-Cruz and others explored the ways in which public art might play a role in rebuilding communities after Katrina.

Inevitably, conversations here turn to Katrina. An education justice activist commented that it was important to table education reform – meaning the firing of thousands of largely African American veteran teachers after Katrina, who were then replaced with largely white twenty-somethings working for Teach for America, an organization that is meant to offer the brightest teachers to the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, but which actually subjects children to inexperienced, non-unionized staff who have received just five-six weeks training. After Katrina New Orleans became the centre of the so-called ‘charter school movement’, which has subjected often traumatized students to teachers unaware of community needs, who have often had to carry through a ‘no excuses’ agenda (including draconian disciplinary measures like silent lunches and ‘benches of shame’) that traumatize students and their young teachers alike. This conversation led Catherine Michna to pose perhaps the most challenging question of the day: ‘African American communities are being pushed out of neighbourhoods, colonized, killed and imprisoned: what can theatre do?’

Hurricane Katrina, scholar James Smethurst pointed out, enacted a ‘dramatic disruption of cultural memory’. A disruption that many on the left have wanted to name ethnic cleansing. But, as Smethurst commented, a version of the Katrina disaster is playing out across the United States, as neoliberal gentrification trends continue to displace communities and exacerbate divides between rich and poor. It might also be added that these are global trends: the New York Times has recently reported that London’s soaring house prices (in sharp contrast to the dire economic situation elsewhere in the country) makes the city a ‘bubble’, a tax haven for the rich that’s been bought at the expense of long-time residents whose children can no longer afford to live there. How does one get hold of cultural memory under such circumstances, asks Smethurst?

‘Where are the children here?’ asked Ward, in another provocative contribution to conference proceedings. The presence of children, all agreed, was essential to doing the work of building an archive (of the FST – which O’Neal repeatedly stated must be seen in the light of its failures as well as its successes) to be passed on. Where were the 15 and 16 year olds? Ward insisted. This led to a fascinatingly reflexive conversation whereby the participants considered the construction of the conference programme, which though well-intentioned, they reasoned, had allowed this crucial omission.

Their hosts, Junebug Productions (an heir to the FST), under the directorship of Stephanie McKee, sat good humouredly by, presumably proud in the knowledge that they had staged an event that had allowed people to speak their truths to power and go way off-script, to the point of questioning the form of the proceedings themselves. It is tempting to compare the improvised nature of the event to a jazz performance; certainly I felt that in coming to the ‘academic’ panels, I had still got a little bit of theatre. Impromptu audience contributions broke down the boundary between performers and spectators in just the way that the FST envisaged. There were no signs of impending revolution here, but the talk challenged everybody in the room, the university as an institution, and the conference as a platform for polite, contained dialogue.  And it opened my eyes to what truly ‘talkin’ revolution’ might look like.

Some reflections on my first second line

Second line

This is my sixth visit to New Orleans but Sunday was the first time I’d made it to a second line parade. I’ve seen countless images of them in documentaries, in David Simons’ series Tremé, read about them in tourist and academic literature, even written about them in passing. And I have been told by many New Orleanians that they are the most distinctive/important/magical aspect of this city’s culture.  On Sunday I got a taste of what these commentators meant, of why jazz scholar Joel Dinerstein describes second lines as ‘little cultural miracles’.

There are so many reasons why a white visitor to the city would and should feel self-conscious about attending second lines. Images of twirling umbrellas and brass bands have become iconic symbols of New Orleans culture as it is translated into and commodified by a globalized tourist trade. These caricatured silhouettes have long been utterly disconnected from the intimate neighbourhood ritual that goes on across the city every Sunday in all but the very hottest weeks of the year. The staged versions that occur in sanctioned tourist spaces have little or no relationship to actual parades where members of an established club annually dance into and weave their way through a well-trodden route of the city’s streets accompanied by a brass band and a group of followers, many of whom know each other and live in the area, and who constitute the ‘second line’.

New Orleans tourism, which feeds on many aspects of the city’s unique black cultural traditions, is such a disproportionately large aspect of the city’s economy that it has quite literally dispossessed peoples and communities of key city spaces. The French Quarter, the site of the original city and what many still see as its spiritual core, has been colonized by tourism to the extent that many locals can hardly bear to go there. It is as though aspects of the culture have been irretrievably lost through touristic appropriations – something that is not a real threat in cities like New York or London which are just too big to be overwhelmed by the millions who visit them each year. These are global cities that are in any case defined by routes as opposed to roots (a distinction proposed by Paul Gilroy in 1993).

I myself still live about two miles from the London hospital in which I was born, but this is not a mark of distinction in London as it is in New Orleans. I do not feel that I have any more claim to London than friends of mine who have made it their home but who were not born there. And while I could echo the classic New Orleanian ‘born and raised’ mantra with honesty, I cannot claim, as so many can here, that generations of my family have lived in London. London is a globalized city of transients who have made it their home – for a while. I personally cannot imagine any other home but what makes it so special is not a culture that has been preserved but that which is constantly in flux, the newness that has arrived through myriad waves of immigration.

That’s why I have never thought twice about going to the annual Notting Hill Carnival which celebrates African-Caribbean culture in the city. The carnival is probably more like Mardi Gras than the second line but is nonetheless the closest thing London has to the parades – in that it embodies distinctively black musical and performance traditions and involves marginalized identities reclaiming the streets from which they’ve been excluded. Especially now that Notting Hill has become a gentrified enclave for the super-rich, there is something very satisfying about those streets hosting Europe’s biggest party. This is an enormous festival that mocks claims to an exclusive ‘indigeneity’ made by white racists like the BNP (British Nationalist Party).

The second line, in contrast, is an intimate, indigenous tradition. The parades may resemble those that go on elsewhere – a number of scholars have pointed to their similarities with parades in West Africa – but second lines as we see them now were born and raised in New Orleans. Though they have evolved from the jazz funerals that nurtured them – and which continue to coexist alongside them – much has been preserved. African Americans may have been in the majority in the city since the 1970s, with the exception of a few years after Katrina, but they have been an oppressed majority that has resisted the brutal logic of racism and market capitalism in part through community rituals like second lines – that reclaim streets and neighbourhoods that have often been marked violent no-go areas by police and the press. They celebrate communal roots that have been denigrated.

The tourist appropriation of second lines thus takes place in the context of a culture that prizes the native like nowhere else I’ve ever been: you can have lived in the city for decades but if you weren’t born here, you aren’t a true New Orleanian. You will in fact be unlovingly known as a ‘transplant’ for as long as you live here, even if your children qualify for native status. New Orleans has famously boasted the highest number of native-born residents among major American cities for some time (77% according to the 2000 census), and while this changed after Katrina, evidence suggests that numbers are recovering (the question of nativity was dropped from the 2010 census, but Richard Campanella of Tulane University estimates that the current percentage of New Orleanians who were born in Louisiana is in the low 70s). The city also has the lowest number of foreign-born residents in the US. This makes for a real tension between a globalized tourist industry on the one hand, which threatens to cannibalize local deep-rooted traditions on the other – traditions that come from some of the most close-knit communities in the nation.

This city is full of paradoxes, and one of the most striking, it seems to me, is the fact that it is both so exposed to its ‘outsides’ culturally – the Caribbean, Africa, Europe – and yet so insular in other ways, often in the performance of those very traditions that attest to New Orleans’ transnational coordinates. This insularity has often been portrayed negatively, as parochial, even stagnant. These accounts often cast the post-Katrina influx of ‘new blood’ as an opportunity for the city to ‘move on’; I have even heard some people describe this process as ‘modernization’.  It is though this insularity that has been the incubator of the traditions that make New Orleans so unique. Thus the post-Katrina ‘opening up’ of the city not only threatens these traditions but, ironically, the tourist trade that is parasitic upon them – and which has driven much post-Katrina ‘development’.   

Post-storm New Orleans has been the recipient of several waves of ‘transplants’ that keep on coming. These transplants have contributed to the racialized gentrification patterns that were on the agenda before Katrina provided the ‘opportunity’ to push them through – and displace long-time residents, families and communities. Suddenly the spaces reclaimed by second liners are no longer no-go areas but on the contrary, have become spaces of white desire. It is no wonder then that white tourists/transplants with cameras are not necessarily welcomed to the party.  

That is not to say that the social aid and pleasure clubs that host the parades, or indeed the neighbourhoods they dance through, are themselves exclusively black, though the traditions from which they derive are undoubtedly African American. Those who argue for ‘black only’ parades do not, in my view, argue in the name of a ‘reverse racism’ – which is a meaningless term in a culture loaded against peoples of colour – but they do project a problematically essentialist and parochial understanding of culture (see some of the thoughtful discussion in the comments of this fascinating blog piece). This though still leaves little room for the white outsider/colonizer.

Nonetheless we went, and loved it. In fact, I was surprised that my sense of discomfort was less to do with my presence at the parade than with the feeling that the real disrespect came from my academic habit of over-thinking the event, of being at all self-conscious at an event that seemed to celebrate its absence. And as has become a familiar sight at most public events these days, phones, i-pads, cameras were everywhere being waved around as signs of participation. In fact, it struck me that pointing a camera was almost a gesture of respect: people were filming each other dancing, offering themselves up to cameras everywhere. I went with the resolve that if my camera did come out of my bag, it would be used only with permission. I came away feeling that asking for permission to take photographs in the midst of an overtly public display of fantastic moves, sounds and fun would have been an insult to all concerned.

I have seen second line parades compared to block parties in their intimacy, but it seems crucial to remember that they are moving block parties (as Dinerstein points out here) that accumulate people as they move through the city. To continue to play on what can become a somewhat reductive but nonetheless useful contrast that has animated much scholarship in black and postcolonial studies since the publication of Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993), routes are perhaps, after all, as crucial to second line parades as roots. Incubation is one way of thinking about what feeds local cultures, but having air to breath, grow and develop is surely a crucial ingredient.

I write this not to give myself permission to attend every second line parade between now and our departure in December. Prince of Wales’ 85th second line paraded just a few blocks from where we are living. I might have to step back into consideration mode before making the decision to attend one that didn’t intersect with a space that we have temporarily made our home. But before doing that I might also want to consider the theme of Sunday’s parade: ‘Can’t we all get along?’ More likely than not this is referring to intra- as opposed to inter-community strife – but either way it poses a good basic question. Certainly my two-year old daughter, blissfully unaware of the dilemmas, breathless in her determination to keep up with the ‘’brellas and trumpets’, thought we could. I will regret the day that she has to qualify her answer. Not because of some misplaced desire that she remain innocent – or ignorant – of her privilege. But just because her spontaneity seemed to fit the occasion, and her trumpets and umbrellas, in my view, were worlds away from the shallow tourist caricatures that would otherwise have formed her experience of second lines.

I am well aware that second lines are not mine, or my daughter’s, for the taking. I just couldn’t help feeling that this was a very welcoming and inclusive event that seemed to invite public participation. How to participate without stealing? How to avoid being so respectful you actually veer into disrespect? It’s a minefield. But I’m glad we decided to join in.


‘Karen’ and the Caribbean

Tulane fair

This is the first time I’ve visited New Orleans during hurricane season. It’s been a much less active season than anticipated and 10 September, the peak of the season – and incidentally the day we arrived – passed without a single hurricane and just one named storm making landfall along the US Gulf Coast. Andrea did not menace south-eastern Louisiana making Karen the first, if not apparently very dramatic, threat to the city of New Orleans in 2013.

For those from more temperate climes the threat of Karen was initially mildly alarming, but we have been reassured: fill up your tank, get some supplies in, and locate your flashlights. An evacuation is not anticipated, says the mayor’s office: ‘prepare families and homes to shelter in-place.’ Certainly the festive atmosphere on Tulane University’s beautifully landscaped and opulent Uptown campus (pictured above) this Friday evening did not exude anxiety. Indeed, gathering supplies and battening down the hatches is possibly a rather comfortable ritual in a wealthy neighbourhood like Uptown (that we have been temporarily parachuted into) that feels, despite its relative geographic proximity to the central business district, distinctly suburban – if with a slightly exotic twist (tropical vegetation, the Creole architecture for which New Orleans is famous – a beautiful suburb, which feels like a vaguely oxymoronic formulation). This is an activity for an atomized car culture for whom the message: ‘you’re on your own’ is, perhaps, interpreted by many as a sign of freedom. Especially in a neighbourhood on high ground that was mostly spared Katrina’s floodwaters.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) landing page is currently branded with the following message: ‘Due to the Federal government shutdown, and most associated web sites are unavailable… Only web sites necessary to protect lives and property will be maintained.’ And it turns out that the weather section is one such site. Nonetheless it is interesting to reflect on the implications of a government shutdown on the eve of a tropical storm 8 years after Hurricane Katrina, which highlighted a different kind of government shutdown, the kind that in fact resulted from the same disastrous political context that frames the current shutdown: political resistance to government provision of even the most basic social safety nets (specifically in the current context, healthcare).

This political impulse, and indeed the hermetically sealed experience of middle class suburban life, is worlds away from the subject of a conference I’ve attended over the last few days: ‘Radical Caribbeans’. Hosted by Tulane’s Cuban and Caribbean Studies Institute, the programme was packed with sessions dedicated to examining the aesthetics and politics of collectives, particularly those collectives that seek to represent the most disenfranchised peoples – in economic, environmental, racial, and gendered terms. And in fact, as one session on Thursday explicitly highlighted, aspects of New Orleans culture are marked by radical political and aesthetic constellations that radiate from and back to the Caribbean and other black diasporic locations – even if these connections are all but invisible in the charming but slightly bland atmosphere of Uptown.

The second line parades for which the city is now famous derive from the mutual aid societies that sprung up in working class black communities for whom the government shutdown – or at least rollback – has long been in operation. The city is also home to the Mardi Gras Indians – groups of African American men who pay tribute – through costume, music and dance – to Native American culture and, many argue, the Native American tribes who aided Louisiana’s large maroon population in the 18th century. The post-Katrina community organizing that has attempted to resist the neoliberal remaking of New Orleans – involving the dismantling of public education, health and transportation – might be seen as a contemporary chapter in this kind of activism that has resisted government oppression, dysfunction and rollback.

New Orleans has been described by many as a ‘Caribbean city’, and not just because of its sub-tropical climate and the fact that some parts of it look and feel like Port of Spain. A radical critique of the ideology of work is embedded in the city’s myriad festivals of which Mardi Gras is only the most prominent example. While the statement that New Orleans operates on ‘Caribbean time’ is usually a derogatory one, both to New Orleans and the rest of the Caribbean, there is something quite interesting and genuinely resistant behind the caricature. But the prejudice endures.

It is no coincidence that reading David Brooks on the Haitian earthquake in 2010 is curiously reminiscent of his stance on New Orleans in 2005:

Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

It’s hard not to feel that New Orleans too is a ‘progress-resistant’ culture – that is similarly crying out for the cure of middle-class American values – according to Brooks:

The first rule of the rebuilding effort should be: Nothing Like Before. Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago, leaving neighborhoods where roughly three-quarters of the people were poor.

In those cultural zones, many people dropped out of high school, so it seemed normal to drop out of high school. Many teenage girls had babies, so it seemed normal to become a teenage mother. It was hard for men to get stable jobs, so it was not abnormal for them to commit crimes and hop from one relationship to another. Many people lacked marketable social skills, so it was hard for young people to learn these skills from parents, neighbors and peers.

If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods, then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.

Both Haiti and New Orleans have been on the receiving end of ‘structural adjustment’ programmes initiated by the US that have seriously damaged indigenous economies and cultures. They are part of the same political ecology, battered both by racism and storms that often form in the Caribbean and head towards the US Gulf Coast. The fact that many storms that make landfall in the United States often batter Caribbean islands on route is only ever a footnote of global news coverage. It was hardly mentioned in the western press in 2012 that Hurricane Sandy devastated an already devastated Haiti – less than two years after the earthquake – on its way to New York. While Katrina sparked the attention of a global news network alive to anything occurring in the United States, one only needs to compare the constructions of New York in the wake of Sandy to those of post-Katrina New Orleans – or indeed the constructions of 9/11 and Katrina survivors – to understand something of the marginal status of New Orleans in the larger national imaginary.

Karen formed in the Gulf of Mexico where she has, apparently, and thankfully, become ‘disorganized’. But she serves as a reminder that tropical storms are a transamerican reality that might help us think beyond atomized cultural habits. It is sensible to gather supplies if you’re about to be hit by a severe weather event, but it is worth remembering that the hoarding and monopolization of resources, the privatization of community, is precisely why some groups are so vulnerable. Where others stay dry.




Rising Tide from the outside

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.