Won’t Bow Down: A Class Analysis of the Greater New Orleans Area

By: Khalil Ibrahim

At the risk of sounding like a tour guide, New Orleans is a city that lives in the imagination of the world. The influence of this cultural melting pot can be seen everywhere, from the music and food, to the nightlife and tourism, the meeting of Afrikan, Indigenous, Haitian, French, Spanish, and Italian cultures created a place unlike any other. Even before the colonial era, this land was known by the Indigenous peoples that inhabited it as Bulbancha, meaning “land of many tongues.”

   But ask anyone from here that didn’t move in post-Katrina to open an overpriced coffee shop and they’ll tell you there’s more to the story once you leave the hipster havens of the Bywater and the Marigny and tourist traps of the French Quarter. You can’t tell the true story of this city without knowing the history of it’s crippling poverty, violent racism, never ending segregation and repression, colonialism, genocide, the slave trade, lynchings, fascist police brutality, a corrupt to the core government that’s run like the Mafia, Katrina and it’s aftermath.

  This knowledge is crucial to move forward with any revolutionary project, because within the despair you’ll discover one of the strongest traditions of resistance in the western hemisphere. The New Orleans area saw the largest slave revolt in US history in 1811, where just up the river near LaPlace (then known as the German Coast) 200-500 slaves took up arms and marched toward the city. Although it was suppressed, the event (much like the Haitian Revolution not too long before it) sent a chill down the spine of every colonizer from here to New England. The New Zion Baptist Church in Uptown is the birthplace of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in 1957, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was voted in as leader at 28 years old. The Fifth Circuit Court of appeals is located here. Ruby Bridges was one of the first children to desegregate an all white school, William Frantz Elementary in the Upper 9th Ward in 1960.  The New Orleans chapter of the Black Panther Party, based in the slums of the Desire Projects, served some of the most downtrodden masses and faced off against one of the most racist and violent police forces in the country.

And this just scratches the surface, looking at Louisiana as a whole you’ll see revolutionary history such as the Pointe Coupée Slave revolt, the Deacons for Defense, the Angola 3 and the birthplace of revolutionaries like Huey P. Newton, Geronimo Pratt, and the parents of Fred Hampton, who is buried in Haynesville.

Looking at modern New Orleans, it’s obvious that the repressive power of white supremacy has never gone away, and in many ways has grown stronger. The brutality and fascist nature of the police, from New Orleans proper, to the police forces of Gretna (which has been referred to as the arrest capital of the US), Kenner, Westwego, and the Jefferson Parish Police, is a suffocating reality of life here. In just the last 3 years, police in Louisiana have murdered 52 people, overwhelmingly New Afrikan. If you are New Afrikan or Latino, simply not stopping long enough at a stop sign can result in being illegally searched, racially harassed, beaten, sexually assaulted and even killed. While many try to put on a friendly face, giving kids beads on Mardi Gras, trying to be mentors to youth caught up in crime, etc., the overwhelming power and support from the white public allows many to show their insidious nature open and proudly. Former Jefferson Parish Sheriff and current conservative talk radio host Newell Norman went on several racist tirades on live tv, even using racial slurs and has been defended by the white population.

The prison system, like in the rest of the state, is infamous for its gruesome violence, racism, segregation, human rights violations, torture, rape and corruption. Even in person visitation is being done away with, forcing inmates to see their family and friends through a webcam. Orleans Parish prison was founded as a place for slave owners to send rebellious Afrikan slaves to be tortured and leased out for labor by the city government, 300 years later and very little has changed.

And now what many reading this have been waiting for, let’s discuss Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Without a doubt the most significant catastrophe and example of how the white supremacist colonial regime treats oppressed nations here. Now despite what many believe, the entire city is not below sea level. One thing you have to notice though is the neighborhoods that are, and these neighborhoods are the majority New Afrikan ones located in the inner parts of the city such as Central City, the Hollygrove-Gert Town area, Gentilly, the East and almost the Entire 9th Ward (Upper and Lower). When the abysmal levees broke, the chaos of white supremacy reigned in full force. Due to the infrastructure that was needed to help the majority poor New Afrikan population escape the destruction was almost non-existent, many had to resort to riding it out in inhuman conditions at the Superdome or stay in their home with an axe ready to to escape to their roof.

When the rain passed, what followed was unspeakable destruction. Although the news would have you believing stories such as insane thugs killing members of their family over bottled water, this is only a deflection from the real crimes committed by the white power structure. New Afrikan people were gunned down in the streets indiscriminately by police, National Guard and white militias. The racist Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, Harry Lee, ordered his deputies to turn people seeking refuge on the GNO Bridge away at gunpoint so they wouldn’t enter the Westbank. Black people seeking food were killed and labeled as looters while white people were said to be “looking for survival supplies”. And this was only when they even showed that, the majority of these stories focused on irrelevant and rarely occurring cases of tv’s, jewelry, and other items being stolen to dehumanize the black population and authorize what I call a “license to kill for capitalism”.

After days of destruction, people needed to get out, and the help they received was being made to stand in the sweltering heat for several days waiting for buses. Many deaths occurred during this time, especially among the children and the elderly. They were then loaded onto these buses where they had no idea where they were destined, families were separated and the remains of those they lost left to rot in the adjacent buildings and even right on the sidewalk. When they finally reached their destinations, most were treated as subhuman by white residents of their host cities. Labeled as refugees and blamed for rising crime rates, many were forced to return and live in dangerous conditions or leave for other cities and never return.

15 years later, this disaster laid the foundations for modern problems such as rising rent prices, the predatory real estate market, gentrification, displacement and the war on local New Afrikan culture that is the lifeblood of the city. This targeting of New Afrikans is highlighted by the demolition of the housing projects, one of the cultural and social hubs of black New Orleanians, leaving thousands displaced due to the new “mixed income housing”. These new facilities house only a fraction of the former population leaving many to abandon neighborhoods where their families have lived for generations. The tight knit communities of the past are disappearing and alienation is the new reality for New Afrikan New Orleans.

As of 2020, New Orleans has also seen the violent repression of protestors in the wake of the death of George Floyd. NOPD began with kneeling alongside protesters in an act of fake solidarity, and ended with them tear gassing and shooting rubber bullets at protesters. In one incident these violent repression tactics were used against a crowd on the GNO Bridge, which had the potential to end in several deaths.

And of course, the COVID-19 pandemic, like much of the country, has disproportionately affected the city’s black community, some have estimated the damage to be even greater than Katrina. Time will only tell.

Demographics and Neighborhood Analysis

This section will mostly focus on the neighborhoods with the most revolutionary potential in New Orleans proper along with the West and East Banks of Jefferson Parish, where revolutionaries should focus. I’ll also include areas that can pose problems due to their history of racism, class or other issues. The New Orleans metro, unlike some cities, has less clear lines of race and class. The city and suburbs can be described as more of a chessboard.

Demographics

Population: 391,006 (2019 estimate)

Racial Composition 2010: New Afrikan 60.2%, Hispanic or Latino: 5.2%, Asian: 2.9%, White 33%.

Persons in poverty: 25.4%

Metro Population: 1,270,530

Orleans Parish (New Orleans Proper)

 Downtown:

Treme-Lafitte/6th Ward, 7th Ward, St. Claude, The Desire, The Florida area, most of the  Gentilly area, The St. Bernard Projects, The Iberville Projects, The East, The Lower 9th Ward.

Uptown: Central City, The St. Thomas, The Calliope, the Valence St. Area (Uptown, Freret) Gert Town, Pigeon Town, Hollygrove, Black Pearl, and parts of Mid City.

Westbank: The Algiers Neighborhoods of Behrman, The Fisher Projects, Whitney, McDonogh, McClendonville and The Cutoff.

In these New Orleans neighborhoods issues of rising rent prices, gentrification, fratricidal violence and finding cheap, healthy food are severe. The Lower 9th Ward is arguably one of the worst food deserts in the country, where the food supply almost exclusively comes from convenience stores that mark up processed foods and canned goods to ridiculous amounts. Fruits, vegetables and meat that isn’t pre-packaged is a rarity, and the closest Walmart is located a good distance away over the Parish line in Chalmette.  These stores mostly operate on selling cigarettes, liquor and other harmful goods to the community.

The Lower 9th Ward, much like other black neighborhoods, has never recovered from Katrina. The neighborhood is littered with blighted, abandoned houses and buildings, vacant lots and damaged houses many residents still live in. The area, much like other parts of the 9th Ward is very reminiscent of downtrodden rust belt  cities like St. Louis and Detroit in this aspect. Community gardens and other forms of food aid is of utmost importance here, along with organizing the people to struggle directly against class enemies. FTP-New Orleans is conducting the process of SICA in these neighborhoods and will provide regular summations and reportbacks.

This problem also affects areas of the Upper 9th Ward such as the Desire, Florida, St. Claude and most of the black neighborhoods of the East, along with the 7th Ward, the St. Bernard Projects, Central City, the Valence St. Area, The Iberville Projects, Hollygrove, and Gert Town.

Violence and drugs plague all of these areas, neighborhoods like the 7th Ward, Desire, Lower 9th Ward, Central City and Valence St. have been places without hope for generations. Due to the horrible charter school system, low paying and soul crushing jobs in the retail, temp, service and tourism industries, rising cost of living and generations of poverty, incarceration and death force most youth to resort to dealing, jacking and other means to get by on the side along with their day jobs.

Gentrification has torn out or is tearing out the heart in large portions of the city. Neighborhoods like the Bywater, Marigny, Treme, and St. Roch became havens for vulture hipsters after the storm, now home to coffee shops, art galleries, overpriced grocery stores and non-local music venues, spreading like a weed that had choked out many places that were stables of the community and has pushed the majority of black residents out.

The Treme, the oldest black neighborhood in the country, has seen it’s black population decline and its property value skyrocket, one of the hardest blows to black New Orleans.

This weed has even begun to creep into parts of Uptown, where white hipsters are seen riding bikes through neighborhoods that helped birth the foundations of black culture, only time will tell how far this will go.

Houselessness is also a huge issue, in most cases stemming from the problems I’ve mentioned before. Large camps of homeless people are located under every overpass, especially along Clairborne. It’s crucial that food, medical, clothing and hygiene aid programs for this area are a large focus of mass work in the city.

Outside of these areas neighborhoods such as Audubon, Lakeview, Bayou St. John and Carrolton are mostly made up of petit-bourgeois white color types, business owners, college kids who attend Tulane or Loyola (who mainly come from white families) and the old money families and politicians whose families have owned the city since the first colonizer set foot on the river bank.

Jefferson Parish

Westbank: Marrero, Harvey, Estelle, Westwego, Woodmere, Avondale, Bridge City, Waggaman, Kennedy Heights.

Eastbank: Parts of Jefferson, Kenner, and the southwest corner of Metairie along Airline Drive.

Although many areas such as Terrytown, Harahan, River Ridge, most of Metairie, and portions of Westwego, Marrero and Kenner grew do to white flight from the city and suburbanization, Jefferson Parish, especially the Westbank, has large Black and Latino  neighborhoods that are just as disenfranchised as those in the city and should be focused on as well. Being from the Westbank I can attest that very little attention gets paid to the area as far as organizing and aid goes.

The Avondale, Bridge City, Waggaman, and Kennedy Heights section on the far west corner of the Westbank is another food desert, with the last grocery store closing its doors over a year ago, leaving only gas stations and dollar stores. Even then the grocery store was horribly stocked and several times food was sold to people that was either expired or spoiled.

This section was also affected by the closing of the Avondale Shipyard, putting thousands out of work, many who were older and are now forced to work low paying jobs wells into their 70’s due to losing their retirements.  

Drugs and violence are rampant in this area as well as in Marrero, Woodmere, Harvey and Westwego, where inner city issues combine with suburban issues creating a perfect storm of hopelessness.

The public schools here consistently rank the lowest in the country, my school in particular was a breeding ground for youth with no hope for the future, seeing either low paying soul crushing labor or street life as their only option after graduating, if they graduate at all.

The police forces of Westwego and Gretna (along with the Jefferson Parish Sheriffs that patrol the unincorporated areas), are some of the most racist and corrupt in the country. Westwego and Gretna are both well known for making millions from traffic stops and harassment of black and latino residents. Gretna PD was even the subject of a short documentary due the small city being dubbed the arrest capital of the US.

Jefferson Parish Correctional, aka Gretna Lockup by the people, is a well known hellhole, much like Orleans Parish Prison. Run by gangsters with badges, inmates are routinely treated like animals, and with simple rights such as visitation being stripped away in favor of webcam visits that must be paid for by friends and family.

On the Eastbank, these problems can also be found in portions of Kenner, Jefferson and a small area of Metairie. The Eastbank for the most part though is very white, very rich and very reactionary. Although many poor black and latinos have flocked here due to the lower cost of living and relative convenience of food and other needs, they are constantly bombarded with racism, predatory landlords and the ever present police departments.

Places like Metairie, River Ridge and Harahan are the “capitals” of the rich and white outside of Uptown New Orleans. Metairie especially is known as the ultimate example of a white flight suburb on steroids, with blocks of McMansions along the lake, chain restaurants and strip malls along Veterans Blvd., the best private Catholic schools money can buy and Old Metairie which is full of manicured lawns, fancy grocery stores and expensive boutiques and restaurants.

While there are working class whites mixed into Metairie, Kenner and Jefferson, they’ll require a lot of work and political education by white comrades to win over.

In conclusion, the problems facing New Orleans and its surrounding areas are severe and require dedication from revolutionaries that wish to organize here. It won’t be easy by any stretch, but the importance of this city goes beyond the French Quarter, bars and tourist traps. I really feel this is one of the most important places for the New Afrikan revolutionary movement in particular and the left in general in this country and building power to the people here is essential. Preservation of its people and culture is vital and this can only be achieved by the destruction of capitalism and colonialism.

The masses of this city have shown time and time again throughout history their power, and this power will be unstoppable. GET ORGANIZED!

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