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Letter in Support of a Black Reconstruction in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast

Catherine Jones
Date Published: 
February 01, 2007

Frontlines Press, 2006

Here in New Orleans, one year after Katrina, many of us say that we are still drowning. Entire neighborhoods remain empty of their original residents, the healthcare and education systems have been demolished, police/prison and military repression abound, and the recovery process remains rife with racism, corruption and a lack of accountability. In the midst of the despair the catastrophe has continued to create, several strong, local people-of-color-led organizations have been providing extraordinary grassroots leadership and a broad vision for liberation in our battered community. In addition, New Orleans and the Gulf Coast have been thrust onto the public stage and our struggles for justice have garnered us innumerable allies from all around the world, providing us both with strong and vital sources of support, and the additional challenge of fighting to assert our place in the center of the processes that shape the rebuilding of our home. Eric Mann’s Katrina’s Legacy, a beautiful and, arriving at the anniversary of the catastrophe, timely gift to the struggle for justice in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, is at its best a crucial tool for our movement; because of its context it also serves as a microcosm of this larger dynamic between on-the-ground leadership and respected allies from elsewhere.

One of the great strengths of this book is its guiding potential as a broad strategy document for the struggle for justice and self-determination in New Orleans and beyond. Mann outlines a sweeping strategy for Black liberation, using the struggles in the Gulf Coast after Katrina as a framework for a national, if not global, antiracist anti-imperialist movement. In the beginning of the book he names what he sees as the four major components of this strategy: self determination and significant material aid to Black people in the Gulf Coast; an environmental justice/public health framework; a “frontal challenge” to the national security state and the prison system; and the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. According to Mann, this strategy and the struggle emerging from the grassroots in New Orleans both have the potential to galvanize a “Third Reconstruction,” where counter-hegemonic political demands for racial, economic and environmental justice and an expansion of the social safety net, among others, have the potential to be realized.

Throughout the book, Mann reminds us that “history can guide us,” and the first section chronicles an outline of US history in terms of the First and Second Reconstruction periods and the times of harsh white supremacy and counterrevolutionary backlash that followed. Though meticulously detailed, this section stays accessible, and it proved to be an enjoyable and engaging piece of the book.

In the second half of the book, Mann proposes that the struggle around the right of return for displaced Black evacuees can be the centerpiece for a “broad anti-racist united front for self-determination.” The remainder of the second section proposes a dozen counter-hegemonic demands, centered on Black collective status as a racially oppressed people, ranging from a broad expansion of the social safety net, especially for Black women, to broad demands for racial, economic and environmental justice, as well as Black majority Congressional districts and reparations.

The strength of this section is its well-thought-out analysis, and here again Mann showcases his ability to craft precise arguments with a strong anti-racist anti-imperialist framework and broad revolutionary vision. At times, however, when I was reading this section I found myself forgetting that this was a book about New Orleans, the Gulf Coast, and Katrina, and not a programmatic vision for a movement strategy that could have originated from anywhere.

Interestingly, one of the best parts of this second section proposed a counter-hegemonic challenge to the prison system using the atrocities that happened at Orleans Parish Prison after Katrina as a framework. Here, Mann pays homage to the bold work of Safe Streets/Strong Communities, a post-Katrina coalition of local grassroots groups who advance an agenda to “build, expand, and prioritize alternatives to incarceration.” Mann lifts up this work as an illustration of the “counter-hegemonic organizing” he is advocating, and this example, both in the book and in real time, provides a heartening inspiration for those of us struggling to advance an antiracist, liberation-centered vision in these dark times.

Sadly, these examples were few in this second section of the book, and not necessarily because there’s a shortage of real examples to choose from on the ground. In the section entitled “Women in the Eye of the Storm,” for example, the voices of local INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence organizers (whose Women’s Health and Justice Initiative is another stunning illustration of counter-hegemonic organizing coming from a framework that places local women of color at its center), would have been welcome additions to the thoughtful and important contributions from national leaders such as Loretta Ross and the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Reading the second section, I found myself feeling discouraged; that the gap between the “ideal” movement and the struggles that are happening here on the ground is too wide to overcome. When Mann mentions the work of Safe Streets, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and other strong local groups, it not only gives much-needed props to often underfunded, under-appreciated local groups who are doing extraordinary work in a harsh context, it also reminds the rest of us on the ground that this kind of work is not only necessary, it’s actually happening.

Like many other fierce allies of the struggle for justice based in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, Mann continually asserts that the leadership and vision for this struggle must emerge from the region itself. The book shines when he highlights the instances where local people of color are taking such leadership; in those instances where clear connections are not drawn between on-the-ground leadership and the programmatic demands Mann is advocating, we are all at a loss. In the midst of our collective and ongoing tragedy, the people of New Orleans and the Gulf region continue to struggle for justice and dignity with a spirit and vibrance that’s unique to our home. Even though there were times when the book did not capture this constant unique spirit, it will remain an invaluable tool for our movements, now and in the times to come.