From Congo Square to City Hall: New Orleans Demands Right to Return
by Jennifer Connor
Monday, Dec. 12, 2005 at 4:39 PM
"We're back- to take it back!" was the call in the streets as Katrina survivors and their supporters marched on New Orleans city hall on December tenth.
"We won't bow down" she sang and the crowd sang and swayed with her in Congo Square, New Orleans on December tenth, International Human Rights Day. "We will show the nation/ our determination." Fifteen hundred people gathered on Saturday for the March for Human Rights and Right to Return for Katrina survivors. The March followed the Gulf Coast Survivors Assembly in Jackson, Mississippi, where Katrina victims drafted a "People's Declaration: Survivor's Assembly Demands." Marchers delivered the document, demanding basic needs such as temporary housing and access to health care and education so that residents can begin rebuilding as well as a voice in the political rebuilding process, to City Hall at the end of the march.
"I am here with a mission: to return to the Ninth Ward" announced Herreast Harrison from the center of Congo Square, which at one time was the only place in the city that enslaved african-americans were allowed to play their drums. She spoke about her family's history in her neighborhood and her desire to rebuild as drums played across the square. "The essence of my being is planted and rooted there, just like the essence of my race is planted and rooted in this soil" she declared, pointing at the ground on which she stood. Ronald W. Lewis, a Ninth Ward community leader, said, "I'm here with a passion, cause if we don't get it one, ain't nobody gonna get it done. We were a city of light and now we are a city of darkness." He echoed a theme of self-determination, self-sustenance and independance that I heard repeated throughout the afternoon. Community leaders and displaced residents took turns at the mic as well as musicians and poets. After Sister Teffara sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing", we moved into the streets, where I talked to some of those who had come out to march.
Sankafa, a community organizer from Maryland who has family affected by Katrina, spoke of her rage against media representation of the New Orleans residents. "Let the world know the truth. These are peace loving people. The media is putting out lies, saying they're shooting, they're murderers...these are peace loving people. What is going on is the marginalization and underestimation and undervaluing of black people."
Barbara Young, who worked on a mayoral campaign to defeat Bloomberg, came to support the Katrina survivors because "This government is unconscionable in its treatment of african-americans. It [the response to Katrina] opened up the eyes of a lot of people. I am african-american and an insult to these people is an insult to me."
As we talked the Soul Rebels, a brass band from Treme, filled St. Claude with their music. All ages and sorts of people had turned out and seemed happy to be speaking out, en masse. But alongside the upbeat tone and mood the message was deeply condemning. Amber McZeal is a student of ethnomusicology as well as a singer and poet who lives in Mid-City. When I asked her what her main drive was to march she answered firmly, "Human equality. Human equality, not based on whether you've got fat pockets or have invested one dollar in the city."
She spoke about her anger towards an administration that sent in fifteen hundred body bags before they sent other aid and still shows no shame over it. "This is the struggle of a whole class, covering all issues...it's been magnified by the water."
In speaking of the dispersal of what Malcolm Suber of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund estimates as ninety percent of the city's black population, she commented, "This is what happens when you deny people their basic human needs over a long period of time and then thrust them into other cities- they give up. That's what happened."
Clearly, the people who participated in the march and Survivors' Assembly had not given up. Both events were co-ordinated by the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, a coalition of a broad range of local or locally connected grassroots organizations. Events centered around creating a forum for the voices of those most impacted by the storm and subsequent inaction.
When the march reached City Hall on Saturday survivors spoke about their experiences following Katrina, their anger at being jerked around by government agencies, and also about a host of other issues that have sandbagged recover: police brutality, the lack of housing.
I left as Mamma D, who runs a community center out of her house now and who recently addressed Congress and accused them of blowing up the levees, was tearing up the mic. "I'll be damned if I'm gonna let a babylon system control me!" she roared. Why should we pay attention, beyond the land of bayous? She tells us: "As New Orleans goes, so does the rest of the urban African community."