Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
In neighbourhoods around New Orleans, there’s a buzz of excitement gathering among this city’s Arab population. A new wave of organising has brought energy and inspiration to a community that is usually content to stay in the background. The movement is youth-led, with student groups rising up on college campuses, but also broad-based with mass protests that have included more than one thousand people marching through the French Quarter. Activists say their goal is to fight against a combination of silence and bias from local and national media, and – more broadly – for a change in US policy towards the Middle East. They take inspiration from other movements in the city, joining in the struggle against the continued displacement of much of New Orleans as well as the slow pace of recovery – while also following activism across the US and around the world.
New Orleans’ immigrant communities are often ignored or under-represented. But through grass-roots organising, legal action, and political lobbying, Asian and Latino organisations have won some important victories. Activists from New Orleans’ Arab population – which is largely Palestinian – have expressed hope that they can follow these examples.
Grass-roots protest into political power
The city’s Vietnamese community gained influence through post-Katrina struggles to bring their New Orleans east neighbourhood back in the first months after the storm. This effort, which also involved a fight against a city landfill located near their homes, turned grass-roots protests into political power, including the recent election of the nation’s first Vietnamese-American member of Congress.
The city’s Latino community has grown and changed as thousands of recent immigrants came looking for work in the rebuilding after the storm. Despite continuing problems, including police harassment of undocumented immigrants, grass-roots efforts have helped translate those numbers into political influence and leverage over employers who had sought to exploit them. While employers and politicians have sought to pit the city’s Latino and black workers against each other, organisers have built alliances between these communities.
These victories, together with a sense that there is a need for their community to be heard, have provoked Arab New Orleanians into action. According to Angelina Abbir Mansour, a student activist at the University of New Orleans (UNO), outrage caused by the devastation in Gaza was a catalyst. ‘When the Gaza massacre happened, the first thought that came to everyone’s head was “we can’t be quiet anymore,'” she explained. Young activists have also been inspired by successes in other cities, such as a recent successful campaign to get Hampshire College to divest from companies that supply the Israeli military as well as sit-ins and building occupations on other campuses in the US and Europe.
At Jackson Square, in the center of New Orleans’ French Quarter, more than a thousand people gathered on 4 January 2009 for one of the largest demonstrations this city has seen in recent years. Tracie Washington, a civil rights leader in the city and the director of the Louisiana Justice Institute, attended with her son. Addressing the crowd, she said, ‘my son asked me today about what is happening in Gaza. He asked, “is it like if I pinched you and you punched me?” I said to him, “no, its like if you pinched me and I shot you with an AK-47.'”
The cheers of the crowd were audible from several blocks away. Palestinian youth led raucous chants of ‘No Justice, No Peace,’ and ‘Gaza Gaza don’t you cry, in our hearts you’ll never die.’ Children held up signs saying, ‘This is what an Israeli target looks like.’
The Louisiana Justice Institute was one of several New Orleans social justice and civil rights organisations that Palestinian organisers have built ties with – others included the New Orleans chapter of INCITE (women of color against violence), the Women’s Health and Justice Initiative, Pax Christi, Malcolm X Grass-roots Movement, and Mayday Nola, an organisation that works on public housing issues. ‘I’ve seen a huge amount of support from the African American community,’ says Mansour, who is co-founder of a chapter of the General Union of Palestinian Students on the campus of the UNO. ‘Because they know more than anyone what it’s like to face racism. Alliances between our communities make sense.’
The 4 January march was the second of four mass demonstrations for Gaza during the Israeli bombing. The first demonstration, brought together in less than 24 hours, brought out more than 300 people. Palestinian youth from New Orleans organised and led the march, and entire families participated.
The size of the demonstrations surprised even the organisers. ‘New Orleans is a small town,’ says activist and business owner Emad Jabbar. ‘For 1,200 people to come out with just a few days notice – I’m speechless.’ Every local TV station covered the demonstrations. However The Times Picayune, New Orleans’ local paper, refused to send a reporter. In response, activists organised a demonstration the following week, bringing almost 100 people to protest outside the paper’s offices.
Organising in New Orleans’ Arab community is not new – it goes back to the first intifada, a time of increased activity in the Palestinian diaspora around the world. Since then, activism has surged and receded in waves, with support and trainings from national organisations such as the Muslim American Society and US Campaign to End The Israeli Occupation playing an important role.
The two years before Katrina saw mass action, as well as coalition building and education, among local Palestinians and their allies, and in some aspects today’s movement is built from that work.
A coalition of activists also organised human rights delegations to the Middle East, sending nine delegates from diverse backgrounds and communities to Palestinian cities on the West Bank in the summer of 2004. They self-published a book and a released a newsletter, made and distributed a film (chronicling one member’s journey to Palestine), and worked on several art projects, including a hip-hop show, a photography exhibition, and collaborations with the New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival.
A multiracial and multi-generational coalition of Palestine activists met on the campus of Xavier University, a historically black college, and its core group included Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secular activists. The group collaborated closely with many different aspects of the Arab and Muslim community in the city – meetings were attended by representatives of New Orleans’ Muslim Shura Council, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of New Orleans, New Orleans’ Palestine American Congress, and Stop The Wall – a local group made up of more than 200 New Orleanians with family in the Palestinian village of Beit Anan.
Another core member of the group was a white Episcopal minister who had traveled to Bethlehem and Jerusalem, and several members were Palestinian Christians. Nation Of Islam members were part of the group, as well as several Jewish activists, including a woman who had gone on a pro-Israel delegation organised by New Orleans’ Jewish Federation – and came home disturbed by the Palestinian suffering she’d seen, causing her to break with the federation and become an activist for Palestinian rights.
A small community
According to the US census, New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population was 67 per cent African American and 27 per cent white, with all other categories adding up to about 6 per cent. Maher Salem, a young community leader and business owner, adds that, ‘The Palestinian community is a small minority in New Orleans. The city is mostly African American and white, then you have Latinos, then Vietnamese, and Palestinians are the smallest group. We’re at the bottom of the list.’
As with many immigrant communities, New Orleans’ Palestinian community is both spread out and insular. Families are located in various suburbs on New Orleans’ west bank (on the other side of the Mississippi river), but there isn’t a particular neighbourhood where most live. The community is rarely discussed in national coverage of New Orleans, or even in the local media. ‘Growing up, I didn’t know there was a Palestinian community here,’ Mansour says. ‘I guess because we’re a small population and were not making headlines.’
Many of New Orleans’ Palestinians are from a handful of small towns and villages near Ramallah and Jerusalem, such as Silwad, Al-Bireh, Al-Mizra’a, and Beit Anan. They are often small business owners – owning restaurants, convenience and clothing stores. In the aftermath of Katrina, much of the city’s Arab community was displaced, losing both their stores and homes. ‘A lot of us lost businesses,’ says Salem, ‘and many from our community moved to other cities.’ Although they no longer live here, many of those that are displaced still feel connected to the city. ‘I know guys that are in Dallas now,’ Salem says. ‘But every time we have a protest or something else happening they call and ask what happened. They miss living here.’
For those that have returned, rebuilding has been a struggle – as it has been for other New Orleanians in this city where a third of all properties are still empty. Sandra Bahhur is a Palestinian-American woman originally from Al-Bireh, a nurse and restaurant owner, she has been a strong voice for social justice in New Orleans. Sandra’s home in the Lakeview neighbourhood was so destroyed by flooding that she couldn’t get the doors to open. Her business on Carrollton Avenue was destroyed, just days before it would have been ready to debut. They had been working all day on the restaurant the day before the hurricane, as they did many days. ‘We had just bought a new oven, new refrigerators, new kitchen equipment,’ she told me days after the storm. ‘Everything’s destroyed. Our home is destroyed, the business is destroyed. We lost everything. Everything.’
Like many New Orleanians, Sandra and her husband Luis love New Orleans, and refused to give up. After two more years of work, their restaurant reopened in late 2007 to positive press coverage and full houses. However, Sandra and Luis were never able to fully recover from the debt from rebuilding after the storm. With the recent economic downturn, the restaurant hit hard times, and closed permanently last month. Although they love the city, Sandra and Luis’ future in New Orleans is uncertain.
Changing the media
Although disappointed with local media coverage, activists have created powerful video and images documenting their own movement, and spread the word through social networking sites, email, texting, and word of mouth. 2-Cent Entertainment – a group of young African-American video activists who are responsible for some of the most exciting media organising happening in New Orleans today – made a pair of powerful videos documenting the activist uprising, which have been widely distributed online.
The young activists that organised the actions are determined to make their mark in the city, through changing the media landscape and shifting public opinion. ‘We’re a part of this city,’ says Emad Jabbar. ‘We identify with it. If you ask most New Orleans Palestinians where they’re from they’ll say New Orleans – especially the young ones.’ It was this spirit that led dozens of Palestinians to join with African American community leaders in last month’s annual Martin Luther King march. Community leader Maher Salem explains, ‘My cause, my goal is about the Palestinian people, Gaza, and freedom for everyone. However you describe me – businessman, father, community leader – what I am is someone who stands for justice.’
As they move forward, Palestinian activists in New Orleans are excited at the possibilities. ‘People call me, come to me in the street and in the mosque, and ask me what are you up to, what’s next,’ says Jabbar. ‘Our organising in New Orleans is moving forward. People in the community are passionate and have a lot of energy. We just need to keep stepping up.’
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience and his reporting on post-Katrina New Orleans has been published and broadcast in outlets including Die Zeit (in Germany), Clarin (in Argentina), Al-Jazeera, TeleSur, and Democracy Now.
What if it's not us who are sick, asks Rod Tweedy, but a system at odds with who we are as social beings?
Survivors of the fire are still relying on thousands of community volunteers, writes Dan Renwick - but the failed council is plotting a comeback
The people could reach a democratic and non-violent solution if they were freed from US meddling, argues Boaventura de Sousa Santos
A decade after the start of the crash, economic power is in our hands – we must take it, writes Ann Pettifor
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making
Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show
The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services
With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas
Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world
A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle
Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune
Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali
To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi
Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun
Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh
With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook
‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali
Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards
Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.
Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent
Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art
Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs
Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee