New Orleans

Reverend Luke Nguyen is hastily stuffing a white cleric’s collar around his neck as our car edges closer to his latest nemesis. “They don’t like it when I come here,” he says, pointing to the looming gates of the Chef Menteur Landfill–a sprawling waste site buried in mountains of hurricane debris. Father Luke has been battling the dangerous, unlined dump from the day it opened near his Village de l’Est neighborhood in New Orleans East in February, and he’s braced for another standoff.

The security guard takes one look at the feisty priest and quickly retreats. Father Luke shrugs; city officials have been backing down ever since he began leading thousands of Vietnamese residents back to rebuild east New Orleans–the last area to dry after Katrina’s floods–a month after the storm.

“I came back on October 2 with a permit; then the second week a few of us came back to live,” Father Luke remembers back at the rectory of Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. “On the third weekend of October 2,000 parishioners came to mass, with no lights. We served 3,500 egg rolls. That’s how you get people to come back.”

Getting people back, he declines to mention, also meant breaking the law. The resettlement of New Orleans East was civil disobedience, a mass act of defiance against Mayor Ray Nagin’s orders barring residents from returning to great stretches of the city. But the fishers, factory workers and grocery owners of Village de l’Est came back anyway, 3,000 in all–and, without fanfare, the city caved. Water and power lines were rebuilt, schools have been rehabbed and planners are now finishing blueprints to revive the two-block business district, for the Mayor’s review.

Few places devastated by Hurricane Katrina have a success story to tell like the tightly knit Vietnamese community of New Orleans East. But in many ways, Father Luke and the outlaws of Village de l’Est symbolize a gritty, grassroots movement that has grown and spread throughout the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina.

It’s a movement without the luxury of high expectations. Many of its people are still deeply wounded by loss, in a place where people’s patience is fraying or gone (a mood expressed in New Orleans by the recent rise of racist graffiti and bumper stickers, like Go Back to Houston). The lives of many Katrina activists are tied up with day-to-day struggles for survival, recovery and dignity, while they strive to keep their eyes on the prize of justice for all. They’ve been blown apart from each other, with more than 200,000 evacuees still scattered across the nation.

But the Katrina movement has also scored surprising victories, even if it has had to settle for merely derailing the worst of what New Orleans writer Jordan Flaherty calls the “orgy of greed and opportunism” unleashed by the storms. It has also inspired ordinary people to become extraordinary leaders, and awakened a new generation of activists in the South and beyond.

“Y’all know who you are.” Khalil Tian Shahyd, a New Orleans native and graduate student back in town to work for the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition, is staring down a few squirming members of the audience. We’re at a neighborhood planning forum in June, a free-for-all assembly at the dingy Musician’s Union Hall. Shahyd wants people to face the elephant in the room: the fact that nearly half the city is still in exile. “You have no right to be planning for neighborhoods when most of those people can’t get back home,” Shahyd berates the crowd. “There’s no way to justify this–morally, ethically, any way.”

The right to return for the displaced has been at the heart of the Katrina movement’s agenda since day one, when it became clear that a toxic gumbo of political and corporate agendas–leavened with staggering official incompetence–would prevent many from making it back.

Here in New Orleans, it’s also the issue where activists won their most impressive early victories. The first was convincing Mayor Nagin to shelve the rebuilding plans of his own Bring New Orleans Back commission, unveiled by the pro-developer Urban Land Institute in November [see Mike Davis, “Who Is Killing New Orleans?” April 10]. Ignoring that a future storm could ravage practically any part of New Orleans, the ULI proposed that only the poorer, blacker neighborhoods be written off and planted over so the city might have a “smaller footprint.”

“Over my dead body,” said Carolyn Parker of the Lower Ninth Ward, echoing a backlash that exploded at city forums and evacuee town meetings nationwide. Nagin grew more nervous as another front opened on the right to return: the burgeoning “stop the bulldozers” movement. Led by the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, ACORN and other community groups, along with allies at the Loyola Law Clinic and the Advancement Project in Washington, DC, by January they had physically blocked a demolition in the Lower Ninth and won an injunction to save more than 2,500 homes from being flattened without notification of the owners.

The revolt soon spread to public housing. Even though most of the city’s 38,000 public rental units were only lightly damaged, officials spent $1.5 million to barricade the developments and keep the working poor at bay. But groups like N.O. H.E.A.T. and C3/Hands Off Iberville worked to get residents back into the Iberville development–long coveted by the lords of real estate thanks to its proximity to the French Quarter–before the city could stop them.

The uprisings not only temporarily scuttled the developer agenda, it also helped change the political course of New Orleans. With the African-American vote shrinking, the mildly liberal Mitch Landrieu seemed destined to become the first white mayor since 1979. But Nagin, in part by rejecting plans to level black neighborhoods, won 80 percent of black voters, who were mobilized and bused in by the Jeremiah Project, NAACP, ACORN and others. “I’m no fan of Nagin; he’s in the pocket of the folks with money,” one woman said. “But I’ll be damned if we’ll let them take over”–“them” being the downtown elite who seemed a bit too excited over prospects of a “whiter, lighter city.”

But the right to return is about more than just housing; the displaced–especially families–face obstacles at every turn. Hospitals are still closed, only fifty-seven of 117 city schools will open this fall, daycare centers are almost nonexistent. Sixty percent of city establishments still don’t receive electricity. For many, coming home is a fading dream. “We care about the right to return,” says Pam Broom, who was displaced to Atlanta, then Durham, North Carolina. “But now, we’re just trying to make community wherever we are.”

The irony is that, just as many of Katrina’s displaced are moving on, grassroots voices may finally be poised to have a say in the city’s future. Thanks to community pressure–and the promise of $3.5 million from the Rockefeller Foundation–in July the city created a Unified New Orleans Plan, which teams up neighborhood groups with expert planners in a bottom-up process of rebuilding. At the eleventh hour, ACORN applied to be recognized as a planner group, and succeeded–a big step up from blocking bulldozers. “Now we’re at the table,” says ACORN founder Wade Rathke, based in New Orleans. “We’re now in a position to help hundreds of people who want to get back into their neighborhoods.”

Khalil Tian Shahyd insists that a plan that doesn’t include the displaced from the beginning is fatally flawed. He gives an example: “Residents haven’t been allowed back to Lafitte public housing, but it’s at the center of a plan called the ‘Lafitte Corridor Development,’ where the city wants to sell property to movie studio complexes.” Such rebuilding without representation would be especially tragic at Lafitte, he says, “the center of black Mardi Gras.” But Shahyd, who spent a semester observing community-led planning in Kerala, India, believes that if people are brought back home, the process could be a way to engage ordinary New Orleanians in the decisions that affect their lives, a “brilliant opportunity to rethink democracy.”

Ask Katrina activists what it will take to turn around the region’s fortunes, and many will come back to the idea that the Katrina movement must go national–even international (what about the United Nations principles guaranteeing rights for “Internally Displaced People”?).

For one, Katrina activists need good allies; they can’t do it all alone. But it also speaks to the need for federal accountability. “The way we see it, it was federally run levees that failed and caused most of the death and destruction,” observes Darryl Malek-Wiley, a longtime New Orleans activist. “So the federal government owes us something. Call it reparations.” And not just money for no-bid contracts, rescuing Army bases and tax-break corporate “GO Zones,” but resources for people’s needs.

Where has been the national movement to demand justice for the Gulf and its people? Aside from tossing a few political hand grenades after the storm, Democrats largely dropped Katrina as a major issue; House minority leader Nancy Pelosi didn’t make her first trip to New Orleans until March 3, six months after the gravest “natural” disaster in US history.

A handful of national groups have proved to be more useful: The Advancement Project and the NAACP got to work on housing, labor and voting rights. The Sierra Club and other outfits have helped residents address environmental threats. This summer the AFL-CIO unveiled a $1 billion investment from its pension funds to underwrite affordable housing, hospitals and other projects, and Change to Win is helping with a workers’ center. New groups like Color of Change and the Katrina Information Network have heightened media scrutiny, and Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and former Senator John Edwards have barnstormed the country to talk about Katrina and poverty.

But added up, it’s been a far cry from the broad mobilization or channeling of public outrage that could have changed the course of the past year. And there’s been plenty of outrage: In February 66 percent of voters nationwide said they were bothered “a great deal or good amount” by Bush’s handling of Katrina–far outpacing concern for the Valerie Plame and Jack Abramoff scandals, which were objects of pundit obsession.

“The Democrats and most national groups, they didn’t tap into that anger,” says one African-American activist, who didn’t want me to use his name. “A black city is destroyed, thousands are dead, hundreds of thousands of lives were devastated. We needed a March on Washington moment. They didn’t care.”

The national alliances required to shift federal priorities may still need to gain traction, but the Katrina movement has already left another legacy to the country by inspiring a new generation of activism.

Far from the halls of power, in the devastated Ninth Ward a clutch of volunteers, descendants of another strand of the 1960s freedom movement, are buzzing. And hammering: It’s February, and the mostly white and conspicuously countercultural youth at the Common Ground Collective are erecting bunk beds at breakneck speed.

“Spring break,” explains our guide Matt, a ponytailed DJ from New York. “We’re expecting hundreds of volunteers to come.” As it turns out, March brought 2,900 volunteers from 220 colleges (and eight countries) to Common Ground, a project launched as an emergency health clinic and relief center days after Katrina by Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther. Under the slogan “Solidarity, Not Charity,” Common Ground soon became a beacon for Seattle-generation activists, and has since proliferated new outposts and projects across the city, from house-gutting to “bio-remediation” of soil toxins and the opening of a Women’s Center.

The success and high profile of Common Ground–which has brought some 10,000 volunteers through its crash-course program in mutual aid that includes a radical history of New Orleans and a workshop in “Dismantling Racism”–have overshadowed other impressive youth efforts in the region, such as a spring-break drive that brought more than a thousand students from historically black colleges into community projects.

This is their Freedom Summer, and those making the pilgrimage can’t help but be changed by the experience. They’ve been cast into a scattered but epic battle between the Gulf’s dispossessed–relegated to lives in tents, trailers and exile–and a gathering storm of privateers and power brokers whose ambitions can only sharpen the divide between those who have and those who are clearly holding on to very little.

Which, in the eyes of New Orleans lawyer-activist Bill Quigley, prepares them perfectly for the struggles they face back home. “In New Orleans it’s so condensed and easy to see, but these same forces of destroying our public housing, destroying public healthcare, destroying public education–those things are happening in every community across this country,” Quigley says. “What is happening in New Orleans is coming to your community.”