"There are two types of power," said Linda Jeffers, addressing an accountability session of New Orleans mayoral candidates at the city’s Trinity Episcopal Church. "Organized money and organized people." Since Hurricane Katrina the battle between those two forces has shaped the struggle to rebuild New Orleans. Now it is set to intensify.
The one thing both seem to agree on is that neither wants the city to return to the way it was before the hurricane. The people of New Orleans, most of whom are black and many of whom are poor, want schools that will educate their children, jobs that will pay a living wage and neighborhoods where capital investment matches the large pools of social capital created by their churches and close-knit communities. Organized money has something else in mind: the destruction of many of those communities, the permanent removal of those who lived in them and a city that follows the gentrification patterns of racial removal and class cleansing that have played out elsewhere in America. Under these circumstances, the organization of people has been impressive. Grassroots groups have done a remarkable job of cohering those scattered throughout the country into a political constituency.
As Jeffers spoke, the city’s mayoral candidates sat before an audience of more than 500 who had been bused in from Tennessee and elsewhere in Louisiana, as well as several hundred evacuees in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas who were watching the candidates being questioned on satellite. Five days later Jeffers, a leader with the nonprofit Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), who moved from Gentilly to Houston after Katrina, schlepped through the unforgiving Texas heat distributing food and signing up eighty evacuees for their absentee ballots at the Encore housing complex. Meanwhile, various organizations have been ferrying people from neighboring states to satellite polling stations dotted around Louisiana for early voting in the April 22 election.
But they are operating under intolerable conditions, not least where these elections are concerned. By almost any standard–international or local–these elections are neither free nor fair. More than half the city’s residents have not returned. But requests for polling stations to be set up in the major towns outside the state where they have resettled were rejected by a federal court judge, a decision supported by the Louisiana legislature. "You’re telling me they can do it in Iraq but they can’t do it here?" asks Walter Milton, another IAF leader.
As a result, people have to travel hundreds of miles to vote or organize an absentee vote. The overwhelming majority of those who will be most adversely affected are once again black and poor. So Jim Crow is on the ballot. But this is the New South with a new, more subtle but no less effective racism. Black demands for full citizenship no longer fall afoul of the law of the land but instead the law of probability. They were more likely to be flooded, more likely to be displaced, least likely to be able to return and therefore least likely to be able to vote.