New Orleans – Marching can be Substantive AND Symbolic
Today I attended a rally and march put on by Rev. Jesse Jackson and his Rainbow Push Coalition, here in New Orleans. The action was held across the street from the infamous Ernest N. Morial Convention Center in downtown New Orleans, which people now know as the place where thousands were left stranded during the midst and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
I watched the Million Man March on television in October of 1995. I attended the Millions More Movement in October of 2005. I have helped organize similar actions both in Detroit and in Seattle. I have attended numerous meetings and gatherings to plan other mobilizations. I say all of this to say that this was the most inspirational action I have ever personally witnessed and/or participated in. It wasn’t because of the great speakers; there were many. It wasn’t because of the great food; there was plenty. It was because of the people I met and interacted with, the sharing or their Katrina experiences with me, and their pride and resilliance and focus on improving the current situation and building a better future.
First let me describe the event and what happened. The rally began at about 8 AM. I did not know what time it began, and was quite dismayed to wake up a 9 and turn on CNN only to hear them saying “…Bill Cosby is just finishing up here in New Orleans…” Oh well. I got there at about 945. The speakers at the rally included Rev. Jackson, Al Sharpton, Bill Cosby, Michael Eric Dyson (I arrived just before his address), Marc Morial, [current] Mayor Ray Nagin, and Bruce Gordon, among others. The rally before the march was MC’d by Judge Greg Mathis, and it was concluded by a suprisingly decent performance by John Legend.
We then aligned ourselves to march across the Mississippi River Bridge to Gretna, LA. Why? Because it was on this bridge that hundreds of Hurricane survivors were met with police resistance in the days immediately following Katrina as they tried to cross searching for higher and safer ground. The goal was to have the thousands that gathered today to march across this bridge, symbolically saying “You stopped us then, yet we survived. You cannot stop us now.” Stop us from what? is the next logical question. The answer is voting, or more precisely, having a fair election. New Orleans is scheduled to hold a mayoral election on April 22, 2006. Many oppose this, arguing that due to wide dispersal, those in New Orleans now do not accurately reflect New Orlean’s true residents (Translation: since so many Black folks have been displaced, the fear is that there will be a mayor elected who will not listen to or care about the interests of New Orleans’ Black residents). “Stopping us” above refers to disenfranchising voters. Signs were held by marchers that read “Iraq has fairer elections.” This pointing out the fact that during Iraq’s elections last year, Iraqi citizens were able to vote from satellite locations in the United States. The activists want the election to be postponed so that satellite locations can be set up in places where evacuees now reside. The U.S. Department of Justice has OK’d the election to move forward with its April 22 date in spite of these requests. A goal of the march was to symbolize the residents’ opposition to this.
After we marched the approx. 2.5 miles from the Convention Center across the bridge to Oakbrook Mall, we reassembled and heard remarks from the organizers and local leaders. Here they (William Jefferson, Diana Bajoie, and other members of the Louisiana Legislativ Black Caucuss) summarized the next steps that they are taking legislatively and told people specific things that they could do to help. The largest step they would take would be issuance of a demand for Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco to exercise her executive authority and issue an executive order that would authorize satellite polling locations and postpone the election until they are set up. The idea is that if the federal government won’t stop it, maybe the state government will. As for what the people can do, we were advised to contact our representatives and urge them to lean on Blanco to issue the order, while in the meantime informing those we know who left New Orleans of how to register for and receive an absentee ballot. Those who wanted to be were then transported back across the bridge to the Convention Center. It all was done around 4 PM.
What is described in and of itself is the makings of an effective substantive and symbolic action. What is happening here is the re-emergence of the poll taxes of the Jim Crow South of the 20th century. Telling people that they have to (well had to, considering that the deadline for registration was March 22 (click here and go to the middle of the page)) come to New Orleans to register to vote (if they are not registered or 1st time voters) and then return to vote on April 22 is a sinister way of saying, “You can vote if an only if you can afford 2 trips. If not, oh well, sucks to be you.”
Since this is turning out to be much longer than anticipated (some people said my stuff is too long!!!), I will put my chronicles of different conversations I had in a separate post. Pictures from the rally are forthcoming, along with hopefully some scanned versions of some of the handouts I received.
One Love. One II.