Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, July 2009, pages 30-31
New Orleans Intifada: A Grassroots Movement Rises in the City’s Arab Community
By Jordan Flaherty
IN NEIGHBORHOODS around New Orleans, there’s a buzz of excitement gathering among this city’s Arab population. A new wave of organizing has brought energy and inspiration to a community that usually is content to stay in the background. The movement is youth-led, with student groups rising up on college campuses across the city, but also broad-based, with mass protests that have included more than a thousand people marching through downtown’s French Quarter. Activists take inspiration from other movements in the city—joining in the struggle against the continued displacement of much of the city, as well as the slow pace of recovery—while also following activism across the U.S. and around the world.
According to Angelina Abbir Mansour, a student activist at the University of New Orleans (UNO), Israel’s devastation of 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 Hampshire College’s recent successful divestment campaign.
At Jackson Square, in the center of New Orleans’ French Quarter, more than a thousand people gathered on Jan. 4 for one of the largest demonstrations this city has seen in many years. Tracie Washington, a civil rights leader in the city and the director of Louisiana Justice Institute, attended with her son. Addressing the crowd on a megaphone, 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.’”
Palestinian youth led raucous chants of “No Justice, No Peace,” and “Gaza, Gaza don’t you cry, in our hearts you’ll never die.” The cheers of the crowd were audible from several blocks away. 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 organizations with which Palestinian organizers have built ties. “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 UNO campus, “because they know more than anyone what it’s like to face racism. Alliances between our communities make sense.”
The Jan. 4 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 organized and led the march, and entire families participated.
Organizing in New Orleans’ Arab community is not new—it goes back to at least the late 1980s, during the first intifada. Since then, activism has surged and receded in waves. 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 work that took place then. From 2003 through 2005, activists presented a breathtaking array of events, from films, demonstrations and speakers to art shows, a Palestinian hip-hop concert, presentations in high school and college classrooms, and a regional conference. They met with newspaper editorial boards, appeared on radio shows, set up literature tables at busy public locations, and spoke at churches.
A coalition of activists also organized 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 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 Small Community
As with many immigrant communities, New Orleans’ Palestinian community is both spread out and insular. Families are located in various suburbs on New Orleans’ Westbank (on the other side of the Mississippi River), but there is no particular neighborhood 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 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 of restaurants, convenience stores, and clothing stores. In the aftermath of Katrina, much of the city’s Arab community was displaced, losing their stores and homes alike.
For those who have returned, rebuilding has been a struggle—as it has been for others 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. Her home in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans 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 spent the day before the hurricane, as they did many days, working on the restaurant. “We had just bought a new oven, new refrigerators, new kitchen equipment,” Sandra 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 they went into to rebuild 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 of their events, activists have created powerful video and images documenting their own movement, and spread the word through social networking sites, e-mail, 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 organizing happening in New Orleans today—made a pair of powerful videos documenting the activist uprising, which have been widely distributed online.
The young activists who organized 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 January’s annual Martin Luther King March. Maher Salem, a young business owner and community leader, 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 organizing 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.” He is also co-director of PATOIS: The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival. He can be reached at <[email protected]>. See more about Palestine organizing in New Orleans at <nolaps.org>.
New Orleans Palestine Solidarity: http://www.nolaps.org
New Orleans Palestine Solidarity, updates: http://nolaps.blogspot.com/
2-Cent Entertainment : http://2-cent.com
New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice: http://www.nowcrj.org
Muslim American Society: http://www.masnet.org/
Left Turn Magazine: http://www.leftturn.org