Amid Katrina Commemoration Spectacle, a Southern Freedom Movement Takes Shape

Activists rally together at the Southern Movement Assembly in New Orleans. (Photo: Anna Simonton)Activists rally together at the Southern Movement Assembly in New Orleans. (Photo: Nik Nerburn)

As presidents, celebrities, dignitaries and a plethora of VIPs descended on New Orleans to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Katrina, activists in the streets of New Orleans were also getting organized.

In tents nestled amongst the live oaks in Louis Armstrong Park, hundreds of people representing communities from across the Southeastern United States and parts of the Global South (as well as Detroit, which is known within this group as “up south”), gathered for the fifth annual Southern Movement Assembly.

“The Southern Movement Assembly is a forum of movement governance: part think tank, part strategic planning, part coordination hub,” explained Stephanie Guilloud, co-director of Project South, one of 14 “anchor organizations” that drive the assembly.

“Instead of two or three smart people writing about the state of things in the US at this moment in time, it’s four hundred people who are practicing this work on the ground … who are dealing with exploitation and violence firsthand. It’s these people coming together and talking through the bigger picture, sharing practices of how they are responding to those realities, and giving a mandate to a governance council,” she said.

(Photo: Anna Simonton)(Photo: Nik Nerburn)

Participants hailed from cities, towns and hollows from San Antonio to Virginia and from Little Rock to Puerto Rico. They brought issues to the table that ranged from voting rights to mass incarceration, to environmental justice – and many more.

Together they assessed the work that has come out of past assemblies and charted a collective direction that will inform social movement work in the South over the next year.

Themes quickly emerged. Among them: displacement.

During the program that kicked off the Southern Movement Assembly, Trupania Bonner told of returning to New Orleans three weeks after he and his family fled Hurricane Katrina.

In urban areas displacement looks like gentrification. In rural areas it looks like economic distress leading to people leaving and not being able to come back.

“As we drove to the spillway to cross the lake into the city, there was a sign. And next to that sign, two troops with M-16s. And the sign said New Orleans is closed.” It was months before Bonner’s family was able to return.

Bonner said that nearly 100,000 African Americans have yet to return to New Orleans and presented a map showing how state senate districts were gerrymandered after the storm to diminish the power of the Black vote.

“What has taken place is a forced depopulation that resulted in a political shift,” he said.

Bonner trains community leaders throughout Louisiana in civic engagement and advocates for expanded voting rights as the director of Crescent City Media Group, another Southern Movement Assembly anchor organization.

Before Bonner’s presentation, Chief Thomas DarDar of the United Houma Nation led an opening ceremony with drumming, smudging, singing, and prayer.

The Houma cope with displacement caused by climate change every day. They live on the bayous of Southern Louisiana, where the wetlands and barrier islands are disappearing under seawater at the rate of one football field every 30 minutes.

It doesn’t help that the Houma Nation isn’t a federally recognized tribe, a designation that would give them land rights and more resources for mitigating environmental devastation.

DarDar said the Houma live on a frontline that will encroach further inland as climate change accelerates.

“Just look at your community as being the next barrier island,” he said.

Acadia Roher came to the Southern Movement Assembly for the first time, representing Little Rock Collective Liberation. She said her understanding of displacement expanded over the two-day event.

“In urban areas displacement looks like gentrification. In rural areas it looks like economic distress leading to people leaving and not being able to come back. It looks like refugees coming from other countries. It looks like people of color being displaced from their communities into the prison system. And it looks like ecological disaster,” Roher said.

Southern Movement Assembly leaders are looking toward a future where the assembly process can be used to directly impact local electoral politics.

She added that the conversations around this theme could translate into coordinated action in different parts of the South to address the violence of displacement in all its forms.

The assembly process starts with a full group discussion, after which participants choose one of five focus areas and participate in smaller group discussions. When everyone reconvenes, spokespeople report on the shared analysis developed around the issues discussed, as well as concrete action plans.

In the weeks following the Southern Movement Assembly, the governance council synthesizes the ideas and proposals into a strategic plan for the coming year.

The governance council also holds weekly calls throughout the year, to organize based on changing developments in the communities each anchor organization is in close contact with.

Since its inception in 2012, the Southern Movement Assembly has fostered the campaign to Free Marissa Alexander, a rapid response to George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and a youth-led initiative to end the relationship between public schools and the police department in Atlanta. The assembly has also supported countless localized efforts through resource-sharing, skills trainings, and political education.

The location of the Southern Movement Assembly changes every year and is always chosen with a specific purpose.

Holding the Southern Movement Assembly in New Orleans on the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, in some ways, brought its existence full circle.

“When Hurricane Katrina hit and the government authorities left people to die, what became clear to many of us was that regardless of what the existing power structure was doing, we needed to have a parallel system that can respond. And for us that’s social movement,” said Emery Wright, co-director of Project South.

The assembly’s process itself was “founded on that idea: How do we build a social movement governance infrastructure that can respond the next time something like Hurricane Katrina hits?” Wright said.

The Southern Movement Assembly is modeled on People’s Movement Assemblies, which formed the backbone for the US Social Forum in 2007, 2010 and 2015. Gulf Coast Climate Justice Assemblies also developed to focus on the five states that make up the Gulf South region: Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. The first of these assemblies took place one week before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, and seven more have taken place since then.

This year, Gulf Coast assembly participants launched Gulf South Rising, “a regional movement of coordinated actions and events to highlight the impact of the global climate crisis on the Gulf South region,” according to its mission statement.

Gulf South Rising leaders requested that the 2015 Southern Movement Assembly take place in New Orleans, specifically at Congo Square in Louis Armstrong Park.

The square is a site of both strength and great sorrow in the history of African Americans. The square hosted slave auctions, but also was a place where enslaved Africans congregated on Sundays – their one day of rest – to hold religious ceremonies, speak their native languages, drum and dance.

It’s also a sacred space to Houma people. Before colonizers forced their ancestors southward to the bayous, the Houma held an annual Green Corn Ceremony where Congo Square is today.

The Southern Movement Assembly was one among many events in a week of action organized under the banner of Gulf South Rising.

There was also a Black Lives Matter panel, a temporary tent city at the former site of a public housing complex and a march from where the levees breached in the Lower Ninth Ward.

All of these events hammered home a common message: recovering from Katrina has required “resistance, not resilience.”

This message challenged the narrative espoused in commemorative events organized by the city and private foundations.

On August 25, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu unveiled a “Resilience Strategy,” followed by an op-ed in which he wrote, “Make no mistake, we are seeing remarkable progress all around us. New Orleans is, without question, on a roll.”

This, in spite of extensive research and reporting showing that the recovery effort has been dominated by privatization and gentrification, benefitting New Orleans’ affluent, white population while leaving marginalized communities worse off than before.

“What we know for sure is that we are strong people,” said Colette Pichon Battle, lead coordinator of Gulf South Rising.

“We’ve come back from slavery, we’ve come back from many hurricanes, we’ve come back from economic depression…But what seems to be getting conveyed about resilience is, ‘They are so strong that we can continue to hurt them and they’ll come back.’ And what we’re saying is that we are strong and we are proud of that. But what we will not tolerate any further is you continuing to hurt us,” Battle said.

Though the Gulf South Rising initiative formally ends at the close of 2015, Battle says participants will carry on into 2016 “stronger, better resourced, and trained up.”

“We’re going to use what we’ve built in 2015 to make a difference in the presidential election, national fights going on around Black Lives Matter, and changing the nature of extractive industries,” she said.

Southern Movement Assembly leaders are looking toward a future where the assembly process can be used to directly impact local electoral politics by backing candidates who are accountable to the assembly. They also share a long-term vision of many more, smaller assemblies serving as a means of self-governance outside of existing political structures.

“Coming from the legacy of the southern freedom movement, we understand that there’s never been a real democracy. The US system wasn’t built for that, it was built to avoid that,” said Guilloud, of Project South.

“The ways that we are going to have to exercise power start locally,” she said.