Special Collection Article  
  This is a sample article from Jordan Flaherty's amazing online journal, Left Turn  
  Nothing Stops Mardi Gras
By Jordan Flaherty from Left Turn

In New Orleans' Central Business District, a prominent billboard advertising
Southern Comfort liquor proclaims "Nothing Stops Mardi Gras. Nothing." The
festive ad haunts me, seeming callous and cruel, "you've faced a huge loss,
and now we want to use your city and cultural traditions to sell a lot of
alcohol."

Citywide, Mardi Gras is everywhere, but not without controversy. Many are
angry at the idea of a huge party taking place while bodies are still being
recovered in Ninth Ward houses, And in diaspora communities such as Atlanta,
there is a lot of anger at the idea of a huge party going one while they are
kept out. A past leader of the Zulu Mardi Gras Krewe even sued his
organization (unsuccessfully) to stop them from parading this year.

I have mixed feelings. I love Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Not the parades
and Bourbon Street you see on TV, but the other Mardi Gras that the media
doesn't show. There are Mardi Gras traditions for nearly every neighborhood
and community, a series of cultural customs ranging from King Cake and the
lewd displays of Krewe Du Vieux to the dogs parading in Barkus; the clown
punks and shopping cart battles of Krewe Du Poux; the fabulous costumes of
the St Ann Parade; and more than anything the cultural traditions of Black
Mardi Gras, encompassing everything from Zulu, the one Black major parade,
to neighborhood celebrations involving the masked Mardi Gras Indians,
Skeletons, and Baby Dolls.

I spent a recent Sunday evening participating in an annual tradition called
Indian practice in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood. As preparation
for the music, dancing, and rituals involved on Mardi Gras day, more than a
hundred people from the community packed close and sweaty into a small bar,
singing, drumming and dancing to songs that everyone knew every word to, the
room all singing and chanting together the classic song of Black Mardi Gras,
Indian Red: "Here comes the Big Chief / Big Chief of the Nation / the whole
wild creation / He won't bow down / not on that ground / you know I love you
hear you call, my Indian Red."

In the midst of this crowd, I could forget for a moment all the devastation
outside. However, when I asked Nick, who had spent his life here, living in
this neighborhood that decades ago was filled with Black-owned jazz clubs
and businesses, how many of his neighbors were back, he estimated less than
10 percent. While official estimates are higher, the fact remains that even
in a Black neighborhood like Central City, which was not heavily damaged or
flooded like the now-famous Ninth Ward, people have still not been able to
return. A range of obstacles, including redlining by insurance companies,
the mass layoffs of city workers, closed schools and hospitals, and
continued fear and uncertainty about the safety of the levees surrounding
the city, has kept people out.

During a recent Sunday service at a church a few blocks away, the Reverend
Jesse Jackson asked the 500 people in the room how many of them had
evacuated. Every hand went up. He then asked how many still had family and
loved ones who had not returned, and again every single hand in the room
went up.

Adding to the emptiness, Calliope and Magnolia, two public housing
developments in the neighborhood that were mostly undamaged, remain
deliberately empty; most residents have not been permitted to return.

In fact, this week our at-large city council representative, Oliver Thomas,
declared publicly that many of the residents should not be allowed to
return. Reinforcing the stereotype that people are poor because they don't
want to work, Thomas stated, "There's just been a lot of pampering, and at
some point you have to say, 'No, no, no, no, no," and added, "we don't need
soap opera watchers right now."

At the same meeting, Nadine Jarmon, the appointed chief of the Housing
Authority of New Orleans (HANO) declared Thomas' position reflected their
policy, adding if "they don't express a willingness to work, or they don't
have a training background, or they weren't working before Katrina, then
(we're) making a decision to pass over those people." These statements were
made while, six months after the hurricane, thousands of undamaged units sit
empty, thousands more homeless New Orleanians face eviction from FEMA hotels
on March 1, and tens of thousands of renters that lived in damaged homes
have no where to move to, and no governmental officials seem to care if they
come back. In the midst of this crisis, Thomas, two other council members,
and the chief of HANO blamed the victims. What about single parents and
caretakers? What about the elderly, injured or disabled? Don't they
deserve housing, even if they don't have training or an extensive job
history? Why are only public housing tenants asked if they intend to work?

At a recent demonstration organized by New Orleans Housing Emergency Action
Team (NO-HEAT), former residents of the St Bernard Housing Development, many
of them visiting for the day from their exile in Houston, expressed their
desire to return to their homes. One resident proclaimed that he was going
to move back into his home as a form of civil disobedience. While his
action is inspiring, the idea that it requires civil disobedience to move
back into your own undamaged home is profoundly disturbing. Is this what
we've come to?

At a recent presentation at Tulane University, Thomas Murphy of the Urban
Land Institute spoke about the Institute's recommendations to the city,
including their plan to develop the (wealthier, whiter) areas of the city on
high ground first. He also recommended three books to the mostly student
audience, including The Prince by Machiavelli and Rules for Radicals by Saul
Alinsky, saying, "our mission should be to stand up for those with no
voice." When I asked him how he reconciled his passion for the voiceless
with his recommendations to build up wealthy areas first, and why he wasn't
standing up for renters or those in public housing, he evaded the question
with comments about a "criminal sociology" that develops in public housing.

The victims are being blamed. People of this city, who have contributed so
much to the culture of this country, who have created a culture that is now
being enjoyed by tourists and others, have always been left out of the
profits, and are once again shut out, and put last in line. As Loyola Law
Clinic Director Bill Quigley has said, "what if we turned the priorities
upside down, instead of saying that we are going to start with building up
the high ground, what if we prioritized restoring housing and justice for
those who had the least to begin with?"

Even for many of us who lived in areas with minimal flooding, like my
relatively privileged block in the Seventh Ward just off the high ground of
Esplanade Avenue, the coming months hold a mostly unspoken fear. We have
little faith in the levees, little faith in the Army Corps of Engineers,
little faith in our government. As one friend who lives a few blocks away
from me said to me yesterday, "it's just a flip of the coin, and it'll be us
next time."

For many of us privileged enough to be here, its bittersweet to see another
Mardi Gras. It's a time of year we used to look forward to, and while there
is much to mourn, we also want to embrace our loved ones, embrace our city,
and maybe even embrace the decadence. Meanwhile, the city rolls on - plans
are made, funds are distributed, some neighborhoods are declared unviable,
more people are evicted, and that Southern Comfort billboard taunts us,
"Nothing stops Mardi Gras. Nothing."

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Jordan Flaherty is a resident of New Orleans, an organizer with New Orleans
Network and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. His previous articles from New
Orleans are at