Occupied New Orleans: A Brief History

New Orleans is no stranger to occupation. The swampland between the Mississippi River and Lake Ponchartrain has been occupied for nearly three centuries, beginning when Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville first took the Chitimacha settlement in 1718. It was then turned over to the Spanish crown in 1763, back to the French in 1801, sold to the Americans in 1803, occupied by the north during the latter years of the Civil War, and open to exploitation by oligarchs and financiers ever since.

Given its pre-American history, New Orleans has always been more culturally complex than the country that came to contain it. This city knew Creoles, free people of color (“gens de couleur libre”), quadroons and octoroons, while Americans saw things in terms of white and black. The latter’s dichotomous worldview was ultimately thrust upon the pre-existing system of Creole social gradation, thus threatening social instability. Meanwhile, a linguistic element of cultural cleavage was added, as the new occupiers spoke English. They would ultimately move into “uptown” New Orleans, across Canal from the French Quarter.

The Civil War brought yet another occupation: this time the “Yankee.” Historian Christopher Benfey describes the situation as such: “The precarious status of the Creoles – beaten up by the uptown “Americans” before the Civil War, and by the Northern Yankees during and after it – had another, more troubling result, in their increasingly desperate attempts to restore their lost prestige.”1 This troubling result was the 1874 “Battle of Liberty Place,” in which the Crescent City White League fought the Metropolitan police, resulting in 30 deaths, over frustration regarding the perceived opportunism of northern politicians and their implementation of the corrupt elections of 1872 (which briefly resulted in an African-American governor.)

In sum, northern efforts at reconstruction exacerbated racial tensions rather than tempering them. The Yankee, like the American occupier before, introduced a more restrictive system of race relations than had previously existed. Historian John Blassingame explains: “Because of their historical intimacy with Negroes, most Louisiana whites manifested far less abhorrence for blacks than did their brothers in the North and far less than their rhetoric often implied.”2 This rhetoric, as represented by the White League and other racist organs, was the result of Creole frustration and desperation. The violence of Liberty Place, meanwhile, was born of resentment over another wave of occupation.

The Creoles and their language gradually lost their footing in New Orleans, though the era of northern occupation did not cease with the end of the Civil War. As Josh and Rebecca Tickell elegantly demonstrate in their recently released documentary The Big Fix, the state of Louisiana thereafter became a colony of northern oligarchs, eager to cash in on the state’s natural resources, particularly the oil. While last year’s Deepwater Horizon accident brought global attention to the immediate ecological risks associated with the plunder of this resource in an increasingly unregulated environment, Louisianans have long felt the social and economic consequences thereof (not to mention the long-term ecological consequences wrought via the depletion of the wetlands). The two principal oil companies present in the first decades of the last century were Standard Oil and Texaco: the latter almost as northern as the former, insofar as most of its financial backing came from investors up north. Nonetheless, it was Standard Oil that would come to wield mammoth control over the industry, even after its breakup in 1911 under the Sherman anti-trust law. One result of their unparalleled economic influence and power was, naturally, near monopolistic control of political power in Louisiana.

This was until the political consciousness of Louisiana discovered a means of counter-occupation, in the form of the redoubtable Huey Long. As the social implications of the preceding era of monopoly capitalism began to take hold in the form of economic malaise, Long was swept into the governor’s mansion in 1928 on a populist platform that included loosening the stranglehold of Standard Oil on Louisiana’s political system. Other elements to his populist agenda included vast expenditures on public works projects such as roads, bridges and schools, and, famously, the provision of free textbooks for schoolchildren. In order to help pay for these programs, he introduced a tax on the oil refineries. For his efforts, he was rewarded with an impeachment attempt in 1929, which ultimately failed. Meanwhile, Standard Oil attempted to withhold payment of their obligations under the new tax, thus provoking Long to send in the National Guard to seize their oil fields until payment was made.

In speech, the “King Fish” echoed the sentiments of today’s populist movement. On the two political parties of his day: “They’ve got a set of Republican waiters on one side and a set of Democratic waiters on the other side, but no matter which set of waiters brings you the dish, the legislative grub is all prepared in the same Wall Street kitchen.” At the time, northern progressives treated him disparagingly, as his plain-talking southern demeanor repelled their bourgeois sensibilities. This runs parallel to the similar treatment now given by “liberal” commentators to Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. Nonetheless, he was the first to admit to not being an intellectual, and his rhetoric is just as relevant today. On the imbalance of wealth:

According to the tables which we have assembled, it is our estimate that 4 percent of the American people own 85 percent of the wealth of America, and that over 70 percent of the people of America don’t own enough to pay for the debts that they owe.

Any man with a thimble-full of sense ought to know that if you take 85 percent off of that table and give it to one man that you are bound to have 2/3 the people starving because they haven’t got enough to eat.

How many men ever went to a barbecue and would let one man take off the table what’s intended for 9/10th of the people to eat? The only way to be able to feed the balance of the people is to make that man come back and bring back some of that grub that he ain’t got no business with!

Long was assassinated on September 8th, 1935, and politics in Louisiana quickly reverted to the usual Wall Street fare. This was probably most notable in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the natural disaster was used as cover for the implementation of a radical neo-liberal agenda in devastated New Orleans. As in other major cities driven by a reactionary austerity agenda, this commenced with deconstruction of a majority of the city’s public housing units, including St. Bernard, C.J. Peete, B.W. Cooper, and Lafitte. One couldn’t imagine a more opportune time to close down housing units than when they are vacant. With public housing went the historic Charity hospital, a public hospital and historic New Orleans fixture. The disrepair of these facilities after the storm provided a convenient pretense for the political class of the state and city to enact a private take-over that their major funders had always dreamt of.

The most striking privatization, meanwhile, has come in the realm of education. While the entirety of the system was vacated in the weeks following the storm, the Emergency Session of the Louisiana legislature used the occasion to pass Act 35, which put the vast majority of the city’s public schools in state hands, under the auspices of the “Recovery School District” (RSD). The RSD existed prior to the hurricane as a mechanism to bring schools deemed as “failing” under state supervision. However, Act 35 changed the guidelines by which a school was deemed “failing,” so that any school below the state average was grabbed. In all, 102 of the city’s schools were transferred to the RSD (bringing the total to 107). Once in the hands of state bureaucracy, the process of transferring the schools to charters was made easier, as the Republican-led state government had long since begun the school charterization/privatization process across the state.

The city is now the nation’s only charter-majority system, with 61 of the 88 open schools being run by state or parish sanctioned charters. The Orleans Parish School Board only directly operates six schools, while the RSD operates 33. To help administer this transformation, the RSD hired Paul Vallas as superintendant in 2007. He had previously proved his worth by commencing the charterization process in Chicago while this author attended school there. At the end of his tenure in 2010, he candidly discussed the impact that charters have had on the composition of the workforce at the city’s schools: “I submit to you that part of the problem in education is, there is not enough turnover. I’m very comfortable. I’m running a district where half of my teachers are the university elites and the college elites from programs like Teach For America, and the other half of my teachers veteran teachers. I think there’s a very healthy balance.”

Indeed, one of the principle objectives of charter school proponents is weakening teachers’ unions. Nowhere is this more vivid than New Orleans, where the United Teachers of New Orleans was essentially busted by this regressive state school grab. Membership in the union prior to the storm stood at about 7,500, and has only recently re-grown to 1,000. As Vallas alludes to in the quote above, the charters have lent more heavily on Teach for America and similar programs designed to bring in recent graduates with no teaching experience. While most of these young people are well-intentioned, their role is effectively that of a scab. Furthermore, there are racial undertones to this union busting, as the UNTO has always been predominantly African-American. Inner-city teachers have long composed an intrinsic part of the black middle class in this country. One source of the recent implosion of that demographic has been the attack on urban teachers’ unions with this widespread politics of “austerity” and privatization. In short, school privatization is one of the principal routes to gentrification, insofar as it functionally replaces large swathes of middle-class black workers with young, predominantly white workers.

From the French imperialists to the neo-liberal capitalists, New Orleans history has been replete with top-down occupations. Meanwhile, its unique cultural dynamism has produced significant counter-occupiers: those that have reclaimed the humanity of the city by producing an unparalleled music tradition. The African-American population that has endured slavery, servitude, political repression and socio-economic persecution has given this country its popular music. By maintaining occupation of the human spirit in spite of the nation-wide encroachment by unfettered capitalism, New Orleans has maintained its status as a rare refuge of creative ingenuity in the Empire.

As part of the vibrant social movement that has sprung up in cities across the country, Occupy NOLA has set up camp in Duncan Plaza. One of the first significant decisions of their General Assembly was to rename said plaza after Avery Alexander, a local civil rights activist who was integral in efforts to resist segregation in the 1960’s by organizing boycotts, sit-ins and marches. They have taken public space bearing the title of a politician from a locally influential family and reclaimed it for the counter-occupiers, the activists, those who recognize the human propensity to enact meaningful social and political change, and those unwilling to accept the narrative of the exploiters in our midst.

Meanwhile, they have eschewed adopting leaders and introducing hierarchy. The movement of the 99% is meant to surpass human limitations. Huey Long was killed and his counter-occupation dissipated immediately thereafter. A superior model of counter-occupation is offered in the city’s music, which endures beyond the death of any single artist. The jazz funeral provides the opportunity to celebrate life while mourning, by appropriately marching from the burial site in a festive and musically-driven march. It recognizes the cultural contribution of the fallen and immediately demonstrates the spirit that carries on.

This movement has already endured over a month: monumental for an encampment in 21st century America. It has also made its mark by addressing political issues marked as taboo by the two corporatist political parties. It has re-occupied a realm of restricted discourse, and promises that “it is not leaving.” As such, it should only be a matter of time before it re-occupies our schools, hospitals, public housing, natural resources, banks and financial institutions. We are finally making the 1% come back with “some of that grub that (it) ain’t got no business with.”

  1. Benfey, Christopher. Degas in New Orleans (University of California Press, 1997) pp. 14-15. []
  2. Blassingame, John. Black New Orleans, 1860-1880 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1973), xvi. []

Matt Reichel is a writer currently living in New Orleans. He can be reached at: mereichel@gmail.com. Read other articles by Matt, or visit Matt's website.