What I told Mayor Mitch Landrieu About Co-opting Black Activist’s Work
Remember that time JFK marched with MLK in the Birmingham Campaign of 1963 and helped him overthrow Bull Connor’s racist regime? Neither do I. What I do know is that the May before that bloody hot summer, many of King’s cohorts, including a young activist from New Orleans named Jerome Smith, sat down with Kennedy’s brother Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. (RFK did not invite King who he deemed too radical at the time.) At some point during the meeting, Jerome honestly indicated to Robert that if black folks didn’t start getting some protection from racist terrorism in the South, they would start taking matters into their own hands. It has been said that not long after that meeting, RFK ordered J. Edgar Hoover to heighten the already intense FBI surveillance on the Civil Rights movement. None of this, of course, stopped JFK from delivering a seemingly heartfelt speech a month later lauding the cause of Civil Rights for black folks.
In a page ostensibly taken from the Kennedy playbook of policing black activists while publicly praising them, New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu has recently attempted similar co-optation and false alliance with black led resistance via his new book, In the Shadow of Statues. The same man who consistently deflected, surveilled and policed the efforts of Take Em Down NOLA, the coalition that picked up a long running baton of struggle for monument removal in New Orleans, is now claiming to be an ally of our work. Meanwhile, he’s taking nearly all the credit for removing the monuments by his lone valiant self.
This is all painfully reminiscent of America’s darling boy Kennedy spewing PC jargon about the Civil Rights Movement as he simultaneously had his brother ramp up monitoring of it.
When Take Em Down NOLA was co-founded by myself, Angela Kinlaw, Malcolm Suber and other organizers in July of 2015, we, like the mayor, were responding to the national outcry against racial terrorism on black bodies in America. Violence rooted in the ideology of white supremacy. That outcry was in direct response to the Charleston church massacre of June 2015 but also responsive to slain black bodies as far back as Trayvon Martin, if not Emmitt Till. Unlike the mayor, our passion for this struggle reaches much farther back than the immediate present. We had already staged two Confederate Flag burnings in May and July of 2015 under the banner of BYP100 NOLA, the New Orleans branch of Black Youth Project 100, of Black Lives Matter fame.
Prior to that, I had issued a petition for the removal of Robert E. Lee in a highly publicized march for Mike Brown (also organized by BYP100 NOLA ) in November 2014. We never asked for a permit for the march and had only promoted it by way of social media and digital platforms. But word apparently got around to the city because police were fully present at least an hour before we even assembled, with cops at every corner of Lee Circle where the Confederate general’s statue once stood. Needless to say, our actions were clearly under the purview of the mayor’s office from the embryonic start.
Seven months later, we formed Take Em Down NOLA. We named ourselves in response to the trending hashtag of the moment, #TakeEmDown which resulted from activist Bree Newsome’s courageous climb up the South Carolina state flagpole to remove the Confederate flag. We decided to align our local efforts with what we knew would become a national movement. In response to the historical moment, Mayor Landrieu had just made a nice speech calling for the removal of 4 Confederate monuments — he hadn’t learned to call them white supremacist yet — in New Orleans.
But senior organizers like Malcolm Suber, who had been doing this work since the 1970’s, had been calling for the removal of ALL white supremacist symbols for decades. Malcolm and his cohorts had even succeeded in changing the names of some 31 schools in the 1990s. When they did so, they used an ordinance that calls for the removal of any statue or monument that suggests the supremacy of any particular group over another. When Mitch made his speech, he cited that ordinance. He did not cite the activists that put it into place. Be that as it may, as a coalition continuing the work of our ancestors and elders, we too decided to make the call for all.
After Mitch’s speech, the City Council agreed to a 60-day period of public discourse on the matter. It was during this time that we continued our job of “educate, agitate, organize,” staging another flag burning (almost immediately after Mitch’s shortsighted speech). We went on to hold an action in August only a few days before City Council had their first public hearings on the matter and three forums that we staged ourselves in the month of September. When the issue seemingly disappeared from public discourse, we rowed people back up again in November of 2015. This time targeting other statues like the one of Trail of Tears architect Andrew Jackson, that sits in the center of the French Quarter in a square named after him.
We left a hood on E.D. White, former Supreme Court judge and member of the Crescent City White League (the Louisiana’s KKK) who presided over the infamous “separate but equal” decision in the Plessy vs. Ferguson case. His statue stands in front of the Lousiana Supreme Court as a perfect symbol for the injustice that non-white folks continue to receive in New Orleans.
We also targeted the statue of Bienville, our city’s Christopher Columbus as founder and the first to bring enslaved Africans to New Orleans in 1722 as he simultaneously annihilated the Chitimacha First Nations peoples.
In short, we expanded the conversation beyond just four.
Our antagonism paid off and within a week, the city issued a statement saying that it would revisit the issue of monuments. On December 10, 2015, they held a heated town hall where many of the local citizens that we had galvanized faced off with monument defenders both local and from around the country. The next week, on December 17, 2015, City Council voted 6 to 1 to remove the monuments. They caved to the pressure that our organizing and a powerful collective narrative had applied. Yet for the following 15 months, the mayor caved to a different type of pressure. He allowed the city to be sued by monument defenders on specious charges that allegedly prevented monument removal for over a year.
“Oh yea, I know you. You can thank me for protecting you!”
This is the same “strong mayor” that spent $40 million on a surveillance camera project that he planned to expand despite public pushback. The same mayor that endorsed the further perpetuation of the charter school system that has now privatized 99% of public schools, after firing 7,500 public school teachers after Hurricane Katrina with no public hearing. The same mayor that supported Air BnB contracts that further displace local residents in a city already being aggressively gentrified. The same mayor that approved a city budget that spends 63% of 647 million dollars on cops, jails, and reactive measures, while only spending 3% on children and families, and only 1% on job development. The same mayor that presided over an economy that doles out $3 to every white family for every $1 to black families and 53% of city contracts to white men and a measly 29% to black people in a city that is 60% black. The same mayor that has responded to the crime rates that result from impoverished, disenfranchised communities with more policing.
The same mayor that ramped things up a notch with “preventive” policing through a back door deal with CIA venture capital firm Palantir that surveilled city residents for some 5 years unbeknownst to even City Council. This same strong mayor with government backing up to the clandestine federal level was allegedly so scared of some racist white folks stopping him from moving, that all but one monument was moved in the wee hours of the night (at Mitch’s request, not the contractor’s). In the meantime, this all made for fine political theater for Landrieu, heightening his national spotlight as a well-intentioned Southern white man. While behind the curtains, he had his communications director call and meet me directly to dissuade us from our public actions during those 15 months of stagnation. And had his police chief privately meet with Take Em Down NOLA leadership to stop us from moving on the Andrew Jackson statue when we put over 700 people in the streets to remove the racist symbol ourselves.
These are but a few of the stories that Mitch’s three frail mentions of Take Em Down NOLA in his shortsighted book fail to tell. The ones that, despite his failing to ever meet with us directly, he is all too cognizant of. After all, his first words to me when I met him in his New Orleans book signing last month were a cynical, “Oh yea, I know you. You can thank me for protecting you!” While his benevolent public face may bely the far less praiseworthy wizard behind the veil, true organizers know that such duplicity is commonplace amongst well posturing politicians. These dichotomies are the nature of what we all too often deal with. Like Robert and John Kennedy in their quest for the black vote in ’63, Mitch has opted to use his platform to bolster his national spotlight for whatever self-promotional end he seeks. (Presumably the 2020 presidential run he so coyly denies in every interview on his present book tour.)
If this is who we’re relying on to spearhead national narratives around race, then I have about as much faith in Mitch or any white “progressive” (aka moderate liberal) as King did in that Alabama jail.
Meanwhile, like any problematic moderate liberal of the variety that Martin Luther King, Jr. so precisely diagnosed in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Mitch’s overall approach to white supremacist symbols was clearly “more devoted to order than to justice.” His light cosmetic fix of some of New Orleans’ visual oppression — there are still some dozen racist monuments standing, and entire schools, major streets, and neighborhoods named after white supremacists — while simultaneously maintaining the systemic oppression (mentioned above) that those symbols represent is indicative of the type of white liberal that Dr. King diagnosed as preferring “a negative peace which is the absence of tension as opposed to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” The looming names of Lee Circle and Jefferson Davis Highway still haunting the streets where the statues once stood wreak of that negative peace and a job unfinished.
“The city’s got better things it could spend its money on,” is the proverbial retort when we demand more change now. Yet more than half of the 2 million dollars slated for monument removal was spent on hiring a Texas security company to surveil the process and gather intelligence. All this due to the high threat of dealing with “racial extremists,” as deputy mayor Ryan Berni put it. It is notable that the term, “racial extremists” doesn’t only refer to the alt-righters that openly carried assault rifles and grenades (which the NOPD refused to disarm them of) to defend their beloved monuments. From the vantage point of the world of security — particularly private security from right wing Texas (or even the lens of many a “progressive” white liberal for that matter) — racial extremists include black led groups who march in the streets and scream for the value of their lives. Which is to say more than half of Mitch’s money spent on monument removal was ostensibly spent on surveiling the people who worked to make him do it — us. This is all painfully reminiscent of America’s darling boy Kennedy spewing PC jargon about the Civil Rights Movement as he simultaneously had his brother ramp up monitoring of it.
All this simmered under my tongue this past March as Take Em Down NOLA and I watched Mitch Landrieu beam over his new book before an audience of mostly white people aged 50 and up in The Presbytere in Jackson Square. As I simmered, my comrades boiled. They asked the burning questions, “How much of the proceeds from your book is going to fund Take Em Down NOLA?” “Two-hundred thousand dollars of city grants to people tasked with monument replacement (conversations that we spearheaded), and none of that comes to us?” We were asserting the obvious: how do you offer mere lip service — patronizing at that — to the movement that created room for you to move in the first place? The organizing community that put the ordinance in place for him to lay lovely banter over and thrust himself in the limelight. The everyday workers that worked beyond their nine to fives — risking them even — to do the work of raising up a collective conscience that lent the mayor’s agenda any support in the first place.
So by the time I made my way to confront the mayor directly — he cut off the Q&A abruptly before I could deliver my question — I could see that he was clearly flustered and nervous. I’ll let the tape below speak for itself.
But it should be said, that as an everyday citizen with not even a percentage of the privilege or protection that the mayor walked into that room with, I was floored by the utter cowardice and childishness of his response. If this is who we’re relying on to spearhead national narratives around race, then I have about as much faith in Mitch or any white “progressive” (aka moderate liberal) as King did in that Alabama jail. “You’re not even 40 years old,” he told me, repeating it like a misbehaved child caught in a lie wielding an empty retort as defense. “You’re not even 40 years old.” Hmm… yeah Mitch… neither was King when he was killed.