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 usu- ally 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 hiphop 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. …