The Ongoing Colonization of New Orleans and Palestine

As “False Flags” at Pelican Bomb Gallery X closes, New Orleans-based activist Tabitha Mustafa looks at the parallels between the ongoing conflict in Israel and Palestine and local conversations surrounding cultural ownership.

Installation view of Emily Jacir’s Memorial to 418 Palestinian Villages which were Destroyed, Depopulated and Occupied by Israel in 1948, 2000, at the Offenes Kulturhaus Oberösterreich, Linz, Austria. Courtesy the artist and Alexander and Bonin, New York. Photo by Otto Saxinger.

The stories of Palestine and New Orleans are eerily similar; their trajectories are not unlike those of other war-torn or disaster ravaged places. Both regions have suffered from not only the impacts of natural or man-made catastrophes, but also the disastrous results of settler colonialism. The effects are lasting, tragic, and largely shaped by ethno-racial propaganda. The rebranding of a city or country often begins with a tragedy and leads to fallacies of recovery and rebirth.

The misconstructions of both New Orleans and Israel are well-crafted narratives that not only tacitly endorse, but also politically advocate for modern-day forms of colonialism. Many people do not think of New Orleans’ post-Katrina recovery narrative as a story of colonization. But as someone who has experienced colonization in not one, but two places, I recognize the story and the patterns. While the processes look disparate when taken out of context, the model is nearly identical: transformation, dispossession, and then oppression. In Palestine, the occupation has been a more drawn-out process, solidifying, over decades, the presence of the State of Israel in place of an indigenously populated nation. However, in New Orleans, many of the initial markers of the seizure happened immediately following Hurricane Katrina, continuing steadily over the last ten years. The story of the ongoing colonization of my homeland in Palestine is one my stateless Palestinian father has ingrained in me since birth, but it is something I’ve seen with my own eyes only a handful of times. I’ve witnessed every step of the process in New Orleans—from the evacuation to present day.

The transformation stage is essentially manifest destiny in action. Colonizers act as though they have found a new uninhabited and undeveloped land that they can cultivate on their own terms. In post-Katrina New Orleans, the hurricane was the tragedy that, as disaster capitalists saw it, created a new untapped landscape. Native New Orleanians were “removed” en masse—shipped out of the city to safety and left stranded in far-off lands with no way or means to return home. Meanwhile, a new wave of inhabitants, gentrifiers or colonizers, if you will, moved into the city as disaster-relief volunteers, real-estate opportunists, and supposed preservers of New Orleans’ “unique” Black culture.

With this drastic shift in New Orleans’ demographics, dispossession became a relatively easy process. New laws and cultural systems were quickly enacted. Most vivid for me are: one, exponentially increasing fees for Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs to practice the cultural tradition of second lining; two, passing noise ordinances that limit live music to appease new residents; and, three, leaving behind the neighborhood public school model in favor of a decentralized charter-school system, devoid of cultural competency. While some of the changes like these did not stick, many of them have been incorporated into the new New Orleans.

The complete rebranding of a place marks when dispossession becomes full-on oppression. During this final stage, the only way to survive easily is to assimilate. In the “fully recovered” New Orleans, parents and students have accepted the charter-school model as their only public education option; drivers know that road repairs will be substituted for bike-lane installations; and residents are willing to either spend 50 percent or more of their income on what was once affordable rent or relocate to the more affordable suburbs. Here, it becomes evident that colonialism is inextricably tied to capitalism. And capitalism becomes not only a tool for financial subjugation, but also a repressive system in other sectors, such as housing, infrastructure, and criminal justice.

In the interim, the remnants of culture and institutions of the native population have been appropriated by the colonizing group. Second lines, Mardi Gras Indians, and bounce music are no longer aspects of Black culture, but now, simply New Orleans culture—a free-for-all where participation is no longer based on shared lived experiences and historical understandings, but rather an unfounded interest in and proximity to the event. Comparably, Israel has stolen an entire identity, assuming it from the Palestinians it oppresses. Everything is being appropriated, from cuisine to attire to leisure activities. Think hummus, keffiyehs, smoking hookah. This makes it quite easy to draw connections between New Orleans and Palestine—especially because there is a long history of Black American and Palestinian solidarity. We saw that reactivated during the Ferguson uprisings. Palestinians were able to share how to deal with tear gas, the same tear gas that is used on them by Israeli forces. The struggles and the shared stories of resistance go far beyond coping techniques, extending to tactics of nonviolent resistance.

In order to challenge colonization, grassroots resistance is a necessity, the only alternative to occupation. Given that capitalism is the dominant financial system in both the United States and Israel, the most effective way to cripple them is through economic activism. It would be unwise and impossible to attempt to overthrow a socioeconomic system in any other way. It worked in Birmingham during the bus boycott; it worked in South Africa during the anti-apartheid movement; and it will work in Israel and Palestine.

The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was initiated in 2005 at the call of Palestinian civil society organizations, asking consumers, organizations, and governments to end financial support to companies benefitting from the illegal occupation, and since then, has become increasingly impactful. The worldwide effort to hold Israel accountable for its numerous human rights violations demands three things of Israel:

  1. End the occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantle the apartheid wall.
  2. Recognize the fundamental rights of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel.
  3. Respect, protect, and promote the right of Palestinian refugees to return to their homes and properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

This demand for supporters to engage in non-punitive actions targeted at Israel is being categorized by Zionists and Zionist sympathizers as anti-Semitic. The fact of the matter is that BDS does not discriminate against Jews; it seeks to hold Israel accountable for being an apartheid state by using the same tactics of nonviolent resistance that helped Black South Africans decolonize. BDS is an attack on systems, not people. Further, the argument of anti-Semitism misuses the term “Semitic,” which historically included Palestinians, other Arabs, and North Africans.

It’s evident that the State of Israel and Zionists are on a campaign to shame BDS activists like me into ending our campaigns for Palestinian liberation and human rights by using mass media, incarceration, and intimidation to their advantage. This has been evidenced as recently as April, when a number of Israeli officials incited attacks against the BDS movement. Israeli Intelligence and Atomic Energy Minister Yisrael Katz even went so far as to call for the “sikul ezrachi memukad,” or civil targeted prevention, of BDS leadership. The Israeli government will stop at nothing to stop the movement.

But we can’t stop; we won’t stop. American activists of all faiths and races, especially here in New Orleans, recognize that our respective struggles for justice are inextricably intertwined. In order for one subaltern group to win, we must all win; and when we all win, we will all be free.