By Patrick Miller
To many outsiders, it seems to be all too easy to believe that New Orleans is a city defined only by its reputation for excess and bacchanalia — a reputation, it’s worth noting, that really has only developed as a result of certain federal decisions during post-Katrina reconstruction. There is, of course, much more at play beneath the surface than this veneer is able to communicate to non-residents. I’ve found that different people tell different parts of the story, and no two topics seem similar enough to fully encapsulate how and why things happen. A particularly tangled part of Louisiana’s history has consistently been its politics, and New Orleans city politics are only more densely tangled. Since its founding, the city’s power has rested largely with wealthy landowners in different iterations, and as American political language has shifted during the COVID pandemic, so too have the citizens of New Orleans mobilized to achieve the political action that is not always so forthcoming from the structural government in place. I think that these stories present glimpses of life throughout the city not only as it happens day to day, but as the people hope it will become.
In the heat of the 2020 Presidential election, Americans have seemed more reactionary to ideological buzzwords on both sides of the aisle — terms like “socialism,” “fascism,” “communism,” and other umbrella groupings tend to make people angry and resistant to debate or deliberation. In a way, this has made it more difficult to have political conversations — nobody really wants to get into a shouting match where both sides know nothing, they say will change the other’s mind. And what’s more, it seems to have become more difficult for those in power to act sheerly for the interests of the people. Particularly during the pandemic, the government both federal and local has had its hands so full that it hasn’t been able to fully provide for the myriad civil debates taking place. In a city like New Orleans, the inability of the government to provide is an all too consistent theme. Therefore, in the interest of learning more about how the people of New Orleans provide for themselves and how they have learned to adapt on their own during the pandemic, I spoke with DeeDee Green, the Area Director for Peace by Piece New Orleans, an organization focused on the nurturing of intimate local communities, and Sade Dumas, the Executive Director of the Orleans Prison Parish Reform Coalition. These two organizations, though different, share the belief that the people that make up these local communities should be in charge of making the kinds of political and social decisions that directly affect them. Speaking first with DeeDee Green, and then Sade Dumas, I came to believe that this intersection is visible because of each organization’s activities, both before and during the COVID pandemic, as well as how each defined their sets of goals. In a year like this, it seems especially critical to assess the importance of the power of the people alongside how we think about the kind of associated political language that makes discussions about larger political change seem so intimidating.
While the similarities of Peace by Piece and the OPPRC can make the ideological core more visible, the differences between the two help show the ways that this action can manifest and how significant this kind of organization can be to its different members. My conversation with DeeDee Green, for example, kept returning to the Holly Grove neighborhood of New Orleans, an area marked with historic poverty and deep-rooted socio-economic difficulties. Green and Peace by Piece, before the pandemic, focused on direct involvement with the community. In conversation, Green links a lot of this to interaction between a number of different groups.
PM: What do these community engagement meetings look like when the pandemic is not happening? What was life like before?
VG: The HollyGrove Neighbors Association holds these quarterly meetings, informing and updating people on what’s happening in the city and more specifically in the neighborhood, if there are blight issues, dumping issues, roadwork that’s happening — that’s the place people can come and learn more about things like that.
There are often guests there from the police department to the city, who if folks have questions, concerns, complaints, that’s another place to stage it. So that’s one example of your typical neighborhood association meeting. Also, there are events that we help to sponsor, for lack of a better word — Peace by Piece, Hollygrove Neighbors Association, Night Out Against Crime, where we bring a lot of young people together that didn’t get to happen this year. And again, our typical programming, we used to do what we would call Super Saturdays. We would invite kids out either one or two Saturdays a month, we haven’t done it for a while, again, the pandemic and staff issues. But you know, just have kids come out and help us in the garden on a Saturday. Some of the kids will help us distribute food around the community. There have been some young men from an organization called Black Man Rising who have come and helped us distribute, there have been some Xavier students, some of the neighbors have come out as well to lend a hand. But because of the pandemic, we’ve not made a huge effort to involve so many people for obvious reasons. A lot of the people who are really active are seniors, so we don’t want to compromise their health in any way. Anything we’ve done, we’ve assured people we have plenty of PPE, and we feed people. So that maybe offers a little bit of comfort, if people decide they want to come out and help us out in the community.
This kind of intense focus on bringing people of a common area together seemed to be one of the most striking features of Peace by Piece. The scope of organizations which they work and interact with is staggering. I shouldn’t have been surprised when Green told me she knew Sade Dumas at the end of our interview. Green also emphasized efforts Peace by Piece has made in recent years to increase food security in impoverished areas like Holly Grove around New Orleans, namely through things like the garden plots she mentions — which exist around Holly Grove, and are staffed by members of the neighborhood. Part of the overlap between Peace by Piece and the Orleans Prison Parish Reform Coalition, however, comes from an entirely different community-related issue: surveillance. The two came together in 2018, when Green noticed surveillance cameras in her neighborhood and helped create the “Stop Watching NOLA” campaign, attracting the attention of other community-based organizations concerned with community surveillance in New Orleans, which eventually resulted in the passing of a city ordinance banning facial recognition, tracking software, and “stingrays,” or cell site simulators that force cellphones on its network to share data.
This segues smoothly to another thing the two organizations have in common — consistently meeting resistance from public officials and city governance. Talking with Sade Dumas about the receptivity of the city council, she said “the city council fought us on that a lot. City council meetings were delayed all the way from the beginning. And also, I mean, we’re happy about what was passed, but it was watered down so much from the original version. I wrote some language into that ordinance too, which was to protect attorney-client privilege phone calls, because the sheriff currently violates that law by recording these calls between attorneys and clients and giving it to the DA’s office to prosecute people. It wasn’t passed until December, and we just recently heard they’re trying to pull back and nix it with the excuse of ‘If a January 6th riot happened here…’ we want the tools to identify these people.” It was all too evident that there is a deep conflict of interest between the people in positions of political power and those who would feel the effects of legislative action, or lack thereof. Throughout both conversations, I steadily became more and more aware of the kind of debate this creates. If it’s possible for organizations like these to help the members of the community on an immediate and personal level, then it should be in the interests of the city government to do everything in its power to assist these people.
In further conversation with Dumas about working with the city as it more specifically relates to the work of the Orleans Prison Parish Reform Coalition, she described the overarching goal of the Coalition: “None of it has come easy…New Orleans was the most incarcerated city in the world because we had a lot of politicians with the ‘tough on crime’ mentality, and that has never helped. We saw, in the last couple of years, the lowest jail populations since the 1970s, and that was also the lowest the crime rate has ever been. We’ve pushed the narrative that incarceration doesn’t keep people safe because it doesn’t.” Dumas described the history of the organization in a similar way to how Green described the history of Peace by Piece — OPPRC also grew out of a collaboration of movements with shifting goals connected through a desire to affect positive change in their communities. Formed in 2004, the Coalition was merely a volunteer group aimed at reducing incarceration, reforming prisons, and making prisons smaller. While these central tenets have remained the same, the evolution of the OPPRC has seen it necessarily branch into other, inextricably linked parts of society — food security, surveillance, and policing.
It’s this intersection that brought to mind political language. The way these organizations interact with, and at times come to represent their communities seems to me in a way beyond the current scope of political definition, yet people like DeeDee Green and Sade Dumas are accomplishing far more for their communities than scores of politicians with the same alleged goals in the same places. At the end of the day, both Peace by Peace New Orleans and the Orleans Prison Parish Reform Coalition are concerned with the wellbeing of the citizens of New Orleans, whether that takes shape in the form of growing food for the residents of Holly Grove or making sure New Orleans spends its money on a center for mental care instead of a new prison. These goals, at least, seem to have a tangible positive outcome. It makes one wonder if the problem lies in our political language and the politics we fear, or in the American political system itself.