At Jackson Square, in the center of New Orleans’ French Quarter, more than a thousand people gathered on January 4 to protest Israel’s invasion of Gaza. It was one of the largest demonstrations the city had seen in recent years. Tracie Washington, director of Louisiana Justice Institute, a legal advocacy group, 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, it’s like if you pinched me and I shot you with an AK-47.’”
The cheers of the crowd rang several blocks away. Palestinian youth led raucous chants of “No Justice, No Peace” and “Gaza, Gaza, don’t you cry. In our hearts, you’ll never die.” Children held up signs that read: “This is what an Israeli target looks like.”
The Jan. 4 march was the second of four mass demonstrations for Gaza during the Israeli bombing that week. The first demonstration, organized in less than 24 hours by young Palestinian activists, brought out more than 300 people, including entire families.
The size of the demonstrations surprised even the organizers. “New Orleans is a small town,” said activist and business owner Emad Jabbar. “For 1,200 people to come out with just a few days notice—I’m speechless.”
The demonstrations were the culmination of years of activism in New Orleans’ Arab and Palestinian communities. This activism has included everything from organizing arts events about Palestine to talking about the issues with newspaper editorial boards. The city’s young Arab activists in particular have also been inspired by successes in other cities, including a recent successful campaign to get Hampshire College to divest from companies that supply the Israeli military as well as sit-ins and building occupations on other campuses in the U.S. and Europe. And organizing among New Orleans’ Vietnamese, Latinos and Blacks since Hurricane Katrina has also been encouraging to the city’s Arab community.
According to Angelina Abbir Mansour, the co-founder of the chapter of the General Union of Palestinian Students at the University of New Orleans, the devastation in Gaza this year was a catalyst that took their city’s activism to a new level.
“When the Gaza massacre happened, the first thought that came to everyone’s head was ‘We can’t be quiet anymore,’” she said.
It’s difficult to estimate the size of New Orleans’ Palestinian community. According to the U.S. census, the pre-Katrina population was 67-percent Black and 27-percent white, with less than 2 percent identifying themselves as Arab American.
What can be said is that the city’s Palestinian community is both spread out and insular. Families are located in several suburbs on New Orleans’ Westbank (on the other side of the Mississippi River), but there isn’t a particular neighborhood where most live. The community is rarely discussed in national coverage of New Orleans, or even in the local media. “Growing up, I didn’t know there was a Palestinian community here,” Mansour said. “I guess [that’s] because we’re a small population and were not making headlines.”
Many of New Orleans’ Palestinians are from a handful of small towns and villages near Ramallah and Jerusalem, such as Silwad, Al-Bireh, Al-Mizra’a and Beit Anan. Many are small business owners, owning restaurants, convenience stores and clothing stores. In the aftermath of Katrina, much of the city’s Arab community was displaced, losing both their stores and homes.
“A lot of us lost businesses,” said Maher Salem, a community leader and small business owner. “And many from our community moved to other cities.”
Although they no longer live in New Orleans, many of those who are displaced still feel connected to the city. “I know guys that are in Dallas now,” Salem said. “But every time we have a protest or something else happening they call and ask what happened. They miss living here.”
Organizing in New Orleans’ Arab community goes back to the late 80s, during the first Intifada, a time of increased activity in the Palestinian Diaspora around the world. Since then, activism has surged and receded in waves in New Orleans, with support and trainings from national organizations such as the Muslim American Society and the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation playing an important role.
The two years preceding Hurricane Katrina was a time of increased Palestine activism and awareness around the U.S. due to the intifada. New Orleans’s Palestinians and their allies organized mass actions, while also focusing on coalition building and education. In some aspects, today’s movement is built from work that happened then.
Starting in 2003, grassroots activists from the Arab community, and their allies, organized an array of events including films, art shows, a Palestinian hip-hop concert, demonstrations, presentations in high school and college classrooms and a regional conference. They also met with newspaper editorial boards, appeared on radio shows, set up literature tables at busy public locations and spoke at churches.
In 2004, this coalition of activists—calling themselves New Orleans Palestine Solidarity—organized human rights delegations to the Middle East, sending nine delegates from diverse backgrounds and communities to Palestinian cities on the West Bank. 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.
This pre-Katrina organizing was coordinated by a multiracial and multi-generational coalition of Palestine activists who met on the campus of Xavier University, a historically Black college. Its core group included Muslims, Christians, Jews, and secular activists, who collaborated closely with the Arab and Muslim community in the city to bring awareness to the Palestinian cause and help to the families in the diaspora who were most affected. This included working with New Orleans’ Muslim Shura Council, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee of New Orleans, New Orleans’ Palestine American Congress and Stop The Wall, the last being a local group made up of more than 200 New Orleanians with family in the Palestinian village of Beit Anan.
“Seeing this wide coalition, and so many actions and events, let us know that our community wasn’t alone,” said Mai Bader, a young Palestinian from New Orleans who is a journalism student at Loyola University in New Orleans.
Palestinian organizers have also built ties with the Louisiana Justice Institute, INCITE New Orleans, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and many more organizations.
“I’ve seen a huge amount of support from the African-American community,” Mansour said. “Because they know more than anyone what its like to face racism. Alliances between our communities make sense.”
Activists have also created powerful video and images documenting their own movement, spreading the word through social networking sites, e-mail, texting, and word of mouth. 2-Cent Entertainment, a group of young Black video activists who are responsible for some of the most exciting media organizing happening in New Orleans today, made a pair of powerful videos documenting the activist uprising, which have been widely distributed online.
The young activists that organized the actions earlier this year are determined to make their mark on the city, through changing the media landscape and shifting public opinion.
“We’re a part of this city,” said Jabbar. “We identify with it. If you ask most New Orleans Palestinians where they’re from, they’ll say New Orleans, especially the young ones.”
It was this spirit that led dozens of Palestinians to join with Black community leaders in last month’s annual Martin Luther King march. Community leader Maher Salem explained why he marched: saying, “My cause, my goal is about the Palestinian people, Gaza, and freedom for everyone. However you describe me—businessman, father, community leader—what I am is someone who stands for justice.”
As they move forward, Palestinian activists in New Orleans are excited by the possibilities.
“People call me, come to me in the street and in the mosque, and ask me what are you up to, what’s next,” said Jabbar. “Our organizing in New Orleans is moving forward. People in the community are passionate, and have a lot of energy. We just need to keep stepping up.”
Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He can be reached at email@example.com.