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Raised in New Orleans’ St Thomas Public Housing Development, Robert “Kool Black” Horton is a dedicated community organizer and father, as well as a former hip-hop artist and current gospel choir singer. He began his organizing career as a founder of Black Men United for Change, a grassroots community-based organization that initiated local responses to community problems. For fifteen years, he has been a trainer with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a New Orleans-based anti-racist training organization. He is currently Campaigns and Project Director for Critical Resistance, a national prison-abolition organization. This Saturday and Sunday, Critical Resistance is sponsoring a Weekend of Reconciliation and Respect, featuring a keynote address by former political prisoner, professor Angela Davis. For more information on the Critical Resistance Amnesty Campaign, please see www.criticalresistance.org/katrina/.
Jordan Flaherty: What is your organizing background?
Robert “Kool Black” Horton: I’m a native of New Orleans, Louisiana. For the past fifteen years or so I’ve been doing work dealing primarily with issues affecting Black men, particularly in public housing. I started with an organization called Black Men United for Change, in the St. Thomas public housing development about 15 years ago.
Black Men United for Change was part of a larger effort that was taken on by the St. Thomas Residents Council and the St. Thomas Irish Channel Consortium, to do grassroots organizing and educate people about what was happening in their neighborhoods, to deal with issues around teenage pregnancy prevention, the high risk of HIV in the community, and also issues around tenants’ rights as public housing residents.
These meetings would go beyond conversation on these issues, into dialogue about housing issues, the murder rate, police brutality, drugs, employment — those kind of basic things people need for their survival. So because this community was already pretty organized, we had one or two retreats and Black Men United for Change was established.
We started by bringing employers to the table to help brothers get jobs. We acted as a job referral, and we had about 60 or 70 people connected with our organization that we were able to find work for.
Then we started working on these issues of crime and policing. The murder rate was so crazy, there were two areas in particular, one was called Death Alley, and the other one was called Cutthroat. You didn’t want to be in these neighborhoods after dark. The murders were occurring, and there was no intervention. The police would come out and lay the yellow tape down and draw the chalk lines, but this was after the blood was spilled, and we felt it was too late by then. We realized that, had someone stepped in sooner, we could save lives.
So Black Men United for Change developed a community-policing model called the St. Thomas peacekeepers, which was conflict resolution based on the relationships we had with folks in that neighborhood.
A person would get killed, for instance, on a Tuesday evening. But it didn’t start then. It was initiated a few days earlier, on a Friday or Saturday night at the neighborhood block party or a dice game. And because no one said anything then, it was allowed to filter over later.
We had a large presence wherever there were community events or large gatherings. We would be present in the neighborhood, and because we had relationships with the people involved, we knew how to approach them and get them to at least listen and some to some sort of reasoning. There were times where the situation was too complicated for us to get involved, or we were too close to the situation — then we would bring in an outside, neutral, party.
As a result of our work, we began to watch the murder rate drop in St. Thomas, from 31 murders to zero, in a three-year period. The murder rate was about 31 people when we began — that’s 31 killed in one year, just in the St. Thomas development. That went down to fourteen the next year, then to six, then zero.
We were also able to address police brutality. There were rumors that people were being targeted and gunned down by the New Orleans police department. There was this group (of police) called the headhunters, who rode around with black baby doll heads on the hood of their police car. We were able to deal with that matter and have those officers removed from not only St. Thomas, but the entire 6th district police area, because they were terrorizing not only St. Thomas, but also the other public housing sites in that district.
JF: How would you describe Police/Community Relations in New Orleans?
KB: Folks are being criminalized. When the issue of race in particular comes into play, the New Orleans police department is not unique. When you look historically, the police department has been one of the biggest terrorists in our neighborhoods, and that’s across the country, and those relationships haven’t changed much. The faces of politicians have changed, that’s it.
JF: What do you mean when you say your community was already organized?
KB: New Orleans has been doing organizing for years, and people who want to come in solidarity should be respectful with when and how they enter a community. There was a lot of organizing in St. Thomas; we developed a lot of leaders. The people who were 9 to 12 years old when we started, in 7 years, led that program, and were the staff. That was the intention, to pass it on to that next generation of leaders.
JF: St. Thomas was later torn down, and the former residents were dispersed across the city. Now, HUD is talking about demolishing virtually all public housing in the city. Are public housing residents being demonized?
KB: People are being blamed for crime. They say that crime is a public housing issue. Ask yourself, where did the dollars for housing go? We saw our greatest deterioration in public housing and downsizing of funding and staff in the 1970s and 80s. This was a backlash to integration. Fifty percent of St. Thomas was vacant. The money was pulled out of public housing. The staff was downsized.
“Hope VI” (the federal program to transform public housing) is a joke. This country is getting out of the public accommodation business. Look at health care; look at charter schools and the privatization of schools. The country is downsizing from public responsibility. Public education was developed for white people initially. In the 60s, people of color integrated the system, and it became time for the government to get out of that service.
JF: What was your work after Black Men United For Change?
KB: I also worked with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. I’m what’s called a core trainer — I’ve been training with them almost all of my years as an organizer. They do Undoing Racism workshops, a training model to become an antiracist organizer. We believe that skills alone are not enough to become an organizer. You have to understand the culture and time we live in. Just because you develop skills, that doesn’t make you a better organizer. If you don’t address the issue of racism, then you just become a skillful racist
We developed Freedom Schools, modeled on the freedom schools that came out of the 60s, to take a message of antiracism to a younger audience. Kids as young as 9 years old would participate. We would help kids get clarity on institutional power as it relates to racism. That experience helped shape my political perspective.
Now I’m working with Critical Resistance. I appreciate how they work as an organization: nonhierarchical, and conscious of issues of accountability.
Being one who went through the criminal justice system, I know what it means to be on the inside of those walls just as much I know how important it is to be on the outside bringing light to the inhumane treatment people get on the inside.
JF: What is Critical Resistance’s current campaign?
KB: Amnesty for prisoners of Katrina is the campaign Critical Resistance has taken on. We are asking for forgiveness for all charges of those who were arrested for so-called looting, for trying to survive after the storm
We have people a year later who still haven’t seen the inside of a courtroom, mainly because the court system was destroyed. The evidence was washed away, records have deteriorated, public defenders were laid off, and people are lost in the system. People cannot prepare for trial because evidence has been destroyed. A young man appeared last week who was lost in the system for thirteen months. They just found him. How many other cases are there like that? The law says the District Attorney is supposed to accept or deny charges within 60 days for state charges, yet there are people missing in the system for months. There’s no real rehabilitation, just warehousing.
Camp Greyhound (the prison set up in New Orleans greyhound bus station in the first week post-Katrina) is not the best way to rebuild New Orleans — and yet it was the first piece of infrastructure rebuilt in the wake of Katrina. We need food, shelter, clothing, and jobs. We need that for the right of return, for people to have safe communities.
JF: What is your experience with the criminal justice system?
KB: December 1 of 1988, I was arrested for drugs and a gun charge. Just like many teenagers, I made a mistake. I was 19, there were things pushing me into that kind of lifestyle. But I made choices for myself and I decided not to have myself pushed into that system.
JF: How long were you incarcerated?
KB: I only did two and a half years. That’s mainly because growing up I was always around folks that talked about the plight of black folks in this country, and the issues that are impacting us. That spirit, the lessons from those conversations, would visit me in prison.
I want to say this, as it relates to amnesty: For two years before Katrina, I was unemployed. I could not find work in this city. For something that happened 18 years ago, I couldn’t get a job in this town. When does a person pay his debt to society? I served two years in prison. I’ve worked with youth around this country. I’m involved in all kinds of civic organizations, I made a complete change in my life, and I still can’t get work.
Now there’s legislation saying if you’ve ever been convicted you can’t get financial aid for school. How does this affect people who are trying to turn their life around? What are we talking about when we talk about safety?
When I was in Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), I stayed in what was called “Tent City,” which has now been re-erected, post-Katrina. It was a makeshift jail outside. It was 14 degrees and we were sleeping outside on cots without a heater. OPP had at that time at least 12 different facilities in this city. We should question that — why are there so many jails in one town?
Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the nation, and New Orleans has the highest incarceration rate in the state. We also have the third poorest education system in this country. With the No Child Left Behind act, people are being pushed out of school.
What’s going to be the focus when we rebuild this city? Is the focus on bricks and mortar, or people? There’s a lot of talk about levees and infrastructure and hotels and businesses, but very little talk about bringing people back and making sure they have wages and benefits, a quality education and health care.
Politicians and media talk about crime and safety, but there’s another agenda, and that agenda has racism written all over it. There’s no plan to bring people back to this city. People have been planning to remove the poor Blacks of this city. Using the issue of crime has been one way to do it. So it’s another mass gentrification scheme. Right now, they’re talking about tearing down public housing that could provide housing and right of return for 5,000 families, but developers are talking about money-making schemes right now, and planning to benefit from others’ misery.
JF: What happened to St. Thomas?
KB: St Thomas was a painful experience for me. It helped me understand this thing called community organizing, so that’s positive. But it is painful because of the end results. They said they would turn our community into a mixed income community. Community folks that participated didn’t know the scope of what they were dealing with. Developers ended up gentrifying and developing the community out of existence.
JF: What are the organizing lessons you’ve learned in New Orleans post-Katrina?
KB: One lesson I’ve learned is that this is bigger than me. We can’t use the model we used to use. We have to look for different models. We can’t see the issue of prisoners as a civil rights issue; this is a human rights issue.
Jordan Flaherty is an editor of Left Turn and a community organizer. His previous articles from New Orleans are at www.leftturn.org/Articles/SpecialCollections/jordanonkatrina.aspx. To contact Jordan, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Jordan also hangs out at MySpace: http://www.myspace.com/secondlines.
Jacqueline Soohen is an award-winning documentary filmmaker with over ten years of experience making social documentaries with an emphasis on global justice. Her films have screened on television and at hundreds of film festivals. Her feature length documentaries include Fallujah (2005) and Shocking and Awful (2005), both of which were featured in the 2006 Whitney Biennial, Fourth World War (2004), This Is What Democracy Looks Like (2002), and Zapatista (1998). As director and co-founder of Big Noise Films and a co-founder of Indymedia, she has pioneered innovative distribution mechanisms — through the Internet and through national and international screening networks. She is a Katrina Media Fellowship grantee.