Chief Tootie Montana, Mardi Gras Indian

Chief Tootie Montana collapsed at the podium at a City Council meeting in New Orleans on Monday. He died after uttering his final words into the microphone, “I want this to stop”. The Times Picayune said he was referring to the “cultural miscommunication” between Mardi Gras Indians and the police that has resulted recently in police harrassment and disruption of the St. Joseph’s Day tribal gathering, a gathering that has taken place for decades now. Other accounts report that Montana was referring directly to alleged police harrassment on that day. In my view, the misunderstanding lies with the police and our city leaders.

African-Americans of lower income in New Orleans are getting it from all sides. From the destruction of the St. Thomas Housing Development, to the secretive plans now to do the same to the Iberville Housing Development. I say secretive, because in April, Hands Off Iberville Coalition attended a City Council meeting in which members stated “nothing” was being planned for Iberville. I heard this with my own ears. Then recently, in answer to the coalition’s Freedom of Information Request, minutes of a March meeting between Councilwoman Jackie Clarkson, developer Pres Kabacoff, and former mayor Sydney Bartholemew, were released to us, revealing the types of alliances and behind the scenes machinations that it takes to demolish and move an entire African-American neighborhood. In the minutes, Kabacoff states there are too many single mothers and their children in Iberville, and they have to be “moved out”. He stated he wants the City Council and Mayor Nagin to lead the way in this.

Kabacoff wants our African-American leaders to lead the way in the removal of the heart and soul, single women and their children, of an African-American neighborhood. Were the civil rights implications not so obvious, we might also be wondering if Kabacoff is not asking African-American leaders to commit political suicide.

How long before such decisions will catch up with those who make them? It’s only a matter of time before black and white citizens become wise to the spin of such destructive projects whose reverbrations do damage to traditional culture and eliminate low income housing and drive up rents all over the city. Then there is another matter, the questionable shooting deaths of several African-American citizens, including that of unarmed Jenard Thomas in the 7th ward of the city on March 24th of 2005 .  It seems like it has become common city practice to victimize the poorest and most vulnerable of its citizens. And the people doing the victimizing are not only the adult children of wealthy New Orleans families, such as Pres Kabacoff,  but its own African American leaders as well.

It could be suggested, that in their race to do well for themselves, African-American leaders are, at times, willing to participate in, and/or watch, the attack on this city’s African-American neighborhoods, culture and citizens. These same citizens are being marginalized, literally, to the outside fringes of the city with the destruction of St. Thomas and now, possibly, Iberville Housing Development. This, despite the fact that it is these same African-Americans who work in the  hotels and restaurants, drive the cabs, serve the chicken and hamburgers, to downtown office workers, conventioneers and tourists, in and around the French Quarter and Central Business District.

Iberville Housing Development is smack dab in the middle of the downtown, on the outskirts of the French Quarter, on prime real estate that developers like the architect of the destruction of St. Thomas, Kabacoff, are drooling to get their hands on. One only has to sit at Popeye’s Fried Chicken at the corner or Rampart and Canal St., as Councilman Oliver Thomas did recently and admitted in a recent meeting, and watch the flow of human traffic to know that many of the people there are flowing from Iberville, wearing the uniforms of the hotels and restaurants of our famed inner city.

The destruciton of Iberville would not only be the destruction of desperately needed and disappearing affordable, inner city housing, but the destruction of a neighborhood as well. Originally constructed during the New Deal era, the thick, red-brick buildings represent one of the last, possibly in the nation, downtown African- American neighborhoods that is so close to the vibrant, central economic hum of an American city, This is where the jobs are, not in New Orleans east, no matter how much money is poured there into sagging cinemas that have little chance of recovery, like the recent decision by the City Council awarding $1 million to Plaza Cinema in New Orleans east.

Goodby, Mr. Tootie Montana, I followed you and your tribe a few times, and aquired some beautiful pictures as a result. I witnessed first hand the splendid and wild energy of the Mardi Gras Indians as they made their rounds in mixed and African-American neighborhoods, that, at least for a while, were able to suspend ordinary drudgery and concerns as you paraded with your spy boys, and anyone wanting a more brightly colored reality.

You were right, Mr. Montana. I, too want the destruction of African-American traditions and neighborhoods to stop before all of the vibrant color of this city is drained of its joy and spontaneity.

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