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27 January 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 3:30pm

New Orleans protests Donald Trump in carnival style – but what happens when the music stops?

Anti-racism and feminism activists must find a way to join forces. 

By Colette Sensier

The corpse of Lady Liberty was buried twice last weekend in New Orleans. Once, at a protest on the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, and again the following Saturday. This southern city plays out its dead with a “second line” – a marching brass band. And so one accompanied Liberty’s funerals through the busy streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter.

An estimated 3,000 people marched on Inauguration Day itself, many existing activists. By Saturday, the numbers had swelled to tens of thousands. Protestors joined marches for millennials, women, and followers of the Democrat Bernie Sanders.  

“New Orleans has a very strong tradition of demonstrations as live art,” said José Torres–Tama, an artist, poet and activist wearing a “No Guacamole for Immigrant Haters” t–shirt. He added: “We have to be passionate. We’re living in the most dangerous live reality TV show we could ever have imagined.”

This is carnival season in New Orleans. Anger and fear co–exist with excitement at the size of the protests, and the passion they inspire. As carnivals always have, the protests give people who have been scared since November a moment of catharsis. But will the moment melt away, or leave something more concrete behind?

From Black Lives Matter to Islam 101 to the Congreso of Day Labourers, this was a chance to make the apathetic wake up and join in. But there was also a sense of frustration that it had taken Trump to get white Americans out on the streets. Torres-Tama, the protestor I’d met, hoped “the clear and present danger white people are waking up to now will unite us”.

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The long shadow

There’s no politics in the South that isn’t overshadowed by the battle for civil rights. The potholed, lurching streets of New Orleans, a city with a large African-American population, are often described as “third world”. Many of the protestors I encountered had also participated in Black Lives Matter protests over the death of Alton Sterling, a black man shot by a policeman at close range. The protestors, too, say they were treated brutally. 

At the march on Friday, organised by Disrupt J20 (shorthand for the date), social justice lawyer Bill Quigley led a call and response along the lines of: “Who is destroying the environment?” The response was always “White people!” But the march was more unified than this might suggest. Quigley himself was white, and many white marchers joined in the response. The marchers began walking to the tune of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White”. 

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“This is part of the process of building unity,” said Angela Kinlaw, a former public school principal and organizer of Take ‘Em Down NOLA, a campaign against Confederate statues and other symbols of white supremacy. She made a point of congratulating the Women’s March organizers as well: “We are facing a dangerous president who has declared war on political rights, civil rights and workers’ rights, on every social program and who threatens the world with more wars.”

Feminist unity

The protestors who turned out on Friday were often existing activists, with their own causes on display, from sex workers’ rights to Palestine. In contrast, the Saturday march radiated with visceral shock. Women dressed in purple to mark themselves as new Suffragettes. Many held signs declaring: “We Won’t Go Back.” In true carnival fashion, other signs were witty, ornate and carried by women wearing fabulous synchronised costumes. Teacher Carolyn Hembree marched with a clothes-hanger around her neck, a visible reminder of the abortion rights women need to defend.

The Saturday march was less diverse, and one Muslim marcher told me she felt like “a curiosity”. She added: “I hope that the white women who attended the marches across the globe will make a sincere effort to read, listen, and understand the issues women of color are discussing regarding white supremacy.”

But the weekend focused on unity. The African-American senator, Karen Carter Peterson, brought women of all ages up on stage at the conclusion of the Women’s March: older women, college students, and finally toddler Ruby, before leading the enormous crowd in a chant of “Love Trumps Hate!”

A lonely city

New Orleans may be hosting the anti-Trump carnival, but it is a city better at getting its music heard than its political voice. While the city may be home to an eclectic group of liberals, the state of Louisiana in which it sits is deeply right-wing. Trump won 58 per cent of the vote across the state. Even many of the city’s suburbs turned Trump. 

Restaurant worker Lauren Clement, who has lived in the city for five years, sighed that after so many decades of being ignored, the New Orleans attitude is: “This has happened before, it’ll happen again, there’s nothing we can do, so let’s go to the bar.” 

The very local nature of New Orleans liberalism can lead to blindness. One speaker at the Friday protest insisted Hurricane Katrina, which devastated the city in 2005, was planned in order to drive African-Americans out of the city. Such rhetoric fails to take into account climate change, which should matter in a vulnerable city at a time when Trump is appointing climate change deniers to enforce environmental law

If a diverse group of activists are to stay unified, they will have to keep reminding themselves to stay focused on Trump. This is the only way to keep anti-immigrant environmentalists and maybe even left-leaning Republicans on side. Although as many as 15,000 attended the Women’s March, this is still just 4 per cent of the whole city population. In order to succeed, this new mass of anti-Trump activists will have to reach the other 96 per cent. For a meaningful resistance to take place in New Orleans, its residents will have to keep the carnival of protest going. 

Colette Sensier is a writer and poet based in New Orleans.