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The Privatization of New Orleans: Curtis Muhammad on Tycoons, Trump and Gulf Coast Oil

StorySeptember 04, 2007
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We speak with longtime activist, Curtis Muhammad, a member of the People’s Organizing Committee and a native of New Orleans. On the second anniversary of Katrina, Muhammad wrote a farewell letter to the left and progressive forces in the United States. He is leaving the country and heading south. [includes rush transcript]

We turn to a conversation with Curtis Muhammad from the People’s Organizing Committee. Muhammad is a native of New Orleans and a longtime activist. During the sixties, he was an organizer with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC, and co-founded Community Labor United. After the Hurricane hit, he hit the road tracking the New Orleans refugees into shelters from city to city. We first spoke to him in Jackson Mississippi a few days after the flood.

On the second anniversary of Katrina, Curtis Muhammad wrote a farewell letter to the left and progressive forces in the United States. He is leaving the country and heading south. I visited him on his front porch in New Orleans and asked him why.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to a conversation with Curtis Muhammad from the People’s Organizing Committee. Curtis is a native of New Orleans and a longtime activist. During the ’60s, he was an organizer with SNCC, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and co-founder of Community Labor United.

On the second anniversary of Katrina, Curtis Muhammad wrote a farewell letter to the left and progressive forces in the United States. He’s leaving the country and heading south. I visited with him on his front porch in New Orleans and asked him why.

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Well, you know. You know, I come out of SNCC, Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. I started organizing when I was 18 in Mississippi in 1961, and I lived a good 10 years inside of movement activity. And I realized some years ago that I was becoming a kind of a dinosaur — that is, people who are activists and organizers, who even have knowledge of what a movement looked like. And most activists probably think this is business as usual, that the kind of stuff we do, a demonstration here, a conference, a workshop there, but have no real understanding of what a movement looked like, and how an enemy deals with a movement. So when this thing happened with Katrina, it was just so ugly, and it reminded me so much of the COINTELPRO era of the ’60s, that we began to talk and try to show young people what was going on.

But the trauma, the trauma of how the dollars are being spent, who gets the dollars, who gets to talk to you, who gets to talk to the press, who gets to talk to the bosses in the power structures — the people that I see building in the Ninth Ward, for an example, no government agencies, no 501(c)(3)s, no NGOs, but just real basic grassroots people. So when they come together and set up their little grassroots organizations, they say — the foundations, all of them say, “Who are your godfathers? We can’t give you money directly. Poor people buy Cadillacs and dope. We can’t give you money. Go get a godfather. Go get a Jesse Jackson. Go get an Urban League. Go get an NAACP. Go get an ACORN. Go get somebody that we know have handled dollars. But not you.” And so, we have hundreds of poor groups who are struggling with fists and wrists, nothing, to build their communities, when nobody else want to do it, and everybody just living off of it. It’s like free enterprise on poor people, how you get a grant talking about how you and what you’re going to do for poor people, but yet nobody builds a house for poor people. Nobody is there teaching the folk how to get up off the ground and counseling and working with the trauma and teaching them how to facilitate their meetings.

And so, it just hit me that we have this philosophical thing, our movement, for years: Let’s organize the workers, let’s organize the poor people, let’s organize the grassroots. And here we, one time in our lives, have these resources. Nine hundred organizations on the ground in New Orleans, all of them got grants. We knock doors every day. We have no competition talking to poor people, none. And by that, they’re talking to poor people. If you get them in a meeting and they come long enough, they’ll come to your meeting and try to take them if they look like they’re good people that they can sit in a circle when the press is present. But the idea of working with poor people to empower, to teach them how to manage and control their own affairs, it is not happening. And everybody’s present. All of us are present. It ain’t like the left is overseas and just the liberals are here. Everybody’s here. So that’s what’s disturbing me. And I think that’s more catastrophic than what the government did.

But I also don’t think that that’s just us, that that’s something ingrown with us. I think it has an external agenda. I think that that work that our government did in the '60s to destroy the organizations of that era, I don't think that work ever stopped. And I think we’ve got to discover how they control us, how they keep us acting like reformists and liberals, how they keep us from taking risks. I mean, it’s amazing, with all this devastation and the thousands of people they killed intentionally — and we knew they did it — ain’t nobody really mad, ain’t nobody went crazy and blew up something, set something on fire. I’m not advocating it, but it’s just ironic that it ain’t happened. How is this possible? How is it possible that people who lead radical organizations, their greatest solution is how to lobby the state or the Congress or the senator or the…?

So the story that this young man was telling you earlier, I watched these grassroots people organize their demonstration, and I watched the national organizations that know, and then I watched the government close down their plant. And then a few days later I see them all — government, police, press, all the players — come together and do a demonstration, and walk away. What — to an old veteran struggler, that tells me something. Maybe it doesn’t speak to someone else who have never seen a movement. But that’s the way the enemy operate. So they did a show, a dog and pony show, for some reason, about public housing, but our people are still strewn in trailer parks throughout the South who belong in those houses that are ready to be occupied with just minimal cleanup. You’ve seen those houses. So that’s devastating to my spirit, that we can be so manipulated that we can’t even stand for justice with our own people, with the least of ours, we can talk about it as if it’s some kind of romantic conversation piece. So that’s what it is.

AMY GOODMAN: After Katrina, after you went and followed where survivors were going, how they were being treated, you held a gathering at Southern University in Baton Rouge. Can you talk about what you were trying to do in the series of gatherings you had in different places, and then what happened?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Well, we was trying to see if the progressive community understood the historical moment, and they convinced us that they did. And we talked to everybody. And so, we were guilty of inviting everybody to come, too, because we were like, “This is genocide” — and people say, “Yeah, this is genocide” — “and this is our opportunity to really organize on behalf of the poor. Let’s do it. Let’s put the people in charge of their own destiny, and let’s take our gifts, skills and talents and resources and throw them at their feet and give them everything, every kind of support we can give them.” And people said, “Let’s do it.”

And we started, and folks heard it, and we talked it nationally, and you helped us talk it, and people threw money at us to the tune of almost $1.3 million in a matter of four or five months. And all those organizations who had signed on to empower the poor, to organize the poor, to give them the reins to the struggle started looking back at those little programs and ideas they had in their files that had never worked in the last 40 years and decided, well, maybe it’s better we try this again. And so, the poor people had to take second seat to those people, and they still are.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think needs to be done? I know that your letter was a goodbye letter, but what do you feel needs to be done? This is two years since Hurricane Katrina. People are utterly devastated here.

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: You know, I hate to say this, but I really think that time is going to have to heal us. The greatest — the greatest periods of history in America — I don’t know if this is true of the world, but it’s definitely true here — is when everybody was in trouble, and somebody saved us.

When the Civil War hit, the whole country was just in shambles, and the slave rebels, those who had been part of the rebel movement before the Civil War, stepped up and won the war for them in exchange for a Reconstruction program, one of the most beautiful periods in history, the Reconstruction period, 13 years before they threw us back in slavery almost.

The next beautiful period is the Depression. Everybody got scared. The stock market crashed, and everybody saw a little poverty for a minute, and we came out of that wanting everybody to have jobs, everybody to have an education and medical care and housing. That’s where public housing comes from, that’s where Social Security comes from, that’s where the eight-hour day comes from, that’s where the hospitals, the Charity hospitals come from — all the stuff we are dismantling now, because we have forgotten what it’s like to suffer as a mass.

So what we do in New Orleans, we isolated the poor of us, the darkest of us, to kill, to literally —- we abandoned them. We were ready to let them die at the hands of a hurricane that we knew and hoped was coming. This country did that with knowledge. With knowledge. That’s how folks -—

So what has to happen? Something has to happen to remind human beings that we can all suffer, every last one of us — they’ve seen this — because those have been the periods when we most did the best as human beings in this country. So something catastrophic has to happen inside of America that affects the entire mass to wake up our humanity, to pay attention to those who are the most oppressed.

AMY GOODMAN: And you don’t think the attacks on 9/11, followed by Hurricane Katrina, did that?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Wasn’t enough. Too many rich people, too many people making money. The CEOs’ $346 million-a-year salary, can you imagine some poo-poo like that?

AMY GOODMAN: The relief groups, the groups that are on the ground that are working, do you find fault with them?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: It’s not so much fault. It’s lack of understanding. I mean, yeah, I mean, people need food, so you feed people. People need medical care, so you give them medical care. But if you don’t have a process of teaching people to give skills and talents and resources of self-governance, of self-sustenance, it’s really just a throwaway. And it’s not that they don’t — they just don’t know better. They’re good liberal people.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran organizer Curtis Muhammad, speaking to him in New Orleans. We’ll come back to the conversation in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: We return to Curtis Muhammad, veteran organizer from New Orleans. I was sitting with him on his front porch, as he had just released a letter to the left and progressive forces, a farewell letter to the United States.

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: The students who are the children of the men who demanded, who stopped their movement to demand to go defeat Germany, black men, demanded to be soldiers — they were they who were first to find the ovens and free Jews in Germany. Little known history, by the way. That’s what we wanted to do when we went to Germany. We came home, we did not want to live on the cotton plantations. We migrated to take the jobs of the steel mills and the auto plants in the North. But the schools we knew that would accept our children were down South, and we sent them there to go to school. And those children wanted hamburgers at night, and we started the sit-in movement because we couldn’t get them. Do you remember the story?

So we got this massive sit-in movement, just swelled all over the South. And one smart woman named Ella Baker called us together and said, “Hey children, y’all are doing good work, but you need to know that there’s been a movement around before you started this hamburger business.” We’re doing freedom rides, we’re integrating buses. We were just raising much hell. We’re in the evening news and the morning news, and we were totally convinced we were the movement.

And Ms. Baker said, “Do me a favor. What do you think the worst state in the whole union is?” Oh, we were smart: “Mississippi!” She said, “Why don’t you go down there and talk to some of the elders about what they want?” And a few of us decided to do that. And the people that she sent us to talk to gave us a list of towns to go to with a car and some gas money and told us to tell the people our story, who we were, and ask them what would they have us do if we were going to work for freedom for them. And we did it and came back to the people. Amsie Moore was one of the great men who sent us. He said “No, I don’t want to hear it today. Go tomorrow.” They made us do it for five days: knock on doors and ask people these four or five questions after we introduced who we were. And the tally of our conversation with people was, “Oh, it’s nice that y’all would like to integrate those places — it’s good — and that you’ve got the freedom rides and all those marches you had, but we want the right to vote.” Wow!

So we go back to the organizational meeting and say, “Well, here’s our findings. People want us to work on the right to vote. Ain’t but 600 voters in the whole state of Mississippi, but they’re the majority population. But you have to learn how to read and write before you can vote, because you have to pass a literacy test to vote. Sixty-five percent of the people can’t read and write. So the first thing we’ve got to do is do literacy.” The students said, “No, we already got a movement. Let’s just keep going, because, you know, we have to stop what we’re doing. We have to go be teaching people how to read and write before they can even try to vote, and then they might not pass. It will be years before we get the right to vote.” We said, “No, but that’s what the people said they want to do.”

So we’re having this big fight in the SNCC meeting, about to tear the organization up, and we just got started. Ms. Baker calms us down and said, “Look, why don’t you do two things? Why don’t you have a direct action arm that do demonstrations and have a voter registration arm that works on voter registration?” We said, “Great!” Three hundred people in the room. Nine people agreed to go to Mississippi to work on this out of 300 — 1961. By ’63, we were growing. By ’64, it was the most popular demand in the movement: the right to vote — one man, one vote. By ’65, we had won the Voting Rights Act. That was a movement, but it was a consensus.

What was key was we discovered — this is what Ms. Baker taught us. She said when — an organizer do not design a program and sell it to the people. An organizer talks to the people until they discover what the people already agree to. She said the people have a consensus. They’re just not aware of it. The organizer’s job is to find out what it is and then organize around that consensus. And our consensus was the demand for the right to vote.

AMY GOODMAN: And what do you think the equivalent is here now in New Orleans?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: I think public school education is one. We proved that in New Orleans before Katrina. I think public school education is a mass consensus in America. And I think you can organize around it, and parents and students would take risk on that question. I really do.

I also think that genocide is growing to be one, and I think that the enslaved men and black male children between 14 and 25 — every mother have lost a child to the slave trade of the prison-industrial complex, and I think that the movement ignores it, because they never saw that black males were at the bottom of oppression, because our oppression has been defined by other than our own community. But if you ask the average black mother, “My children don’t get educated, and my boys are going to jail.”

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the charter schools and the firing of all the teachers after the hurricane?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: I think it’s another form of slavery. It’s another way to isolate the very poor and the very dire, so that genocide is possible. I think we are involved in a genocidal mode in this country for particularly young black males right now, and I think very poor black folks are very vulnerable to it. So I think this hurricane was an opportunity to do it. They just missed it.

I think we need a whole re-education in this country. We didn’t — we missed it when we watched the automation of the cotton picker 30 or 40 years ago. We missed the fact that three, four, five million people were still on cotton plantations and tobacco plantations and sugarcane plantations who had been there since slavery, never reading, never writing, knowing nothing about society, was dumped all at once, within one-and-a-half decades, into the major cities of the country. Something like one-fifth of our population had just come off the plantations in 1965, '70. And those are they who are the super poor, who are uneducated, that this country do not want to invest in educating. I mean, there's some stuff going on among us that we just have not taken the time to look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Housing, who do you believe in New Orleans is designing this experiment on privatization? There’s a T-shirt at the tribunal that says something like “Don’t believe the hype. It’s not redevelopment” — let’s see if I can get it exactly. “It’s not redevelopment that is slow, so-called, here” — let me get it exactly. “Don’t believe the hype. Gulf Coast recovery is not 'slow.' It’s a privatization scheme that takes away our homes, schools, hospitals and human rights.” Do you agree with that?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: You know, this thing is so big, Amy, that I’m really nervous about grabbing a little piece of something to agree or disagree with, because it’s such a massive, broad scheme. Since you do a lot of investigative stuff, you need to look at the shipbuilding contracts and where they are right now and look at the number of them that’s coming to shipyards along this coast of New Orleans and look at the new shipyards being constructed. You need to look at the oil find in the Gulf, that was equivalent to some of the biggest oil finds in the Middle East, and the development that has happened since that find, the number of new rigs that have been built right out on the Gulf Coast. And then we need to think about what is the plan for the mouth of the Mississippi moving up in this city that is host to the —

You’ve got one TV. Why are you going to take two? Go, man. Tell her to stop taking — OK. Go ahead, man. Go ahead.

So we’re wondering — we’re wondering what’s planned, that — I mean, we watched them bring 30,000 H2 visas in to work in the shipping yard and in the oil rigs, where they can pay people less than $20 an hour easily. They can get down to $9, $8, and $10, and they used to have to pay big money for that. We don’t quite know what they’re after, the casino population. People have seen Trump down here trying to buy real estate, you know, the big tycoons, you know? The gated community is growing faster and faster. We don’t know what they’re up to. Somebody needs to look at this.

It’s bigger than just — I mean, you saw —- you looked at the public housing. If we got a housing problem, they could have knocked that out in a week if they wanted to, clean it up and wash a few things, put a few windows in, turn on the electricity and the water, get the people back in. They could have done that for almost 8,000 families. That’s a lot of people. Times four, what’s that? Twenty-four, five -—

AMY GOODMAN: Thirty-two thousand.

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Thirty-two thousand people. That’s a lot of people that they could have just brought home. No, why not? You can’t explain that by the side. That’s too big. That needs some research. You don’t just say “screw you” to 32,000 people and just explain it all away, some kind of little old cute way.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think of the candidates coming in on the anniversary of Katrina? I think Barack Obama came, and Hillary Clinton. I think John Edwards was here. Well, of course, President Bush. Alberto Gonzales said it was one of the high points of his career, was New Orleans and the Katrina time, because of the level of cooperation.

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: You know, I mean, poor people have all — this is — poor people have always been the — what’s the word? —- the -—

AMY GOODMAN: “Backdrop”?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Yeah, for political poo-poo. You know, they show up at our picnics in an election year and talk about how they’re going to do this for us and put chickens in our pot and cars in our garages, and jobs, and they always promise this poo-poo. But then, what’s so ugly about this, what’s so ugly about New Orleans, I mean, we have recorded close to 6,000 people that died. We think that was a real intentional attempt to wipe out 100,000 black folks right here with Hurricane Katrina. And here’s all these thousands of people using these poor people to pick their stuff up and stand tall and look like somebody, and nothing changes. You walked around this town. The Ninth Ward ain’t changed. Public housing ain’t changed. Ain’t nobody doing nothing for no poor people.

The housing going on, so they took care to elect —- they’re doing something down there for, what, the musicians. You saw that. They’re doing something for the homeowners. You see that down there by the levee, what the town community is called, back there behind the Ninth Ward, and they call it Ninth Ward, what -—

AMY GOODMAN: Holy Cross.

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Holy Cross community, you see this kind of construction going on. You see the Garden District downtown, the casinos, the hotels, you see it. It’s not a secret. And so, people come here and say, “Oh, we’re going to do this, we’re going to do” — and then we still poor, we still got nothing, still got no help.

And you know what? When I travel around the country people think that folks are doing stuff for poor people in New Orleans. That’s what’s so weird. I was just in Europe. People in England said they were surprised that poor people ain’t got no houses. They thought — I was down in Latin America. People thought we weren’t catching hell. In some kind of way they are able to project this feeling that everything is OK in New Orleans. You know, people like me get accused of being a conspiracy theorist or something, but this is stuff people can see. They literally have no intentions, by evidence, of bringing poor black folks back to this city.

AMY GOODMAN: What about Ray Nagin, the mayor?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: That’s another long story. You’ve got to deal with the fact that we were the slaves of masters from England, from France, and from Spanish, to understand that. You’d have to understand the apartheid of the white light-skinned Creole, dark-skinned Creole and the black folk. The reality of New Orleans is a cast that was institutionalized by the Spanish that other people honored, and we still in it. Ray’s heritage is the islands, so his heritage is part of the Creole heritage. This town has never been politically run by anybody else other than Creoles. We don’t like to talk about it. We like to be cool.

But part of the problem here is we have a serious apartheid. I mean, local, state and national governments were in an agreement to allow those 100,000 people to die, and Ray Nagin was the mayor. I don’t back off of that. And we had 278 buses upstairs on the sixth floor of the damn city parking lot that could have driven people out of this town. I’m sorry. Ray can’t do that to me. He was in agreement. And nowhere else in history has every arm of the government agreed to let something like that happen. Even slavery, everybody wasn’t in agreement. But on this one, the local, state and national governments had agreement to just let them people sit here.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think the whole thing can happen again?

CURTIS MUHAMMAD: Yes, I do. I really do. But they will be much better at painting the picture. There won’t be nobody like me looking at it, I bet you. It can happen again.

AMY GOODMAN: Veteran organizer Curtis Muhammad in New Orleans. He is leaving the United States this week and heading south. He wrote a goodbye letter to the people of the United States.

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