L. Neil Smith's
Number 337, September 18, 2005

"Prison Time For Gun Confiscators!"

Like Stonewall Without the Riot:
New Orleans, Katrina and the Government Response

by Herself

Exclusive to TLE

"... An almost Biblical feeling of Doom--of the city about to be destroyed, razed, toppled--assaults you. The odor of something stagnant permeates the winter-air of this summercity: not so much an odor that attacks the sense of smell as one that raids the mind. ... "[1]

It's about New Orleans, but it's not a reporter describing current conditions. It's street hustler/author John Rechy, describing the city in 1963.

And he's right. The city was always doomed. And he is even more right in his descriptions of some of the sorts of people who choose to dance on the very threshold of doom.

My own memories of The Big Easy—a childhood visit not too many years after Mr. Rechy wrote—have been much influenced by his book, with its unflinching descriptions of the nightcity that runs like a subterranean river though all cities and the often brutal happenings at the interface between that anarchic world and the world of whitebread officialdom. The book's final chapters take place in the French Quarter during and immediately after Mardi Gras. So it was not coincidence that had me rereading even as the floodwaters continued to rise.

As the days passed and mandatory evacuation began, complete with news coverage of handcuffed citizens made to squat on curbs while squads of police pawed through their homes and belongings, I began to see a parallel.

NOLA, for better or worse, is famous for the uninhibited madness of Mardi Gras and a culture more than merely "tolerant" of people who are different. One of the many events cancelled by Katrina's visit, news reports say, was "Southern Decadence," described as "the gay Mardi Gras." (This puzzles me, since I had thought Mardi Gras was the gay Mardi Gras; but no matter).

The national perception has been that New Orleans was a sort of wide-open dive, filled with strippers and queens, butch lesbians, hustlers, mad masquers of all sort. And now it is being raided, in precisely the manner of a Vice raid on a dive. The Mayor's ordered all the freaks out: stubborn little old ladies, quiet (and loud) urban survivalists, the folks keeping open the bar the never closes in the French Quarter, street people, whatever—out!

And the Feds are beaming with joy. Surely it must indeed be God's Work, their oh-so-concerned expressions tell us, to rid the city of the impoverished hangers-on, the people too cantankerous to depart, the young and careless, the queer, the odd and similar trash! (Were you wondering why the Feds were so slow to proffer help, even to express concern, compared to their usual performance before the cameras when disaster strikes? Is it clearer now?)

Back in 1969, a different dive was raided. It was known as the Stonewall Inn and the crowd was—rough. Punks and queens, bulldykes and those too grubby to gain admittance to tonier night spots. Handcuffed and led to the paddy wagon, one of them [2] struck back.

What followed were three nights of riots; during the first, the police had to barricade themselves in the very bar they had set out to raid and even it was stormed. The "thin blue line" retaliated by smashing everything smashable in the place but it was too late: a generation of outsiders had started to learn they didn't have to meekly take it when The Authorities came to call. National newspaper coverage served only to encourage the stigmatized throughout the land.

What will follow the big bar-raid on New Orleans? Will the denizens of that dive, straight and gay, gun-owners and lefties, street musicians and bar-owners, turn and strike back? Or will they sigh and murmur quietly to themselves, "Well, we had it coming. We're freaks and we danced too long on the volcano's rim."

Will it be just like Stonewall...only without the riots and the movement that followed?

Or will more people realize that Us and Them isn't about who you are, how you look, how or if you worship or even who and how many you sleep with: its about those who would hammer everyone into a single mold against those who will not be beaten down. "Them" is anyone who wants to give orders to unconsenting others. If the outsiders lose, we all lose. If New Orleans falls, we'll all fall-soon or late.


1. Rechy, John: City of Night, pg 286, Grove Press Outrider Series edition, 1984

2. Reports differ. The first to strike back was either a drag queen or a butch lesbian. In any case, it was not some nice, quiet, average-looking individual; they joined in once the riots began.

"Herself" wishes to keep her real identity secret.


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