|Abstract:||This dissertation is about the everyday lived consequences of policing in the lives of Black mothers in Central City, New Orleans in the years immediately before and after Hurricane Katrina of 2005. This research stems from ethnographic fieldwork in the Central City neighborhood, one of the areas with the highest proportion of people imprisoned in the city, along with high rates of profiling and police brutality. In New Orleans, Black mothers who live, work, or frequent the Central City neighborhood live with the daily consequences of this policing, resulting in a culture of fear. The term “mothers” is inclusive of several different roles in the community, rather than simply that of biological mothers. For three years during my participant-observation ethnographic research in the Central City neighborhood, I gathered stories from Black mothers of their everyday experience of policing and its impact on their families and social standing as mothers. Through their stories, these mothers reimagine their lived experiences in spite of state-sanctioned marginalization and oppression by creating safe spaces within gentrified, policed boundaries. Moving Black women from the margins of analysis to the center privileges the dynamic construction of cultural memory shaped by state violence, vulnerability, and trauma; but, more importantly, it also emphasizes a culture of resilience, negotiation, and reimagining.
The key theoretical intervention of my dissertation is an intersectional analytical approach that I have termed “dissection lens.” I use “dissection lens” to appreciate the unique circumstances and lived experiences of my subjects in Central City. I developed this term in response to my conversations with subjects. Many believed that [local and national authorities and media pundits?] came to see New Orleans as America’s petri dish for racially-motivated schemes to transform the city’s social order and residential space following Hurricane Katrina. My subjects came to view policy makers and reformers as unethical scientists who dissected black communities for their own nefarious purposes. Some cuts were superficial, while others were deadly. I also use the term “dissection lens” to rethink and extend the analytical and political dimensions of intersectionality. A key component of intersectional thought emphasizes the interlocking nature of racial, class, gender, and sexual oppression. While I appreciate the connections among multiple forms of oppression, dissection theory emphasizes the primacy of race in impacting the lived experiences and in shaping the resistance of black working-class mothers in Central City.
Chapters 1-6 situate the discussion of the everyday lived consequences of policing on Black mothers through a dissectional lens. In the first chapter I introduce the topic, my methodology, key concepts. In the second chapter, I explore the connection between policing and gentrification and the influence that this relationship has on the lives of Black mothers in Central City, New Orleans. This chapter analyzes policing, seeing police as agents of the state whose major role in Central City is to defend boundaries and enforce gentrification. I define the state as a codification of relations of power at all levels across the social body. State power is seen as state institutions and processes, agents and reproducers of the state, and state sanctioned violence. I define the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) as an uneven, differential, and dynamic infrastructure; this was the case before Hurricane Katrina and continues to be the case in the ten years since the storm, but in different ways. The NOPD not only operates differently depending on the race of the residents of the neighborhood, but the residents feel this police presence, which produces very real consequences in their everyday life. Along these lines, a recurring theme in my interviews was that of uneven policing. It is felt that when it comes to Central City, the NOPD is more likely to protect and serve “new New Orleanians,” while abusing native New Orleanians.
Chapter 3 explores the embraced the neo-liberal ideal of laissez-faire on the lives of the Black mothers in Central City, New Orleans and how this lens affects the ways in which they experience crime in the city. Laissez-faire ideas have evolved to encompass a shared ideology of letting things take their own course without interference—an attitude of “going with the flow.” This laissez-faire ideology not only influences the actions of the people of New Orleans, but also their perception of events; that is, many things that most outsiders would see as major or even traumatic, residents view as “no big deal.” The local news media represent crime in the city as predominately violent crime. With such numerous reports of violent crime, one would think its effect on the everyday lives of my participants would be high. This was not the case. If crime cuts into the bodies of my participants at all, it is a cut that quickly heals. Chapter 4 continues to explore the influence of a laissez-faire lens in the lives of the women with whom I worked. However, I reveal how this lens is absent when discussing personal experiences with state sanctioned violence. Most of the women, while being targeted by crime, took the laissez-faire approach and forgot or downplayed these acts or reports. This, however, is not the case when it comes to policing. Targeted acts of policing, including surveillance, harassment, and assault, cut deep. The women who contributed to this research circulate shared notions of fear, threat, and violation when it came to policing. This seeps into the ways in which they raise their children, sprinkling their maternal advice with warnings and rules of behavior.
Chapter 4 shows the agency inherent in mothering, despite policing. In a culture of terror and fear, these mothers are banding together and creating safe spaces deep in the police state that is Central City. The laissez-faire lens may leave mothers with feelings of powerlessness and despair, but that is not where they stay. This chapter shows the ways in which these mothers resist policing while simultaneously protecting their children from policing. Chapter 4 also investigates dissection and vulnerability attached to mothering as a complex foundation for Black women’s resistance to oppression while simultaneously limiting such activities. However, this focus on the social role of mothering is not to reproduce prevailing gender ideologies that define women primarily as mothers, but to show how this function articulates their relationship with the state and is used to challenge oppressive power regimes. In chapter 5, I consider the ways in which Central City, while a site of extreme gentrification and policing, is also the site of some of the greatest creative responses of Black mothers in the city. This chapter explores the history of the city in general, and Central City specifically. In doing this, I reveal the uniqueness of Central City and the roles of Black mothers within this context. I focus on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard, a boulevard named after a strong Black female civil rights activist which became the home of resistance and the reimagining of boundaries within Central City.
The final chapter centers around the voice of a community mother—Mama Carol, who founded Ashé Cultural Arts Center (CAC). Ashé Cultural Arts Center lies in the heart of Central City on Oretha Castle Haley Boulevard. Right next door to Ashe Cultural Arts Center (CAC) is what one could call a miniature Black Mecca. Ashé is a place where people are cared for amidst heavy policing. It is a space for community building, full of community mothers. Understanding Ashé Cultural Arts Center helps one to understand community, culture, and change in an area of the city subject to some of the highest consequences of policing in the city in the post-Katrina era. Mama Carol is a community mother who, rather than starting a biological family, instead birthed Ashé CAC with co-founder Douglass Redd. Mama Carol is not a biological mother, but her life and work with Ashé show how community mothers create a full circle in the everyday lived experiences of love and culture making in spite of oppressive policing in the middle of the most policed area in the city.