June 19th. Juneteenth, a day of celebration, a day of mourning. Two years after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, in 1865, news reaches Galveston, Texas informing enslaved peoples working on plantations that they are “free.” One hundred and three years later, Nina Simone said, “I’ll tell you what freedom is to me. No fear.” Fifty-two years after she spoke those words, citizens are still in the streets demanding justice and accountability and civil rights for Black lives holding her words, written on cardboard signs, in their hands.
Juneteenth is also the day Juan San Malo and fellow comrades were tried and publicly hung in 1784, in Bvlbancha (New Orleans) at the Plaza de Armas in front of the Saint Louis Cathedral. San Malo, or Saint Malo as he was also known, was a freedom seeker and leader of network of maroon settlements southeast of the colonial city, in the bayou territories known as Terre Gaillarde (”land full of life” in French.) The word maroon comes from the Spanish word “cimarron,” meaning “fierce” or “unruly” and was the name given to Africans escaping enslavement. Terre Gaillarde existed from 1773-1784 and was the largest maroon settlement in Louisiana history. The mutual aid community supported up to fifty men and women fleeing enslavement who found interdependent sovereignty together in the coastal wetlands of the Mississippi River Delta.
On the 5th of June 2020, as the full moon was rising and the blinding sun began setting behind the cathedral, I found myself sitting on the public stairs across the street from Plaza de Armas (sucessfully rebranded Jackson Square by the USA), staring at that ridiculous statue of the infamous genocidal leader some like to claim as an “American hero.” Thousands gathered at this sacred site that evening. A site where visitors from around the world flock to so they can experience the sweet and sour of our sinking city; A site that is usually oversaturated with tourists stuffing their faces with beignets (sugar covered fried doughnuts) while sucking down daiquiris, watching street performers entertain the masses for dollars in their buckets. But that night, the streets were filled with solidarity for the Movement for Black Lives. As the names of too many lives lost to police violence were said, I couldn’t stop thinking about San Malo and how the banks of the Mississippi River where I was sitting had been, during colonial times, an entry point where thousands and thousands of humans first step foot back on dry land after being stolen from their African homelands of Bight of Benin and Biafra, Senegambia and West-Central Africa and other places.
Two local organizations here in Bvlbancha, the New Orleans Workers Group and Take’em Down Nola led the conversation that evening laying out local Uprising demands. The demands include: A timeline for the removal of all racist symbols, immediately; A community driven process for the removals and replacement of symbols; Expanding the removals to include “ALL symbols to white supremacy” not just Confederate symbols; And for the abolishment of all parts of the white supremacist capitalist system, a call to flip the budget by defunding the police and funding the people.
The People are calling for reparations and truth and reconciliation, as symbols are falling and systems are being challenged to be redesigned. The demands are just the beginning, for Bvlbancha and for the Nation, as we witness the United States Uprising, as this country attempts to reconcile hundreds of years of bad behavior tied to the legacies of oppression and extraction and occupation. Until then, we will continue to hear voices in the streets chanting “We can’t get no satisfaction till we take down Andrew Jackson!“