"Our government has failed us here and in Iraq," McPhearson says. "[Just] like vets and military families are suffering from the failures of the Bush administration, people here are also suffering."
McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace, joined about 200 fellow war veterans, survivors of Hurricane Katrina and other activists in a march from Mobile, Ala., to New Orleans from March 14 to March 19. Called "Walkin' to New Orleans" by organizers, they walked and rode 140 miles along the Gulf Coast on U.S. 90, past some of Katrina's worst destruction.
Marking the third anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the march was intended to draw national attention to the Bush administration's response to Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath and to U.S. policies in the Middle East. The protestors called for more federal aid for hurricane victims and an end to the war. It closed with a demonstration in Congo Square as Iraq war veterans entered nearby Armstrong Park carrying a banner bearing their names followed by a sign reading "Abandon Iraq: Not Our Gulf Coast."
The veterans' protest came as thousands of college students from across North Carolina descended on the Crescent City, using spring break as a chance to lend a hand in the city's rebuilding. Among them were volunteers with the Common Ground Collective, who spent much of the week gutting and cleaning out Martin Luther King Elementary School in the Lower Ninth Ward. Working without the permission of the New Orleans school board, the students engaged in what could have been called an act of civil disobedience. But two police officers just stood by and watched as the volunteers began dragging out copy machines, furniture and mounds of text books that had been soaked by flood waters over six months ago.
Students from across the country have been coming to the city throughout the month to volunteer with nonprofit organizations and church groups on projects ranging from house gutting to legal aid.
Eleven organizations at UNC-Chapel Hill received $1,000 grants from the Carolina Center for Public Service for service trips to New Orleans. Volunteers from UNC's nursing program and law school are also volunteering on the Gulf Coast. Four hundred students from Duke were in New Orleans during their spring break. Former U.S. Senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards brought nearly 700 college students from 27 states to work in nearby Chalmette as part of "Opportunity Rocks 2006: Rebuilding the Gulf Coast."
In February, the Common Ground Collective put out a call to black college students around the country to volunteer in the Crescent City during spring break. "About 40 percent of our volunteers this month have been black students," says volunteer coordinator Sakura Kone. "Every historically black college and university in the country has been represented."
Kone estimates that Common Ground volunteers have been gutting 100 to 150 houses a week.
Student volunteers have stayed at several large encampments around the city and inside gutted churches and schools. Many Common Ground volunteers, including several large groups from Duke and UNC, have stayed at St. Mary of the Angels Elementary School in the Ninth Ward, sleeping in classrooms where local residents took shelter during the storm.
Whitney Gregg, an undergraduate from UNC-Greensboro who came with a friend from East Carolina University, spent a week sleeping in a camping tent in the school's parking lot. Gregg was among the group of volunteers who gutted the Martin Luther King Elementary School. "Coming here wasn't so much about politics for me," Gregg says. "I wanted to come and do something to help."
Politics was definitely on the mind of a crowd of 500 at Congo Square, where 20 speakers talked about government failures before, during and after Hurricane Katrina. They called for an increase in aid to help hurricane victims rebuild their lives and an end to the war, saying that money spent in Iraq could be used to rebuild the Gulf Coast.
Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther and organizer of Common Ground Collective, gave a rousing speech that drew cheers from the crowd. One speaker for Veterans for Peace noted that their activist group was distributing aid in New Orleans before FEMA arrived. When the hurricane struck, Veterans for Peace delivered truckloads of supplies to Rahim's front yard in Algiers, where he had just founded Common Ground as an emergency relief center.
McPhearson says the protest was meant to point out the parallels between the government's failures with Hurricane Katrina and the war in Iraq. "We are showing the people the connections that are there," he says. "The federal government was warned years ago about the levees, but the money was diverted. We saw last August, President Bush was told this would be the worst hurricane in American history, because we saw the video. Bush said we were ready but we weren't."
A similar failure to heed good intelligence led to the war. "None of the reasons we invaded ended up being the reasons that we are still there," McPhearson says. Both vets and storm victims are receiving inadequate support from the government, he added, noting high rates of unemployment, suicide and alcoholism for both groups.
At times motorists heckled the marchers during their five days on the road. McPhearson, who served in the 24th Mechanized Infantry Division during Operation Desert Storm, said he didn't take the insults personally but believed that Americans need to be reminded of the role political dissent has played in their nation's history.
"As veterans we served to protect the Constitution," says McPhearson, who left the Army as a captain in 1992. "The issue here shouldn't be the patriotism of people who are protesting, but the policies of our government. We can disagree and still be patriotic Americans."