Call it the Second Battle of New Orleans. In the first one, fought 191 years ago this week, a ragtag conglomeration of pirates, militia, frontiersmen, Indians and free blacks under the command of Gen. Andrew Jackson beat a British army fresh off defeating Napoleon and determined to win America back for the crown.
In this one, a group of students, mountain hippies, local kids on permanent school vacation, Bay Area radicals, gay/bi/trans activists, cops, professionals and at least one Bush supporter are fighting--and winning--a battle against an imperial government, development interests and an old guard establishment. They're defending the Lower Ninth Ward, the neighborhood hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina--and the one least able to rebuild itself.
"ALMOST INCREDIBLE VICTORY!!!" blazed newspapers in the nation's capital in February 1815, when word reached there nearly a month after the battle.
"Activists Chase Away Bulldozer Crew" screamed the headline in The Times-Picayune last week.
In the latest legal skirmish, lawyers from grassroots organizations, neighborhood groups and the Loyola (University) Law Clinic convinced a federal judge to uphold a temporary restraining order that prevented the city from moving in and demolishing the first 117 homes on the city's list of more than 5,000 it wants to raze in the area. They're in a neighborhood that was predominantly black and the first in the city to be targeted for demolition--and where 80 percent of African Americans owned their own homes. But many of its residents are still refugees, too strapped to return and salvage their property or look through the rubble for a few prized possessions.
"We've just been thrown away, basically," says CC Campbell-Rock, who lived in the nearby Eighth Ward. "I don't know how you rebuild your life when you've lost everything and the government seems to be intent on not helping you whatsoever. And, of course, they would love for some of us not to come back home, but we would love to come back home. But how do you do that when you don't have the price of a bus ticket?"
Some proposals call for a park in the Ninth Ward, others for marshland or condominiums, says Ishmael Muhammad, an attorney for the Advancement Project and the Grassroots Legal Network. "All of those plans benefit those who have been making policy for the city," he says.
One of the main groups behind the battle is an ad hoc volunteer relief organization called Common Ground Collective, co-founded by former Black Panther leader Malik Rahim. It was the first grassroots organization to offer help in the Ninth Ward. Hundreds of volunteers from all over the country have come to work in its distribution centers, health clinics, legal center and media center. Volunteers are housed and fed and spend their days helping residents rebuild their houses, clean them of toxic mold, and get needed supplies and medicine.
Independent columnist Peter Eichenberger just returned from spending a couple of weeks working with Common Ground and filed this report. --Richard Hart
"You need to leave this area now," the beefy Homeland Security goon growled from his white SUV, he decked out in the latest of corpo-fascist prét-â-porter: menacing wrap shades, spooky black uniform.
Common Ground had won yet another battle--we successfully repulsed a demolition team in the Ninth Ward, forcing withdrawal of the unit. It was a preposterous early Mardi Gras parade of sorts--a Homeland Security Federal Protective Service vehicle, lights flashing, a huge yellow loader and a couple of herky trucks and trailers.
Today, there is measured jubilation at the formerly flooded Mount Carmel Baptist Church in the Upper Ninth Ward, the brick building stripped of drywall and decontaminated. Blankets and moving quilts are tacked to the studs providing a shred of privacy. The building bustles with activists loading tools and supplies amid the shriek of saws and slap of hammers. The scene is like a Marxist Road Warrior with convenience stores.
This is Common Ground's third headquarters. The fledgling outfit has outgrown the previous two and this one is filling quickly, a tent city jammed cheek to jowl, all available floor space covered with mattresses. Carpenters are busy knocking together triple bunk beds for the people swarming from the four corners of the nation--and world.
They arrive daily from Washington state, Vermont, Oregon, Belgium, Alaska. They come in Ryders, battered vans, rental cars. They arrive on trains, buses and on foot.
These days, if you pedal east of the French Quarter, say down Rampart Street onto St. Claude Avenue, it doesn't take many blocks before the lights on the streets are fewer in number, the flooded, abandoned vehicles and piles of debris more numerous.
You wouldn't know it if you stuck to wealthier areas, built on high ground for those of substantial means. There is a nearly inverse relationship between income and the waterlines on the buildings and overpasses. St. Charles Avenue didn't flood at all, Carrollton Avenue into the first floor, and Florida Avenue to the roof.
Three people and 50 bucks. That's what the old Black Panther had when he midwifed this infant at his kitchen table, bawling and bloody during New Orleans' dark night, when shoot to kill orders were out for people--black ones (aka "looters")--unlucky enough to be caught out on the streets by renegade soldiers, cops or white vigilante groups who took the collapse of civil order as sort of an open season. We will never know the body count.
Malik Rahim tells of the storm and its aftermath--the concerted effort to evacuate the entire city, including areas that experienced no flooding like Algiers, across the Mississippi River. While it may seem difficult for an outsider to comprehend, people were driven from safe areas at the point of a gun by authorities. Rahim knows this because he was one of the ones who at one point actually feared for his life. He burrowed into his stoutly armored house like a badger and sent a shout out for backup, then rode out the worst natural disaster in the history of the region.
While Rahim and the others huddled in the house, Brandon Darby, a community organizer with a concrete business, was making his way toward New Orleans from Austin, Texas, to rescue Robert King Wilkerson, another ex-Black Panther who was one of the Angola Three. Wilkerson was falsely convicted and spent 26 years of a 34-year sentence in solitary confinement before being exonerated in 2001.
Once in New Orleans, Darby commandeered a small boat and set out to rescue his friend, but was repulsed by the authorities. He spent a night sleeping in a flooded warehouse "on a pallet of Louisiana hot sauce," then swam to where Wilkerson had sought refuge as so many New Orleanians had--on the roof of his house.
In four months, that three people and $50 has grown to a motley collective that has funneled millions of dollars of goods and volunteer services to people who weren't getting it any other way.
New Orleans has always painted a stark contrast in income in just a few blocks. But now, areas that were merely blighted are similar to what you'd imagine an urban area to be like if hit by a neutron bomb--buildings and infrastructure mostly intact, the people simply gone. Only this wasn't a nuke, it was bio-bomb, a black-mold bomb, that emptied the city.
It takes a little getting used to, this new New Orleans.
In the absence of a population base, the act of demolishing entire neighborhoods for developers is a real risk; the act becomes much more tidy.
The vultures of mega-commerce are circling the wounded New Orleans. A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision has given the green light to the use of eminent domain for the benefit of the wealthy and private businesses--financial interests take precedence over the lives of the puny mortal ones.
Carnival Cruise Lines, for instance, is spooging in their britches at grabbing the Lower Ninth Ward, where they plan to dredge the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal (better known as the Industrial Canal) to allow deep-draft cruise ships in to provide tourists access to the planned spanking new casino and golf course.
With homeowners hundreds or thousands of miles away and the Supreme Court having given a big, fat thumbs up to the taking of private property for economic development, there are few here to resist the injustice. The economic forces that would lead one's house to be bulldozed without their consent or even knowledge for a pink hotel, a boutique and a swingin' hot spot--without a hint of due process--is a situation that should make a genuine paleo-conservative turn the color of a raspberry popsicle and bolt for the gun cabinet.
"There's gonna be a fight, anyone try and take my house," says Barbara Young. Her partner, Reginald Sertin, spent that awful night rescuing 300-plus of their Lower Ninth Ward neighbors with a small boat, knocking holes in attics with a piece of scrap iron.
You can tell the newbies when they get off the road, wide-eyed at the shattered city, the rough conditions. They have come from the land of soap and hot showers, refrigerators and televisions, to an improvised resupply depot in a ruined neighborhood that wasn't the best place to begin with, its houses' moldy contents now lying piled at the curb. Some come for a couple of weeks; some have been here since the storm--a constant turnover of these kids who throw themselves at the endless work, living in close quarters, bathing when they can, wearing the same soiled clothes for days and weeks, laundry service being a rare luxury in New New Orleans.
A gal with facial tattooing and two false eyebrows, dressed in a purple-fringed dress and a fake mink stole and carrying a slide trombone, rides up on a battered Free Spirit three-speed bicycle. Common Ground is like a very irregular military unit--the vehicles are all different colors, no uniforms. It has similar logistical problems. The most glaring difference is that the command and control systems seem an awful lot like herding cats.
It isn't that there are no rules, just fewer of them.
Organized anarchy is the ideal. They're a group of people who reject organization, but who have agreed to a minimal level of organization to ensure that what needs to be done gets done. The main conflict seems to be one of democracy versus efficiency. There is so much diversity, so many voices, that small details of inclusion and sensitivity sometime overtop the main mission--to provide enough assistance to enough people to get them back in their neighborhoods and throw a wrench in the big developers' wet dream.
"This is a service model," Darby says of Common Ground over coffee at Flora, this kooky, cluttered café on Franklin Avenue. When one commits oneself to positive acts, "you can open other doors," he says. Of the efficiency/democracy conflict, he laughs, admitting some totalitarian tendancies. The point is to do as much as you can--sorry if someone's feelings get bruised from time to time.
"I don't want to keep power," he says. "There are many other things I would rather do. I don't consider it a glamorous position."
He's just good at what he does. Darby has taken a solid whack at finding consensus on a lot of levels, knowing that it is better to find similarities than differences. He has the New Orleans Police Department's hierarchy on speed dial; they have regular meetings.
"How long are you gonna do this?" I ask.
He pauses. "Forever, I guess," says he who lost a girlfriend and alienated friends over his choice to uproot his life.
The days start early. There are boots on the ground at 7 a.m. or so, breakfast lasts an hour, then a meeting where there are general announcements and conflict resolution, after which the work crews gather, collect tools and depart, off to Plaquemines Parish, Houma or the Lower Ninth Ward, where Common Ground has established a distribution and community center in the most heavily damaged area--a small blue house that somehow survived the wall of flood water high enough to deposit a river barge in the neighborhood, where it remains to this day amid houses smashed together, cars stacked up like cordwood. There has been no movement toward restoring utilities; there are fire hydrants still gushing after four months.
The volunteers are inhabiting the house, violating a 4 p.m. to 8 a.m. curfew (the only neighborhood in the city to still have one). Homeland Security has pulled some "spooky shit," but for now there seems to be a peaceful standoff.
The days are filled with endless, grueling tasks--cutting felled trees; gutting toxic, flooded houses; clearing tons of flotsam; unloading trucks; organizing the growing, nightmarish logistics.
The sheer volume and variety of supplies here is dizzying: crates of hammers, surplus military generators, an unridable cargo trike, piles of paint and studs, bowls of Mardi Gras beads, two tons of chicken, a flooded sewing machine. Semi trailer quantities arrive in a hodgepodge of rental trucks and hippie vans--every day an entire box truck of water arrives and is gone.
It is every post-apocalypse fictional scenario: The physical material of the 35th largest U.S. city rots at the curb. Need a bicycle? Forage. A library of shopworn books arrived, the titles a distillation of New Orleans culture, circa 2006: Voodoo, Baudelaire, Handbook of Carpentry. So much stuff.
The flood zone is a dangerous place, full of toxins and mold, dead animals--you name it. To address the new and ongoing medical issue in this area, Common Ground has established free clinics in several neighborhoods, something that never existed and has become all the more critical now that Charity Hospital, the main indigent health care facility, has been ruined. Another primary focus of Common Ground is to enhance the quality of life. It is no small irony that I had to travel from the center of the medical business--the Triangle--to a disaster region to get a free tetanus shot.
People are gone by 9 a.m., off to the house in the Ninth or the hour's ride into the heart of the forsaken parishes.
Lunches are ferried from the kitchen at Common Ground to the crews, then it's back at it until the sun gets low or the no-see-ums attack. Dusk brings people in for supper and maybe to some dive for a drink (this is New Orleans) and the sort of good, solid sleep one gets from doing something for more than a paycheck.
"Eat," we are constantly encouraged. No one goes wanting here.
"Solidarity Not Charity" reads the motto. Everyone who has been here more than a day knows that it will take more than a semi load of toys at Christmas to begin to heal the wounds the people have experienced, both before and after the storm.
"Help" is a mayfly, temporary. Common Ground goes much deeper than a charity. There are scrupulous training sessions so volunteers can begin to recognize the so-called missionary mind set--that the residents somehow need to be elevated, that the work is something one does for some psychic halo. Contrary to that sort of paternalism, volunteers work alongside the residents, both learning social, civic, political and work skills that will pay off in the future, ones that were hard to learn in the mean streets of the old Ninth Ward.
In the morning, the volunteers get up and do it again, some so green they have little to unlearn. They are so new, they absorb procedures like filling a jar with water. There are no bosses. The volunteers' internal lives are important. If you want to mope in your tent and write poetry all day, you are supported.
One sparkling, gelid morning, I went calling on Rahim, riding to Algiers on the ferry, my mount for the day a Jetsons-styled Sears bicycle; it's a springer front-end model I'd found war riding, a formerly grand machine from an imperial past now corroded stem to stern by TFW (toxic flood water).
At the same kitchen table where he conceived Common Ground, we talk.
"I've been a community organizer my whole life," Rahim says, a leonine man in his 60s with a quick grin and a mane of dreads. "But it seems now, after the storm, everything I did before the storm is a blur."
We talked for an hour and a half, I at times getting goose bumps from the power and conviction of this old veteran.
"This is an old man's baby," he says, convinced a new New Orleans is possible, that the city can emerge from the disaster and begin to challenge the corrosive, murderous status quo--racism as refined as a Cartier watch.
"They laughed at us, saying us old militants and hippies would just be having orgies." He smiles. "No one's laughing now."
We are finishing each other's sentences by the time it is over, both agreeing that reaction is a failed model. Those 750,000 people on the streets of D.C. didn't mean squat. The Bush boys just sat behind bulletproof glass, filing their fingernails.
"Just do what you gonna do, act," Rahim says. "They want to react, let 'em."
We conclude the interview. He walks me outside, where the Sears sits by his gate.
"That is real a bicycle there," he says admiringly.
"It's a flood bike."
"I could sort of tell that," he says, squinting with one eye, laughing. "What you gonna do with it?"
"Ride it 'til I leave, I reckon."
"Can I have it when you're gone?"
"Sure. I'll clean it up and paint the tank. What color?"
He laughs. "Don't do nothing to it. I want it just like it is."
Utility service is slowly coming back up, streetlights less of a surprise. Riding along the darkened streets, the occasional house ablaze with lights and activity, you hear the sound of saws and hammers removing the molded, toxic interiors.
Common Ground is at the epicenter of the rebirthing of this wounded city--ask anyone.
The lack of recognition doesn't change the fact that when the people of this city were at their most vulnerable, this ragged democracy was the one that stood up for the truly desperate--not the Red Cross, not the Salvation Army, certainly not FEMA.
At one of the morning meetings, while the democracy/efficiency conflict is being batted about, the Rev. Edwin Scott, minister of a local church, tosses in his two cents: "When things were at their worst, Common Ground held this city together," he says. "You are better than most [other relief organizations]. Don't beat yourselves up. No organization is going to exist without problems. The people of this city really appreciate what y'all are doing."
He ends to a round of applause, the dusty, tired people lingering over bowls of oatmeal and cups of tea before heading out to another day.
To learn more about Common Ground Collective, visit www.commongroundrelief.org.