Back Inside New Orleans
I spent yesterday inside the city of New Orleans, speaking to a few of the last holdouts in the 9th Ward/Bywater neighborhood. Their stories paint a very different picture from what we've heard in the media. Instead of stories of gangs of criminals and police and soldiers keeping order, there were stories of collective action, everyone looking out for each other, communal responses.
The first few nights there was a large, free community barbecue at a neighborhood bar called The Country Club. People brought food and cooked and drank and went swimming (yes, there's a pool in the bar).
Emily Harris and Richie Kay, from Desire Street, traveled out on their boat and brought supplies and gave rides. They have been doing this almost every day since the hurricane struck. They estimate they have rescued at least 100 people. Harris doesn't want to leave. She is a carpenter and builder, and says, "I want to stay and rebuild. I love New Orleans."
Harris describes a community working together in the first days after the hurricane. She also describes a scene of abandonment and disappointment. "A lot of people came to the high ground at St. Claude Avenue. They really thought someone would come and rescue them, and they waited all day for something -- a boat, a helicopter, anything. There were helicopters in the sky, but none coming down."
So people started walking as a mass uptown to Canal Street. Along the way, youths would break into grocery stores, take the food and distribute it evenly among houses in the community.
"Then they reached Canal Street, and saw that there was still no one that wanted to rescue them. That's when people broke into the stores on Canal Street."
I asked Okra, who lives in a house off Piety Street, what the biggest problem has been. He said, "It's been the police -- they've lost the last restraints on their behavior they had, and gotten a license to go wild. They can do anything they want. I saw one cop beat a guy so hard that he almost took his ear off. And this was someone just trying to walk home."
Walking through the streets, I witnessed hundreds of soldiers patrolling the streets. Everyone I spoke to said that soldiers were coming to their house at least once a day, trying to convince them to leave, bringing stories of disease and quarantine and violence. I didn't see or speak to any soldiers involved in any clean-up or rebuilding.
There are surely reasons to leave -- I would not be living in the city at this point. I'm too attached to electricity and phone lines. But I can attest that those holdouts I spoke to are doing fine. They have enough food and water and have been very careful to avoid exposing themselves to the many health risks in the city.
I saw more city buses rolling through poor areas of town than I ever saw pre-hurricane. Unfortunately, these buses were filled with patrols of soldiers. What if the massive effort devoted to patrolling this city and chasing everyone out were diverted into beginning the rebuilding process?
Some neighborhoods are underwater still, and the water has turned into a sticky sludge of sewage and death that turns the stomach and breaks my heart. However, some neighborhoods are barely damaged at all, and if a large-scale effort were put into bringing back electricity and clearing the streets of debris, people could begin to move back in.
Certainly some people do not want to move back, but many of us do. We want to rebuild the city that we love. The People's Hurricane Fund, a grassroots, community-based group made up of New Orleans community organizers and allies from around the U.S., has already made one of their first demands a "right of return" for the displaced of New Orleans.
In the last week, I've traveled between Houston, Baton Rouge, Covington, Jackson and New Orleans and spoken to many of my former friends and neighbors. We feel shell-shocked. It used to be we would see each other in a coffee shop or a bar or on the street and talk and find out what we're doing. Those of us working for social justice felt a sense of community. We could share stories, combine efforts, and we never felt alone. Now we're alone and dispersed and we miss our homes and our communities, and we still don't know where so many of our loved ones even are.
It may be months before we start to get a clear picture of what happened in New Orleans. As people are dispersed around the country, reconstructing that story becomes even harder than reconstructing the city. Certain sites, like the Convention Center and Superdome, have become legendary, but despite the thousands of people who were there, it still is hard to find out exactly what happened.
According to one report that's been circulated, Denise Young, one of those trapped in the convention center told family members, "Yes, there were young men with guns there, but they organized the crowd. They went to Canal Street and 'looted,' and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out 'The buses are coming,' the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back, just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first."
But the buses never came. "Lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. Cops passing by, speeding off. We thought we were being left to die."
Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky, paramedics from Service Employees International Union Local 790, reported on their experience downtown, after leaving a hotel they were staying at for a convention.
"We walked to the police command center at Harrah's on Canal Street and were told ... that we were on our own, and no they did not have water to give us. We now numbered several hundred. We held a mass meeting to decide a course of action. We agreed to camp outside the police command post. We would be plainly visible to the media and would constitute a highly visible embarrassment to the city officials. The police told us that we could not stay. Regardless, we began to settle in and set up camp. In short order, the police commander came across the street to address our group. He told us he had a solution: we should walk to the Pontchartrain Expressway and cross the greater New Orleans Bridge where the police had buses lined up to take us out of the city.
"We organized ourselves and the 200 of us set off for the bridge with great excitement and hope. As we approached the bridge, armed Gretna sheriffs formed a line across the foot of the bridge. Before we were close enough to speak, they began firing their weapons over our heads. This sent the crowd fleeing in various directions.
"Our small group retreated back down Highway 90 to seek shelter from the rain under an overpass. We debated our options and in the end decided to build an encampment in the middle of the Ponchartrain Expressway on the center divide, between the O'Keefe and Tchoupitoulas exits. We reasoned we would be visible to everyone, we would have some security being on an elevated freeway and we could wait and watch for the arrival of the yet-to-be-seen buses.
"All day long, we saw other families, individuals and groups make the same trip up the incline in an attempt to cross the bridge, only to be turned away. Some were chased away with gunfire, others simply told no, others to be verbally berated and humiliated. Thousands of New Orleanians were prevented and from self-evacuating the city on foot. Meanwhile, the only two city shelters sank further into squalor and disrepair. The only way across the bridge was by vehicle. We saw workers stealing trucks, buses, moving vans, semi-trucks and any car that could be hotwired. All were packed with people trying to escape the misery New Orleans had become."
Since I moved to New Orleans, I've been inspired and educated by the grassroots community organizing that is an integral part of the life of the city. It is this community infrastructure that is needed to step forward and fight for restructuring with justice.
The grassroots infrastructure of New Orleans is the infrastructure of secondlines and Black Mardi Gras: true community support. The Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs organize New Orleans' legendary secondline parades -- roving street parties that happen almost every weekend. These societies were formed to provide insurance to the black community because black people could not buy insurance legally, and to this day the "social aid" is as important as the pleasure.
The only way that New Orleans will be reconstructed as even a shadow of its former self is if the people of New Orleans have direct control over that reconstruction. But, our community dislocation is only increasing. Every day, we are spread out further. People leave Houston for Oregon and Chicago. We are losing contact with each other, losing our community that has nurtured us.
While the world's attention is focused on New Orleans, in a time when its clear to most of the world that the federal government's greed and heartlessness has caused this tragedy, we have an opportunity to make a case for a people's restructuring, rather than a Halliburton restructuring.
Today, I met up with Andrea Garland, a community activist with Get Your Act On who is planning a bold direct action; she and several of her friends are moving back into their homes. They have generators and supplies, and they invite anyone who is willing to fight for New Orleans to move back in with them. Malik Rahim, a community activist in New Orleans' West Bank, is refusing to leave and is inviting others to join him. Community organizer Shana Sassoon, exiled in Houston, is planning a community mapping project to map out where our diaspora is being sent, to aid in our coming back together. Abram Himmelstein and Rachel Breulin of the Neighborhood Story Project are beginning the long task of documenting oral histories of our exile.
This is not just about New Orleans. This is about community and collaboration versus corporate profiteering. The struggle for New Orleans lives on.