Fifty Dollars and a Dream

The young man who is about to show us around this cesspool introduces himself as Brandon, which (I hate to admit) is a name I still can't hear without thinking of "Beverly Hills, 90210." He speaks eloquently and could be every bit as dashing as a primetime soap star, except that he clearly hasn't showered in a very long time. Understandable, given that water is a rare and precious commodity here.

We are a long way from Beverly Hills. There are no mansions; the few people who call this place home live in tents. There is no Rodeo Drive; there is not really a store at all, but good Samaritans from around the world have sent regular donations of old clothes, canned goods and other nonperishable items to this desolate land. And there are no movie studios, although it does feel like I'm on the set of some chilling war epic.

Behind Brandon, I see mud-caked kids in makeshift hazmat suits "decontaminating" themselves, and I wish I had made time to get the immunization shots recommended before coming to this diseased area. Someone has dumped the contents of several random cans of food into a large aluminum pan, and the tent-dwellers start scooping out their dinner onto paper plates.

One looks up from his plate and asks if I have ever been here before. "I've never been anyplace like this," I answer. It's true -- in all my travels, I have never seen anything like what I witnessed here, and I was born and raised just 100 miles east. Until recently, most of my family made their homes within a few minutes of the barren spot I am standing on. I spent the weekends of my youth listening to the local music that once filled the streets here. But this isn't the city I knew. As I look around at the conditions these residents live in now, I can't wrap my brain around the fact that I am still within the borders of the richest nation on earth.

It has been six months since Katrina blew through New Orleans, but standing in the Ninth Ward, you feel like it all happened this morning.

Having grown up on the Gulf Coast, I understand how destructive hurricanes can be. After Hurricane Frederick, I saw grand oak trees that had been uprooted and tossed about like twigs, and we lived without electricity for weeks. Like the rest of the world, I watched as the water poured into the Ninth Ward, and I knew it would take more than a few weeks to rebuild it. What I didn't expect was to be walking through it 172 days later and still see total devastation -- and not one federal worker, not one state worker, not one paid construction worker.

For miles, the only people to be seen doing actual work are a bunch of kids, none of whom appear to have reached their 30s. They have traveled from all over the world and used their own money to get here. None of them are being paid for their efforts, unless you count the plates of mush they're fed at the end of the day, for which they are clearly very appreciative. They spend their days wading through diseased garbage, and their nights sleeping on the side of the road. They have no electricity and no running water. But don't call them heroes, or you'll quickly be told it's not heroic to just do the right thing.

As Brandon casually swats at flies buzzing around his face, talking about the goals they are trying to accomplish here, I wonder exactly how these kids ended up in this hellhole. While I have been shamed by the response of my government to this tragedy, this is a story that humbles me.

The day after New Orleans' levees broke and tens of thousands of people were frantically trying to get out of the sinking city, Brandon Darby and his buddy Scott Crow were desperately trying to get in. They hadn't heard from their friend Robert King Wilkerson, and they were worried that he hadn't been able to evacuate. So they came up with the idea of driving more than 500 miles and launching a 15-foot, flat-bottom skiff boat into the sea in hopes of eventually finding him. Neither had boating experience, but they understood that they were navigating the Gulf of Mexico in a vessel not created for the ocean.

A 60-something African American ex-felon would not appear to have much in common with the two young white Texans who thought he was worth floating into hell's mouth for -- but Mr. Wilkerson had no doubt that his friends would rescue him. When King saw Darby and Crow after nine days of trying to survive the toxic floodwaters that had swallowed his home, he said simply, "I knew y'all'd come."

Wilkerson has had a lot of experience surviving, day to day, on nothing but faith. He spent 29 years in solitary confinement in the infamous Angola State Penitentiary until his conviction was overturned in 2001.

Darby and Crow are members of a national coalition that was founded in the 1990s when a man named Malik Rahim decided to speak out on behalf of King and his fellow inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox -- the longest survivors of solitary confinement in the history of this country. Although King became a free man almost six years ago, Wallace and Woodfox remain in their solitary cells at Angola. Rahim believes that three decades of isolation amounts to cruel and unusual punishment for anyone -- but especially for innocent men.

According to the National Coalition to Free the Angola Three (now with multiple international chapters), King, Wallace and Woodfox were set up. So why does the Coalition believe that these innocent men would be framed, then left rotting in solitary confinement for 33 years? Because in 1972, while the civil rights movement was taking some time to make its way into Louisiana, the Angola Three were outspoken political activists and self-professed Black Panthers. The then-governor of Louisiana had publicly vowed not to let the Panthers get off the ground in his state, and King, Wallace and Woodfox were just three of hundreds of casualties of J. Edgar Hoover's COINTELPRO program, which used illegal tactics to demonize the Panthers.

Years before Rahim, also a former Black Panther, took up the cause of the Angola Three, he had also faced a lifetime behind bars when he was arrested on a host of charges, including the attempted murder of police officers. Miraculously acquitted of all charges, Rahim has been a tireless advocate for the poor ever since. When he took a look at the evidence -- or the lack of it -- against the Angola Three, he thought if other people knew their story, they would care. He was right.

The day Robert King Wilkerson left Angola, he vowed not to forget the two men he left behind, and to work for their release until they could come home, too. It is a promise he has kept -- even now, when he knows they have no homes to return to. King will tell you he has seen the absolute best of humanity and the absolute worst, but he keeps working because he remains confident that in the end, the good guys find a way to prevail. That's why, as he sat trapped in his home, seeing everything he had managed to acquire since his release get destroyed by the waters, he was found calmly feeding hungry birds when help arrived.

Had King known what Darby and Crow went through to get to him, he might not have had as much faith in the "good guys." When they arrived from Texas, the two young men witnessed the Red Cross turning away almost 300 people who had shown up in Louisiana with boats to help in the rescue effort. Darby and Crow stood around for only a few moments watching the various city, county, state and federal authorities fighting over who had jurisdiction of the search and rescue. Then they turned and headed east until they found a place to launch their small boat, after wading though a hundred yards of knee-deep mud. The rest of their week-long journey was harrowing, involving a boat ride through a lightning storm and six-foot swells, gun fights, destruction and death around every corner. Darby eventually swam through toxic, snake and alligator-invested water until he was stopped by FEMA and ordered onto a rescue boat. Darby entwined himself with a car mostly submerged in water, and refused to move until the officials saved his friend two blocks away. They responded with a promise to come back for King at a later time. Darby refused to let anyone save him, insisting, "I will not leave this spot until you pick him up." They finally did what he asked, and King hopped quietly into the ride that had been sent for him.

Once on dry land, King, Darby and Crow sat down with Malik Rahim, and the unlikely foursome began strategizing. The Common Ground Collective was founded with $50, and their belief that they could do a better job at helping people than the government of the most powerful nation in the world. Their small monetary investment has grown; the collective now has hundreds of members who have fed, housed and provided medical care for nearly 20,000 people.

How did they do it? They went to the houses that were standing and asked the people who were still around, "What can we do to support you?" What they kept hearing: You can't rebuild a community that's buried under tons of garbage. So they started by picking up trash and decomposing animals, and then moved on to putting tarps over homes.

They began to envision a relief organization radically different from those that had come to Louisiana in Katrina's aftermath. They wanted to bring together people of every background, race and economic level -- doctors working alongside garbage men working alongside cooks working alongside lawyers working alongside kids, all for one common goal. Space in a local mosque was secured for their headquarters, and soon, monetary assistance started pouring in and volunteers started lining up. A medical clinic was opened, and Red Cross immediately began pointing people in need to Common Ground. (Yes, the Red Cross turned the sick away in droves, instead sending them to a tent run by kids and volunteer nurses.) A legal aid clinic was established to offer immediate assistance to those trying to rebuild their lives and to put pressure on the authorities to focus on relief and rebuilding.

As you walk through the ninth ward now, the only government employees are Department of Homeland Security agents cruising in shiny SUVs, ostensibly to insure that no terrorists are among those rebuilding homes and feeding the hungry. While I was standing on the street, dumbfounded by what I was seeing, two women drove up. They were back in their old neighborhood for the first time since Katrina, and maintained incredible composure as they discussed what they had lost. The only time one got choked up was when she pointed to a couple of young Common Ground volunteers and said, "Just when you feel completely forgotten and like no one remembers or cares what you've been through, you look up and see these people who aren't even from here -- who have left their homes and their families to come here and do this disgusting, thankless work for people they don't even know. I hope they know we are never going to forget them and what they have done for us when no one else cared."

Over the last six months, the volunteers have adjusted to the changing -- but still desperate -- needs of the community. They are still picking up garbage, gutting homes, and are now handing out free earthworms. Yes, earthworms -- they are a safe, natural way to clean up toxic soil. They are also giving away certain plants that perform the same function. And they are working on ways to insure that the knowlege, resources and supplies they have acquired are ready to be mobilized, if disaster should strike again.

Donations to Common Ground are welcome and encouraged. Check out their website for specific items needed (such as medical supplies, sledge hammers and diapers).

Donations can be mailed to Common Ground Collective, 1415 Franklin Avenue, New Orleans, LA 70117.


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