Dani McClain

The Black Lives Matter Movement Is Most Visible on Twitter but Its True Home Is the Hard Work of Organizing

In March 2012, nearly a month after George Zimmerman killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, hundreds of high-school students in Miami-Dade and Broward counties staged walkouts to protest the fact that Zimmerman hadn’t been arrested on any charges. A group of current and former Florida college activists knew that they had to do something too. During a series of conference calls, Umi Selah (then known as Phillip Agnew) and others in the group planned a 40-mile march from Daytona Beach to the headquarters of the Sanford Police Department—40 miles symbolizing the 40 days that Zimmerman had remained free. On Good Friday, 50 people set off for Sanford. The march culminated in a five-hour blockade of the Sanford PD’s doors on Easter Monday. The marchers demanded Zimmerman’s arrest and the police chief’s firing. Within two days, both demands had been met.

A little over a year later, a jury found Zimmerman not guilty on charges of second-degree murder or manslaughter. Undeterred by the legal setback, the activists—calling themselves the Dream Defenders—showed up in Tallahassee and occupied the Florida statehouse for four weeks in an effort to push Republican Governor Rick Scott to call a special legislative session to review the state’s “stand your ground” law, racial profiling, and school push-out policies, all of which the organization linked to Martin’s death. Fueled in part by participants sharing updates on Twitter, the occupation became a national story, and Selah fielded a flood of requests from media and progressive organizations. Some wanted to give an award to the Dream Defenders; others wanted to add Selah to lists proclaiming the arrival of a new generation of civil-rights heroes. (One writer said he embodied the spirit of Nelson Mandela.) Others wanted his perspective on the burgeoning racial-justice movement. After a while, Selah wanted none of it.

The breaking point came when a major news outlet profiled him without first conducting an interview. The result, he says, was an account that credited him with successes in social-justice movements he wasn’t even involved in. “If I was a person in the [immigrants’-rights] movement, I would look at this article and think, ‘Who the hell is this dude?’” he told me. “I really panicked. I imagined somebody saying, ‘Why is this dude telling Time magazine that he’s been in the forefront of these movements, and we’ve never seen him here?’”

Selah’s response was to pull himself out of the spotlight. He started declining media requests and posting less often to social media. When he did accept an invitation to speak, his goals were to disavow any hero label thrust on him by others and to demystify the Dream Defenders’ work.

Selah is an organizer, not a media personality, and so the trade-off made sense for him. But for others, that might not be the case. Twitter personality and trailing Baltimore mayoral candidate DeRay Mckesson was described in a recent New York Times profile as “the best-known face of the Black Lives Matter movement” and BLM’s “biggest star.” Now followed by more than 300,000 Twitter users, Mckesson began building his following by live-tweeting the protests in Ferguson in August 2014 after driving there from Minneapolis, where he lived at the time. More than a million mentions and retweets on the social-networking platform made him the protagonist of the Times magazine’s cover story on Black Lives Matter and earned him a spot on Fortune’s World’s Greatest Leaders list. But is he an organizer? The historian Barbara Ransby, author of Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement, says she defines organizing as “bringing people together for sustained, coordinated, strategic action for change.” Mckesson, who wisely calls himself a “protester,” is doing something else entirely. The problem is that too many of us don’t know to look for the difference.

* * *

Today’s racial-justice movement demands an end to the disproportionate killing of black people by law-enforcement officials and vigilantes, and seeks to root out white supremacy wherever it lives. Social media has allowed its members to share documentary evidence of police abuse, spread activist messages, and forge a collective meaning out of heartrending news. At certain key moments, Twitter in particular has reflected and reinforced the power of this movement. On November 24, 2014, when the St. Louis County prosecutor announced that a grand jury had decided not to bring charges against the officer who killed an unarmed Michael Brown, Twitter users fired off 3.4 million tweets regarding the police killings of black people and racial-justice organizing, with the vast majority coming from movement supporters and news outlets, according to a recent report by American University’s Center for Media and Social Impact. Weeks later, when the police officer who choked Eric Garner to death in New York City was also not indicted, 4.4 million tweets over a period of seven days kept the nation’s attention focused on the fight for police accountability. Hashtags like #BlackLivesMatter, #Ferguson, #HandsUpDontShoot and #IfTheyGunnedMeDown gave users—including those not yet involved in activism—a way to contribute to conversations they cared about.

But while social media turns the microphone over to activists and organizers who are often far from the center of the media’s attention, its power doesn’t come without pitfalls. In August, a nasty Twitter fight erupted after Mckesson initiated a meeting with Bernie Sanders’s campaign. Writer and activist dream hampton posted a tweet that read: “While a meeting with @deray might be a blast, I would expect @BernieSanders to meet with actual BLM folks, those who forced this platform.” At the heart of the criticism was the claim that Mckesson was not in a position to speak to a presidential candidate on behalf of the Black Lives Matter network—an organization with chapters that grew out of the hashtag created and popularized by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Khan-Cullors.

“We’re building the bicycle while riding it and being shot at. ” —Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Project South
That distinction was lost on many of Mckesson’s followers. For them, he was a reliable voice: at times a source of first-person accounts of the protests, at others a consistent and inspiring source of commentary on the issues they cared about. The difference between an organization called Black Lives Matter and a movement that had come to be known by the same name was, to many, negligible and a distraction from the real story: a young black man who was saying the right things on Twitter would be meeting with a presidential candidate.

But for someone like hampton or Selah, the stakes were much higher. “The people who the liberal media and social media have elevated to the position of national leader or spokesperson do not share the values of the movement,” Selah told me. “The ideas that they put forth, the platforms that they put forth, are neoliberal and do not come from a rooting in movement, don’t come from a liberation framework, from an abolition framework.” (Mckesson declined repeated requests for an interview for this story.)

So what are the values of the movement? Who is spreading them—and how? Charlene Carruthers, national director of Black Youth Project 100, has been engaged with those questions for more than a decade. While an undergraduate at Illinois Wesleyan University, she was active in the Black Student Union. She worked on campaigns in support of young black candidates while getting her master’s degree in social work in St. Louis. After she graduated, she joined the staff at an affiliate of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Virginia and managed online campaigns at the civil-rights organization ColorofChange. (Full disclosure: She and I were colleagues there.)

Since July 2013, when Zimmerman was acquitted, Carruthers has helped build BYP 100, a youth-led organization made up of people between the ages of 18 and 35. BYP 100 has developed a democratic decision-making process and operates from what Carruthers calls a “young black queer feminist” perspective. The group now has an estimated 300 members nationwide and chapters in Chicago, New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, and Washington, DC. Its work in Chicago has drawn the most attention: In response to the police killing of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald and the killing of 22-year-old Rekia Boyd by an off-duty officer, BYP 100 organized protests and marches that played a key role in the firing of Police Superintendent Garry McCarthy in late 2015. A recent Chicago magazine article declared the chapter “the most vocal and arguably most effective activist group in town.” How did they get there? Carruthers explains: “We recruit. We do trainings. We do campaign work. That’s the slow, hard work of organizing. Building a base is what we do.”

Writing in Truthout, organizer Ejeris Dixon, who has worked with the New York City Anti-Violence Project and the Audre Lorde Project, describes base-building as, at heart, relationship-building: “a series of activities designed to introduce, engage, and keep people involved in our movements. That means meeting individuals where they are and building forward from that place—the barbershop, the salon, the laundromat, the doorway—where we come together as people and have a conversation.” The Movement for Black Lives policy table, which grew out of a national gathering of activists at Cleveland State University last summer, recently set out to do just that. In January, the policy table announced the start of a six-month process to develop a national agenda. Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, a regional organizer with Project South, is a participant. She says she feels the pressure of developing a vision and creating infrastructure while responding to the seemingly endless killings of black people by police: “We’re building the bicycle while riding it and being shot at.”

Henderson’s background, like Carruthers’s, shows deep connections to earlier iterations of the black-liberation movement in the United States. “My mom is an original Black Panther Party member, and my father was very big in the Black Arts Movement in Tennessee and also in the black radio scene,” Henderson says. When a 66-year-old black man named Wadie Suttles died in custody at the Chattanooga jail in 1983, her father took the bold step of naming the police officer suspected of the fatal beating on the air. In 2004, Henderson met veterans of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference when she took a monthlong bus ride with other young activists to register voters and commemorate Freedom Summer.

Among the current organizers, evidence of such long-standing commitment to racial justice is common, notes Barbara Ransby. Many leaders are taking the skills developed in labor or prison or community organizing and applying them to new collaborations. “Oftentimes we don’t do that genealogy, and a new organization feels like it came out of the blue,” she said. “There were new formations, but they were not newly formed organizers.”

* * *

“The work we have to do doesn’t necessarily lend itself to 140 characters.” —Rachel Gilmer, Dream Defenders
What is new, at least for many, is the space for explicitly black organizing undertaken by activists tied to black communities. Makani Themba, a longtime organizer and founding director of the Praxis Project, explains that in the 1960s, the leaders of the movement were the heads of black institutions with sizable bases—think Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael. That changed in ’70s and ’80s, as black leadership came to mean “the most deeply penetrated black person in white or mainstream institutions,” Themba adds. As civil-rights organizations began to depend more on corporate contributions than member donations, and as Reagan-era cuts decimated organizations serving the black poor, black activists who wanted organizing and advocacy jobs turned to the institutions that had the resources to pay and retain them—often unions and economic-justice organizations that operated outside any explicitly black cultural context.

That pattern has shifted in recent years. The phrase “unapologetically black” appears on T-shirts and hoodies worn by movement activists, and a dedication to using messages appealing to black audiences dominates today’s approach to racial-justice organizing. New groups like BYP 100, the Dream Defenders, and Black Lives Matter have blossomed in the wake of Zimmerman’s acquittal. Denise Perry directs Black Organizing for Leadership & Dignity, whose stated mission is to “help rebuild Black social justice infrastructure…and re-center Black leadership in the US social justice movement.” BOLD launched in 2011 and graduated its first class of trainees the following year. Perry says that the focus on black organizing was new for a majority of participants. “Many of them were organizing in multiracial, multiethnic organizations. That work is important; we’re not going to win on our own. But the space to have conversations about what we need to work on was new for 98 percent of the people in the room.”

* * *

After the Dream Defenders’ successful occupation of the Florida statehouse in 2013, its members were tempted to focus on actions that would satisfy a Twitter following that had jumped from about 4,000 to more than 30,000 in a month’s time. But the work of organizing “has to be done,” says Rachel Gilmer, 28, who joined the group last summer, “and it doesn’t necessarily lend itself to 140 characters that are going to get retweeted thousands of times.”

In the end, the commitment to building local campaigns won out over the lure of high visibility. The organization, which has eight chapters in Florida, is now in the midst of a yearlong effort to determine its long-term strategy, regardless of the ebbs and flows created by social-media buzz. Last fall, the group put a three-month moratorium on social media, which strengthened relationships and built trust among colleagues, Gilmer says. “It was an opportunity for us to take a break from all the noise in order to get back connected with one another.”

It also forced a reality check about relationships in the movement. “We’re like ‘Hey, fam!’ [online], but people don’t really know each other,” Gilmer says. “There’s no substitute for human interaction.”

Twitter feeds constantly updated with smart observations about the latest cause for outrage are a lot more visible than the painstaking meetings that precede a transit-system shutdown, a citywide protest, or a collaboratively written 40-page policy agenda. But understanding the distinction between organizers and amplifiers matters; otherwise, we’ll overrate those who excel at amplifying the passion of a movement and undervalue the organizers, who make concrete change happen. Or as Henderson puts it: “The press doesn’t tell me who the leaders of particular movements are—communities do.”  

How New Orleans Has Lost 1/3 of its Black Population: Polices to Make People Disappear

To mark the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this August, a conservative member of the Chicago Tribune’s editorial board, Kristen McQueary, wrote that she wished that a similar “swirl of fury,” “a real storm,” would whip through Chicago and prompt a citywide “rebirth.”(1) While 1,833 people died, and more than 400,000 others were displaced by Katrina—many permanently—McQueary found a silver lining in the catastrophe: slashed city budgets and mandatory unpaid furloughs; the demolition of old housing stock, labor contracts, and teachers’ unions; and the rise of “the nation’s first free-market education system.”

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America Seems to Be Observing Ferguson from Parallel Universes

The radio host asked over the phone whether I was in Ferguson. “No,” I told him. “I’m watching the news unfold just like your listeners.”
By the time the first caller asked his question—why I and others were ignoring the role an “anti-social culture of thuggery or gangster rap” plays in teaching young people like Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin to have no fear of consequences—the mistake in my assumption was clear. It seemed as if I was watching the news from Ferguson from a vantage point a universe away from that inhabited by host Jim Bohannon and, possibly, many of those who listened in on more than 500 stations nationwide Tuesday night.
I expected a reasonable discussion in which Bohannon, a veteran broadcaster, would take a position to the right of one I take on the topic of Ferguson. What I got instead was some perspective on the challenges of having such a conversation across race and political divides at moments like this, when facts are so hard to come by.
The findings of recent polls on public perception of events in Ferguson run by Pew Research Center and The New York Times in partnership with CBS News reveal vastly different understandings of what’s happening depending on the race of the person polled. According the Pew report, four in five black Americans believe that the shooting of Brown by Darren Wilson “raises important issues about race,” compared to 37 percent of white people polled. Sixty-five percent of black people polled said the police had gone too far in responding to protesters in the wake of the shooting, compared to a third of white people. On Tuesday night, the host’s arguments and his selective reading of the coverage offered some context to the numbers. Among his arguments and framing of the issues were the following:
The primary problem in Ferguson is violent protesters.
The first question Bohannon asked was what police might do to quell the crowds, which seemed to me an odd place to start the conversation. Of the 163 arrests that have reportedly been made in Ferguson since Wilson killed Brown, 128 of those arrests have resulted in charges for failure to disperse. Just four have been for assaulting officers.
Audio from a correspondent in Ferguson that Bohannon played at the start of the segment confirmed that protesters are overwhelmingly peaceful. Yet the host still wanted to frame the conversation as one about violent anarchy raging in the Midwestern suburb. It’s a perspective similar to those described in a recent report from St. Louis in which white residents interviewed characterized the Ferguson protests as the result of “misplaced anger” and “bullshit.” They appear to be primarily concerned about how protesters’ actions (not Wilson’s) make their city and region look to the rest of the world.
The starting point for any conversation on what’s happening in Ferguson should be that a young man was killed and his lifeless body left in the street for hours. The starting point should be that his family, the community and the nation are still waiting for answers as to why.
The police shouldn’t be criticized for their use of force—including their militarized response—given that it’s hard to tell peaceful protesters from those who are violent.
See above for the breakdown of who among the crowds is doing what.
Melissa Harris-Perry made an important related point in her on-air exchange Saturday with MSNBC correspondent Trymaine Lee: It’s also worth considering that the people of Ferguson can’t tell police officers who take seriously their mission to serve and protect apart from those whose training or biases leave them unable to use appropriate force during encounters with members of the community.
NPR’s interview with retired twenty-three-year veteran DC police officer, Ronald Hampton, offers his take on what appropriate force looks like: “If I go to arrest someone and they are resisting, the policy is that I am authorized to use force necessary to make the arrest that is equal to force being applied. I might be wrestling around them, but all I need to do is get the cuffs on them and get them to the police. Anything beyond that violates the policy.”
But Wilson’s actions were justified because Brown was charging him.
Bohannon had decided to echo a version of events that has come to dominate conservative blogosphere: that Brown was running toward Wilson in the moments before the officer killed him. If you watch the video at the link, be sure to hang in until the 2:10 mark, when the woman claiming to be Officer Wilson’s friend offers the well-worn crazed-and-“drug-fueled Negro” angle, saying, “He [Wilson] really thinks he [Brown] was on something, because he just kept coming.”
In Bohannon’s opinion, any eyewitness accounts (and there are at least three) that challenge the mystery woman’s version of events have no merit. He won’t consider them, he said, because one of those eyewitnesses—Brown’s friend, Dorian Johnson—has been reported to have been with Brown at the unrelated alleged robbery that took place before the shooting. It’s difficult to see how or why eyewitnesses who say Brown was running away from Wilson when he was killed would be collaborating in a lie, but that’s what Bohannon seemed to think.
What is clear is that the details are in dispute. That’s why people have been protesting in Ferguson: They want a thorough and just investigation that results in a presentation of the facts. Nationally, there’s some skepticism that this is even possible. According to that Pew poll, more than three in four black respondents say they have no or not much confidence in the investigation into the shooting, compared to a third of white respondents.
Let’s hope for an investigation that surprises the skeptics. Let’s hope for an investigation that somehow transcends the stark divides between the parallel universes from which Americans seem to be observing Ferguson.

Nannies, Housekeepers, Caregivers Had Virtually No Rights - But Key Victories are Changing All That

Last year, California Governor Jerry Brown signed into law a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, guaranteeing overtime pay to employees—the vast majority of whom are women—who provide care in homes across the state. The organizing that led to the win was spearheaded by affiliates of the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA), which has said this new law “will put millions of dollars in the pockets of immigrant women and women of color laboring as domestic workers.”

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Marriage Isn't the Economic Panacea - So Stop Shaming Unmarried Moms

This piece originally appeared on The Nation Institute website, and is reprinted here with their permission.

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Can Black Women Lead on Rethinking Marriage?

One highlight of Election Day 2012: voters in Maryland, Washington and Maine deciding, with their ballots, whether people in same-sex relationships will be allowed to marry.

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Media Hype About Painkillers Shot Down

This story appeared originally on WireTapMag.org -– a national online magazine by and for socially conscious youth.

Shira Hassan has read the research that says prescription drug use is up among young people.

But annual reports like the government-funded " Monitoring the Future" don't often reflect what she sees working with 12- to 23-year-old women in Chicago's sex trade, said Hassan, co-director of the Young Women's Empowerment Project.

These young women don't reflect the reported youth opiate craze, and painkillers like OxyContin and Vicodin aren't in unusually high demand.

"Spikes are media-driven," said Hassan, whose group is rooted in the principles of harm reduction. "The spike is more of a spike in the research."

Authors of the University of Michigan study, a composite of 50,000 8th-, 10th- and 12th-graders' disclosures about their drug use, started asking about OxyContin and Vicodin in 2002. And 2006 was the first year they included questions about over-the-counter cold medicines, as though sippin' on some [cough] syrup were brand new.

Last year, peer outreach workers with the Young Women's Empowerment Project talked to more than 400 girls in the Chicago area who were trading sex for money or drugs. More than half of those conversations were about drug use.

What they're using is what Hassan has seen consistently over the years: marijuana and alcohol are most prevalent, followed by crystal meth, heroin, ecstasy, powder cocaine and other club drugs.

"I haven't met a kid who their primary passion is pills in a long time," Hassan said.

Where prescription drugs like Xanax, Valium and Ativan do come into play is in combination with other drugs. These pills are benzodiazepines, the "downers" that calm the nerves or ward off a crash as the high from cocaine or meth subsides.

But if this is new to researchers, it isn't to users.

"That's been going on since the beginning of time," Hassan said.

What is relatively new is recreational prescription drug use among the population university researchers can access easily: middle-class teenagers who go to school.

And among this group, yes, access to parents' pain pills and the exchange of Adderall and other drugs prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and depression are increasingly common, said Marsha Rosenbaum, a medical sociologist and director of Drug Policy Alliance's Safety First project.

The 2006 University of Michigan study reports that 9 percent of high school seniors had used a prescription narcotic in the previous year, compared to the just over 4 percent who had used ecstasy.

One reason for this comparatively high use is the medical community's shifting approach to pain management, Rosenbaum said.

"You have a little surgery, you get some pills," she said of young people's access to adult family members' prescriptions. "To doctors these days, Vicodin is like aspirin."

Rosenbaum doesn't suggest restricting people's ability to alleviate their pain, but she does say parents should throw away or lock up their unused meds. Even more important is realistic drug education that teaches young people to reduce harms associated with drugs if they do choose to use them, she said.

And because young people know exactly what they're putting in their bodies when they use prescription drugs recreationally, Dan Bigg of the Chicago Recovery Alliance sees their use a sign that more young people are taking the principles of harm reduction to heart.

With these drugs, there's less of a crapshoot around how much to take or potentially dangerous fillers.

"The Internet provides a wealth of information," Bigg said. "It's easy to read about it and understand dosage. You have an opportunity to do that, that you don't [have) with illicit drugs."

Of course, abuse can still be a problem. Ninety minutes north of Chicago in Racine, Wis., Sammy Rangel is seeing the young people -- mostly white boys -- who get caught stealing cough medicine from local pharmacies. He also sees the teenagers hooked on OxyContin.

A director of the street outreach program at Racine's SAFE Haven youth shelter and a licensed drug and alcohol counselor, Rangel shares Hassan's skepticism that there's a recent spike in prescription and over-the-counter drug abuse. He doesn't see it among the population he works with: primarily black and Latino youth between the ages of 13 and 25.

The biggest change he's seen in the last year is the increase in young black men snorting heroin.

"That was something I hadn't seen in a long time," Rangel said. "You worried about a kid getting a hold of crack."

This trend follows a boom in heroin sales in nearby Kenosha in the early 2000s, and now the drug is big among 16- to 25-year-old black men, Rangel said. They're adamant that they never shoot the drug, but he thinks a stigma often forces injection users into silence.

"You're a partier or a casual user if you're snorting it, but you're a dope fiend if you're shooting up," Rangel said.

Marijuana is big among the younger teenagers he works with, which is no surprise except he thinks the volume -- some talk about smoking an eighth of an ounce every hour or two that can have long-lasting effects, including severe memory loss and motor skill deterioration. Rangel said the glorification of blunts in pop culture is partly to blame for skewing conversations around moderation.

"Nobody talks about joints anymore. I think they get laughed at," he said. "It's one thing to smoke marijuana, it's another thing to saturate your system."

Rangel also worries about the crack cocaine and PCP that sometimes make their way into blunts.

But Googling prescription drugs isn't the only way to steer clear of unforeseen toxins. At the Young Women's Empowerment Project, people do still talk about joints, and on a recent day Hassan overheard a 13-year-old girl asking how to tell whether one had been rolled using papers laced with embalming fluid.

A 19-year-old colleague of Hassan's used the peer education model on which the organization prides itself. Without judgment, without shaming the girl into clamming up, the staffer started brainstorming ways the younger girl could stay safe.

Hassan watched the two puzzle through the problem together:

"If you're out with a guy, don't let him smoke you up," the colleague suggested. "Roll from your bag. Don't carry too much. Teach yourself how to be in charge of your drug use."

Haunted by Katrina

Vladine Lee Bryan stared in disbelief at the digital photographs on her father's computer screen. Black mold had spread over the walls of her house in New Orleans' Seventh Ward. The high-water marks in her son's room were inches from the ceiling. The refrigerator was overturned in the middle of the living room. The floodwater had rushed through the garage and ripped away plaster to expose weakened wooden beams.

A Harry Potter poster and school-issued plaques celebrating her children's successes had managed to cling to the walls. But there were few other reminders that she was looking at the place where she, her husband and their three young children had built their life together.

"It doesn't look like anybody lived there in years," said Bryan, 31, straining to speak through her tears. "It looks like one of them burnt out buildings."

After contemplating the photos, which her estranged husband took when he returned to assess the flood damage, Bryan reached for a Valium from the one-month supply she had been given at Manhattan's Disaster Assistance Service Center. She had been reluctant to take the drug, but if there was ever a time to borrow peace of mind from a tranquilizer, this was it.

Finding that sense of calm and security has been a constant struggle for Bryan since she and her children arrived in New York on Sept. 4. Unlike the Katrina survivors who have ended up in New York City without a support network, the Bryans are living with Vladine's parents in Jamaica, Queens. Joseph and Solange Roche readily offer shelter, money and emotional support, and say that their daughter and grandchildren are welcome to stay as long as they like. However, there still is stress as Bryan struggles to navigate what she feels is an unresponsive relief system and to assuage the trauma that still afflicts her children.

Over 2,000 households from the battered Gulf Coast have gone through the city's Disaster Assistance Service Center, which is run by the Office of Emergency Management. Over 150 survivors remain in FEMA-funded housing, as they are permitted to do until the Feb. 13 deadline. And judging from turnout at city-sponsored long-term housing fairs, most of these families plan to put down roots in New York City. So, in statistical terms, the Bryan family's story represents a small segment of the Katrina Diaspora. But the story also reflects a wider reality -- how, in countless ways across America, an uprooted multitude is searching for permanence and ways to cope with the emotional and psychological effects of forced migration.

"You're permanently in the world in a new way," said Mindy Fullilove, a psychiatrist and author of "Root Shock," a book about the destruction of city neighborhoods. "You're in the world as an individual, whereas previously you were in the world as part of the place."

The title of Fullilove's book equates displaced people with a plant that is ripped out of the ground.

"If you don't replant it, very quickly it dies," said Fullilove of both the uprooted plant and the uprooted person. "The suffering does not stop. The stress, the anxiety, the disturbance of it last, literally, for decades."

Bryan, a curvaceous woman with model looks whose seldom flashes her bright smile these days, manages her anxiety with the occasional sedative. More frequently, she takes long walks alone in the multiethnic residential neighborhood that she now calls home. She is still adjusting both to her return to New York City, where she moved from Haiti at the age of 2, and to the reality of what happened to her three months ago.

From New Orleans to New York

Though they had access to transportation, the Bryans didn't heed the warnings to evacuate New Orleans. Previous evacuations had proven to be unnecessary.

"They're always saying, 'This is the big one,'" Bryan said. "They just happened to be right this time."

Finally, the couple packed up Joseph, 11; Elaine, 8; and Victoria, 6, and went to the Superdome on Sunday, Aug. 28, the day before the hurricane battled the city's decrepit levee system and easily won.

Once inside the dome, the family was unable to locate a familiar face among the 30,000 people taking shelter there. Bryan scanned the crowds for people they could camp next to, but her search was fruitless. She spent five restless nights worried that her children would be abducted.

Victoria remembers the discomfort of those nights and has since told her grandmother that this is why she doesn't want to return to New Orleans: She worries that she will have to sleep upright in a chair again. Joseph, Bryan's 11-year-old, remembers the rising water and pledged to his grandparents that he'll never again live near the coast.

Bryan remembers the physical strain of those days and the subsequent evacuation -- first via bus to Houston and then, with plane tickets bought by her parents, to New York. She calls the result "the Katrina Diet." In one month's time, she lost 45 pounds, dropping from a size 24 to a size 16.

Bryan's weight loss in unsurprising, said Ma'at Lewis-Coles, a psychologist teaching in the Criminal Justice Counseling Department at John Jay College. She and other members of the New York Association of Black Psychologists have been counseling hurricane survivors staying at the Radisson near Kennedy Airport.

"They are suffering physical detriment because of stress," Lewis-Coles said. A disaster of this magnitude and the subsequent displacement affects not only a survivor's psyche but also her physical health, she said.

Bryan's parents were on their own emotional rollercoaster during their daughter's ordeal. There was no electricity or access to phones in the Superdome, and for three days the Roches didn't know whether she was dead or alive. Finally, Bryan was able to borrow a charged cell phone and call Queens.

Joseph Roche, 60, searched for words to explain his relief upon hearing her voice.

"Like when you get burned, then you put some cold water on it," he said, his voice thick with the French accent he carried from Haiti 34 years ago. "That was it."

Bryan and her husband, whose seven-year marriage had been strained in recent months by constant bickering, were separated in the rush to board buses bound for Houston. Their lives were already heading in different directions, said Bryan, and they have decided to divorce. She and the children continued on to her parents' home in Queens, while he has resettled in Virginia.

A different life on familiar turf

Family portraits decorate Joseph and Solange Roche's living room. A studio headshot of a teenaged Bryan hangs on the wall, her flawless complexion and broad smile appearing beneath feathered 1980s bangs. Nearby is a picture of her sister, Manon Roche, 26, who also lives in the house near the F train's Queens terminus. Black-and-white photos taken long ago in Haiti offer a glimpse into the family's history.

The three-bedroom house is now home to four adults and three children. Bryan and her children usually sleep in the guest room. But whenever their room starts to feel cramped, her father said, Bryan sleeps on the sofa bed in the living room, or else the children camp out in his basement office.

Though there are only two bathrooms, Joseph Roche said there have been no squabbles over access. The family's staggered morning schedule helps. At 5:30 a.m. he leaves the house for his job in the dietary department of a nearby nursing home. Bryan leaves to take the children to school at 7 a.m. An hour later, Manon leaves for her job assisting patients in the cancer ward of Long Island Jewish Hospital. Solange, who works as a home attendant, leaves home an hour after that.

According to Roche, the four additional people under his roof haven't made home life more difficult, and he seems proud of how he has been able to respond to his family's crisis.

"I'm very secure," he said. "I can support them as long as they want. I just refinanced the house. I pay my bills."

Roche freelances to supplement his income from the nursing home. Seated at the computer in his basement office, beneath a poster of Bob Marley, he transfers classic and obscure jazz and Caribbean music from his more than 2,000 records onto master-quality CDs and sells them to distributors. He earns between $300 and $400 an album.

In recent months, this additional work has put Roche in a better position to be the benevolent patriarch. He said what he likes most about having his grandchildren close to him is hugging them and being able to give them money.

But to Bryan, the move home has been less rosy. She is anxious to find an apartment and describes what other displaced Katrina survivors have called "evacuee fatigue."

"They think, 'Oh, well you're home and you're safe,'" Bryan said of her parents. "But that's your house. I would give anything just to be able to go back and have my son in his room ignoring everybody, have my daughters fighting each other, jumping off the bed and me screaming at the top of my lungs. I miss just staring out of the window in my bedroom. And people just don't get it."

Bryan's mother gets it more than her daughter may realize. Her own life has been disrupted in smaller, much less devastating ways.

"We're happy to have them, but sometimes …" Solange Roche stopped and hurried to clarify. "I'm not complaining. Everything good you have, you have something bad, too." Her grandchildren often make a mess, she said, but covering the living room furniture with bed sheets has become an effective childproofing system.

Living with her parents has also muddied up interactions with the city's relief agencies, Bryan said.

"The city thinks because I'm at home, everything's OK. Like I didn't lose everything," she said, her voice tinged with irony and anger. Bryan said that because she is not in FEMA-funded housing, she has missed out on certain relief benefits, such as the Wal-Mart gift cards that were given out at the Radisson and information on how to get reimbursed for the plane tickets from Houston.

Bryan has carried her frustrations with FEMA, spurred by their absence from both the Superdome and the Astrodome, here to New York. She is adamant that she has gotten help from individuals, not government agencies.

In October, she received a $1,000 donation from Queens residents bound for the Nation of Islam's Millions More March in D.C. But relying on these informal networks worries Bryan. She expects that people's sympathy and attention will soon be directed elsewhere.

"We're gonna be forgotten," she said. "You don't hear anything about the tsunami anymore, and they're still having problems."

The search for self-sufficiency

Bryan, described by her father as "brilliant" and "the brain of the family," has a degree in political science from Barber-Scotia, a private historically black college in North Carolina. Joseph Roche expected his elder daughter to become a lawyer; Bryan also had high ambitions.

"I was gonna be a politician and rule the world," she said. "But then I realized I'm not really cut out for politics. I'm too honest."

Teaching seemed an honorable way to make a living in New Orleans. This was a common profession among residents in Gentilly, the predominately black, middle-class neighborhood where the Bryan family lived.

Bryan is putting her teaching skills to use now, tutoring at-risk students at Platform Learning in Jamaica, Queens. Bryan said she is able to work three hours each weekday afternoon and earn an income close to her New Orleans teaching salary. Medicaid covers her family's health needs.

"I couldn't handle a 9-to-5 right now," Bryan said. "My kids have too many issues. I have too many issues."

The Bryan children's issues run the gamut, with 8-year-old Elaine exhibiting the most residual trauma. She has nightmares and hoards food, taking more than she needs and hiding it away for safekeeping.

"She feels she has nothing," said Bryan, who inadvertently introduced her daughter to the practice in the Superdome, where she coaxed extra meals-ready-to-eat from National Guardsmen, stockpiled them and carefully rationed the contents to her husband and children. "I think she figured that that's what she has to do to help me."

Victoria, who is 6, lacks her sister's depth of understanding. When she learned that New Orleans had been reopened, she was excited to tell her mother that they could go home.

"The levee broke!" Elaine told her sister. "Don't you know what that means?"

Victoria responded simply: "No."

All three children are receiving counseling at school, but Elaine and 11-year-old Joseph are not yet ready to talk about what has happened.

Joseph has shut down, Bryan said, and showed emotion only after learning that his first-floor bedroom had been hardest hit by the flooding and that his prized possession, a GameCube, hadn't survived. Crying, he told his mother that he wished he could have at least saved the video game equipment from their home.

"That broke my heart," Bryan said. "Because he hasn't asked me for anything."

Joseph's attachment to his video games isn't proof of unhealthy materialism, said Fullilove, the author of "Root Shock."

"Kids know less, so these rituals that they know are much more important," Fullilove said.

Joseph's video games, part of a daily ritual that told him he was home, are gone. Bryan wonders how she will recreate other rituals for her children, like the Halloween festival they attended annually or their involved system of exchanging gifts on Christmas morning.

"That kind of stuff, you can't replace," she said.

Bill Cross, a member of the New York Association of Black Psychologists, said that Bryan's own emotional stability is a prerequisite for her children's.

"The parent mediates the experience," Cross said. "If the parent is stable, the child is stable. If the parent isn't." Cross let his voice trail off, indicating that self-pity and untreated depression are risky options for parents affected by Katrina.

Bryan said she knew that she had to address her own sadness and shock when she realized how much she had neglected her looks. She went to a job interview wearing a headscarf, she said, and she jokes that her haggard appearance had started to attract the wrong kind of attention in the street.

"Guys who shouldn't even try to talk to anybody were trying to talk to me because they thought they had a chance," Bryan said, arching her perfectly plucked eyebrows and laughing.

When Bryan first arrived in New York, she made an appointment with a mental health counselor, but she didn't keep it.

"I just didn't go," she said by way of explanation. Instead, she got a makeover and talks to her father when she needs advice. But Joseph Roche insists that his daughter should see a professional, and Bryan says unconvincingly that she'll reschedule the appointment.

For her, it's the stigma attached to her situation that continues to discourage and anger her.

"Don't call me a refugee, this is my country," Bryan said, recalling her college coursework in international affairs. To her, a refugee is "taking refuge from another country, not another state."

"Everybody's trying to adopt a 'Katrina Family,'" Bryan said, thankful for the gesture but offended by the term.

"Don't label me. I don't want to be considered a 'Katrina Family' or an 'evacuee' or a 'refugee.' I'm an American who's trying to raise her kids."

Parliamentary Committee Recommends Overhaul of British Drug Laws

A groundbreaking report released today by the Home Affairs Committee of the British House of Commons recommends a dramatic shift away from criminalization and an expanded public health approach to drug-related problems. Citing the failure of law enforcement efforts to reduce drug-related harm, the committee is proposing public health alternatives already in use in the Netherlands and Switzerland, including research trials for heroin maintenance treatment; safer injection rooms to reduce risks associated with injection drug use; expanded treatment for cocaine users; and significant ecstasy and marijuana law reform.

The British recommendations for reform stand in stark contrast with drug policy in the United States, where law enforcement officials continue to arrest millions of non-violent Americans who use drugs, including medical marijuana patients.

"As England gets smarter in its approach to drug policy, the United States gets more reactionary," said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Europe, Canada, and Australia are all abandoning the punitive approach to drugs, while U.S. drug warriors forge ahead with the same failed tactics."

David Cameron MP, Conservative member of the Home Affairs Committee, stated in a committee press release:

Drugs policy in this country has been failing for decades. Drug abuse has increased massively, the number of drug-related deaths has risen substantially and drug-related crime accounts for up to half of all acquisitive crime. I hope that our report will encourage fresh thinking and a new approach. We need to get away from entrenched positions and try to reduce the harm that drugs do both to users and society at large.

The main recommendations of the report include:

-Reclassifying cannabis from class A, the most punitive category, to class C which would reduce the penalty to a warning, caution or court summons

-Reclassifying Ecstasy from class A to class B.

-Conducting heroin prescription trials, based on Dutch and Swiss models, to reduce the harms done by those who are unable or unwilling to stop using heroin

-Piloting "safer injecting rooms" to reduce disease transmission, overdose and other harms associated with injection drug use

-Dramatically increasing the availability and range of drug treatment options, including methadone maintenance

"The British are increasingly putting public health and safety above fear and prejudice in their drug policy," said Nadelmann. "U.S. policymakers should follow their lead."

The full report is available at www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200102/cmselect/cmhaff/318/31802.htm.

The Drug Policy Alliance is the nations leading organization promoting alternatives to the war on drugs based on common sense, science, public health and human rights. The Alliance, headquartered in New York City, has offices in California, Washington, DC and New Mexico. Ethan Nadelmann is the executive director.

How Durban Succeeded

Richard Wright wrote that there was something "extra-political" about the 1955 Bandung Conference, the meeting where African and Asian anti-colonial freedom fighters turned heads of state created the identity of a non-aligned "third world." Wright wrote that the elusive force "smacked of tidal waves, of natural forces." Although you'd never guess it from the deeply pessimistic coverage the recently concluded World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) received, there was a similar sense among many delegates that something meaningful was taking place, more so outside the Durban convention center than within.

Hours before the WCAR was scheduled to conclude, the draft resolution remained rejected by the official European Union and Palestinian delegates. The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) described the conference as "stormy" and reported on the controversy surrounding the rejection of the Nongovernmental Organization (NGO) Declaration by Mary Robinson, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights. But in the surrounding streets, restaurants and hotel lobbies, NGO delegates were carrying on as they had all week.

Daniel Edwin J. Das, an independent writer who works with the Indian National Coalition for Dalit Human Rights, was adamant that despite widespread claims that the Arab countries had "hijacked" the conference -- a questionable choice of words to say the least -- the conference was a disaster only to some.

"Maybe for the governments of the world, Durban was a failure. Maybe for the media of the world, Durban was a failure because it focused on Israel and the United States. But for the people of the world, it has been a major success. We have been able to build links amongst ourselves -- Dalits, Africans and African descendants, Palestinians, indigenous people."

The sentiment among many NGO delegates was that the U.S. government had worked to ensure the conference's failure by working desperately to distract the world's attention from the substantive work that many of them had set out to do.

NGO delegates struggled to keep up with the latest plot twists as the Bush administration first threatened not to send a delegation, grudgingly sent a low-level delegation and finally added insult to injury by pulling out days into the proceedings. But after getting over being hoodwinked and bamboozled by the U.S. government's tactics, delegates went about the business of milking the gathering for all it had to offer.

In the tents set up outside the highly secured convention center, at the tables where organizations made their literature available, while marching in the streets or waiting in the interminable lines for conference accreditation, people did just what the U.S. government and other obstructionist forces feared they would: They talked. They exchanged ideas and words of support. They attempted to learn from each other's struggles. They acknowledged and discussed the issues they faced back home that had brought them there to Durban.

Even within the official conference program there was a safe haven from the measured wording and political jockeying needed to get particular language into the Declaration and Program of Action that would be the conference's only tangible product. The Voices Special Forum on Comparative Experiences of racism, organized by the International Human Rights Law Group and the South Africa Human Rights Commission, put a human face on the issues of racism discussed, from the Rwandan genocide to discrimination against the Roma in Eastern Europe. Over the course of the week, 21 people from all over the world testified before a panel of UN officials as to their personal experiences with racism, telling stories that showed the systemic effects of racial discrimination.

Saikou Diallo, the father of Amadou Diallo, who was killed in February 1999 by New York City police officers, spoke about losing his son to the racist U.S. criminal justice system. Monica Morgan testified as a representative of the Yorta Yorta people, who are indigenous to Southeastern Australia. Morgan spoke about the "stolen generation," over a hundred thousand children who were removed from their indigenous families and held in detention centers or Anglo-Australians' homes where they were "trained to be domestics, brainwashed to be assimilated and violated."

Ana del Carmen Martinez reported the atrocities she has suffered as an Afro-Colombian displaced by the civil war and drug interdiction efforts funded by the U.S. government in the name of its "war on drugs." Delegates sat in silence as Martinez described being forced to watch paramilitaries tie up a neighbor and dismember him before killing him, a warning to the members of her community of what they would face if they attempted to return to their native lands. The municipal stadium turned refugee camp were she was taken and forced to live for four years was so overcrowded that 1,200 people slept on the basketball court. There was no running water, no toilets.

"We saw our oppressors in the street. We felt tremendous fear. Our children could not go to school. We began to suffer from illnesses we had never had in the past. Our bodies and those of our children became marked by this fear. We only know how to work the land; it is part of our culture. They blamed us for everything, even our lack of hygiene. There are many sad children. But we laugh, we sing, we celebrate. Joy is resistant. Our souls are not for sale."

Hopefully, the people in attendance at Durban will build on the momentum established there, carrying the shared experience of the conference within the conference and the extra-political alliances formed home to their communities, where the real work begins.

Dani McClain attended the WCAR on behalf of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation.


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