Anarchism rises amidst the wreckage of Katrina
Plans switch up from minute to minute to accommodate the unpredictable crosscurrents of human need at Common Ground, a volunteer-run relief organization with projects spread throughout New Orleans and southeastern Louisiana.
Matt Robinson, a 37-year-old volunteer from Carrboro, NC, who showed up in New Orleans around Thanksgiving last year is assigned the job of site coordinator on the morning of this third Sunday in May at St. Mary’s of the Angels School in the Upper 9th Ward. The structure is a drab, three-story brick Catholic school building transformed into a relief center, with volunteers’ cots filling the upstairs classrooms, an ad hoc kitchen set up under tarps off to the side, a gymnasium that serves as a dining hall and bulk food storage area, and tool sheds and decontamination stations spread over the parish property.
As it happens Robinson’s shift is spent mostly away from the former school. Before the 7 a.m. morning meeting begins and the volunteers receive their assignments, the site coordinator drives a female volunteer who has fallen ill to get medical assistance. The morning’s work becomes consumed with a series of errands, and it’s early afternoon before Robinson returns to sit down to a plate of kidney beans, green beans and tofu in the dining hall.
In the meantime the Rev. Bart Pax, a stoutly built Franciscan priest with graying hair and heavy glasses, shows up to thank the volunteers and invite some of them to attend 10 o’clock mass at the church across the street.
About three months after the Upper 9th Ward officially reopened, a Common Ground organizer came to him asking for space to house volunteers, Pax says. As the priest struggled to figure out how to rebuild the looted school building in this isolated and poor African-American section full of substandard houses built in the early twentieth century, at low elevation even for a city mostly lying below sea level, Common Ground appeared as a blessing.
‘“From what I hear, they think I worked a miracle to get them to come,’” Pax says of those who are struggling to rebuild homes here. ‘“I didn’t do anything. They are really grateful for the goodness of these young people. So many young people have taken on that curse of our society, that if you care you’re no good. It’s not the money, not the glory that these young people are after. It’s just to give.’”
St. Mary’s might be considered a logical place to begin the long journey of rebuilding this ravaged community: many of the residents spent three days on the school’s rooftop in late August and early September 2005 as floodwaters swirled through the streets before first responders airlifted them to safety in helicopters.
‘“By Monday morning these streets were running with clear water,’” Pax says. ‘“By the evening it had reached the steps. My staff and I agreed we would stay; we didn’t have to. Sunday night there were seventy people here. By Monday there were well over a hundred, including forty children. I brought four loaves of bread, and we had peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Some of the neighbors emptied their deep freezes, and Tuesday afternoon we had a gumbo. We cooked it up on the roof.
‘“Wednesday morning there was a moment of great tension when our people heard the looters were firing at helicopters downtown, and they got very panicky,’” the priest continues. ‘“They were worried the helicopters would be afraid to land. Some of the men got the idea: let’s put the women and children on the rooftop waving white flags. On Wednesday the helicopters dropped supplies and started evacuating people.’”
The relationship between the parish and Common Ground, an organization co-founded by a former Black Panther that has attracted legions of anarchists from local activist networks across the United States, has gone through some growing pains, Pax says.
‘“One of the deep concerns I’ve had is that St. Mary’s would be a refuge for the malcontents of the city,’” Pax says. ‘“Drug dealers and alcohol are around. We couldn’t have that; that’s not rebuilding. The core leaders here have made sure that didn’t happen.’”
Establishing a fruitful working relationship with ecclesiastical authority is one of Common Ground’s accomplishments; reaching an accommodation with the New Orleans Police Department could be considered even more impressive considering that the police ceased to be an official presence in many areas where the anarchists defied federal curfews to provide essential services.
‘“We gave police officers water and we gutted some police officers’ houses, which was kind of tough because some anarchists were like, ‘F*ck police,”” says Robinson, a slender man with a mop of hair over his brow, a light beard and the sinewy, tanned arms characteristic of many of the volunteers. He’d spent the past five years working with a family in North Carolina that inlcluded children with behavioral disabilities. He came down with a group of friends, got hooked up with Common Ground through a referral from the anarchist group Food Not Bombs and decided to stay.
Just as some law enforcement members and clergy were forced to look beyond the combustible label of ‘anarchism,’ many of the activists decided to revisit some of their prejudices against the police.
‘“Cops are human beings,’” Robinson says. ‘“They suffered as well. Many of them stayed here at great personal risk to help their neighbors. If you can’t acknowledge the humanity of people you disagree with then you really shouldn’t be trying to create a revolution.’”
Initially Common Ground ran into difficulties with police when they first started setting up first aid stations in the West Bank neighborhood of Algiers, and later when they moved into the 9th Ward, but since then, core leaders say, some officers have shown support, if only by looking the other way. With the population of many devastated neighborhoods reduced to a fraction of their former populations, law enforcement is often not a visible presence anyway.
Common Ground’s southeastern Louisiana relief effort might be the first time in the past hundred years that anarchism has been attempted on a systematic community-wide level in the United States since the heyday of the Wobblies in the labor movement and the Chicago Haymarket uprising of 1886.
‘“There’s never been any effective anarchist organization in the US,’” Robinson says. ‘“ We’ve been forging this new path. Despite structural challenges and organizational flaws, we’ve gutted hundreds of houses to save homeowners hundreds of thousands of dollars. This is a community that is not financially wealthy. It gives people encouragement to move back. We’ve done more than FEMA ever did. The fact that the most powerful country on earth was unable to deliver drinking water for a week [after the hurricane] is inexcusable.’”
Common Ground has also found itself engaged in a complex two-step with the federal government, one moment defying curfews, the next receiving basic supplies from the military.
‘“This [US Army] sergeant started unloading Meals-Ready-to-Eat, baby formula and women’s feminine pads,’” recalls Noah Morris, an activist originally from Rhode Island who arrived in New Orleans on Sept. 9. The Army’s job, he says, was to conduct a house-to-house census, but the unit went beyond its orders.
‘“We saw what you’re doing; it’s a real good thing,’” the sergeant told Morris. ‘“Why don’t you take this? You can probably do more with it than us.’”
Morris recalls scratching his head, trying to figure out the Army sergeant’s motivation.
‘“You guys stole the FEMA supplies and you can’t give ’em back ‘— is that it?’” he asked. The sergeant’s Army cohorts grinned, but no one was willing to verbally confirm his suspicions.
One of Morris’s fellow Common Ground volunteers stuck her head out of a tent and asked the sergeant, ‘“Do you know we’re anarchists?’”
Morris remembers the sergeant being gruff and businesslike, quizzing him, ‘“You’re promoting anarchism?’”
‘“That’s what you’re doing by taking the initiative and just doing this without following orders,’” Morris replied.
The bulk of Common Ground’s work in the Upper 9th Ward is now gutting houses, an arduous and dusty job that requires volunteers to don white Tyvek body suits, respirators and goggles to tear out flooring, ceilings, drywall and insulation within the dim confines of hurricane-ravaged homes.
‘“Gutting, gutting, gutting ‘— I can’t emphasize enough how important it is,’” says Brian, a core leader who like many in Common Ground declines to give his last name. ‘“House gutting is the number-one thing residents have been asking for.’”
There are currently about 330 volunteers working with Common Ground, says Jeremiah Johnson, a 23-year-old Hendersonville, NC, native who has been in New Orleans since February. Johnson postponed his graduation from Harvard University, where he’s studying government, to volunteer. Spring break in March brought 2,900 volunteers, punching up the total number who have cycled through Common Ground since its inception to 8,000.
The organization has set up dozens of worksites across New Orleans, ranging from two in Mid-City to a handful in the Upper 9th Ward and a relatively new site in the Lower 9th Ward. On May 21, volunteers were deploying to Houma, a majority-white city southwest of New Orleans whose population numbered about 30,000 before the hurricane. To the east in St. Bernard, a low-income, majority-white parish, a breakaway effort called ‘Hope Camp’ that shares some resources with Common Ground and utilizes the same network of food banks, has been launched.
In a city where efforts by grassroots groups are as fractured as those of official agencies, and conditions from one neighborhood to the next vary to drastic degrees, not everyone in the city is aware of Common Ground’s work. Among those who are, there is not necessarily agreement about the merits of the group’s work.
Russell Henderson, a resident of the Fauborg Merigny neighborhood who teaches at Dillard University and works part-time as a children’s advocacy lobbyist at the Louisiana State Legislature, calls Common Ground ‘“left-wing nihilists,’” but he notes that they were there for him when he returned to his home a month after the hurricane.
‘“Having a white kid from New Jersey coming and gutting a house is futile,’” he says. ‘“In the beginning they were feeding people. People were not being fed. They had a health clinic for people not getting health care. I think it was important. When I came back I was always looking for food and water, and they had it.’”
In contrast to Common Ground, the Red Cross and federal responders appeared more interested in securing their own safety than providing services.
‘“What they did to us was unconscionable,’” Henderson says of the Red Cross. ‘“Until mid-October you could go stand in line in Houston and Jackson, Mississippi ‘— if you were in Portland, Oregon, you could get some help from the Red Cross. The only state in the union where you cannot get help from the Red Cross is Louisiana. If someone wants to go steal something I don’t care. They were not on the ground. They refused to go in. I finally got through to the Red Cross national office, and you know what they told me? ‘If we tried to set up, there would be a riot.””
Rebuilding has not occurred uniformly from neighborhood to neighborhood. As in much of the eastern third of New Orleans, every house in the Upper 9th Ward bears the spray-painted notation of ‘“TFW,’” first responders’ code for ‘“toxic flood water.’” With only a few exceptions, no one has managed to rebuild their homes; about half the residences are fronted by white FEMA trailers. Commercial businesses are virtually nonexistent.
Mack Hewitt, a 55-year-old homeowner in the Upper 9th and one of the few who have moved back into their house, recalls that President and First Lady Bush stopped to have lunch with the governor and mayor at Stewart’s Diner on North Claiborne Avenue a few months back as Secret Service agents lined the street. And yet today, a Saturday afternoon when New Orleanians are going to the polls to re-elect Mayor Ray Nagin, the restaurant is closed.
Signs of life are gradually returning to the Upper 9th. The blocks of Gallier Street that run alongside St. Mary’s of the Angels Catholic Church boast FEMA trailers in front of almost every house. On Sunday afternoon Spanish-speaking roofers strain beneath packs of shingles, heaving them up ladders to rooftops. Young men from the neighborhood cruise the streets, in curious juxtaposition to the punks dressed in Dead Kennedys shirts blasting the music of Woody Guthrie from a portable radio.
Progress has been much slower in the Lower 9th Ward, an isolated area separated from the rest of the city by the Industrial Canal, whose floodwalls were breached on the morning of Aug. 29. Common Ground has set up its Blue House relief center near an area at the end of North Derbigny Street where the Army Corps of Engineers continues to repair the floodwall. Approaching the relief center a house has been spray-painted with admonition: ‘“Possible body.’”
Throughout the area, houses ‘— their structures shredded ‘— lie in contorted heaps. Their condition proves them to have been ripped from their foundations and smashed into each other or deposited in the street. A car lying on its side bears the spray-painted word ‘“Baghdad,’” indicative of how many volunteers and residents feel about the storm and the federal response.
Similar to Common Ground, the non-profit group ACORN engaged in efforts earlier in the year to stop the city of New Orleans from bulldozing ruined houses before residents could reclaim sentimental items from the wreckage, locate the dead and find closure. ACORN, like Common Ground, is offering to gut houses for free as a first crucial step toward allowing residents to return.
The area between North Derbigny Street and the Mississippi River was only certified by the city as safe to have the water turned back on in mid-May, so residents like Michael Burns and his wife had yet to receive their FEMA trailer. Although their house has been gutted, they’re still waiting to see if their insurance payment will be enough, and to see whether this year’s hurricane season, which officially begins Thursday (June 1), will bring further devastation.
‘“It takes one day, one step at a time,’” Burns says. ‘“We’re waiting to see what the next storm season brings. We don’t want to take and put our stuff back together and have it ripped back apart.’”
North of Derbigny Street, the city is still refusing to turn residents’ water back on, to the displeasure of ACORN and Common Ground.
‘“You see that sign?’” asks Carol Campbell, a former renter who identifies herself as the mother at Common Ground’s Blue House, gesturing to a hand-painted sign erected outside on the curb. ‘“It says, ‘Not as seen on TV.’ They lied to us. They’re telling everybody they can come back, but that’s not true.’”
Henderson, the children’s lobbyist and Dillard professor, is not among those advocating for the repopulation of the Lower 9th Ward. He points out that while the racially mixed uptown areas from the French Quarter westward, known to many as the ‘“sliver by the river,’” escaped much of the devastation because of its relatively higher elevation, large swaths of the city’s black middle-class who lived in the heart of the city ‘— areas like Gentilly ‘— and eastward ‘— Eastern New Orleans and the 9th Ward ‘— were wiped out.
‘“We have lost our entire African-American middle class: teachers, firefighters,’” he says. ‘“Ninety percent of my colleagues at Dillard lost everything. Ninety percent of my students live in a hotel nine months after the storm.’”
Henderson advocates building hundreds of high-rise housing centers on the high ground along the Mississippi River stretching west into Jefferson Parish, an area like St. Bernard Parish that is a demographic product of the white flight that followed integration in the 1960s and ’70s.
‘“ACORN and these people talking about people having the right to return to the Lower Nine so they can drown in the next storm? It’s bogus,’” he says. ‘“They don’t have a right to return to the Lower Nine; they have a right to return to New Orleans.’”
The atmosphere from Henderson’s Merigny to Campbell’s Lower 9th Ward remains weighted with an atmosphere of grim resignation and betrayal. Nine months after Katrina, the road to recovery still stretches endlessly ahead and a sense of permanent crisis has set in.
‘“Right now we’re in need of everything,’” says Campbell, the house mother at Common Ground’s Lower 9th Ward relief center. ‘“Right now we’ve got bones and bodies in those houses. They’ve been in there so long they’re liquid and they don’t even smell. My house looks like a peanut butter sandwich. It was far more than devastating.’”
For a former renter like herself, the storm was doubly cruel.
Campbell turns to another woman, also a displaced resident, taking shade underneath a tarp in front of the relief center, and acknowledges that full recovery is a difficult goal to envision.
‘“When things come back up,’” she says, ‘“I’m still running.’”
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