My girlfriend and I were in New Orleans last week, and when we came back, she wrote about a group we met, and emailed it to all of her friends. The result has been astounding - we have heard of house parties being thrown in New York, San Francisco, Alabama, and even Europe to raise awareness, money, and supplies for a tenacious group of young activists in New Orleans. It bears repeating, and repeating, and repeating, so i am reprinting it here. Please cut and paste and mail it to everyone you know.
FINDING COMMON GROUND
The young man who is about to show us around this cesspool introduces himself simply as Brandon, which (and I really hate to admit this) is a name I still cannot hear without thinking of Beverly Hills 90210. He speaks eloquently and could be every bit as dashing as any primetime soap opera star, except he obviously has not showered in a very, very long time. Understandable given that water is a rare and precious commodity in this part of the world. We are a long way from Beverly Hills. There are no mansions here; 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 Americans and good Samaritans from around the globe 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 must certainly be on the set of some chilling war epic and I keep waiting for someone to cue a sad, haunting tune that would make a much more appropriate soundtrack than the eerie silence that engulfs us.
Behind Brandon I can see mud-caked kids in make-shift hazmat suits decontaminating themselves and I really wish I had made time to get the immunization shots that were 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 of the recently decontaminated looks up from his plate of mush and asks me if I have ever been here before. “I’ve never been any place like this,” I answer. I can’t look anyone here in the eye because I know I had a hot shower this morning and I’ll eat well tonight before I sleep on an actual mattress. So, I spend a lot of time staring at my $100 Diesel shoes, which actually don’t look all that out of place in this depressing region – I spent good money for the “distressed” look.
It is true that, in all my travels, I have never seen anything like what I have witnessed in this place – but the truth is also that I was born and raised just over 100 miles east of here. Quite a bit of my family, until recently, 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 is not the place I knew. In fact, as I look around at the conditions the people here 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 annihilated it and I knew it would take more than a few weeks to rebuild – 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 professional construction worker. The only people to be seen for miles doing any work are a bunch of kids, none of whom appear to have reached their thirties. 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 are 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 is not heroic to just do the right thing.
As Brandon casually swats at several flies buzzing around his face and talks about the goals they are trying to accomplish, I wonder exactly how all these kids ended up in this hellhole. It is a story that, to me, is more powerful than any natural disaster could ever be. And while I have been shamed by the response of my government to this tragedy, this is a story that humbles me and shows me what is possible when a few people refuse to be told who is worthy of humanity.
The day after the levees in New Orleans 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 had not been able to evacuate – so they came up with the practical idea of driving over 500 miles and then launching a 15-foot, flat-bottom skiff boat into the sea in hopes of eventually finding him. Neither of them had boating experience, but they didn’t have to be nautical school graduates to understand that they were navigating the Gulf of Mexico in a vessel not created for the open ocean.
An African America ex-felon in his sixties would not appear to have much in common with the two young, white Texans who thought he was worth floating voluntarily into the mouth of hell 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 flood waters that had swallowed his home, he said simply, “I knew y’all’d come.” But then Mr. 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 1990’s 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 innocent men would be framed and left rotting in solitary confinement for 33 years? They say it is because in 1972, while the civil rights movement was taking some time to make its way into Louisiana, the Angola Three were out-spoken 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 the hundreds of casualties of J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO program which used illegal tactics to demonize the Panthers as thugs with guns. 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 on all charges brought against him, Rahim has been a tireless advocate for the poor and the less-fortunate ever since. When he took a look at the evidence against the Angola Three – or the utter lack of it – he thought if other people knew their story, they would care. He seems to have been correct.
The day Robert King Wilkerson left Angola, he vowed not to forget the two men he left behind and to work on behalf of their release until they are able to come home, too. It is a promise he has kept; even now when he knows they have no home 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 always 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 being destroyed by the unforgiving waters, he was found calmly feeding hungry birds when salvation arrived.
Had King known what Darby and Crow had to go through to get to him, perhaps he would not have been so convinced the good guys would show up. 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 before 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 is a harrowing tale involving a boat ride through a lightning storm and six foot swells, gun fights and destruction and death around every corner – and culminates in Darby taking a swim through toxic water infested with snakes and alligators 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 another time. Darby felt his young white face gave him some bargaining power, so again he refused to let anyone save him, “I will not leave this spot until you pick him up.” They finally did what the kid in the water had instructed them to do 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 trying to figure out where they were headed. What they found they needed for their next step was common ground.
The Common Ground Collective was founded with only $50 and the belief of four people that they could do a better job than the government of the most powerful and richest nation in the world. If you take a stroll through the Lower Ninth Ward, you’d be hard-pressed to dispute that they were right. That small investment has now grown to 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 still 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 is buried under tons of garbage. So they started by picking up trash and decomposing animals and then they moved on to putting tarps on homes (without charge, not for the $2,500 per roof received by The Shaw Group who were given a federal contract and free tarps to do the same two-hour job in other parts of the city). And then they began to envision a relief organization that would be radically different from those that had come into Louisiana in the aftermath of Katrina. They decided to join together people of every background, every race and every economic level – doctors working alongside garbage men working alongside cooks working alongside lawyers working alongside kids who still have no idea what they want to be when they grow up – all for one common goal. Space in a local mosque was secured for their headquarters and soon, the assistance started pouring in and the volunteers started lining up – no easy task given an enormous military and police presence in the disaster stricken area. A medical clinic was opened and Red Cross immediately began pointing those in need of care to Common Ground. Yes, the Red Cross turned the sick away in droves and sent them to a tent run by kids and a couple of volunteer nurses. A legal aid clinic was established to provide immediate assistance to those trying to rebuild their lives and to put pressure on the authorities to focus on relief and rebuilding – and away from the harassment and violence they witnessed Ninth Ward residences enduring in a time of crisis.
As you walk through the area now, the only government employees you see are agents of the Department of Homeland Security cruising around 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 and heartbroken by what I was seeing, two women drove up and we began chatting. They were back in their old neighborhood for the first time since Katrina and I could not believe the composure they maintained as they talked about all they had lost. As one of the women spoke about losing every photograph that she had of her only child, it became apparent that she had already shed so many tears for everything that she had lost, she could no longer cry for all that had been washed away. The only time she got choked up is 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 and gutting homes and they are now handing out free earthworms. Yes, earthworms. It is a safe, natural way to clean up toxic soil. They are giving away certain plants that perform the same function and teaching classes on how to dig up and dispose of them after their job is done. And they are working on ways to ensure that the knowledge, resources and supplies they have acquired are available and ready to be mobilized when and if, God forbid, a disaster should strike your community. But hopefully, between now and then, our government, with all of its resources, will have learned a few things from what a couple of former Black Panthers and the kids they have inspired were able to do with $50 bucks.
If you would like to donate to the Common Ground Collective’s effort, it would be much appreciated – especially in light of the fact that the most recent Bush Administration budget allotted zero new dollars to Katrina aid. If you and a few friends can scrape up $50, imagine what they’ll be able to do with it. Their website www.commongroundrelief.org also provides a wish list of desperately needed items, which includes everything from medical supplies to tyvek suits to sledge hammers to baby diapers.
You can mail your donations to:
Common Ground Collective
1415 Franklin Avenue
New Orleans, LA