Letters From Laurel: News from New Orleans
There is little I can add to this work, other than to say that other dispatches are available at http://o2collective.org/.
I feel a pressing need to communicate something of the experience I
am having here, even as I know I can only capture a glimpse of what it is to be here. I want to say something you have not heard, to offer
some deep insight into the complexity of the situation here, but I
don't even know where to begin.
I am in a surreal and deeply inspiring hell- New Orleans is a
post-apocalyptic wonderland where utter devastation is everywhere and all relationships of culture, race, society and politics are richly counter-intuitive, nuanced and have gone from backward before to upsidedown now. I am floored. No account of what is occurring here can be given without a brief review of the stunning reality on the ground. The scale and scope of the destruction is really not possible to grasp if you have not driven the streets here.
There are over a hundred thousand cars that will never drive again
that have yet to be moved- they are in all manner of disarray- on curbs, upside down, in front lawns and perhaps most eerily-parked right
where they were left when their drivers suddenly fled more than 3 months ago.
There are currently 1.3 million households from the Gulf Coast still
residing elsewhere. Bodies are still found every day. Vast areas sit festering, powerlines strewn across streets, trees sliced right through
houses, two story homes crushed to the height of their front door.
Tens of thousands of homes are filled with rotting furniture, warped
floors and swollen drywall. Our bus and van arrived with 22 people at the brand new Common Ground Community Center just opened in the Upper 9th Ward district of New Orleans. We parked the bus behind a locked gate and set to helping establish this church complex as a housing, feeding and staging center for the growing network of CG volunteers arriving and leaving daily from all over the country. The organizing
phenomenon that is the Common Ground Collective is an incredible
sight to see. Common Ground was born the week following the hurricane, by a group of courageous locals and their regional activist allies
who initially armed themselves to defend black neighborhoods from
roving white vigilantes who were shooting at young black men. Out of that warzone atmosphere has grown an organic crisis response
team that has diversified and grown extremely quickly into a
sophisticated organization with over a half dozen semi-permanent locations and 30-some programs ranging from health care clinics, distribution centers, a pirate radio station, legal advocacy teams, and now house gutting crews.
I have spent the last two days working with one of these crews on a
house in the Lower 9th Ward. We've been working on the home of a 77 year old woman named Mable who has lived in her neighborhood all
of her life, and in this house for 25 years. We are working in a crew
of a half dozen folks, outfitted in Tyvek suits, industrial respirators, boot covers, work gloves etc- removing furniture and appliances, pulling down drywall, and piling it all in a trash heap in the street out front.
Yesterday we finished gutting her entire house, and today we returned
to spray a bleach solution on everything that remains and scrub it with brushes to kill the ubiquitous black mold. Black mold and bleach. Nasty and toxic. But the satisfaction comes in realizing that the house is structurally sound, and she will be able to return, if the government allows her. She is healthy, articulate and a prominent community figure. She has begun to give speeches to the community praising Common Ground and has offered us the use of her house for a year.
The overt and entrenched racism of local, state and federal
government is outrageous, maddening and impossible to overstate. There are literally neighborhoods side by side with the same level of damage
and the white ones are being cleaned, power is back and they are
being given trailers to live in on their lot while they rebuild. Next door, literally, in the black areas it looks like it did the day the water receded- no lights, no clean up, no people. There is a systematic
effort to rid this city of its majority black residents- and the extraordinarily blatant manner the government is able to get away with it on a daily basis is bitterly heinous. They are working to pass a law to make it illegal to gut houses or help residents repair their homes in areas the city deems condemned and will use imminent domain to give
pennies on the dollar to homeowners and forcibly give title of their
property to developers.
Everything is in upheaval and in addition to the weight of futility
in the face of the massive scale of damage is the nervous uncertainty that hangs over the future of this city. Competing models of
recovery are articulating themselves as they accelerate towards a
possible head-on collision that could be very, very ugly. Is it a national model of neighbor helping neighbor, local groups funded and
empowered to respond to the needs and wishes of residents? Or is it a
top-down, corporate profit driven decree imposed on an already suffering and oppressed people through economic apartheid and
brutal state violence? Both visions are actively evolving, and I
choose not to be a pessimist even if the signs are not good.
Adding absurdity to insanity is the juxtaposition of areas like the
French Quarter and Downtown to the outlying areas. Businesses and restaurants in these areas are largely open and a crew of us have been
partying in smoky bars in the french quarters each night since we've
been here. I am sleep deprived, contaminated inside and out and a little strung out- but there is a real way in which it is all quite
normal feeling. There is an electricity in the air- like we have been
waiting for this, like it is just the beginning.
Bill McKibben said of the situation, in the context of global
warming, that "New Orleans does not look like the America we know-but it looks very much like the world we will inhabit for the rest of our lives"... I am afraid he is spot-on. As 9-11 was a watershed moment in
global history, signaling a permanent change in our relationship to our government and the direction of our collective future, so too is this
the end and the start of an era of historical proportions. What
happens here relates to our national identity, to the possibility of healing the deep wounds of racism and class inequality in our lives, and to the role of the federal government in empowering or oppressing its citizens.
I have seen countless convoys of military police, police officers
from LA, New York and else where, corporate mercenaries on contract from Blackwater and on and on and on, but I have yet to see a single
FEMA official in the city of New Orleans. Halliburton is being paid
$3000 a house on a no bid contract to put tarps on leaky roofs, while the homeless and destitute owners and residents of those homes are
shunned. . . I could go on like that for a long while, telling tales
that outrage and frustrate, but depression and anger are not what I want to convey- because truly that is not the way it feels to be
This city is vibrant, and its people are amazing. Our daily
interactions are poignant and intimate- there is a raw humanity on display here that is heartening and affirming. I am tearing up right now just thinking of the passionate people I have met since I've been here- it inspires the desire to drop everything else and stay indefinitely-which many have done.
This is only the beginning- I am just barely starting to wrap my
comprehension around the dynamics of this strange and unique place-a place that feels viscerally familiar and completely foreign all at once, all the time. It is oddly comfortable and intensely challenging to be here. Stay tuned and I will try to write more soon.
Tomorrow is a rally and march for the Right to Return movement and
then I think we will go south to Houma for a day or two.
. . .huge love to y'all. . . . .