New Orleans’ grassroots struggle and rebuild

December 9, 2005

December 2005—There’s a tiny juke joint out behind the house, “Barbara’s Place,” it says, with musical notes painted on the wall. A portable toilet is overturned next to the door, it floated in from somewhere else. The plants in the yard are yellow and drowned. In front of the house, there’s a pile of trash high as your head and covering the space from the sidewalk to the curb. One out of three houses has such a pile containing refrigerators, furniture, clothing, broken up bits of drywall, toys. It’s a pandemic of eviction-by-flooding.

The piles are made by people coming home, on a weekend or a day here and there, and trying to clear the soaked, moldy, destroyed stuff out of their houses. In other cases, a landlord illegally threw the stuff out on the street. And then what? Sell the property to the highest bidder, while whatever of your possessions weren’t ruined before sit in the rain, while you sit in Houston, or one of hundreds of other far away towns. There is a massive land-grab going on in New Orleans, but the people are fighting back.

“This is basically a neighborhood where people were left to die,” explains Lisa Fithian, one of the coordinators of Common Ground Relief, a radical effort to provide “solidarity, not charity” to the survivors of Katrina.

After the storm blew through and the floodwaters flowed in, it took little time to realize that ‘the cavalry’ was not coming to pick people off their roofs or evacuate them from ‘shelters,’ and people were suffering and dying as a result. Indeed, the powerful seemed more concerned that Black people would escape into white neighborhoods than that people might be dying of exposure. Malik Rahim wasted no time denouncing the racism in public and to the press. A Green Party candidate for city council and a former Black Panther, Rahim lives in Algiers, just across the river from the worst, most sustained flooding, the roof-high water in New Orleans’ African-American heart, the Ninth Ward.

Soon after, armed white men started driving through his solidly Black neighborhood. People heard shootings. There were drive-bys and threats at his house. Rahim’s friends gathered there, white and Black, themselves armed, to ward off violence. His house and yard became a collection point for relief supplies and a gathering point for volunteers from near and far wanting to throw their lives into the struggle to rescue and recover. Indeed, residents say, it was neighbors helping neighbors, grassroots rescue efforts led by residents who found themselves thrust into the role of coordinating relief operations, and the compassion and risk of ordinary people that reduced the casualty rates and provided relief and safety to thousands. The Red Cross and FEMA mostly were missing in action, at least until later, although police and military were in evidence from the early stages.

Among those that gathered at Rahim’s house were a gaggle of street medics. These folks are familiar to those of us who go to anti-globalization protests as the angels who appear to carefully swab off the pepper spray or bandage you up or ice down your bruises after the police decide that you’ve had a little too much free speech. With both formal and informal medical training—and more importantly, radical chutzpah—they opened a free medical clinic. As of this writing it is temporarily housed in a mosque in Algiers and provides primary care for people in the neighborhood with an all-volunteer staff of doctors, nurses, and counselors. The Red Cross centers that followed later are inhospitable armed camps in comparison, according to clinic workers. “We were able to easily rise above the rescue and relief efforts of the government and mainstream agencies because they were incapable of providing health care to a community with the compassion and solidarity the people affected deserved” said Scott Weinstein, a volunteer nurse and coordinator of the clinic who used to live in Gainesville.

Common Ground also negotiated with a daycare center to open up an aid distribution center in the Ninth Ward, at North Robertson and Luisa Streets. It is powered by generators, as the area still has seen no electricity. Another preschool allowed them to use a virtually undamaged building for communications and volunteer housing. There they set up a low-power radio station.

A few weeks after the clinic was up and running, Common Ground Relief launched another audacious project, a “Road Trip for Relief” focusing on the Ninth Ward. Residents and organizers drawn by the urgency of the crisis invited activists from around the country to come to New Orleans to work for Thanksgiving week. That’s how I ended up in New Orleans for a week at the end of November, along with hundreds of other volunteers from as far away as California and Maine.

One thing you notice when you drive around the flooded neighborhoods is rings of scum like bathtub rings that denote the water levels. We first thought that meant the water had risen to that point and stopped. “Oh no,” a resident told us, “that’s where it stopped on its way back down.” Initially the water was much higher, for a couple of days, then it sank and settled in to soak everything for around three weeks. It left marks along walls, doors, gates, windows, cars, forming a distressingly accurate gauge of otherwise imperceptible rises and drops in the terrain. The mysterious “TFW” tag spraypainted on most of the houses was eventually translated for us: “Toxic Flood Water.”

When we arrived, 300 evictions were being processed a day in the Orleans Parish courthouse. If you, a New Orleans renter, were in Houston, or Mississippi, or Arkansas, you’d be unlikely to see the sign posted for five days on your door back in New Orleans before the court could order your stuff out on the street. So most of these court proceedings went uncontested.

On November 22 tenants rights lawyers managed to get the Eastern District federal court to order a halt to this unbelievable eviction procedure. Now landlords are required to mail a notice to your last-known post-Katrina address, and then wait for 45 days before an eviction hearing. (FEMA was also ordered to give the court your address.) Lawyers active with Common Ground bitterly predicted that after the ruling we would see a rise in illegal evictions. Watching landlords to see if they made a move on vulnerable housing was one of many tasks assigned to Common Ground volunteers. “A landlord never has a legal right to put a tenant or property out on his own,” fliers distributed to residents noted, only police can do this with a judge’s order. “Greedy landlords beware. We are watching you,” Common Ground Eviction Defense continued. A New Orleans resident who moved to Gainesville briefly after the storm reports being told his rent would triple and therefore he had to get out of his undamaged apartment packed with years of artwork on extremely short notice. Because of the housing shortage, landlords can demand ridiculous prices, if they can just get rid of their current tenants with their pesky leases.

Common Ground Relief is just one of the organizations fighting for residents’ rights in the devastated areas. There is the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund of Community Labor United, the NAACP, as well as ACORN (which has New Orleans as a home base), the anti-racist group People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, and various coalitions to prevent evictions and foreclosures, and to fight for Black and working class residents to have a voice in the decisions that are currently being made without them. Asked if the disaster had made her community closer, one Desire Street resident replied, “No, we were already pretty tight-knit before.” But the problem is, everyone’s scattered. We could drive for 10 blocks in tightly-spaced residential areas and not see a single person.

Police and military are much in evidence, especially at night. Police cars drive around running their flashing lights as a matter of course, apparently to let us know they are present on streets with few street lights. Walking with a friend at night in the upper Ninth Ward, one small flashlight between us, a passing cop car turned on his loudspeaker to lob a sarcastic “You’re gonna need a better light than that” and kept going. There is a curfew, but it has been moved back to 11 p.m. It is not unusual to see armored personnel carriers and military humvees, giving the area that Baghdad-on-the-Mississippi atmosphere.

Common Ground volunteer materials cautioned volunteers to be wary of the police. The New Orleans Police Department had a deservedly bad reputation even before the storm, and has taken to picking up and jailing pedestrians on the most piddling of charges. Most victims have been Black. Some have been beaten. Many have been unable to get out of jail because phone communications are spotty, the police have been obstructionist, and the courts that should hear their cases quickly have been inoperable. (Oddly, the eviction courts have managed to do a roaring business.) While I was there, Common Ground’s low-power station, Radio Algiers, was looping interviews with people who had been jailed without any access to legal help or communication with the outside world.

Three months after the storm, Alva Wilson was trying to get something going at her house. After the flood she had waded to the Superdome through neck-deep water, and from there had been shuffled from shelter to shelter. Her granddaughter, with baby twins, is still living in a mass shelter in Houston. Ms. Wilson is living Magnolia, Mississippi, with no car. “Magnolia has no public transportation,” she noted. In New Orleans, she could get a bus at the corner. What did a great-grandmother like her need a car for?

She knows her little house needs gutting, but where to start? They say it will cost $5,000. Sam Jackson, a minister and tenant in the C.B. Cooper housing project said, well, that’s what the $4,700 from FEMA is supposed to be for. What $4,700? She hadn’t seen a cent. They talked at a small rally to save the housing project, which the City has declared fit for bulldozing although the buildings show no sign of damage. The City has been trying for years to remove these solid brick buildings, which housed hundreds of families, and now the perfect opportunity has arisen. The buildings are vacant because the residents were all evacuated and scattered across the country, so they aren’t around to raise a complaint, can’t return because they have no way back, and couldn’t stay if they did get back because there is no electricity. It’s the perfect crime.

One of Mr. Jackson’s neighbors was walking up and down the stairs to her apartment, moving out a few things, a coffeemaker, a toaster, a lamp. She was packing them in her car to take back to temporary housing in Mississippi. She had heard that there was a danger the city would demolish the buildings. In the face of an acute housing crisis, the solution is—demolish perfectly good housing because it occupies valuable real estate. Mr. Jackson showed us his apartment, which was undamaged except looters had broken open a balcony back door. They hadn’t taken anything, though.

A woman who lived on N. Derbigny street walked up while we were talking to neighbors sitting on the stone steps that led to the picturesque second story entrance of her former house. She told us that the main part of her house was above the flood waters (the garage and storage areas, and a car she pointed out to us, had been immersed). She held out during the storm (“not so bad”) and the flood, but had to leave when the water started to wash back out of the city, with its foul odors, carcasses, and toxic fumes. “I couldn’t stand it then, the smell was making it hard to breathe.” A few days after she was evacuated, her neighbor told us, he saw “thick black electrical smoke,” coming from the kitchen area in the back. The upper part of the house was then destroyed by fire.

She had not seen it since she had been helicoptered out and there it was, burned from the inside out, leaving only a bit of facade standing.

FEMA will put a notice on your door saying, sorry, we came by but you weren’t here so call us at your earliest convenience so we can meet you to inspect your home and determine the extent of the damage. This is unhelpful since most people can’t get home and if they could, there is no place to stay waiting for a FEMA inspection. The house is full of mold so you can’t really breathe inside without a respirator. The neighborhoods we were in mostly have no electricity. Some areas have running water, but it’s not clear that it’s safe to drink. Others have breached pipes so if the water is turned on, it runs into the street.

If you had a car, you don’t now, it was immersed in water for three weeks and the engine is destroyed, not to mention that the inside is so full of mold it’s a toxic hazard.

Working with residents who have come back, Common Ground volunteers pulled destroyed furniture and moldy wallboard out of houses, tarped damaged roofs FEMA won’t touch because they fall outside some fairly narrow guidelines, distributed food, water and clothing from distribution centers in Algiers, the Ninth Ward and rural Houma, and cleaned the streets and sidewalks which are still generally strewn with debris. Volunteers cleared out and gutted a community center associated with a local church. In return for rehabilitating the offices and meeting rooms, they’ll be able to use the building as a base for reconstruction efforts for six months, and then continue to have a youth project there as the church moves its operations back in.

Along with the chaos and confusion and desolation and trauma, there is also a sense that anything is possible, of traditional barriers of race and culture breaking down, of new alliances forming now that the agenda of the rich is suddenly, undeniably, laid out for everyone to see.

Organizers from a coalition of groups convened a Survivor’s Assembly in Jackson, Mississippi in December, along with a march that drew 1,500 people in New Orleans to demand fair housing, fair reconstruction and the right to return. When, on January 5, the city sent bulldozers into the lower Ninth Ward, jumping the gun on a court order, alert residents and activists prevented them from leveling anything, and the situation is now back in court. Residents argue that even if some houses are beyond repair, the owners should at least have time to come back and see their property before more destruction is wrought.

I found that I could easily imagine, were a disaster of similar proportions to hit my town, much the same results, because the same race and class power imbalance is there under the surface in every U.S. town. The rich and powerful would be ruthlessly pushing the same agenda they’ve been pushing for years, but now assisted by a disaster. The working class, especially African Americans and those with few resources, would be pushed around just as they are being in New Orleans. I can only hope that we would organize as fast and as well as they have there.

Common Ground is inviting volunteers who want to extend solidarity to New Orleans and Gulf Coast residents to come to New Orleans over spring break to learn about the struggles there and contribute their labor to the grassroots reconstruction of the area. More information can be found at http://www.commongroundrelief.org