Friday, December 09, 2005


Well, friends it is one of those Friday where all you get is a reprint from another source. The following is from the San Francisco Bay View

New Orleans Now: Bay Area volunteers share shocking stories

by CC Campbell-Rock

The flicker of the changing images held the packed warehouse community co-op audience spellbound. At least 70 people, mostly white social justice activists, turned out to watch the New Orleans update from the Common Ground Collective’s Video Committee. The new video is a compendium of footage and images from at least seven Bay Area volunteers who took part in the organization’s rebuilding New Orleans campaign.

The new footage captured the views of social justice activists, New Orleanians and Bay Area volunteers who participated in the Thanksgiving weekend’s “Roadtrip for Relief,” called for by the organizers of the Common Ground Collective.

The film paled in comparison to the stories of at least 10 volunteers who put their lives on hold and answered Common Ground Collective’s call for 300 people to come and work to rebuild New Orleans. They told stories of a New Orleans that existed before Hurricane Katrina. Their accounts exposed the dirty little secrets that the popular Southern city has harbored for centuries.

“The Common Ground Collective called for a national caravan to converge in New Orleans and for 300 people to meet down there to do all kinds of work, to support people in New Orleans,” said Natasha Dedrick, a core organizer of the Common Ground Collective.

Dedrick coordinated the road trip and the recent meeting. “We’re proud to say that we had the largest contingency. At least 50 Bay Area residents accepted the challenge of helping hurricane victims.

Essentially, Hurricane Katrina unmasked the realities that the majority of city residents experienced on a daily basis: virulent, insidious forms of racism, repression and corruption, which trapped generations of New Orleanians in the cycle of poverty, on which mainstream media reported, initially.

In three short days, Dedrick, who pulled together a cross-section of volunteers, helped to raise $5,000 for the Common Ground Collective. She borrowed a truck, filled it up with cleaning supplies and was joined by at least 50 others on the trip.

She got involved after hearing news reports on the hurricane’s devastation. “I started freaking out, once I saw the response to it. I called Malik (Rahim, co-founder of Common Ground) and Families and Friends of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children. I couldn’t reach anyone. My friends said, ‘Just go down there.’”

Not only did she go for the road trip, but Dedrick has been to New Orleans at least three times since the hurricane ravaged the city and the Gulf Coast. “It’s (destruction) going on for miles and miles,” the activist affirmed.

“The interesting thing about going down is that there’s almost nothing happening on the ground, except what the grassroots is doing. The Common Ground Collective is about the only group on the ground doing anything. There are almost no city workers. When I see them, they look like little ants on a mountain of destruction. The National Guard is roaming the streets in humvees. They drive by and you want to say, ‘Get out and start working.’”

Perplexed by the useless activities of the National Guard, Dedrick, who is volunteering in honor of her mother, an activist and artist who passed away five years ago, asked a national guardsman about his work. She was told the National Guard was in the fourth phase of a national recovery program.

“The first, second, third and fourth stages are patrolling. They’re patrolling what? It’s a ghost town. The fifth phase is the clean up, which will start in January. But then, that will only be done by the Louisiana National Guard. The other units are pulling out. We (Common Ground Collective) were able to do 30 houses and give out food. It was a lot, but that’s nothing,” compared to the work that remains.

“I couldn’t be more disgusted,” she adds, about the hidden agenda of some involved in the reclamation of the city. “There’s no mistake. It is ethnic cleansing … just the fact there is no electricity. What is that? No schools. No electricity and hot water. How much work is down there? An endless amount of work, and residents can’t get jobs. Where are the jobs?”

Justin Hite, another core organizer with the Common Ground Collective, told the story of the arrest of Brandon Darby, the Ninth Ward coordinator for Common Ground Collective. “Brandon was on his way to get King (one of the Angola 3), who was stranded in his home, shortly after the hurricane. A ranger came along and made Brandon get into a boat. He jumped off the boat and began swimming. The cops were in pursuit. Things were getting rough, until the media showed up. Then the rangers dispatched a boat to get King.”

Justin and several other volunteers also had to take turns on watch for anyone who wanted to destroy or damage the reputation of the Common Ground Collective and its leader, Malik Rahim. “At dusk, white militias formed up and would patrol, with machine guns, the Black communities looking for looters.”

Hite said they started the Common Ground Collective by posting 7,000-8,000 fliers on doors. The owner of a daycare center donated her building for free for three months. The collective today uses the location as a distribution center. More recently, the group launched a women’s center across the street from the distribution outlet.

Nicole Derse, a political organizer, said she was surprised at the response from government. She went to Thailand after the tsunami, where she helped to set up the Tsunami Volunteer Center. She also went down to New Orleans to help the Katrina victims. The way the Thailand government handed that country’s natural disaster compared with the Bush administration’ handling of the U.S.’s greatest natural disaster stunned her.

“I was shocked that the government wasn’t even trying to pretend to help. The Thailand government did what it could (after the tsunami), as small as it is, but the local, state and federal governments here do not want people to return. They do not want New Orleans to be a predominately Black city any longer,” Derse explained.

Most shocking to Derse, is that the cost to rent a home or apartment in New Orleans has tripled. “A two-bedroom will now go for $2,500 per month,” when it previously cost $800 per month. Moreover, developers are offering homeowners pennies on the dollar to purchase their property. “All the evidence suggests that this is the greatest example of racism and peril of capitalism I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” she says.

Emma Gerard, a tenant organizer, said the Housing Authority of New Orleans is telling public housing tenants that there is no place for them to live if they come back. “There has been a governmental moratorium on evictions since Oct. 29, but since then, 100 people per day are being evicted. I personally witnessed a woman’s belongings being pushed out.”

Most egregious, she adds, is the behavior of the Housing Authority of New Orleans. “There is a push to shut down the projects and to reduce Section 8 tenants,” Gerard explains.

Tenants at the B.W. Cooper public housing development were told that they couldn’t return to Cooper because of “extensive damage” done by the hurricane. “Sam Jackson took us on a tour of his apartment and there was no damage there. Tenants have found out that HANO is using their homes to house relief workers and HANO staff members,” says Gerard.

Conversely, FEMA has been giving out Section 8 vouchers, but landlords are refusing to take them. They would rather rent to higher paying government workers and contractors, Gerard concludes.

Derse added, “It’s easy to get evicted in New Orleans. There is a five-day eviction notice. If you don’t show up for a hearing, the landlord has a right to put your stuff out on the street.”

Common Ground Collective is working in tandem with No Heat on an anti-eviction campaign. As a result of the recent lawsuit, landlords have to send eviction notices to the last registered addresses of the tenants and FEMA has to give the City of New Orleans a list of tenants to be evicted.

Several prison activists went to New Orleans to monitor and report on the prison system and to monitor police activities. Aaron and Genca visited the House of Detention, a holding jail, and saw MPs patrolling with assault rifles. The activists were not allowed to enter the courtroom.

They were able, however, to pass out 50-100 legal rights handbooks. Aaron shared instances of frivolous arrests of people in New Orleans. “Mostly for things that sound like slave code violations, like double-parking,” he said.

One organizer, Jimmy, was arrested for double-parking while trying to off-load supplies. “They were always arresting Black people for nothing,” he continued. Another was arrested for littering on Halloween night.

“The state of the prison isn’t fit for anyone to be in there. They just threw a bunch of bleach on the mold. There is no running water. The toilets are overflowing. They’re arresting people and putting them in jail, where they are getting sick. People are in a state where they need trauma relief, as well as getting back into their homes,” Genca added.

Aaron added, “I also heard several stories about how fines have dramatically increased since before Katrina. They were saying that since the city was nearly broke, they needed to increase fines.” For example, a fine that was $50 before Katrina shot up to $250.

“Only one public defender is back. He is recommending that people plead guilty and pay the fines, so you don’t have to spend the night in Parish Prison.”

Aaron then told the story of two Mexican-Americans and their father who left Texas to do demolition work in Plaquemines Parish. Anyone who lives in Louisiana knows that Plaquemines Parish was legendary as a bastion of racism, as exhibited by the late Parish President Leander Perez.

They two workers were called “wetbacks” by the parish’s police, and one family member was arrested and charged with being an illegal alien, even though he was American born. Bail was set at $10,000 and the trial for February 2006.

“When the family brought the money for bail, they were given a series of clearly racist things as excuses for holding their brother in jail. For example, they said the INS had a hold on his record, he had a fake ID etc.,” Aaron said.

They sent the family to Orleans Parish to the INS, which said there was no hold on this person, and they were sent back to Plaquemines. While there, a Plaquemines clerk gave them the INS phone number for work permits for their brother, who was born in the U.S.

“They were given 30 different phone numbers. That was a totally racist system being used. Another person held with him is still in jail. There have been 1,200 arrests since the hurricane. The ACLU is collecting stories like that to mount a legal challenge in court.”

Aaron also says, “If people want to go back, this is the time. Both the white conservatives and the white liberals are going in to do their thing,” he continued, “but no one is listing to Black people. And the other community organizations and clinics are not trying to help out.”

Lisa Milos went to New Orleans to work with Common Ground also. She’s interested in establishing a nationwide effort similar to Freedom Summer in the 1960s, when young people took a leadership role in the civil rights movement.

“I would like to see young people in the grassroots go down and rebuild and shame the government into redirecting the money away from Blackwater Security and Halliburton,” she explained.

Milos spoke of incidents of wage disparities that she witnessed. “One woman, a Bobcat operator, was offered $10 per hour one week, when others were being paid $15 an hour. Blacks and Latinos were making $10-$12 per hour.

“Then there is this incredible Guatemalan, whose employer asked him to pay $1,000 in rent to share a spare room. They are trying not to hire residents, especially if they are Black or Latino,” Milos said of major contractors in New Orleans.

“I’m just an uneducated forklift operator,” another participant said. “But I went down to help when I heard Malik call for help on the radio. He said, ‘You don’t have to have a college degree.’

“They need bodies there to do the work. If you can push a broom, please go down and help.”

“We gutted 30 houses, but there is 93 miles of destruction. We’re building a new solidarity movement like in the ‘60s. It’s a historic slap in the face of Black and poor people that the government has turned its back on them.

“We want our solidarity to transform institutions, to transform the way society runs, the way we live. Common Ground is calling for another convergence in January, but people are welcome any time,” Natasha Dedrick said.

The Common Ground Collective needs your help. For more information on the “Roadtrip for Relief,” call Brandon Darby, Ninth Ward coordinator, at (512) 912-8000. To contribute to the Common Ground Collective’s Rebuilding New Orleans Campaign, send your tax-deductible contribution to Common Ground Collective, c/o Community Futures Collective, 221 Idora Ave., Vallejo, CA 94591. Community Futures Collective is a 501(c)(3), EIN 72-1584619.

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