With the Volunteers in New Orleans
Working Together While Debating Big Questions
Revolution #041, April 2, 2006, posted at revcom.us
Over the month of March, thousands of college student have been going to New Orleans for their spring break. They have come as volunteers to do work the government has proved, time and time again, it is unwilling to do. A big part of the work they are doing is gutting and cleaning houses in devastated areas hit by Hurricane Katrina so they can be rebuilt. Volunteers are also working with the community to meet people’s basic needs, like distributing food and other social services. Many different groups and collectives have called for and are organizing the volunteers.
A crew of us have come down to New Orleans to learn about what is happening, to pick up a shovel and do some work ourselves— and to connect the Party and its Chairman with the people. We have only been down here for two days so far— but it feels like weeks. Here is a bite of what we've learned and seen so far.
When we arrived we hooked up with the Common Ground Collective, one of the first volunteer groups in New Orleans after Katrina to provide assistance to hard hit residents. Common Ground organizers say they have already organized some 2,500 volunteers this month. The founder of Common Ground, Malik Rahim, testified at the first Bush Crimes Commission in New York last October about the ethnic cleansing taking place in New Orleans, particularly in the predominantly poor Black areas of the 9th Ward.
Common Ground Collective has been organizing many different projects, and a big part of their effort is saving houses ruined by flood waters so residents can rebuild and move back in. This is very contentious because there is real resistance by the government to allow people to move back in to certain areas.
On our first morning in New Orleans, Darell, a resident of the 9th Ward who has been working with Common Ground, took us on a tour. We drove to the lower 9th Ward, one of the worst hit areas of the flood. The lower 9th Ward community is east of the the larger area known as the 9th Ward. It is separated by the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, a body of water contained by the levees which broke down.
As we drove over the bridge from to the lower 9th Ward, we got an elevated view of the devastation that stretches for blocks and blocks. Darell told us that as bad as it looks with houses smashed up, it had been far worse. As we got closer we saw how many of the houses have been completely destroyed, smashed and torn to pieces. I was surprised, however, to see how many of the houses still held their basic structure. Inside, the houses are a mess— mud caked on the floors and walls which are often rotting and filled with mildew. Most intense is that in the midst of all this are the remnants of people’s destroyed possessions.
Most of the houses in the lower 9th were owned by residents, with many of the houses passed down from generation to generation. It is heavy to think about this in the context of the whole history of the oppression of Black people, the history of the South and slavery— and what it must have meant for previous generations to buy this land and build homes on it.
The lower 9th was a disaster area and the wost hit from the hurricane and flood. Darell told us that just after the flood waters ripped through submerging the 9th Ward, houses were physically thrown into the streets. Imagine a neighborhood being put in a washing machine— cars sitting on houses, appliances in random places strewn across streets. In fact, many refrigerators were in the streets because people used them to float on in the flood.
As we talked with Darell we learned some very deep things about exactly what happened here and what is continuing to happen. Driving around, it is striking that government workers like FEMA aren't the ones out full force, cleaning and fixing things up. What you see is groups of volunteers, in protective tyvek suits, respirators, and goggles cleaning up the houses. I asked Darell, "Where is the government?" and he said they just ain't here, that if it wasn't for the volunteers nothing would be happening. I asked him what he thought of the volunteers and after reflecting a while he said it meant a lot. As Darell talked, I could feel the deep-seated anger and frustration at how the people, and Black residents in particular, have been treated, the failure of the government to meet the basic needs of the people, and the continued and conscious neglect.
Darell said, "You've been here a day or two. You can see how many government workers you have seen around here. There is a church across the street from Common Ground, River of Hope, you know they volunteer. That's all you see is volunteers. You don't see not a government worker besides the New Orleans police riding around harassing people. You don't see a city or government worker coming through here. If it hadn't been for the volunteers, New Orleans would still be trash right now."
In talking about the volunteers Darell said, "It lifts my spirits. I can't take nothing away from them. I'm glad of them. We've had all kinds of kids come here from D.C., Chicago, folks are getting on the Internet and learning about Common Ground. They're hearing about it, just flying here and driving here at their own expense." Darell said he used to be "more out for myself." But meeting the volunteers has changed some of his thinking. Darell said, "I'm not going to go by anyone's house and do this here for nothing—that's the way I figured at first, 'I ain't gonna work on no house and not get paid.' Them kids are coming here and working hard and giving 100 percent."
I remarked on the second of the three lessons issued by the RCP just after Katrina about the people coming together in spite of the government and what this shows about the potential for the future (see"On Hurricane Katrina: Three Fundamental Lessons" in Revolution #14, September 18, 2005). Darell picked up on this right away, nodding in the affirmative. He told me about a guy he had met, a white youth who was a plumber, who had come as a volunteer. He said "I talked to one guy, he said he never came up around Blacks. And now he was starting to understand that the things that he was taught are different [than how things are], different than what his ancestors had taught him." Darell said this had also changed him, seeing that people could change like this—a white guy who was really learning about Black people for the first time.
I asked Darell what he had taken away from this whole experience with Katrina. He quickly responded "I don't trust the government, I never really believed in politics any how. But I know one thing, that sure means you can't trust them."
In the evening we made our way over to St. Mary's of the Angels school, which is housing hundreds of volunteers. St. Mary's is a school is run by Father Bart in the 9th Ward. He kept the three-story building open during the storm and the top floors served as a refuge for people. It has been turned into a center where volunteers eat, sleep, get trained, and get their gear to work on cleaning out houses. Students are here from all over the country. When we arrived the place was bustling with activity. Volunteers preparing dinner, playing music, some resting from a long day of work, others meeting or talking.
We met a crew from Mills College, a liberal all women’s college in Oakland, California. The school had donated close to seven thousand dollars to fly 19 students to New Orleans. I spoke with Alex, Heidi, and Amanda, who had already been in New Orleans for almost a week. They had been gutting houses in the 9th Ward, among other things. Heidi said, "I thought it was interesting to see all of us come together. I witnessed my peers bringing out couches and refrigerators...and working as a team." I asked about the the government not being around and Amanda said, "The Government is here but they don't have a huge presence. The other day we just saw OSHA (Occupation Safety and Health Administration) when we were walking to the women’s center, and we see FEMA coming around occasionally although they just kicked out, what, 8,000 people from hotels. So they're here, but the huge presence here now is volunteers and political activists taking care of stuff and trying to open up schools and help these people retain their houses. The government just wants to bulldoze houses and get rid of everything." The Mills students also talked about the experience of being together with so many other volunteers. Alex said, "There are so many people from all over the country, it’s almost unifying to see that we have the same desire to help volunteer to do what it is that we are doing... It's nice to see that people from all over the country want to help out other people."
We distributed tons of copies of Revolution, including the special issue on Hurricane Katrina. This served as a good discussion piece to talk about the failure of this system to provide for the basic needs of the people, and at the same time the tremendous potential shown by people helping each other. A number of volunteers wanted to know what communism was all about. We got out copies of the DVD sampler of Bob Avakian's talk, Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About and dug into these deep questions. During one discussion a young woman who had read some Marx said she had trouble seeing how the society he is talking about is possible. I thought to myself about Lenin's point on communism springing from every pore in society. Here were all these people, making sacrifices, working together while debating big questions. Learning of the anger and frustration from the people of New Orleans and getting a firsthand look at just how deep national oppression and racism goes. I said to her, well what about what is going on right here? Doesn't this give you a sense that something else is possible? She agreed and said that it had actually been making her think a lot about what was possible.
We talked to a group of Black students from New York who had organized 20 students to come down. Gwenamo came from New Jersey and told us she had been planning on going to the Bahamas for spring break but instead decided to go to New Orleans. She said, "The house we gutted today was in the lower 9th Ward and it was completely destroyed. We got there and it looked like it was impossible to get the amount of work done that we did today and we got it done by working together. We talked to the homeowners and heard their stories and hearing that they had hope, and that they are coming back here and how much they care about the city really inspires you and makes you want to change things. Really makes you feel for them." When I asked her about Bush, she said, "It's not coincidence that the majority of the people, 73% of the people in New Orleans are African American, it's not coincidence at all and it makes me really angry to think about that. That a president who is sitting in a mansion can sleep comfortably at night knowing that there are people here that are suffering that have lost their homes. It's disturbing. It doesn't make any sense whatsoever. That's the country we live in, the land of the free and the home of the brave, that's what it is."
The next day, we woke up at 7 a.m., chowed down and suited up in our tyvek protective suits. Our work crew got picked up by Omar a resident of New Orleans. He took us out to Pontchartrain Park, a neighborhood built by working class Black people after WW2. About nine of us loaded up in his truck with shovels, rakes, and crowbars tucked in and a big red wheel barrow. Omar's house had also been hit and he was in New Orleans for five days after the flood. He had been helping his neighbors fix up as many houses as he could in his neighborhood and save their property. "My time has been spent in my neighborhood. We've gutted probably about 30 houses and cleaned up about 100 back yards." I asked him what the goal is of the gutting and cleaning of the houses. He said, "I think it’s neighborhood specific. In my neighborhood they are not knocking down houses. I live in the 7th Ward, a middle class Black community. Blue collar workers built the houses that we live in. At this point their grandchildren are living in those houses. We are gutting our houses out so we can move back home." I asked him about what is going to happen to people's property. He said "I think that's the question. Nobody's clear about what is going to happen to those people's property. There is a lot of proposals, but there is no plans. So that is what people are concerned and up in arms about. There is no direction. And they have no idea what happens next."
I asked Omar about his thoughts on all the volunteers coming down and the fact that it was the people and not the government who was putting in all this work. He said, "I'm not shocked. That's the way it always happens. People make the difference, the government don't. My experience is that change doesn't happen because the government decides change is gonna happen. The people decide that things need to be different and that's when change takes effect. So I'm not surprised. But for the volunteers we need them. We need as many folks as we can to come down here and get this place together."
At the end of the day we were pretty exhausted from gutting a house. What was becoming clear through the different conversations is that a major battle is shaping up over the right of the people to return to their homes and whether people will be allowed to rebuild. Many areas still have no electricity or regular garbage pickup, and the word is that they might not open those areas back up. Trailers are peppered throughout the 9th Ward in front of the damaged homes. The government has given people trailers while they rebuild, but little else. And many have yet to receive trailers, which are loaned out for only 18 months, starting the day after the Hurricane. This means that the residents who are getting the trailers six and ten months after the hurricane now only have them for a short time.
Many things happening here in New Orleans remind me of the point Lenin made that "communism springs from every pore in society." Barriers being broken down among people from different nationalities and classes. People learning from each other, about what each other’s lives are like. There is a lot of transformation going on down here—and many shoots and seeds of what could be.
While we were working with Omar, gutting one house, I chatted with the woman who owned the house next door, Predina Jordan, a 47-year resident of New Orleans. She and her son had gutted and cleaned her house, which she had owned for 15 years. She had been waiting for over six months for a trailer from FEMA to live in and begin rebuilding. I asked her if she had met any of the volunteers and she said, "Some (of the volunteers) passed by and they were very nice. They held a conversation just like you are doing and asking stuff. So I just invited them to dinner, some red beans and rice and some fried chicken. So they came over, it was about eight of them. We put on five pounds of beans and I told them we are going to have to do it again. If not red beans then white beans, something like that. So I was like why don't we just bring the beans to the place where ya'll are staying at—so everybody would get some."