Thoughts on New Orleans
Seeds of a Radically Different Future
Revolution #043, April 16, 2006, posted at revcom.us
Images of New Orleans keep going through my mind. Back in New Orleans outside the convention center, talking to a resident who spent five days in the Superdome. I remember his contradictory brown eyes, red around the edges, tired but so awake. And his blue and white sports jersey in the blazing sun. He told me about five days in the Superdome with nothing to eat but a can of sardines. The smell of the dead bodies piling up in the heat. He said it takes months to get this smell off your own skin, no matter how many times you shower.
Living in the 9th Ward of New Orleans at the Common Ground volunteer center for five days was profoundly different than anything I've known. Third world conditions. War zone like destruction. Blocks and blocks of homes in ruins. From the 9th ward to upscale homes, the French Quarter to the projects. Everything is at a standstill. The government isn't doing anything and each attempt to rebuild becomes a battle. Churches and schools are threatened to be closed down or demolished. In the meantime, hurricane season approaches and the fate of an entire city is suspended. It’s difficult to conceive of the scale of a hurricane. I tried to picture water rushing down the streets and schools flooded to the second floor, with children on the roof. But I can't capture this fully in my mind.
Six months after Katrina, the living conditions are damp and dusty. Broken toilets, no drinking water, the smell of mold when the wind blows a certain way, no technology, no coffee shops, no TV or newspapers, no grocery stores or takeout food. Destruction repeated like telephone poles on a freeway. Desperate messages and phone numbers spray painted on houses. “Call Ray- 214-555-3456.” “I'll be back.” Emptiness. People's belongings strewn everywhere and in black muddy moldy heaps on the streets. Mixed with concrete and sticks, broken and no longer what it once was. Then every so often a piece of flowered china or a book—whole, dry, and intact.
It all became kind of “normal.” But when I got home the magnitude of it hit me. Walking to my car with a grande coffee in each hand I thought about so many people in the wreckage of the hurricane and in the wreckage of so many places in this capitalist world – of people who cannot go home. It wasn't a guilty feeling. I know that I'm no different from them and they from me. I did not feel bitter. I felt propelled. Revolution is on the tip of my tongue every hour. I want to tell anyone I meet that we can know the world to change it.
There's many faces and voices I got to know in New Orleans. The people we lived and worked with for barely a week. Living this way, you make ties. 300 people in an elementary school and a tent city in the parking lot across the street. University students, organizations, wanderers and free spirits, anarchists, revolutionary communists, church groups, workers and city dwellers. How many of these youth knew places like the 9th Ward existed before they came to New Orleans?
Some people I only walked past or sat next to on the steps of the school in the quiet of the night, locked arms with in song at the vigil to save St. Augustine's church, or passed a plate to at dinner.
I met a Christian woman who reminds me of Glenda the good witch. She runs a bed and breakfast in upstate New York. So she was a key figure in feeding hundreds of people and getting them to do their own dishes. All with no running hot water.
One night she told me tall tales of angels visiting her, and the power of healing with prayer. She also told a true tale of volunteering at a shelter in Houston, Texas after the hurricane. An outspoken Black woman demanded her attention for something. She walked up to her and put both hands on her cheeks and looked her in the eyes with a smile and said “What do you need?” “How can I help you?” The Black woman burst into tears. This was the first time a white person had ever touched her.
We had a discussion. All of this only works, she said gesturing to the collective around us, “because people want to do this, you couldn't just force people to come down here and do it, it wouldn't work...”
To this I said, I think “all this” does work because people are taking conscious initiative, but I also think, in a certain situation you could “force” people to do something like this, there is a role for coercion. She looked at me seriously, then I brought up the example of the movie Remember the Titans and the role of coercion in desegregation. Her eyes lit up. She said she had attended a high school where this happened. She looked past me at a thought in the distance and replied. “Yes, yes, I can see how that could happen. But you need someone who's going to stand up for something firmly, a leader, and you need a commonality. They had obstacles, but they were playing football, they wanted to win, they came together. You need a commonality.”
Volunteers came from all over the country and some from other parts of the world. I met a young man from Israel who just finished three years of mandatory duty in the army, he came to the U.S. specifically to volunteer in New Orleans for a month. We compared notes about our intolerably criminal governments. He told me about his life in Israel and his indecision in choosing a college major. I told him the story of how I became a Revolutionary Communist. He gave me all the songs on his ipod. He told me when he saw the movie Crash he literally didn't believe it. He thought racism did not exist any longer in the U.S. Then he lived in Maryland in a very backward area and saw that it was still part of the fabric of the culture. And now after seeing New Orleans he said he could see that it is “alive and kicking.”
At the morning meeting I announced that I had Revolution newspapers available. The woman sitting next to me asked to look at the copy in my hand. “Where did you get this?” she asked. I worked with her later and we got a chance to talk. She was a Michigan State alumni, who lives in Connecticut with her husband who's a hockey player. She came down to New Orleans on her own, to help out. She has a degree in education and wants to work for a non-profit organization. “I can't handle the corporate world,” she said.
There's many people who I shoveled debris with, carried rotten doors and piled up the soggy, brightly colored remains of classroom supplies. Looking like something from a science fiction film, in biohazard suits and respirators, our eyes met in the dusty air as we worked.
About 60 volunteers cleared out Martin Luther King elementary school the first day we were there. About 20 of us pulled up the broken floor tiles. While we waited in the long lunch line, I talked about the history of communism, the achievements of socialist China, advances made in science and medicine, and how to look at the mistakes that were made. I was talking with an inquisitive student from San Diego in a red bandanna. He said his father lived in Laos.
In the afternoon sun I joined a young woman on a swingset amidst overgrown grass on the playground. For a while we kicked our legs and looked up to the clouds in silence. At only 18 she was part of a traveling collective opening a women's center in New Orleans. The collective was all Christians, who she said, considered themselves progressive, and did not like Bush. She was excited to get Revolution, and took an extra copy for her brother.
In the evening before dinner, I played basketball in the gym with a group of guys. We talked about the day’s work. It was so ordinary, we didn't notice there were wooden planks and plastic tarp where the floor used to be and we played in the dark for 15 minutes until the lights came on at night. The smell of garlic wafted over from the eight people chopping for over an hour, preparing dinner on the cafeteria side of the gym.
At night I sat on the steps and played the DVD of a talk by Bob Avakian called “Revolution: Why It's Necessary, Why It's Possible, What It's All About.” A group of five students from San Diego watched it with me. They had very upfront questions. They specifically asked what a communist country would do about genocide in Africa? I gave the best answer I could, explaining the contradictions a socialist society would be dealing with, and the need for a proletarian internationalist view.
My last night in New Orleans I drove my basketball buddies and some others to the candlelight vigil outside St. Augustine's Church, a tall white church in the French Quarter with stained glass. Children leaned out its open windows, elbow to elbow, to watch Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, congregation members, people who came to help clean up New Orleans and others. Clapping and gyrating, throwing their hands in the air, moving with the sounds of a New Orleans brass band at the center of the crowd. St. Augustine's was the first church in the south to allow free Blacks and slaves to worship alongside white people. This was a place rich with history, being threatened and attacked. The Archdiocese was seizing the opportunity of the hurricane to force out this congregation. But people are fed up, and they aren't in the mood to accept their lives and communities being further destroyed. They are in the mood to fight, and to persevere.
A woman about my age stood at the edge of the crowd, slightly moving to the music. She held a purple candle that occasionally twinkled in her eyes. She had earrings with little moons, a blue shirt and a flowery skirt. We talked for a long time. She travels all around the country, living out of her truck. She had spent five months in New Orleans volunteering with the church. This was her last night. I asked her how she felt. She was quiet and then replied, “saturated.”
I sold her a Revolution newspaper and we talked about how to make revolution in this country and about how this society is lacking in everything from relief aid to giving food to the soul. She asked how we could have a revolution when people like her parents see the need for change but aren't willing to make sacrifices in their life and won't take the risk of coming into the streets. She thought we should just do all the good that we can as individuals, build ties in communities, and then multiply that out.
There is an aspect of this I thought was true. I broke down to her how I saw it, drawing on Avakian's piece “Reform or Revolution.” There in New Orleans was the seeds of a radically different future, which cannot truly come to fruition without a revolution and a radically different kind of state power. Imagine a state that would mobilize the tens of thousands of people who were angered and saddened by the hurricane and want to help. Instead of a state that murders, represses, and neglects people when disaster hits. Imagine a state that unleashes people to meet the basic needs of society without exploitation and oppression. Imagine people coming together and creating a spirit and a culture around that. Not unlike the way in which the people have managed to apply their creativity and cultivate an atmosphere down here, around struggling to rebuild the city, and help the masses of people who have been affected.
We stood at the edge of the rally in the street light, talking in soft tones, listening intently. She looked at me for a minute, and we stood there together for another minute. We exchanged e-mails, and she thanked me for talking and walked back into the crowd. She didn't respond right away to what I said, agreeing or disagreeing. I think she really listened, and I think she will think about it. I know I will think about her, moving from place to place, pouring her heart into contributing to society, helping people in the way she sees makes sense.
On the first afternoon I was working in New Orleans, I helped a teacher at Martin Luther King elementary school clean out her classroom on the second floor, which wasn't water damaged. I carried crates of books to her car with her. Each time up and down the stairs inside the school, we passed the large carcass of a dead fish in the dried mud hardened on the stairs.
“Alice,” she said, “I like that name. I make dolls, and the first one I ever made, I named her Alice, I always liked that name. Then I went through and made one for each letter of the alphabet.”
Dolls and hurricanes. Something so small and so innocent, and something so immense and destructive. Named in alphabetical order.
She was a 3rd grade teacher. She talked about her students. She heard a shriek one day from a car on the road. The little girl had yelped in excitement when she spotted her teacher that she hadn't seen in months. They held up traffic to embrace. She had 20 students in her class. “A good size,” she said “ten boys and ten girls, I just hope they're doing alright.” By now I was holding back tears.
How many people walk down the sidewalk, drive in their cars, go to work, buy groceries and cook dinner with images of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath hovering in their minds, impacting the tone of their voice, the pace of their step. How many carry such scars of war and devastation in Afghanistan and Iraq? We hardly know the meaning of the impact. And what about the high school youth standing in the sea of hundreds of thousands of people at an immigrants' rights rally, with memories of crossing the border. With his fist in the air, full of kinetic energy, his eyes squint in the sun, he opens his mouth and his voice pours freely through the streets.