Saturday, May 26, 2007

Recap May 20, 2007

We have guests today—Walidah Imarisha, who made the film, and Suncere Ali Shakur, an organizer of the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans. They showed a documentary about Hurricane Katrina and aftermath—parts of the story not reported in the mainstream news. Discussion followed. The footage for the film was shot about 3 weeks after Katrina.

See the Common Ground Collective at Michael Moore gave them a small boat and their first $25,000 to keep them going. See the left side of their web page, for the link “How You Can Help.”

The Video is entitled Finding Common Ground in New Orleans. We see scenes of the organization, their operation, and some of the barriers they faced. Government didn’t offer any resources. The City was not organized at all. White vigilantes were allowed to roam around armed in their pickup trucks. Another group, Soul Patrol, got 1,000 people to higher ground during the flood. The water rose quickly, from nothing to six feet deep in half an hour.

Through the mainstream media we saw tales of demonizing lawless young men. There was a story of 120 buses sitting still as the flood started. But, the people in the video saw the young men getting the buses to get people out, a story of the rescue effort organized on the spot.

“Angola South” is an Amtrak station being used by the city as a prison. Most people incarcerated, an official said, were there for curfew violations. One guy who just went down there to work was picked up for curfew violation, and en masse detainees were offered to exchange a guilty plea for getting out instantly with forty hours of community service.

Several scenes showed the extent of damage, the neighborhoods where the Common Ground folks were the first on the scene—after a month—and the pattern was stark. A Native American neighborhood, and the poor black sections of town, were hit hard and relief was slow. Giant trees ripped up, a cemetery where vaults were shifted and caskets floated away, neighborhoods without floodgates, black mold growing up to the high water mark.

Walidah and Suncere fielded questions and helped with the discussion. Both have been active in organizing, organizing for feeding people, helping prisoners and their families. They reported talking with people who had stories of the levies being destroyed on purpose, to relieve the pressure on the Garden District and other richer areas. The widely believed stories are reminiscent of historical accounts of government admitting having blown up levies in 1927. In 1965 and during Katrina the stories of this happening again emerged, and they are widely believed in New Orleans. Walidah put it in the context of astonishing neglect, racism and classism that people have known about for a long time.

The way the conversations about New Orleans are usually framed is as a natural disaster, one of those things that is just too big to deal with. Nonsense—this was a man-made disaster that was allowed to happen, poor work and long-time neglect on the part of those responsible for the infrastructure in the city, for organizing the emergency response, and so on. So it does not get framed as a case of criminal neglect. (Readers might remember that the GAO and others have issued reports on the state of the levies, for years Congress was aware of the problems.)

Different police officers told Walidah different stories about when curfew was—remember most of those people were in jail for curfew violations. Some were in there for speeding tickets. So the misdemeanors that normally get a ticket were being used to clear the streets, to clean up the jail and other government facilities (instead of hiring and paying a living wage to people do this work). One defense attorney, one prosecutor, one judge…. One of our members called it slave labor.

Some Conversation members recalled a strong sense, at the time, that there were some people who were wanted in the town, and some people that were not wanted in the town. This was not something public debate at the time could confront directly. Still isn’t.

One thing that emerged strongly for Suncere was that race and class were at the center of this. The reports just after Katrina of gold and Louisiana real estate investments soaring, of contracts that made lots of money for some folks, formed a stark picture of some people paying big costs of this, and some people making gobs of money.

Walidah gave this as another example of the way the issue is framed in the media. Casting this as a natural disaster, as God’s will, as something no one can do anything about, is a way of denying any of this is going on. What were the themes that got into the media—the tales of rapes at the Superdome, the black men as animals stories, the shooting on the bridge, the depiction of people as doing nothing besides waiting for someone to come help them…. One of the reasons for doing this film was to also show the story of the people who were organizing and taking care of business. Did anyone see a story of people in the dome breaking into stores and bringing food back so the old folks and the babies could make it?

A question about those vigilantes in the pickup trucks. Suncere told us what he saw. These guys were driving around the neighborhood, and the police were called but did nothing about it. Some blocks were barricaded by fallen trees. Whites with guns were accepted. Black men with guns was not similarly accepted. The guys in the trucks had lots of ammunition, streetsweeper style shotguns. He saw people who were shot. A race war almost broke out, and the vigilantes were blocking people in the Algiers neighborhood from getting out to the relief sites. When one older woman was confronted by the armed white men, some guys Suncere knew about broke into a pawn shop and got some guns. And the next day the National Guard showed up. Each Suncere and Walidah saw examples of white guys with guns being welcomed into the city by the police.

We talked about disaster planning, in Tacoma and in general. Essentially, we start with the idea that you are on your own if something bad happens. The wisdom of building a city below sea level is one part of it; but there was a city there, the people at the lowest elevations are generally poor people of color. The discussions of policy, and sustainability, take place in a context.

One member of the Conversation, who was in New Orleans training folks in cleanup techniques, saw the Common Ground work, the building they organized from. He was there for as much as 18 months, and toward the end he felt he had to get out of the city in part because it was becoming too dangerous for African American males, people getting snatched on the street, tossed in jail, threatened with guns.

Some additional media sources on the topic: Food Water Revolution is a short documentary that ties the Katrina situation with the war in Iraq. Big Easy to Big Empty; the Greg Palast interview on the topic with Amy Goodman; Spike Lee’s documentary on New Orleans; Tracey James Slave Revolt Radio pieces on the New Orleans situation.

Many of us have seen news stories over the last year and a half, and it is difficult to sort out what really happened. There have been, for a long time, stories on the issues about water levels and storm surges and wetlands and government budgets that do not cover the needs.

If people are interested in a report on the Blackwater mercenaries in New Orleans, by the person who recently published a good book on the subject, see

There was a story of one parish in New Orleans that was being closed by Archbishop Hughes (yes, that Archbishop Hughes, from Boston). A demonstration at the church was reported as an armed takeover by black panther types, instead of a community-based protest to the Archdiocese. The local folks got the church to stay open, by the way.

Some recent reports on post traumatic stress disorder in New Orleans, and on the way residents and others who have been there have been affected, have recently been published. Some of the stories today showed that the people there doing the work paid a price. It is hard work that needs support. Information on contact points to support the efforts are on the website of Common Ground, at See the link on the web page, on the left, “How You Can Help.”

Dexter helped summarize the session today, with three ideas.

The fatigue of a disaster area, the physical and emotional effects on the people, is difficult to conceive of for people who have not been there. Once you go into a disaster zone, everything changes. Life becomes about survival, and people get through on adrenaline. People need to be rotated out of disaster areas. Many of the people we have talked about live in the zone, and do not get to rotate out of it.

A founder of Common Ground showed in the film that the organizing skills, the know-how to get things going, is valuable work that is unrecognized by the overall system. No government support, active resistance, the works. The fortitude to do that work is there. And the knowledgeable people who build those skills, and train others to do it, are doing very valuable work.

As today’s discussion showed, a central piece of change is that information has to get out there. And the mainstream media are not going to get it to you. The people like Walidah and Suncere who take it on the road, who share these stories, are an essential part of this change. So we need to find ways to make use of the media to keep people alive and have a future.

Note: May 22, 7:00 pm. Martha Nussbaum is speaking here, at Evergreen.

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