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O2 Dispatches From New Orleans

heyya friends and family! the o2 collective and southern oregon gulf coast relief network are in New Orleans. we arrived only a few days ago, but already it feels like weeks. some of our crew has been writing reflections and observations about our time here in this devastated city. below you will find them pasted in chronological order, different voices bringing you a glimpse of what we are seeing and experiencing in this place. there will be many more updates to come. we hope you can share what we are experiencing with all your friends and family. the world needs to understand what is happening down here. you can also find photos taken by our crew on our website. www.o2collective.org
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Oxygen Collective Arrives in New Orleans

After a long trek across the country, covering 2600 miles in three days, the Oxygen Collective bus finally arrived in New Orleans on Wednesday. We made our way to the Common Ground Media Center, where we connected with our dear friend Kerul who has been hard at work here for over 2 months. From there, we took a short tour of the heavily damaged 9th Ward. It is hard to describe what we are witnessing. After more than 3 months since the storms hit, it is shocking to see the state of this neighborhood. Trash and debris are piled everywhere. There is no electricity on most streets. With residents discouraged from returning home by military blockades, curfews, and the perception that everything is destroyed, It feels a ghost town.

We made our way to our home for now, at the Common Ground Collective 9th Ward Community Center. This space is one of many operated by Common Ground across New Orleans. Less than 2 weeks ago, the Community Center was a flood damaged church center filled with black mold. Now it is an ever evolving Community Center housing and feeded the volunteers who have come to New Orleans to help out.

Soon after we settled in, we immeidately plugged into ongoing efforts to transform this space into a functioning Community Center. Projects included building a bike corral, setting up a tarp structure to store tools and safety gear, sweeping and piling the endless mounds of trash on the block, and preping food for dinner.

On our first full day in New Orleans, members of our crew have been busy working gutting houses in the lower 9th Ward. This work involves removing all flood damaged property and ripping down mold covered walls in an attempt to save the structure from being a total loss. This is a first step towards the return of residents to these neighborhoods and building a resistance to the blatant land grab of corrupt New Orleans business interests.

The work of Common Ground is crucial to the just recovery of New Orleans. As we deepen our involvement in the various projects underway here, we will post further updates relaying the stories of our experiences. Please stay tuned.

Thank you so much to all of you who supported our efforts to get here and to all who hosted us along the way.

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New Orleans Dispatch #2

hello all-

I feel a pressing need to communicate something of the experience I am having here, even as I know I can only capture a glimpse of what it is to be here. I want to say something you have not heard, to offer some deep insight into the complexity of the situation here, but I don't even know where to begin.

I am in a surreal and deeply inspiring hell- New Orleans is a post apocalyptic wonderland where utter devastation is everywhere and all relationships of culture, race, society and politics are richly counter-intuitive, nuanced and have gone from backward before to upsidedown now. I am floored. No account of what is occurring here can be given without a brief review of the stunning reality on the ground. The scale and scope of the destruction is really not possible to grasp if you have not driven the streets here. There are over a hundred thousand cars that will never drive again that have yet to be moved- they are in all manner of disarray- on curbs, upside down, in front lawns and perhaps most eerily- parked right where they were left when their drivers suddenly fled more than 3 months ago. There are currently 1.3 million households from the Gulf Coast still residing elsewhere. Bodies are still found every day. Vast areas sit festering, powerlines strewn across streets, trees sliced right through houses, two story homes crushed to the height of their front door. Tens of thousands of homes are filled with rotting furniture, warped floors and swollen drywall.

Our bus and van arrived with 22 people at the brand new Common Ground Community Center just opened in the Upper 9th Ward district of New Orleans. We parked the bus behind a locked gate and set to helping establish this church complex as a housing, feeding and staging center for the growing network of CG volunteers arriving and leaving daily from all over the country. The organizing phenomenon that is the Common Ground Collective is an incredible sight to see. Common Ground was born the week following the hurricane, by a group of courageous locals and their regional activist allies who initially armed themselves to defend black neighborhoods from roving white vigilantes who were shooting at young black men. Out of that warzone atmosphere has grown an organic crisis response team that has diversified and grown extremely quickly into a sophisticated organization with over a half dozen semi-permanent locations and 30-some programs ranging from health care clinics, distribution centers, a pirate radio station, legal advocacy teams, and now house gutting crews.

I have spent the last two days working with one of these crews on a house in the Lower 9th Ward. We've been working on the home of a 77 year old woman named Mable who has lived in her neighborhood all of her life, and in this house for 25 years. We are working in a crew of a half dozen folks, outfitted in Tyvek suits, industrial respirators, boot covers, work gloves etc- removing furniture and appliances, pulling down drywall, and piling it all in a trash heap in the street out front. Yesterday we finished gutting her entire house, and today we returned to spray a bleach solution on everything that remains and scrub it with brushes to kill the ubiquitous black mold. Black mold and bleach. Nasty and toxic. But the satisfaction comes in realizing that the house is structurally sound, and she will be able to return, if the government allows her. She is healthy, articulate and a prominent community figure. She has begun to give speeches to the community praising Common Ground and has offered us the use of her house for a year.

The overt and entrenched racism of local, state and federal government is outrageous, maddening and impossible to overstate. There are literally neighborhoods side by side with the same level of damage and the white ones are being cleaned, power is back and they are being given trailers to live in on their lot while they rebuild. Next door, literally, in the black areas it looks like it did the day the water receded- no lights, no clean up, no people. There is a systematic effort to rid this city of its majority black residents- and the extraordinarily blatant manner the government is able to get away with it on a daily basis is bitterly heinous. They are working to pass a law to make it illegal to gut houses or help residents repair their homes in areas the city deems condemned and will use imminent domain to give pennies on the dollar to homeowners and forcibly give title of their property to developers. Everything is in upheaval and in addition to the weight of futility in the face of the massive scale of damage is the nervous uncertainty that hangs over the future of this city. Competing models of recovery are articulating themselves as they accelerate towards a possible head on collision that could be very, very ugly. Is it a national model of neighbor helping neighbor, local groups funded and empowered to respond to the needs and wishes of residents? Or is it a top-down, corporate profit driven decree imposed on an already suffering and oppressed people through economic apartheid and brutal state violence? Both visions are actively evolving and I choose not to be a pessimist even if the signs are not good.

Adding absurdity to insanity is the juxtaposition of areas like the French Quarter and Downtown to the outlying areas. Businesses and restaurants in these areas are largely open and a crew of us have been partying in smoky bars in the french quarters each night since we've been here. I am sleep deprived, contaminated inside and out and a little strung out- but there is a real way in which it is all quite normal feeling. There is an electricity in the air- like we have been waiting for this, like it is just the beginning. Bill McKibben said of the situation, in the context of global warming, that "New Orleans does not look like the America we know- but it looks very much like the world we will inhabit for the rest of our lives". . . I am afraid he is spot-on. As 9-11 was a watershed moment in global history, signaling a permanent change in our relationship to our government and the direction of our collective future, so too is this the end and the start of an era of historical proportions. What happens here relates to our national identity, to the possibility of healing the deep wounds of racism and class inequality in our lives, and to the role of the federal government in empowering or oppressing its citizens.

I have seen countless convoys of military police, police officers from LA, New York and else where, corporate mercenaries on contract from Blackwater and on and on and on, but I have yet to see a single FEMA official in the city of New Orleans. Halliburton is being paid $3000 a house on a no bid contract to put tarps on leaky roofs, while the homeless and destitute owners and residents of those homes are shunned. . . I could go on like that for a long while, telling tales that outrage and frustrate, but depression and anger are not what I want to convey- because truly that is not the way it feels to be here. This city is vibrant, and its people are amazing. Our daily interactions are poignant and intimate- there is a raw humanity on display here that is heartening and affirming. I am tearing up right now just thinking of the passionate people I have met since I've been here- it inspires the desire to drop everything else and stay indefinitely- which many have done.

This is only the beginning- I am just barely starting to wrap my comprehension around the dynamics of this strange and unique place- a place that feels viscerally familiar and completely foreign all at once, all the time. It is oddly comfortable and intensely challenging to be here. Stay tuned and i will try to write more soon. Tomorrow is a rally and march for the Right to Return movement and then I think we will go south to Houma for a day or two. . . .huge love to y'all. . . . . .solidarity,,,,,Laurel

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Power and Tragedy: New Orleans Dispatch #3

I just wrote yesterday but each day here feels like a week of life experience. Today we joined with the People's Hurricane Relief Network, Common Ground and a number of black power groups for a march on City Hall- or what's left of it anyway. We gathered first in Congo Square- a park with ancient live oaks who were already mature trees when slavery was in effect here and this was the only place in the city where slaves were allowed to gather freely and play their drums. Today, a rocking drum circle like none I've ever seen accompanied a vibrant consortium of black leaders as they gave stirring speeches to a crowd that reached thousands by the time we took the streets towards City Hall.

The march was in support of the Right to Return of the scattered residents of new Orleans, who are overwhelmingly poor and black and who are soon to be kicked out of the temporary housing FEMA has thus far provided. It is clear that were this California destroyed by an earthquake, or New York by another 9-11, there would be no protracted debate about whether or not to rebuild, it would just be done and it would be done quickly with massive federal aid. The cost of a day of war in Iraq would be enough to retrofit all New Orleans levees to withstand a category 5 storm. The people of this richly historic city are rightfully outraged and today they raised strong and eloquent voice to their demands for equality.

Whatever role marches actually play in the success of resistance movements, one undeniable truth is that there is nothing quite like the feeling of claiming the streets of a major city with a full brass band and a flood of people carrying banners and signs chanting in unison. It is enough to make you believe for an extended, suspended moment that we cannot be stopped- that the force of our collective will is greater than all the institutions and arms they have to try and keep us down. Then the march ends and the stark reality creeps back in.

Today that come-down came as an abrupt punch in the stomach to us all. There has been another biodiesel bus down here with a crew of volunteers from Maine. On their way back from Mississippi today the bus flipped on the interstate and the driver was killed. The impact of this tragedy is sending shockwaves through our whole extended network here.

On top of this, our good friend Sprig, who rode on the bus from Oregon to Tucson, was hit by a train last night. She is out of the hospital and is going to be OK, but she lost her memory and has no idea what happened and how and she has potentially serious head and neck injuries. On top of that, a major federal investigation into acts of eco-sabotage resulted in a national sting operation yesterday and has ensnared folks in our community back home. This is deeply unsettling and creates an atmosphere of general anxiety and bleakness.

This place crystallizes one's awareness into a riveted sense of presence, but it also numbs the senses into a surreal soup- like you are in a dream or watching a movie. If it is not perverse to admit it, there is an addictive quality to the atmosphere of constant crisis and need. It offers strong purpose and meaning- I for once can relate to the descriptions of soldiers returning from war who actually want to return to duty because they feel ill suited for daily life and out of synch with the world back home.

There is a magnetism to the gravity of what is taking place here.

Alright, that's enough for now- thank you for all your responses- it feels good to be able to share this journey as we go- rather than try to encapsulate it later in a few minutes of surface conversation with a hundred different people weeks from now.

love like the tides and rage like a river in from the sea,,,Laurel

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Re: O2 Dispatches From New Orleans

Its really messed up when a government takes away property from the rightful owner and gives it to a 3rd party. I don't agree with the marching though, it really doesnt do any good and it is time spent that could be better used to help the community.
 

O2 NOLA Common Ground: Dispatch #4

O2 NOLA Common Ground: Dispatch #4
rogueimc.org/en/2005/12/5710.shtml

PAINTING THE PICTURE - -- - OF OUR DAILY SITUATION

Hello all,

Life here continues to be a fast paced, high stress, whirlwind of an adventure- every day full of intense moments, endlesss tragedy, dark beauty, deep inspiration and late nights in the Crescent City. From a distance, hearing of the depth of destruction here, I could not help but wonder if the rich cultural tapestry of New Orleans was gone forever. It is not.

Certainly, New Orleans will never be the same, but the raw, lurking spirit of this place is alive and vibrant. It is a place of shadows and apparitions, where shades of meaning complicate efforts to really feel that you understand the true nature and sultry soul of this swamp-magic civilization. It is difficult for me to distinguish between what is inherent in this place and what is an after effect of the storm, but there is a sense that life is laid bare here, that the ugly and exquisite nature of humanity is on display in a way it is not in other places. I've seen street fights and bar brawls almost nightly, and also felt the very real embrace of the famous Southern hospitality. People here are warm and sweet and watch out for each other in a neighborly way that is unusual for a city this size. It is bizaare to feel so protected and at the same time always be looking over your shoulder.

It is the essense of the Deep South mixed with the rough edge of the Wild West. It is the northernmost island of the Carribbean with a flavor of old Europe that is at the same time undeniably American. It is perhaps the only city in America where voodoo is practiced widely- and the only city where the trumpet is a folk instrument. It is raucous and raunchy, elegant and elusive.

Spent another few days gutting flooded houses this week. It is nasty, sweaty, heavy duty work. Every house in New Orleans has a spray painted X on the front of it somewhere- with four sqaures indicating what agency assessed it, what date it was visited, how many, if any, bodies were found inside and other notes like "cat under house" etc. The neighborhood we worked in yesterday had the X's painted on the rooves because they were visited by boats when the water was two stories high. Many rooves have holes punched in them from the inside- put there to bring fresh air and sunlight to the people trapped in their attics for days after the flood.

The work is brutal and tedious, but the progress a small group of hard workers can make in a day is impressive. We ripped out the sheetrock, trim and soggy insulation- with our friend Usnea swinging from the rafters knocking the ceiling down from above- while the rest of us wielded sledge hammers and crow bars and shoveled the debris out to the curb. I regret not having a camera while on these crews- each street and each house is full of dozens of poignant images. A rusty chandelier hanging in the center of an empty room. A musty attic full of bedding, bullet shells and stale bread where a family was forced to live for days before being rescued. A tractor trailer truck passing by filled with dozens of flattened cars dragging a transformer down the street behind it at the end of a snagged powerline. Moldy marriage certificates and ancient cloth wallpaper hidden in walls from an era ago. Mardi Gras beads in every other shovel scoop.

I want to say that these homes just need to be fixed up and will be livable again- but I truly don't know if its true. Some are in better shape than others, but they are severely thrashed and between rot, mold and termites, I wonder if the residents of these neighborhoods can ever afford to rebuild. Without massive government assistance, I doubt it. I cannot pretend to predict what the future of this city will hold- there are too many forces at play and factors involved for me to guess-but I do feel confident saying that there are major, potentially explosive conflicts coming.

There are also major openings for innovative, visionary solutions and the seeds of those projects are already well under way. The Common Ground Collective, some of the churches and other community organizations seem like the nitrogen fixing plants returning to a hillside after a landslide has wiped the old life away. We are innoculating this place in a sense, making it habitable for the next wave of residents to return. There lives a real possibility that New Orleans will become a proving ground where social justice and sustainability can merge into a model of major relevance to us all. People are being pulled here from all over the country, and within the seething chaos of it all is an electrified sense that something big is birthing here- a movement congealing from disparate directions- an invention of necessity that is addressing universal issues rapidly becoming pandemic across our planet. Out of the greatest darkness comes the greatest light. Perhaps New Orleans will soon sow the seeds of our salvation just as it is now shining a spotlight on the open wounds of our broken, suicidal society.

Meanwhile, the police here are the worst kind of thugs. Our crew has daily interactions with them that range from general harassment to serious abuse. Night before last they detained a friend of ours at the community garden space following a memorial service for another member of our collective killed in a bus accident here. They detained him for no valid reason- claiming he was illegally in an 'unoccupied area' - a term with no legal meaning. There is still a selectively enforced curfew in place for most of the city- and we disobey it nightly- but this incident was early in the evening before it sets in. They put him up against the hood of their car and kicked him in the groin from behind. When others present raised their voices, they were detained and handcuffed as well, until 8 people were being held. They pointed the red spot of loaded, laser guided guns to the heads of many of the grieving people present, including our friend Josh who is 13 years old.

These are volunteer relief workers gathered at a community garden for a memorial service for their friend! And this is what they do to white people! It is a police state- with humvees patrolling the streets with lights flashing nightly, and war jets and army helicoptors in the sky daily. This is all of course a shadow of what it was like just a few weeks ago, when military checkpoints were set up all over the place and the national guard was in town. Ironically, the national guard played a significant role in protecting activists and residents from the worst of the abuses by local police forces. It really begs the question- what are they so afraid of? Us? Race riots? Our protection certainly does not seem to be high among their priorities.

Lastnight we stayed past closing at Cafe Brasil on the edge of the Quarter after a night of hard dancing with a freaky crowd of hobo-neotribal-vaudeville revelers. I love this place like i have loved no other- not more necessarily- but definitely it sits in my heart like no other.

The last picture I want to paint before signing off is of the general absurdity and oddity of our daily situation. We are a group of mostly white progressives with no religious leanings gathered together from every corner of the USA at a church complex in the 9th Ward of New Orleans, a neighborhood that was until a few months ago upwards of 95% black. It is all very strange, and the spectrum of juxtapositions created regularly is enough to keep everyone a little off balance and endlessly amused. We are forming tight friendships quickly and within it all are really having a hell of a good time here. Tears make laughter come more easily.

Please feel free to spread these dispatches as you see fit- or to edit and copy/paste them together for republishing if you want.

Love like the tides and rage like a storm in from the sea. . .Laurel
 

New Orleans Dispatch #5

Hello again-

This is Laurel writing from the Oxygen Collective's last day in New Orleans- and it is very difficult to be leaving. Relationships evolve at an accelerated pace in this environment, and we have made many close friends and longtime allies in our short time here. Besides that, we have become integrated already into organizing roles in the collective here- and it is clear our presence will be missed. The upside is that a number of our crew are staying behind to continue their work here, and most others are already planning to come back for longer stints over the next few months. Meanwhile, we have some exciting thoughts for the future of O2 involvement in New Orleans and plan to arrange multiple presentations and benefit events up and down the west coast on our return. Stay tuned.
Some of us attended a Town Council meeting with Mayor Nagin- a surreal event in the Ballroom of the Sheraton downtown. Walking in the posh hotel is a bizarre shift from the world we have become accustomed to here- it was an odd surprise to see poinsettas and a Christmas tree for the first time this season- we became suddenly aware of the almost total absence of any sign of Christmas this year in the Big Easy. The mayor was surrounded by the city council and a phalanx of dozens of network TV cameras. He gave a broad speech covering many aspects of the recovery effort- from debris collection to utility service. The big feather in his cap is the handshake he received from Bush earlier this week promising $3.1 billion in federal funds for levee fortification. Perhaps this ends the debate of whether the city will be rebuilt and shifts it to the more appropriate question of HOW it will be rebuilt, and by whom.

The exciting part came afterward when a long line of citizens were allowed to address the mayor with comments and questions. There is a glaring discrepency between the mayors rosy optimism and the hardcore reality of life on the ground for the suffering residents of New Orleans right now. Mardi Gras is a point of heavy contention- with many residents and community leaders expressing that it is a slap in the face for the city to throw a party when hundreds of thousands of New Orleans natives don't even have homes to return to. They feel it sends the wrong message to the rest of the country that New Orleans is OK and open for business- and moreso, displays an insulting set of misplaced priorities on the part of the City. Local refugees said they are being told by downtown hotels that they will be kicked out of their temporary shelter to make room for tourists. On the other hand, the Zulu Krew- Mardi Gras' largest black contingent- voted unanimously to participate. Mayor Nagin is a slick politician and a puppet of many nefarious forces, but he is also a little too easy of a scapegoat for someone in such an impossibly difficult position.

The situation here is extraordinarily complex, convoluted and confounding. It is also rapidly evolving every day. It is easy to come in from the outside and form strong opinions too quickly about issues you may not fully understand. At the same time, there are blatant injustices that are clear for anyone of conscience to see that need to be challenged forcefully and immediately. Our avenue to this labyrinthine calamity has primarily been through the amazing work of the Common Ground Collective, but there are a myriad of groups and organizations here doing good work in their own ways. We are assembling a sort of alternative resource guide for grassroots volunteers and donors that will help navigate this ad hoc movement to find what fits their interests best. Again, stay tuned.

One incredible aspect to this growing movement is how broad based and even apolitical it is. Though racism, politicking and sectarian infighting are rampant, at its core this is not a partisan issue, an issue of religious denominations or even a race issue. It is a human issue of fundamental importance and it is breaking down boundaries to bring disparate groups together like no movement I have known. Military families support the rainbow kitchen. Baptist churches are housing pagan anarchist relief workers. Environmental activists are working long days spraying bleach and piling trash in the streets. Organized labor is coming to the aid of disenfranchised communities of color. Truckers stop by our biodiesel bus to say thank you for what we are doing.

This is the nature of crisis- neighbors set aside differences to help neighbors and we are forced to realize we are all in this together. No person of conscience, regardless of their persuasion, can be blind to the greater magnitude of what is happening in New Orleans right now. It is ugly- so ugly it makes us uncomfortable to look at by forcing us to confront what people in our midst are capable of doing to one another. At the same time, the movement building there holds a promise of implementing elusive goals of systemic change that so many of us are hungry for.

Everything I have written so far just scratches the surface of one person's perspective from the outside after just 10 days down here. I encourage everyone to pay attention to this situation as it develops and realize this is not a regional issue to the South, or a one time disaster that will fade in relevance as time passes. This is an ongoing event of primary importance that will ripple through our future as a watershed moment in history. One way or another, what happens here will help shape the future of our world. How it does so is up to us. Seek out other sources, keep an eye out for our presentations in January and consider sending donations or making a trip there for as much time as you can spare.
www.commongroundrelief.org
www.o2collective.org

Love and Rage, Laurel
 

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