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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
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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