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News :: Poverty & Urban Development

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.

Love and Rage, Laurel

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