"Solidarity, Not Charity" - Revolution in the Ninth Ward
by Beth Moore
April 7, 2006
You can still see a lot of stars on a clear night in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. You can see very little else without headlights and flashlights and generators.
Parking is often between piles of debris on the narrow, crumbling streets in front of empty, damaged homes. Once-flooded cars now coated with silt, often gutted and stripped, line the streets, and these cars became my landmarks as I learned my way around the neighborhood. Street signs were scarce and often misleading. You remembered which way Katrina blew in, and then assumed the street you were on was perpendicular to the street sign's claim.
There is light across the Mississippi River, and safe drinking water, and elegance, and opulence, and pristine and gracious neighborhoods. There is beauty and life and comfort, on that side of the river.
But in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, there is the revolution, and there is hope. In the abandoned ruins, amid the irrevocable losses and lives washed away in the storm and floods, the people are taking action -- direct and positive action for their own survival, and for their neighbors and community. Sisters and brothers from all over the country, from universities, churches, and other organizations, and many who simply read of the need and came on their own are joining them.
THE SECOND FREEDOM RIDES
Before the waters began to recede following Hurricane Katrina, Malik Rahim and others got to work organizing and working to rebuild the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, forming the Common Ground Collective.
In the Ninth Ward, two breaches of the levee occurred, and in the lower Ninth
Ward, a barge left the Mississippi River and plowed into an entire neighborhood.
In this part of the city, bodies are still being found, and there is no power,
no potable water, no streetlights, and no schools.
Largely lower-income working people, and largely African-American, this part of New Orleans suffered first from the storm, and then from the floods when the levee breached. Many of its citizens were unable to leave the city, and too many were simply abandoned, dead and dying, in the devastation. Now again, the people in this neighborhood, who worked and who paid taxes to the city for services, for civil order and protection, for schools for their children, for which they received but threadbare returns in the first place, are seeing their community abandoned once more.
The people there are taking action themselves. That is the revolution I saw when I signed up to volunteer with the Common Ground Collective, and discovered for myself in the midst of the Second Freedom Rides.
The Common Ground Collective issued a call to college students all over the country to come to an alternate Spring Break in New Orleans. Instead of going to the beach and getting drunk and worrying the hell out of their parents, they could come to a disaster zone and work in solidarity with their sisters and brothers there, in ty-vek suits, rubber boots, and respirator masks. And worry the hell out of their parents.
The response was overwhelming. On the evening I arrived, I walked into the volunteer registration on Pauline Street, and there were hundreds of young men and women from universities all over the country.
After an orientation in which we heard a little about what we'd be doing, why, and about safety and so forth, we went over to Saint Mary of the Angels School, where bunk beds and air mattresses and sleeping bags filled three stories of classrooms. One common restroom was inside, and the showers were outside, fed by a tank on the roof, and looked like they'd been lifted from the set of M.A.S.H. Across the streets were a large tent with more bunk beds, and individual tents and port-a-potties.
Over the next few days, I visited with many of the students who'd come to do on spring break what so many people I know thought I was nuts to want to do on my vacation. They were all young enough to be my children, and I could only think, "YES! There IS a future!" Intelligent, wise, funny, delightful to visit with, and so many of them were really a little nervous about this whole thing, but all of them were moved by compassion and identification with the people struck by this disaster. They all seemed possessed of such a love and humility in the face of people's determination to rebuild their lives that they had to come and stand and work with them.
They also know exactly why this community has been abandoned and neglected, and that it is a result of a systemic capitalist pathology of greed, discrimination, and callousness in this country.
RECLAIMING THEIR NEIGHBORHOOD - THE RIGHT OF RETURN
The debate across the country among those who have followed the Battle for New Orleans over the past six months is about whether the Ninth Ward should be rebuilt, and developers and the real estate industry are already rubbing their hands together over such an affordable way to get some land to turn into a Creole theme park surrounded by gentrified neighborhoods and a "new demographic."
The picture with which I was presented over and over when I discussed New Orleans with anyone before I went there was of neighborhoods blighted by projects and welfare dependency. Some even said the evacuees were better off now. Some said that area of New Orleans needed to be "cleaned out."
That is not what I saw. What I saw was a community, and a close one, that had roots going back for generations in some cases. Many elderly people, it seemed, had lived there for decades, and so many had been without a way to get out.
Those who did are now rootless, or have had to resume their lives with scarcely any evidence that they existed before August 29, 2005.
Many want to come back. Many want to move into their houses and occupy them so that they can't be claimed as abandoned and bulldozed for developers and real estate companies. They have now, after being abandoned for endless days after the storm and flood, been exiled, and even disenfranchised.
The attitude I often picked up in discussions about New Orleans and the Ninth Ward, before I left, was one of a fairly callous social Darwinism - an approval of society favoring "the survival of the fittest," reinforced by competitive, zero-sum capitalism. But even if one accepts that kind of reptilian social system, it does not make empirical sense as a present reality. For by what definition of fitness is George W. Bush, for instance, the most powerful man in this empire?
No, I think it is deeper than that, this rationalization, this turning away. The interest I have encountered since returning has been a combination of hope that things are, indeed, improving and being handled, and an underlying sick knowledge of what the fate of this city, particularly the Ninth Ward, means to all of us.
We are all U.S. citizens who are also quite likely, at least here on the Gulf Coast, to be endangered or wiped out by a natural disaster that this government is neither inclined nor prepared to use our tax dollars to do what we pay them for - to enforce the common safety and welfare of all of us. If the response to the tragedy of New Orleans has taught us anything, it is that our government has committed so many of its resources to imperialist military actions and occupations that there is nothing left for ensuring theactual security of its own citizens.
SOLIDARITY: WHAT DO THE PEOPLE WANT?
In the casual speculation about whether the Ninth Ward should be rebuilt, a key question goes unaddressed. What do the people want?
In the Ninth Ward, they want their homes back. They want their communities, their neighbors, and their friends. They want their lives back. They want their dead accounted for and buried, which in the name of common decency and even minimal responsibility and compassion, should have been attended to months ago, and would have been, in a truly civilized country.
The question is not whether the Ninth Ward should be rebuilt. It will be, and the present agenda of the developers and real estate agents claiming a "demographic change" in the neighborhood have a strong interest in keeping the original residents from resettling there.
The "right of return," then, is the right that people in this community are claiming, and with the help of volunteers and of the Common Ground Collective, they are taking action to do so.
The cleaning and repair of homes and public facilities like schools in the Ninth Ward is critical to the return and rebuilding effort. Many residents have gutted and cleaned and begun their own repairs, but resources are scarce, as is money to pay for the heavy work of gutting that many are unable to do.
On a couple of days, I went with a man who assessed homes for structural integrity and safety before the gutting and cleaning crews went in. The first house we found was split in half, and nowhere near where it was supposed to be. We walked through downed power lines and over broken glass and debris into what had been a cul-de-sac.
As I stood in a patch of pavement in the center of all these homes, slammed and washed and pitched together and split and crushed, I wondered about the people who had all been neighbors here. Had they heard from one another? Did they miss each other? Did some of their children ask about the other adults who perhaps had looked after them, and did those adults still worry themselves sick over their neighbors' children?
I could see, in split-apart rooms amid silt and debris, things that might have been in peoples' families for generations, or that represented some irreplaceable moment in their lives. And now how they can only remember them, but never see them again.
A FAILED STATE
The Ninth Ward of New Orleans is the most gut-twisting evidence that the United States is itself a "failed state. Everyone knows of the government's incredibly negligent response to the desperate and deadly plight of the citizens of one of its major cities after Hurricane Katrina. The big debate in the media, in fact, is which toady or crony or low-level bureaucrat will lose face over what is truly criminal and homicidal negligence.
Six months after the storm, and there was still no power in the Ninth Ward. The building in which I stayed depended upon a generator, and there were no streetlights in much of the area. Six months, and the water was not drinkable.
Worse, far worse, is the fact that, after more than six months now, a serious search for the bodies of those people reported missing has not been resumed, having been interrupted by a lack of funding, or red tape, or some such unthinkable excuse for leaving a city's dead to rot into oblivion.
What kind of country is this, that six months after this hurricane and these floods, the dead still lie unnamed in these crushed and ruined houses, now become sepulchers, along the levees?
TAKING BACK THEIR SCHOOLS - CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE
Six months, and until this month, there was no plan to clean, repair, or open the schools. Even with power and water, and even if the rubble and ruins are cleared away, residents cannot return if there are no schools for their children.
On Thursday, March 16, a few hundred residents of the Ninth Ward who want their school back joined nearly one hundred volunteers in suits and respirators who illegally entered, or "trespassed" at Martin Luther King Elementary School in order to begin gutting and cleaning it. Although massive arrests were expected, the police backed off and allowed the clean-up to proceed.
On Friday, police did stop workers, but a hearing was held and they were allowed to continue.
The people of the Ninth have won this round, and with every home, every building that is cleaned and repaired and occupied, they stand a better chance of reclaiming and rebuilding their community.
In taking direct action, "trespassing" on the school in order to make it fit to open for their children once more, in the unity among residents and the hundreds of volunteers who joined them in this and in the work in their neighborhoods, the revolution is alive in New Orleans.
In a recent episode of a popular TV show, a character gave a moving and challenging speech in which he expressed astonishment and dismay that the American people do not "rise up." In New Orleans, in the Ninth Ward, the people are rising up. The rest of us are now beginning to see that we, too, have no other choice anymore.
How we can do it is the question. So long as our protests are in the venues our ruling class approves, and we pay for our permits, and we adhere to their time and space constraints -- so long as we only protest in order that they might point to us and say, "Yes, we have free speech," we are spinning our wheels.
So long as we patiently wait for elections, in which we can chose between dueling oligarchs, and in which our votes can be manipulated by machines provided by the largest contributor to the party in power, we are not taking action. So long as we're willing to choose the lesser of evils, rather than fighting for the greater good, we are not governing ourselves. So long as we hope, and cooperate, and work within a rotten and failed system, our lives and liberties will rot and fail along with it.
In New Orleans, the people have stopped being patient with false choices. They have stopped trusting in politicians who represent only themselves and their contributors. They have chosen the common good, and they have bypassed the system that failed them in order to reclaim their lives through direct and positive action.
They have chosen to be the revolution. How long will it take us to join them?
Beth Moore is lives on the Texas Gulf Coast with her two children. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org <mailto:email@example.com>
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