It takes a spark to start a prairie fire: Desperation, Racism and the beginnings of Common
All stories have beginnings - and a story of Common Ground Relief begins with the theme we all are part of, but may not want to think about - life and death. However, before this became visible, while the waters still flowed, I was first faced with survival. Not only my own, but that of people I knew and loved - and of the thousands I have never met - who lived in the Gulf Coast region in the fall of 2005.
Authors note: This story is an excerpt to a larger manuscript on Common Ground Relief that I am in the slow process of working on that will include stories and analysis from many organizers on the ground in New Orleans .
It also leads to another piece I co-authored with two other Common Ground organizers, Sue Hildebrandt and Lisa Fithian, that picks up the CG beginnings where this story ends and covers the analysis and work behind CG more deeply.
It will be released in the forthcoming book:
"What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation"
by South End Press in February of 2006.
from the concrete jungle in the gulf coast basin
scott crow 2006
It takes a spark to start a prairie fire:
Desperation, Racism and the beginnings of Common Ground Relief
"...within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not - I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior."
"I think what motivates people is not great hate, but great love for other people".
This is dedicated to all who lost their lives, communities as well as social fabric to the long slow history of disasters of neglect and abandonment in this country. And to the all who came to New Orleans to stand up for justice, change and support of these communities in the face of repression, indifference and bureaucracy.
Where we came from
All stories have beginnings - and a story of Common Ground Relief begins with the theme we all are part of, but may not want to think about - life and death. However, before this became visible, while the waters still flowed, I was first faced with survival. Not only my own, but that of people I knew and loved - and of the thousands I have never met - who lived in the Gulf Coast region in the fall of 2005.
We had many friends between Louisiana and Texas thanks to our work with the National Committee to Free the Angola 3 (1). As we worked to help these men unjustly incarcerated in the Louisiana prison system, we developed relationships in New Orleans and indeed, throughout the world. Our personal ties from Texas to New Orleans run very deep.
One of the Angola 3, former Black Panther Robert King Wilkerson, known to us as King, was exonerated by the state in 2001 for wrongful conviction and released from Angola Prison after being held for 32 long years - 29 of those years in solitary confinement. After his release he moved back to New Orleans, and traveled often to speak on behalf of the Angola 3 as well as other U.S. political prisoners, refusing to let them become forgotten in the memories of those on the outside.
So, in late summer on the Gulf Coast, people were carrying on with their lives as usual, but a storm emerged - and with its after-effects - left everyone and everything in the Gulf Coast region changed forever.
When Katrina came ashore in Louisiana and Mississippi, Angola 3 committee members Marina Drummer (in California), Brandon Darby and Ann Harkness (in Texas), stayed in contact with King throughout the duration of the storm. In the last call anyone received from him, King said that he was all right; he and his dog Kenya had successfully ridden it out. But then, three hours later the levees broke, New Orleans flooded and martial law was declared (8).
Suddenly, King and many others still in the city were out of communication with the outside world. As observers, we all became increasingly worried as the situation continued to worsen.
As did countless others, we watched the hurricane and the aftermath unfold from the sensationalized media accounts with disbelief. In Texas where we were waiting, mild fear set in.
Immediately Ann began searching all over the country trying to find any information on King or any of our other friends in the city, even questioning recent evacuees. However, we could find out nothing - and Monday evening Brandon proposed that he and I leave for New Orleans and try to find King, while also aiding others who were trapped there.
For a moment, this seemed like a far-fetched idea, but then the plan evolved further. Our decision was being shaped by a few factors; some purely personal and others political. Most important was that King is family to us; we had to know if he was OK.
Finally, some word began to come in that most of our people (those we had stayed in contact with) were out of NOLA. Meanwhile, the uncertainty about King began gnawing at us more deeply. As a Black Panther, he had dedicated his life to the struggle for social justice inside and outside prison walls, from which many of our movements benefit today. King is a part of the fabric of these movements for justice, as well as being our personal friend and mentor.
In addition, as community organizers who care about people in other communities, we decided that it was our duty and responsibility to aid these people. Those in New Orleans who are oppressed under everyday circumstances now had total devastation added to their burden.
Importantly, we had access to resources that could help. My political principles have been built on the concept of mutual aid - that is, to support each other through the sharing of resources, whatever they may be, to make everyone's life better. It was the time to once again put these beliefs into action.
The hard-pressed levees had given way on Monday afternoon, and we started on Tuesday with Brandon's call to the Red Cross informing them that we had a boat. They responded with "Come on now!" The Red Cross would serve as our way to get into NOLA.
So, we gathered our supplies and Brandon appropriated a boat on Wednesday. As survival gear we took gas, water, food, etc. We also took a pistol, for during times of civil unrest people under duress can do desperate things. For us, the pistol was last-resort protection against the unknown.
But amidst all this preparation I hesitated - and I withdrew - for a myriad of reasons. It was all happening so fast, there were so many unknowns, there was a low chance of achieving our objectives, and both Brandon and I lacked experience. I had never done disaster work in my life; and I don't consider myself to be a heroic type of person, just someone who's motivated to do the right thing. This was really big - what was about to happen? There were so many immeasurable factors; how would this play out? After thinking and talking for awhile, and with much pain - and some shame - I decided not to go.
Brandon was saddened and also afraid, but with determination he took off by himself - which I found admirable. After he left I continued to ruminate over what was happening to the whole region, and I couldn't put it out of my head.
About an hour after Brandon was gone I called him back, and told him I was back in. I just had to know about King; I couldn't sit and do nothing. I could hear the relief in his voice when I phoned him I was coming. Brandon waited for me in Houston, and we took off from there to the unknown, quite conscious that we would take the steps that followed collectively.
The highways heading east toward the disaster were virtually abandoned. We didn't even see law enforcement vehicles in our travels across Texas or Louisiana, which is very unusual. As summer dusk gave way to night, flashing warning signs began to appear on the roadside every fifty miles or so. They flickered with ominous messages about New Orleans which seemed like forewarnings of what was to come. They appeared to say that all that enter are doomed - turn back while you can. Ours was one of the few vehicles ignoring the messages as we headed into the unknown.
We drove until we arrived at the makeshift Red Cross/FEMA office on the far edge of Baton Rogue at 4:00 in the morning just before dawn. We were stunned to learn that two hours before we arrived the authorities had turned away 280 people ready to go in with their own boats, simply because they couldn't figure out what to do with them.
There were literally thousands of people stranded on porches, rooftops, and some were trying to swim to safety. Rescue officials were entirely disorganized and disoriented.
People from all over the south who wanted to help in search & rescue, to do something - anything - were turned away for no other reason than the ineffectiveness of giant bureaucratic agencies and their stupid turf wars over who was going to control the situation on the ground.
We waited there a little longer, until daybreak, watching FEMA and the Red Cross argue over who had "jurisdiction" on search & rescue, while people were literally dying for help a few miles away. The situation broke down even more ridiculously, to disputes between city, county, state and federal agencies with too many names to remember. It played out like a sad tragi-comedy against time, which was running out.
While we knew generally where King was in the city, we didn't know how we were going to reach him because we weren't officially sanctioned by anyone "in control" to go in. We just had our boat, supplies, and the determination to find him. So, we left to go in on our own.
We had discovered that no one could get in from the west of the city, due to the government efforts which were focused on that side. They had choked the only access point to the city down to Highway I-10, which disappeared into the floodwaters just at the city's edge.
This fact led us to choose the northeastern route via IH-12 above NOLA down into St. Bernard Parish. This seemed like the only way to get to the east side of the city so that we could find a place to either drive in on the back roads, or put our boat in the water. As we passed the bridge known as the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway which enters from the north into the city, we found it was blocked as a result of flooding, and also quite possibly had missing sections caused by storm surge damage.
Who could imagine this?
As we got closer, we weren't prepared for the terrible things we saw. The massive devastation went on and on, for miles and miles. Any televised reports were incapable of showing the true picture. Roadways and bridges were gone; mud was 30 feet high from storm surges; electrical lines were laying everywhere sparking furiously. The east side was closer to ground zero of the storm, so it had been hit harder. The few people that were there were standing on the side of the road crying, just fully crying.
It was unimaginable - cars thrown into buildings, whole housing subdivisions completely leveled to splintered, scattered wood ruins with nothing identifiable left. It was as if a monstrous force had flung thousands of matchsticks across the ground for miles - a cliché rendered horribly accurate. Trash, which had previously been the useful contents of these structures, was strewn across the cluttered landscape. Natural gas, with its unmistakable smell and hissing noise, leaked out of massive broken, open pipes - near the live electric lines in many places. As we drove we saw many empty, destroyed storefronts; some were standing underwater and were recognizable, yet they were no longer the same.
Besides a very few citizens and some emergency crews, we were about the only other people in the area. Most had evacuated out days ago if they were able. Death, fear and despair were in the air of what was left. Despite the animated pops of the power lines and the constant sounds of escaping gas, the atmosphere was still and quite eerie. It seemed like the end of the world; it was apocalyptic.
In the midst of this devastation, Brandon stopped the truck and we both began to weep. I stopped thinking - we had tried to put our heads around it but it was overwhelming. We both just sat and cried deeply. It was all we could do.
We then began to help the few locals with small tasks like finding people, moving boats which had been stranded on the roadways, giving out water, and moving debris. It wasn't much, but it was a start. We also began to search for intact roadways to get into the city proper.
As we worked, and while exploring many blocked or destroyed roads which became dead ends, we listened to the one radio station (4) that was broadcasting. It was our only source of news, though most of the information we got just came from the people we came across. I imagined that communication worked this way in pre-industrial societies, where news came from those who passed through the village from other places.
We tried to take into account that rumor, conjecture, speculation and fear were running rampant. Assimilating the information we got was difficult and became increasingly more so as the days progressed.
When the first rumors circulated about gunfights between armed rescuers (5) and stranded people, we had no way to confirm or disprove the events. Who could we trust? Even the law enforcement personnel we met didn't have any better access to information than we did, and were reporting sketchy hearsay as facts. They were scared and confused, too. Our internal balance was beginning to shift as we continued to search for a way into the city.
Storms in the open waters
On what was left of a road, with cars, boats and debris scattered all over it, we found two men, a father and his grown son, who agreed to guide us by boat into East New Orleans where they owned a warehouse they were trying to reach. Before we launched, we had to carry the boats and supplies to the water on multiple round-trips of about 75 yards each, through choking mud up to our knees, with large houseboats beached and toppled all around us.
Finally, we were ready. The father-and-son had their own boat, and Brandon and myself - despite having little boat experience between us - set out in a 15-foot flat-bottom skiff (called a john-boat) into the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico, and right into an oncoming storm. The storm exploded with lighting, thunder and wind, drumming up 6-foot swells which violently rocked our little boat, which was overloaded with supplies.
The john-boat is made for quiet, flat conditions, not for the open sea. We almost flipped numerous times as lighting struck the water near us too close for comfort - and we were scared for our lives. My senses had been heightened before, and now they were on overload. The storm became so bad that our guides turned away from the direct path to the city and into a canal which led into the flooded Lake Pontchartrain.
As we entered an intricate series of flooded waterways, the damage we saw only got worse as we advanced. We ended up in the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway, a large channel for massive ships and barges, but the only vessels we saw in it were beached on the shores. In effect, our little boats were the only two craft that were coming in - the few scattered others that were moving were all coming out. The departing boats we saw contained only armed, white law enforcement and rescue volunteers - not one evacuee was seen.
The two men we were traveling with had un-official permission from a wildlife department search & rescue contact, which enabled us to pass up-river. As we passed the departing boats on the waterway we would stop to exchange what little information we had. The stories from these other boats worsened; people were being shot at, boats were being taken, and a rescue helicopter had been fired on. In my mind the only reference I could make to it, and I hate to make a movie analogy - but it reminded me of Apocalypse Now.
Remember as they were going up the river it psychologically got darker and more hellish as they went? The farther they traveled into the unknown, the more the social constructs they had known were breaking down. And that's the way it seemed for us, going into this. Everything we thought we knew - our realities - were shifting like the muddy water moving in the currents beneath us. It all kept changing constantly.
As we continued up the canal we saw whole communities in the water, street after street of houses and all their contents, not flooded, but thrown into the water off of their stilts like common trash. Death was everywhere; there were semi-submerged and unidentifiable parts, some from animals, and others we believed to be human. We couldn't bear to look and see it
to closely. We had to maneuver our boats and our souls slowly and carefully through it all.
The last boat that we came into contact with was filled with six guys from Texas. They had just engaged in a firefight with some other men on a bridge who had tried to take their boat. The drawbridge operator had been trapped in his booth for days, waiting for help that wasn't coming. He was panicked when the gun battle had broken out, but the Texans couldn't reach him. Even though we all agreed it was our moral obligation to do something despite the state, these guys kept saying: "It's not worth it ... it's just not worth it," over and over, as they headed back home. And we knew that we would need to go under that same bridge to get past the breached levees into the flooded lower 9th Ward.
But that same day we turned right into a smaller industrial canal on our way to the east New Orleans warehouse. In the distance, thick black smoke billowed from fires in unknown buildings and blew across the canal, while gunfire resounded from various remote locations.
Machinery from nearby factories and refineries creaked and moaned as if they might explode or collapse at any moment from stress and heat. Smoke and haze filled the air, and our lungs as only helicopters creased the misty grey skies. Somehow, cranes and other water birds ignored everything around them and continued to hunt for fish on the shores of the canal.
When we got close to our destination we pulled the boats onto the shore for the night, and camouflaged them with brush and small tree branches cut from the shoreline. If we lost our boats, gasoline or water due to carelessness we would have been cut off in complete isolation.
The storm we had fled earlier reached us once more, and rain continued in a steady downpour on the drowned city and on us. After securing the boats we climbed atop a 15-foot concrete levee wall from which we could see houses and apartment buildings standing in water. It was everywhere. In the distance, there were people stranded across what used to be a highway, which was now submerged. They seemed close, but they were impossible to get to from where we were.
After traveling hundreds of miles we were now actually within reach of those who were cut off from the outside. The city that was known all over the world was transfigured by water everywhere, creating an unfamiliar landscape. We looked for awhile, trying to comprehend the totality of the disaster, then climbed down the other side of the levee and waded through a marsh to a mud-covered road.
We commandeered an abandoned 1970s pick-up truck, loaded it up with the gear and drove to the father and son's warehouse, where we hid from the rapidly increasing armed helicopter presence. Choppers were constantly circling overhead in a bid to restore law & order. We had to regroup and figure out what we were going to do next.
The helicopters that flew close to us were fully-armed machine gun types, or were carrying soldiers with guns. We all kept asking ourselves why were they aiming their guns down on us, instead of dropping lines to rescue the people clearly stranded on the highway nearby?
The choppers circled frequently, rescuing no one at all, until the sun was gone. We secured the perimeter and soon it was pitch black darkness. There were no lights, no reflections - a city with no shadows under a moonless night.
The warehouse was totally deserted. Nobody could get near it without a boat because water surrounded it on all four sides. It had become an island of sorts. There were dead fish everywhere from the water that had recently been ten feet higher than it was now. And of course, there was no electricity; there was nothing but standing water and stench. Beyond belief, in all this breakdown of civilization we found that one lone telephone in an office worked, and that we could communicate with the outside world.
From this phone we received frequent updates about how unsafe the whole situation had become. The failure of the authorities to get people evacuated caused tremendous problems. And at this time they were still dragging their feet in many ways; their ineptitude left people to despair without food, water or hope for what had turned into days.
We tried to sleep with helicopters and gunfire in the distance. Edgy, we took shifts sleeping on the ground in the office of the humid warehouse.
The weather changes inside us
Early the next morning we got a call from the wildlife department contact (6), who said, "Don't go into the city any further." He was quiet for a moment, and then he told us - total strangers on the other end of the phone - that he had been working for that agency for many years and never shot anybody. Then he said "... but yesterday I shot five people in the course of about three hours - I probably killed some of them ... ." He added, "It was the most horrible thing I ever had to do in my life; don't go into the city any further."
He explained that his group would come up in their rescue boats to get women, children or elderly people and that people were so desperate, that young black youth would come up, and they would say, "Take me first." The officers replied, "No, we can't, we're taking women and children first." And then the youth would pull weapons on them. The wildlife contact said, "We just shot them." The rescue boats would come back to a place two or three times, and people would still come up and do this and they would shoot them, and push them out of the way.
He was not going to go back out into it again; he sounded as if he was in shock.
Fear, fatigue and disillusionment had set in for us; this situation was out of control. I couldn't entirely process what we had just heard. It became surreal; we had come on a humanitarian mission that had turned into the beginnings of a possible racial civil war. Remember that almost all law enforcement and rescuers were white men, while the people in distress were mostly low income, black citizens. Were the cops afraid of real or imagined threats? How much did their prejudices play into pulling the triggers? The failure of the government had created space for strife that lead to overt racist words and actions from those that should have been helping others.
Brandon and I knew which side we would be on politically- those that we had come to aid - but the average person would not know our intentions. We had to ask ourselves some serious questions. What if we had to shoot someone in defense of ourselves? Would it be worth it to help our friend King or others? We had risked so much to get this far: were we now going to give up? How much racism playing into this? Was King already safe; or was he dead?
The questions were hard; some we couldn't answer while others I didn't want to answer.
We returned to our hidden boat, loaded it, and continued to ask those questions again and again. The sun was warming the air as helicopters still circled back and forth on missions unknown, passing close down us. The fires, unseen as we sat in our boat, still produced smoke in our landscape.
We sat in the middle of the waterway and killed the engine. We had to make a choice: turn right to go to the bridge and eventually motor into the flooded city, or go left to make the long journey back to where we had started. It would be ours alone to make on the silent moving waters.
With much pain, we decided to leave. It would not be worth it to us if we hurt someone to aid someone else. It would have been one more travesty in this chaotic mess.
The boat trip back, upon which we were about to embark, would take roughly three-and-a-half hours without any "interruptions" - it would not be an easy thing. During this whole situation I noticed that Brandon and I had psychologically turned a corner, where we were ready to shoot somebody in self-defense. This was not an abstract idea, but a truth in our hearts. If a boat came up on us too fast, or if anybody started firing at us, we agreed we would fire back at them. We were ready - the gun was in the hands of one of us the whole time.
Think about that for a minute - this was not a scenario from a book - this was real life unfolding out of control, that's how psychologically fucked-up things were at that time. Fear and the unknown had gripped many, including us. It was an undeclared war on many fronts, between many desperate, confused, and frightened people on all sides struggling for survival or control.
We would have to pass under several bridges (with perceived opportunities for ambush lying overhead) to get back to the open waterway. Tension was high throughout our minds and our bodies as we continued back. Were we leaving our principles and beliefs at the muddy bottom of this flooded city? With doubt we continued on our way.
As we reached the open water that met Lake Ponchatrain we saw what could only be described as a good omen in all this tragedy. In the turbulent waters a family of dolphins approached our boat and then swam off. They reminded me for an instant that there could be hope - that there was a chance for life. For a brief moment they were a bit of comfort
in all the chaos. Unfortunately, as they swam further away so did those thoughts.
When we finally got back to our truck where we had initially launched, we heard on the radio that they had called off all search & rescue boats. The authorities said nobody can come in - nobody. The authorities had called off all the private citizens and their boats and sealed off the city of New Orleans. They were going to restore law & order no matter the cost. This left many, many people still trapped without food, water, shelter or a way out.
Dejected, we headed back to Austin.
Our path home is paved with tears
Leaving the Crescent City we had survivor's guilt, shame and deep sadness. We had left King there, we had left entire communities there. We used all of these resources and all our privilege - and what had we done? We left with nothing. Yes, we had helped some people along the way, but it was demoralizing how ineffective we had been overall.
We realized that we weren't prepared for the hugeness of the situation - and that people were desperate. Help wasn't coming. The little help that was getting there seemed arbitrary and disorganized. The government seemed confused - moving slowly, bureaucratically, and appeared ill-prepared - which, we were to find out later, was entirely accurate.
As we traveled out from the city we witnessed a massive spontaneous evacuation that was happening despite the authorities. In slow motion, cars, trucks and trailers over-full with people and what little belongings they might have had made their way down highways littered with abandoned vehicles, while other masses of people wandered by foot along the roadside, heading for the unknown, but surely away from the danger of the flooded city.
As the civilians fled the disaster, small military convoys were beginning to arrive via these same roads. The armed guards who now appeared were watching over the lines of stranded cars which piled up at closed gas stations along the highway, waiting for gas that might not arrive. My heart kept saying "this can't be happening here" as we drove home.
Our tears would demand more questions of us on the way home. Should we return? But how could we? Before any answers were to come, we arrived at our destination and collapsed from exhaustion.
New winds rise from below
Back home in Austin, resting uneasily, I received a message to call my friend Malik who lived in New Orleans. He said, "Bro we need some support! We've got situations here in Algiers, and we need some support." He continued: "We've got white militias around there that are harassing us, and we've got unstable situations - unstable police situations ... it is very serious ... we need some supplies and support."
Malik Rahim is a serious man with a broad smile. He was a former Black Panther, the defense minister for the New Orleans chapter. His days have been given to making the world a better place since that time. Throughout much of their lives, the histories of the men of the Angola 3 have been intertwined with that Malik. He and King had not only been Panthers together, they had also been childhood friends in Algiers. (9)
After living in Oakland, California for years, Malik was once again living in Algiers. It's one of the oldest neighborhoods in New Orleans, situated across the Mississippi from the French Quarter. Malik too had waited out the storm at his home, and while Katrina left massive damage in her wake it hadn't flooded his neighborhood. Malik had no electricity and no water, but his phone still worked, and when he called we knew it was critical that we move quickly.
In these past days I had been haunted by a story that King told in his autobiography.(7) It was a story about a flood when he was very young. King related that his grandmother had gone to work, leaving the younger children in the care of the older ones. After the rain had stopped his older cousins decided to go out into the flooded streets to explore, and left King alone. He decided to follow them, but the water was too high and he couldn't swim. King almost drowned that day, but was saved by a cousin from being swept away. The descriptions he gave of the water rising and moving seemed now like a painful prophecy. The story circled in my head and wouldn't let go.
Brandon and I determined: "All right - we're going to go back there, we're going deliver supplies and get to King." This was a chance to try again - to find out what had really happened to our friend.
King, with his dog Kenya, had decided to ride out the storm. He had been through hurricanes before, when he had still been free as a young man. Like many along the Gulf Coast, he had seen them come and do predictable but short-lived damage. However, his housemate, Marion Brown, another former Panther, had evacuated to Baton Rouge before Katrina hit.
When Katrina struck the city, the storm had violently shaken their home, but passed without much damage
When the levees gave way the water rose quickly. One foot, three feet - and within a short 20 minutes it was lapping at the top step of King's porch, eight feet higher than it had been only minutes earlier. His basement was completely submerged, and the water had risen so quickly that King and his neighbors who had stayed could not get away from it.
Fortunately King had filled his bathtub and the available containers in his home with clean water, to accompany his stockpiled food. Still, it was a limited amount, enough to last possibly only a few days in the late summer climate.
So King waited - in the sweltering heat of the long days and through the pitch black of the longer nights. He had many years of practice - waiting. He had waited for justice while working for his righteous freedom to be won as the state to tried to bury him slowly in isolation. Now he waited patiently once again for something unknown - a way out of this disaster.
King decided to ration his meager supplies of food and water. He loved his dog; she was a great companion to him, and he fed Kenya better than himself. He has become known for his compassion and empathy for many stray animals.
After a few days of living in the watery hell, rescue boats finally began to appear. These boats would pull up to King's porch to get him, and he would ask them one question: "Can I bring my dog?" The answer was invariably no, and so King would tell them that he would wait. The rescuers would shake their heads in disbelief as they pulled their craft away.
Not only was King going to stand by his dog, he had been hearing the horrible rumors which circulated about the Superdome from the rescuers There was no reason to go to the Superdome and he sure wasn't going to leave Kenya.
King's food and water situation, the rebuffed rescuers - all of this was unknown to us at the time. The only thing we knew was that King had been trapped in his house, surrounded by dirty water for eight or nine days if he was still alive - this man who'd been in solitary confinement for 29 years in a 6' x 9' cell. We could not let him sit there any longer; it was our duty to try and get to him.
As we headed back toward New Orleans we found the situation transformed. There were military convoys streaming in; numerous heavily armed military blockades and check points had been established. Our white skin privilege got us through once again, as we actually watched them turn black people away, even doctors who had come to help. One week after the levees had failed we were back in NOLA, but this time in the Algiers neighborhood which had been severely damaged and flooded by the storm.
Something else had happened in the short interim we were gone; white militias had formed in the French Quarter district, Algiers Point and other neighborhoods.
Algiers Point is a small, very wealthy, very white neighborhood that is about 10 blocks long in each direction. It is a part of - yet very separated from - the broader Algiers neighborhood and the Westbank, which is predominantly poor and black.
These white militias made it their jobs to secure law & order in the absence of the police, which in itself could have been a noble act, but in this case it wasn't. The militia in Algiers seemed to be made up of either rednecks, drunken fools, racists or all three. Had this been the 1950s they would have driven around in their old truck with their Klan hoods on.
Their brand of justice was to intimidate any black person walking on the street alone, or in any number that was smaller than that of the militia. They threatened unarmed civilians, and possibly even killed people (which they later bragged about). There was a bullet-riddled body of a man in the streets of Algiers which we covered up. The body lay there for 15 days before anyone bothered to get the person. Was this the work of the militia?
Picture 8-12 white men riding around armed in an old truck in a largely low-income black community, meting out justice as they see it, threatening Malik and others in the "hood" as they drove by. They didn't offer to help or work together with anyone; they wanted to protect only themselves and their private property. The actions of these militias added gasoline to the fire of the undeclared war between all who were desperate and left to their own devices.
When Brandon and I returned to the city, we came back ready to defend our comrades, friends and strangers in the neighborhood who wanted support. Many of us, locals and comrades would sit on Malik's porch over the days to come, to keep the militia threat
and to a lesser degree the state at bay.
Waters still hold on
We unloaded the needed supplies we had brought and discussed how best to help King. We decided that Brandon would take his truck across the bridge from Algiers into central New Orleans. He drove up the exit ramp backwards onto the deserted roadway; heading in what would have been the wrong direction had there been any traffic.
Malik and I stayed behind, working at his house and in the damaged neighborhood, where we dreamed and laid the plans which would germinate into what we later called Common Ground Relief. We formulated a strategy mixed from the Black Panther survival programs, the current work in Chiapas, Mexico of the Zapatistas and good old community organizing.
Up on the highway, flooding and debris brought Brandon to a dead-end, so he got out, climbed down from the bridge, and stared into the water. It was murky and full of debris, with an occasional chemical sheen and strong industrial or waste material odor to it. All the makings of city life lay under the water - gas stations, houses, manufacturing plants, decaying bodies, spoiled food-everything imaginable. The government and the media were constantly calling the water a bio-hazard or "toxic soup."
Brandon hesitated, and he wondered if he would die from exposure to the chemical toxins or decomposing animals, which smelled putrid. No one at that time knew what would actually happen. Brandon called me one last time before he dropped into the dark water, and Malik and I told him we would come looking for him if he didn't return.
He started swimming with his phone held in the air, and he made good progress alternating between wading and swimming, trying to keep the water out of his mouth. He got pretty far in, but agents from FEMA saw him, and they aimed their bullhorn, insisting that he "couldn't be there." To escape them, Brandon wiggled behind a fence, and stood on top of a car which was buried underwater.
FEMA commanded again: "We're coming to get you - don't move." And Brandon replied: "I'm not going anywhere unless you get my friend nearby!"
The officers were shocked at this, and kept their guns trained on him, saying, "No, no - we'll go get your friend later." These agents were intent on moving Brandon off the car but thankfully they couldn't reach him. What was there to gain from these agents who were there to rescue people aiming guns at unarmed civilians?
Brandon again said adamantly: "I am not leaving this spot until you go get my friend."
Finally, they relented, and dispatched a boat to go look for King at the address Brandon gave them.
When FEMA pulled the boat up in front of King's house, they found him sitting on his front porch, where he had been off and on since the levees broke. King knew this boat was different, since they asked his name and told him to bring his dog.
He was doing OK, he had a little water and some food left, and he had been waiting patiently for the flood to recede enough so that he and his dog could walk away. FEMA put Brandon, who was still on top of the submerged car, on the phone as they got King, who, in his understated way, said simply, "I knew y'all would come."
Brandon called me back at Malik's with the great news. We all started crying with relief; it was one of the most exciting things that I ever heard in my life! So much had happened in these few days. We all could not believe it - I had almost given in to a sense of hopelessness that he had even survived, and now he would be here within a half-hour! More calls were made, and soon everyone on the A3 committee worldwide knew that King was safe.
Brandon swam back to his truck on the bridge, FEMA dropped King and Kenya off on dry ground and they all headed back to Algiers - back to us. When they walked in the door we all cried, laughed and shouted for joy. Our celebration could be heard throughout the neighborhood.
Now that King was back on solid ground we could get him away from what was left of New Orleans.
Malik and I met with some of the neighbors and asked them what they needed for support to get through this and get back to their lives. This conversation added to what we had discussed earlier. Our first project that afternoon was cleaning up garbage from the street.
We left that very night, with military vehicles in pursuit as we intentionally disregarded the dusk curfew. The military turned away as we finally reached the bridge that would take us out of Algiers.
Brandon, King and I spent a long night of driving in the darkness back to Texas. We cried, shared stories and sang Sam Cooke songs to pass the time.
On my end in Austin I began working to gather the first large shipment of material aid, volunteers and money, while putting out calls to comrades, friends, allies and concerned members of society all over the country to support these Gulf Coast communities. In a few days I would rejoin Malik in Algiers. Brandon would work for a few weeks in Texas, then return to the devastated region to organize on the ground with us.
Foundations from chaos
Our comrade, Malik, had asked for support, so we returned and gave the support we could. It was what many of us on the outside with conscience would be doing in the weeks to come. As had some other fortunate people, we also found our friend alive (and patient as always). From that focal point, where all our histories, our love and our futures connected, Malik and I developed the rudimentary aid programs that would eventually lead us to form the Common Ground Relief. This work would help give people hope and dignity again. In a way, as the waters receded, Common Ground was revealed.
To be continued... .
(1) The A3 Committee in NOLA: the membership of which also consists of other former Panthers as well as community organizers, including Althea Francois, Malik Rahim (co-founder of A3 Committee), Marion Brown, Shana Griffin, Brice White, Orissa Arend, and many others that we have worked with over the years.
(2) King makes a New Orleans candy favorite, the praline. He calls his treat Freelines. See his site
for more info: http://www.KingsFreelines.com or listen to the National Public Radio piece about his candy: http://www.KingsFreelines.com or listen to the National Public Radio piece about his candy: link to www.npr.org .
(3) Documentary film is entitled 3 Black Panthers and the Last Slave Plantation
see the site http://www.3BlackPanthers.com
(4) Radio broadcasters from various stations united under the only on-air station. Live on the air for 24 hours a day (with no commercials or time slots per say), they took call-ins, spoke with officials of all stripes and everyday people from their cell phomes immediately following Katrina and the levee failures.
(5) Rescuers: I am using that term for lack of a better one to describe what really was happening on the ground at this point, as in "search & rescue," but also to describe the mentality of some of the volunteers who were coming in. The great white hope was a common undercurrent among the first volunteers there, especially the authorities from different agencies, which I believe exacerbated the situation with the evacuees and survivors.
(6) This story has never been reported that I know of. Months later I tried to find reports of it with no luck. Since then Brandon and I asked ourselves, "Was it real?" Did he SEE it or had he heard about it? Many times later we were to find out that people had HEARD things had happened, but had not witnessed it themselves. Still, at the time it was a horrible report we had to make decisions from. Our conversation with him was brief, between strangers in desperate times. It played into some of my internalized racism and to my anger with the state, their white supremacy and failures. We didn't want to force our hand either. Fundamentally I believe it to be true, even if the details were distorted, in that white rescuers from the state, probably killed people out of fear that we will never ever know about.
(7) Robert King Wilkerson wrote an autobiography (mostly while in solitary confinement) about his life called "A Cry from the Bottom" published by Kersplebedeb 2006.
(8) martial law
link to jurist.law.pitt.edu
(9) As time progressed, the Black Panther Party dissolved. Most former members went on with their lives while others remained in prison for their political activity. When Malik, who was living in Oakland, found out that his friends were still incarcerated at Angola prison on trumped up charges due to their political actions he had to do something. The National Committee to Free the Angola 3
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