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katrina aftermath

Common Ground and Conflict: Looking Back on New Orleans and Working With Brandon Darby

This is a retrospective look on volunteering at the Common Ground Collective in New Orleans from December 11th, 2006 to January 3rd, 2007, and then later from mid-February to mid-March '07, under FBI-informant Brandon Darby's new hierarchy. How did he change things, and how could his involvement with federal agents have affected the group?
What would have happened without FBI involvement at Common Ground, New Orleans?

I suppose it would be too much to ask.

In a place where government failed, at all levels, to act in a crisis, where there was complete and utterly criminal neglect of American people in need, you basically had a grassroots anarchist organization, of all things, stepping onto the scene and providing the services the state did not provide. Race issues were heavily involved. Former Black Panthers, experienced in providing social services to communities in need, were involved. Young idealists from all over the country were making the trip down and getting involved, perhaps becoming radicalized through their crash-course in social activism. The media takes notice. It adds up to a ripe mixture for revolution. So what to do?

Stop the threatening spread of this idea that radical activism is good for the people. The idea that activists are perhaps not violent, and maybe even helpful. Work a way into the heart of the idea itself.

I can only guess about his personal motivations, but the divisive, authoritarian leader of Common Ground, Brandon Darby, the man who ok'd the undiscussed discharge of myself and fellow house-gutters and community workers who gave months of our work and ourselves to the group, was an informant for the FBI.

Maybe his outing himself at this point is part of the underlying goal of discrediting activists, killing faith in activism, and generally spreading the sort of disillusionment that can dissolve movements in an apathetic society. Having some tiny measure of insight into his character though, it could just be a somewhat useful bi-product (to the feds) of employing a mentally unstable ex-radical on an ego trip.

Either way, the experience did curtail my faith in activism. It cut the legs off of my faith in myself and my own power. I'm sure it did that for many people. It maimed the basic belief we had that we could come together, work with each other, and achieve something radical. Something amazing. We could have had a growing community, a growing dream being realized. It seems we could have had a working example of social activism, an actual delivery of the social justice we pursued. We could have learned lessons other than to just walk away.

The losses seem pretty large to me, since my personal losses were so great. Through Darby, the long arm of the law reaped quite a bit of chaos, as it ironically is very good at doing. Misery spread and spiraled out to many. Relationships buckled from the strain of power struggles and some of them broke apart.

Yet I do not hold all this against Brandon Darby. The fear and paranoia I temporarily had to handle as a result of events at his supposed organization are the demons at his back which probably led him to betray his friends. It is a terrible feeling which engulfs your mind, a feeling I would not be able to empathize with without having had the experience.

And my personal losses have always been just that-- personal. As long as we are approaching social action from a place in our egos, not our hearts, the self-importance of our agendas will be to our detriment. I am still developing true intention. Any good activist should be mindful of the same, and check in with themselves from time to time to understand what drives them. Is it really a drive for justice? A self-oriented investment leads to a self-oriented loss. That has been my experience.

I am probably just preaching to the choir with this, but I do urge you all to equate activists with advocates and those who dare to be discontent with injustice. The smear is on, from people like Brandon Darby, that activists are misguided bombthrowers who have not been enlightened to the benevolent necessity of American policy. It has been argued that it was worth it to kill and deform thousands of Japanese at Hiroshima and Nagasaki because an American life is worth more than the life of a non-combatant Japanese. The United States of America is the only country to have ever killed tens of thousands of humans in a single instant. It has done so twice. And it will be social activists who are labeled as terrorists.