Steve Larson, a recent graduate of the University of Puget Sound, is presently in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans, working with Common Ground Collective, a community self-help organization. This letter, online at United for Peace of Pierce County, reports on what he has seen. Larson says that government and major agencies like the Red Cross have been remarkably ineffective or worse, and makes an appeal for help in the grass roots relief effort…
ONLY THROUGH LOCAL GRASSROOTS ORGANIZATION CAN WE BRING EFFECTIVE AID
By Steve Larson
Common Ground Collective
September 24, 2005
Hello friends and family–
I write to you now from the Algiers parish in New Orleans, where volunteers from all around the country have converged to conduct massive grassroots relief efforts with the Common Ground Collective. I have been here for six days.
Algiers suffered little damage from Katrina and is currently holding strong in the face of Hurricane Rita. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for our Food Not Bombs friends in the Ninth Ward, where the levee has broken twice and the flooding has been devastating. Nor are our Rainbow Gathering friends in Waveland doing much better, or the Houma tribe south of here, or the Latin American community just west of here. Areas of southeastern Louisiana and southern Mississippi that were completely decimated (many have likened it to an atom bomb explosion) are flooded once again. At the moment, with Red Cross and Salvation Army and National Guard all evacuated from the area, only Common Ground Collective remains, and the population we must now assist — food, water, ice, tarps, medical needs, construction, electricity, transportation, the works — has expanded greatly. In just a few minutes we will be sending relief teams throughout New Orleans proper, as well as an assessment team over a hundred miles west to Port Arthur and Lake Charles — those areas hardest hit by Rita.
The resilience and hope of this community is incredible, considering the many atrocious conditions we must face each day. The militarization of New Orleans has hampered our movement and access to materials. The New Orleans Police Department is especially hostile and has been working with Homeland Security and Blackwater (privately contracted armed forces — basically, official vigilantes) to monitor us and other grassroots relief efforts instead of helping residents recover. There are reports that the the State Health Department is attempting to shut down our medical clinic, despite the fact that we have assisted over 100 people every day, more than any of the Red Cross clinics in the area combined. And speaking of the Red Cross: if you donated to them, you may want to know that they did not reach this area until 3 days ago, and left for Rita just a day after arriving. The Red Cross has also forcefully apprehended urgent medical supplies from our relief network in downtown New Orleans. FEMA is AWOL.
On another level, the Bush administration, EPA, and major media companies have successfully suppressed environmental assessment efforts in southeastern Louisiana, where it is believed an oil spill half the size of the Exxon Valdez spill has emerged. Greenpeace has only been able to document the toxic pollution there by posing as media. We have had two independent assessors with us that have gone to great risk to collect water samples and get them processed, but the results will not be available for weeks.
Perhaps the greatest danger lies in the reconstruction. No-bid contracts have been given out to the likes of Halliburton; many of these companies have already successfully profiteered in the Iraq ‘reconstruction. There is serious talk in the upper echelons about turning New Orleans into a free enterprise zone, deregulated and catering to Big Business — while subsequently preventing the poor of New Orleans from returning. Keeping watch over these developments is extremely difficult and will remain so as long as the New Orleans militarization remains in effect.
Common Ground Collective has proven to me what I have long believed to be true: that only through local grassroots organization can we bring effective aid to communities, aid that pushes social justice, structural change, and the common people to the forefront. Here in New Orleans, grassroots relief is the hero when everything else — government, corporations, professional relief organizations — has failed. I have stood witness to this phenomenon and have utter faith in this community’s empowerment. But we need a lot of help to sustain this momentum.
We need money, we need food, we need supplies, we need VOLUNTEERS. We need media folks to come down here and get the truth out. We need doctors and registered nurses. We need tech and comm geeks. We need carpenters and construction workers. We need vehicles and drivers for them. We need experienced organizers and community activists. We need cooks! It doesn’t matter when or for how long. Come by now, come by in January, stay a week, stay for months, stay until it’s all over. Stay and help us build a free school. Stay and help us set up permanent clinics in areas that have NEVER had one. Stay and help us network with Habitat for Humanity, ACORN, IWW, Pan-Africanists, everyone. More than anything else, we need PEOPLE who have TIME.
You do not need training to join us. You do not need expertise; you’ll learn a bunch just by doing. You do not need to go through red tape or bureaucracy of any kind. You don’t even have to contact us in advance before you come down here; I didn’t. (Although we’d prefer if you did!)
Please do something to help us rebuild from the BOTTOM UP, not the TOP DOWN.
If you cannot give your time or skills, please consider donating money or supplies to Common Ground Collective. You can find this information at www.commongroundrelief.org.
Two hurricanes have hit Louisiana; New Orleans reeks of death. But out of the ashes comes this: grassroots organizing that really, truly works. Be a part of it. Start being the change you wish to see in the world. Now.
We’ll be waiting here with open arms.
Love from the beatbutnotdown roads of Algiers, New Orleans,
See our last post on Katrina’s aftermath.