New Orleans elite kicks out citizen volunteers

The class struggle for the future of New Orleans is made clear by this Thanksgiving Day (Nov. 24) report in Newsday that the volunteers who have established soup kitchens and work brigades to help the poor survive and resist being made exiles from their own city have now been ordered to clear out—due to pressure from the city’s old-money elite:

[S]ix weeks after volunteers responding to post-Katrina needs set up a kitchen and medical facility [in Washington Square Park], the operation has become the topic of a community dispute and of lively, often angry, debate on an Internet forum. Fed up with the intrusion, the city and some residents living in gracious homes that ring the park say the do-gooders have served their purpose and that it’s time for them to move on, and to take their burgeoning tent city with them.

The dozens providing the aid and the hundreds receiving it, though, say resistance to their presence is a sign of the power struggles that lie ahead as wealthier residents return to a city that has little to offer the less fortunate, be they poor locals or struggling out-of-towners providing labor to rebuild New Orleans.

“It’s pretty selfish,” said Dee Anne Dominick, a Louisiana native who heads the nonprofit Barefoot Doctors Academy, which is providing basic medical aid in the park. “They may not have gotten home damage themselves,” she said of critics, “but that doesn’t mean others still don’t need help.”

The volunteers, who come from Barefoot Doctors and Rainbow Family, another nonprofit group, have until Dec. 1 to dismantle the Welcome Home New Orleans center, a deal reached reluctantly with the city after pleas to remain longer were rejected.

“They need to go. They’ve overstayed their welcome,” said Kay Vereen, the owner of a nearby bar, who said she and other neighbors initially supported the groups’ work. That changed as crowds grew and as trash bags mounted on the sidewalk around the park, which covers a square block in the gentrifying Faubourg Marigny neighborhood.

“This is not a campground,” Vereen said. “The neighbors and residents got upset. It has just mushroomed, and we’ve started having a lot more vagrants.”

The print edition pictures Vereen standing outside her bar with a hand-painted sign reading “YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT.”

Prosaic complaints about “vagrancy” mask the real struggle over whether the exiled poor will be allowed to reclaim their homes and their city, or whether post-Katrina New Orleans will be an ethnically-cleansed simulacrum of its former self. Even with the expulsion of the Washington Square tent city, this struggle is not over. Another such citizen volunteer effort, the Common Ground Collective, continues to assist in self-help recovery efforts—for now.

This genuinely heart-warming account from Waveland, MS, in the Los Angeles Times tells how the volunteerism brought together an “improbable alliance” of Rainbow Family “hippies” and evangelical Christians:

The evangelicals overlooked the hippies’ unusual attire, outlandish humor and persistent habit of hugging strangers. The hippies nodded politely when the church people cited Scripture. The bonds formed at Waveland Village have surprised both groups. The Rainbow Family and the church volunteers found common ground — for one thing, they both like to dance — and mutual respect.

“We are Methodists, Episcopalians and Baptists, along with various and sundry other Christian groups,” said Fay Jones, 56, an organizer of the Bastrop (Texas) Ministerial Alliance. “Did we ever think we would have such a wonderful relationship with hippies? No.”

Brad Stone, an emergency medical technician from the Rainbow Family of Living Light, the group’s formal name, called the Christian-hippie coalition his new community. “It has been unbelievable. We are all so close. I am actually dreading leaving,” he said.

The Waveland volunteer effort is ending because local needs are now being met. The needs in New Orleans, in contrast, are still great, and the volunteers are being forced out by political pressure. As Waveland’s “improbable alliance” demonstrates, these efforts hold the potential to help America recover its common humanity and heal the bitter cultural (red-blue, retro-metro, etc.) divide. Too bad the prerogatives of monied power won’t allow it.

See our last post on the struggle in New Orleans.