Sunday, January 22, 2006

Privatizing New Orleans

“I can’t stand it anymore, being lifted up and then smacked down again, just when we were all trying so hard to experience hope,” a friend tells me. She was one of several people I know who were bystanders to Saturday’s shootings in New Orleans. Last weekend, revelers filled the streets for one of our city’s most vital cultural traditions, the second-line – a roving street celebration put on by New Orleans community institutions known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. This second-line was the biggest anyone I spoke to had seen, put on by 30 different Clubs. Many people came from out of town just for the day, and during the parade thousands were chanting, “we’re back, we’re back!”

The day of hope and celebration was shattered when, towards the end of the route, three people were shot in three separate incidents on Orleans Avenue between Claiborne and Broad, in the Treme, a Black neighborhood with a long history and culture of resistance. Michelle Longino, one of the event's organizers, was quoted in the Times-Picayune as saying, "It just breaks my heart that some people on the outskirts could do such a horrible thing and have it be associated with the beautiful, glorious, peaceful thing we were putting together," adding that the event was organized to “testify to the importance of the social clubs and the importance of providing affordable housing and decent schools so people can return.” The violent end to a hopeful day was devastating. It was horrifying to see a broad community effort shattered and to see a return of the violence that has marred our city.

On top of our personal sorrow, there is also a pressure all of us here in New Orleans feel, this awareness that we are being judged by the media and by politicians in Baton Rouge and Washington. The question constantly comes up, are we deserving of rebuilding? I feel certain no other US city would be facing this questioning, but we have to constantly prove ourselves as being “worthy.” All of us were immediately aware that those who do not want the city rebuilt would use this incident as evidence against us, just as recent news reports have gloated over the “lack of crime” that has been brought by the mass displacement of our city’s population.

Last week, the mayor’s Bring Back New Orleans commission released its recommendations on rebuilding, which are filled with the expected double talk and half promises regarding what neighborhoods can be rebuilt, pegged to vague tests and benchmarks. But most infuriating, featured in all the coverage of the report, is the estimate given by the commission, politicians, developers, and media that only half of the city’s population is expected to come back to New Orleans in the next several years. The so-called experts advise us to be “realistic,” and accept that the city has to have a “smaller footprint” because so many people will not be returning. Where do the reduced population statistics come from?

The truth is that the “experts” are manipulating the truth for their own ends. They are creating a situation where half the city is kept from returning; then saying that we need to reduce our expectations to this reality they have created. This week, 90% of Tulane University students came back to resume classes in uptown New Orleans. The majority did not have long-term ties to the city, but they returned because Tulane and the city wanted them back, and worked to get them back. With housing and encouragement, the majority of New Orleans would be back today. This is a completely avoidable displacement, happening in slow motion before our eyes. It is also paternalistic, with experts brought out, one after another, to tell us – especially poor and Black New Orleanians – what is best.

"You can’t come to this neighborhood yet, it’s not safe for you. You can’t rebuild, we don’t know if your neighborhood will be viable. You can’t move back to New Orleans – we think you’ll be better off somewhere else, where the welfare is better." For the city’s poor, more hurdles are being put up. Some residents who have returned are blocking the installation of FEMA trailers in their neighborhoods. Hotels are planing evictions of New Orleanians in preparation for Mardi Gras tourists. The city plans to demolish homes before people can even come back to see them. It's perhaps a symbol of Republican dominance and Democratic cowardice that free-marketers have chosen this overwhelmingly Democratic city as a front line in their war on government institutions created for the poor.

Charity Hospital is forced to remain closed. Public housing tenants are pressured to remove their belongings. The public schools remain mostly closed, while the school system becomes the landscape for social experimentation by right-wing school privatisers. Within the first two weeks after New Orleans was flooded, the right wing think tank The Heritage Foundation released its plans to capitalize on the disaster. Near the top of the list was promotion of “school choice” and school vouchers. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans schools were among the most segregated in the nation, with some of the nations lowest spending going to public schools, which had a wide array of problems including collapsing infrastructure and so little money for elective courses that in some schools JROTC, the military recruiting program for high schools, was a mandatory class. The proposed changes do nothing to address these issues, instead they exacerbate the problem, diverting funds from the poorest schools, and continuing a system with two tiers of schools, one for those with the privilege, and one for everyone else.

As an added benefit for privatisers, the teachers union - previously the largest union in the city - faces virtual elimination under this scheme, as staff are laid off and new schools open with mandates to cut salaries and eliminate health insurance. Charity Hospitals, Louisiana’s public health care system, were setup by Governor Huey Long in the 30’s. The system was a shining example of state-provided health care, and Louisiana remains the only US state with a network of hospitals dedicated to free care for the poor. Even in recent years, Charity boasted world-class care in some units – such as trauma care, and the huge New Orleans Charity Hospital, one of the two oldest hospitals in North America, served thousands of uninsured patients every week. People from New Orleans, born in the hospital, proudly refer to themselves as “Charity babies.” Doctors at Charity claim the hospital is clean and safe and ready to re-open, but they have been prevented from doing so – instead, there are plans to demolish the massive structure.

Public housing residents face some of the biggest opposition to their return. As Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker gloated shortly after the hurricane hit, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did.” I spoke with Elizabeth Cook, an activist with New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (NO-HEAT) and C3/Hands Off Iberville, a local group that combines antiwar and global justice activism with local issues such as public housing. Cook has spoken with a wide range of tenants at B.W. Cooper Housing Complex, and has worked with tenants who are fighting hard for their right to return.Aside from politicians and developers not wanting them to return, Cooper residents have also faced opposition from the management of their complex. A B.W. Cooper management representative told Cook – “(residents) gotta change their attitude before we let them back in.”As I’ve reported previously, Cooper residents have also experienced widespread robbery, much of it pointing to a suspicious level of access. Cook, who has spoken with many residents who have been robbed, reports, “It seems extremely likely that someone with a key, someone with access is responsible…HANO was in charge, and they could’ve provided some kind of security. Any indication that it could’ve been employees, they needed to do something right away. Even now, this is still happening – we’re still getting reports, and HANO has done nothing.”

At the same time, Cook feels there is also reason for hope – some units have been re-opened in the Iberville projects, and more are scheduled for Lafitte and Cooper. “The pressure on HANO has been successful. Its something of a success that they are reopening (some of the units) at all.” Cook feels she’s seen direct results from publicity, phone calls and letters.“They are feeling the public pressure – it’s affecting them,” she says. “At B.W. there was always a great deal of community involvement, and they are continuing to fight back,” joined by advocates and activists. “Word of mouth and the residents are pushing this movement, and we’re following them. We have to counter the propaganda that the majority of New Orleans doesn’t want them back.”

Monday, January 16, 2006

Mayor Nagin says God is angry with US

I just had to post this article. I just had to. And I quote...

"Surely God is mad at America. He sent us hurricane after hurricane after hurricane, and it's destroyed and put stress on this country," Nagin, who is black, said as he and other city leaders marked Martin Luther King Day. "Surely He doesn't approve of us being in Iraq' under false pretenses. But surely he is upset at black America also. We're not taking care of ourselves."

Also.. New Orleans Colleges Face Huge Obstacles

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Jordan's Log--1-9-06

Loss and Displacement at the Calliope
By Jennifer Vitry and Jordan Flaherty
January 9, 2006

Rebecca G. Brown has lived at 3317 Erato in the BW Cooper Public Housing Complex for 24 years. A retired certified nursing assistant, she is known around the area for her tidy, well-decorated home. According to her neighbor, Dorris Johnson Frohm of 3316 Erato, she has “the loveliest house on the block, and always welcomes ya in.” Last week, Ms. Brown stood in her doorway crying. Her home was destroyed – not by flooding or wind damage, but by theft. Two beautiful mirrors that hung in her stairwell are gone. The computer that her son uses for college work is gone. Her TV and two DVD players are also gone, along with most of her pictures and valuables. Nearby, Yasmond Perry, 13, and his brother, Deseon Perry, 12, stand outside of their home at 3201 Erato, waiting for their mother, Josephine. “We haven’t been inside yet,” she says. “I’m kind of scared. Everyone’s been calling me saying that they are taking all of our stuff—furniture and all. We were only here once right after the storm—but I’m hearing people have been in here since.” “Oh my God, they took everything!” The boys stare in shock.

Surveying her home, Josephine goes down the long list of furniture items that is missing from their home - sofa, loveseat, television, table, and chairs—all gone. “How did they have time to take all this,” exclaims Josephine, who had been home a few weeks after the storm to check on her house. “It was fine really then. Not much different than I’d left it.”During that visit, her son Yasmond “was standing on the porch and the National Guard pulled up within 5 minutes pointing guns at him.” She ran outside and showed the military proof that she lived there. “So, if they are here in minutes pulling a gun on my boy, how do people have the time to unload whole households without any notice? And, it’s not just me, it’s my whole block!” Upstairs, the rooms were turned upside down, with drawers and boxes emptied. In shock, the boys each grabbed two things and walked downstairs. “This is all I need I guess,” said Deseon with a grim look, “everything else is messed up.”

The B.W. Cooper Housing Development –popularly known as the Calliope projects - was home to 1,400 African American working-class households in 1,546 units on 56 acres of land. It is the third largest housing development in Louisiana and the largest tenant-managed housing development in the country. Most of the complex was not damaged in Hurricane Katrina or the subsequent flooding. After Hurricane Katrina, residents were scattered throughout the United States, including many in shelters and motels here in Louisiana. Although most of these dispersed residents ache to return to their communities, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) posted a general notice in the projects informing residents that they may not move back, and some Cooper tenants report receiving notice that they have to clear out their possessions. HANO has also hired a Las Vegas company named Access Denied to install 16-gauge steel plates over windows and doors at B.W. Cooper and other city projects, including the Lafitte projects in the Treme neighborhood.

In previous interviews with the Times-Picayune and other media, HANO spokespeople expressed concerns about “looting,” “troublemakers” and “squatters.” Although its true that there appears to have been massive theft from homes in these projects, in a recent visit to at least twenty homes that been broken into, most had their locks intact - the apartments had been broken into by someone with keys and access. In several interviews, residents placed the robberies as having occurred within the last few weeks – long after Mayor Nagin began urging people to return to the city, and weeks after the National Guard had finished breaking into homes to check for bodies.More than four months after Katrina, public housing tenants are still facing displacement and victimization. Grassroots groups such as NOHEAT (New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team) and advocates such as the Loyola Law Clinic and grassroots Legal Network are calling for justice for public housing tenants, but for many residents, the city seems to be sending them a louder message – “stay out.” This fight is nothing new.

For years, developers have coveted the city’s public housing projects, many of which occupy prime real estate. New Orleans real estate mogul Pres Kabacoff, who currently sits on Mayor Nagin’s rebuilding Commission, transformed the St. Thomas projects into condos and a WalMart. Kabacoff has made clear his designs on the Iberville housing projects, which occupy prime real estate near the French Quarter. Now, more than ever, housing is the front lines of the battle for New Orleans, every day’s headlines are full of bulldozers vs. injunctions, and evictions vs. restraining orders - words and phrases that have come to shape the daily struggle over what – and who -New Orleans will become.

Yasmond and Deseon desperately want to return to New Orleans. “The kids in Houston don’t like us. They treat us funny. I just want to come home.” Josephine had a meeting at her previous job. “They are offering us something to come back. I’d be happy to come back. I just don’t have nowhere to live.” Josephine is a cook, and before the storm worked at two jobs. “I don’t mind working, as long as the kids have a solid home.” Josephine said she spoke with a woman identified as Ruth Hayes, assistant manager at the Calliope project office. “She told me to get my stuff out by December 31st or it would be thrown into the dumpster. Then, she said the deadline was pushed back two weeks.” Josephine cannot move her or her son’s possessions, as she has nowhere to store them. The boys don’t want all of their toys and books thrown away. “We don’t get a say I guess,” says Deseon.

Many of the residents and occupants of B. W. Cooper stayed during the storm. Rebecca Brown ended up at the Superdome for 5 days without food or water. “Oh, don’t even ask me about those days,” said Brown, “I am trying everything to forget them—it was so painful to watch people suffer and die.” Five days later, Brown boarded a bus for Fort Worth, Texas. She and her family made their way to Arlington, Texas. From there they headed to Atlanta, Georgia. And, finally, landed in Houston, Texas.While Brown was away, her daughter, Tanya Glover, returned about 2 weeks post-Katrina to check on her mothers’ home. She noticed the National Guard’s spray painted message—“0 dead—0 animals” outside. Her mother’s door was unlocked. Tanya checked inside, and everything was orderly—just as she had last seen her mother’s home. She called her mother and reported the lack of any water damage, and that her valuables were intact. Tanya locked the house and left. Weeks later, Brown returned to the house to find the front and back doors again open. This time, her son’s computer was missing. She also noticed “a pair or two of Leon’s jeans missing,” but that was it. The house was not in disarray. She locked the front door and boarded up the back door before she left. A week later, Brown received a call from her neighbor, Ms. Sylvia Hall. Ms. Hall told Brown that her door was open, and the house had been ransacked.

“Someone stole my mirrors on the wall, went through my jewelry, dumped every drawer out, stole my kids computer and many other things. The storm did not hurt my house, someone with a key destroyed it.”Brown also reports being told by HANO that she had to have her property out of her dwelling by December 31st, or “it would be thrown away, " and if she came back to her property after December 31st, she would be arrested for trespassing. Brown phoned HANO last week to let them know she had reserved a storage unit. They informed her, according to Brown, that she had an additional 2 weeks “because of the holidays” within which to “get everything out.” Brown worries about many elderly residents who have no way of getting around. “Everything they have in the world is in that apartment. And, ‘cause of the storm—they are in some other state, unable to get back.”Reached by phone today, Ruth Hayes, an assistant manager at BW Cooper, confirmed, "we are experiencing a high volume of burglary.

People are coming home and what they expected to be there is not there," she said. However, Hayes had no other information on the robberies. “The crimes that were reported here reported their doors broken down," she said. As to whether and when people would be allowed back in, she had no information. "There is no policy at this time," on when people may return. "There is no timeline," on when a decision would be made. In addition, she said, "there is no plan, currently" to throw out peoples possessions. She did say that tomorrow HANO and BW Cooper management would be meeting, and its “possible” a decision on when or if people can move back could come out of that meeting.

Dorris Johnson of 3316 Erato, was also busy sifting through her wrecked home. “They trashed my house—look at this. The storm didn’t do this!” Last week is the first chance Johnson had to return to New Orleans. “I called HANO to find out what was going on. They told me to get my stuff out or it was going in the dumpster. Good thing I have a good son who could bring me all the way here.” Johnson wants her house back. “There’s nothing wrong with these houses. We could all be back living here.” Johnson’s house, like every other apartment on the river side of Galvez, did not get water. Only half of the development, located on the far side of Galvez Street - commonly called “back-a-town” - flooded on the first floor. Johnson estimates approximately 2000 people lived on the dry side of the complex. “That’s 2000 people that could have housing tomorrow,” she said.

Johnson and her son sifted through their apartment in search of pictures and memorabilia. “This is what I came for,” holding up a picture of her granddaughter’s graduation picture. “It was clean around here,” motioning to her area. “No kids sat on these steps. This was a family area. No drugs around here.” Johnson is saddened by the disregard and neglect of her neighborhood, and community. She is outraged by those that trashed her apartment: “I know that I come into this world with nothing and leave with nothing—but let me decide what I get to keep in the meantime. I worked hard for those few things.” In interviews conducted while walking through the neighborhood, family after family reported similar, heartbreaking, stories.

Barbara Trymore and Caroline Clark, also Cooper residents, were told to get their items out of their homes before mid-January or it will be in the trash. They were told if they step foot on the project grounds to get their things after that date, they will be arrested for trespassing. Despite the struggle they’ve been through, Trymore, Clark, and Brown all want to return to New Orleans—if only they had a place to live.We may never find out who broke into all of these homes in the Calliope. However, one thing is certain: if residents had been allowed to return, this massive theft would not have happened. Calliope is by no means a dream home, but it did offer a community for many people, and community brought a kind of security and comfort that is now notably absent from the city.

New Orleans, now more than ever, is a city with different laws for rich and poor, and for Black and white. We are supposed to accept that because people are poor, because they live in public housing, they have less right to return, less say over their housing decisions, than other people in the city. Somehow, it becomes ok for HANO, or the mayor, or the federal government, to make decisions, “for their own good.” In a recent interview, Denny LeBoeuf, Director of the Capital Post-Conviction Project of Louisiana notes, “these people have the right of return. This humanitarian principle is good for our NOLA folks as well as for Rwanda refugees. After the war, and the air clears, people have the right to return to their home. Poor people of color occupy 100% of the Calliope and other dwellings where return has been refused. These folks make our culture what it is—whether thru music, or food, or other venues—they connect us to this authentic thriving culture. They are the unbroken line of history to the 1800s.”Ms. Trymore stares at her wall. She is missing her framed picture of Rosa Parks. “We saved to get that picture, ya know,” says Trymore. “It cost like $200. We didn’t have that kind-of money. But, we admire that woman, ya know. Now it’s gone. Who would steal that?"

Jennifer Vitry is a defense fact investigator for homicide cases and a death penalty abolitionist. She teaches forensics, and formerly worked with Sister Helen Prejean and the Moratorium Campaign.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Jordan's Log: January 8, 2006

From the Ground Up: Race and the Left Response to Katrina
By Walidah Imarisha

In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of progressives, radicals, anarchists, activists, hippies and college students — the majority of them white — have gone down south to aid in relief and rebuilding efforts, and white organizations across the country have dedicated time and resources. But in their rush to help, are they recreating the racist dynamics we have seen from the government?

Is the white left racist? Sakura Koné would answer this question, for the most part with a “no.” “I’ve been impressed with the response of the white left, liberals, progressive and radicals who have joined us out here.” Kone’ works as the media coordinator for Common Ground Collective, Common Ground Relief and Rebuild Green, three different arms of a New Orleans grassroots organization started after the hurricanes to provide relief and focus on alternative energy/sustainable rebuilding. “They are not just coming down here and telling us what to do, but they are listening to what we have to say. They do it our way. They are not coming like missionaries. We welcome the white left to our communities here.”

“Our church is full of white volunteers right now,” Victoria Cintra of Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA) says. “We have hundreds of volunteers from the North Carolina Baptist Men Disaster Relief. They were here before FEMA, before Red Cross, when no one was helping out, and they’ve committed to being here for two years.”

Others, however, have had serious problems with white volunteers’ behavior and attitude throughout the south. Curtis Muhammad, of Community Labor United and the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, would answer the question of whether the white left is racist with a qualified “yes.” “Every white person who shows up has the disease called white supremacy, and if they don’t confront it and work on it, they are going to continue to have it. That’s just the reality of racism.”

Tamika Middleton, southern regional coordinator for Critical Resistance — a national prison abolitionist organization with an office in New Orleans — applauds people’s willingness to come down and do work, but wants white people coming to acknowledge the privilege inherent in that. “For a lot of people, people of color from New Orleans and the south, we’re all trying to put our lives together. If we had the means, if we had the same privilege, we would be here too, we would be organizing and fighting for our community. It’s important for people to realize the privilege they have and others don’t have.”

Au Hyunh, who is working in Vietnamese communities throughout the south, says that there are different cultural standards people are not aware of. “When I was at Common Ground, the volunteers would be really disrespectful. They are serving a historically disadvantaged community, but they’re not bathing or showering and they’re serving people food, and they don’t see that. A lot of white activists are appropriating poor culture when they have a lot of class privilege.”

White supremacy

Muhammad says that PHRF is working to counter that disease of white supremacy. “We are talking about doing trainings, we are asking some groups down here who specialize in this to help train volunteers about their white supremacy. Some of them are taking it and some are not. Some are running around acting like slave masters.” Kone’ says Common Ground provides that kind of orientation. “We tell them, ‘Look, you’re not from here, listen up, this is what’s happening. This is what the community is about, this is the history of the community, this is what’s been going on since Katrina. You’ve got a good heart, because you’re here. You have to take the leadership from the community.’”

“White people are going to have to learn to obey and follow directions. They are not runaway slaves. They aren’t now and they weren’t during the Underground Railroad days. They can help us, feed us, house us, but they are not the slaves. They can’t lead us,” Muhammad finishes.

It’s not just individuals who are having race issues. Organizations are also bringing their own assumptions and agenda to the table. “Some white organizations are trying. But white folks don’t like to chastise themselves. The left does that too, it will not punish white people for their white supremacy, they won’t hold white folks accountable and as long as they can do this stuff without punishment, they’re going to keep doing it.” Tamika Middleton says the white left has wasted a lot of time and energy focusing on debating whether the issues in the gulf are the result of class or race. “It’s impossible to separate race from class, especially in the south, because historically, culturally, it is one and the same.”

Untold stories

Many populations are just being ignored both by the mainstream and the white left. John Zippert is the director of program operations for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in Alabama, and works primarily with poor black farmers, a population he says has been greatly overlooked by government, media and nonprofits alike. “Our experience is that the Department of Agriculture takes care of the largest farmers first, rather than the smallest and poorest, which is generally where black farmers are… So the government isn’t there for people. We have gotten some assistance from organizations, but it’s been limited.” Big corporations are getting huge contracts to do construction, and many of them are using immigrant labor to do so. MIRA says many people they work with — the majority of whom are Latino — are either not being paid the wages they were promised or not being paid at all, are working under unsafe conditions, and are not given any accommodations and forced to sleep in tents in the cold.

Workers are being recruited to the south to do this rebuilding work. When the job is done, they are fired and then arrested by the INS, often by the prompting of their former employers, according to Cintra. “That’s sad and sick. They are rebuilding our coast and we are treating them like animals,” she says.

In New Orleans East, the Mary Queen of Vietnam Roman Catholic Church is seeing first hand that the city’s rebuilding plan is quite literally built on top of people of color. The church, which is in the heart of a thriving Vietnamese community and has served as a distribution center and gathering place for people coming back to the community, is serving 1500 people a week. It is also right in the middle of an area that the city wants to build an airport and business industrial complex on. “They are going to take our community away; they are going to dismiss us,” says Father Luke, one of the priests at the church. “We come back here as an action to say to them that we are here, we are back here to rebuild the community, to rebuild New Orleans.”

History class

New Orleans and the south are what they are because of the input of people of color, and people have to be aware of the culture they are coming into. “Why do people aspire to come to New Orleans? The music, the culture, the food, and what is the origin of those? Black people!” Kone’ intones. All of the people interviewed for this article spoke of the history of slavery, immigration issues, labor rights, gentrification, police brutality, governmental misconduct, a history of neglect and racism, and the need for white organizations and individuals to understand that. It’s vital that people understand the roots of the poverty and deprivation. “The problems that are happening now are not happening because of Katrina. They didn’t just arrive; they didn’t come out of smoke. These things are historical,” says Middleton.

“You have the compounded issue of race and poverty together, a concentration of people who are poor and black and have been that way since slavery, even in the urban areas,” Zippert explains. “You can see the intersection of race, class and gender by who was left behind in New Orleans. Most of the images you saw of people who were left behind, who were stranded, are poor single black mothers. That’s the fall out in a culture that is racist and patriarchal,” Malcolm Woodland of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement says.

Salvation army

While this is the largest fundraising effort in the history of the US, with hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, people on the ground are skeptical as to how effective those organizations are. Cintra summed up the sentiment when she said, “I wouldn’t give a penny to Red Cross, and I would encourage others not to.” The problem is the way major non-profits have operated in communities of color globally, says Woodland. “The fact that people continue to give to organizations that have historically not operated in the best issues of people of African descent suggests that people aren’t fully aware of the history of these organizations, and what they are doing now, and not aware of alternative methods of being able to give directly to the people affected.”

Several people interviewed for this article talked of the ways in which the Red Cross gives preferential treatment to areas that are predominately white and was much slower to react in communities of color. Middleton says her biggest problem is the criminal background checks that keep out people who were formerly incarcerated, and that this is a race issue as well. Hyunh spoke of the language and access barriers that aren’t being addressed. Hyunh, an activist who moved just outside of New Orleans after Katrina, offered her services as a professionally licensed Vietnamese translator to both Red Cross and FEMA. “They both turned me down, they said they didn’t need any interpreters.” Hyunh went down to the south to see for herself, and found a complete lack of translation.

“The police were trying to evict a single Vietnamese mother living in a housing project in Biloxi. The entire projects were flooded. The police tried to arrest her for remaining there, but there was nowhere for her to go, and she didn’t speak English. She couldn’t even find out where the Red Cross shelter was,” Hyunh explains. Cintra said it is even worse than ignorance or benign neglect on Red Cross’ part. “Red Cross is evicting people from shelters because of the color of their skin. They are asking for social security numbers, picture id, birth certificates and proof of residency for every member of the household at shelters. That’s alienating a large group of people.”

Middleton says the issue is really about giving funds to organizations that can build for the future. “Red Cross and other big non-profits create a different kind of problem. It’s like, ‘I’m going to deliver all this food to you, but not create sustainable options for you to grow food.’ There is no long term plan; there are no ways for people to be part of rebuilding their communities.” The People’s Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) was started to provide an apparatus for survivors, local grassroots organizations and displaced people to have control over funds coming in. “We demand resources to rebuild our community under our control,” Muhammad says.

Leadership position

That’s why it’s important, organizers say, for people of color to have a leadership position in the relief and rebuilding efforts. James Rucker, who helped found Color of Change ( after Katrina as an online mobilization tool to enhance black people’s political voice, says black people have to mobilize to lobby politicians and hold them accountable. Color of Change grew to over 10,000 members in the first month and had thousands of people sign different petitions. Rucker says it’s so important for organizations of color to speak up because it can push white organizations. “Race is just not a focal point for liberal white America… When groups like ours are out there, we can embolden other white organizations to talk about race more. They will do better than if there weren’t any organizations of folks of color speaking in terms of race.”

While Color of Change is working to build up political pressure, others feel the way to change lies in grassroots organizing. Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (, a national black human rights organization, put out a call on Sept. 13, 2005 that framed the issue again in terms of race and class. It was a framing of the issue around race that had historical memory and was not often being articulated. The demands included a right of return, the right to organize, the right to an income, the right to living wages, the right to access, the right to education and health care, and the right to self-determination. Woodland, one of the coordinators for MXGM’s Katrina Relief program, says it’s really about the black community relying on itself. “My inclination is not to worry about what white folks are doing, because they’re going to do what they have done historically. Every once in a while they will surprise you and I’ll take it as a surprise, but my concern has been with how folks in our community have really stepped up, and I’m particularly proud of the response of black organizations.”

Long term

It is not enough, though for organizations of color to lead the rebuilding efforts, but for those organizations to be made up of people most directly affected by the disaster. “Many of our black leadership, non-profits and all, are from the middle class. Our coalition said upfront, we are listening to the voices of the poor,” Muhammad says. MXGM says they are working to provide resources and training to displaced people. “Here in New York we’re already seeing this develop so that people who have been displaced are beginning to say, ‘Hold on, we don’t need people to speak for us, we can speak for ourselves,’” Woodland explains. Woodland hopes that other organizations will support those affected, as well to take the lead. “I think you will see MXGM move to the periphery in terms of being visible and really be a back up and provide support for those individuals as needed and requested,” he finishes.

Most of the organizations interviewed are working on long term plans and goals that would empower the communities affected while furthering the rebuilding efforts. Zippert says the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is encouraging people to use cooperatives and credit unions as tools poor people can use to rebuild. “We want to help people create worker owned cooperatives to do certain jobs created by the storm that went to Halliburton and these other companies. We can help poor people get the training and assistance to best deal with this post Katrina situation.”Common Ground wants to rehabilitate the 9th ward, which was the most heavily damaged section of New Orleans, “to show people and the powers that be that contrary to their observations, the 9th ward is salvageable,” Koné asserts.

Everyone I spoke with agreed that if changes are going to happen, it will happen only by people on the ground pushing for those changes, and that as we move forward, race will continue to play an intricate part in the south, as it has since this country’s inception.“We all have to get on ground, roll up our sleeves and go to work. I do not believe FEMA or the American capable of rebuilding our city; they have no intention of helping poor black people return. We are going to have to demand it,” Muhammad declares.

Walidah Imarisha is a poet and an independent journalist who works with the Philly-based prisoner family organizing group The Human Rights Coalition, AWOL Magazine and is part of the poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista ( This article was published in Left Turn Magazine