Kevin (erf_) wrote,

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new orleans: day one

Click here for pictures.

Eric: There's something very disturbing about Katamari Damacy. I can't help but feel guilty about rolling up all these people.
Kevin: Yeah. You corrupt cities in Grand Theft Auto, but in this game you destroy them.
Andy (drunk): You fools! They're happy about being rolled up! You're giving them the chance to be part of something bigger than themselves!

-Conversation over a two-player game of We Love Katamari

The only sensible place to start is at the beginning. So that's where I'll start.

We left Oberlin in good spirits. (Seems to be the obligatory way to start any story about a journey--it's kind of hard to leave home if you aren't.) We were a group of twenty or so student volunteers who had spent the last two or three weeks preparing, organizing, and fundraising for this trip. It did not go well--there were problems with transportation, problems with money, problems with leadership, problems problems problems. Highly unreliable sources tell me the instigators of our adventure were determined to make this trip a grand demonstration of the power of anarchy to organize a group in the absence of government, and they were none too pleased at taking the reins when this plan fell through. But they were effective leaders, and we managed to head out on Saturday afternoon from a house on South Main in a rented Pennske truck (for bikes), a gleaming white Chevy pickup (for supplies), and three college vans (for dirty hippie volunteers). Our vans loaded with people and our people loaded with fresh vegetables and squeeze-tube peanut butter and white Amish cheese from the co-ops, we left, as previously mentioned, in good spirits.

(No, I'm not being paid by the word.)

The journey down would have been eventful in itself were we not going somewhere as terrifyingly interesting as New Orleans. Over the course of twenty-two hours we crossed over more states than I could keep track of in my head at once, and saw just as many unusual things. There was the Tennessee truck stop with the Extraordinarily Phallic Decommissioned ICBM of Death (a Korean/Vietnam War memorial, inexplicably), there were unmanned Mississippi truck stops with vending machines that sold moon pies (moon pies!) and energy drinks and tuna fish and extremely painful women's razors. There was the amazing Jack Daniels Distillery Tour that we did not go on. There was the gas station that was supposed to be open twenty-four hours and wasn't so we peed on it.

But you don't want to hear about all that tripe, do you? You want to hear about New Orleans.

So I'm not going to talk about it just yet. Because I'm mean.

It's interesting how the more you think you know everyone at Oberlin, the more you realize you don't know anyone at Oberlin. Carly aside, I don't think I really knew anyone in our group when we headed out. For the most part they were the kind of hardcore activist Obies that upperclassmen lament they never see on campus (since, evidently, hardcore activists never are on campus). The kind that order organic tobacco through the mail and roll their own cigarettes because they don't approve of Phillip Morris. A sizable number of them, several of them freshmen, had a history on traveling across the United States to pro-choice marches and anti-globalization rallies and whatever radical left-wing cause of the week they could spend to time and money to attend. It isn't fair to pigeonhole these kind of people into a stereotype, though, because all they shared in common was the ire of the Religious Right. Some were going out of sheer momentum--having established themselves as activist crusaders, champions of any cause they felt to be right and good, working at a community collective in New Orleans was just the kind of thing they would do. Some were opposed to authority on principle and could not resist the opportunity to demonstrate that people could provide for themselves without the aid of government--rebels without a cause with a cause. And some, like me, were ordinary non-activist folk who were just going down because helping people out after a disaster happens to be the Right Thing to Do. In any case, it was nice to be around a group of people who knew the words to Against Me!'s "Baby, I'm An Anarchist" by heart, and could sing along as loudly and as off-key as when I do it. It was not so nice to have to listen to the same Le Tigre album three times in nine hours.

But I think it is important--especially for any of you mortified non-left-wing readers who may be reading this--to note that, political excuses aside, we were all really going down there for one reason and one reason alone. We were going because our consciences told us it needed to be done. That Moral Authority that the Right invokes so much, and lambasts us for ignoring, was the thing that motivated nearly two dozen college students into spending hundreds of dollars of their own money and taking enormous chunks of time and effort out of midterm week to drive twenty-two hours down to the most dangerous city in the United States to do back-breaking physical labor. Delve deep through the elaborate political rhetoric of even the most Machiavellian left-wing radical on our trip and you will find a person who cupped her hands over her face seeing news footage of that screaming, terrified wall of dying people in the Superdome and decided, at great expense to herself, that something had to be done.

There are easier causes to fight for, if you are merely a champion of the Left--there were scores of protests and demonstrations over fall break that could have advanced the so-called liberal agenda just as far, if not farther. Most of them easier, cheaper, and far less dangerous. But no--most of us may not have known it, but we were soldiers of God. For God draws His armies from the left and the right and everywhere in between, from the saved and the unsaved, from the angry and the meek. He calls from the Holy Spirit, that part of humanity that goes deeper than conscience, that tells you that, circularly, something good must be done simply because it is good and must be done. And though the Right would never admit it, and though most of us would never admit it, we were all there in His name.

I slept every night in New Orleans with a Bible wrapped in a shirt as my pillow--first, to remind me why I was there, and second, because it was the only object big enough.

That's not to say that going down there was easy on my conscience. The night before we left, Arthur Richards--a particularly brave Obie who took the semester off to work with Common Ground, and was one of our de facto Common Ground liaisons--mentioned in passing the day before I left that Common Ground was established by Malik Rahim, a former high-profile Black Panther who was living in the Algiers neighborhood of New Orleans. Rahim had called down some of his Black Panther buddies to protect the black residents of Algiers from bands of heavily armed white militias who had been sweeping through the neighborhood with automatic weapons and killing people. Supposedly not a single shot was fired as Rahim's people scared off the white militias with their superior numbers and firepower, and from the remnants of this operation Rahim founded Common Ground. Had I known this sooner, I would probably never have volunteered. I was genuinely concerned that Common Ground was some kind of front organization for a secret terrorist division of the Black Panthers, and if so, I wanted no part of it. Those of you who knew me last year knew how I felt about living in Third World House--death would be a favorable alternative to serving some of the agendas people in that dorm had. But Common Ground is exclusively focused on building community solidarity. That is the motive behind their altruism--they want to bring poor members of all walks of life so that they can unite against rich oppressors, with protests and legal action, not with guns. Their main weapons were food and kindness--I found none other at any of their sites, and I was given free rein to explore all of them. And if they were a front organization, I would soon learn, they did a far better job of actually getting food and supplies and work to people than any front needs to be. So I made a promise to myself--I would help out as long as all I was called to do was disaster relief, because (as I would also learn) there was no NGO in New Orleans better suited to getting food and supplies to those who needed it. Any militant action and I would be gone, personal welfare be damned. Thankfully, I never had any opportunity to break this promise. For why were the Black Panthers created but to serve the black community? And have the last thirty years of the civil rights movement not proven that civil disobedience is a stronger agent of change than fear and violence? The people I met there were mostly hippies and vegans. People who would be opposed to killing a cow, let alone a human being. Furthermore, they were overwhelmingly white--so much for the whole Black Panther thing. Over the next few days, I would more than just learn to trust them--I would learn to love them. But that afternoon I was still afraid. I could not look past the Black Panther stigma, nor the organization's nearly violent history. Combine this with the fact that I was a moderate Christian in a group of insanely radical left-wing activists, and it's not hard to see why I wasn't exactly thrilled about being in that van.

Long before we pulled into the city it was pretty clear that the place had become a wasteland. As far up as the welcoming station by the Louisiana state border, trees were stripped bare and mutilated like beaten trophy wives. What must have once been some of the most beautiful autumn foliage in America clung to dead branches in fist-sized clumps of gold. The damage only grew worse as we approached the city; on the north end of the bridge over Lake Ponchartrain there was barely a single billboard or street sign that was not blown over or torn asunder. As for the damage to human lives and property, I think the pictures speak for themselves. You could smell the garbage and the mold and the rotting corpses from all the way across the lake--it was a stench we would get far too accustomed to in the coming days. An a capella version of Matthew 5 came on the radio as we drove through it, and a stoic, mile-deep silence fell over our group as we passed by block after block of wreckage.

So much work to be done. So much broken, in need of repair.

On a lighter note, the bridge is silly. It's silly because there's a lot of it. Twenty-four miles of it, to be exact. Can you imagine what the planning session for that bridge must have been like?

"Hey, look! There's a 630 square mile lake in the middle of the place where we're building our highway. Let's make our interstate go right through it! At its widest point!"
"Um...wouldn't it be a lot cheaper to just, you know, go around it?"
"JENKINS. That is the LAST STRAW. You are FIRED. For being BLACK."

And thus the longest bridge in the world was built. Says a lot about how the city is run.

"PORT OF N.O. TERMINAL EXIT", read a sign at the entrance to the city. "ELYSIAN FIELDS AVE. -- NEXT RIGHT," read another.

We discovered fairly soon that the following rumors about New Orleans are true:

  • The city is completely bankrupt. Day-to-day operations are running on federal aid and duct tape. There is no hot water anywhere in the city, and running water in general was restored just recently. (It's not drinkable because it's highly toxic--it was toxic before Katrina.) Electricity is back in downtown and some of the more economically well-off parishes. The N.O.P.D. are not getting paid--they were not getting paid even before Katrina --and it is no stretch of cynicism to say that they are utterly corrupt. Arrests have been made for crimes like obstructing a public space (for being black and homeless and being on a sidewalk when journalists are around) and violating curfew. The punishment for every crime has been the same: lockup in a 4x12 metal cage by the Greyhound station and 72 hours of community service--almost invariably shoveling out toxic waste from the prison, which was flooded with many prisoners left to die, with no respirators or protective equipment and no water to drink except from the highly toxic Mississippi. This is not exaggeration or liberal propaganda--I have met people who have endured such punishment; I have seen some of these facilities with my own eyes. For a while it has been like Abu Gharib down there. No media spin can hide the flagrant abuse of power rogue cops (they do not deserve to be called policemen) exercise in the area. They are everywhere, they will arrest you without charge, they take whatever they want and do whatever they please. The thing the media doesn't tell you is that this does not appear to be a big change--if what the locals say can be relied on, they were corrupt long before Katrina. Not as corrupt as they are now, but still far too reminiscent of the cops in a bad gangster movie. State cops, fortunately, are much nicer.

  • Other law enforcement is there in spades. There's FBI, CIA, Homeland Security, immigration cops; even Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. All of them came down before FEMA or any aid organization was able to get there (which some people believe indicates a sinister agenda, but I believe is merely a sign of poor planning on FEMA's behalf.) There are private cops, including the notorious mercenary group Blackwater Security (which is inexplicably defending the National Guard base). There are the much-feared ICE cops, a joint operation between immigration cops and Homeland Security, known for their extreme brutality; there are military police with bright helmets labeled "MP". The only ones who are consistently in good favor with the locals, oddly enough, are the National Guard, who wander through the streets on foot and in humvees and even the occasional tank, armed with their omnipresent M16A2s. These guys can always be counted on to give you free MREs (army rations) and plastic jugs of water if you want them. They get mad props for offering to defend the Common Ground distribution center from rogue cops. Where there are National Guardsmen, you can count on being just a little safer. Just a little.

  • Racism. It's really bad down there. It's not an exaggeration in New Orleans. First thing they told us when we got down there was, "You guys shouldn't get in too much trouble with the police because you're all white." Not being what most people would consider white, I objected to this at first, but I soon realized the gravity of that statement. It's too complicated for me to describe in detail right now, but hopefully you will get a sense of it as I describe the next few days, as I got a sense of it over the next few days.

  • Dump trucks came by to take away trash on the third or fourth day we were there, but considering that mountains of rotting garbage had been sitting outside every inhabited space for the last three months, this was inexcusable. There were black trash bags in huge rotting piles every dozen or so feet. You could smell it indoors, on the roofs, from your car. There was no escape from the stench.

  • While FEMA is doing some amazing stuff--running the only hot showers in the entire city, setting up food distribution centers, blocking the road with convoys of prefab houses --poor organization is making a mess of their noble efforts. The news footage of fleets of buses and supply trucks on the freeway into New Orleans does not lie, for three months after Katrina those buses and supply trucks are still on the freeway into New Orleans. Not that FEMA isn't busting its ass to get that stuff into the city, or that they haven't done some good work down there, but it's undeniable that some force of bureaucracy is tying these guys up and keeping all these goods and services from getting to the people who need them in a timely or efficient manner. Many Common Ground volunteers hate them on principle. I don't, but I agree that there is definitely something up with the way they are being run.

    That said, the city had been doing a pretty good job of repairing itself over the past three months. Across the sea of damaged roofs and blue canvas tarps you could often find a construction scaffolding or an unpainted house. Signs offering employment or employees littered Jefferson Parish, and many stores in the richer parts of town were open. The military presence during the day was generally limited to the odd Humvee or gum-chewing soldier, and consequently there were no more snipers, looters, or rogue cop cars with Jolly Rogers on their radio antennas (Arthur claims to have seen these; I'll take his word for it). The French Quarter, which was relatively unharmed by the floods, looks as good as it ever has, and has reopened for tourists. Things are actually much better down there than I expected--there are no rusting cars in the streets, no entire neighborhoods laid to waste. It's less like Fallout than it is like Grand Theft Auto: New Orleans.

    Grand Theft Auto--the spirit of that game embodies the current state of the city so well. It's lawless down there. Not lawless anarchy, but controlled lawlessness. An epic battle between order and chaos, utterly corrupt on both sides, with hundreds of thousands of civilians playing them against each other just to survive.

    There was a big organizational dispute when we finally arrived at the Common Ground headquarters and distro center in Algiers--a set of crude tents in the back yard and garage of Common Ground founder Malik Rahim. The dispute was mostly between members of our group who were worried about burdening the Common Ground facilities with twenty new volunteers (the facility was currently serving thirty), and members of Common Ground who insisted that we stay on an ideological basis. It was ugly and silly and more than a little personal, so I'll spare the details. Suffice to say that, after sitting around idle like Warcraft peons (and excitedly unloading trucks of donations when they pulled up to the entrance), we finally worked out an arrangement where we would stay in an abandoned former firehouse a few blocks from the French Quarter. Common Ground had supplied a lawyer to its owner when he had been arrested for breaking curfew several weeks earlier, so a favor of this sort did not seem to be an unreasonable request. The firehouse--long ago converted to a community center, with a sign out front advertising swing and salsa lessons on Sundays--did not have functional toilets and was filthy and moldy and littered with garbage and broken glass, but it had running water and a roof and enough space for all of us to sleep. It was heaven.

    Interesting and tragic note: When we entered the firehouse we found two unmade cots (now moldy), a sink full of dirty dishes, and a fridge full of rotting food. On a table on the first floor was a yellowed newspaper from August 28, 2005. That was the day the hurricane hit.

    We set up our sleeping bags quickly, exhausted from the long drive and the road madness. Boxes of carrots, celery, soy milk and peanut butter were set up on a table in the back. This would be our food supply for the coming week. Camp Oberlin Aid was open and ready for action.

    I read Daniel in the Old Testament by flashlight that night. It was strangely moving.

    Today's MRE: none
    Today's Old Testament chapter: Daniel
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