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Notes of a Native Son: Stories of New Orleans

From a letter by John Clark

A few days ago three young people went to look at a parking lot at where one of them had parked his car on high ground before the hurricane to avoid flooding. On arriving the three were confronted by police who forced them down to the ground, accused Reggae, the car's owner, of being a looter who was returning to loot again, kicked him in the side, held guns to the heads of all three, subjected them to verbal abuse, and then arrested them all for trespassing. The three had to spend the rest of the day and all night in an outdoor makeshift jail set up at the bus station and attempt to sleep on the concrete pavement. The next day they were told they had to plead guilty or be taken immediately to a state prison a hundred miles away.

Similar stories of abusive behavior by police and arrests without cause are common. In recent days a cameraman caught on camera a policeman striking an elderly man (a retired African-American schoolteacher) on the head repeatedly and then assaulting another cameraman who was recording the abuse. The alleged crime of the victim, who made no attempt to resist, was public intoxication, though he claims he was merely going into a bar to buy cigarettes and had not had a drink in 25 years.

These and many other stories provide the negative or 'disastrous' side of the disaster. However, I would like to conclude with a few words on the positive side of this experience: the extraordinary and inspiring efforts of local and outside volunteers; the reemergence and flourishing of grassroots community ; and the creation of hope for a better and qualitatively different future. The weeks I've spent in New Orleans since the hurricane have undoubtedly been one of the most gratifying periods in my life. Seldom have I felt so much gratitude for the goodness of people, for their ability to show love and compassion for others, and for their capacity to create spontaneous community.

Out of this disaster has come abundant evidence of the power of voluntary cooperation and mutual aid based on love and solidarity that Elisée Reclus (a 19th century French anarchist who spent much time in New Orleans) described so eloquently. Mutual aid, he said, is "the principle agent of human progress." In his view, the practice of mutual aid would begin with small groups of friends ­- affinity groups, in effect ­- and extend out to larger and larger communities, ultimately transforming society as a whole. Reclus says:  

"Let us found little republics within ourselves and around ourselves. Gradually these isolated groups will come together like scattered crystals and form the great Republic."

I have found a great deal of this mutual aid spirit of voluntary cooperation and concern for people¹s real needs (in short, the spirit of the gift) in New Orleans over the past month. The most inspiring aspect of the recovery from the disaster has been this grassroots, cooperative effort to practice mutual aid and community self-help. A vast spectrum of local and outside grassroots organizations have been at work in the recovery effort. These include the Rainbow Family, Food Not Bombs volunteers from several states,  the Common Ground Collective in Algiers, the Bywater neighborhood collective, the Soul Patrol in the 7th Ward neighborhood, the Family Farm Defenders from Wisconsin, the Pagan Cluster, and groups of students from Prescott College in Arizona, Appalachian State in North Carolina and other colleges and universities. Individual volunteers have come from throughout the US, from Canada, and from other countries, often linking up with local community groups or groups of volunteers from outside the state who are working with local groups. I felt great satisfaction when one young volunteer from a distant state said to me explicitly, "We came here to practice mutual aid." The Idea is still very much alive!  

John Clark is a surre(gion)alist anarchist born, raised, and still very much alive in New Orleans.


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