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"We Are Creating An Alternative!":
A Connecticut Yankee Volunteers with
Common Ground Collective in New Orleans

A Report From the Gulf Coast, By Chris Heneghan

Badly damaged by floodwater, the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church on the corner of Pauline and Claiborne was home to the Common Ground community center. The collective had worked out an agreement with members of the congregation. They'd use the space for the time being in exchange for providing necessary renovations.. Gutted down to the studs and abated of black mold by volunteers, the church now served as a hub for grassroots relief. It was a place where Common Ground volunteers ate, slept, and congregated before and after their workdays.

The community center was like an oasis amidst the storm-battered streets of the upper 9th ward. The aroma of spices sautéing in the balmy evening air invited me into the church courtyard. It was my first look at the logistics that made Common Ground's operation possible. Under three EZ-UP tents and a tarp was an outdoor kitchen, where four propane burners and a volunteer cooking crew worked from 5 am to 8 pm to provide up to three hundred people with three meals a day. Dinner was rice and beans, a carrot-looking concoction, a slice of wheat bread and the best bowl of lentil soup to ever hit my palate. Those spices I'd smelled earlier had been put to good use. From the back of the bread line I'd counted 115 people ahead of me waiting for warm food. I passed the time in line talking with the people around me, finding out where they were from and why they came. "Speak of diversity," I thought to myself. There were anarchists, mingling with soccer moms, who were shooting the breeze with transgendered individuals, mixed in with Baptists preachers, along with college kids earning out-of-class credits, dropouts searching for somewhere to drop in, doctors, lawyers, and even a couple of young Republicans.

I'd been drawn to Common Ground by the slogan "Solidarity not Charity," and by the idea of providing mutual aid and support to returning residents in this region. It was fascinating to think the same allure brought all these people here to stand together with the people of New Orleans for justice and equality in the city. After dinner I rolled out my sleeping bag on the floor of the sanctuary and lost myself in a book till sleep came calling....

I rose with a bit of a backache from sleeping on the concrete. It had been a while since I'd been away from the comforts of my basement apartment in CT. In a few days the ways of the road would break me in again.... Though I'd jumped right out of bed already there was a long line of people ahead of me. Eager to start the day they were all waiting for a warm bowl of grits, a cup of coffee and the start of the morning meeting, where official operations began.

The structure of the morning meeting appeared to have been taken straight out of a handbook for utopia. Conducted in a non-authoritarian fashion, with no hierarchy, no time clocks, and collective participation, it was a perfect way to start a workday.

The meeting gave a glimpse into the massiveness of the tasks performed by the collective. They did everything: from house gutting, mold abatement, and roof taping, to legal support and community outreach. The group also provides free medical care, documentary work, distribution of clothing, clean water, food, and other necessities, as well as organic gardening and other sustainable development projects. Along with childcare, after school tutoring, and the day-to-day political struggle, everyone's skills had a place within the collective. If a volunteer had an idea for a new project she could bring it to the attention of the collective and most often would be given the full support of the group.

Each day began this way. The hundred-something volunteers circled up in the courtyard, sipping the bottoms out of mugs of coffee and spooning the last of their morning rations into their mouths. In the center of the circle a volunteer facilitated the meeting. A raised hand signaled an issue to be addressed. Round the circle the facilitator went, giving everyone who wished a chance to speak.

After about a half hour of addressing individual concerns, the facilitator stepped out of the circle and another volunteer with a clipboard entered the circle. Time for work assignments. One by one, job assignments were read from a list, along with the number of volunteers needed for each job. A crew leader was picked for each project, and interested people met with that person. Before we left for work, there was a group sun salutation and some yoga, to level body, mind, and spirit. Yoga is good for everyone, but particularly beneficial to the house gutting crews, who would spend the day sweating in TyVec suits and breathing their own backwash through respirators inside of abandoned houses.

 In time I'd get my share of that. This morning I was on my way to install a kitchen sink in a Wymen's center, scheduled to open by the end of the week. I estimated the job would take me two days. The first would be spent taking measurements, and tracking down a truck to drive me to a store for supplies. But without even knowing it, I'd made my first mistake. Assuming I'd operate the same way in a disaster zone as I would outside of a disaster zone was wrong. Materials would come for this job but not in the same manor I'd been accustomed to obtaining them for other jobs....

The realization that, outside of Common Ground, I was alone in my work in the 9th Ward was something I came to the first day as I searched through piles of debris for salvageable material. Red Cross was doing mobile food distribution out of a truck that made its rounds through the 9th Ward, but they had no workers on the ground. Every now and then a stream of FEMA trailers would enter the rail yard on a line of flatbed freights. They would sit on the tracks for about a week, just long enough to lift the spirits of residents awaiting their arrival, before being hitched to a locomotive again and moved north to another location. Even more elusive were FEMA workers themselves. I don't recall seeing one in the 9th Ward at all during my time there.

I met up with one of the founders of the Common Ground Collective, Malek Rahim one morning at his house in Algiers. Long time community organizer and Green Party mayoral candidate for the city of New Orleans, Rahim explained there is more than just a thick line of red tape keeping federal aide from some of the hardest hit neighborhoods in New Orleans East. He believes, "the plantation syndicates that run the state of Louisiana have their feet on the necks of black population" who inhabit these neighborhoods. Citing the potential "land grab," on residential properties by some of the biggest developers in the nation...Rahim also feels developers' plans have influenced decisions by city officials to keep residents away from their homes. "How can a mother bring her children home and feel safe here when the city won't even turn on the streetlights? How can you go to work and come home when there is still a 4p.m. curfew in the Lower 9th Ward that is enforced by federal agents?" , he asked....  

Kim Price, 42 a resident of the Lower 9th Ward, objects to the proposal put forward by the urban planning commission. "A lot of families want to come back. This is their home and they have no other place to go." Price said, feeling that residents should be allowed to freely return to their homes. "We are going to rebuild until someone else tells us otherwise. If they can fix [this neighborhood] for the developers, there is no reason why they can't fix it for the people," she added.

If the Common Ground Collective has their way with the city then Price will soon be able to begin renovations on her property, repairing the house sitting in disrepair, replacing the mounds of levee mud and piles of debris with green grass and a "home sweet home," sign. But activists made no promises to residents of this area.... There was no need for making promises, for Common Ground made clear to the community that they are committed to standing in solidarity with the people of these areas. They are committed to providing mutual aid and assistance, while fighting tooth and nail on through the eleventh hour to defend resident's rights.

Many times it seemed like the 11th hour was fast upon us....We stood ready, waiting in the trenches of our days for a call to action. On the afternoon of January 5, cell phones started ringing. The enemy had attacked in a neutral zone. Bulldozing of properties had begun. Volunteers left whatever they were doing and began to search for a car or a bicycle, any means of transportation to get them over to the 2000 block of Reynes Street in the Lower 9th Ward. Fast response was critical in this situation. Twenty minutes after my phone rang I arrived. A number of activists were already on the ground, and a caravan of cars was on its way just minutes behind me....A police barricade kept us from moving further up Reynes Street to confront the workers. A block away, we were within eyesight and it was clear our presence was making the hard hats uneasy. Tracie Washington, an organizer for the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund was onsite with a cell phone. She called the activity into the city attorney's office, citing that the workers were, "in clear violation of an agreement that the city made on December 28 to hold off bulldozing until a hearing in civil district court." The phone call was followed by a loud barrage of activist cheers as the construction workers shut down their operation and retreated from the scene, taking their machinery with them. As a result, a hearing was scheduled for the following day before U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman, where it was ruled the demolition of homes in the Lower 9th Ward should be put on hold until the city's redevelopment plan is finalized.

"One for the underdogs," I mused, as I returned to the community center at the end of the day. Usually by dinner volunteers were exhausted. That evening everyone was in high spirits. I ate and talked with a group of volunteers about the success in the Lower 9th that day. As activists we were all a bit surprised. For the moment we had the upper hand on the city. We shut them down. All of us were used to talking a stand, getting beat up by police and sometimes arrested. I kind of expected something similar to happen that afternoon. Fortunately nobody was beaten up and nobody was arrested. We won temporarily. How long would this last? And could we pull it off again?....

I thought back on my interview with Rahim a few days earlier. "We are challenging some of the largest corporations in the world that are looking at this as a cash cow, another way to bleed the American public out of its tax dollars. Not only that, together we are delivering a blow against racism," he had told me. It was true, yesterday was a testament to that.

Rahim, who humbly went about his work each day beneath a mane of wise grey dreadlocks, would not take credit for inspiring the direct action on January 5, which temporarily saved a neighborhood from further ruin. He credits all affirmations of the work being done by the Collective to the, "Spirit of [the] volunteers." This spirit he believes, helped Common Ground grow into the massive relief organization it is today. "Young people who are making a stand for peace and justice. They come in. They look around. Common Ground is just one of the venues they want to use in that cause for peace and justice," he said.

It was the same cause, for "peace and justice" that inspired Rahim, his partner Sharon, and activist Scot Crow to organize the moment they learned hurricane Katrina going to have an impact on New Orleans. Sitting around Rahim's kitchen table on August 27, the three had a total of fifty bucks between them. They decided to put that money towards organizing efforts when the storm passed. The choice not to evacuate had been made....

Rahim explained how ...those who first snickered at the Collective could do nothing more than look in disbelief as Common Ground's operations grew into what they are today. The Collective currently operates five distribution centers in four parishes, two free health clinics, an after school tutorial program and an adult education center. They also offer a number of other free services to returning residents including house gutting, tree removal, roof tarping, and legal support to name a few. In five months Common Ground has provided services to over 50,000 residents.

Not one elected official has visited any of their facilities during this time but their impact upon the city and surrounding parishes cannot be ignored. Currently Common Ground is focusing a great deal of their energy on preserving residents' properties in the Lower 9th Ward. A neighborhood whose fate is yet be determined by the Urban Planning Commissions pending redevelopment proposal. Blueprints laid out in closed door meetings don't slow progress on the grassroots level. In fact knowledge of such planning meetings fans the already burning ambitions of the volunteer community. "Their plans are their plans," Rahim said. "We are not going to react to their plans because if we do we are going to end up losing. We have to go ahead and carry out ours. I don't care what their plans are. I don't care what those developers are trying to do. What we are doing is moving to set up an alternative."

Setting up an alternative was exactly what the Collective intended to do when they moved into the Greater Mount Carmel Baptist Church in the Upper 9th Ward during late October. After establishing a base camp, a distribution center was opened. A Wymen's shelter and health clinic followed. Common Ground's presence made such an impact in the community that the city was forced to revaluate their plans for the area. Where they once hoped to send bulldozers under eminent domain to demolish homes, they were now clearing debris from roads so residents could return home. Where downed wires once hung hazardously on lawns and sidewalks, blowing with the tropical breeze like jungle vines in the darkness of night, Entergy was now coming around to restore electricity. Block by block, street lamp by street lamp, house by house, the lights were coming back on.

To think a collective founded by an ex-Black Panther and a group of anarchists was responsible for saving a neighborhood was almost more than I could fathom. But direct action did bring about the eight hour work day, the right for Wymen to vote, and desegregated schools. Perhaps history will soon add the rebuilding of New Orleans for its people to that list.      


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