"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
Include the citation below and GEO Newsletter grants
permission to copy, use, and distribute this article.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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....
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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....
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.
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
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.
Permission not for commercial or for-profit use.
©2006 GEO, P O Box 115, Riverdale MD 20738