What actually happened in New Orleans these past two weeks? We need to sort through the rumors and distortions. Perhaps we need our version of South Africa's Truth And Reconciliation Commission. Some way to sort through the many narratives and find a truth, and to find justice.
I spent yesterday inside the city of New Orleans, speaking to a few of the last holdouts in the 9th ward/bywater neighborhood. Their stories paint a very different picture from what we've heard in the media. Instead of stories of gangs of criminals and police and soldiers keeping order, there were stories of collective action, everyone looking out for each other, communal responses.
The first few nights there was a large, free community barbecue at a neighborhood bar called The Country Club. People brought food and cooked and cooked and drank and went swimming (yes, there's a pool in the bar).
Emily Harris and Richie Kay, from Desire Street, traveled out on their boat and brought supplies and gave rides. They have been doing this almost every day since the hurricane struck. They estimate that they have rescued at least a hundred people. Emily doesn't want to leave. She is a carpenter and builder, and says, "I want to stay and rebuild. I love New Orleans."
"A lot of people came to the high ground at St. Claude Avenue. They really thought someone would come and rescue them, and they waited all day for something - a boat, a helicopter, anything. There were helicopters in the sky, but none coming down."
So people started walking as a mass uptown to Canal Street. Along the way, youths would break into grocery stores, take the food and distribute it evenly among houses in the community.
"Then they reached Canal Street, and saw that there was still no one that wanted to rescue them. That's when people broke into the stores on Canal Street."
Walking through the streets, I witnessed hundreds of soldiers patrolling the streets. Everyone I spoke to said that soldiers were coming to their house at least once a day, trying to convince them to leave, bringing stories of disease and quarantine and violence. I didn't see or speak to any soldiers involved in any clean up or rebuilding.
There are surely reasons to leave - I would not be living in the city at this point. I'm too attached to electricity and phone lines. But I can attest that those holdouts I spoke to are doing fine. They have enough food and water and have been very careful to avoid exposing themselves to the many health risks in the city.
I saw more city busses rolling through poor areas of town than I ever saw pre-hurricane. Unfortunately, these buses were filled with patrols of soldiers. What if the massive effort placed into patrolling this city and chasing everyone out were placed into beginning the rebuilding process?
Some neighborhoods are underwater still, and the water has turned into a sticky sludge of sewage and death that turns the stomach and breaks my heart. However, some neighborhoods are barely damaged at all, and if a large-scale effort were put into bringing back electricity and clearing the streets of debris, people could begin to move back in now.
Certainly some people do not want to move back, but many of us do. We want to rebuild our city that we love. The People's Hurricane Fund - a grassroots, community based group made up of New Orleans community organizers and allies from around the US - has already made one of their first demands a "right of return" for the displaced of New Orleans.
In the last week, I've traveled between Houston, Baton Rouge, Covington, Jackson and New Orleans and spoken to many of my former friends and neighbors. We feel shell shocked. It used to be we would see each other in a coffee shop or a bar or on the street and talk and find out what we're doing. Those of us who were working for social justice felt a community.
We could share stories, combine efforts, and we never felt alone. Now we're alone and dispersed and we miss our homes and our communities and we still don't know where so many of our loved ones even are.
It may be months before we start to get a clear picture of what happened in New Orleans. As people are dispersed around the US reconstructing that story becomes even harder than reconstructing the city. Certain sites, like the Convention Center and Superdome, have become legendary, but despite the thousands of people who were there, it still is hard to find out exactly what did happen.
According to a report that's been circulated, Denise Young, one of those trapped in the convention center told family members, "yes, there were young men with guns there, but they organized the crowd. They went to Canal Street and 'looted,' and brought back food and water for the old people and the babies, because nobody had eaten in days. When the police rolled down windows and yelled out 'the buses are coming,' the young men with guns organized the crowd in order: old people in front, women and children next, men in the back,just so that when the buses came, there would be priorities of who got out first." But the buses never came. "Lots of people being dropped off, nobody being picked up. Cops passing by, speeding off. We thought we were being left to die."
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