We are nine students from four colleges in New York City NYU, City College, Hunter College, Columbia in Louisiana with a Relief Not War caravan organized by the Campus Antiwar Network. Some of us are grad students; some are freshmen. Some of us grew up in the South. Some of us have never been here before. All of us felt that we needed to come here to join in the relief effort.
Thursday, Sept 15: Setting off
We got off to an auspicious start: during every leg of the trip to Louisiana, we met people eager to strike up a conversation about the hurricane. A Laguardia Airport bag checker asked us what we thought of Bush refusing Cuba’s offer of aid. A black Avis worker in Atlanta shared stories she’d heard about the racist police in New Orleans then told us the worst racism she’d encountered from cops was when she lived in New Jersey, not the Deep South. A white WalMart worker near Birmingham, who wore pictures of her own small children on her uniform, told us that the hardest part for her was imagining what mothers in New Orleans must be going through.
There are nine of us. Although some of us knew each other already from the Campus Antiwar Network, several of us knew none or only one of the others, and we had not been able to meet as a group prior to the trip. So at lunch we finally got to sit down, just shy of Birmingham, and introduce ourselves. We each said we had come. Some people spoke of their horror watching the TV news coverage. One white woman talked about growing up amid racism in the South, and wanting to do something after watching black people left behind in New Orleans. Another woman talked about Freedom Summer, and wondered if our own lives would be changed by whatever we would find, in the same way those Northern college students’ lives had been. A third has family in the area.
Having learned a little about each other, we headed off to WalMart to buy the supplies we would donate, as well as our own provisions. The shopping experience drove home the absurdity of the situation: faced with overwhelming abundance in front of us, and desperate need we would be traveling toward, we struggled to spend the thousands of dollars we had raised and cram everything into our car. It struck many of us that there had to be a better way to meet people’s needs than for nine of us from New York to debate what kind of tampons women in Louisiana might want, or how many propane stoves we could fit into our minivans.
With cars fully loaded, we entered Mississippi. Here, for the first time, we felt that we were in a disaster zone. Trees and signs lay overturned by the side of the road. The stench of raw sewage was overpowering. Army caravans roamed some of the streets. At the same time, we now truly felt being in the Deep South. Those of us who hadn’t been here before were shocked to find children’s toys adorned with Confederate flags in the gas station.
Finally we reached Camp Casey III, run by Veterans for Peace in Covington, Louisiana and pitched our tents in the dark, waiting for tomorrow.
Friday, Sept 12
Each day, the camp opens with a morning meeting. Today’s had 65 people. Much of the camp’s work is traveling to nearby rural areas where people may be trapped without cars, or money for gas, and bringing supplies. The morning meetings report on the previous day’s findings so the camp can distribute relief to the most desperate areas. Yesterday, one of the best successes was getting relief to an Indian reservation.
Today, our team of nine split up, taking volunteers and supplies to two different areas: Jefferson Parish and New Orleans.
Friday: Jefferson Parish
We went with a small group from the Vets-for-Peace camp, and a local from the Jeffereson Parish area, to deliver food and baby supplies to people in the mostly forgotten and deserted neighborhoods of Jefferson Parish. We first stopped in a neighborhood in which families had no electricity or running water until just a few days ago.
We gave out a lot of food, diapers, paper towels and soap to families and residents.
One woman with a few children said that they didn’t hear the 20-hour evacuation notice, and that “army boys” with guns had come and had told them that they had two hours to leave.
Before going to the next neighborhood, we went to a distribution center now under FEMA’s control. They wouldn’t let us take food except on designated days. A woman from FEMA told us that they had started doing food-drops in Jefferson Parish a few days ago, and just found this distribution place and started bringing food there. However, if people wanted food they had to go there, though most people didn’t have cars.
Next door, a group of firemen were gathered in a meeting. Firemen from New York City and Chicago fire departments were donating their fire trucks and food and other supplies. They were not willing to give us food to distribute.
Across the street, there were signs that read: “You Loot, We Shoot!” and “Neighborhood under security (We will shoot).”
At the distribution center, we talked to a staff sergeant, Samuel, from Philadelphia. He had been there for10 days. He was first a part of the “search and rescue” teams, checking for people dead or alive. When asked about looting, he said he hadn’t seen any, but he said that the signs outside “were legitimate.” When asked about how he felt about being here, he said that he “cherished every moment.”
The next neighborhood we went to was worse. The whole place was abandoned. There were two families with six kids living across the street from one another. One of the kids talked about being in the 9th ward and having to swim in the water to leave after the storm hit. He had left his grandmother there, who had died in the flooding. Part of our distribution group started to play music with the kids, and they sang songs by the Temptations.
Down the street was a middle-aged black woman who wanted a scented candle because her house smelled so bad.
Further into the neighborhood, there was an elderly white man who stayed behind through the storm because he was worried about his 12 cats. Because no one knew he and his neighbor were there, they had spray painted on the street: FOOD WATER NEED.
Our final stop was in the only neighborhood in Jefferson Parish that had a security check-point. We gave the rest of our food to a black family living there, and then met Dameon, and young black man who lived in these projects. He talked a lot about living in the projects after the storm. He had spent time in jail among other dozens of people who were arrested for looting.
While we were talking to him, a police woman and a national guardsman drove up. The guardsman had an M16; he told us to be careful because this area was dangerous: “We call this the projects,” he said. He had been in Iraq and said that being here was “like deja-vu.”
When he left, Dameon said that “he says it’s dangerous here, but there’s only 100 people here and he’s the only one with a gun.”
When talking about the rescue and clean-up efforts he stated, “Why’da quarta’ dry, and the 9th’s under six feet of water? Why’da quarta opening in five of six days, and the 9th’s a disaster zone?”
When asked what he would tell George Bush if he were here, he said “I would tell George Bush that he failed us. He’s an idiot. His administration failed us, he was wrong, and he should resign and let somebody else have a try.”
Right before returning back to the camp, we talked with a woman photographer from California who talked about how she couldn’t get the national guardsmen to understand why they were not welcomed by people in the affected communities. Activists from all around the country had been delivering food and supplies; they were not afraid to help displaced and poor families, while the guardsmen showed up with guns.
Friday: New Orleans
We left Camp Casey III this morning with a fellow camper and fellow New Yorker named Todd. Because we arrived late last night, this was our first opportunity to see the Covington area in daylight. At the campground, there were several rows of mobile homes, most of which had been destroyed to various extents by the storm. A few were crushed completely by fallen trees.
We made our way from the camp, past Covington, which seems to be largely up and running again, and headed across the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway into downtown New Orleans. We managed to get by the checkpoints without too much trouble, thanks to the press passes that a few of us have.
Driving into the city that we’ve seen plastered on the news for the past two weeks was somewhat surreal. We recognized the bridge near the Superdome where people camped out to stay above the floodwaters. The remains of their camps are still there on the bridge. Everywhere around the Superdome, we could see spots where people must have camped out during the flood. The area is littered with empty water bottles, tarps, clothes, and the remnants of people’s belongings.
Now that the lake water has been pumped out, downtown New Orleans is literally flooded with military and cops. There were hummers on every street. We saw soldiers with M-16s patrolling in a few places. The French Quarter has been turned into a massive communal kitchen for fire, police, and military units. At one point, we drove by a familiar sight: an NYPD cop car, parked across the street.
What are all these cops and soldiers doing in New Orleans? We certainly didn’t see any of them distributing food, water, or any other supplies. They seemed to be more interested in setting up checkpoints. With the streets totally abandoned by ordinary people, and with debris and wreckage everywhere, we almost could have been driving through Fallujah or Baghdad.
After taking a brief tour of the downtown area, we made our way over to the Ninth Ward, where we were meeting some folks who were moving back into their home, after staying for the past few days at Camp Casey III. Andrea and a few of her friends are returning to set up a clinic out of the ground level of the house that they own on St. Claude Avenue.
Andrea said that they were doing it so that people in the neighborhood would be encouraged to move back into their houses. She is afraid that if they don’t return soon, the whole place will be gentrified. The poor neighborhoods and the black neighborhoods are central to this city, she told us. And that’s what they are going to destroy. Andrea called it an “ethnic cleansing of sorts.” Later, when we were sharing stories about the day with our group that went to Jefferson Parish, we learned that a man they had met there, named Damien, had also used the term “ethnic cleansing” to describe what could potentially happen.
While we were talking, Andrea’s husband Jeff called her cell phone. He had been buying a car at a Honda dealership just outside of the city. The guy who sold him the car made a comment that New Orleans would be so nice “now that all the spooks are gone.”
Just a few blocks down the road was one of the two bridges connecting to the Lower Ninth Ward, one of the poorest neighborhoods in the city, which also happens to be ninety-eight percent African-American. The military had totally sealed off the bridge. Only camouflage could cross over. That’s where all the dead bodies are, Andrea told us.
After unloading a bunch of cleaning supplies we had with us at Andrea’s, we continued on to Algiers, where we were supposed to pay a visit to Malik Rahim. Malik is a former Black Panther and co-founder of the Louisiana Green Party. He and his partner, Sharon, have set up a base of operations for relief work at their house on Atlantic Street.
We gave a ride to a woman who is a trauma counselor from the Bay Area. When she had run across a few Red Cross workers earlier in the week, she had asked them what kind of relief operations they were doing in the Ninth Ward. They replied that they had only been going to do relief in “safe places.” In other words, the Red Cross hasn’t touched the places in New Orleans that need aid the most. We haven’t seen any Red Cross anywhere we’ve been. Many of the people we’ve met have said the same thing. Who knows where the millions of dollars that people have donated has gone.
We arrived at Malik’s place to find a bustling scene: people talking on phones, others unloading boxes and supplies from cars, and still others sorting and repacking the donated supplies. The director of the camp, a man named Scott, told us that a week ago there had only been five of them. Now there were probably twenty.
We were greeted with open arms, cold water, and army MREs-Meals Ready to Eat. While we ate, some of the folks there unloaded all the rest of the supplies that we had brought out of the back of our van. Malik’s garage had been turned into a mini warehouse where volunteers assembled family packs of toiletries and other necessities. His back yard was now a camp ground where those running relief during the day slept at night.
A few days ago, a team of French people had arrived with about ten computers. In the house next to Malik’s, they had set up a tech center with the donated computers.
A few minutes away from Malik’s house, volunteer doctors have turned a mosque into a health clinic. One woman working there, Lorrie, told us that she thought she would be doing emergency trauma medicine. Instead, she had arrived to face a health crisis long predating Hurricane Katrina. She had treated one woman with a serious case of asthma. The last time the woman had gotten any asthma medicine was 2003.
Outside the clinic, two large spray-painted signs read: “This is Solidarity, not Charity.” Scott and others talked to us about their long-term vision for rebuilding this and other devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans. Unlike corporate America’s dream, theirs does not call for pretty new high-rises, lofts, hotels, and casinos. Their vision is one that actually benefits the people who have lived in these communities for their whole lives. Scott confided to us, “As activists we are always fighting against something. But we rarely get the opportunity to build something. Maybe we take an intersection during a demonstration. But now we get to actually build something-something community led, self-sustaining.”
The talk was of free schools, an ongoing clinic, the necessity of teaching residents basic primary healthcare skills. These activists are already using tech center next door to Malik’s house to develop the community resources and knowledge base.
On the way back to Malik’s house from the clinic, we stopped at a house where a middle-aged woman was sitting on the porch. Scott jumped out of the car and discreetly delivered her a package of underwear that she had requested earlier. She smiled and laughed, promising us a delicious meal once regular food started making it back into the area again.
Joanna Bove, John Burns, Manijeh Moradian, Vinay Patel, Tiffany Paul, Francisco Pereyra, Jena Smith, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, and Zach Zill contributed to this report. Visit the Campus Antiwar Network at http://www.campusantiwar.net
ALEXANDER COCKBURN, JEFFREY ST CLAIR, BECKY GRANT AND THE INSTITUTE FOR THE ADVANCEMENT OF JOURNALISTIC CLARITY, COUNTERPUNCH
We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).
Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.
We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.
As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.
We are pleased to clarify the position.
August 17, 2005