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Activists' grassroots relief effort
Righting the wrong of this disaster

September 30, 2005 | Page 6

MANIJEH MORADIAN was part of a group of Campus Antiwar Network members who met up at the George Galloway-Christopher Hitchens debate in New York City September 14 and traveled to Louisiana to help in the grassroots relief effort for Hurricane Katrina victims. Here, she describes the trip and its impact.

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LAST WEEK, I traveled to New Orleans with eight other activists on a trip organized by the Campus Antiwar Network. We had raised thousands of dollars and wanted to bring supplies and cash directly to those who needed them.

On the drive down, we stopped at a Wal-mart just outside of Birmingham, Ala., and split up into teams to buy as much bottled water, nonperishable food, toiletries and cleaning supplies as we could fit in our rented minivans. As we raced around filling shopping carts, the absurdity of the situation was as apparent as the 2-for-1 stickers lining the aisles. There we were in the richest country on earth, scrambling amid the overstocked shelves of a "superstore," trying to get the most basic necessities to people just a few hours away who had lost everything and were still not being helped by any official relief agencies.

The haphazardness of it was mind-boggling. What if we hadn't decided to do this? What if the thousands of other activists and ordinary people who threw together a grassroots relief effort hadn't done so?

Thankfully, they had--because, as we were to see, a full two weeks after the storm, many communities had still not received any help from the Red Cross, FEMA or any other government agency.

We based ourselves in Camp Casey III in Covington, La., where antiwar activists and others had established a center for relief distribution. There were about 60 people there, and at the early morning camp meeting, we were welcomed among them.

We listened to the reports from the previous day's work. Still no water in Bogalusa, and FEMA was tuning relief trucks away. Gulfport was full of families who hadn't seen any Red Cross and needed food, water and toiletries. Jefferson Parish was not considered safe by the Red Cross, and there were families stuck there with no supplies and no money to leave. People in the Ninth Ward of New Orleans wanted to return home and needed cleaning supplies to remove the toxic mold from the homes where the water had risen five feet high.

Some of us decided to take half the supplies we had brought with us to the Algiers neighborhood, which had become another center of grassroots relief work. We used press passes to get past the military checkpoint and began our approach to the city.

The haunting symbols of human suffering were all around us. There was the Superdome with its roof half gone, and the smell of raw sewage still permeating the air. As we sped past and captured the deserted cityscape on video, all I could think was: This is where people were left for dead--the scene of a crime against humanity.

We drove past houses with harrowing spray-painted word across their entrances: "Alive." "Need food and water," another said.

The military that wasn't there to answer those desperate calls before was now absolutely everywhere. They flew through the sky in Blackhawk helicopters and rumbled through the streets in Hummers, machine guns drawn. They pointed guns in our faces outside a Red Cross center in Covington where they stood guard. We only witnessed a military unit doing something useful once--one crew was cleaning out rain gutters in Algiers.

Algiers has become another activist center of distribution, but because two neighborhood residents are at the center of the organizing, there are long-term plans for rebuilding that have already begun. Malik and Sharon have opened their home, and back yard, to dozens of activists coming in from all over the country. Supplies are unloaded here and sorted into family packs for distribution, or diverted to St. Mary's Church, which has become a warehouse for relief aid.

This is the emergency aspect of the activity. But there is also a volunteer clinic, started up by out-of-state doctors. The large sign in front reads, "This is solidarity, not charity." These doctors want to recruit local doctors to replace them and help train community members in how to provide basic health care for each other.

A young doctor named Lorrie told us that her biggest shock of all was coming here expecting to do emergency trauma medicine, but ending up providing primary health care that the mostly African-American residents of Algiers had long gone without. She told us about an elderly woman who had run out of her asthma medicationæin 2003.

Over in Jefferson Parish, things were even worse. In one poor Black section, residents had to pass through a checkpoint with machine gun-toting National Guardsmen.

After delivering food and water to people who had still not seen any Red Cross personnel, a resident named Dameon talked about what the community had been experiencing since the storm. He had spent time in jail among other dozens of people who were arrested for looting.

Just then, a policewoman and a National Guardsman drove up. The guardsman had an M-16; 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 déja-vu." When he left, Dameon said, "He says it's dangerous here, but there's 100 people here, and he's the only one with a gun."

The Pearl River trailer park is almost entirely white, but people here have been utterly neglected by the official relief effort, too. We unloaded some of the supplies we had brought and spread them out on the grass. Then we went door to door to let folks know they could come and take whatever they needed.

As she sorted through the canned goods and stacks of diapers, a mother of two told us how she had lost her job and is only entitled to $200 every two weeks from the government. Activists from Camp Casey were the first and only relief workers any one there had seen.

We saw up close what it means to have screwed-up priorities in our country, where $1 billion a week is spent on occupying Iraq while resources to deal with a storm everyone knew was coming are still in scarce supply. If you are poor and white in Pearl River, you have lost your livelihood. If you are poor and black in Jefferson Parish, you have lost your job, but you are also subject to checkpoints and treated like a criminal.

The more stories we heard, the more it seemed like so many of the injustices that preceded Hurricane Katrina had only heightened along with the rising floodwaters.

Undocumented Honduran immigrants, who got the worst jobs in Louisiana before the storm, were camping out next to us and working for $4 an hour plus food to repair damaged buildings.

Criminal defense lawyer and activist Buddy Spells told us that the local jail in his parish was emptied because of a lack of electricity and running water, only to be refilled with so-called parole violators who could not be at home at required times because they had no home left to go to. Without any defense attorneys present, these parolees were threatened with severe jail sentences unless they accepted plea bargains that returned them to prison.

Buddy was blocked from visiting a client in the Greyhound bus station--which has been turned into an emergency detention center under the declaration of emergency issued by President Bush--despite having a court order. No one knows how many people are held inside, whether they have been charged or how they are being treated.

Driving back through the night toward Atlanta, where we would board our plane and return to New York, we talked about what would happen after this initial stage of emergency relief efforts. Much like during the 1960s, the connections between the struggles against war, racism and poverty were clear to us from all we had seen and heard on our trip. Our hope is that the spirit of solidarity and determination we saw on the part of people determined to right the wrong of this unnatural disaster is just the beginning.

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