Seeing Common Ground: How a group of black militants, hippies and anarchists tried to save New Orleans
By Tim Shorrock
I wrote this story in 2005 after spending nearly a month in New Orleans. Parts of it were published by Mother Jones magazine, but only after the piece was massacred by its editors, who had asked me to write a “New Yorker-style” article of 7,000 words or more and then, without any warning or even an apology, slashed the story to less than 800 words. Nevertheless, the tale of the Common Ground clinic and the people who made it work stands as one of the most enduring stories of Hurricane Katrina, and underscores the importance of solidarity during times of crisis – as recently in Haiti and the Gulf Coast (once again). This story is one of the best things I ever did.
In the days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, thousands of people, most of them black and poor, endured a devastating flood and then suffered in unspeakable conditions inside the Super Dome and Convention Center before being scattered to the winds in US transport planes. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of soldiers, police and private security guards, armed with M-16s and other heavy weapons, poured into the city to enforce a mandatory evacuation order and rid the city of what state and federal officials were calling “looters” and “thugs.”
For most people, however, security depended on the color of their skins. One day, hundreds of New Orleans residents, again mostly black, sought refuge from the water by trudging seven miles across the Mississippi River Bridge to Gretna, Louisiana – only to be met by the Sheriff of Jefferson County and a posse of policemen from majority-white Gretna barring their way. In nearby Algiers, which escaped the flood but was hard-hit by wind damage, white residents frightened by media images about car-jackings and looting camped out on their roofs, guns at the ready; witnesses in the area later reported finding at least four bodies, all black men, killed mysteriously by shotgun fire. Late one night, National Guardsmen and a SWAT team from New Orleans’ notoriously racist police department raided the Algiers Fischer Housing Development, allegedly in search of someone who had fired bullets at a cell phone truck. In response, young black youths seized guns and pistols from local pawn shops and vowed to protect their community from the troops and what they called white vigilantes (for the full story, see “Katrina’s Hidden Race War” in The Nation, January 2009).
Algiers resident Ronald Ragens, 55, remembers those days as lonely and frightening. “All you was seein’ was police, military and all kinds of huge trucks running supplies here and there, helicopters flyin’ over like it was a war zone,” he says. “It was rough. Never seen nothin’ like that in my life.” New Orleans, one of the nation’s oldest and most diverse communities, was spinning out of control, its people tense, anxious, suspicious and exhausted.
Then something happened that melted the fear and eased the tension. One morning four days into the storm, four young white men calling themselves “street medics” began riding bicycles around Algiers, combing the projects and the low-income neighborhoods by the river for people needing medical attention. Mystified residents, many of whom hadn’t seen a doctor for weeks and had no clue when local hospitals would open again, asked cautiously if they were from the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, neither of which had made an appearance in Algiers since the storm. Told that no, they were just volunteers who had come without authorization, the locals eagerly accepted the offers of first aid, allowing the visitors to take their blood pressure, test them for diabetes, and inquire about symptoms of anxiety, depression and disease that might have been kicked up by Katrina.
“It was just about the noblest thing I’ve every witnessed in my life,” recalls Malik Rahim, a lifelong Algiers resident, local housing activist and former Black Panther Party member who helped arrange space in a local mosque for the medical workers. ”It was the street medics who really stopped this city from exploding into a race war, because they were white and were serving the black community at a time when blacks were fed up. Those are the real heroes of this thing.”
Out of that experience has emerged the Common Ground Collective, a bold experiment in democratic, patient-driven health care that could become a model for activists’ response to natural disasters and, with some tweaking, provide a solution to the long-term needs of a country torn by race and class divisions. In the months since the street medics criss-crossed Algiers on their bikes, their first-aid station has been transformed into a full-fledged free clinic serving around 125 people a day in Algiers and dozens more at bi-weekly “mobile clinics” set up in New Orleans’ Ninth Ward, which suffered the worst damage from the collapse of the levees and the resulting flood that engulfed 80 percent of the city. The collective includes distribution centers in Algiers and the Ninth Ward, where volunteers hand out cleaning supplies, food and water and provide trash removal and rebuilding assistance to people returning to the city. Another offshoot called Common Ground Eviction Defense provides legal and political assistance to tenants facing evictions from landlords hoping to push up their rents in the wake of the storm. Common Ground has attracted hundreds of volunteers, most of them white, from all over the country to provide “solidarity, not charity” to the hard-hit people of the Gulf area. During a “Roadtrip for Relief” over Thanksgiving, hundreds more came in for a week of hard labor, cleaning out homes and neighborhoods and other tasks. Supported by an early contribution of $40,000 from filmmaker Michael Moore and donations of supplies from individuals and organizations as disparate as Veterans for Peace and Pfizer Inc., the collective is one of the finest example of grass-roots organizing since the Civil Rights Movement brought thousands of students and activists to the South in the 1960s.
One of the largest contingents has come from the Bay Area, where Malik Rahim’s initial call for help was published in the San Francisco Bay View, a national black newspaper, and broadcast on KPFA, the Pacifica affiliate in Berkeley. Michael Kozart, the first doctor to spend substantial time at the clinic, arrived one week after the storm in a caravan organized by the Bay Area Radical Health Collective, which provides medical support for local activists and promotes progressive health policies. “Malik was telling everyone that people are dieing here for lack of organization,” he recalls during a rare break from his work. “And I thought, how can a society as rich as our’s have folks being neglected because our water and medical system and the government itself is completely inefficient?” The California Nurses Association has sent a steady stream of RNs. Acupuncturists Without Borders organized a team – “the first time in the acupuncture world of Americans helping Americans,” says Mary Starr, who answered the organization’s call from Jacksonville, Florida. During their fall break, about 20 students from Oberlin College in Ohio drove down to help. Other volunteers have come from Minnesota, Maine, Massachusetts, Iowa, Texas, New Mexico and Canada; during the first week, there were even two French volunteers from Doctors Without Borders. Many of the volunteers are activists or radicals of some kind – anarchists, community organizers, antiwar and global justice protesters – and nose rings, dreadlocks and body jewelry are seen in abundance.
Many of the health care professionals who ended up at Common Ground had tried unsuccessfully to volunteer with the federal government and the Red Cross. “After applying with FEMA and HHS (the Department of Health and Human Services), I started getting e-mails telling me they had 35,000 health care workers in the field and didn’t any more medical help,” says Kathy McGregor, a hospice nurse from Washington, D.C., who (full disclosure) happens to be my wife. “But I knew that wasn’t true.” McGregor eventually heard about Common Ground from a woman she was arrested with at a White House protest on September 26; 48 hours later she was on a plane to New Orleans. When some nurses arrived in Algiers, they were shocked to find themselves working alongside antiwar protesters and left-wingers. “I was completely unaware they were a bunch of activists,” says Lynne Crawford, a bubbly nurse from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who found her way to Common Ground by following links on the Internet. Crawford, who spends her time working in triage at Common Ground’s mobile clinics, admits that her initial experience was “a very big cultural shock,” and laughingly points to some of her new women friends, now taking a smoke break outside: “Why don’t they shave their legs? I just don’t get it,” she says. But “now I love the people here,” she adds. “We all have a common purpose – to serve the community.”
For the activists themselves, their daily experiences are miles away from the street protests they’ve grown accustomed to over the last 10 years. “How many political actions do you have when all of a sudden the community kind of descends on you?” asks Scott Weinstein, a nurse from Washington, D.C., who was one of the first arrivals here. Weinstein, who helped organize a large demonstration in Washington against the World Bank in 2003, says the work in Algiers has forced himself and others to rethink their style of politics. “Most people think of direct action as taking a street during a demonstration – but big deal, so you got a street,” he tells one afternoon. ‘Well, this is not about taking the streets, it’s about taking health care and community empowerment.” That’s pretty scary, he adds, because “those of us on the Left are used to being marginal, having symbolic actions and thinking small. Now we’re thinking big.”
The free clinic opened at the Majid Bilal Mosque in Algiers on September 9th, on a busy street corner three blocks down from the levee that protects New Orleans’ West Bank from the Mississippi River. Take a walk down there, past a warehouse storing colorful floats from past Mardi Gras, and you can see the city’s skyline, the infamous Superdome and the two Carnival Cruise ships – ironically named the Sensation and the Ecstasy – that were leased by the federal government for over $300 million apiece to house emergency workers. Big tugs and large, ocean-going tankers and containerships pass by in a steady stream. About half a mile to the east, the massive bridge where the Gretna police placed their roadblocks towers over the neighborhood. The clinic building is surrounded by tiny, one-floor houses, almost all of them lacking parts of their roofs, with the patches covered by wide sheets of blue plastic. A sign on the back door reads: “No Weapons Allowed. Please Respect the Mosque” – a reference, I’m told, to the ubiquitous guns that are visible at every government-run facility in the city. The area surrounding the clinic is tidy but obviously poor, and when the clinic opens one October morning at 8:30 a.m., the waiting room immediately fills up with patients.
Andrew Summer, a former resident of the Ninth Ward staying with his brother in Algiers, is here to get his medications refilled – the most common problem in the first weeks after the storm. “We don’t have the hospitals we used to have,” he tells me, referring to Charity Hospital and other hospitals and clinics that once served the city’s poor but were badly damaged during Katrina (so badly that Charity has been condemned and will never be opened again). Charles Picot was sent to the clinic by his employer, the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Company, for hepatitis shots. “You never know what you’ll pick up around town,” he says after describing the massive destruction caused to the city’s infrastructure by the hurricane. Whitney, a middle-aged woman who’s already been here for tetanus shots, is on a return visit to have a doctor check her hands, which are swollen and numb. She’s impressed with the style of care, which she once believed was the same everywhere. “They even have a masseur inside, and they listen to your stories,” she says. Looking on and chatting with the patients is Alozia Saint Julien, a counselor at a city mental health center that is temporarily closed. She visits Common Ground at least once a week, has sent several referrals over here, and “would love” to see it remain open. “Even when my clinic is up and running again, I’m going to see what I can do for Common Ground,” she tells me.
Inside the clinic, Steve Larsen, a 22 year-old college student from Tacoma, Washington, is acting as a kind of triage receptionist. He takes down patient information, establishes which doctor or nurse they will see, and politely asks them to wait their turn. “When you start talking to patients, they don’t know where to begin,” he tells me during a break one afternoon. Steve, who hitchhiked all the way down here from Minnesota, is surprised by the many cases of high blood pressure and diabetes he’s seen. “It sort of makes you wonder about nutrition,” he says. “It’s not necessarily medicine that saves you but the precautions you take.” But the desperate need for medication renewals points to the larger problem for New Orleans and its poor. After the disaster hit, there were suddenly no doctors or clinics left in town, and neither FEMA or the Red Cross established alternative sites to provide extended care once they stopped handing out free medicine in the days immediately after the storm. Worse, many residents had no health care or insurance to begin with. “That’s one thing that the whole Katrina disaster had opened our eyes to,” Dr. Kozart explains. “This occurred in a region that was radically underserved, neglected and abandoned. We’ve learned that there is no option for a lot of people – there’s nothing.”
With the poverty of the area virtually staring them in the face, the medical staff at Common Ground provides a level of personal service to their patients that would be hard to duplicate anywhere. When the clinic hears that a patient is bed-ridden and can’t get out of the house, someone drives a car there to pick her up and then arranges for transportation back home. The same doctor might make a diagnosis, write a prescription and then go to the backroom to fill it. The work is hard but invigorating, especially for practitioners who feel alienated from the modern, profit-driven medical system. “For me, there just weren’t any obstacles,” says Melissa Silva, an RN from Boston who spent over a month at the clinic. “There was so much to do, we were able to do direct care and projects without any interference, without a manager or a hierarchy saying don’t do that.” One day, for example, Max Fischer, an Asian-American who’s in his fourth year of medical school at Columbia University, sees 10 patients in the 15 hours he puts in. Among them is a 19-year old woman with an advanced bone infection in her leg. Knowing that the clinic is not equipped to handle the case, Max calls for an ambulance to take the woman to West Jefferson Hospital in Gretna – and rides along with her when it comes. “I see myself as a patient-advocate,” says Fischer, who also volunteers at a free clinic in Manhattan.
Alternative styles of medicine are big at Common Ground. “In those moments, in that half an hour I’m talking to someone, it’s just love that I feel,” says Marenka Cerny, a trauma counselor and massage therapist from Oakland who had set up a table just outside the clinic to soothe both residents and clinic workers. “We’re providing human contact, the most basic thing you can do for people facing so much devastation and loss.” Next to her table, Korben Perry, an acupuncturist from Philadelphia, has set up a couple of chairs and a sign advertising his free services. At the moment, he’s working on Willy Kerr, who has never seen Chinese medicine before; Perry has persuaded him the needle treatment will help relieve the pain he’s experiencing in his back and gums. “I’m trying to stop smoking,” Kerr confides. Like many others in this neighborhood, Kerr, who worked until recently at a Murphy Oil refinery south of New Orleans, is convinced that the rupture of the levees after the storm was no accident. “They blew them levees,” he tells me. “You make sure you write that down.”
Most of the medical services at Common Ground are provided in a big room that used to be the mosque’s worship hall, where three crude work stations have been set up. Station One is a card table with make-shift shelves stacked on top holding cotton swabs, rubber gloves and other equipment; a stethoscope hangs over the one corner. Station Two consists of a pair of stools standing next to a set of shelves that looks like it came from a motel room. Stacked neatly are some of the donated supplies the clinic is handing out: Tampax, Witch Hazel, Enfamil breast formula, Caltrate “600 Plus” calcium supplement. Station Three is the only “private” room in the clinic, and is partitioned from other stations with bed sheets. In the adjoining room, past the busy phone and fax machine, is a crude pharmacy where prescriptions are quickly filled, and a bank of computers linked to the Internet through a sporadic wireless connection provided by FEMA from the cruise ships across the river (in late November, the City of New Orleans deployed the nation’s first municipally-owned WiFi network that can be tapped from Algiers). On one wall are lists of important projects and tasks that need volunteers, including “critical incident debriefing” and “medical legal support,” under which someone has scrawled “or covering our heinies.” One task is more general: “Infusing all we do with anti-oppression intentions.”
Although hierarchy is frowned on here, there are several people at Common Ground who clearly play a leadership role. One of them is Moe, a street medic, RN and herbalist from Montana who has been here since early September. She is often one of the first to greet newcomers and the person to find when there’s a problem with no ready solution. Another is Scott Weinstein, who has considerable experience working with poor and low-income patients at DC General Hospital in Washington. He’s serving as the clinic’s chief liaison with the New Orleans and Louisiana medical community, and is often gone during the day for meetings with state and local officials. The clinic’s greatest challenge, he tells me one afternoon, “is to catch up with ourselves and make sure the community element is solid.” He notes the big disparity between the people working here and the patients: one group is white, middle-class and educated, and “operating at a real high energy level because of the crisis,” while the other is mostly poor and black and “dealing with their own trauma” from their terrible experiences during and after Katrina. The clinic, he argues, can provide quality care while retaining its community ties by “going slow and not gobbling up all the money” available from liberal foundations – establishing an identity, in other words. He compared that task to picking a lover: “not being desperate and choosing wisely.” Noah Morris, who was one of the four street medics who started Common Ground (and attests to seeing the four shotgun-riddled bodies on the streets of Algiers) also plays a leadership role, albeit a low-key one. He plans to work at the clinic until it’s under “full community control and not controlled by the state.” By that, he says, he means a board where at least 51 percent of the seats are held by community members and caseworkers from the neighborhood, with the remaining 49 percent by doctors and nurses from Common Ground. “That way, the community can decide what its needs are” and debate priorities such as addiction services, classes on diabetes and blood pressure and even cooking classes to pass on nutrition tips. “Whatever their needs are, they know better than a bunch of crackers from out of town,” Noah concludes with a laugh.
For most of the time I’m here, the clinic’s back room and adjoining kitchen are crowded with non-medical volunteers whose tasks are not immediately clear. Most of them turn out to be anarchists from the Bay Area and Washington, D..C., who got down here after reading about Common Ground on websites like Indymedia.com. They take much of their inspiration from Bork, a Washington, D.C., housing activist who, Noah and other say, was instrumental in organizing the first wave of street medics to visit Algiers. I find Bork, whose real name is Jamie Bork Laughner, in a nearby house she is renting with several other anarchists. Although she’s famous in DC for staging hunger strikes on behalf of the homeless, Bork’s primary avocation seems to be attending anti-globalization and antiwar rallies in places like Seattle, Miami and DC. It was at these protests that the phenomenon of street medics emerged to provide first aid to people overcome by pepper spray and police violence. Their philosophy, Bork says, contrasts sharply with traditional medicine, where the doctor is always in charge: street medics believe “that the patient is the warrior and that the medic’s job is to help him get back and fight the battle.” After watching scenes from Katrina on TV, she and other activists “decided to use the street medic philosophy to help the folks down here.” With some guidance from Malik Rahim about where they were needed, that’s how Noah and his fellow street medics ended up here.
But the patients at Common Ground don’t speak the language of warriors. “The people here are tired – we had to evacuate twice,” says Ragens, the Algiers resident who was so frightened by the military presence in his city. Sitting on a stoop a few doors down, Leroy Refuge, 53, recalls the exhaustion that set in after he and a companion he is caring for (“her name is Miss Dorothy L. Brown, and she’s 78 years old”) were evacuated from Algiers to the New Orleans Airport, airlifted to Kelly Air Force Base in Texas and then flown home three weeks later. “Now we’re back at 329 Socrates and just tryin’ to live,” he says. “My mind is still a little fuzzy, but I’m comin’ around – slowly but surely, slowly but surely.” Both Ragens and Refuge seem nonplussed by the presence of politically disenchanted white kids. But it’s obvious from a few conversations at the clinic that tensions are slowly building between the anarchists and some of the health practitioners. Some of it is over style: street medics believe in passing their skills from comrade to comrade, and expect the same from other health professionals. Some nurses, however, are uncomfortable helping unlicensed practitioners treat serious diseases like diabetes or hypertension on the fly. The street medics “have a view of what a good anarchist does, which is teach others so education is not hierarchical,” says a nurse who doesn’t want her name used because she plans to return to Algiers. “But some of us see it more as an attempt to dummy down.”
Still, it’s amazing to see how people from different backgrounds work together – and how the anti-government activists at the clinic cooperate with federal agencies and the military. One afternoon, two camouflaged US Army trucks pull up outside the mosque. As their engines idle noisily, a young lieutenant jumps out, identifies himself as Louisiana National Guard, and announces that he has several boxes of supplies for the clinic. Moe, who spends much of her time organizing donated supplies, smiles widely when she sees that, for once, she’s received something useful: the antibiotic Zithromax and packets of Cortisone. For the next 15 minutes, soldiers just back from Iraq and a couple of anarchists who’ve been protesting the war unload the truck together, swapping anecdotes about New Orleans and the French Quarter. The rapport is real: during my stay, I hear several stories, impossible to confirm, of National Guard soldiers intervening in disputes between local residents and the New Orleans police. According to Malik, the Army commander for Algiers personally praised Common Ground for its contributions during a city council meeting called to discuss how outside agencies have responded to Katrina. He has nothing but praise for the citizen-soldiers patrolling the city, many of whom arrived in New Orleans straight from Iraq. “If it wasn’t for the National Guard, we would have been closed weeks ago,” he says.
Contrasting lifestyles and politics are also on full view at a federal campsite in Algiers that feeds and houses hundreds of emergency workers and security guards based temporarily in New Orleans. Dubbed “Tent City” because of the large, house-sized tents scattered around its grounds, the site is surrounded by a fence and guarded, day and night, by a contingent of National Guard troops. The volunteers at Common Ground, which has three tents at the site, are divided about the camp: some refuse to stay there because of the presence of the soldiers, and sleep on the clinic floor or camp out in the mosque’s backyard instead (“I’m not going to stay in some military encampment,” Dr. Kozart tells me). But others, including myself, stay there because Tent City provides three meals a day, a cot to sleep on, plus showers and a laundry – all paid for by the US Forest Service, which runs the camp for FEMA at a water treatment center owned by the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Company.
The actual operations at Tent City were contracted out to the Cattlemen’s Meat Co. Catering Division of Kevin, Idaho, which does most of its business in the West during firefighting season. Its staff is on duty 24 hours a day, and some of them complain – when they are out of earshot of the boss – that they work 12-hour shifts with only a half-hour break for lunch. Breakfast at the camp is served between 5 a.m. and 9 a.m., lunch is available all day in paper bags, and dinner time runs from 5:30 to 9:30 in the evening; the food is heavy with meat and loaded with carbohydrates. And in the mess tent, its possible to see everyone who has a piece of rebuilding and securing New Orleans: National Guard troops, with their rifles leaning on the tables; exhausted workers from the water and sewer company; tough-looking New Orleans cops; utility workers from the Portland, Oregon, Water Board, who are here to test the city’s contaminated water; and supervisors from Shaw Group Inc., the Louisiana company that won several hurricane-related contracts from FEMA after hiring as a lobbyist Joe Allbaugh, a pal of President Bush and his former FEMA director. Some of the diners are friendly, other are suspicious. When I ask a long-haired man wearing an US Immigration and Customs Enforcement jacket what he’s doing here, he replies: “You might say we’re helping out the police department.” I decide to leave him alone.
As practical as Tent City is for emergency and reconstruction workers, it’s telling that similar facilities haven’t been made available to the residents of New Orleans. By October, they are just beginning to trickle back, only to find ruined homes, a city without electricity or water and other services barely functioning, and a dwindling number of jobs – many of which have been taken by low-wage immigrants brought into the area by contractors. In response, Common Ground has slowly expanded its operations, first with mobile clinics that provided shots and check-ups to residents and reconstruction workers alike, and, in October, to a former day care center that has been transformed into a supply depot for New Orleans’ Ninth Ward. Towards the end of my visit, I decide to spend time at these sites to get a feel for the organization’s new direction. My first stop is a large parking lot at a major intersection in the lower Ninth Ward, where the National Guard has set up a checkpoint and is allowing relief groups to set up. I quickly locate the Common Ground tent, which is the largest and most crowded at the site. There, I find Leah, a “tree hugger” from California, doing what she calls “body work” on a firefighter. Jim, a quiet, resourceful nurse from Arizona is taking blood pressure and giving vaccinations while Jenna, a volunteer from Oakland, is doing the intake. Every quarter hour or so, a Gray Line tour bus followed by a police car with flashing lights drives slowly by; I later learn it is carrying local residents seeing their homes and neighborhoods for the first time.
In one corner of the lot sits a trailer operated by the Urban Search and Rescue Team of the New Orleans Fire Department. Henry White, a member of the team who grew up in the neighborhood, informs me they are still pulling bodies out of homes, even today. I ask him what the houses look like inside: “horrendous,” he replies, shaking his head. To help me understand the scope of the disaster, he encourages me to walk down North Claiborne Avenue, the street blocked off by the National Guard. I take the challenge, and within minutes am looking at the worst destruction I’ve ever seen. Electric and telephone wires are down; vehicles lie at crazy angles, some of them stuck in fences and walls; the streets and sidewalks are caked with a thick coating of mud that has calcified where it flowed into open doors; every direction I turn, there is utter devastation. I stop for a second, and can’t hear a sound except the wind blowing a metal plate on a tin roof. It’s eerie, and kind of scary. Then around the corner comes a Humvee carrying two of the soldiers I saw at the roadblock up the street. It pulls to a stop, and one of them tells me to get in: “If you’re not a resident, you’re not allowed out here,” he says. On the way back to the parking lot, I ask the soldiers if they’ve served in Iraq. “Yup,” says the driver. “This is just like Iraq except the buildings don’t have bullet holes.”
The Common Ground distribution center is about a mile south. Brandon Darby, an artist from Houston who opened the center in mid-October, tells me that his first few nights there were scary, with police cars constantly driving by and shining their lights inside the house. When I visit about ten days later, the center is bustling, and a steady stream of people from the neighborhood walk through. Twenty people are waiting in line at the mobile clinic, including a female officer from the New Orleans police crime lab. Underneath a large tarp that covers several tables full of household goods and clothing, I run into Claudette Thomas, a volunteer from Seattle who’s been working at the legal defense site in Algiers. Justin Hite, a biologist who just graduated from Cornell and was inspired to come here after hearing Malik Rahim speak at his school, shows me some of the supplies that have been donated. Pastors for Peace has sent several box loads of boots, and the Islamic Relief Fund has provided 50 large buckets of “cleaning supplies,” each one marked with the logo of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. They contain masks, sponges, spray bottles, gloves and hand cleaner.
Clyde Bloodwirth, 69, a displaced resident of the area, grabs a bucket and pauses to tell me his story. He, his wife and daughter and three grandchildren were stranded in their flooded home for three days, and then spent five days on Interstate 10 (“they had nothing for us up there”) before being airlifted first to Atlanta, Mobile and finally Houston. He’s determined to fix his house and stay in New Orleans, and is staying now with a sister in nearby Metarie. James Moses, 25, is wearing a big yellow raincoat and a blue helmet, and has a similar tale. His house, too, is wrecked, but he wants to stick it out, cough and all – if only he can convince his girlfriend, one of the cops who deserted the city, to return. For now, he’s sleeping at the center and is grateful for Common Ground’s help. “It’s helping me get on my feet,” he says. As I’m about to leave, I spot some of the Oberlin students who’ve been hanging around the clinic in Algiers, including Josh Birch, a friendly kid with long wiry hair. Josh is only a freshman, but plans to return to Common Ground in January, when Oberlin sends its students out for winter projects, and next summer as well. He’s clearly enthusiastic and motivated about his experience in New Orleans – a tribute to the spirit that has been created here.
The big question is, can this effort be sustained over the long-term with volunteer labor and donated supplies? Malik Rahim, who plans to challenge Ray Nagin in the city’s next mayoral election, believes that it can. “That clinic is gonna be a permanent clinic, served by the people its serving right now,” he tells me over dinner one evening at Tent City, where his long, grayish dreadlocks draw glances and a few friendly nods from other diners. “What we did here was no isolated phenomenon,” he continues. “It’s something that can be done anywhere and duplicated for any disaster, including economic and social disasters.” That’s why Malik, whose run schools, homeless shelters and educational facilities for ex-cons dating back to his days with the Black Panthers, is giving workshops all over the country on how to replicate the Common Ground experience. “I don’t want this to die off,” he says. “All my life I’ve been basically training for what I’m doing here.”
While deeply angered by the racist attitudes of the New Orleans cops and what he calls the “good ol’ boy politics” of the city, Malik is particularly incensed at the failure of local officials, including Mayor Negin and the elected representatives of the state, to visit Common Ground to thank the volunteers who provided medical service free of charge to over 16,000 people in Algiers. “The biggest crime that was committed was the fact that there was no civic responsibility at any level of government,” he says of Katrina. “And the only reason Common Ground exists is there are people who understand civic responsibility. That’s the drug that keeps us here, that makes a volunteer sleep on this hard ground every night to get up in the morning to save a community.”