I’m nearing the end of my first week in New Orleans, volunteering with the Common Ground Collective. I’m working with the legal team, putting to use some of the skills I learned back when I was doing legal support for activists. I still have a lot to learn about, like how to help residents file for FEMA funds and appeal insurance settlements–it’s an enormous mess of red tape and complicated jargon.
Some thoughts and stories from my week…
This week I was reminded of being in the city of San Cristobal in Chiapas, Mexico a few years back. I remember realizing that there were tourists there who could spend an entire vacation enclosed in that beautiful city, oblivious to the fact that just a few miles outside of it there were military checkpoints and thousands of solidiers illegally occupying indigenous land. Here in New Orleans there has been a huge effort and much money spent to make sure the downtown is looking beautiful and back to normal, so much so that a tourist could enjoy a lovely stay here without seeing the thousands of still-destroyed homes and miles of garbage-filled streets.
I cannot stress enough how badly racism has and continues to hurt people of color in this city.
In the shuttle van from the airport to the volunteer center, the radio played the song “God Bless the USA.” I don’t know how many residents of the Ninth Ward would find this song comforting or uplifting.
I’m fairly well-informed about police misconduct issues, and I’ve witnessed police brutality in major cities like Oakland, New York, and Miami. Yet I’ve found myself speechless with disbelief many times this week as I learned about law enforcement abuses in New Orleans. The level of racial profiling and selective enforcement is staggering. As part of my legal support duties, I interviewed a young black man who was arrested while walking down the street. He was charged with “improper use of a motor vehicle” and spent 60 days in jail.
The rationale behind these numerous arrests on dubious charges is that the fuller the jails, the more federal dollars will roll in for law enforcement. Sadly, the money isn’t going toward improving the overcrowding and horribly unsanitary conditions inside the jails. Cells with backed-up toilets overflowing with waste are common complaints of the inmates.
National Guard troops are still stationed here for policing duties, and as is the case with other uniformed people with weapons, many people here are a bit nervous around them. So when a man dressed in olive green fatigues walked into the Common Ground office the other morning, folks were a little wary. Turns out he was a local and stopping by in a civil(ian) capacity: some Common Ground volunteers had helped gut and clean his home, and he wanted to offer his thanks. He came bearing a gift of several kegs of beer, courtesy of his connections with a bar. At first glance this seemed to be a happy stroke of luck for a bunch of overworked volunteers, but accepting the donations posed a number of problems:
1) there was no room to store so much beer in the cramped office space,
2) the Common Ground facility that did have enough room to store that much beer is on loan from a Catholic grade school and has a no-alcohol policy,
3) the kegs needed to be returned within a week, which gave a small window of time to consume it, and hung over volunteers are not necessarily productive volunteers.
4) throwing a large party would run the risk of the police showing up and arresting anyone leaving on charges of public intoxication (yes, it really is possible to be arrested for being drunk in New Orleans). This would in turn add more work for the understaffed legal team, and take much needed time away from the community members that Common Ground is trying to serve.
In the end, two kegs of beer were accepted, and discreetly consumed.
The Common Ground project that brought the biggest smile to my face this week is called R.U.B.A.R.B. The folks at Rusted Up Beyond All Recognition Bikes have set up a shop where scavenged and donated bikes and bike parts are rehabbed and recycled. Kids from the community are able to do a work trade where they earn a bike by fixing it up with the help of the bike shop volunteers. I stopped by the shop this week to see if I could find a cheap bike that would get me from the housing site to the office and back every day. I paid an incredibly small amount of money for an incredibly nice bike in wonderful condition. I was especially happy to make my purchase using money I gained from cashing my shares of a fund set up by my Aunt Deb. When her son Shane died ten years ago, she created the fund for all of his cousins, using money left from his savings. Shane was an amazing athlete and loved working with kids, so I thought it was a fitting way to use a small part of the money he left behind.
This week I learned what rat urine smells like. I’ll spare you the story on that one.
I’m relearning the precious value of water. Tap water is not safe to drink unless it’s been properly filtered. Hot water for showers is a luxury. Showers period are a luxury. I’m getting used to the fine layer of dust that covers every surface, no matter how much it’s dusted or washed.