You really can’t think of New Orleans without thinking of Hurricane Katrina. Ever since Katrina devastated the gulf coast over ten years ago the two are synonymous. For those who have never been, and even those who have the luxury of taking beautifully curated trips to NOLA, there is a very fluffy veil of progress and “diversity” (whatever that means). Our trip to NOLA was of a different taste all together. We had a brief stay in NOLA on our way to Alabama just a few days after the 10 year anniversary of Katrina, and we went on a mission. Truth be told… The reality is pretty grim.
After attending an open community discussion in Bedstuy about Katrina, where clips from Welcome to New Orleans, a must-see documentary about NOLA post-Katrina, were streamed. There were several other clips presented of community tribunals, and lots of testimonials from people who lived through it all, each one more compelling than the last. These same videos led to the indictments of several vigilantes, but they were eventually overturned. Let’s just say it was definitely NOT the picture painted in the media. Overwhelmed with the most discomforting combination of sadness and anger, I knew it was far from coincidence that in a few days we’d be flying into New Orleans.
When we got down to NOLA the air was dense and gray. So many places it looked like the hurricane had literally just happened. We were connected with the star of the documentary, Malik Rahim, who is one of the founders of the Louisiana chapter of the original Black Panther Party and Co-Founder of Common Ground Collective. Brotha Malik welcomed us into his home and gave us a tour of Algiers Point, which happens to be the oldest town in the country, established in 1719 by Africans who were formerly enslaved. That history is almost completely shadowed by Hurricane Katrina.
Driving through Algiers we stopped at the multi-purpose community center where a dead body laid decomposing for 2 weeks in the aftermath of Katrina. The police, army, national guard, state troopers and any other official you could think of all refused to dispose of this body as children and elderly people alike had to see and smell it. It wasn’t until the Democracy Now (“If You are Poor it’s Like the Hurricane Just Happened“) crew shined light on the blatant negligence that the body was finally removed. All the while this scene is directly across from the lots where billion dollar hollywood movies are filmed at no benefit whatsoever to the community. Seeing it all for myself was eyeopening to say the least.
When we arrived back to Malik’s it was an honor to meet Robert King, the first freed member of the Angola 3. Rob spent 29 years in solitary confinement for a murder he didn’t commit. In 2001 he was released after his conviction was overturned. Angola is the nickname for the Louisiana state penitentiary. The notorious maximum security prison complex is on a former slave plantation. I’ll actually raise that it is functioning as a slave plantation to this very day. Angola plantation was named after the place that most of the enslaved Africans who toiled on that land came from, Angola, West Africa.
Robert, along with two other inmates, Herman Wallace and Albert Woodfox, became known as the Angola 3 after their political activism in the prison caused them to be targeted and locked in solitary confinement. In 1971 Herman and Albert founded the Angola chapter of the Black Panther Party to organize fellow inmates against racial segregation, and the terror inmates faced in the prison including inhumane conditions, systemic rape and sexual slavery.
As you can imagine this activism wasn’t something the prison authorities were keen on. Herman Wallace died at age 71 just a few days after finally being released in 2013. Albert Woodfox was released on February 19, 2016 after over four decades in solitary. Solitary confinement and I’m sure worse – I try not to imagine – is the typical treatment of those who dare try to change the disgusting prison dynamics. [Must watch “In the Land of the Free” documentary on Angola 3]
So no, it isn’t a bright tale of progress, and there’s little hope in the eyes of the average black person, the ones who make up the majority of New Orleans, and are still in need of restoration and healing. It is beyond inspiring to know that Malik accomplished through Common Ground what those who are paid to protect us cannot and will not do for the people. Common Ground is a grassroots organization which has provided direct action services to people in Algiers and beyond.
They gutted thousands of homes, helped rebuild homes, and instituted a health clinic all for free. Common Ground also established a functioning economic development program to address the high crime rate by providing employment at a livable wage. It is important to note that crime and unemployment are directly related. In a city with over 50% of the black men are unemployed to this day, it is no surprise that nearly 90% of the prison population is African-American.
Very few people responded in the first 24 hours after Katrina, and even fewer stayed to aid those lives torn apart in every imaginable way. Malik Rahim is a hero because he was one who didn’t abandon and he responded with critical assistance in the most admirable way. We watched the recording of the city council meeting on October 5, 2006 requesting support for Common Ground from the city. There were many promises made, and it is now 2016 and those members of the city council who verbalized their support have since been removed, and none of those promises were kept. Who do we hold accountable for the conditions in New Orleans? It cannot be those suffering from brutal injustice, it must be those who do whatever they can to stifle the development and empowerment of these people.
In order to be the change we have to rethink our entire perspective on New Orleans and all of the other cities just like NOLA across the country and globally. The system is broken, why do we keep expecting those who create and perpetuate these conditions to somehow tear off their oppressive shirts and have an S on their chest to come save the day? Sending money isn’t making a difference because the funds are not getting to the right people. Talking isn’t helping because it isn’t met with any action. We can start by acknowledging that the story sold to us via the mainstream media is false. We can start by spreading the word and not buying anymore lies of progress. We can start by addressing the needs in our own communities. We can start by NOT RUNNING AWAY FROM THE TRUTH!