What New Orleans Means for the Movement

Submitted by George Friday on Tue, 02/12/2008 - 20:58.

By Starhawk
Movements for social change have two overriding tasks. They must make visible the injustices and failures of the old system and delegitimize it. And they must pose a vision of a new system, and propose strategies and policies for putting it into place and maintaining it. No matter how unjust and unsatisfying our current economic and political system may be, people are familiar with its forms and trust in it to provide for their needs.

In New Orleans, the abysmally poor response to hurricanes Katrina and Rita by the government and all the established agencies shattered that faith. The failure to adequately plan for evacuation, the inability of the government to provide protection, health care or the necessities of life for those who remained, the horror stories of FEMA mismanagement--all revealed the incompetence and callousness of the Federal government, and did more to discredit the Bush administration than a thousand demonstrations.

In the vacuum of official aide, peoples’ movements arose to fill the gap. Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther who lives in the Algiers neighborhood of the city, which did not flood, put out a call through activist networks for supporters to help resist the vigilante groups preying on the black community. Activists came, and they stayed to help pick up garbage and organize distribution of relief supplies. They set up a free medical clinic, and doctors, nurses and street medics who had honed their emergency skills in the streets of Seattle and Miami arrived. In the first month, they saw over two thousand people, many of whom had gone without medical care for years because they could not afford it. While the FEMA and military clinics, when they finally got running, were intimidating, prison-like places surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, the Common Ground clinic has a warm and open atmosphere. It’s a place where a driver could pull a garbage truck over to the curb, step out, get a massage, and go back to work, where neighborhood kids and old men and the mentally challenged neighborhood characters can all hang out on the sidewalk, and feel at home.

Meanwhile, in the heartland of Mississippi and in blacked out downtown New Orleans, The Rainbow Family kitchens were feeding thousands of people with food that put the Red Cross to shame. Cultures collided: grizzled backwoods Mississippi farmers hugged dreadlocked hippies; hardened gang members from the inner city got their first massages or acupuncture treatments. I spent one afternoon slinging rotting garbage with a Cajun ex-Marine who had trained the Contras in Honduras when I was in Nicaragua with Witness for Peace to prevent their attacks. We were joined by a shell-shocked defector from the EPA, disillusioned by the corruption he was witnessing in his agency, who came down to help so that he could feel he was doing something useful.

Hundreds of volunteers poured into the area, many of them veterans of global justice mobilizations and peace caravans. The skills of directly democratic organizing, and of creating support infrastructure for actions, transferred into the capacity to create emergency infrastructure out of slim resources.

Becoming Permanent

Now, five months later, the clinic is moving to become a permanent institution. Common Ground is sponsoring a Bioremediation Project, to test soils for toxins and heal them using natural, biological methods: bacteria, plants and fungi. They are mounting political campaigns to protect New Orleans’ poor from being evicted or prevented from returning home.

The experience in New Orleans shows that the peoples’ movements of the U.S. do actually have the capacity to provide for the real life, down to earth needs of communities under stress. We have more than ideals; we have the practical skills to make those ideas manifest.

Natural disasters—and unnatural—will undoubtedly increase in these times of global warming and climate change. The unsustainability of our current system is becoming more and more evident. Whenever we can show its failures by providing what it cannot, we undermine the foundations of its credibility. Whenever we can meet real human needs, heal soil and water, show regenerative alternatives, we start to build the trust we need as a foundation for a new world.

Starhawk is an activist and writer, author of ten books including The Fifth Sacred Thing, Webs of Power, and her latest, The Earth Path. She trains people internationally in organizing, nonviolent direct action, earth based spirituality, and permaculture. Her website is: www.starhawk.org.