Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Day 4: Freedom Caravan in New Orleans

Now I see why people fall in love with this city. There is art and appreciation of beauty everywhere - in the pattern of the paving at historic Congo Square, on building facades, even on freeway pillars painted to resemble trees.

During the Freedom Caravan tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, I also came to understand why the people of this community insist on coming home. The Lower Ninth Ward was among the largest neighborhood of African-American-owned homes in the country. Many families had been there for generations. This is home, and there is a commitment to returning.

Malik Rahim who is featured in the current issue of YES!, talked to a group of us when we visited the Common Ground center. The Common Ground vision for this neighborhood goes beyond restoring it to its previous state. In the short talk that follows, Malik talks of ending the relationship of co-dependency with corporate energy sources by developing neighborhood sources of renewable energy. And he talks of restoring the wetlands that once protected lands from catastrophic flooding. And cleaning up the heavy metals in the soil by planting sunflowers and other plants that draw the poisons from the soil. This is about the restoration of a people and a place, in tandem.

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Malik is thinking of the broader questions of the future of humanity, as his talk indicates. The shattered lives, homes, and businesses of the Lower Ninth Ward are perhaps an early sign of the environmental and justice crises that have yet to command the attention of a nation distracted by Paris Hilton and the latest Washington scandals.

The challenge in the poor neighborhoods of New Orleans is enormous -- beginning with the criminal neglect of the levies and the lack of realistic evacuation plans; the criminal neglect of those left behind; the continuing neglect of the poor who want to return.

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We learned of the struggle of public housing residents to return to homes that were not affected by water or wind - homes that were intact. The residents had leases; the homes were not the sort of failed projects where crime reins, but were homes to people who had lived well, if frugally. Many of these residents not only lost their homes, they were not permitted into their apartments to retrieve their belongings.

Other members of the Freedom Caravan helped with clean up of some of these housing projects. See the excellent blog on this and other aspects of the caravan at the Southwest Workers' Union blog.

The mainstream media finally discovered their sense of outrage in the days immediately after Katrina. But no one seems to want to see the persistence, in the face of continuing neglect, of the poor, predominantly African-American people who are the heart and soul of New Orleans.

The Freedom Caravan was joined by two buses of people from New Orleans. Now, the total is six -- two from New Mexico, one each from Houston and Austin, and two from the Big Easy. The latter two headed along the Gulf Coast to pick up more people for the ride to the Social Forum. Here's a photo of some of us:

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