Black Flags and Radical Relief Efforts in New Orleans: An Interview with scott crow
by Stevie Peace & Kevin Van Meter
Left Eye On Books
November 13, 2011
“'Solidarity not Charity' is a way of feeding people while addressing the underlying problems that cause hunger. The way this manifested itself in Common Ground was to immediately deliver and render aid where the state had failed, and then to leave structures in place so communities can continue to rebuild themselves as they see fit.”
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina both federal and local authorities failed the population of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. As a result, relief efforts from various sectors of American society flowed south. One of the first and most spectacular and aggressive efforts was Common Ground Relief—formed by strands of the anti-globalization and anarchist movements. scott crow documents these struggles in Black Flags and Windmills: Hope, Anarchy, and the Common Ground Collective, recently released by PM Press. In this interview, Crow describes the process of becoming an author after being an organizer, reviews the history and myths of Common Ground and explores possible lessons for future progressive and radical organizing. Visit crow’s website at http://scottcrow.org/.
Can you speak to the writing process behind Black Flags and Windmills and your shift from an organizer to an author?
One word: difficult. I don’t consider myself a writer; and while I have written a few pieces over the years, it has mostly been out of necessity. From my arrival in New Orleans I took copious notes. Every time I would get moments to get away, I would take notes about organizing and creating an organization to deal with the disaster following Hurricane Katrina. Additionally, I wrote communiqués from just days after the storm and continued for three years. I went back to all of those writings and began turning them into chapters. On a personal level it was healing to write: I came back with post-traumatic stress, couldn’t function in society and felt like the ghost in the machine a lot. The writing actually helped me to relive those traumas in a different way, to really dissect them. It was almost a five-year process; I feel so much better now than I did when I started the book. This is not to say that Black Flags and Windmills is a sorrow-filled book. There are lots of beautiful stories along the way and lots of really engaging organizing that was going on. The book describes the anarchist heyday of Common Ground, when the most self-identified anarchists came; this was early September 2005 until 2008. Afterward, the organization became much more structured in a traditional nonprofit way. This is not to denigrate it—just to say that the book focuses on this initial period of “black flags” at Common Ground.
Since memory is a tricky thing, I did outside research and revisited with people. I went back to news articles from grassroots media, reports and blogs to look at specific events and the way things unfolded. Then, I would ask key organizers and New Orleans residents, “Do you remember when this thing happened?” Sometimes it was completely different from how I remembered it. I don’t claim to speak for Common Ground, as I think that would do a disservice to the thousands of people who participated and the hundreds of key organizers that were there.
When I tell a story I want people to understand it and create common bonds. I wrote this book for people who might not have any understanding about radical or anarchist concepts. I always ask myself, “What would my mom think about this?” While I wrote it for people like her, my target audience was those who were coming into movements and might be inspired by what Common Ground was building. I used the stories in the book to give a primer on the theoretical background of anarchism in practice. Another part of the book is telling my own personal narrative. It’s not because I think my story is important, but I wanted to show that I am a regular person that was just caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
Can you describe the work of the Common Ground Collective—as well as its guidelines of “solidarity not charity” —as it sought to stabilize and improve the lives of traumatized New Orleans residents?
Common Ground grew out of short-term relief efforts with a long-term vision. What we wanted to do was rebuild infrastructure that had collapsed before the storm—even decades before the storm—and also to build infrastructure that had never existed in certain communities. The idea was that we would then turn it all over to community members and they would develop it further than we ever could. We never went in with the idea that we were going to save all of these people; we wanted to build capacity for the community, to empower them to do things for themselves and to expand the things that they are already trying to do. There are tons of organizations that feed people, but it doesn’t solve the problems of why people are hungry.
“Solidarity not Charity” is a way of feeding people while addressing the underlying problems that cause hunger. The way this manifested itself in Common Ground was to immediately deliver and render aid where the state had failed, and then to leave structures in place so communities can continue to rebuild themselves as they see fit. This involved medical clinics, women’s shelters, free schools, access to school supplies, basic things. It was basic service work; it’s only revolutionary in the way that we thought about it.
Can you trace out the early history of the organization, the initiatives it launched beyond the Algiers neighborhood into the devastated 8th and 9th wards, and other projects that developed?
When the levees failed and the flooding began, most of my friends hadn’t gotten out of New Orleans. One of them was Robert King—a former political prisoner who had been released in 2001, after being exonerated and held in solitary confinement for twenty-nine years. He had lived through hurricanes all of his life so he decided to stay. Brandon Darby, a friend of mine at the time—he came out much later as a FBI informant, which is a whole other story—said, “Hey, maybe we should go find King; we can gather supplies and go do it.” It was a crazy idea. Once we were on the ground we could see the failure of the state and watched bureaucracies and government agencies fight over who was going to have access to search-and-rescue boats and how things were going to be administrated. As they were fighting, people were dying.
I couldn’t stand it. They were more interested in restoring law and order then trying to help people, and it was heartbreaking. Then Malik Rahim, another friend of mine who’s a New Orleans resident and who used to be part of the Black Panther Party, called me and said, “Hey, we have these white vigilantes driving around and are threatening to kill me and my neighbors, and I need some support.” So we loaded up guns and ammo and some basic supplies and headed to Algiers, his neighborhood on the west bank of the river. While we were there, Brandon went across the river to look for King, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency ended up finding King and brought him to Brandon. We were totally elated; I cried I was so happy. I thought King was dead as it had been almost nine days since we had heard from him. In the midst of all this, I floated the idea of forming a relief organization that would be based on the principles of the Black Panther Party, the Zapatistas and anarchism. So I went back to Austin to gather supplies and the first of the volunteers. Upon our return, two weeks after the storm had struck, we unfurled tarps and started Common Ground Relief.
In the early stages, there were very few of us and little money. We started with a few programs and kept adding more; every time we saw something that needed to be done we would just organize a program. Mayday DC, a housing rights organization, opened a first aid station at the mosque Malik attended, and then other organizations came and turned it into a full-scale medical clinic. We set up portable medical patrols in Algiers and other locations; there were Vietnamese, Cajun and First Nation communities that hadn’t seen any medical attention. There were programs to remove tree debris, clean gutters and tarp houses. We provided access to food and water and started armed patrols to fend off the militias. In a way, Common Ground functioned as an incubator and as a network that gave support to programs as they grew: the Rhubarb Bike Collective, Women’s Health Center, Legal Aid, eviction defense, replanting grass along the coastline, community gardens. Not all of these projects were successful, but many were and many succeeded for a long time. What mattered was that we went into areas where the state said we could not be. If they said we couldn’t be there but we found residents that needed support, we would defy them, and then do it over and over again.
How did the collective use existing organizations and networks to funnel volunteers and resources into its work?
These networks were instrumental in obtaining support and volunteers for Common Ground. Early on we knew that we were not going to work with the Red Cross or government agencies, especially with the state failing and police brutalizing residents. It was the networks that formed in the alter-globalization movement that brought in medical, logistics and communications people. The idea was to draw on these networks to create long-term support and infrastructure. Additionally, we were willing to work with any organization that wasn’t looking to take over or tell us what to do, because we were clear with our objectives and what we wanted to achieve. Without groups such as Veterans Against the War, Food Not Bombs and the Bay Area Radical Health Collective we would have been dead in the first week, as they provided support by letting people know what was happening and often were able to give material aid and money. Another key piece was that they were able to spread information about what was taking place in New Orleans. But it wasn’t just our voice; we were able to amplify many different voices from different communities in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region.
What limitations did the Common Ground Collective encounter, and in what ways did it seek to challenge and possibly overcome these limitations?
This organization grew in the middle of a disaster from basically nothing, using existing relationships and political organizing experience. So we didn’t have a long history as an organization and I think that plays into why getting access to funding was critically difficult at the very beginning. Additionally, volunteers would come in waves that we weren’t anticipating.
During a Road Trip for Relief campaign that took place in November 2005, we went from under a hundred people to thousands. There wasn’t infrastructure to address basic needs: Where are people going to sleep? Where are they going to eat? How are we going to maintain people?
These tensions were always chronic to the organization and so we devised methods along the way to reach out to the immediate neighborhoods we were working in. We would approach churches and community centers and offered to gut and clean their spaces if they let us use them to house volunteers, or as a distribution center.
Even with a horizontal structure, we had no clear delineation as to how to deal with this stuff and often projects operated completely autonomously from us. Some projects worked very hierarchically, with one person in charge; we didn’t have mechanisms for accountability or even simple reports on the successes and failures of those projects. From the beginning I wanted to create a culture focused on challenging oppression. Starting an amorphous organization from scratch and then having thousands of people arrive made this really difficult. In early December 2005 we started to have trainings with the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond and over the next year we trained over 5000 people, mostly middle-class white students, giving them their first introduction to anti-racist ideas. This was incorporated into orientations where we talked about the historically marginalized communities of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. These ideas were also present in the language that we used: we didn’t say “poor black communities” or “poor Vietnamese communities,” we used terms like marginalized communities or historically neglected communities. We didn’t want to essentialize these communities so we were very conscious of the narratives we told. Eventually an antiracist working group was formed to continue efforts to address oppression. Unfortunately, Common Ground created an informal hierarchy of oppression within the organization. Race was valued first, class as a distant second, at distant, distant third was gender, and off the map were sexual orientation, disability and other forms of oppression. This was reinforced because we didn’t have effective ways to combat it.
I want people to understand that crisis was everywhere; there was a “top 10” list but everything was number one. In this situation you can’t operate sustainably, so individuals in the organization faced huge burnout, as well as mental and physical stress. The idea of self-care and collective care was a failure at Common Ground. I think it got better as things calmed down, but in the first few years people operated with “emergency hearts,” so much that it was hard to make organizers and volunteers stop working. For a number of the long-term people, either it was the best experience of their lives or it was the worst experience of their lives. I think a lot of this depends on how they came in, how they were treated, what kind of power they had, and how they were taken care of while they were in New Orleans.
Concepts such as non-violence, solidarity, accountability, self-determination, privilege, leadership and anti-authoritarianism are often debated in a vacuum; in the work of Common Ground, these concepts collided with the realities of organizing. Can you describe some of the ways these ideas raised challenges when translated into the work of the collective?
In the book I touch on the question of language. I think it is important to have language that doesn’t box us in. I’m not just radical or an anarchist; I’m a father, a son, a neighbor, a worker, a Texan, and all of these identities are valid. Additionally, it’s important to talk about power. I use power with a capital “P” to describe illegitimate power or power over someone; and, taking again from the Zapatistas, there is power from below.
Let’s look at this another way. Imagine that in the first few years, 10,000 self-identified anarchists and anti-authoritarians came through Common Ground. Every person brought with them assumptions, not just about privilege and power, but also about what anarchism, solidarity, accountability, self-determination and leadership means. What I found is that there wasn’t a lot of understanding about these concepts in practice. What does it mean to be a horizontal organization? What does it mean to be a collective? These questions always created conflict between the organization and people that came. Some anarchists would show up and would expect to have full input and decision-making power over the organization. I found it really interesting that people didn’t ask, “What do these things mean to you as an organization?”
Post-Katrina New Orleans has been described as a “disaster within a disaster.” How do we address current and less spectacular disasters with an eye to preparing for future large-scale relief efforts and organizing?
I think that preparing for the future is the answer; we don’t need to look for the next disaster or the next crisis to organize. We cannot afford to be short-sighted when it comes to practical applications of long-term vision. We need to develop dual power: you have to resist on one hand, and you have to build and create on the other hand. What I would like to do is get people to really think about twenty-year, thirty-year and fifty-year futures. If we protest day in and day out, we squander our energy and limited resources to build long-term capacity and power. I am proposing that we build our own power all the time, and that we save resistance for when it’s really, really important and has dramatic, incredible and far-reaching effects. We should look at movements as having multiple points of intersection; it takes all kinds of things to make changes happen, and people come into movements for all different reasons. We need to make our mirror reflection bigger than ourselves, and we have to meet people where they are. This is a longer conversation that we are not going to wrap up in this one question, but I think these are key pieces. As I often put it, “Dream a future. Know our history. Organize ourselves. Fight to win.”
Stevie Peace and Kevin Van Meter co-edited, with Team Colors Collective, “Uses of a Whirlwind: Movement, Movements and Contemporary Radical Currents in the United States (AK Press, 2010) and co-authored the short book Wind(s) From Below: Radical Community Organizing to Make a Revolution Possible (Team Colors & Eberhardt Press, 2010). Both have been involved in various organizing efforts together for over a decade. Peace worked in various organizing and administrative roles at the Common Ground Health Clinic in New Orleans following the hurricane for fifteen months; Van Meter spent a few weeks volunteering at the clinic in the winter of 2005.