New Orleans In The Battle for the Ninth Ward: ACORN, The Rebuilding of New Orleans, and the Lessons of Disaster, published last year, I had added the Lessons appendix as more and more community-based organizations sought to meet the challenges of the unexpected natural disasters that are cropping up all around us, whether in the US, Indonesia, or Japan, way too often given the crisis of climate change. One of the clearest lessons we had learned in New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina was the incalculable value of volunteers.
It’s interesting, and important, to once again watch after Hurricane Sandy, in the largest city in the USA, how once again even there in the bounty of our harvest, so to speak, the quickest response in many difficult areas has been once again by volunteers. The corollary to the lesson about volunteers seems to be that activists, often mobile with flexible or casual jobs, and a healthy dose of altruism, politics, opportunism, and tech skills seem to be an important spice in stirring the volunteer gumbo. The Occupy Movement, which is no longer a movement, but has evolved into a loose network of activists with sporadic energy and capacity in various areas of pursuit around the country (and I mean this sincerely and in the most positive way possible!) seems uniquely able to fit this bill. I had been hearing over the last two weeks some buzz about Occupy Sandy, being coordinated in New York City by a handful of Occupy Wall Street veterans and the energy of newbies looking for a way to be effective.
The New York Times ran a huge hooray for Occupy Sandy. After Hurricane Katrina, we thought our coup was just getting something up on our website asking for (and receiving!) help in that long ago time of seven years ago before-Facebook. The tech ingenuity of the Occupy Sandy crew is simply hats-off stunning! They use Google maps for directions and drop-offs. They were shrewd enough to get on-line on wedding registry sites for donations, which is drop dead brilliant. And, proving again another “lesson” from my list, they have been able to use their national and even international network of “groups” and activist contacts to great effect, reportedly using a team of activist volunteers in London to keep the various facebook and other sites fresh and current. They may not have an organization, but they certainly still have mad skills.
I’ve been proud to see the regular postings and exhortations from New York Communities for Change, the former New York ACORN, which has long had a membership base in the Far Rockaways, and the fact that they have been on a regular supply run to support their members who are still battling Sandy. New York ACORN was a constant ally and advocate in ACORN’s Katrina work, even bringing Bloomberg down on his private jet to visit with our members in the 9th Ward, and organizing survivors from New Orleans who ended up in NYC. It is good to see how hardwired the experience was then and how it continues to instruct the work now.
There are problems in the activist-volunteer post-disaster work, even at its best, which we may be seeing in Occupy Sandy. I recently read The Fight for Home: How (Parts of) New Orleans Came Back by Daniel Wolff which focused heavily on the many ups and many downs of the Common Ground effort after Katrina. The Common Ground Clinic operation in Algiers on the West Bank of the city which was not flooded by Katrina rightly earned Common Ground huge respect and support. Sometimes dealing with their later efforts in the 9th ward were more challenging, since ACORN members didn’t always see eye-to-eye with some of the activities and practices of this more off-beat operation. The book details the leadership problems of Common Ground which became somewhat notorious when one of the key architects of its operation later came out in Austin as an FBI informant causing havoc near and far. I didn’t need the reminders of the more difficult experiences since the same guy had occasionally showed up in bizarre circumstances in ACORN’s office on Elysian Fields (shown twice in a recent Treme show incidentally). Another time, I had just come into downtown from the airport and had to turn around immediately with organizers of New Orleans ACORN to pull the daughter of old friends and comrades out of a wildly sketchy and dangerous crash pad being run by Common Ground in a rough, unlit, unlocked part of central city.
The point being that as good as it all can be, the rough ledger of “by any means necessary,” here-today, gone-tomorrow can also leave many rough edges, and lots of local residents and well meaning volunteers, hanging a long way from high and dry. We need the protocols and practices to build long term programmatic and progressive response to disaster that build our organizations and our political capacity, and volunteers and activists are a crucial part of these formulas, but in applying the immediate bandaids, we also need to be constantly vigilant that we are also providing the long terms cures and solutions.