Thursday, October 18, 2007

At the corner of breakdown & hope

This is an account of something that happened last night. I was interviewing two visiting college kids about their experience at Common Ground, while other activity was going on outside.


“You can’t have positive change unless you have negative stuff,” he said, the naked bulb hanging above him, lighting up his face, illuminating a particular glint in his eye, the gaze following a partially-seen rat scurrying by his side. “They just feed off of each-other, you know?”

Outside, there is chaos. Shrouded in the darkness of the night, with gutted desolate houses on either side, is a road. Right now that road is filled with people, some of whom are screaming at each-other. $280 is reported missing, and many suspect that a thief is in their midst. For some, this is a final straw, and they demand resolution.

“That’s it, this is enough!”, said the man in the white shirt, voice booming, striding determinedly down the street. “I want everybody up, I want everybody out! We are going to handle this right now! We are going to figure out who’s who, we are going to figure out what’s what!”

“So”, I ask the woman interviewee, now sitting under the bulb, “why do you think this is happening?”

“It was building up”, she said, leaning forward in her seat, “I have been noticing the tensions. The tension was really high, and then it just exploded. I was not surprised.”

We are at the Common Ground Relief site, in the lower ninth ward, in New Orleans. We are at the spot referred to as “Ground Zero”, where the levees first broke, flooding 80% of the city.

The male interviewee speaks: “Coming from our up-beat, cheerful lives, and then coming here, it is a real kick in the face. It’s definitely a depressing place to be in.”

The devastation is everywhere, the obvious physical infrastructure, as well as people’s lives. It’s all observable in some way. “I definitely see that the government is not helping in any way,” the female interviewee says.

The male interviewee looks at me, pauses. “When people are talking with you here, you definitely feel what they went through. And it has an impact on you.”

Two Katrina survivors are in the street now, locked together in a stare of rage and combat. The man lost his house, previously on this block, thrown out to a couple of blocks over. The woman was at the superdome during Katrina, experiencing a collective horror forever etched in so many people’s lives.

Now the accusation of thievery is screaming before them, and none will have this stand. Chests puffed out, hands & arms at the ready, these people are poised to tear away injustice – their shouts tell their willingness to fight.

Inside I ask “How”. How can we fight in a different way? In a way that works for all. This is, after all, what Common Ground is here for. “Solidarity, Not Charity” is a guiding principle for the organization.

She replies: “I am not really sure what will replace that kind of thing. Maybe more strength of community, more social ties. People need people.”

Outside, nervousness, a cacophony of chatter, people on cell phones, others asking each-other what to do. Nobody has any answers.

The man being interviewed thinks that what we need is hope. He sees the bringing of hope as being the most important work that Common Ground is doing. “Perhaps it takes things breaking down, the levees to break, whatever. Perhaps it takes dramatic break-down to inspire people to work together. Hope is generated by what people see is being done.”

A car speeds up to the site, and stops next to the crowd. A bunch of Common Ground coordinators jump out. They fan out throughout the crowd, each one approaching one of the most obviously distressed-looking individuals. An air of relief washes over the crowd, while many others remain uncertain of what to do.

“Community is more than building houses”, she states, “it is more social interactions.” She pauses to watch a cluster of people walk by from her group. They are carrying back-packs and bags to load up their vans. A man in a door-frame peers out from behind a curtain. “It is about having people to rely on,” she says.

Outside, the man in the white shirt screams: “We are having a circle! Everybody in the circle! Right now, we are all going to get together, and we are going to find out just what the fuck is going on!” The onlookers are stunned. Nobody knows how to respond. The crowd moves back & forth in indecision.

“By bringing people in, you’re bringing in a community”, the female interviewee says. “You need to have something with more meetings between people. You need a place for people who don’t have anywhere to go, who need that, that sense of community, that wholeness in their life.”

Inside one of the houses, about 20 college kids cringe together in fear. Some people are crying, others complain, others yell. Nobody knows what to do. They feel trapped in a place where they do not want to be. And they are terrified.

“What is this about?”, I ask. The male interviewee responds: “When you’re going through rough times, this kind of stuff is more bound to happen. People still need some hope though.” He smiles. “I know it sounds cliché to say, but hope really is the most important thing.”

Outside a steady stream of college kids are forming a moving line, like ants. They are carrying back-packs & bags from the gutted-out houses to their vans. They are walking past drunk screaming people, across empty lots where houses once stood and concrete slab foundations now remain.

“I definitely see that a lot of people rely on a kind of faith here,” the female interviewee says, “it definitely helps people to continue seeing & relating to the world around them. It almost seems, like they need it, it keeps them going.”

Outside the man in the white shirt is leaning against the tail-gate of a pick-up truck. His head is hanging down, and he is regretting yelling at the woman earlier. “We’ve always been good with each-other, me & her. I didn’t mean to ruin that. I guess it turns out that we are just too similar. A part of me is also in her.”

Inside, the woman remarks: “We saw the destruction with our own eyes. He showed us that, we can see it, and now we can spread the awareness around.”

The draw-bridge nearby is now mysteriously broken, dis-connecting the lower & upper ninth wards. Traffic is backed up on it, on both sides. The vehicles are beginning to turn around and drive away.

“Hope diffuses through the neighborhoods,” he chimed in. “Once it’s there, in a community, it just gets out there. It’s all one big diffusion.”

The doors shut on all the vans. The people are inside, the engines are running. Two roads form an intersection, and there is a van at each corner. One-by-one a vehicle takes off, until all four are leaving, in one big caravan.

The block is then empty, and quiet.

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