Hurricane Katrina and Common Ground Collective

Zoom call with Common Ground Collective co-founder Scott Crow

After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the government lost control of the city and left thousands of residents to fend for themselves. Dead body parts drifted through flooded streets, and National Guard helicopters flew overhead not to rescue people but to point machine guns down at the mostly black and low-income population.[1]

“Yet in this period of catastrophe,” writes Peter Gelderloos, “with hundreds of people dying and resources necessary for survival solely limited, strangers came together to assist one another in a spirit of mutual aid […] In fact, the vast majority of rescues were carried out not by police and professionals, but by common New Orleans residents, often in defiance of the orders of authorities.”[2]

On 5 September 2005, Sharon Johnson and Malik Rahim, residents of the city’s neighborhood of Algiers, joined with the Texas-based organizer scott crow to form the Common Ground Collective (CGC) dedicated to empowering the local community and providing relief services that the government had failed to provide. With Rahim being a former Black Panther and crow an anarchist, the Collective’s principles came to reflect elements of both traditions. Common Ground picked up garbage, prepared and served meals, ran health clinics, started free schools, provided bicycles and trailers, planted community gardens, built affordable housing, and launched worker cooperatives. Some 23,000 volunteers participated in the Collective’s first three years. Common Ground became, in crow’s words, “the largest functioning organization based on anarchist ideals in the United States since the IWW.”[3]

Common Ground’s survival programs easily surpassed those offered by the government and the Red Cross. “In Algiers, FEMA effectively became a giant referral service to Common Ground Relief and other aid agencies,” crow writes. When FEMA’s regional head needed medical attention, she chose to visit Common Ground’s health clinic instead of the Red Cross or military doctors. Upon leaving the clinic, she repeatedly said it was the best medical service she’d seen in the region.[4]

Projects were run by autonomous working groups that were accountable both to the Collective and to the community members they served. Because of state scrutiny, the health clinics were forced to adopt hierarchical elements that other affinity groups could avoid. The Collective itself had about 40 members. To join the Collective, a volunteer had to establish a record in the community of work, commitment and accountability. As a CGC communique explained, “[W]e don’t have a collective body that micro manages every detail either. The central collective body works on long term goals, strategies, internal organizing processes and finances with each project maintaining a great amount of autonomy. Is it bureaucratic? Not even close, but it is getting more tightly organized. We are setting up guidelines and processes for the way we function so that we can continue to do so.”[5]

Some anarchists criticized Common Ground for not implementing anarchist ideals consistently enough, for having leadership positions, and for not immediately plugging all fresh volunteers into the Collective’s central decision-making roles. In response, a core CGC organizer Kerul Dyer acknowledged, “Common Ground is a largely white activist organization, and most of the coordinators come from an anti-authoritarian political culture. Malik Rahim and some of the core leadership in NOLA, however, come from a radical black political culture with fundamentally different experiences and approaches. The organization incorporates many decentralized characteristics, but at base we are acting in solidarity with local black leadership, and Malik makes many of the final overall long term decisions.”[6]

Around May 2006, the Federal Bureau of Investigations began secretly paying the CGC core organizer Brandon Darby. Having been reprimanded for misogynist behavior, Darby left CGC on bad terms in 2006, but in 2007, the Collective allowed him to return as interim director for almost three months. As director, he acted in an authoritarian manner, removing coordinators who challenged him, dropping programs without consulting the community, and unaccountably handling funds. The Collective forced him out, and crow alleges that Darby’s decisions were part of an FBI attempt to destroy the Collective.[7]

In 2008, after more than two years of implementing anarchist practices, CGC transitioned into a traditional nonprofit organization. crow explains, “[T]here were more entrenched forces with greater resources beyond us. Given the circumstances, it was almost inevitable that our more radical elements would be co-opted, crushing the openings that we had created, or that they would wither as the masses of volunteers moved on.[8]

Source: Anarchy in Action

The following passages are taken from Mutual Aid Disaster Relief.

On August 29th, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. More than 1,800 people lost their lives. In the apocalyptic atmosphere of New Orleans, a few days after Hurricane Katrina, here and there, life was reorganizing itself. In the face of the inaction of the public authorities, who were too busy cleaning up the tourist areas of the French Quarter, protecting shops, and responding with automatic rifles to demands for help from the poorer city dwellers, forgotten forms of community solidarity were reborn. In spite of occasionally strong-armed attempts to evacuate the area, in spite of white supremacist mobs hunting and killing unarmed black community members, a lot of people refused to leave the city. For those who refused to be deported like “environmental refugees” all over the country, and for those who came from all around to join them in solidarity, responding to a call from Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther, self-organization came back to the fore. Malik Rahim, Scott Crow, and other early cofounders new each other from political prisoner solidarity work, supporting the Angola 3: Robert King Wilkerson, Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace. Together they formed Common Ground.

In a few weeks’ time, volunteer street medics named for their work as medical first providers at protests, formed the Common Ground Clinic. From the very first days, this clinic provided free and effective treatment, including holistic, alternative, and western medicine to those who needed it, thanks to the constant influx of volunteers. The clinic, Malik’s house, and other newly formed Common Ground sites like the volunteer housing of those who came to clean and rebuild flooded homes became bases of daily resistance to the clean-sweep operation of government bulldozers, which were trying to turn parts of the city into a pasture for property developers. People came from global justice, anti-war, anarchist, and other movements that survived state crackdown on dissent. Individuals from Food Not Bombs, Indymedia, Veterans for Peace, street medic and housing rights collectives, all joined together to set up popular kitchens, provide free medical care, engage in building takeovers to prevent their destruction, and more. Despite the presence of at least one misogynistic agent provocateur, Common Ground created additional health clinics, a legal clinic, built community gardens, operated a women’s shelter, distributed aid, established a tool-lending library and radio station, gutted houses, cleaned up debris, documented police abuses, created community media centers, bio-remediated the soil, and replanted wetlands to build a barrier against the next storm. People’s willingness to engage in direct action found a new context in defending public housing, re-opening shuttered school doors, delivering much needed supplies past checkpoints, and helping community members maintain their historic centers of worship despite opposition. The experience and wisdom gained from mass mobilizations against globalization melded with the legacy of the Black Panther’s survival programs.  This practical knowledge accumulated in the course of several lifetimes of social movement practice all found a space where it could be deployed. The devastation of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina gave movements for liberation and others devoted to social transformation the opportunity to achieve an unfamiliar cohesion and unity that transcended the tired old divisions based on ideology or tactics. Street kitchens require building up provisions beforehand; emergency medical aid requires the acquisition of necessary knowledge and materials, as does the setting up of pirate radios. The political richness of such experiences is assured by the joy they contain, the way they transcend individual stoicism, and their manifestation of a tangible reality that escapes the daily ambience of order and work Whoever knew the penniless joy of these New Orleans neighborhoods before the catastrophe, their defiance towards the state and the widespread practice of making do with what’s available wouldn’t be at all surprised by what became possible there. On the other hand, anyone trapped in the anemic and atomized everyday routine of our residential deserts might doubt that such determination could be found anywhere anymore. Common Ground was not an activist utopia. Despite anti-oppression trainings and other limited attempts at stemming oppressive behavior, racism and sexism still were present. In addition, one early leader of Common Ground, Brandon Darby, who later was revealed to be an FBI informant and agent provocateur, used his position of leadership to take advantage of young women, and alienated many people by his domineering misogynist tendencies, militant posturing and other oppressive behavior. When volunteers insisted that this problematic behavior be addressed, those people rather than the perpetrator were pushed out of the organization.

The problems also extended far beyond one individual. Similar to how in disaster capitalism, the economic elite take advantage of the situation to further entrench their privilege and power and introduce neoliberal economic reforms, in disaster patriarchy, which was on full display in Common Ground, the sense of crisis and urgency was taken advantage of by people who used it as an excuse to bypass their principles for expediency. Valorization of hard and constant physical labor, a crisis-laden environment, militant posturing, minimization or degradation of emotion and basic human needs – these were all red flags that painted a toxic and unsustainable organizing culture and were not appropriately addressed. It takes a constant organizational self-awareness and willingness to critically reflect in order to not fall back into the trap of patriarchal, colonial, or other oppressive modes within organizing efforts. These examples of Common Ground not living up to its ideals should not be glossed over or ignored. They are, in fact, critical to acknowledge and learn from. At the same time, it does not undo the critical, groundbreaking disaster relief solidarity work that Common Ground pioneered. It is often not a matter of whether manifestations of hierarchical power arise in our social movements and organizations, but when. When this does happen, it is critical to name it for what it is, and that this power be contested, opposed, and composted for something new to grow in its place.

Additionally, Brandon Darby was clearly part of the modern-version of COINTELPRO, the same counter-intelligence forces that infiltrated and caused the deaths and imprisonment of many people with the Black Panthers, American Indian Movement, and other movements for collective liberation. Common Ground can be thought of as a mediating organization linking the traditional revolutionary organizing style of the Black Panthers and the diffuse leadership or horizontalism of Occupy Sandy. All three didn’t share decision-making power within their organizations equally, but all three did share power with the communities they were in support of, listening, asking, and responding to people’s needs, while articulating support for radical social change. Similar to what took place a decade and a half earlier in Mexico, after Hurricane Katrina, civil society was awakened.  Rapper Kanye West famously went off-script on a mainstream media nonprofit fundraiser, saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”. But beyond one single person, the whole white supremacist, settler-colonial State doesn’t care about black people, or indigenous people, poor people, people with disabilities, LGBTQ people, people experiencing homelessness, or anybody outside of their religion of Power and Greed. It began to dawn on many more people in New Orleans and throughout the so called United States that the government does not care. And, we the people, must help each other.

Many people who participated in mutual aid after Hurricane Katrina focused again on building other movements like the International Solidarity Movement, No Mas Muertes, Food Not Bombs, Earth First! Rising Tide, Rain Forest Action Network, Mountain Justice, the Beehive Collective, what became the Occupy Movement and countless others. But finding each other through acting directly and in concert with people affected to achieve their survival and other needs, besides giving us a heightened sense of inner power and fertilized imaginations, also built bonds that survived the years.