Friday, August 15, 2008
Most people in New Orleans agree that prior to Katrina, violence was a problem in New Orleans. The murder rate in New Orleans post-Katrina has also been very high, with the vast majority of the murders and violence being committed against African Americans. However, people’s opinions are mixed about the cause of that violence and the way to end that violence.
Safe Streets/Strong Communities was co-founded by Soros Senior Fellow and former prisoner Norris Henderson, and it operates on the philosophy that safety does not originate out of increased numbers of police patrolling poor neighborhoods, but instead from low-income communities of color collaborating together to address community violence and raise the city’s level of response and accountability. Safe Streets places great emphasis on the engagement and representation of people in low-income communities of color, since these communities are profoundly underrepresented in the electoral political process. The organization is connected to nationwide fights for racial and economic justice through the national Right to the City campaign , and is simultaneously deeply rooted in New Orleans low-income communities.
The work I did with Safe Streets included:
• Going to a city counsel meeting with an intergenerational group of Safe Streets members – from little girls to grandmas in wheelchairs – all of whom were wearing orange Safe Streets T-shirts and ready to testify about the need for accountability in the city. We had a hard-won victory when council members came out in favor of the Safe Streets-endorsed move to create a position that would independently monitor the actions of the city and the police department. This independent monitor would be funded by city taxes so that he/she would be beholden to no special interest or funding source.
• Working to provide free expungement services to over 200 people who came to a criminal records expungement fair sponsored by Safe Streets and other local organizations. In New Orleans, anyone who has been arrested and booked – even if they were later acquitted or were never prosecuted to begin with – has their picture in the New Orleans crime database, and employers routinely check that database before hiring workers. People who are trying to lead law-abiding lives are frequently excluded from jobs they apply for, even if their names appear in that database because of arrests that never led to convictions. Safe Streets works in collaboration with local lawyers and community members to expunge people’s records and open up people’s access to employment.
• Driving a 16-passenger van to the small town of Jena, Louisiana with a group of lawyers and youth activists to observe part of the trial of one of the young men arrested and charged as an adult following a racially charged fistfight in which only African American young people were charged with offenses . We got to speak to the brother of one of the accused youths, who told us about the white part of town and the black part of town and how he had enlisted in the military to escape the pervasive racism. The white side of town, incidentally, included the only local public school, the courthouse, the township’s official buildings and most of the businesses.
• The vast majority of my work consisted of campaign and policy research. Safe Streets engages in community organizing. Since any community problem can be tackled from multiple angles, one of the most important jobs of legal volunteers is to identify the playing field – who has power, who is making funding decisions, and where change can be created to better people’s lives. I was at the organization during an exciting time, when the organization was working with the vibrant group of community members who defined the work of the organization to develop a major campaign around police accountability. They needed more information about the funding going into and accountability requirements placed on the task forces and private security forces that were pervasive in the area post-Katrina.
After Katrina, a large agglomeration of federal, state and local law and immigration enforcement entities began to collaborate together through task forces. These task forces frequently were amorphous entities – seemingly answering to no one boss and often providing only the most amorphous information to the public – supposedly the ones being protected – about their activities. Were these groups accountable to local authorities? State authorities? Federal authorities? If someone was beaten by a law enforcement agent working in one of these task forces, who would that person go to for redress? And who was monitoring these groups to ensure that they were engaged in effective work that served the needs of the communities they were acting within?
Likewise, immediately after Katrina, many property owners hired private security firms to protect their possessions. These private security firms were likewise question marks for community members. What laws did these people – some of whom were mercenaries and ex-military – follow, and who did they answer to? Were they bound to respect people’s rights as state actors because their responsibilities so paralleled those normally assumed by the state? On a more personal level, where could a mother go if her young, straight-A student son was grabbed on the street while socializing with friends, frisked and beaten by such a security agent?
I was able to research the multiple task forces and security that existed in the region - from drug-specific task forces charged with surveilling the larger state to anti-gang task forces focused on the Asian community (which people from the Asian community found puzzling, since as far as these lifetime residents knew, there was no Asian gang activity in New Orleans).
This information was difficult to track down, and I wished I had more time so I could have started to file FOIA request with state and federal agencies. There were so many pieces of the puzzle, and so many places where basic information – even a phone number or a central contact for a very openly known task force (such as one mentioned in Department of Justice press releases) was unavailable. One thing was clear - there was a lot of federal money being invested in these task forces from entities such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security. It was much less clear – and impossible to figure out in a month –what exactly was being done with those millions of dollars and who had oversight over that money and activity.
At the end of my work, I was able to leave Safe Streets with a binder of information around the dozens of task forces operating in their city. I also had to leave them with many questions, some of which would have to be answered by subsequent law student volunteers or which would be revealed in the course of Safe Streets’ work.
Throughout this work, I was able to connect with a wide range of people – community members, lawyers who had been working in their communities for dozens of years, young activists, fellow law students and organizers who were dedicated to working together to improve community conditions.
Tuesday, July 15, 2008
We discussed ways to leverage our positions of access and resources and law students, and with the financial assistance of our Dean and the Epstein Public Interest and Policy Program and the Critical Race Studies Program, we founded the New Orleans Reconstruction Project (NORP) within the law school. We were able to procure funding to bring 14 other law students down to New Orleans to do two weeks of volunteer legal and organizing work .
As NORP, we recruited a highly diverse group of students who were interested in the issues playing out in the Gulf Coast. We arranged free housing and then provided them with context on the city, including visits to key important places in the city such as the place in the Ninth Ward where the levee broke and the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which provided students with an understanding of the rich and distinct culture of the African American community in New Orleans. We then placed the students at six different community organizations doing work around a wide range of issues from school improvement to immigrant worker safety to access to public hospitals to economic redevelopment for small businesses. These students provided a combined total of over a thousand hours of volunteer services during their time in the Gulf Coast, and were very well respected by the organizations where they were placed.
At the end of the two-week period, the students were impassioned about their work. The organizations they were placed at were uniformly impressed and grateful for the students’ energy, enthusiasm and skills. Many participants volunteered with additional projects and made a lot of additional work happen that otherwise would have fallen on the shoulders of overburdened organizers and community members.
We talked with organizations about ways UCLA Law students could continue to support the reconstruction process in the Gulf Coast, and the group left New Orleans with a bevy of exciting ideas, including encouraging 1L law students to work in New Orleans for their entire summers, having advanced students collaborate with local groups on research, and potentially building a clinical class focused on New Orleans. One of the more unexpected suggestions given to us by a highly respected local civil rights lawyer was to think about bringing students from our entertainment law program down to assist the community of musicians in New Orleans, who formed the heart of the city and a key economic attractor and who also frequently remained impoverished and unable to benefit from their hard work.
We are excited to continue our relationship with the New Orleans work, and already have plans for this upcoming year!
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Think twice before you take a bite into a catfish po’ boy or dig into a crawfish boil. Our team has feasted on fried crab-cakes, fresh shucked oysters, and spicy shrimp these two weeks. But amidst the abundance of seafood, many people do not know about the commercial fishermen’s struggle after Hurricane Katrina.
My job at Seedco Financial is to explore the fisheries industry in context of the rebuilding process in
I’ve been working with Seedco and the state of
Today, I just came back from a town hall meeting at a local high school for fishermen. The State and the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries are hosting workshops and meetings for fishermen to learn about financial assistance and grant programs. I’ve never been in a room with so many fishermen my whole life. It’s an interesting experience to hang out and talk to hard-working, down to earth men and women who spend days or weeks out at sea. They play a vital role in
As a law student from urban
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
It was an especially hot afternoon on the Bayou, but festival attendees beat the heat by enjoying snowballs, cold lemonade, and New Orleans iced tea. The food was mouth watering (I enjoyed a tasty 12 hour roast beef Po'boy with worcestershire sauce and grilled red onions) and the crafts were fun to browse, but the music was definitely the highlight. On the lineup card were New Orleans legends Rebirth, The Soul Rebels, and Walter the Wolfman Washington with Joey Crown. Needless to say, listening to soul stirring live music and eating distinctive New Orleans cuisine have truly defined my experience in this amazing city.
On Sunday we were back at the Bayou enjoying a truly unique (and rare!) New Orleans experience. It was Super Sunday and the Mardi Gras Indians were out to celebrate a century-old tradition. Mardi Gras Indians are mostly African-American Carnival revelers who dress up for Mardi Gras and Super Sunday in colorful, ornate suits inspired by Native American ceremonial apparel. The tradition was said to have originated from an affinity between Africans and Indians as fellow outcasts of society, as well as blacks circumventing some of the worst racial segregation laws by representing themselves as Indians. Collectively, the Mardi Gras Indians' organizations are called "tribes," ranging from a half dozen to several dozen members. On "Super Sunday," usually held the Sunday closest to Saint Joseph's Day, the Mardi Gras Indians (including children and men and women of all ages) parade through various neighborhoods dancing and playing drums and brass instruments. It was quite a sight and we all felt privileged to be a part of the experience!
The fact of the matter is that New Orleans was plagued with problems long before Katrina ever reached its shores. A poor public school system combined with corrupt city officials ensured that no middle class was ever established. This led to a large part of the city's population living their lives lost in a sea of ignorance. This is the same group of people that we expect to be able to rebuild their lives with little or no help from the government. This is the same group that we blame for not having the proper insurance; for not gutting and rebuilding their homes. Is it right then for us to bulldoze the houses that people cant afford to rebuild? Is it right for us to kick people of out their FEMA trailers? The answer to both of these questions is almost certainly no. But how then is the city supposed to progress and put this tragedy behind them? There in lies the problem. Although they both occupy the same physical space, there's two different cities in New Orleans right now. One city who will do whatever it takes to rebuild the city bigger and better than ever before. And another city fighting to keep the little that the most devastating nature disaster in history of the United States has left them.
Friday, May 23, 2008
On one of my first days of work, Tuan Nguyen, the Director of Development for MQVN CDC gave me an extensive tour of East New Orleans, particularly the Versailles Community. He highlighted the devastated areas and the following redevelopment efforts stemmed by community organizing. After Hurricane Katrina, many communities were devastated and the human will to fight became scarce. The Versailles community, which is home to predominantly Vietnamese families, is not unique in this regards. Nearly thirteen miles from downtown New Orleans, the Versailles community stands in the wreckage of thousands of grungy abandoned houses that were once home to the vibrant and booming New Orleans East. Many businesses shut down with no plans to return, and thousands of residents evacuated leaving behind generations of memories. Strangely, in the midst of this desolate backdrop, the Versailles community has sort of emerged like a baby butterfly finding her way back home. After several years of hard work and community commitment, over 1,000 people have returned to Versailles.
Although Versailles is hardly an ideal development, the vast amounts of improvements that have been accomplished in such a short amount of time, despite lacking resources, have become the inspirational force behind the redevelopment of many other devastated communities in New Orleans. The community was certain that if they rapidly rebuilt and occupied their homes, the city government would have to provide services. Perhaps the most important key to their success is that the community refused to place its recovery into the hands of the government. My exploration of this small, yet inspiring community has helped me realize that underneath the ashes of despair, there will always lay the seeds of human resilience: courage, self-sacrifice and love.