Monday, May 19, 2008

Stories of Community

Katie, Lyna and I have been placed at the Worker’s Center for Racial Justice. When we got into work today, we first met Jacinta and Dennis who run the Congress of Day Labors Program at the Center. They oriented us to the Center and their different projects. Jacinta let us know about the different issues going on with day laborers and the constant police threats and harrassment that they face while they are on the street corners looking for work. Police have been known to slash tires, arrest day laborers arbitrarily, and generally intimidate the workers.

We were given two different projects to tackle. One was to look at the different sanctuary city or non-cooperation policies enacted by different cities around the U.S. that limit local law enforcement’s ability to cooperate with ICE. This research will help give the mayor and police chief of New Orleans a better idea of what the country at large is doing and how New Orleans can adopt similar policies. Many of the ordinances sound great but have huge loopholes that allow local law enforcement to communicate someone’s undocumented status if that person is under arrest, even if they only allegedly committed a crime. It is so infuriating to read the backlash to these non-cooperation policies from conservative anti-immigrant people.

We started working on the second project in the afternoon. In the past two weeks, 8 anti-immigrant bills were proposed in the House, and 4 had passed through the house. We found out that 2 of them were going to be heard in Senate committees tomorrow. It is not surprising that they did not let anyone know about this until the day before, so everyone was rushing around like mad trying to find people to go up and testify in front of the committee.

The 2 that are going to the floor tomorrow are HB25 which would allow police officers to request immigration status upon arrest and HB887 which would deny undocumented immigrants the right to file medical malpractice claims. We mobilized right away and began calling the Senators and wrote emails to them as well.

It was so amazing to be working again and to be around full-time organizers. I also felt like I was putting some of what I have learned over the past year into use, which made me relieved that law school wasn’t all for naught.

In the evening a few of us went for dinner and got to hang out with and talk to a few people who have been living in New Orleans for quite a while and some who were born here. The stories we heard from them were incredible, stories of community, loss, hope, fear and revival. Stories untold. Almost the whole city had to throw out their refrigerators because they were moldy, or had maggots all over them. Yet, refrigerator manufacturers only make so many refrigerators a year so people were without refrigerators for quite a while. At the same time, in many neighborhoods there were no supermarkets open. People would have to carpool way out to the grocery stores (since most of their cars were destroyed) and then could buy very few groceries because they only had small coolers in their houses. Ice was really hard to get too, so sometimes they couldn’t even store perishable food.

They told stories of the Red Cross driving through neighborhoods shouting “hot meals” on the bullhorn. They were also given “meals ready to eat” (MREs), that are generally used for the military. They also distributed “personal care packages” to people without running water. Inside each is a stack of wipes, one for each part of your body, specifically designed to clean that part of the body. To me, all of this just sounded like a lack of effort from the government to provide people with a decent way of life while they waited for certain utilities and businesses to be restored. It speaks to the dehumanization that I had read and heard about, but had never really known the full extent to which the people of New Orleans were neglected.

Another untold story is that initially a lot of the folks who returned were queer folks, for various reasons, one being that many did not have children and so did not have to worry about submitting their children’s health and safety to the instability of New Orleans at the time. The story of this community in particular and how they cared, cooked for, and supported each other, is a beautiful one, that allows me to really see the strength and passion of the spirit of so many people who came together to help each other through the worst of times.

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