New Orleans – Rallying and Marching: It’s Personal

As I said earlier, I want to talk here about some of the personal accounts that people gave me during Saturday’s action.

First off, I was a bit surprised by how much people were willing to share with me. I think it was relatively clear that I was not from New Orleans, Louisiana, or the South. However, if it wasn’t everybody knew the moment I started talking. I was also taller than everybody (but that’s not too strange). I guess I kind of stick out. Nevertheless, people were very open and candid about their experiences with this stranger from Detroit by way of Seattle.

When I first got to the site of the rally, which was across the street from the Convention Center, I saw a family of 5 (mom, dad, 1 girl, 2 boys, all under 10) walking from the back of the lot. They were coming from a section that had charter buses, and so I asked them where they were from. The mother said that took a bus in from Houston, them and about 200 of their closest friends. As we walked up to the site of the rally, The little girl (6) told me that their hotel room in Houston was not as big as their apartment in New Orleans. The father agreed, and then we talked about how they got to Houston. He told me that they lived in the 7th ward. They didn’t leave the city because they did not have enough space in their car to fit all of the kids and his mother, who he refused to leave without. So the family went to his mother’s house to wait out the storm. She only lived a couple of blocks away, so they all walked over there. The rain and winds hit, they all survived, but he said that the flood waters were to high to leave. So they basically were trapped on the second floor of the house. He said he took his gun, a 12-gage, for what he called “just in case” security. He never fired any shots, but he did use the butt of the gun to break thru a second floor window, thru which he cried for help and attracted the attention of a Coast Guard helicopter. The copter came down and got all 6 of them out of the house safely. From there, they were taken eventually to Baton Rouge, where they were bussed to Houston. They have been in a hotel room there since September 10. They had the infamous FEMA Debit Card. The mother told me she was appalled at the ways in which the monies were being spent by people. She said that they stories about using the debit cards to so things like buy pornography were true. She said “I guess people do crazy things when they are helpless and hopeless.”

I only had brief conversations with people during the speeches, but I did have an extensive one with a woman who was selling books at the rally. She was selling socialist publications such as The Militant, and lots of books & writings on socialist theory by Malcolm X and Che Guevara among others. This woman, who was white, was from Gretna, LA, the city whose police force blocked people from crossing the bridge that we marched on later that day. Her home there had substantial damage she said: most of her windows were broken despite her storm shutters, a little more than half of her roof was blown off, a large tree in her front yard snapped and broke, falling about 2 feet in front of her front door. No one was hurt, but she did say her close friend who lived in the city was unaccounted for. I asked why she was there at the Rally/March, and her reason was that she saw the government’s response to Katrina as evidence of the need for a U.S. socialist movement. She admitted that it would likely never happen, and that if she had the money, she’d move away from the country. Interestingly enough, she told me that she did not feel this way until after the storm. She said that she disagreed that the biggest problem people had in the storm was that they were Black. To here, the biggest problem was “being broke.”

I spent most of the March itself conversing with a man who told me that he had 6 houses (I think he said he had one in the 9th ward), all of which were damaged by the storm. They were in various places in the city. He told me also that he worked at a ship yard that was washed out also. His point was that he lost a lot. He said he was never down though. His quote: “I got all of it legally. It was all insured. I got it before, I can get it again.” This was a sentiment of a lot of folks that participated in this action. They figured that if the got stuff legitimately, they could get it back legitimately. He told me that he had rebuilt 4 of his houses already, one he is living in, and the other three have tenants in them. He said that he had been active in the community for a long time, and that he could not miss this Rally & March. He was a union organizer at his job, so he told me that he has seen white folks try to stifle poor people coming together for a long time. Him and I spent the rest of the time talking about his son, who was 23 like me, and 55 credits from graduating college.

I met a woman at the end of the bridge who was there with her two daughters. She said her husband was killed in the storm, dying from dehydration at the Superdome.. The two girls, 4 and 7, she feared would have faint memories of their dad, especially the 4 year old. She talked about how she thought it was criminal to tell people to go there to die. I asked her if she had been able to leave the city before the storm. Her response was “How? I don’t have a car, I’ve never left the city. So, no.” She faulted the mayor for not knowing what to do and where to send people. This march and the right to vote in satellite polling places was important to her because she wanted as many people as possible to vote against Ray Nagin. She was worried about the amount of school her daughters missed, but she said that they were straight now. They eventually got bussed to Mississippi where they are living now. They rode a charter bus back for this Rally/March.

The last account I’ll share is that of a young man (19) who was there with the New Orleans NAACP. He was a freshman at Xavier. He was not from New Orleans and decided not to leave during the storm. His quote: “I couldn’t go home and watch people die on TV. I felt like I was needed here.” He told me how his dorm got flooded out, and how he and some people on his a hallway jumped from their 2nd-story windows down and waded thru waters to the Superdome. There, they volunteered their services as security people. He said “People do stupid things when they are scared. I just wanted to make sure those stupid things didn’t involve hurting other people.” He also said that while there was violence in the Superdome, he thinks that, in hindsight, the news account blew it way out of proportion. Most of the fights were over people trying to take more than a ration of water, as an example. He also made a run to a Cingular store that he said “wasn’t too far” to call his family in North Carolina to tell them that he was still alive every other day. He is not in school now. Instead, he lives with a member of the NAACP and has been working at the airport and volunteering his time helping people find housing and work.

There were others, these four are just a piece. I may be able to post more accounts later on. This was inspirational to me, and it is important to me to hear our people’s experience first hand. People of African descent have always treasured oral histories. It was powerful to hear, and it is important for me to transcribe much of this so that it can survive well into the future and inspire others to act.

One Love. One II.

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About Garlin Gilchrist II

I am the City of Detroit's first ever Deputy Technology Director for Civic Community Engagement. My job is to open up the city's public data and information for the consumption and benefit of all Detroiters. I currently live in Detroit, my hometown, with my beautiful wife Ellen and our twins Garlin III and Emily Grace. I'm from Detroit. I created Detroit Diaspora, and was formerly the National Campaign Director at MoveOn.org. I also co-hosted The #WinReport on "The Good Fight," a an award winning, nationally syndicated radio show that was one of Apple's Best of 2013. After graduating with degrees in Computer Engineering and Computer Science from the University of Michigan, I became a Software Engineer at Microsoft. By day, I helped build SharePoint into the fastest growth product in the company's history. On my personal time, I sought out opportunities to connect my technical skills with community building efforts across the country. This led to my co-founding The SuperSpade: Black Thought at the Highest Level, a leading Black political blog. I served as Social Media Manager for the 2008 Obama campaign in Washington, and then became Director of New Media at the Center for Community Change. I spent two years creating and implementing a strategy for the Center to take it's 40 years of community organizing experience into the digital age. I speak before diverse audiences on effective & responsive government, empowerment in revolutionary new organizing spaces, increasing civic engagement & participation through emerging technologies and protecting civil rights in the age of the Internet. Full bio here.

2 responses to “New Orleans – Rallying and Marching: It’s Personal”

  1. Ms. Mack says :

    G, this should really help our generation to put things in perspective. This is important work that you are doing, these are truly inspirational stories.

  2. The Governor says :

    Man G,
    That was deep. I am glad you are doing this so that people do not forget. Our historical memory in America is so short and absorbed with the wrong things and people are still suffering. But it is encouraging to hear these accounts of strength in spite of the circumstances.

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