From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]

A Healthy Dose of Anarchy

After Katrina, nontraditional, decentralized relief steps in where big
government and big charity failed.
Neille Ilel | December 2006

When I walked into Rose and Gary Singletary’s house in the black,
middle-class Gentilly section of New Orleans in February, I saw the
shell of a building. The floors, the walls, and all the
fixtures-toilets, sinks, doors-had been removed. Floodwater from
Hurricane Katrina had reached higher than the Singletarys’ front
door, and their home had to be stripped down to the frame to bleach out
the mold. After months of on-again, off-again work, the house was
finally ready to be rebuilt.

The couple had all but given up on getting any more than the $2,000
they had received from their insurance company. They had been insured
under a state initiative called the Louisiana Citizens Fair Plan,
administered by the American International Group. According to
Americans for Insurance Reform and other watchdog groups-not to
mention several class action suits-the group paid out $2,000
“advances” to its policy holders and then effectively disappeared
through tactics such as not answering calls, constantly changing
adjusters, and conflating wind/storm damage (covered) with flooding
(not covered).

But the Singletarys were beaming. Nearly six months after the hurricane
hit, their house was miles ahead of any others in the neighborhood. It
got that way not with conventional charity or insurance, nor with
government aid, but with a ragtag crew of amateurs. Were it not for a
rotating group of young volunteers, the house probably would have been
in the same state as those surrounding it: empty, only superficially
cleaned, and growing more mold by the day.

“They’re a godsend,” Rose gushed. “You’ll find everybody down
at Common Ground. They’ve got lawyers, child care, computers with

Two giant spray-painted signs point to the Common Ground Collective’s
headquarters in a church parking lot in the now infamous Ninth Ward,
where the group houses its volunteers, takes names for house gutting,
and gives away bleach, buckets, respirators, canned food, and other
supplies. The collective was founded in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
by a former Black Panther and some street medics trained at mass

Like most residents I talked to, the Singletarys had seen little of the
Red Cross aside from an occasional food truck, and they evinced nothing
but frustration when I mentioned the Federal Emergency Management
Agency (FEMA). It was a major coup that seven men from the city had
actually arrived to pick up debris from their house on the day I
visited. Of the seven, four were dedicated solely to detouring
nonexistent traffic.

The Red Cross and FEMA are under serious scrutiny for their mishandling
of Katrina’s aftermath. In addition to a very public failure to
manage the immediate flooding crisis, FEMA has been skewered in a
recent Department of Homeland Security inspector general’s report, in
its own internal audit, and in private and public conversations along
the Gulf Coast. The inspector general’s report faulted the agency for
poor communication, lack of preparedness, and inadequate staffing.
FEMA’s emergency housing program, which includes expensive cruise
ships and trailers that cost $30,000 apiece, is fraught with
inefficiency and waste.

The Red Cross is widely thought to have performed better than FEMA, but
it’s on the ropes too. At the request of the aid organization, the
FBI recently took charge of an investigation involving volunteers who
misappropriated millions meant for victims of Hurricane Katrina. A
March New York Times report revealed major gaps in the organization’s
system of accountability. Red Cross officials have acknowledged that
their reaction in the storm’s aftermath was inadequate, and that
tensions, possibly race-based, have sometimes emerged between its
volunteers and the residents.

Against this backdrop of failure, successes stand out starkly. Perhaps
the most obvious mistake made in the institutional response to Katrina
was a failure to innovate, to ignore the old rules and procedures when
they stood in the way of helping residents in need. Individual
citizens, church groups, and a new brand of grassroots relief
organizations stepped in to fill the gaps. These grassroots groups
dispense with bureaucracy and government aid. They rely instead on
small donations of money and supplies, and the commitment of
on-the-ground volunteers and the communities they serve. In addition to
Common Ground, secular organizations such as Emergency Communities, the
People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, and Four Directions have joined a
multitude of small church groups in the region to provide services
where government and big aid organizations fell short. When necessary,
they simply ignored the authorities’ wrongheaded decisions: pushing
supplies through closed checkpoints, setting up in unapproved areas,
breaking the rules when it made more sense than following them.

Their organizers, as well as their volunteers, have little experience
with relief work. They live in tents or sleep on cots in repurposed
churches and community centers. Volunteers run the gamut from hippie
dropouts to middle-class students on spring break, and the outposts
they’ve built are filled with things you’d never expect to see
anywhere near a relief effort: free acupuncture, vegetarian cooking,
cross-dressing volunteers, a giant geodesic dome. Despite their
inexperience and occasional outlandishness, they are organizing and
delivering some of the most effective relief work in the area.

They aren’t a complete solution to the problem. But they have
complemented and sometimes superseded other efforts, and the old-time
charities are starting to take respectful notice of their unusual new

Acupuncturists Without Borders

I first heard about Common Ground in an email from my friend Jeff, a
New York bohemian who frequented underground art parties and halfway
legal street events. It’s fair to say that many of the people who
organized and attended those events were of a type. They had odd jobs
and even odder side projects; they made their own clothes, and it
showed. And they threw really good parties.

So when I learned some of the same people were helping organize a
relief project in New Orleans, I was both fascinated and skeptical.
When I poked around further and learned that many were alumni of
Burning Man and the Rainbow Gathering, two of the nation’s biggest,
strangest counterculture festivals, I was even more fascinated and even
more skeptical. Could a bunch of middle- and upper-middle-class kids,
many of them fresh from “alternative” experiences, connect with
poor, churchgoing residents of the South? And if they could, would the
experiment affect more than a handful of residents?

To my surprise, the answers were yes and yes. As I watched these groups
in action, it became clear that they were connecting with the locals
and that their services were invaluable. Residents used words like
“heaven-sent” and “angels” when describing the volunteers, even
the guy serving food in a cowboy hat and a dress.

Common Ground’s initial incarnation was a medical clinic in an
Algiers mosque. Algiers is a decidedly poor and drab cousin to the rest
of New Orleans; it’s hard to believe that its sprawl of nondescript
homes and apartment buildings is just across the Mississippi River from
the French Quarter. But unlike the city across the river, Algiers
didn’t flood. And within a few days of the storm, several young men
on bicycles started knocking on doors in this unremarkable place,
asking if people needed medical help. They called themselves street

“A street medic,” explains Iggy River, a Common Ground volunteer,
“is a person with an indeterminate amount of knowledge, usually from
mass gatherings or street protests, of acute need first
aid”-treatment for dehydration, cuts, broken bones. With his dark
disheveled hair and giant wooden ear spools, Iggy looked like he would
be more at home at a World Trade Organization protest than coordinating
supplies in the ruins of a poor black neighborhood. Indeed, it was for
such protests that the street medics learned their craft. After
Katrina, street medics provided first aid and basic medical services
such as blood pressure and diabetes testing.

The renegade volunteers soon ran into Malik Rahim, a neighborhood
activist and former Black Panther, and Common Ground was born. By the
time I visited, the group’s clinic had moved into a permanent
storefront location and was staffed by three motherly receptionists,
two acupuncturists, and one overworked doctor. The acupuncturists
hailed from Acupuncturists Without Borders, one of the more curious
groups founded after Katrina. To accommodate medical volunteers from
all over the country, the state of Louisiana allowed out-of-state
practitioners to provide treatment without a Louisiana license. The
acupuncturists fell under that umbrella.

In the clinic’s waiting room a man with diabetes waited for
acupuncture with his wife. Since the hurricane, Dennis Waits had come
back to his job as a furniture restorer. But because only two of his
colleagues also returned to work, the company was cut from its health
insurance program. Waits, a solidly-built, middle-aged white man in a
work shirt, did not look like an adherent of alternative medicine. But
his diabetes had led to a condition called nephrotic syndrome that
caused painful swelling in his legs and feet. It wasn’t easy for him
to swallow his pride and get care from a free clinic, but he was up to
two shots of cortisone a day, and it was wearing off after a few hours.
In any case, he wasn’t afraid to have needles put into his wrists.

‘You’re Seeing Life Here’

Waveland, Mississippi, is one of those small Gulf Coast towns that
wasn’t covered much by the national media but suffered Katrina’s
winds and storm surge as much as anyplace else. It’s also where a
band of hippies from the Rainbow Gathering landed just after the storm.
“Waveland was as far as you could go then,” said David Sayotovich,
a tall, skinny 51-year-old who has been attending Rainbow Gatherings
since the 1980s.

Every year, usually in July, a group of like-minded folks get together
for a week or so in a national forest to honor the ideals of peace,
love, and cooperation. Begun in 1972, the Rainbow Gathering is an
institution of the American counterculture; it brought an estimated
15,000 participants to the Routt National Forest for its annual
gathering this year, according to the Denver Post. Most people
associate the group with drumming and smoking pot, but the group also
manages to cook and serve meals for a large number of people with no
running water and no electricity. To people like Sayotovich, it was a
no-brainer to use those skills to help people hurt by Katrina.

With encouragement from a local church group, a Rainbow busload of
volunteers decamped in Waveland, pitched tents across from the police
station, and started serving hot meals to the displaced. “The FEMA
people said, ‘You can’t do this-it’s not in the manual,’ but
we got away with it,” Sayotovich said with a grin.

Dubbed the New Waveland Café, the operation didn’t just feed
residents. It encouraged them to participate in cooking, cleaning, and
other details that went into running the aid effort, transforming the
helped into helpers. Tales of how the residents of this small Southern
town took to a group of hippies reached as far as the Chicago Tribune,
which reported that the group ran its kitchen so well that one Red
Cross volunteer quit to join them instead. The Gambit, a New Orleans
alt-weekly, described a police officer looking the other way when the
smell of marijuana drifted out of the Rainbow camp.

“You’re not just seeing a truck driving around passing out
Styrofoam containers of food,” said Mark Weiner, taking a dig at the
Red Cross. “You’re seeing life here.” Behind him a 40-foot
geodesic dome-a tent repurposed from the 35,000-person Burning Man
art festival in Nevada-was beginning to fill with the day’s lunch
crowd. The 23-year-old Weiner is a founder and executive director of
the nonprofit Emergency Communities, which set up shop in the parking
lot of what once was Finish Line Off-Track Betting in storm-ravaged St.
Bernard Parish, just east of New Orleans. There it operated the Made
With Love Café and other assorted services, including a clothing swap,
Internet terminals, and a children’s play area.

Weiner had never run an aid organization before. He hadn’t really run
anything before, which was at once obvious and hard to believe. His
phone rang constantly. Young volunteers ran up with questions at a
sustained clip. Weiner accommodated every request with answers that
seemed to be pulled out of the air: “Sounds great.” “Whatever you
think is best.” “Totally.” It sounds like a recipe for chaos, but
behind him trays of coconut curry soup were being instantly replenished
as the food line emptied into the cafeteria.

A fresh-faced graduate of Columbia University, Weiner was your typical
young hipster living in Brooklyn and applying for law school when
Katrina hit. Like nearly every volunteer I encountered, he tried to
sign up with the Red Cross first. After he registered online, the Red
Cross informed him he would have to wait weeks to attend a training
session before he could see any action. “Basically,” he recalled,
“I was impatient.”

Then he found out about the New Waveland Café. There he met Scott
Ankeny, a 34-year-old magazine publisher who had been at Burning Man
when Katrina hit. When the Rainbow kitchen organizers closed shop, the
two decided to expand on the Waveland principles by opening a food
kitchen in the denser New Orleans area.

They settled on St. Bernard Parish, where the devastation was so
complete that some say there may have been only two homes in the area
untouched by floodwaters. Weiner and Ankeny estimate that the food
kitchen served around 1,400 meals a day to construction workers, relief
workers, and residents who came back to rebuild. In February, there
were still no restaurants or grocery stores open for miles. For most of
the diners at the Made With Love Café, the only other option was
eating packaged food brought in from elsewhere. Five months after
Katrina, the few Red Cross trucks that had been seen early on weren’t
coming around anymore.

Nearly all the ingredients at the café were donated directly from
companies or individuals who were similarly frustrated with the
bureaucracy of the traditional avenues for giving. The café’s roots
in the Rainbow subculture were on vivid display. Twenty-six-year-old
Lali, a slip of a woman in homemade clothes and a giant head wrap, was
the “head kitchen mama”; she believed in using as many fresh
organic ingredients as possible, which is not ordinarily a priority in
the wake of a hurricane.

Lali began volunteering in Waveland with friends from the Rainbow
Gathering, going on to set up the St. Bernard Parish operation with
Weiner and around a dozen others. “We’re looked at as outsiders in
the rest of the world,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for
us to prove ourselves, to be seen in a better light, not to be judged
as people who freeload”-a reputation that haunts the hippie
Rainbows. The meals at the café were delicious: curried vegetables,
roasted organic chicken, homemade apple pie. I tried to eat there
whenever possible, as did every resident I talked to.

One of the first principles of Emergency Communities was that anyone
was invited to come down and help. “If you’re a volunteer and want
to come down for two days, we say come on down,” Weiner said. “You
don’t need ‘training.’ We’ll give you two hours of orientation
right here.” And so behind the tents for eating, cooking, picking up
free supplies, and checking email were a hodgepodge of more ramshackle
tents connected by a makeshift boardwalk of moving pallets. Volunteers,
who ran the gamut from homeschooled high school students to a
father-son duo on a bonding weekend, just had to get as far as the New
Orleans airport. Emergency Communities housed them, fed them, and put
them to work. According to Weiner, 1,400 volunteers came through the
camp, and the café served about 160,000 meals to 15,000 residents and
workers in the six months it was open. (It’s impossible to verify his
numbers independently. For that matter, it’s impossible to verify the
Red Cross’ numbers independently.)

Disaster Relief As Civil Disobedience

“The most important thing to remember is that this was a catastrophe
rather than a disaster,” says E.L. Quarantelli, co-founder of the
Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware. The Red Cross
tried to operate as it has in most American disasters-and that
usually works just fine. But this wasn’t a typical situation. The
relief groups’ own headquarters were destroyed, as were local trained
workers’ homes. You couldn’t reliably reach people by phone or
email. And when the Red Cross was prevented from going into some areas,
by physical hazards or by local authorities, it didn’t react like the
Rainbows, a group used to operating without the law on its side. It
simply turned back.

Quarantelli says it’s not unusual to see informal community groups
stepping in during a crisis. But traditionally it’s religious groups
that engage in this sort of decentralized relief. The Mennonites, for
example, have been at it so long they’ve developed a formal
organization, the Mennonite Central Committee, which sends workers to
disaster areas all over the world. Grassroots relief organizations like
Common Ground and Emergency Communities, with no religious affiliation
and with members and organizers who are overwhelmingly from outside the
community, do not fit the Disaster Research Center’s model of what
kinds of groups emerge to deal with disasters. Their emergence,
Quarantelli allows, can be attributed in part to the Internet, where
people who wanted to volunteer could be matched with groups that needed
them instantly, without an existing social network such as a church.

Relying extensively on Internet communities like Craigslist and, the volunteer groups are technically savvy; all had wireless
networks in their headquarters. Perhaps more significant, they have a
do-it-yourself culture and a concept they call mutual aid. “We take
your house, we help you in repairing it. You help us by putting up our
volunteers,” explained Sundjata Koné, a spokesperson for Common

In dealing with the disaster’s victims, this approach seemed not only
natural but also necessary. Most were not used to standing in food
lines or asking strangers to come work on their homes for free. They
wanted to pitch in.

Take Amie Roberts. She used to cut hair at a St. Bernard salon before
it flooded. When she started coming to eat at the Made With Love Café,
it didn’t take long for her to realize that what was left of the
parish citizenry needed somewhere to get their hair cut. She mentioned
the idea to the volunteers at the café, and they provided her with a
tent and some chairs. She brought her own scissors and a donation can.
“I wanted to do it for the residents,” she told me while snipping
away at the head of a Red Cross worker from Arkansas. By all accounts
hers was the only functioning hair salon in the entire parish,
attracting dozens of residents, contractors, and relief workers a day.

The term “mutual aid” isn’t as touchy-feely as it might initially
sound. The Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin advanced the concept in
the early 20th century as an argument against the idea that people are
naturally inclined to compete against one another. The concept remains
popular among radicals today, and some of the relief workers in the
area espouse anarchist politics.

When locals trying to rebuild asked Common Ground for help getting the
proper permits, the group’s policy was to help rebuild, building
permits or not. “We’re essentially breaking the law,” Koné told
me, pausing for emphasis. “That’s civil disobedience.” If it
keeps people from living in mold-filled houses, he said, then Common
Ground will do it. The logic of the approach became clear to me after I
spent weeks trying to get in touch with anyone at the New Orleans
Department of Safety and Permits. I was hoping to get the
department’s reaction to Koné and other critics who called it
inefficient and unresponsive to ordinary residents. No one ever
returned my calls.

Common Ground’s call to action is “Solidarity Not Charity.” Its
logo features a fist holding a hammer on one side and a medical cross
on the other, á la Bolshevik-era posters. Volunteers argue online
about whether the group is too authoritarian or not authoritarian
enough, whether there are too many anti-oppression workshops or too
few. As Owen Thompson, a college student and Common Ground volunteer,
has pointed out in the webzine Toward Freedom, it makes sense for New
Orleans to be attractive to anarchists right now: Here is a place where
government failed absolutely, and as such it could be the perfect place
to argue that government itself is a failure.

Koné was happy to do just that. “They [FEMA and the Red Cross] come
in, and they have all the money,” he said. “They do much less than
we do. And they put their volunteers up at hotels, or on cruise liners.
And that’s our tax money that FEMA’s using for that.” Like other
organizers, and many locals, he marveled at the money donated to the
Red Cross-$2.1 billion at last count-and how little he’s seen
them do with it. “They pay themselves hundreds of thousands of
dollars in salaries,” he said. “And they claim they’re broke!”

Is It Enough?

The smaller groups’ nimbleness deserves a lot of credit for their
successes. Allowing residents and victims to shape the services they
receive is a necessary part of disaster relief and is done best by
small local groups, says Joseph Trainer, projects coordinator at the
University of Delaware’s Disaster Research Center. The sheer
exuberance of creatively organizing to help others is also an important
factor. The same naive eagerness that inspires skepticism in some of us
is an asset when none of the traditional avenues for getting things
done works.

The first time I met Iggy River, the young man who told me what a
street medic is, I was sitting in a coffee shop in the Bywater section
of New Orleans. He was one of two men in their early 20s whom I
overheard talking authoritatively, maybe a little self-importantly,
about supplies for a health clinic in Algiers. They spoke with a pride
that bordered on giddiness.

That conversation was a sharp contrast with the measured words of the
director of the New Orleans chapter of Habitat for Humanity, or the
director of the Red Cross chapter, or any representatives of the large,
traditional relief and post-disaster recovery organizations that
normally claim the authority to perform this type of work. Those people
had decades of experience managing crises. They had staffs of
volunteers who expected leadership. They reported to national
hierarchies and had a brand name to protect. “It’s not always wise
to accept someone coming through the front door,” Quarantelli notes.
And with all that money coming through the pipe, it’s not hard to see
why. But these big groups end up turning away the Young Turks who are
ready to ride their bikes around a deserted city with nothing but a
hunch that they will find people in need.

In an April interview with NPR, acting Red Cross Director Jack McGuire
admitted the organization had made major mistakes after Katrina,
including not reaching out to community groups that were doing some of
the best work in the area. The organization promises to implement a
“cultural shift” that includes working more closely with grassroots
organizations, a tack the institution has historically shied away from.
Kay Wilkins, CEO of Red Cross’ Southeast Louisiana chapter, called
Katrina “the great equalizer” of relief organizations. After its
blunders with supplies and volunteers, the Red Cross’ reputation as
the charity that could do no wrong has been squashed.

“I’ll go to any meeting now,” Wilkins says. “I work with groups
I had never really worked with.” While the grassroots groups will
gladly take help from the behemoth Red Cross, they emphasize that their
lack of hierarchy and take-anyone approach were not merely born of
necessity. They worked that way by design.

But couldn’t that design have flaws as well? It’s one thing to tear
down Sheetrock on a house, but the liability issues involved in
allowing amateurs to build a house are a lawyer’s nightmare-or
dream. I asked organizers at both Common Ground and Emergency
Communities what protections they had in place to avoid lawsuits from
either residents or volunteers. They all answered with the same shrug.

And during hurricane season it’s not safe to have volunteers sleeping
in Kelty tents in parking lots. In fact, the Made With Love Café
closed its makeshift kitchen on June 15, leaving a permanent community
center called Camp Hope in its wake. The United Way and the local
government asked the café’s organizers to start a new food kitchen
in neighboring Plaquemines Parish. They served their first meal there
on June 1.

Common Ground scaled back its house gutting significantly during the
hot summer months and housed more volunteers in more stable structures.
The group is turning its attention to more permanent aspects of
rebuilding, such as job training for returning residents in the
construction and mechanics trades, and workshops on “rebuilding
green”-that is, using environmentally sensitive tactics and
materials in reconstruction. It’s too soon to tell if these
grassroots organizations will grow into permanent institutions
resembling the big groups they once railed against, or if the
spontaneous network of activists will dissipate until the next big
disaster. Iggy River, for one, was on his way back home to Maine when
we last spoke in June.

For Rose and Gary Singletary, the help Common Ground provided has been
invaluable, but in the end it wasn’t nearly enough. When I spoke to
them again in May, their house looked much like it did when Common
Ground volunteers picked up their tools and moved on. “Everything is
at a standstill,” Rose said. They are still trying to get more help
from their homeowner’s insurance; more important, the
neighborhood’s residents aren’t sure the levee on the London Avenue
Canal will protect their homes from another serious hurricane. Mardi
Gras and JazzFest may go on, but a single drive through New Orleans
remains breathtaking. The devastation is relentless. “It’s a
struggle,” Rose told me. “You’re trying to do something in a year
that it took your whole life to do.”

The ad hoc efforts of amateurs haven’t fixed the devastated Gulf
Coast. But neither have the centrally organized efforts of government
authorities and traditional aid groups. The large agencies trusted with
caring for citizens in their time of greatest need have something to
learn from the idealists in New Orleans: Unprecedented times call for
unprecedented measures. Rules made when there was electricity don’t
always work when all the lights are out.

{Neille Ilel is a writer and reporter living in Los Angeles, California.}

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