The Most Important Post-Katrina Writings

what lies beneath

What Lies Beneath: Katrina, race and the state of the nation is a radical anthology of essays published by South End Press. Probably the most important text on the pre/post federal flood era. A great starting point for moving forward in a socially conscious, sustainable and locally-oriented way. An education unto itself.

Particularly insightful, provocative essays:

An introductory essay by Kalamu ya Salaam — a New Orleans poet, educator, filmmaker

The extremely moving “a raging flood of tears,” a poem by Ewuare Osayande

“To Render Ourselves Visible” by members of INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence

“Slum Clearance” by Lewis Lapham, the recently retired editor of Harper’s

“Corporate Reconstruction and Grassroots Resistance” by Jordan Flaherty of Left Turn Magazine

This wonderful resource of radical analysis, personal reflection and humanity will be referenced much as I continue to write on these topics in this blog and beyond. Thank you all for producing this book.

Published in: on June 29, 2007 at 10:25 pm  Leave a Comment  

First Day at the Social Forum in Atlanta

What a warm day it was! Good thing I’m used to New Orleans weather. Seemed like people’s energy petered out after the march, which extended far and wide, perhaps nearly 10k and with lots of enthusiasm and chanting, of course, though no particular agenda or direct action element. That is disappointing when you have the opportunity with such a great number of folks congregated in one place for a unifying conference. No sit in at a multinational? No counter recruitment shutdown? No creating a human blockade on major streets with privileged white folks on the front lines before homeless people of color? Despite my energy and excitement for this forum, why is the United States all talk and no action these days? A friend of mine who went to the G8 in Germany spoke of such actions, why not here? Aren’t we opposing the same forces?

Here is a perfect example from a local magazine, The Atlanta Progressive, that I’ll be reflecting on as the forum closes and afterward.

But this is what I wrote of the day for New Orleans Indymedia. I’ll (hopefully) be posting a small bit every day of the forum and then a wrap-up.

Published in: on June 28, 2007 at 12:18 am  Leave a Comment  

When the Storm Parted: Food Distribution in the Upper Nine

[written at the request and help of friends at the Homecoming Center and printed in their enewsletter “In the N.O.”]

With the sky opening up after an early afternoon storm, twelve people waited in a line leading up to the pink porch of a gutted out double shotgun on Pauline Street in the Upper Ninth Ward of New Orleans. The residence of Bishops Henry and Ella O’Neill now acts as a Food Distribution Center from 1pm to 3pm on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

In the back rooms without fans in mid-June, volunteers promptly got to work and started filling cardboard boxes with standard amounts of canned and boxed goods, including: 3 cans veggies, 2 chili, 2 peanut butter, 4 applesauce, 2 juices, 4 tuna fish, 2 rice mixes and 2 Kraft pastas.
Around 1:30 p.m. Miss Ella arrived, walking through her house, hugging all the volunteers whose friendly faces she hadn’t seen in three days. Before heading out to the front desk, Miss Ella confirmed the center’s anniversary, with both arms raised, “One year!”
The first room acts as a reception area where residents are let in one-by-one to sit at the sign-in desk. Each person answers a set of questions from Miss Ella: Is this your first time? Can I see your Louisiana I.D.? Where do you live? How’d ya hear ’bout us? How many people live in your house? What’s your monthly income? These records help the center lobby Second Harvest for more goods by knowing how many people are dependent on its services.
Miss Ella always asks the questions with a measure of concern, but she’s also eager to offer bits of sound advice. As one man sat down and explained he had no picture I.D. because of the flood, she allowed him to take one box. “We need to know you’re stayin’ here and not somewhere else. We told people in January this. I’ll let you go this time, but next time I’ll need Louisiana ID,” she continued, trying to urge him to get out of the predicament. “Just go down and get your I.D.! Five dolla!” The man was surprised, not so much at her New Orleanian boisterousness, but that it could be so easy to get a new I.D.
“Send in the next one!”
Dessie Alexander, an older volunteer, reflexively responds to the call, opening up the metal barred screen door and motions for the next person in line to enter. Miss Dessie, who lives in a FEMA trailer around the corner, has volunteered since December. She knows most of the regulars on sight now, but sees many new faces today. Miss Ella just had some television ads air on the public stations, but people show up almost entirely by word of mouth, according to Miss Dessie.
Miss Ella touched on the center’s flexible philosophy for how much food to distribute in different circumstances. “If someone’s got no dollars and someone that’s got one thousand dollars, is different. Someone who just came back, paying water, rent, utilities…got nothing left for FOOD. So we give ’em extra. Someone with one thousand [per month] just need a little something to get them on their feet,” she said with her disarmingly higher than average pitch. Looking back toward the front door, Miss Ella admitted, “Every case is different.” Then, as bubbly as ever, her short black hair full of curls bobbing, Miss Ella greets a middle-aged woman, “how you doin’ sugar?”
Then a preacher comes in, whom the ladies think is muslim. He is earnest about receiving only juice for he does not need to take food from those who truly need it. He makes no income of note, he answered.

Then, while looking at Miss Ella, he nodded to the monetary donation box on the desk, which barely contains twenty crumpled one dollar bills, and added: “I don’t like that. Money chains people.” Despite this comment–whether an insult or advice–he adds that he knows people with lots of “commodities” that could bring additional goods for the distro to use.
After the man left, one volunteer said, “When one door closed another door opens.”
“It always does,” Miss Ella responded. “Without this,” she said pointing toward the donation of crumpled bills, “I can’t pay my church mortgage, without it I can’t pay my light bills.”
Bishops Henry and Ella O’Neill moved to New Orleans from rural Edgard, Louisiana in 1988 after their youngest child graduated high school. Jackie, their youngest daughter, described Edgard as a place where you “open the front door, there’s sugarcane.” It seemed that the couple was eager to move to the city after raising their children in the relative safety of the country. At first the O’Neill’s preached at a church in the Gentilly Neighborhood along Louisa Road, but after the storm they started a church called “Lift Up Thy Name Higher” on the West Bank. With their home now acting as a food distro, the couple in their sixties lives and sleeps in the church.
On the sidewalk outside his house, Bishop Henry O’Neill, a solidly built man with a gray mustache and glasses, said his former church in Gentilly served food to the needy for 14 years and that in the face of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, “God told me to ‘Keep the Doors Open.'” Though two deliveries come per week, the recent loads from Second Harvest have been getting smaller, a challenge to the O’Neill’s passion for feeding the historically neglected in their community.
Despite cans and boxes of food stacked high on palettes, Odie Moore (a.k.a. Mister Odie), a middle-aged volunteer who coaches sports in New Orleans East, conveyed that the distribution center has a lower volume than normal due to Second Harvest’s smaller deliveries. “They just send whatever. You give away what you got to give,” he explained while pulling out cans from the stacks, moving around a small, volunteer-crowded back room. “When it’s gone, it’s gone.”
In response to the downturn in support to the ten-plus food distribution centers across New Orleans, two buses of supporters went to Baton Rouge on June 16 to show that people still need these basic services.
Gloria Buxton, who volunteers every week, went to Baton Rouge. She wore the lime green t-shirt made for the trip: the front is the legislative bill number for maintaining financial support for the food programs while the back, in stylized letters, reads “Louisiana Votes for Food” with a check in place of the V. After staying in the capitol for three hours, Buxton felt that “people responded” and that politicians needed to see the documentation that the program was well used. “To get something for free you gotta show if people are participating,” Buxton rationalized. After losing her job of 22 years to Katrina, Buxton couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing. “I’ve been working so long, it’s hard to sit down. I never could see it [how hard I worked] until I stopped working,” reflected Buxton, whose work ethic is noticeable when packing and carrying box after box.
At 3:20 p.m. the last person in line enters and sits down at the sign-in desk. In the meantime, the crew of eight volunteers collect themselves for a photograph to commemorate the anniversary. All packing stops. Noticing the silence, Miss Ella turns around and shrieks, “Let’s go! Let’s go! One more box, a double!” Turning back to the box’s recipient, Miss Ella jokes, “Too much lovin’ in here!”
Outside on the pink porch of the white double shotgun, everyone–even, especially Miss Ella–gathered together to celebrate the success of the food program. In just over two hours on this day, the team gave a week’s worth of groceries to at least fifty people and their families. Moments after the group dispersed a light rain began to fall.
MON, WED, FRI 1PM TO 3:30PM 1423 Pauline Street off of N. Robertson in Upper Ninth

Published in: on June 26, 2007 at 6:19 pm  Comments (1)  

NO Students & Community Celebrate Civil Rights Icon Homer Plessy

NEW ORLEANS–One hundred and fifteen years ago, on June 7, 1892, an act of simple civil disobedience in New Orleans marked a crucial moment in U.S. history for race relations. It set off a legal battle over re-instated segregation and basic civil equality that reached the Supreme Court (Plessy v. Ferguson) and set a legal basis for “separate but equal” treatment of blacks for sixty years.

In 1892, over a decade since Federal troops were pulled out of Reconstruction, most former slave states had reinstated laws to make blacks second-class citizens. One form of Louisiana’s Jim Crow laws was the enactment of the Separate Car Act of 1890. Homer Plessy, a community education activist, agreed to ride on the then-segregated train system. When Plessy, one-eighth black, ascended onto a “white only” train on June 7 and remained in his seat, refusing to move to the “colored” car, it became a so-called criminal act.

At the corner of Press and Royal Street, on the east edge of today’s Faubourg Marigny neighborhood, police arrested Homer Plessy for illegally boarding the “white only” train car. The Organizing Citizens Committee, a group of well-educated Creoles and free men of color who had asked Plessy to participate, had made arrangements with the arresting officer to get him out of jail quickly after his arrest. Soon thereafter, the Citizens Committee worked on the court case, which they hoped would be strong enough to appeal the injustice and unconstitutional nature of segregation. Despite the explicit clause in the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution–“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws”–the 1896 decision of the Supreme Court of the United States in Plessy v. Ferguson became infamously hypocritical in justifying “separate but equal” state laws, which ignored the obvious practical inequity of segregation.

Crescent City Peace Alliance, directed by Reggie Lawson, organized the third annual Homer Plessy Celebration Day to commemorate the history of dissent to these unjust laws in New Orleans.

People gathered in the early afternoon at Plessy’s arrest site on the corner of Press and Royal Streets. A small plot of overgrown grass lay unused behind Lawson where, two years ago, a large wooden sign held out the promise of “Plessy Park: the New Orleans Civil Rights Memorial Park.” Since the group lost the $100-a-year lease on the land, its plans for the park designed by John Scott have been put on hold.

Moving from the railroad tracks to the auditorium of Frederick Douglass High School, an entire exhibit of six foot tall posters lined the entrance and stage, greeting a fifty person crowd of supporters and involved community members. Titles of the displays extended through African-American history of resistance in New Orleans and the United States, including: “Reconstruction 1865-1877,” “Organizing the Citizens Committee, 1890s,” “Brown v. Board of Education,” “Youth Activities in the 1960s.”

The blown-up text was written by students from different high schools involved with Students at the Center, a writing elective program guided by teachers Kalamu y Salaam and Jim Randels. The students work exploring New Orleans Civil Rights History, as a partner project of Plessy Park, culminated in a book titled “A Long Road.” In addition, the poster exhibit plans to be shown at various other high schools in New Orleans and at the Essence Festival this summer. Students at the Center collaborated with Xavier University students, supervised by Professor Ron Bechet, to design and print the posters.

Several students read from their work in “A Long Road,” which is largely composed of personal reflections on civil rights history. One particularly insightful and moving work, “Now I wasn’t Rosa Parks, but I was Esther Thompson,” was read by a recently graduated woman who described her relationship with her grandmother. At first, she scorned her grandmother for not being a part of the Civil Rights movement and being a servant for white people uptown. But after realizing that her grandmother worked hard to raise and push eight children to become educated and fulfill their dreams, the granddaughter instead called her “the backbone of the movement.”

Click below to find out how to support
Plessy Park (
Students at the Center

Published in: on June 19, 2007 at 12:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

3-9-07 Woldenberg Riverfront Park, USS New Orleans, $1.3 Billion

A letter to the editor sent on the date above to the T-P (and of course went unpublished):

As I watched families, couples, and school children stand in lines longer than the USS New Orleans battleship for tours this past week, I couldn’t help but question this nation’s priorities when $1.3 billion could help the city and region construct affordable housing, rehabilitate public schools and build stronger communities. It’s ironic that a battleship named after a city desperate for reconstruction money, which would have aided in the rebuilding of homes and lives here, will be used to destroy others’ homes and lives abroad.

That many teachers feel they are setting a good example by taking their pupils on a field trip to see a new, shiny toy that kills is irreprehensible. Another generation of youth, in front of my eyes, was falling prey to military indoctrination, learning to internalize, accept and worship violence. As a small group of boy scouts passed I overheard one say, disappointed, “I don’t see any guns.” Seconds later, as they walked past, another boy ecstatically said, “Oh! I see one!”

In a city and nation desperately struggling to stop violent crime, let us not hail cannon fire and war machines, but finance education and afterschool programs—the real antidotes to violence.

Matt Olson
New Orleans


A protest/awareness picnic was held concurrently with the ceremony for the ship. Anarchists, socially conscious and other nonviolent or nonmilitary folks came out to object to this waste of resources. Here’s another account of the event for oddball online writing collectors NOLAFugees, which has a book of collected writings called Year Zero.

Published in: on June 19, 2007 at 12:32 pm  Leave a Comment  

Sneaky Fox Co-opting Black Institute for Presidential Debate Despite Racist History

In response to the Congressional Black Congress Institute partnering with the Fox Network for a presidential debate, Color of Change, an online forum developed to strengthen Black America’s political voice, is challenging the CBCI to drop the network known for its racist agenda. Join these voices if you would like to stand up against hatred and the willingness of organizations to abandon their principles and dignity for a buck.

Here was my personal addition to Color of Change’s letter:

There is no fair and open debate on Fox News, which censors,insults and debases opinions of variation without actually addressing its content. The facts are often diminished to propagate myths about “others” outside the safe white middle class. Unfortunately, Fox largely represents the interests of white corporate elite not the middle class, but caters to–and in the process betrays–the middle and working class whites to effectively divide people across all ethnicities who would otherwise have much to gain politically, if not as moral human beings, from uniting against the wealthy capitalists. The arrogance, supposed “moral monopoly” of commentators on Fox and its institutionalized racism and classism to favor the wealthy does the public a grave disservice in search for truth, understanding and peace.

Published in: on June 4, 2007 at 2:31 pm  Leave a Comment