“They hung with us”: Race and Community in a New Orleans Health Clinic

by Matthew Olson, originally published in the July/August issue of the New Orleans Tribune

In broken mirror pieces reads a sign, “Common Ground Health Clinic,” above the door where nearly forty patients a day visit this converted convenience store on an Algiers street within two blocks of the Mississippi river. Up a ramp and inside is a pristine waiting room with twenty-five chairs and along the short hallway is the social workers’ office, then four patient rooms, and an herbalist station toward the back.

Anne Mulle, the clinic’s nurse practitioner, spoke with me from inside one of the patient rooms where flyers on the walls promoted reduced-cost eye exams, healthy eating and early breast cancer detection. She stressed the importance of integrative health, relieving stress, and understanding people in their environment. To this end, the clinic provides social work, acupuncture, herbalism, live Spanish language interpretation, and supports community organizing. Weekly “Mind Body Medicine” groups focus on breathing techniques, visualization and other methods of relaxation.

“People typically think of health as blood pressure, weight, and laboratory results,” explained Mulle (pronounced MOO-lay). “We believe their health includes the complete picture: What’s going on with their housing, with their kids and their schools? What’s their stress level? What’s going on with their work: are they working multiple jobs or not able to get a job at all? How is their over-all well-being impacted by their community and their environment?”

Earlier this year, Common Ground Health Clinic received the highest level of recognition for national health standards as a “Patient-Centered Medical Home” by the National Committee on Quality Assurance(NCQA). The standards for the primary care applicants can include the use of best-practices, the quality of medical records and following up with referrals. While thirty-seven applicants from the Greater New Orleans Area received recognition, only two practices earned the prestigious level three: Common Ground Health Clinic and St. Thomas Community Health Center.

Unlike peer institutions, these two clinics are explicit about their intention to be community-integrated and anti-racist as a means to long-term community health. As a means to those goals, both organizations work with the nearly thirty-year-young and locally-staffed People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, which often facilitates weekend-long “Undoing Racism” workshops. The People’s Institute has worked with St. Thomas since 1991 and, in January 2006, the People’s Institute co-sponsored its first workshop since the storm with CGHC.

“They have incorporated anti-racism into their mission and vision,” said Dr. Kimberley Richards, CGHC board member and core trainer with the People’s Institute. “They recognize race in the health paradigm.” Part of this recognition is to turn the principles into practice beyond a single training. Accordingly, PISAB meets monthly with CGHC for strategy sessions and hosts quarterly trainings for patients, staff and community members.

“How do you incorporate anti-racist principles?” Richards continued. “You engage the community, establish partnerships, hire residents that fit, recognize the resource in the community, not just bringing in from the outside.”

“I think it made all the difference in the world,” said R. Noah Morris, a clinic co-founder and CGHC Board President, about the affect of anti-racist principles on getting the highest NCQA recognition. He added that the recognition should also convince the healthcare community that “free does not mean cheap.”

“There’s a notion that community clinics or free clinics provide a sub-standard quality of care. We’re here to show that doesn’t have to be the case,” added Mulle. The vast majority of people who come to CGHC, eighty-six percent, are without any form of healthcare coverage.

♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣

Despite living only a few blocks away, Keith Jones’ first trip to the clinic came a full year after its opening. “What I had was simple,” Jones said of his knee injury. “I got advice beyond what I really needed: ‘Did I live by myself? Could I make it?’ I’m getting all this attention with a sore knee? And nobody knew me from the man on the moon.”

Soon after, he accepted the clinic’s invitation to attend an “Undoing Racism” workshop, which included staff and patients together. “It was on point,” said Jones, who began volunteering and is now on the clinic’s staff as a community organizer. “They recruited from the class and I’ve been there ever since.”
Several staff members were first patients, including Coleen Murphy. Murphy had lived in Algiers Point for four years when Katrina hit and hesitated to return after reading reports of vigilante violence. But with the news of a clinic, she found a clear reason to come back. “I have never had health insurance and had been a patient of various sliding scale clinics my entire adult life. Never had I been treated with such care and kindness,” wrote Coleen Murphy in an e-mail.

A few weeks later Murphy started volunteering at the front desk. Now, as the clinic’s Communications Coordinator, she assists in outreach and edits all of CGHC’s publications, including the coveted health resource guides—collated by geography, like the Central City Guide, or themes, like the Mental Health Guide. The overall guide, “New Orleans Community Resource Guide,” is so thorough that it is utilized by clinics, hospitals, and social service agencies city-wide, including the city’s health department.

On days when the clinic is open, Marie Romeo can spend up to five or six hours in conversations with patients about job searches to healthy eating to racism. “It’s revolutionary to have health care and racism in the same context. That’s not done anywhere. I think that utilizing anti-racist principles in social work is not only possible but it’s imperative to be effective,” said Romeo, the clinic’s social worker. The first crucial steps are to listen to “a person’s experience and understand them. What would be characterized as a pathology is a constant exposure to systemic oppression. People often come in saying, ‘can’t get a job. I’ve a got a bachelor’s and master’s degree and can’t get a job.’ There’s stress around making ends meet.”

Integrating social work and mental health services into the clinic in the fall of 2008 relieved a tremendous burden on the physicians and nurses to help patients with referrals, counseling, applications for other services and getting prescriptions filled properly. “A lot of that didn’t exist before, or it was falling on the primary care providers,” said Anne Mulle. ”In a healthcare system that is overwhelmed, having mental health and social work services in the clinic takes a huge burden off the patient visit and allows primary care providers more time for chronic disease management.”

At the Center for Mind Body Medicine training in January 2007, Anne Mulle met Antor Ndep, a public health doctorate student, and encouraged her to apply for the Executive Director opening. Ndep, who has lived in New Orleans since 1997, was hesitant, but committed to visiting before passing judgment.

“What hooked me is that it was almost a manifestation of everything that I’ve thought about establishing in a community health center back home,” said Ndep, who was born in Nigeria. “Here are a group of very young people on both sides of the race line saying we want to talk about racism because we feel that racism is what is making communities poor and ill. That is something that you just do not find anywhere. “Combating racism, gardening, monitoring the police. Pieces of the puzzle were all there, they just needed us to concentrate to put those pieces together.”

In two years as the clinic’s Executive Director, Ndep has overseen impressive growth through channeling the unique energy she felt on that first visit. Using her education in public health she formalized the organizational structure, revamped the clinic’s policies and procedures, and embraced the clinic’s non-traditional programs based in community organizing and engagement.

“Community engagement for us comes in many different forms,” said Ndep, who emphasizes consideration of patients as peers worthy of dignity and honesty. “It’s not sophisticated in any way at all. We talk, we make friends, look people in the eye and invite them to everything we do. It’s a way of providing healthcare that goes beyond sitting across from a provider and telling him what’s wrong and that’s the beauty of it..”

In contrast to its volunteer beginnings, the clinic now has an operating budget over one million dollars per year, a staff of more than fifteen, and a state-of-the-art electronic medical record system. While one co-founder of the clinic used to quip—“we’re building a plane while flying it”—the healthcare facility now seems to be a well-worn, thoughtful and precise collective.

Through the processing of those growing pains, the People’s Institute and the St. Thomas Community Health Center supported and guided CGHC. “St. Thomas Community Health Center has really been a model health clinic for us,” Mulle affirmed.

♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣

In operation since 1987, the St. Thomas Community Health Center has been a model clinic of community inclusion and patient-centered health for CGHC. For instance, patients are a majority on St. Thomas’ board. Undoing Racism workshops have been a regular part of volunteering or working at the center since 1991. St. Thomas makes impactful partnerships with other health providers, including a unique cardiovascular surgery program for uninsured patients with Ochsner.

“At Charity, it’s just someone you don’t know. Here, you can talk directly to Mary,” said Barbara Jackson, a founding member of the St. Thomas CHC, of Dr. Mary Abell. Jackson said that after finding out why a patient came, Mary will ask, “‘But what else is bothering you?’ You could never do that anywhere else. It’s holistic problem solving.”

Executive Director Dr. Don Erwin, who chaired the Department of Medicine at Ochsner Hospital when he started volunteering at St. Thomas back in 1991, thinks the success in good health outcomes comes from an interdependence between the community and the center. “If you’re a patient of ours and we know that you’re sick and can’t make it, we’ll send a taxi for you. It’s not the clinic over here and community over here,” Erwin said, moving his hands from left to right.

Though St. Thomas is not free, but low-cost, they do have an open access policy to see a patient the same day they call. “The traditional appointment system has a forty percent no show rate,” explained Erwin. “If there’s no bus, you can’t come. If you can’t get a babysitter, you can’t come.” Switching to a walk-in or call-in system where patients can be seen the same day allows for flexibility in a patient’s environment—a crucial step to being patient-centered and anti-racist.
“Race is an independent risk factor,” Erwin firmly stated. It is a statement Antor Ndep repeated to me, and a lesson the Common Ground Health Clinic has taken to heart.

♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣  ♣

CGHC has come a long way since setting up card tables to divide first aid stations inside the Masjid Bilal mosque in dry Algiers on September 9, 2005. Then, a few dozen volunteers saw one hundred patients per day and acted largely as an emergency first-aid location. Volunteers often drove people to the nearest open Jefferson Parish hospital or called ambulances when necessary.

Bay Love, a volunteer transplant who is now the clinic’s Financial Officer, remembered the intensity of those first few months. “It was inspiring, exciting, and thrilling, yet extremely humbling. I thought, ‘this is really bad, people are really sick, and there is nowhere for them to go,’” he recalled. What made the need for a permanent health clinic in Algiers urgent, at least for him, was the realization that people’s health and the healthcare in the city had been poor and broken due to systemic racism and poverty long before the storm.

On a recent April day, Algiers resident Ronald Ragas sat on the steps of Delille/Drexel Fellowship Center of All Saints Church on the opposite corner from the clinic. A middle-aged man, Ragas shook his head as he spoke deliberately about a bladder infection he had not long after Katrina hit. He paused between sentences. “I was short four units of blood. A walking dead man. They put me in the hospital. I wouldn’t have made it. A lot of people were saved by the clinic.”
The clinic might now need to be saved by the people. The clinic threw a fundraising kick-off dinner in April at their office, which is two doors down from the clinic. In the front yard, a DJ announced the event over loud speakers to passersby and added his own wisdom: “They were there for us, so now we’re here for them.”

The goal of the clinic’s fundraising campaign is guarantee the sustainability of the clinic and deepen the partnership with the patient community. They have set the bar high: the clinic wants to raise one million dollars by its fourth anniversary, September 9, 2009. For current operations the clinic relies heavily on a government grant that will end in December 2010. Without knowing how the Obama Administration’s will act, the conclusion of the grant could drastically alter the clinic’s structure. When community members heard that the clinic might have to reduce services, many enthusiastically brought up suggestions from church dinners to hosting a bazaar. “We’re trying to fundraise on three or four tiers, grassroots to the upper level to the internet,” said clinic community organizer Keith Jones.

Listening to the DJ, Bay Love danced on the porch and a young boy imitated him. An older girl laughed at them both. In the office’s first room, Anita Powell, wearing an impressive white straw hat with a black band, took money for the fundraising dinner. Powell shares her hat making skills in clinic-supported classes as a way for community members to relieve stress. In the kitchen, next to anti-racist principles written on the wall, Lanette Williams served up fried fish, potato salad, green salad and spaghetti. Everyone working at the fundraising dinner had volunteered their time.

“I got to get off my feet,” gasped Williams, who had been cooking for at least the past seven hours.

R. Noah Morris, a clinic founding member, pulled a cooler from under the dining table and put it in front of Williams as a makeshift footrest. He said, “I know how to take care of the caretakers.”

More than twenty people remained in the dining room and backyard sharing stories after dinner. Among them was Orissa Arend, who wrote about the clinic’s origins for this publication in 2007. She “gave somewhere between zero and a minus one to the chances” that the clinic would endure because of so many broken promises from other providers such as Red Cross, FEMA, and all levels of government in the fallout of Katrina.

But thankfully, as Ronald Ragas told me earlier in the day, “They hung with us. Didn’t show up for a week or two then leave.”


Jena Bears Strange Fruit

[i wrote this after returning from Jena, La on July 31, 2007. more has come to light and further developments in Mychal Bell’s case make the article a little out of date, but hopefully you will find it informative and read who spoke that day, which was the last rally in Jena before today’s 20,000-plus gathering.]

Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

Pastoral scene of the gallant south,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolias, sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh.

Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter cry.

–Billy Holiday, “Strange Fruit”



On the morning of July 31, a long-armed tree on the lawn of La Salle Parish Courthouse in Jena, Louisiana provided shade to two hundred people. Hundreds of people from across the country—Atlanta, Washington D.C., San Francisco, Miami, Houston, Dallas, Jackson, New Orleans— arrived in Jena, where the population of 3,000 is twelve percent black. They came to rally in support of Mychal Bell, recently convicted of second-degree battery, and five other black students charged with second-degree attempted murder for a one-sided fight on school grounds last December 4.

The “Jena Six,” are bearing out the final consequences of a storm of racially-tinged incidents in months leading up to the fight and the out-of-proportion legal backlash in a systematically white-controlled justice system. Ironically, it all stemmed from a seemingly innocent question of a student at the opening school assembly.

Nearly a year ago, on August 31, 2006, a student at Jena High School asked the vice principal whether he could sit under what had traditionally been known as “the white tree” in the school’s square. As a ninth grader, he was new to the school and had heard rumors about the tree, which was the outdoor congregating space for shade in the blazing heat of late August. The vice principal answered that the boy could sit wherever he wanted. With this information, the student and two friends integrated the tree the same day during lunch, without incident.

Not twenty-four hours later, three nooses in the school colors of black and gold were hung from that tree. The school immediately investigated and when it found the three white students responsible, the principal recommended expulsion. Some people in the white community, however, termed the nooses a “prank,” even going as far as to make up tales that the students were influenced by old westerns such as “Lonesome Dove,” rather than talk about it as a hate crime.

The black community of Jena, about 350 people or 12 percent of the town’s population, immediately viewed the nooses as a hate crime, stemming from the ugly history of lynching in Louisiana and the deep south after the inhumanity of slavery. “To us those nooses meant the KKK [Ku Klux Klan], they meant, ‘Niggers, we’re going to kill you, we’re going to hang you till you die,’” Caseptla Bailey, mother of accused Robert Bailey and the President of the new La Salle Parish Chapter of the NAACP, told the London Observer. And it was not an abstract image of history, of past violence, but an image pertinent to the present. It was placed on school property to reestablish order, the separation of races, by intimidation and threat of violence after three black students dared to find shade and equality.

“It began under a tree where three ninth graders just coming into high school, we call them the ‘Rosa Parks of Jena’, stepped forward and said we’re not gonna take it anymore,” said King Downing, National Coordinator of the ACLU’s Campaign Against Racial Profiling, to start off the rally on July 31. Downing is a one of the few outside folks that the families trust because he has been alongside them for months. He was helping the families long before the two hundred people gathered, back when only thirty or forty people came out to the rallies on this same courthouse lawn. “The rest is history, the nooses hung from the tree. All around this area, we may find a tree somewhere, where someone who was black was hung,” he continued. “That’s the reason that there was the reaction that there was. Because for us, hanging a noose—I don’t care if it’s in school colors or what—is no joke. Brings back memories that go back generations.”

Racial tensions continued in Jena largely because the school superintendent Roy Breithupt and the school board did not take the noose incident as an historically significant and threatening symbol. They overruled the recommendation of the principal to expel the three students and instead came down with the lightest punishment: three days in-school suspension. There was no acknowledgment that hanging nooses was a hate crime, a threatening, intimidating symbol of violence against black people. Instead, even the administrators opted for the white community’s line that it was all a “prank.”

Catrina Wallace, step-sister of Robert Bailey and secretary of the La Salle Parish NAACP Chapter, said the administrative response showed how black students would have to go at it alone if they wanted equality. “If you go back to the nooses, there’s the problem. Those kids were told hey these nooses were hung, that it was a prank. For them to say it was a prank, left those kids to do only one thing: defend themselves,” said Wallace, wearing a green “Free the Jena 6” t-shirt. “They don’t want to talk about the tree inside La Salle Parish Courthouse, but that’s where it started. They [the school administration] slapped those three kids on the wrist and said, ‘Job well done.’”

Back in early September 2006, most of the school’s black students were shocked at the leniency given to the three white students and spontaneously organized a sit-in under the tree during lunch on September 6, 2006. Led by some male black athletes, perhaps not surprisingly the same who now face charges, the protesters were nonviolent.

When administrators witnessed some heated verbal exchanges during this protest, they asked police officers to come address the student body at an assembly the same day. The officers, in turn, asked La Salle Parish District Attorney Reed Walters to come speak at Jena High. Though he was preparing for an important sexual assault case, Walters obliged. He entered the Jena High auditorium to the traditionally segregated student body: black student on one side of the aisle and white students on the other.

In his address, Walters issued a zero tolerance policy for disturbances in the school. “I can make your lives disappear with a stroke of a pen.” Walters even verified that he made this statement, but as he held that he was speaking to the entire crowd, a black teacher and many black students contend that Walters, as he held up his own pen, looked right in their direction. The consequence of this statement, as Catrina Wallace alluded to, was for the black students to feel as if they had no voice to nonviolently protest, and from then on would have to resort to self-defense.




“There’s something in our world that makes men lose their heads–they couldn’t be fair if they tried. In our courts when it’s a white man’s word against a black man’s, the white man always wins. They’re ugly but those are the facts of life…The one place where a man ought to get a square deal is in a courtroom, be he any color of the rainbow, but people have a way of carrying their resentments right into a jury box. As you grow older, you’ll see white men cheat black men every day of your life, but let me tell you something and don’t you forget it–whenever a white man does that to a black man, no matter who he is, how rich he is, or how fine a family he comes from, that white man is trash.” –Atticus Finch, lawyer defending an innocent black man in To Kill A Mockingbird


Mychal Bell, the first of the Jena 6 to be tried, was convicted of second-degree battery and conspiracy to commit on June 28, 2007. The sentence, if the conviction is upheld upon appeal, could put Bell in prison for 22 years. Blane Williams, the public defender assigned to the case, called no witnesses and filed no motions on Bell’s behalf. On the steps of the courthouse directly after the trial Williams, who is black, said, “There will be people second-guessing me from this day on. This may even become a law school case.” He has since been replaced with Louis Scott from Monroe, La. and three co-counsels. They quickly filed appeals to the conviction based on inadequate counsel and several motions including the necessity of changing venues and questioning the validity of the original second-degree attempted murder charge, which allowed Bell to be tried as an adult.

The severity of the charges upgraded by District Attorney Walters followed the visceral response of the white community to the one-sided attack. On December 4, Justin Barker, a white student, was punched once in the back of the head, which knocked him temporarily unconscious and to the ground where several black students kicked him. Despite the seriousness of the incident, Barker survived with cuts and bruises to his face and no proven long-term damage. There are few consistencies from the 45 witness statements of the incident. The consistencies are precisely those just mentioned, a punch to Barker and kicks, but it is unclear who threw the punch and who kicked. Another consistent part of witness statements is the acknowledgment of a verbal argument before the punch, in which Robert Bailey, at that time in the gym, was taunted about getting his “ass whipped” last Friday. One of the most credible impartial witnesses, the gym teacher, stated that Barker taunted Bailey and that he added racial slurs to his other taunts. Barker denies this assessment of the events, stating on the witness stand at the first trial that he was walking with his girlfriend down the hall when something hit him in the head.

The six black minors arrested and charged with second-degree attempted murder and conspiracy to commit—Mychal Bell, Robert Bailey, Theo Shaw, Carwin Jones, Bryant Purvis and an unnamed juvenile—were all important leaders in the nonviolent protest under the “white tree” back on September 6. They were marked by the law, by teachers and by the district attorney as troublemakers. Even with so many contradictory statements coming from witnesses to the incident, the district attorney’s office still took this as a criminal case instead of allowing the school to move forward with a punishment. Jena High School’s handbook describes the punishment for a school fight as three days suspension.

The Jena 6 faced bail amounts from $70,000 to $138,000, which most families could not pay and immediately tried to reduce. Some families were able to raise the amount in a week, but for others, including Caseptla Bailey, it took months. Robert Bailey was in jail until April, over four months. When Caseptla visited Robert in jail, she tried to convey the best advice she could. “Robert had to learn a lesson from this misfortune. And I also let my son know while he was incarcerated: ‘You don’t just lay down here all day. You got to educate yourself’,” she recalled telling him. “You got to read, you got to learn, you got to understand why you are in this place. It’s not a good place right now, but you got to make the best of where you are. Educate your mind and keep your mind free—from any negativity.” All of the six, except Mychal, are now at home with their families awaiting trial.



“This did not all happen in the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919 when Jim Crow segregation thrived, and Blacks in major cities faced race riots that raged throughout the country. This did not occur in the 1950s after Brown vs. Board of Education was decided in 1954 and young children faced angry white mobs to make history in desegregating public schools. This did not happen in the summer of 1955 when, in Money, Mississippi, a vibrant Black youth by the name of Emmett Till was brutally murdered for whistling at a white woman. This did not occur in 1960, when on February 1 four Black college students sat in at a ‘white only’ lunch counter, demanding service and launching the civil rights movement to another level. This did not happen during the period 1865 to 1965 during which 3,446 Black people were lynched in the United States. This is now. When three white students in Jena committed this hate crime, hanging three nooses from the “white tree,” they evoked the ugly history of slavery, segregation, lynching, and police brutality to threaten the lives of Black students at their school.”

–Alice Woodward, July 10, 2007

Mychal Bell’s sentencing date on July 31, the reason for the gathering, was pushed back to September 20 due to his new counsel’s appeals and motions. The spectrum of organizations ranged from the Nation of Islam from Houston, the New Black Panther Party, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, N’COBRA, Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund of New Orleans, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Interfaith Worker Justice, ANSWER Coalition from Miami, Color of Change and Community Defenders TV and Radio Station in Shreveport, Louisiana.

Pins and t-shirts were worn with the slogan, “Free the Jena 6!” When one person mentioned they couldn’t believe the incompetence of Bell’s public defender, another attendee said back, “it’s not the public defender, he’s the prison deliverer.” Groups mingled, waiting for all the supporters who were driving overnight to arrive. Signs accumulated and accompanied the later rotating chants between speakers and during the march: “Stop the Jena-cide!”; throwback “No Justice, No Peace”; “Free Mychal Bell”; “Schools YES! Jails NO!”; “Educate don’t Incarcerate!”; and “Stop the War on Our Youth.” A young man with glasses and a ponytail strummed a guitar and sang social justice songs quietly. The Nation of Islam folks, decked out in sparkling dark grey suits, made the rounds shaking everyone’s hand, stopping longer and talking with the families. Media readied their cameras and microphones.

As the couple hundred gathered and circled around the statue where family members of the Jena 6 now stood, the scene on the lawn became very quiet. The families spoke first, the outspoken, strong voice of Caseptla Bailey taking the megaphone in hand. “We want to stress, very importantly, that this is a peace rally. We want to do this in peace, we want to do this in order. I want to keep stressing that. This is a peaceful rally. We can be loud, we can make some noise, but we also want to do this in a positive manner.”

Melissa Bell, soft-spoken and humble, directed her comments to the awe-inspiring turnout. “Thank you for coming out and supporting us. Y’all stay with the fight for us.”

King Downing, a tireless organizer standing 6’3” always with a five o’clock shadow and hearty voice, dramatically called on the protest gatherers to take an oath. “Everybody who’s come here I hope, is pledging that they will defend these families. And we’re gonna ask you to do that right now,” Downing beckoned. As he continued, the group echoed every phrase: “I/ [your name]/ swear solemnly/ that I will come to the defense of the Jena Six/ the Families/ their supporters/ in any way/ in any fashion/ by any means/ that I am asked/ that I am requested/ by the families/ by the FAMILIES/ by the families ALONE.” And in the cathartic finale, cheers and hollers and drumming seemingly cleansed the lawn in front of the LaSalle Parish Courthouse.

Speakers emphasized different aspects of the perceived injustice in Jena. Krystal Muhammed, the southern representative of the New Black Panther Party, dressed completely in black, compelled the crowd to see the racial tensions at every stage in Jena as institutional, including the recent community forum held by the US Department of Justice Community Relations Division. “Genocide is the systematic annihilation of a people. Every system that is, in this state, came against our young men, from the school superintendent to the District Attorney to the judge to the people in this town, to the US Department of Justice, who had the nerve to come and tell these families that nooses don’t represent a hate crime. They said that it was a potential hate,” she preached into the microphone. “When’s it a hate crime? When one of our brothers is swinging from the tree?”

Color of Change a New Orleans-based organization, was the first national group to work with the Jena families. Their national outreach strategy was to compose an online petition letter, which could be signed by national supporters and would be delivered to District Attorney Reed Walters and Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. [others?] By the time of the rally on July 31, over 45,000 signatures were appended to the petition letter.

As he stood in front of a paper stack a yard tall, James Rucker of Color of Change conveyed responses he received from people around the country when they first heard of the Jena 6. “It’s not a black-white problem. It’s a justice problem,” reasoned Rucker. “People in a lot of places think ‘Oh this kind of thing doesn’t happen anymore’ I have some people say, ‘Wait maybe I’m missing something because this sounds like something from the Jim Crow era, this doesn’t sound like something that could happen in 2007.’ But people are waking up and realizing everything isn’t always as it seems.”

Before a small group including family members, Rucker and others delivered the printed out signatures to the District Attorney’s office, where they would pass a dozen uniformed and plainclothes police on the inclined plane leading up to the courthouse doors, one more speaker called out that presence at this peaceful rally.

Dasaw Flood, a representative of the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund of New Orleans, used the megaphone and incited the crowd to confront the uniforms near the courthouse gates. “Please turn around and look at these individuals up here. You need to look them in the eye. Their faces are some of the same faces that some of us have seen in photographs from the 60s and 50s,” he spoke deliberately, each syllable landing like a large stone on the earth. “They got patches, they got uniforms but we should all know, especially our young people—please look at them and understand that with all the badges and all the uniforms, they stand for absolutely…NOTHING. Which means if there’s a body that stands for nothing then it’s on us to stand up for one another.”

In this mood, in this exclamation capping the rally under a tree on the courthouse lawn, the petition deliverers walked solemnly along the sidewalk, supporters lining their path up the inclined plane to the sleek glass of the courthouse doors. Six people who held a share of the petition walked in without struggle as others rushed in behind them. The deliverers, including Caseptla Bailey, Melissa Bell, and Catrina Wallace, waited in front of armed sheriffs at the District Attorney’s door for someone to come out and accept their grievances.

After a very quiet two minutes, assistant District Attorney Walter Dorroh, Jr. emerged from the office and calmly received the signatures and brief personal statements by each deliverer. When his turn came, Rucker explained the petition’s content and significance to Dorroh, who took each batch of paper and placed it in the office. “I’m grateful for you handing me them,” he said after accepting the stacks. Though Walters could not accept the petition as he was out of town at a District Attorney convention, the families felt that it was powerful to show Jena public officials the amount of outside support, in essence that the world is watching and will continue to be involved.

Caseptla Bailey, self-proclaimed ex-military, hardly stopped moving. After delivering the petitions, she raised up an African flag of black, red and green strips, motored past the now docile crowd and started along the march route, allies following two-by-two after her lead. Chants immediately broke out and, in an instant, faces appeared out of adjacent businesses, on balconies, between the shades of windows.

At a car dealership, two middle-aged working class folks held the entrance door slightly open and distantly gazed upon the march. When asked about their feelings about the march, the woman responded quickly: “I think it’s ridiculous. That’s all I’m gonna say, it’s ridiculous.” The man complained about the march consisting of outsiders: “They all paid. They have a job to do. It ain’t no big secret. Ain’t none of these people from Jena. There ain’t nobody from La Salle Parish here. They’re making a big deal out of nothing.”


Jena, two hundred thirty miles northwest of New Orleans and close to the Arkansas border, is a relatively quiet lumber and, more recently, oil town of rolling hills whose local businesses have largely been bought out by global retail stores along its main strip: WalMart, Ace Hardware, every fast food chain and others. The stores provide service jobs that remove the skilled labor force, and any sense of growth, from the area. It is these rural isolated towns where a district attorney, school administrators and others in public capacities occupy the most powerful positions. Yet, in these towns, everyone knows everyone. It’s harder for someone to get away with anything unless the community lets them.

Public officials in Jena remain relatively silent on the case. The Mayor refuses to comment. Roy Breithaupt, the school superintendent who approved the three day in-school suspensions has stopped commenting. Even District Attorney Reed Walters, after his mid-December editorial in the Jena Times, has stopped talking to the media unless he’s at court. Sheriff Carl Smith made a brief statement that the crimes justified the charges and denounced the coverage: “It’s gotten into the media, and the media has spread it all over the United States that this is about race when it’s not about race.” Billy Fowler, a new LaSalle Parish School Board member, concurred in his letter to The Town Talk on August 2. “It is time someone from Jena stands up and defends our honor. The citizens of Jena, black and white, are mostly Christian, law-abiding citizens who do not want any trouble. I am angered and amazed at how the media has painted us to be the most racist town in the world.”

In fact, Fowler is one of the only officials who has recently spoken to the press, appearing in The Town Talk articles on the community forum, but also in the Washington Post. He largely admits past historical wrongs committed against the black community, but turns around and defends Walters’ actions.

All of the silence from public officials has not kept the international, national and alternative media from coming to Jena since Bell’s trial was set in May. Le Monde newspaper from France, London Observer, BBC, CNN, NBC, NPR, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post, Democracy Now!, Counterpunch, and Indymedia’s have all carried coverage of the Jena 6. Alan Bean, a founder of the Texas-based organization Friends of Justice, worked with the families very early on, lately taking on the role of attracting journalists and coordinating media access to the families. The news that has gotten out to the media is entirely attributable to this grassroots organizing and the tireless effort and faith of the families to fight for their sons’ freedom.




A police car leads the marchers on second street, the route now leading away from Jena’s main road and back to the courthouse spread as wide as the road and as long as a town block. People hold signs high, one group with a banner “Stop the Legal Lynching!”, and everyone keeps chanting, pulling into the courthouse lawn again on “Free Mychal Bell!”

Marcus Jones, missing from the pre-march rally, stands on a rock to address the crowd. Given the megaphone, Jones is awestruck at the number of people who have come in support of his son. Suddenly stage fright, he says he enjoyed that “Free Mychal Bell!” chant just now and sincerely thanks everyone for coming.

Pending an appeal, the sentencing date for Mychal Bell is still set for September 20 when Judge J.P. Mauffray will decide if the crime on which the jury’s verdict of guilt rests is worthy of more than a twenty-year prison term. In the worse case scenario, Mychal would be leaving prison, and living in the world as an adult for the first time, at the age of 39.

The grassroots organizing surrounding the Jena 6 issue continues, including protests of support in cities around the country—New York City, Boston—as well fundraising benefits, and even a resolution of support for the Jena 6 and their families by Cambridge, Massachusetts City Council. The Color of Change petition, put together and endorsed by the Jena 6 families, was the presence of supporters who could not make it for July 31.

As Deric Muhammed pleaded and prognosticated in a speech earlier in the day, “We need for them to be here on the twentieth of September when they seek to publicly lynch Mychal Bell. We need to bring a city to this city. We gonna take Jena, Louisiana over. We gonna turn it upside down, grab it by its ankles, and shake it and shake it until the coins of justice fall out of its pockets.” Justice for the Jena 6 may be that another generation of black students will never have to face a two-tiered system of the law.



An Epilogue

In an act befitting a lumber town, where the exploitation of resources now becomes the exploitation of memory, the tree where white students maintained a schoolyard version of white supremacy by denying black students equal rights to shade was cut down in late July. The school superintendent Roy Breithaupt authorized the final decision, while Billy Fowler cited that Jena High School needed “a clean slate.”

Construction of the new academic is underway to replace the one lost to fire back in November, which would have necessitated that the tree be cut for construction, according to Fowler. “There’s nothing positive about that old tree. It’s all negative. And I’m serving on the new School Board, and we’re wanting to start fresh on some things,” he told The Town Talk, adding that “We don’t want the blacks coming back up there looking at the tree knowing what happened, or the whites. We just want to start fresh.”

The families and supporters had different reactions. “Cutting down that beautiful tree won’t solve the problem at hand,” Caseptla Bailey has said. “It still happened.” Now only a stump, the iconic symbol of racial prejudice is left to historical memory.

Deric Muhammed dressed in a suit characterized by the Nation of Islam, gyrated and inflamed his voice as it grew louder and more earnest. He highlighted perhaps the greatest victory of the protests and the struggle so far. “The very noose that they hung our people from for hundreds of years in this state, and many others, is the same noose that brought the tree down and the same noose that our youngsters protested against. But our message to them has to be: You’ve already made history.”

For the full history (up to June 2007) of the Jena 6 from the families perspective go here:
http://friendsofjustice.wordpress.com/jena-6/ and click on the “Jena 6 Summary” link within the text

Published in: on September 20, 2007 at 10:04 pm  Leave a Comment  

The Gutting Law: One Year In

I wrote the article below a year ago when I was doing media advocacy work as a volunteer. Despite the best intentions of the city council to enact quality laws that address the needs of all residents, including ways for people to appeal, the law has only loosely been followed. There is an obvious lack of inspectors, as the Times-Picayune reports in its delays on inspections across the city the average for first inspections being nearly six months rather than the 30 days prescribed below.
Also, the Mayor’s Good Neighbor program, what many fair housing advocates call the “Bad Neighbor” program, designed for residents to report any neglected housing in the area for inspection, further complicated the matter politically and increased expectations for action to be taken by residents who reported properties.

What once was an optimistic gutting law to ensure a lengthy process to protect homeowners now has even some of the civic groups who raised hell to get appeal processes into the law wishing the state could at least stay on time.

Gutting Deadline Eased, Lower Ninth Exempt
NEW ORLEANS, Aug. 26 — In mid-August, representatives of community, housing and relief organizations pled with the New Orleans City Council to work with communities to assist homeowners’ rebuilding efforts and extend the August 29 gutting deadline enacted in April. The city council passed the law to urge residents to gut, clean or get on a waiting list to treat their flooded properties before the year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Mary Fontenot, President of All Congregations Together (ACT), led a press conference on August 17 before the city council meeting, the last regularly scheduled meeting before the deadline. “We would like to invite the city at this time to partner with us, to create a partnership to lift up solutions and ideas as to how we might support our people in returning,” she said.

But on Friday August 25, four days before the deadline, the city council voted 7-0 to keep their verbal assurances and not enforce demolitions in the days after August 29. The emergency ordinance passed with the support of Mayor Ray Nagin, who told Fontenot at an all-day mayoral retreat ten days prior to the deadline that “it’s not going to be enforced.” However, Nagin did have the chance to veto the ordinance back in April, but chose to abstain and let it pass into law unsigned.

Despite the assurances, Fontenot knew the language of the law didn’t prevent action. “To have it be revoked or amended would make us feel a lot better.”

Fortunately, the language of the new ordinance provides homeowners with detailed legal protections, such as a thirty-day notice after city inspections start on August 29. Upon re-inspection, if the property does not pass, then a second notice assigns the owner a date to have his or her case heard as a possible hardship exemption.

The former law stated that residents who bide by the August 29 deadline could have their homes seized by the city and demolished, but now a demolition can only occur if the judge at a hearing finds the homeowner in violation of the law. Even then, the homeowner has thirty days to appeal the decision and prove his or her intention to have the house gutted. Otherwise, the city will only have the legal authority to enter the premises to gut and do mold remediation at the homeowners expense.

The entire Lower Ninth Ward, including Holy Cross, is now exempt from inspections with no specified time-line for when the properties will be removed from the exemption. The immediate danger for many historic homes in Holy Cross has been averted for at least sixty days, which was the council’s estimate for hardship cases.

Once again, the council’s ordinance will use the thirty-day notice to refer residents to the 19 groups offering free or low-cost gutting instead of taking responsibility for its own citizens. Even though the deadline has been eased, many still would like the city to offer more services or assistance.

John Anderson, a displaced resident, has returned eleven times to rebuild, but is asking for partnership. “We are asking for equitable ownership in the rebuilding process, and that starts with you not giving us a deadline, you should give us an opportunity to work together so we can have hands on building for our community,” Anderson said at the press conference.

Though Louisiana has allocated money to go to New Orleans, residents themselves have not received adequate funds. “As of today, not one penny is in the hands of our citizens to rebuild,” Fontenot said at the August 17 press conference. A representative of the Lower 9th Ward Homeowners Association questioned how the council could consider demolishing houses when people have not been given the financial opportunities to rebuild. “We are here to ask the council to extend the deadline until the residents of the lower 9 get their LRA [Louisiana Recovery Authority] money,” she said.

Another impact goes beyond housing, for those people with high levels of stress and anxiety struggling to return home, said Alice Craft-Kerney, a lower ninth ward resident and registered nurse. “We have many people who are displaced, who are emotionally traumatized and this trauma is definitely magnified because they cannot return home,” she said at the press conference. “The suicide rate is directly related to the fact that they have no income, they can’t do the things they used to do and we want the city council to be aware that this is a health problem caused by the stress of the August 29 deadline.”

Noise Before the Deadline

Addressing the city council, Malcolm Suber, director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, introduced an ordinance to repeal the August 29 deadline, but the council never brought it up for a vote. With the prospect of the city demolishing its residents’ homes, Suber urged, “That’s not the role of government.” Only an injunction by the mayor or a City Council Special Meeting could address the deadline a week before the anniversary, council members said.
Assuming that no such action would be taken, Suber called on the council to put aside funds to assist non-profit organizations that already gut houses, such as Hands On or Habitat for Humanity, if the council could not help homeowners directly. Since non-profit organizations and churches are overwhelmed by gutting requests and waiting lists in the thousands, community leaders have asked for the National Guard to reconsider its role in New Orleans. “We are asking the city to consider, to just imagine if we were to, for a change, to have the National Guard here not just in a policing fashion, but in a partnership fashion, assisting our homeowners as they do all around the world to clean and to gut their homes,” Fontenot recommended in front of city hall.

In response to similar sentiments by speakers in its chamber, the city council passed a verbal resolution proposed by Willard-Lewis to ask the Louisiana National Guard to expand their role to assist in gutting and securing properties. The resolution cannot force the guard to assist residents in rebuilding efforts.

However, not all groups believe the National Guard should have an increased role in New Orleans. “I’m anti-National Guard. I don’t want them doing anything. I don’t want them in the city,” Suber said.

The council voted in May to set aside the deadline for much of the Lower 9th Ward. It passed an ordinance proposed by Councilwoman Cynthia Willard-Lewis–who represents that area–declaring that all owner-occupied homes, plus all “residential rental property” owned by people 65 or older, in about two-thirds of the Lower 9th Ward “shall be deemed to be hardship cases” and thus “eligible for exceptions to the remediation requirements” imposed by the April law. Since the lower 9th was the last area to be opened for rebuilding, most of the area’s residents did not return until March or April at the earliest.

Since the re-population of New Orleans was staggered by zip code, that alone should exempt certain neighborhoods at this time and allow for a staggered deadline, community members said. Not applying the same exemption to New Orleans East, which was similarly devastated by Hurricane Katrina and in Willard-Lewis’ district, is somewhat surprising, said Fontenot, a lower 9th ward resident.
Vanessa Gueringer called the deadline “Draconian.”

Gueringer, a resident of the Lower Ninth Ward and a member of the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), told the council that “the lack of notice to homeowners is evident.” One homeowner from the lower 9 affiliated with ACORN claimed that her neighbor had to inform her that her home was being torn down despite the council reiterating that no houses have been or will be demolished before August 29. There was no notification from the city even though she was a state employee and life-long New Orleanian, she said.

Assurances had been repeatedly made by both the city council and the mayor that the gutting law chronicling a year after Katrina would not be strictly enforced. Amending the law on August 25 provides a compromise to “move forward” and clarity, but some community activists still say that setting a deadline is an improper role for the government in relation to its citizens.


take action to prevent demolitions on erroneously listed properties in New Orleans!

Karen Gadbois, a neighborhood association leader, updates the blog Squandered Heritage and has this recent post that provides links and instructions to get your property off the demolition list.

Published in: on August 27, 2007 at 10:05 am  Comments (1)  

Red Cross Funds for Survivors Hardly Publicized

August 20–In front of Red Cross offices in both Houston and New Orleans, picket lines were formed by survivors of the federal flood during Hurricane Katrina. They demonstrated to emphasize the necessity and speediness with which the local Red Cross agencies should disperse the remaining donations earmarked for Katrina relief. The Red Cross, in an unfamiliar role, is engaging in “long-term” recovery because of its excess donations in a little-publicized program known as “Means-to-Recovery.”

Thirty people arrived on Monday morning, August 20, at the Red Cross offices in Metairie, Louisiana, a suburb of New Orleans. Red Cross guards falsely warned that the picketers on the sidewalk were on private property, but picketers maintained their ground even after guards called local police. The picketers then marched to Veterans Boulevard, a thoroughfare of strip mall-suburbia, and back to the Red Cross office to announce their demands. One woman held a sign stating: “RED CROSS, Why do we have to jump through HOOPS for OUR money?” Though the Red Cross, in the face of Peoples’ Hurricane’s resistance, reduced the application from twenty to eight pages, many feel that they have already succumbed to enough discrimination and paternalism by bureaucracies like FEMA and Road Home.

As it currently is instituted, the Red Cross Means-to-Recovery program gives up to $20,000 to each family or individual that applies, but each applicant must go through a case manager who determines and vouches for their needs. The money never goes to the family to decide their needs for themselves, but instead the Red Cross deals directly with vendors such as Home Depot and Lowe’s. The average applicant receives around $10,000.

Malcolm Suber, national outreach coordinator of the Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund, told the New York Times that “What we want people to understand is that these are hard-working, poor working people, and they don’t want to be treated like children in this insulting process in which they have to sit down with a counselor.”

PHRF and the Red Cross convened a closed door meeting shortly after PHRF held a press conference on July 23 to discuss the shortcomings of the Means-to-Recovery program. In that meeting, Red Cross allegedly offered PHRF funds to hire case managers if they were unsatisfied with the Red Cross’ performance. After PHRF met to discuss this offer, the board rejected it, reasoning that it was too large of a project for them to take on and would only make the public hold them responsible for Red Cross’ mistakes.

A more startling practice of the Red Cross, which has no more than two case managers, is the allocation of monies to organizations with case workers, such as the Lutheran Relief Services. In effect, the Red Cross has outsourced the application process of the “Means-to-Recovery” program to other organizations, which are not accountable to the Red Cross.

Amber McZeal, a federal flood survivor now in San Francisco who was a volunteer case manager, attests that several organizations, including Lutheran Social Services under the United Methodists Committee on Relief, received funds from the Red Cross in agreement that they would push through a certain amount of applications, but never completed them. McZeal worked with the Northern California branch of Lutheran Social Services as a volunteer case worker. Despite the organization receiving funds to hire case workers, she “did not receive a dime.”

In her experience, case managers and their organizations receive $2,500 for managing eight cases. “Organizations are receiving this funding, this case work funding and not doing the work or not hiring case workers because there’s only one in the city.”

“Unnecessary, redundant information,” she says of the lengthy application. “If they put your social [security number] into any one of their databases, they know exactly how much you’ve received from the Red Cross, from anybody. ”

The Red Cross counters that case management is considered a “best practice” for accountability to its donors and to prevent fraud. It also defended the publicity of the program by claiming it was available on its website and that Red Cross employees went door-to-door soliciting New Orleanians for the program. Approaching the situation only technologically leaves out most of the “needy” survivors that the Red Cross claim to want to help, while it was only when Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund told community leaders of the program in July that news spread from door-to-door and ear-to-ear among neighbors. Shortly thereafter, PHRF estimates more than 10,000 people showed up at their offices on the third weekend in July. Long lines bended off of Claiborne Avenue under the interstate where PHRF’s office is located. People waited in excess of an hour for a copy of the application.

Begun in October 2006, the Red Cross initially did not publicize “Means-to-Recovery” and chose to train case managers across the country to handle the applications. Even after it became public, applications rarely came in and only $12 million was allocated to vendors after 10 months. Red Cross estimates that only 4,000 more families can be helped in their program, which they budget at $38 million, though it was initially $71 million. Red Cross officials state that it was reduced as other previous hurricane expenditures were totaled.

McZeal and others often see the government’s response to poor black victims in New Orleans as unduly hesitant and suspicious rather than generous. “As opposed to a disaster like 9-11 where people were just issued checks,” McZeal compared. Good intentions and donations are often subverted and diverted into the salaries of bureaucracies and people looking for economic opportunities in the federal flood disaster. “We’re dealing with money that’s floating around in the hands of so many people in this country in the names of Katrina victims. We’re purposefully being victimized over and over again.”

See the Means-to-Recovery application here.

Peoples’ Hurricane Relief Fund Demands on Red Cross:


  1. Immediate disbursal of all funds received for Katrina-Rita Survivors with a target date set for completion.
  2. Elimination of the Case Manager process and implementation of a swift, simple process for getting funds into the hands of needy survivors.
  3. Total Accountability for all funds received and disbursed. A ‘dollars-to-demographics’ accounting of funds received for survivors.
  4. Immediate identification and release of any funds that were directed to other agencies for Katrina-Rita relief.
  5. Congressional and local investigations into the use of Katrina-related funds by all government and non-profit agencies.
Published in: on August 23, 2007 at 2:24 am  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)