Common Ground Collective/Relief: Black Flags and Windmills

May 27, 2007 Infoshop News

The conversations about Common Ground Collective/Relief in New Orleans are always interesting. When I meet people who came to CG I never know if I am going to hear about the worst--or the best--time of their lives. I think it depended on when, where, or how you came in as well as what your expectations were. But one thing is clearly emerging it has had a deep effect on many grassroots movements and groups within the U.S. in it’s brief history. What will this look like in the future?

Common Ground was an experience within the devastation of the gulf that will take years to sort out internally as well as publicly by many. I wanted to add some small fragmented perspective from my point of view to the dialog.

A Rough House Is Built

Common Ground IS NOT the same organization we co-founded at the kitchen table in 2005 after the levees gave away. I look at the 'heyday' of that phase to have ended within the first year, and then it moved towards a service organization only model--with less radical analysis and more 'non-profit' type work and structures. That is not to say that 'anarchist' or anti-authoritarian elements didn't still exist or weren't dreamed of, but they were not as valued or supported by the open white volunteer base that was coming through.

The original framework in the formation of the organization that was discussed, written , and eventually faded from memory was simple and to the point--I know because I wrote it. Those of us from the outside would bring our access to resources (material aid, money and volunteers) into the region to work/stand in solidarity WITH the residents NOT for the residents in getting their lives back together, then move into supporting them in rebuilding infrastructure that was lost or that never existed. And lastly we would all recede in steps from the areas as people came back or had enough stability to carry it all.

We wrote that on Sept. 8th while fending off armed white men who thought they were the ‘law’ and wanted black people dead or in submission. There were no heroics--it was our moral impeerative to do because we were asked by community members to come and do it. It seemed so basic and right---support impacted communities--anyway we could. We went into the communities and asked the people what they needed or wanted and built programs or work based on that. We never came in to tell people how it was going to be --we asked questions and built from that. I and others who worked on the early foundations--including Malik--didn’t say we had the answers. We just knew were going to do the best we could without state support or interference. In the early part this kept us from ‘McDonald-izing’ our support work. In some neighborhoods we had armed patrols, some we had the clinics, others it was tarping, gutting and clean out.

But a strange thing happened on the way--we grew too big too fast--and being mostly outsiders as well as an organization started from scratch we didn’t have the deep roots we needed to keep our paths and visions clear. We went from a handful of rebels to thousands of volunteers in months. And many of our old habits from society--baggage if you will--began to surface in some ways.

Internally, Common Ground, strove to be a hybrid between old school top down organizing and newer horizontal structures. Think of blending the Black Panther Party (survival programs pending revolution) and the Zapatistas (E.Z.L.N.) autonomy and leading by obeying. There was always internal conflict and struggles between the two models even from day one--and eventually over time the old school models ’won’ out. These contradictions were hurtful and confusing to many who came into contact with CG either as volunteers with radical leanings or to other groups we worked with. Many volunteers brought their assumptions of what they thought anarchist or horizontal organizing should look like as well as lots of privilege--that they couldn’t even see. (see the article on Infoshop ‘Anarchy and Common Ground’).

Could We See These Things?

Some of the mistakes we made were: never formalizing the culture in our decision making processes and roles, allowing a constant influx of new volunteers (without limits or screening), defining and keeping our political space in the context of our broader work in communities(i.e. removing the ‘wingnuts’ or people who were harmful), and instilling that culture of humbleness and respect--the leading by asking--we began with.

By never formalizing our internal culture and processes--hell we didn’t have time when it was critical to do so--we were not able to pass these along very well as more people came. So when many volunteers came they brought with them our societies baggage. We didn’t get them to challenge why they were there or how they could support the impacted people--the solidarity not charity part

By not screening volunteers and having an open door policy we flooded some communities with sincere but misguided ‘kids’ who perpetuated ideas we were trying to dismantle (racism, privilege etc.) and we never had a clear exit strategy of how they would leave. This lead to people staying who shouldn’t have; and New Orleans groups being angered at CG for not being clear about how we would turn over projects back to community control.

By not instilling that culture of humbleness and to ‘lead by asking’ we became the victims of our own internal CG culture and for periods during the first two years-- we became disconnected from those we were supposed to serve.

We consciously sought out organizations like the Peoples Institute (from New Orleans) and Catalyst Project (Oakland) who provided invaluable internal work around issues of racism and class as well as mediating conflict between different groups in NOLA. Over 2,000 of our volunteers participated in the Peoples Institute Undoing Racism’ training and the Catalyst Project helped us to form anti-oppression working groups as well as ally mentoring.

But while we focused on those forms of oppression some in the organization played down or ignored our own subtle forms of internal sexism. I don’t mean the overt ‘hey baby’ type, but the deeper more systemic type where women’s voices--especially radical-- didn’t carry as much weight with some in ‘leadership’ as they should. That is not to say we didn’t have BADASS women coordinators that lead or did amazing things--we did and many examples come to my mind--but many times women in leadership had to ‘act like a man’ to argue their points, to get funding, or the way a project or the organization was run. We didn’t provide enough space for that and open dialog about it.

Our Narratives

From the beginnings our group narrative--the stories we would tell about Common Ground--was to be important --that is we weren’t going to rely on anyone else to do it. And it is amazing how stories took on lives of their own. We never had a public relations machine--just many people passionate and willing to get the word out about the work.

As in all of history with so many stories though many important ones are forgotten--along with the people who participated in them. Not because they we not valuable--but our collective memories erased or forgot along the way. No one person built, maintained or made that organization happen--and hopefully in the future a larger picture will emerge.

The flipside are the myths that have built around ‘the beginnings’ of for example: Malik , Sharon and I at the kitchen table or Mayday DC opening the first aid station or Brandon and I looking for our friend King in a boat or sitting with guns on the front porch.

All of these things happened--but these events have become ‘heroic’ stories that mythologize the real intent, purpose and work that real people did in turbulent times. How could we retell these events so people can see they might have done the same thing I n the circumstances?

So on one hand we did well in bringing attention and resources through getting the word out--but we were also victims of that. Eventually our story eclipsed smaller or longer standing groups from the region.

When asked by a member of INCITE and Critical Resistance to give them support in spreading their message --as well as other local groups too--I felt we didn’t give them enough of that and have felt regret about it since.

We never set out to tell our story and have NEVER told our story only to raise money for ANYBODY in the organization.

But even with our relative success in telling our own stories they still have been distorted and we have been the subjects of endless speculations, rumors, innuendos and conjecture. Media corporate and independent have also done their share to warp the realities of how CG fit into the bigger picture. They wanted heroes, backdrops, easy answers and solutions. So that is the framework of the stories they have told. They often ignored the subtleties of the political or radical nature that ran through the first two years.

We Built The Road As We Traveled

My work within and from the outside has been has been some of the most traumatic, most heart breaking and the most inspiring movement I have ever been a part of.

We had no blueprints, no models, no roots as an organization only motivation and history laid before us to build upon. We have been held to incredible and sometimes unrealistic scrutiny by ‘the left’, by ‘leaders’ in NOLA and even by ourselves. The bar for our successes and our failures have been really high--some would say too high. This organization was built , run and will die by
ordinary people who were doing the best they could with what they had. This doesn’t excuse or sweep under the rug the issues--but I hope it opens a space for recognizing that. Most who came and participated came with sincere--even if misguided--and honorable intentions. The xperiences that any one person who interacted with CG was life changing--sometimes for the better and sometimes not. That was life when civilization as we know it collapsed in the Gulf Coast region.

I now look at the early days--say the first year and some change--as the time when we had the largest anarchist influence and the spaces to experience what our lives could be like and how we might be part our self determination and that of others self determination. It doesn’t mean it all worked--but it was a crack in history to peek inside. For this we had backlash from the state at all levels.

Now that the organization has transformed into a more traditional ‘non-profit’ doesn’t negate the still important work that CG does. It just looks--and is--different.

People going now should carry the spirit of ‘solidarity not charity’ but recognize it is not as it once was or strove to be. This doesn’t mean we should all pack up and hold a funeral--but that we should just recognize that it is what it is.

There are many amazing radical homegrown grassroots groups In NOLA that are doing good deep long term work.

Our Place Within The Picture

Common Ground was never the answer to the history of exploitation and oppression--and we never said we were the saviors. We just wanted to do what we could in our part WITH residents to reclaim their lives. We put anarchy into action. Mutual aid, direct action, self defense, sharing power--these were real--even of they were brief.

My hopes are that we-- as individuals--will be able to heal from these experiences in our lives and be forgiving of ourselves and each other and that we-- as movements--will be able to draw on the experiences of CG to better as part of transforming societies that are just, sustainable and truly democratic.

For more analysis please see the piece "Common Ground Collective" by Sue Hilderbrand, scott crow and Lisa Fithian in the book "‘What Lies Beneath. Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation" from South End Press

'dream the future
know your history
organize your people
fight to win'

From the concrete jungle
scott crow

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