It Takes a Spark to Start a Prairie Fire: Desperation, Racism and the beginnings of Common Ground Relief

From South End Press: “In August 2005, thousands of New Orleans residents—overwhelmingly poor, largely people of color, the majority black—were left to face one of the worst “natural” disasters in US history on their own. They were left to die in prisons, in nursing homes, and on the street. Survivors were criminalized as “looters” for struggling to obtain food, water, diapers, medicine, and other essentials of life that no one else could or would provide. As Katrina’s waters receded and the body count soared, an ugly truth (re)surfaced: The lives of those who are poor, who are vulnerable, and who are not white are not valued by the US government.”

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, longtime Austin-based activist Scott Crow co-founded Common Ground Collective in New Orleans with Malik Rahim, Brandon Darby, and Robert King Wilkerson. “We saw it as a chance - a level playing field where the state had lost control and Common Ground was able to fill a niche and do things the state never could have done,” Crow told atx imc. He describes Common Ground as “a convergence of old-school organizing and newer anarchist ideas together for the first time.”

Common Ground emerged out of Katrina's devastation of New Orleans – not just the destruction of basic physical infrastructure, but of any semblance of peace and order as well. Crow described an atmosphere of chaos and impunity in which armed all-white militias and state forces roamed the streets in the days after the city was hit. “Homeland Security was part of the problem, not the solution,” he said.

“Due to all the anarchist networks we were able to draw people from around the country,” Crow said, “we had street medics, Food Not Bombs, grassroots organizing, all connected with broader anti-globalization networks.” Crow said within days Common Ground was cleaning the streets, defending homes, running medical clinics, planting gardens, and providing a full-range of relief and reconstruction services for those victimzed by Katrina and society.

Last month South End Press published “What Lies Beneath: Katrina, Race, and the State of the Nation,” an anthology of activist voices not represented in dominant narratives on Katrina. In the book's prologue Crow tells the harrowing story of his and Darby's efforts to secure the safety of their friend and former political prisoner Robert King Wilkerson, who was trapped and threatened by Katrina and the malignant forces it unleashed. The text is reproduced below, and it describes the environment in which Common Ground was forged.


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