Monday, March 24, 2008

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Memoirs of a Scraper

An oral piece by Manisha, as transcribed by Heather.

The scraper life came to me by mistake. The fates have it that our group, selected by random number generation, were doomed from the beginning with fake projects and fictitious characters. Group #2 faced an uphill battle of adversity and no-sayers. We were not to be deterred, however. Short of scrapers, and no house in sight to display our honed skills, we wandered around the desolate 9th ward. There was a train blocking our way so we had to detour via another route. Again, we were not letting this get in the way. Our rescue van stumbles upon an abandoned nursing home, and eager group #2 frolics out of the ran screaming, “scrapers to the rescue.” It was here, at this nursing home, that I first utilized this newfound tool.

It turns out that I am obsessed with OCDness. Some volunteers were flippant and disconnected with the project at hand, but not me. I was born to be a scraper. Every detail, every chip of paint, every fallen beam was mine to conquer. It turns out that my focus went entirely on a fence. At first glance, it is hard to justify spending an entire week on a fence. It called into question how the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, the group who organized this labor, organized their labor.

What is a fence? The painted fence is a symbolic figure in American culture. It separates your land, your safe place, from the rest of the world. A fence perhaps would be the last thing someone would fix, but it can provide so much more comfort and stability to those that live within its limits. It can be a step back towards normalcy. The repairs can get rid of the physical reminder of Katrina.

So I took my task seriously. My paint was to be perfect. By Wednesday, I was one with the fence; no one was going to come near this fence. My life and soul were being poured into a fence. The fence provided a means of solidarity: volunteer groups came together across the nation in solidarity, not to mention in beer and dancing. More importantly, the fence was a barter system for us. As the days went by, we were able to hear more stories from the family about their experiences with Katrina, and the struggles they have faced. The more stories I heard, the harder I scraped. The more I put into scraping, the more I came to understand how this was so much more than just a fence. This is the path to recovery.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Challenges of Community Service

Having now returned from New Orleans and spent some time reflecting on the past week, I've decided to post my own thoughts onto this public forum.

I once read: "Community service is very much a two-way street. It is about giving and receiving, and the receiving can be nourishing for the heart and mind. The very act of serving taps into a wellspring of empathy and generosity that is both personally gratifying and energizing." It cannot be denied that in serving others, we ultimately serve ourselves.

From our high school days, we grapple with how to apply for college and scholarships or find jobs. We've been taught that fame and recognition are the important things in this life and as a result, many of us decide that meager efforts to help the elderly across the street a few times, singing at a retirement home once, or baby sitting the retarded child down the street makes us deserving of rewards for "making a difference" in our community. My point is not to be cynical nor to bolster myself (well, maybe to take a crack at some of the students I met). On the one hand, it is human nature to seek appreciation and distinction for our efforts. But just as importantly, if not more, society could not function without community service. It teaches that values and communities are not innate, but created through action. It allows for an understanding about each other and builds a sense of human compassion. On an individual level, it provides real-life experience that helps to develop leadership skills, self-esteem, and other personal characteristics. It is little wonder that both our Congress and leadership abroad have flirted with the idea of requiring students to fulfill a number of service hours as a graduation requirement.

I spent much of my week working on a "menial" task - scraping paint and rust off an iron fence. It was a far cry from what I hoped, or perhaps expected, my week to involve. I did very much envy those in my group that got to tear down walls or paint a house. When asked about my trip since I have returned, it has been hard to explain or even justify the work I did. During the first half of the week, we worked for a gentleman who had purchased the plot next to his home and was seeking to use it as a rental property. Bluntly speaking, we worked on property that was going to be used for profit. I saw houses that had remained untouched since Katrina. Attempting to find the "good" in such work was...hard to come by. But I also refused to stop what I was asked to do. As a result, I spent my week quite isolated and alone with my thoughts. It was my mistake, perhaps, in not allowing myself to join my classmates and work with the group. But within my thoughts, I ultimately found myself coming to one overreaching conclusion - what if this was my house? Could I walk away knowing I could have done it better? Wouldn't I want the person helping me to feel the same way? Perhaps this is the perfectionist in me speaking and ultimately I recognize the vice it can be.

On a tour of the 9th ward we were shown a "green house" that would serve as a home and was built of eco-friendly products that sought to reduce the carbon footprint it created. Two and a half years post-Katrina, the house was not yet complete. I found myself thinking - how much do these residents care that their house is "eco-friendly," they don't have a roof over their heads. However, given that we have the chance to rebuild, does it not make sense to do it right?

I will not deny that people are doing what they can when they can. So for those who live here, some construction is better than none, whatever form it takes. But when it's all destroyed, we’ve got a chance to make things right, not just to replace what was there. We're already spending a tremendous amount of money fixing things. But is fixing the old (and decidedly flawed) the right way to get a community back in shape?

How silly this must seem - all this attention for a fence. However, I walked away knowing I did the best I could. And that's enough for me.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

back from NOLA

I am writing this the day after we arrive back in San Francisco, after I've had a little time to absorb what happened this past week.  New Orleans was everything I expected and so much more: it was beautiful and eclectic yet still reeling from the storm that hit more than two and a half years ago.  Since this was my first time in New Orleans, I knew little about what the city looked like before the storm, and the French Quarter was alive and buzzing with tourists as I had imagined it to be.  There was loud music on Bourbon Street, street performers, artists as Jackson Square, and the bars and tourist traps open for regular business.  However, the residential neighborhood of Bywater where we were staying felt much quieter and somewhat dilapidated, where I first saw the red X's on the front walls of the colorful houses.  Some had notices posted on the windows, one was being appropriated by the city.  One afternoon I spent walking around the neighborhood, and encountered few other people in the street except for a small group barbecuing in front of a church, preparing dinner for the volunteers they were housing that week.   Our first night in NOLA, we found a bar just down the block from our house on Mazant Street, which was empty save the bartender, his two companions, and a jukebox.  It was 2am on a Friday night, and we played old tunes on the jukebox until they "closed", which in this town was whenever the last clients decided to go home.

On Monday morning I started work at the City Attorney's office, where I would be volunteering for the entire week.  After a quick orientation and meeting our colleagues - fellow volunteers from the University of Indiana, Bloomington, and University of Mississippi - we were each assigned to a case.   Although at first most of the cases did not appear to be Katrina-related, we heard that the office faced severe cutbacks in staff since the storm (half had not returned) so they had a huge backlog of cases.  My supervisor Ed explained that mine was an environmental tort case filed against the city by local residents who discovered they were living on top of a landfill that was emitting toxic chemicals.  The city was implicated because it was part of the decision-making process that led to the development of the former Agriculture Street Landfill  to provide much-needed low income housing in the area.  The EPA did a major investigation and clean-up in the 1990s but the residents were not happy and wanted to relocate, alleging that the government had failed to warn them that they were living on top of an urban dump.   See for details.  I was researching the issue of discretionary function immunity, which is one of the legal theories underlying the city's defense.  The more I learned about the case, the more I thought about the environmental issues facing this country, and the inequality of environmental burdens borne by poor people.  The interesting connection my case had with Katrina is that the landfill re-opened after Hurricane Besty hit New Orleans in the 1960s, and the city burned debris for 9 straight months, which went into the landfill where the development area now stands.  What happened to all the waste from Katrina?  I do not know the answer, because most people do not ask, and do not want to know.  The waste must go somewhere, but usually we are dumping it far from where most people see it.  Even I don't like to spend my time thinking about what happens to my trash after it goes down the garbage chute of my apartment building in San Francisco.  But this week in New Orleans, I learned to really consider the effects of our modern lifestyles converged in the most unpleasant of all landscapes: the wastedump.  Katrina only shed light by magnifying a process that has been happening for many decades, and the people who have been unequally affected by it.  I also thought about government accountability.  Immunity is a huge shield that protects all levels of government including the engineers who built the faulty levees.  I myself felt responsible, because I contributed to this process that created this great environmental and human disaster.  We are each and all accountable.  This is the lesson that Katrina taught me, a big step for someone who really wasn't paying attention back in August 2005.  It took one week in New Orleans to learn this, and for that I am grateful to everyone who has supported me to get here.

Brick by Brick

Ms. Lorita Pellebon lives in the Lower Ninth Ward with her husband, children, and grandchildren. She is a tall woman, though slightly stooped, whose face lights up in surprise when we tell her we can start work on her home right away. She beams at us with the light of someone who has no shortage of hope and whose belief in the goodness of others is undiminished despite her circumstances.

Ms. Pellebon is keeping her family together. She is raising her small granddaughters, whose mother died of leukemia shortly after the storm. She is watchful of her older children, whose youth has been stripped from them and replaced by stolid preserverance. And she is subtly vigilant over her husband, who suffered a breakdown after seeing the home that his grandfather built destroyed. She does this with no self-pity, or even a sense that this is an extraordinary task, but with brisk and cheerful resolve. The only glimmer of regret I hear from her is when she mentions that she thought she would go to law school once; but she brushes this aside by laughing as though it were a joke and moving onto another topic. The laughter does not reach her eyes.

Mr. Pellebon is a quiet, meticulous man who has worked with his hands his whole life. He is rebuilding their home piece by piece and the work he has done is staggeringly precise. On breaks, he sits on the front porch smoking and staring out across the street. I think he sees the ghosts of his neighbors who died in the storm, and the black veil of that loss hovers over his sad eyes.

Elliott Pellebon, their son, approaches us shyly but soon begins to open up, quickly causing me to realize that he is the oldest 22 year old I have ever met. He recounts how his mother and sisters evacuated before the storm, but that his father refused to leave the home which has been in their family since the 1940s. The significance of an African-American family building and owning their own home in that era lingers compellingly beneath the surface of this story, but is unspoken.

Elliott chose to stay behind to help his father weather the storm. The water rose fast and they had to scramble to reach the second story of their home, which stood clear of the floodwater. As they were attempting to reach the high ground, Elliott heard a splash and looked back to see that his father had disappeared. Frantic, he searched the water until he was able to find his father and pull him to safety. There is no hint of self-promotion in his voice when he flatly explains that he would be without a father if he had not stayed behind that day. They waited seven days in the second story of their home before they were able to evacuate to Alabama.

As he concludes his story, Elliott explains that he is incredibly lucky and that people don't value their lives and opportunities as they should. He suggests that before the storm, he did not fully appreciate what he had, and that it took the loss of nearly everything for him to realize it. We all sit in silence for a moment, before his face cracks into a broad smile and he says "Well not to bring it all down! What about y'all? What you doing here?" as though his family's story was not exactly what we, and the American people, need to hear.

Before we left New Orleans, Ms. Pellebon thanked us and tried to give us money for our work. After we, of course, declined it, she called us "angels descended from heaven" and hugged everyone fiercely. I was embarrassed by this, truthfully. We were not angels. We were law students on spring break who were succeeding in life because of the advantages we've had, while here stood an amazing woman who was succeeding in spite of those she has not.

The week was a challenging one for us: we quickly came to realize the full extent of the institutional failure which pervades everything from the government to, yes, volunteer organizations and nonprofits. We were deeply frustrated at the sheer incompetence which made even the most well-meaning institutions almost counterproductive in the struggle to build New Orleans.

However, after meeting the Pellebons, I realized that, while these institutional failings are extremely demoralizing for people like us (ie law students who have time to rail about institutional reform and wax poetic about political theory), they are beside the point for the people who are quietly rebuilding their lives brick by brick. The Pellebons could undoubtedly use some competence in their government; but in the meantime, Ms. Pellebon will continue to ensure that her family survives the aftermath of the storm and Mr. Pellebon will continue to methodically build the structure which houses them all. Their sense of community remains solidly intact and they will spend their days ensuring that those left behind in the storm are not left behind now.

I am by no means suggesting that the efforts to effect large-scale change are meaningless; this is an important task and the profound flaws in the system must be resolved with immediacy. The Pellebons should not be surviving in spite of our government. I am merely submitting that, in our high-minded efforts to reform these institutions, we must not forget that there are houses to be gutted, fences to be painted, children to be taught, and deep wounds to be healed. And it is the residents themselves who are quietly and competently doing these things because they cannot afford to wait for us to roll up our sleeves and truly join them. They have waited long enough.

In order to really effect change and lift the residents of New Orleans out of these dire circumstances, I think it is imperative that everyone from the top down realizes that we are not doing any "lifting" at all, because the residents don't need that kind of aid. Building a truly inclusive society requires that, as Professor Quigley says, we see these individuals as our brothers and sisters, who are entitled to respect and dignity. They are unimpeachably hopeful, competent, and kind, and, moreover, they are Americans like us who deserve to be part of the conversation about our country, and not objects of it.

I encourage anyone considering involvement in this cause to keep in mind the big picture, to participate with an open heart, and to be willing to engage in the kind of brick by brick change that is necessary while the rest of the country quibbles.

The people of New Orleans are down, but not out, and all they need is a bit of a hand.

Friday, March 14, 2008


Red Cross team here. I figured it was about time to check-in with all our fans out there in blog land. To cut to the chase, we decided to switch projects – for the final two days of the week, we worked with the Louisiana Justice Project (LJI) instead of the Red Cross. After three days with the Red Cross, we didn’t really jive with their model, and decided to pursue something more in line with our vision for the trip.

The Red Cross is one of the largest and best-known non-profit organizations in the world. Because of its reputation for effective disaster relief, the organization gained $2.1 billion after Katrina from the U.S. government as well as private donors. In three short days, this team observed the realities of such a surge in funding, primarily the inevitably inefficient mismanagement of resources. As volunteers, we were highly underutilized, and we felt we were doing nothing to rebuild New Orleans after the devastation of Katrina. When it comes down to it, the Red Cross is an organization that responds to disasters and provides immediate, short-term relief. It is also an organization with a big name that allures individuals and the federal government to give it money, entrusting the management to create a system to get money into the hands that need it. However, the Red Cross’ specialization is not long-term case management. Unfortunately, like the many no-bid contracts (and sub, sub-sub, and sub-sub-sub contracts) going to large corporations with close ties to the Bush administration, this money has been lost to a multi-layered bureaucracy and it does not seem to be directed effectively.

After Hurricane Katrina, the Southeast Louisiana chapter of the Red Cross lost two thirds of its volunteer base. For an organization whose workers are 97% volunteers, this was a huge blow. We were placed with the Red Cross’ volunteer services department, which is focusing on rebuilding the volunteer base. We felt fine about spending a week on volunteer recruitment, management of a volunteer database, and the like. But we quickly realized that “volunteer recruitment” meant sitting in cubicles and doing basically nothing. Our volunteer services coordinator was a kind woman with a huge heart, but the organization had not set up a support structure to effectively train and utilize her.

What we learned from the Red Cross is that it’s crucial to second-guess the immediate legitimacy we accord to organizations with big names. We have no doubt that the Red Cross does amazing work in response to disasters. However, no matter how benevolent the intentions of an organization, a sudden influx of money has the potential to be poorly spent.

On Wednesday, after Todd, Ryan and I felt like we had wasted far too many hours, we told our supervisor that we were leaving the project at the Red Cross. We had learned about LJI’s community mapping project and we were pretty much salivating at the opportunity to actually do something.

LJI has various project areas, all of which involve community organizing and/or legal advocacy for Louisiana’s poor and minority residents. We were working with the housing unit, conducting surveys of residents whose neighborhoods were in danger of being bulldozed by the city. Our community mapping project focused on the Hollygrove neighborhood. The purpose of our project was to collect data to demonstrate the enormous detrimental effect of any city-led demolition of the neighborhood, but also to gauge the residents’ interest in becoming involved in an organized neighborhood association so that the community’s voice may influence local government.

Hollygrove is a low- to moderate-income neighborhood, mostly inhabited by African-American homeowners. In two days we only canvassed about ten blocks, but we heard a myriad of powerful stories. We spoke to individuals who felt incredibly discouraged and utterly forgotten by the government. Some people described the process of rebuilding their homes completely independently from government help. Some described the resilience that Katrina had instilled in them, empowering them to fight to stay in the city they’ve loved their whole lives. Some talked candidly about the institutionalized racism that Katrina exposed; some were more reserved, possibly worried about offending three white kids from California; some made it clear they had no interest whatsoever in speaking to us. But overall, the residents of Hollygrove welcomed us into their community and expressed sincere appreciation for the work we were doing.

One woman told me about surviving Hurricane Betsy in 1965; she did not know how to swim and was certain she would drown, until a stranger rowed over to her and pulled her into his boat. One man described his frustration with FEMA, who provided him a trailer relatively quickly but did not give him keys to the trailer – despite his calling every single day – for six months. When he gave up on the FEMA trailer and applied for rental assistance, he was told he was ineligible because the data base indicated he had received a trailer. One woman, whose car had been broken into the night before, expressed anger about the post-Katrina increase of crime, yelling that maybe New Orleans should just bulldoze the entire neighborhood. Her next-door neighbor spoke of her renewed hope in her community members, who have come together to support each other through the devastation of the storm, the levees breaking, and the racist system that failed them.

After our two short days in Hollygrove, we’re headed back to San Francisco. I can unequivocally say that my experience in New Orleans has made me more excited about utilizing the law to fight for social justice than any other experience I’ve had in law school. I can’t thank the people of New Orleans enough!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

The Bywater Beat

Thursday, March 13th, 2008-

We showed up at their house and the first thing I thought was, "Oh no, not more scraping."

For the past few days a portion of our group has been scraping a rot-iron fence to prep it for painting. And I can't lie, the job seemed slightly trivial and almost irresponsible. With so much devastation, with so much neglect, with so much at stake, why should we sacrifice the limited time that we have to a task that could be characterized as ornamental?

What today taught me was that our primary task in NOLA is not to do "meaningful work." Or to re-phrase, the work we are here to do, the work you all sent us here to do, is not the kind which lends itself to traditional calculation--square feet cleared, number of cases worked and clients interviewed--we were sent here for something altogether more critical if less tangible.

Let me try to explain.

The home whose stair-case and window sill I was reluctant to work on is inhabited by Katrina Survivors. I did not really appreciate what that meant until today. Katrina survivors experienced the destruction of their homes, the deaths of friends and family, the betrayal of local, state and federal government. They faced a formidable storm to protect their lifelong investment. They saved lives, and in the process they risked their own. They fought to maintain their dignity as they were scattered from state to state like so many shingles in a hurricane.

Then, after the trauma, drama, and flood water had subsided, they returned to daily life.

And that is the true survivors story. It is not glamorous. The true survivor continues to survive, from day to day, week to week, month to month, and so on, and on...

They struggle to pay bills in the wake of tragedy. They return home and rebuild. They raise their children. They resist temptation and vice. They pray. And they appreciate life in a visceral way; they appreciate life in a way that most of us can only feign to understand.

Hope is almost impossible to extinguish. But if there is anything that can achieve such an unconscionable objective, it is indifference. Neither insults nor assaults can compare.

Today we scraped the paint off the home of Katrina survivors. But ultimately the specific task we performed is unimportant. Today we showed that the plight of Katrina survivors is not a mere echo of the Post-"Katrina"-Media-Spectacle. Americans are not indifferent. We are a generous people, a compassionate people, an exacting people.

If only our public institutions could embody the best of our public spirit.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Black Mold

Today is Wednesday, and HHR has been in New Orleans for four days. HHR members are divided into four groups, and I'm part of the "labor" crew, which is comprised of nine individuals. I came to New Orleans last year as part of HHR. My experience this year is much different than that of last year for the following reasons.

Last year, all HHR members participated in a FEMA Trailer Survey. This year, as noted above, the group has been divided into three groups. In addition to the "labor" crew I'm part of, some individuals are working for either the Public Defenders's office, the City Attorney's office, or the American Red Cross. I chose to work on labor projects because I enjoy physical labor and was impressed with individuals I saw gutting homes and businesses last year. Further, helping individuals restructure their lives by helping them rebuild their homes and businesses has an immediate effect, which I value.

Although the group arrived to NOLA on Saturday, Monday was the first day of work. We were told to arrive at a church in the Holy Cross neighborhood located in the Lower Ninth Ward at 9:00 a.m. We arrived promply and waited in front of the church. We were given a quick tour of the area by an individual who is part of the Holy Cross Community Organization. After the tour, we arrived back at the church where we we given our assignments for the day. Our group further divided into three groups, each with a different assignment.

Team two consisted of me, Jacquie, Manisha, Sarah, Dan, Amy and a few students from Duke Law School. Our assignment was to sand and paint the exterior of a home. Although the coordinator delivered sanders so we could begin, there was a problem: once the Duke Law students obtained sanders, there weren't enough for HHR members. While we waited for our coordinator to deliver additional sanders, Sarah and I decided to walk down the street to find out if another group (not connected with SHN) needed assistance. We thought another group could use our assistance because before we drove to the home we were expected to work on, we saw many individuals removing furniture, clothes, etc. from a large brick building. This is where my main story begins.

As it turns out, the group did need help. Although we originally expected to assist the homeowner to sand and paint his home, we wanted to provide assistance immediately where it was needed. There were 5-6 Duke students already at the homeowner's home, and we determined that he had enough assistance in the interim (plus, we didn't have sanders). We soon found out that the name of the group down the street was "Operation Nehemia" ( Once we entered the building, a volunteer told us that the building was formerly a nursing home. Like the other volunteers already at work, we begin to gather clothes, remove lighting fixtures and other electronic equipment and place them into wheelbarrels. Once the items were placed in wheelbarrels, we rolled them outside, next a large dumpster. Dan and I begin to lift the wheelbarrels over the top of the dumpsters and hand them to individuals who stood inside them. Afterward, we reentered the building and refilled wheelbarrels. This process continued for an hour.

Signs of what this building used to be were everywhere. Valentines' Day cards were on walls, as well as photos of daughters, sons, husbands and grandchildren. There was the occasional dusty, idle wheelchair in the corner of a room. What suprised me the most was that I what I saw didn't suprise me. My only explanation is that I've been desensitized somewhat by what I saw last year (when practically all the Katrina-related damage I saw DID shock me). This time, I feel that I'm in familiar territory. After working in the building for an hour, we decided to seek out the coordinator of our original project since we still need sanders. He gave us money to purchase sanders, which we did. Afterwards, our group decided to divide into two smaller groups. Some individuals decided to work on the aforementioned homeowner's exterior, while others decided to help another homeowner sand and repaint his fence. I joined the latter group.

While sanding the homeowner's fence, I couldn't help think that my and Dan's skills would be much better utilized at the nursing home. Of course, helping a homeowner fix his home is important, but I knew that the other project required individuals who would lift heavy objects. Although Dan and I spent the rest of the day sanding the fence, I thought that maybe we'd assist at the nursing home the following day.

The following day arrived and Dan and I decided to assist with the other project. Unlike the day before when furniture, clothes, and appliance were being removed, on Tuesday walls needed to be torn down or gutted. With sledgehammer in hand, Dan and I began to break down walls to their wooden interiors. Before doing this, however, we first helped unload rubble from walls that had been broken down before we arrived that morning. Afterward, Dan, I, and a college student named Steve broke down the walls from two rooms. There was black mold everywhere you looked---both outside and inside the walls. Fortunately, we had masks on to block dusk. While breaking down the walls, I remembered the images of individuals gutting homes last year, and I felt good knowing that I was doing the same now. At one point, Dan and I took a break and walked to areas where neither furniture nor clothing had been removed yet. It was eerie to see teddy bears, clothes, bags, and photographs as they were left before the storm (or close to how they were left).

Today, Dan and I continued to work in the nursing home. Most walls have been gutted, and we spend the day removing much of the sheetrock and rubble from the floors. We used shovels to pick up most of these materials, loaded them into wheelbarrels, and rolled them into an open dumpster. Seeing a project from beginning from to almost the end has been incredibly fullfiling. I found out today that the nursing home will ultimately be rebuilt. As much as the fullfilled my time in New Orleans this year, I hope the rebuilt nursing home fullfills the lives of future tenants.

City Attorney's Office

Karen and I are working at the New Orleans City Attorney's office for the week and so far it's been a challenging and engaging experience. The office lost half it's staff after Katrina and all the attorneys are struggling to manage their incredible case loads. I have been working on a 1st Amendment appellate brief, arguing to have the court affirm a district court ruling that a city ordinance did not breach the appellant's free speech rights. Karen is working on a large scale case involving real estate, tort and environment law which I'm sure she will talk more about when she posts her blog so I'll just leave it at that. Just in case she doesn't, it's complex and difficult litigation that I might be helping out with when I'm done with my brief. I've been impressed by the quality of the attorneys here who are experienced and capable of handling a wide range of complex litigation issues. The atmosphere is casual and there is a strong sense of camaraderie amongst all the workers which consist of secretaries and attorneys specializing in all kinds of law.

The other day we went to the housing agency across the street to listen to some hearings on the ongoing demolition and eminent domain takings of abandoned or blighted homes. Present in the small office where the hearings took place were a couple attorneys, one acting as a magistrate, and a housing agency supervisor. Several residents of property owners came in to save their homes from being considered "blighted" by the city, which gives the city the power to appropriate owners from their homes and take their titles. There are some due process issues involved here that are bothersome to me and many alike. Because owners took refuge in other cities and states when Katrina hit, there is no sure-shot way of notifying them that the interest in their homes are being threatened by the state other than written notices on the doors of their homes. The homeowners I saw at the hearings were amongst the lucky ones who were notified of the threat in time, only to come in and find out that they have a legal duty to either board their front doors and windows or keep their grass cut or else their homes will be taken from them. It's pretty ridiculous but the city apparently has an interest in maintaining a standard of aesthetic appeal and maximizing the utility of land; whatever that may entail...

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Bill Quigley is our Dawg

A few thoughts on a presentation we saw by Bill Quigley, the director of Loyola Law School's Katrina Law Clinic... unfortunately, I won't be able to do him justice. In case anyone wasn't aware of this, Katrina wasn't a storm. It was a blatant manifestation not of the government's failure to take care of its most needy residents, rather its intent to leave them behind. Quigley described the depth of the institutionalized racism that Katrina exposed - from media images whose captions described residents as "looters" or "finders" of food depending on whether they were black or white; to local politicians advocating for ordinances that forbid people with dreadlocks from living in their parishes; to the efforts of the current local government to transform New Orleans into a white, upper class, business- and tourist-friendly city. The number of people living in low-income housing, receiving Medicaid, and attending public school, are all half what they were in 2005. Listening to Quigley made us realize how crucial it is that progressives in New Orleans fight back against the city's attempts to prevent people from coming home.

The Exonerated

Louisiana has the highest rate of citizen incarceration in the world--and that was before Hurricane Katrina struck. If it were an independent country, it would rank first in the world with an incarceration rate greater than 1 in 100 people. It is next to impossible to imagine the lives of prisoners in a system that barely has enough money to keep together the bricks and mortar, let alone keep individuals safely confined. The storm that swept through this city thirty months ago disrupted the lives of thousands, perhaps millions of people and those unfortunate enough to be in prison, were some of the least prepared or protected of all.
Perhaps more challenging to fathom than the individuals who suffered through the abuse of an uncaring, perhaps menacing, system is the experience of those who were brought into the system through no fault of their own and still suffered in the storm. The innocent, the wrongly accused and convicted, bring some of the most compelling stories from a broken and distrusted criminal justice system.

On Sunday, shortly after arriving in New Orleans, I was lucky enough to attend a presentation by Restoration After Exoneration--a group that advocates for the rights of individuals wrongly convicted and then exonerated of their crimes. Four men told their stories, from their unlawful arrest, through botched and truly criminal prosecution, to the years they spent on death row, awaiting an end they knew could not come. One man had spent more than half his life in jail for a crime he had no knowledge of; accused of killing a man with a co-defendant whom he had never met. Each of the stories was a powerful journey through the flaws of a system that favors punishment far more than presumed innocence. Perhaps the clearest message out of the ensuing discussion was that the woeful underfunding and overworking of the public defenders in Louisiana and across the country does not merely lead to new trials due to ineffective assistance of counsel, but can truly permit the state prosecution to run rough-shod over the lives of truly innocent people. While the system here is slowly improving, when a state locks up one in every 100 people and has already found 25 men on death row innocent, perhaps change through better lawyering is not the true answer. The overt racism in the system and the misconduct by corrupt political prosecutors paved the way for a broken system to rob poor, mostly black men of year of their freedom. This is not how justice should be done.

Among the most astonishing facets of this all-too-common injustice is what these men face when they finally escape the labyrinth of legal hurdles confronting a claim of actual innocence. How do you explain to a prospective employer that you've spent the past 7 years on Death Row? Who will really listen to you as you show articles detailing the system-wide breakdown that led to your years behind bars? More cruel, still, is the fact that these men, exonerated of their convictions, cannot qualify for job training programs for ex-convicts. They are truly left in the lurch with no one to respond to their plight. While perhaps the bars of the prison are gone, it becomes a short trip to the equally confining existence of abject poverty. Even after exoneration, the state offers no apology, nor any financial support, nor is there even real closure to the case. Beyond the crime of jailing the innocent, few of us consider the harm done to the public at large when the prosecution ignores proof of innocence. Not only does an innocent individual go to jail, but the true criminal is suddenly all the more free to continue perpetrating crimes--and we, as the public, are wooed into a false sense of security.

As with so much in this city, the most amazing part of the presentation on Sunday was not the tragedy that had befallen these men, but the spirit of survival and triumph that they and the other exonerees in the audience personified. After surviving years on death row, staring down the most awesome power of the State, these men continue to inspire as they work to provide for their families, give hope to their communities and to struggle to improve the prospects others like them. They were an inspiration to continue to work for true justice in a system bent on providing results, regardless of the truth.

For more information about these amazing individuals, look at the inspiring work of the Innocence Project, New Orleans.

Criminal Justice in New Orleans

One of the primary tasks of volunteers at the Public Defender's Office ( is to attend first appearance hearings. The OPD developed the Critical Stage Project in order to provide representation to defendants after they are arrested and before the charges are accepted. This stage is both important and the longest in the country. The prosecutors in Louisiana have 45 days for a misdemeanor and 60 days for a felony to decide if they want to accept the charge; accepting the charge means that they are moving forward with the prosecution of the case. This period is significantly longer in Louisiana than in any other state in the country – the nearest longest is about 14 days. Simply on procedural grounds alone, We were shocked by this period of time. To have people not charged, yet in jail for up to 45 or 60 days is a really, really long time. Before developing this project, the first time that the public defenders provided representation for clients was at the arraignment. Allowing such a period of time to pass before doing any investigation left much of the evidence that could be used by the defense stale and made it hard to defend clients. Clients had a hard time appealing their bond, or even contacting people to make bond for them. Additionally, the local probable cause standard, which the State must establish before an individual can be lawfully arrested or detained, is ridiculously easier to satisfy than Criminal Procedure Class lead us to believe. Consequently, someone can remain in jail for 60 days based solely on unsubstantiated allegations, and then released at the end of that period when the State finally realizes there is no evidence to press charges. We are told this happens all the time.

Now, the OPD meets with potential (because they've yet to decide if they are indigent and thus qualify for a public defender) within 48 hours of their arrest at these first hearings. The hearings take place in the basement of the jail. There are a few rows of metal folding chairs that face a television screen. In an eerily big-brother-esque fashion, and at no set time, the screen beeps on and the judge appears peering down at the recently arrested prisoners. Each prisoner is given about fifteen seconds attention. Sometimes the judge may actually spend a few seconds on whether probable cause has been established; usually the judge skips directly to setting a bond amount. This leaves the defendants confused when they are quickly shuffled back to jail to wait for someone to make bond for them, or for a hearing within the next two months.

Pre-Katrina, the defendants used to see the judge face to face and be present in the courtroom for these proceedings. When the levees broke, the tunnel that led to the courtroom from the jail was flooded, and the jail itself received an ample amount of damage. Initially, the judge would come over to the basement of the jail to conduct the hearings. That didn’t last too long, and the video system was established as a “temporary” fix. However, the tunnel has still not been repaired and the court just spent $15,000 on an upgraded video system. The rust cold basement where the prisoners now sit through the hearing is a stark contrast between the comfortable mahogany courtroom.

The Critical Stage Project also provides legal representation after these hearings, including filing motions for a bond review, preliminary hearings, and interviewing clients within the first week. It is a highly ambitious project for the under-resourced public defenders office, but it is hard to imagine these clients NOT having this type of representation. The program is vital if we are at all interested in having any degree integrity in the adversarial criminal justice system.

I was in New Orleans last year with Hastings Hurricane Relief and participated in the FEMA trailer survey project. My intentions for spending my Spring Break with HHR last year were driven by a sense of solidarity with the victims of a natural disaster (sort of the “it could have been me” idea.) The FEMA survey project was an ideal match for this purpose because we were able to hear people’s stories and identify areas of need. That trip revealed an even greater tragedy than the gut-wrenching stories of a natural disaster. It under-covered a system of institutionalized racism that created a scenario where socioeconomic status determined the severity of the effects of Katrina. This system isn’t new. Katrina helped shine some light on the problems in New Orleans, and called into question issues of race and poverty that we really should have been asking all along. My intentions for coming to New Orleans again this year were to ask some of these questions and get a better understanding of this deeply rooted system of injustice. It is no longer about victims of a natural disaster, but about a poverty pocket that affects real people who “could be me.” Working with the public defenders office, seeing everyday the overwhelming amount of black people relative to white who are arrested and jailed, and realizing that they have not even a whisper to stand up to a system so completely against them has been a horrifyingly eye-opening experience.

In a way, it is good that Katrina happened. The devastation she caused was terrible, but it has brought forward to discussion a reality that we should no longer have tolerance for. I leave you with this Malcolm X quote, and beseech you to ponder the imperative nature of the situation here in New Orleans.

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those who do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone, and those who want to continue the system of exploitation. I believe that there will be that kind of clash, but I don’t believe it will be based on the color of the skin.”

The Red Cross

A quick note from the Red Cross chapter of HHR - we got to throw furniture out of a second story window! As law students, we were pretty excited to engage in such a cathartic and non-academic project.

The Red Cross lost its main office to Hurricane Katrina, and it's temporarily working out of a building just outside the city. The staff is crammed into cubicles, the location is pretty remote, and the office is on the fourth floor of a building with a broken elevator. While Todd, Ryan and I might enjoy racing up the stairs a few times a day (I usually win), clients and volunteers who have lost everything to the hurricane are slightly less enthusiastic about it. The Red Cross was eager to put us to work at the old (permanent) location and clear it out so that renovations could begin. The permanent office is in Mid City, a central location that will enable the organization to reconnect with the New Orleans community.

We worked alongside a few other volunteers, throwing tables, chairs, and miscellaneous office supplies onto the asphalt below, periodically heading outside to load everything into a dumpster. We had planned to load a second dumpster today, but unfortunately, this city is experiencing a major dumpster shortage, so we'll have to go back later in the week after the dumpster has arrived. We were left wondering where exactly these dumpsters unload... if one office could produce this much trash - it took six people the better part of a day to throw it out of a window (not even carry it downstairs) - we can only imagine the magnitude of trash in the city. Nonetheless, we were glad to finish the final gutting, and the renovations will begin shortly.

Monday, March 10, 2008

the deets

The weekend went by quickly and we've now started our various projects with government agencies and non-profit organizations. We've been in NOLA two days now, and the projects have proven to be quite diverse.

Three students are working at the New Orleans Public Defender's office, which is undergoing a complete restructuring after Katrina devastated what was already a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Two are working with the City Attorney's office to begin to tackle the enormous backlog of pre-Katrina cases. Three of us are with the local chapter of the American Red Cross, an organization struggling to rebuild a volunteer base that lost two-thirds of its members in Katrina's wake. Finally, nine students are working on two separate rebuilding projects in New Orleans' Ninth Ward: one group is gutting a nursing home, and the other is helping an individual family rebuild their home.

After our first days on the job, we were emotionally drained: the destruction is profound, and even after two and a half years, the rebuilding has an enormous way to go. As you walk through just about every neighborhood of the city, abandoned buildings seem to spring up on every block. In most residential neighborhoods (other than the wealthiest areas), many of the houses still standing remain boarded up, exterior walls still display response teams' spray-painted messages from September 2005, and "Do Not Demolish!" signs plead with the city of New Orleans for a little more time to rebuild. Other signs attest to the residents' frustration: "Hey Nagin, F**k your plan, we made our own." People have set up FEMA trailers, recently discovered to contain formaldehyde, throughout the city, and we can't help but wonder where all those residents will go when FEMA evicts them all in the next two months. It's a pretty sad state of affairs when people are begging for permission to stay in trailers that contain such a toxin.

However, the people of New Orleans have been incredibly welcoming and have expressed genuine gratitude for our work here. And it goes without saying that we will learn a tremendous amount from them. We heard an inspiring speaker tonight (more on that from another member soon!) who left us with a quote that I hope can remind us of our purpose on this trip:

"If you have come here to help me, then you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together." --Lila Watson

Sunday, March 9, 2008

'Gator in the Swamps

Sunday was our day to explore and take in the distinct culture and sights of New Orleans. Six of us headed across the Mississippi to Jean Lafitte Park, an amazing circuit board of waterways cutting through Bayou. We had one goal: see some alligators up close from a non-motorized vehicle. We rented three canoes from Millie at the Bayou Barn - the only business left standing in the area after Katrina - and paddled into the park. Before even getting away from the roar of Highway 45 we spotted Herrings and a baby alligator sunning on a log. We continued down the waterway, through patches of river cabbage and hedged by mangroves and ferns on the shores. When the water became shallow and the cabbage thickened we drifted in the sunlight and took in the sounds and smells of the swamp. Just when we were going to turn around and head back, Ryan spotted two scaly eyes poking out of the green cabbage. It was a full size gator and it was tracking us carefully with its dark reptilian eyes. Still 40 feet away, we wanted to get closer to examine its full length. Reassured by Millie that gators don't bite people, we paddled quietly closer. The gator never flinched. It let us come within a few feet, eying us the the whole time. It was magnificent! It's leathery scaled tail poked out of the water at one end and it's sinister yellow mouth emerged six feet at the other end. The rest of its girth was submerged. After a few minutes of observation, the gator dived underwater. We held our breaths for a long ten seconds, searching for it frantically in the black water. It emerged ten feet away near the bank and we exhaled and back-paddled cautiously. We made our way back the the Bayou Barn, parking the canoe periodically to venture into the dense vegetation on the shores. It was a wonderful day on the water.

Welcome to New Orleans!

We arrived in the city late Saturday night. From the airport we headed to our beautiful rental house in the Bywater district. It's a 5 bedroom, 2 story Creole cottage that has plenty of room for all 15 of us. We explored the neighborhood a bit, visited the local bar, and by the time we turned in it was well past very late. Tomorrow we have a day to orient ourselves, explore the city and get some rest before starting our assignments on Monday. We're looking forward to getting to work!