Thursday, March 02, 2006

What exactly is a radical again?

Why Are There So Many Radicals in New Orleans?
Written by Owen Thompson
Toward Freedom

In my two weeks volunteering with the anarchist-friendly Common Ground Collective this past January, I met a lot of people who considered themselves progressives, radicals, and/or anarchists, enough to make it clear that a lot of them saw their sociopolitical views as having some connection to their volunteer work in New Orleans. That work consisted (and consists, as Common Ground will continue to drawn in hundreds and maybe thousands of new and returning volunteers in the coming months) mostly of gutting houses for residents of the devastated Ninth Ward and other impoverished areas, but also of providing medical services, distributing supplies (food, clothing, hygienic products, cleaning supplies, etc.), and doing outreach in an attempt to help the community organize its response to the city’s controversial rebuilding plan.

Identifying the connection between the former (those aforementioned sociopolitical views) and the latter (the volunteer work) turned out to be much harder than I expected. In fact, I remain doubtful that I’ve found an answer at all.

It is certainly not hard to come up with some reasons why anarchists would see New Orleans as a good gathering point right now—not only in terms of flocking to the city itself, but also by placing the issues raised by Katrina at the center of radical discussions. The failure at all levels of government to protect or even rescue the people of this city was near absolute, and surely prompted a crisis of conscience among many Americans who had previously assumed that their tax dollars guaranteed their safety in the event of such a catastrophe. As pointed out by a disturbingly enthusiastic forward sent around the Internet (by apparent "anarchists") in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, this presented a golden opportunity to call attention not just to the corruption and inefficiency of the current state, but to the failure of states in general as a model for organizing society.

If imminent rebellion and social upheaval were on the minds of most volunteers at Common Ground, though, it didn’t really show. There was plenty of discussion regarding the evils of racism, inequality, and hierarchy—with a strong consensus that all these things were bad, and that our presence in New Orleans was somehow combating them—I never heard anyone indicate that they expected a wave of revolutionary fury to spiral out from Louisiana and engulf the nation. More to the point, if anyone did believe that might happen, they never cited it as their reason for volunteering.

Instead, I found most people I talked to subscribed to either one or both of the following two statements:

1. I came to New Orleans because people here need help, and I can help them (or at least can try to help them).

2. I came to New Orleans to make myself a better person (or a better anarchist, activist, citizen, radical, American, etc.).


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