In the days after Hurricane Katrina slammed into New Orleans, the city's Algiers neighborhood was one of the few that stayed dry. Although Katrina's winds caused extensive damage to roofs and toppled trees and power lines, there was no water in the streets or in houses like there was in the rest of the city. Still, Algiers was left without electric power or running water for many days, and the invasion of the city by thousands of soldiers, federal police officers and private paramilitary personnel created an atmosphere of tension and trepidation.
In Algiers, as in other neighborhoods, the National Guard imposed a mandatory dawn-to-dusk curfew. In one area, white residents frightened by rumors of car-jackings and looting camped out on their roofs and organized patrols, guns at the ready. Late one night, National Guardsmen and a SWAT team from the New Orleans Police Department raided the Algiers Fischer Housing Development in search of someone who had fired at a cell phone truck; black youths then took guns from local pawn shops and vowed to fight the troops and what they called white vigilantes. Algiers resident Ronald Ragens, 55, remembers those days as lonely and frightening. "All you was seein' was police, military and all kinds of huge trucks running supplies here and there, and helicopters flyin' over like it was a war zone," he recalls. "It was rough."
"It was the street medics who really stopped this city from exploding into a race war, because they were white and were serving the black community at a time when blacks were fed up."
Then one morning four days into the storm, something happened that melted the fear and eased the tension. Four young people on bicycles showed up in Algiers, knocking on doors and asking if anyone needed medical attention. Asked if they were from the Red Cross or the Federal Emergency Management Agency, neither of which had yet made an appearance in Algiers, the medics said no, they were just volunteers who had come without authorization.
They offered first aid, took blood pressure, tested for diabetes, and inquired about symptoms of anxiety, depression and disease. "It was just about the noblest thing I've ever witnessed in my life," recalls Malik Rahim, a lifelong Algiers resident, local housing activist and former Black Panther Party member who helped arrange space for the medical workers in a local mosque. "It was the street medics who really stopped this city from exploding into a race war, because they were white and were serving the black community at a time when blacks were fed up. Those are the real heroes of this thing."
As New Orleans moved from tension and fear to FEMA tents, the Common Ground Clinic took over the task of providing local health care from devastated hospitals.
Rahim, a friendly, outgoing man whose graying dreadlocks and soft voice belie his radical past, is now the symbolic leader of the Common Ground Collective, an unlikely tribe of activists and health care practitioners who have descended on New Orleans to provide "solidarity, not charity" to the people of this devastated community. The "street medics" on their bikes—part of a loose national network of nurses and medical assistants who provide first aid to protesters at antiwar demonstrations—were among the first to respond.
"The whole place smelled like death," recalls Noah Morris, a wiry anti-corporate activist from St. Louis who recalls seeing four gunshot victims, their bodies crudely covered by sheets of corrugated tin. Most of his initial patients, Noah says, suffered from high blood pressure, which he treated with herbal remedies and nutritional supplements "to help get the pressure down just a little bit." The medics were followed a few days later by a caravan of doctors, nurses and grief counselors from San Francisco. Then, as word of the clinic spread, scores of health practitioners and political activists from all over the country began making their way to New Orleans.
Common Ground has drawn an eclectic crew. Michael Kozart, the first doctor to spend substantial time at the clinic, belongs to a group called the Bay Area Radical Health Collective. He decided to come after hearing Rahim speak about Algiers on KPFA, the Pacifica affiliate in Berkeley. "I thought, how can a society as rich as ours have folks being neglected because our water and medical system and the government itself is completely inefficient?"
Liz Rantz, another doctor, has spent two stints here on leave from her regular job in Missoula, Montana, where's she's the medical director for the state's Department of Corrections. The California Nurses Association has sent a steady stream of RNs. Acupuncturists Without Borders has organized several teams of volunteers. Volunteers have come from Minnesota, Massachusetts, Iowa, Texas, New Mexico and Canada; during the first week, there were two French volunteers from Doctors Without Borders. From the triage station to the makeshift pharmacy, there are plenty of nose rings, dreadlocks and body jewelry on display—as well as the cleanly pressed uniforms of nurses fresh from their hospital jobs.
"I was completely unaware they were a bunch of activists," says Lynne Crawford, a bubbly nurse from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, who spends most of her time working at the mobile clinics. Crawford, who wore her blue scrubs while doing her rounds, found her way here after being laid off from her last job; after searching for ways to volunteer, she discovered Common Ground on the Internet. Unlike many of her colleagues, who sleep on the clinic's floor or in camping tents set up in the backyard, Crawford managed to find a room on a Coast Guard cutter docked in New Orleans. When I ran into her one afternoon, she confesses to having suffered "a very big cultural shock" in her first days at Common Ground. She pointed to some of her new friends, clustered outside on a smoke break: "Why don't they shave their legs? I just don't get it," she said, laughing. "But now I love the people here. We all have a common purpose."