Lower Ninth Ward residents win right to clean up and open MLK School

Police Back Off From New Orleans School Clean Up

by Kerul Dyer

New Orleans --In an historic act of solidarity, around 85 students and organizers from across the country risked arrest today by entering Martin Luther King Elementary School in the devastated Lower 9th Ward. Outside the school, a crowd of around 300 gathered wearing Tyvek suits and respirators, holding hand painted signs and chanting to oncoming traffic. In an ongoing effort to rebuild New Orleans, residents of the Lower Ninth Ward requested that these supporters clean the school out.

Yvonne Wise, who advises Common Ground as a leader in the Residents of the Lower Ninth Ward Community Council, addressed a crowed press conference before the young people entered the school. "We appreciate the students coming out and supporting our effort to open this school, we want our schools open." Frustrated by lethargic governmental agencies, Wise said that if the government can't get the schools open, residents must take things into their own hands. "If the schools aren't open, the people can't return home," says Wise.

Among the supporters present, a member of the School Board for District 7, Reverend Torin Sanders, spoke, as well, "This is another way to keep the people from returning to the Lower 9th" said Sanders, "everyone has the right to return." Without schools open, families who own homes in this neighborhood cannot return to rebuild their homes or their lives.

After raking the leaves and debris littering the entrance to the school, the crowd of volunteers pounded their tools on the pavement, as police observed from across the street. The students made their way into the building, and began sweeping and scooping piles of mud and debris from the lobby, carefully avoiding personal effects and sensitive items, such as plaques and framed pictures that had fallen from the walls in the storm. Among odd findings, an 8 inch dead fish was found in the starwell leading up to classrooms.

Of the 117 public schools operational before Hurricane Katrina hit, only 20 are open. No plans exist to open schools in the Ninth Ward, giving residents no opportunity to rebuild their community.

About a half an hour into the demonstration, 150 Howard University students, a Historically Black University famous for long standing political organizing efforts in the DC area, joined the crowd. The students echoed the chant with residents,"No, Child, Left Behind!" After a half day of work cleaning up MLK Elementary, volunteers are taking a lunch break and plan to work for the rest of the afternoon.

Common Ground Collective has hosted over 2000 students during the Second Freedom Rides Alternative Spring Break. Students have been responsible for gutting over 100 homes in the last 10 days. Common Ground, founded by Malik Rahim on September 5, 2005, operates five distribution centers, three primary care clinics, a bioremediation and garden project, a biodiesel processing facility, a legal committee defending the rights of New Orleanians, a tool lending library, a women's shelter and Kids and Community Education Project.

CG works closely with residents, advocating for their needs with the simple motto of, "solidarity, not charity."