Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans: Organizing from the Ground Up

Annual Report 2007
Date Published: 
October 27, 2007

Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans:

Organizing from the Ground Up


The aftermath of Katrina revealed an ongoing storm of racism that has been hitting New Orleans, Louisiana (NOLA) since its founding.  The movement to rebuild the Gulf Coast is one of the most important struggles for racial and economic justice in the country today.  When one of our organizers went down for two weeks in January 2006 to help with reconstruction, we learned about the grassroots organizing led by the NOLA based coalition, the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee (PHRF, see photo).  PHRF was supporting residents to organize and build their collective power through the Survivors Councils.  They were organizing with Black and Latino workers to forge Black and Brown unity.  PHRF was fighting in the courts and in the streets to force the Federal government to renew vouchers for hotel rooms to displaced Katrina survivors around the country.  With Black leadership at the center, PHRF grew out of Community Labor United, a long existing coalition of grassroots organizations in New Orleans.  PHRF brought together the People’s Institute, Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, Critical Resistance, INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence, and more then 20 other groups.  


In addition to PHRF, a major force in the efforts to rebuild was Common Ground (CG). With PHRF building community power with residents, fighting for emergency housing and beginning a resident-led reconstruction planning process, CG built a free medical clinic, food distribution centers, free legal clinics, and began a massive program of gutting houses as a critical step towards rebuilding. 


Because the federal government historically denies public support to working class people and people of color, and because rich developers are moving to profit off of the destruction, the effort to rebuild has been squarely on the shoulders of the Black and working class communities, their organizations and allies.  NOLA has been a stronghold of the Black Liberation Movement and Black culture in the United States going back to resistance against slavery.  The movement to rebuild the Gulf Coast is a movement to renew the Black Liberation Movement in our country.


When CG was initiated in the days after Katrina, only white people were allowed by the police and National Guard to come into NOLA. Returning Black residents (and many relief workers of color) were denied entrance to the city, and many targeted as “looters”. CG put out the call for solidarity to the mostly white sectors of the global justice movement, and hundreds responded. CG became a primary way for people nationally to participate in relief work outside of the Red Cross and with a social justice agenda.  Over time, thousands of volunteers, most of them white, came into a devastated Black city.  Because white supremacy shapes white consciousness to assume superiority, entitlement and privilege over and against people of color, many of the white volunteers needed support to fully enact CG’s motto of “Solidarity, not Charity” and not reproduce racism in the work.  To act in solidarity requires addressing both the devastation on the ground, the racism that created it, and the white privilege of white volunteers.  Racism and white privilege divide social movements, and with so many white volunteers from out of town, the dynamics of white privilege were disrupting and undermining the work.    


Catalyst Project was encouraged by allies from NOLA and in the solidarity movement nationally to step up and get involved.  With Catalyst organizer Ingrid Chapman on the ground in NOLA, it became clear that we needed to respond far beyond what we thought possible at first.  It was clear that there was enormous power and opportunity to develop white anti-racist politics and multiracial unity on the Left and that we needed to make this a priority.  While the devastation was heart wrenching, the tenacity, determination and fighting spirit of the people of NOLA pushed us to step up.  Our NOLA Solidarity Program has brought us into relationship with a growing grassroots movement in the South that has taught, inspired and transformed us.