Media Blitz

Yep, we're famous. As J.J. pointed out, the NY1 video of our segment is up on their website. BLS has also put a link to the video and to the blog on the main page.

Hopefully, this exposure plus the stories in the Daily News and Daily Eagle will help get the word out about not only our experiences in the Gulf Coast, but the continuing work we will be doing thorughout the year into the summer and fall. As Roger pointed out in his segment, we continue to do work for the Project Triage attorneys in the New Orleans. It's not a lot, but when they ask us for the help we can't say "no."


NY1 Story is up!

NY1: Brooklyn Law School Students Spend Spring Break Helping Katrina Victims

You can view the video if you have RealPlayer installed.


Vote for Prom King, or something

If any of you readers are BLS students who are going to the Barrister's Ball, you can and should vote for the student organization of the year. I encourage you to vote in the Student Hurricane Network as a write-in candidate (we are not listed on their ballots, but there is write-in space). For a student group that just started we've been really successful, AND some of us are now famous TV stars, so I think we deserve some votes. . . .


This morning, Roger Clark from NY1 came to Geraldo's to interview us about our trip! Despite waking up at an hour not very condusive to polite company, no one growled or grumbled (at least not after a quick cup of coffee and danish). We recorded a couple of live segments with Roger, as well as individual interviews -- Mary Anne even recorded a segment in spanish for NY1 Noticias! Roger is the best ever and managed to make us all feel comfortable on live TV, assuring me that, no, I did not have anything hanging out of my nose.

*If you're joining us from Roger's blog shout-out on NY1 this morning, the best place to start reading about our trip is with our review and debrief post.*

If you watch NY1 this morning, we'll probably be on in the first half-hour of every hour. If you don't catch it, give my mom a call as I'm sure she'll be handing out videotapes of my stellar performance to everyone she passes.

Now, if we can just get George Whipple to come to the law school prom tomorrow...


Staying Informed, and Events Galore

Now that we're back, part of our goal is to keep you informed about the situation on the Gulf Coast. In the near future, we hope to keep the spirit of our trip alive through events where you can learn more about our individual experiences and those of other students across New York City. Until then, watch this space!

We've also run across some links that talk a bit more about the projects we worked on over break, especially those in New Orleans.

The Times-Picayune is a great source for on-the-ground hurricane recovery coverage. On March 18th, they did a story on Project Triage. (As you may remember, ten of us volunteered with Project Triage and worked side-by-side with students Sarah and Luke, as well as with Meg Garvey and Prof. Pam Metzger.) The following Monday, the Times-Picayune printed an editorial about the indigent defense situation and the larger problems within the criminal justice system in Louisiana. In their closing, the editorial remarks:
The justice system needs to be swift, fair and efficient. When innocent people are convicted and guilty people go free, victims are denied justice. Public safety suffers. Building a functional criminal justice system is crucial to New Orleans' future. And improving indigent defense needs to be part of the agenda.
Right on!

As Chris mentioned below, the Times-Picayune wrote about the ICE raids that occurred on the last day of his placement with the Workers' Rights Project, and quoted his colleague Abraham Salcedo from Fordham Law.

Also in the Times-Picayune and its sister site nola.com, an article about St. Augustine Catholic Church, which was forced to close due to lack of parishioners. Mary Anne wrote about attending one of the last services at St. Augustine way back on March 12th.


The Whole Omission

I almost left New Orleans without having visited the lower Ninth Ward, where the devastation of Hurricane Katrina reaches truly cataclysmic proportions. Fully immersed as I was in the process of interpreting docket reports, it was difficult for me to put down the case I was working on that Thursday afternoon in order to seek out and bear witness to the site of one of our nation's greatest tragedies. Somehow, it seemed that interrupting work that might actually produce some positive effect in order to join a voyeuristic pilgrimage was unjustifiable, unconscionable.

Yet, truth be told, the docket master reports themselves were rife with profound tragedy, where the most notorious varieties were ones of ommission - missed court dates, no access to legal counsel, even lack of a formal charge. It was our job on the Right to Counsel Project to identify and summarize the legal procedures that had effectuated each prisoner's detention in prison since the disabling effects of Katrina arrested the functions of the Louisiana court system. The prevalence of these omissions revealed a social and legal system that has ritually disregarded the rights of its citizens both before the devastation of the hurricane and in its aftermath. Yet in the Right to Counsel Project, we perceived these tragedies through the process of deductive reasoning involved in interpreting the sequence, and ultimately, the legitimacy of the legal process being afforded to the prisoners held in detention in the wake of Katrina.

Knowing that there remained only one more day to work on the project, a small, yet anxious group of us set out from the courthouse and drove down to the Ninth Ward during our lunch break. What we saw there exceeded the power of description by either language or any other medium of communication. Yet stated simply, the totality of the loss there amounted to complete annihilation. You, too have seen such images yourselves in newspapers, television, this blog: the media has slain the sensibilities of the public with them. Yet even these photos depicting the empirically accurate perspectives of the damage do not themselves succeed in conveying the whole truth in its focus and its scope.

During the months following Katrina up to our spring break trip down to the Gulf Coast, I, like the rest of the nation, gleaned my information and knowledge about the hurricane's consequences to the city of New Orleans snapshot by snapshot, image by image, producing an ultimately fragmented testament of the damages and the victims. The images never coalesced as a whole. Yet the whole does coalesce in the Ninth Ward.


Photos from the Gulf











Returning Home, and Preparing


When I returned from New Orleans, I was a bag of mixed emotions. "I can't believe I'm leaving, I can't believe I've been gone a whole week, and I can't believe it's over."

But that's the thing. It's not over, is it? The people of New Orleans are still scattered, and Louisiana the criminal justice system is still criminal. Amy, Denice, J.J., Hilary and Jeanette can testify to the lingering problems of evacuees scattered across the southeast, and those of us who worked on Project Triage here in New Orleans carry with us the story of those forgotten, the prisoners. The workers Chris and Laureve spoke to are still being taken advantage of, the businesses Anna and Christine signed up for Second Wind still suffer from a lack of traffic and empty promises from government agencies.

We are all holding an incredible repository of knowledge, first-hand accounts of the personal and physical devastation of Hurricane Katrina and her aftermath. The storm not only destroyed homes and businesses across Louisiana and Mississippi, but it forever changed the lives of people living in that area. In Louisiana particularly, it seems to have laid bare the incredible inadequacies of that state's ability to protect its constituents, of its ability to protect those who need it the most – those without resources.

I fall short of calling the entire system in New Orleans or Louisiana corrupt because I have an inherent belief that individuals, when given an honest choice, will act with compassion. The people who sent prisoners to locations far and wide are just that: people, making decisions in what surely was one of the most confusing and emotional times in their lives and the lives of those around them. People make bad decisions -- that's one of the unfortunate realities of being human. What I can't forgive is the amount of time that these bad decisions were allowed to stand. I can't forgive the lack of humanity in allowing people to suffer unnecessarily. Maybe that's looking at the world through rose-colored glasses, but that's what I have to do to walk down the street everyday.

We 19 students have seen and heard things that make us angry, give us hope, and motivate our choices. We have an opportunity to reach out to you, the people of our community, and explain to you why you should care abut the future of the Gulf Coast. The story of the people of New Orleans is now my story to tell, and I plan on telling it to anyone who will listen. I carry it with me, and the responsibility for educating you about it falls on my shoulders.

I do hope that all of you who can will join us in Subotnick on April 18th to hear our stories. It's only one of the many ways we hope to educate you on the realities we’ve experienced.


Give them what they're due

I too worked on Second Wind, the small business initiative. I spent all week talking to business owners, hearing their stories, encouraging them to stand together as a community in a time of need. Toward the end of the week, we canvassed the French Quarter, where businesses were open for the most part, albeit experiencing low levels of activity. At that point in the project, I felt somewhat removed from SHN's relief work. However, as I read over my notes from the beginning of the week, I am reminded of why the Second Wind project is so important.

On the first day of the project, we met with Marianne Lewis, a small business owner in the French Quarter who is spearheading Second Wind. She split up the city into districts for us, so that we had an organized method for canvassing small businesses. That afternoon, we began work on South Carrollton, a big street that runs through several neighborhoods which seem to have suffered a great deal of property damage. While walking through the residentail areas to get to the commercial blocks, we could see water marks on houses indicating that water rose well above the height of a tall person. Markings made by rescue crews remain on the facades of the houses and many of the houses still look uninhabitable. FEMA trailers stand parked in front of many homes and in "trailer cities", temporary trailer parks. In the following days, I saw varying levels of damage to personal property - ranging from neighborhoods that seemed almost unaffected by the hurricanes and flooding, to neighborhoods resembling war zones.

As for businesses in the city, the feeling is that many small business have just reopened, or are still in the midst of reopening. Local business have experienced various levels of devesation. Others have lost of their property, others have suffered mild to severe property damage, while others still sufffered no property damage. However, almost all small businesses have suffered a devestating drop in business activity and are facing financial problems. Many of the concerns I heard were of disputes with insurance companies, rejection for small business loans, loss of employees or high employee turnover and inability to pay bills.

I was surprised to hear that some businesses were experiencing more business activity than before Hurricane Katrina. Even so, given that New Orleans is a primarily small business city, the livelihood of each individual business in the long run depends on the overall economic health of the city. If small business owners are unable to secure loans or federal grants, they will eventually have to shut down. This will ultimately cause others to lose their clientele, who are often other small businesses. For example, a copy shop in the area has been doing well post-Katrina once businesses starting reopening. However, as most of itsbusiness comes from businesses rather than individuals, its success heavily depends on the health of its business neighbors.

Speaking to business owners and managers helped me put a face to the bodies residing in FEMA trailers and temporary housing. I am convinced that the people of New Orleans aren't only looking for housing help and legal defense. While those things are tremendously important, the people of New Orleans ultimately wish to regain their livelihood and re-energize their city.

Given the fact that the federal government has allocated over $5 Billion (yes BILLION) to small businesses in New Orleans, it is absolutely ridiculous that as of yet, there is not even a plan for distributing this money. Considering how much tourism has fallen (I heard a figure of 80%), time is of the essence for distributing these grants. Second Wind is putting together a grant proposal to give to the federal government. These business owners pay taxes - as business owners and as individuals. It's not a matter of charity; it's about time these people got something for their tax money.


Blogging Buddies

Student Hurricane Network volunteers at the Mississippi Center for Justice in Gulfport are also blogging.


Review and debrief

In an effort to make sense of the 40-something posts we've accrued over the past nine days, I've created a little synopsis of everyone's posts, with a link to the original. Nothing is a substitute for the original posts of these amazing writers/volunteers, so please click through to read about our amazing experiences.

On Sunday, Mary Anne and I posted about how excited we were to start our project, Project Triage.

On Monday, Kesav, Laureve, and Mary Anne posted about our group orientation in New Orleans. I posted an overview of who was where, and what they were doing. Wrapping up with their thoughts about our first day were Dan, returning to a place he considered home; Mary Anne, extolling the virtues of Excel; Amy, helping us to understand the issues of those displaced in Austin; and J.J., deep in the heart of Dallas, Texas.

On Tuesday, Annette posted about her first two days with Project Triage and how they relate to the larger civil rights movement we're experiencing today. Courtney and I exposed some of the alarming facts gleaned from our Project Triage training. And Denice told us how her frustration with her placement in Austin was emblematic of the frustration with the overall response to the hurricane.

On Wednesday, I posted twice about the food here in New Orleans. Courtney posted about her first impressions of the city. Mary Anne explained the madness that is the Project Triage docket sheet. Laureve outlined the struggle of workers rebuilding New Orleans. In Dallas, J.J. shared what it's like to be on the outside looking in. From Austin, Denice began reaching out to those displaced across Texas seeking FEMA relief.

On Thursday, Kesav uploaded some momentous instances from the past three days. Amy described the unfortunate attitude of "Katrina Fatigue." Kesav ended the day with a look to the future of the Student Hurricane Network.

Friday. Happy St. Patrick's Day, the last day of our placements. Denice explained the importance of being heard, of listening to the stories of survivors. Laureve told of the complex emotions she felt when some one asked her, "What are you going to do about it?" I told a story that had haunted me all week. Courtney posted observations about the Lower Ninth Ward and the courtroom. Chris posted about his week with Workers' Rights' "El Equipo de Roving," and how he resisted bleak forecasts to instead "bask in the hope-filled future of New Orleans." Mary Anne explained the surreal confusion that surrounded the data we worked with in Project Triage. Amy returned home, with the evacuees stories on her mind.

Saturday, from home, Kesav seemed disappointed that "Blogs don't scream," and posted some pictures from the week. Christine posted how her work with Second Wind, the small business initiative, introduced her to the fiercely strong business owners of New Orleans. Chris posted some amazing photos, and concurred with Kesav's need to scream at anyone who will listen.

On Sunday, Susan posted her thoughts about our week in the trenches, defined by the t-shirt slogan, "Defend New Orleans."

Be on the lookout for more posts as people who didn't have internet while in their placements come back and share their stories.

In other news, as J.J. pointed out we were in yesterday's NY Daily News, in the article "Legal Aid in Big Easy." Those of us in New Orleans got up a little early last Wednesday to meet a photographer at Cafe Du Monde for beignets, coffee and pictures. You can check out our adorable mugs in the online and paper editions.

Also, the Brooklyn Eagle published a lovely story about us in last Monday's paper, "Spring Break for the Gulf Coast." (You'll have to register to read the story.) They featured pictures taken by J.J. at our fundraiser on Feb. 28, and even talked about the blog! Awesome!


ICE Raid

To supplement one portion of Susan's amazing post, please check out the following link about the ICE raid on Lee Circle.

Abraham Salcedo worked on the same project as Laureve and me. He and several other Fordham students happened to be driving by Lee Circle as between 20 and 30 workers were lined up against a wall, in flexicuffs, awaiting transport (dozens more had already been taken away). Abraham and his colleagues took down the license plates of all the cars, tried to get the names of all the workers who were being detained (some were too scared to yell out their name), and frantically tried to inform them not to sign anything (often, workers have forms shoved in their faces that will either deport them indefinitely, or for a period of several years).

Immediately after the raid, Hillary Exter, the Director of Public Interest at Fordham, went to the ICE Detention Center and began cutting through the Immigration Offices red tape. Honestly, I was amazed at her efforts.... She was denied access to the prisoners since they would have to get special permission for someone out of state, then the person who could give her the go ahead was out of the office. Also, many workers were not being held at the first location, and she had to travel to several locations! Through her efforts, we found out that ICE had processed many workers rapidly and released almost half because they had valid documentation.

Ignoring the fact that the officers should have asked for documentation before flexicuffing and detaining these workers, I'd like to point out something positive--they were released the same afternoon they were brought in. There is no way that this would have happened even a month ago. Instead, they would most likely have been left in jail at least over the weekend to "teach them a lesson," or, basically, to terrorize other workers. What kind of a message would it send that someone trying to rebuild New Orleans could be detained without due process even with valid documentation?

More importantly, why were they released so quickly? I'll tell you--because people like Hillary are willing to drop everything and spend hours in officials' faces letting them know that they cannot use immigration laws to deprive someone of their inalienable human rights. There's no doubt in my mind that such activism caused ICE to release documented workers as quickly as possible because if they hadn't, immigration policies could not withstand the powerful backlash of the locally based activist community.

I wish I could have described more eloquently everything that Hillary did, and I wish I could have been present for the actions of those before her. As a result of their efforts, ICE and other officials are being held accountable almost immediately for their actions. The result will be greater internal oversight within the organizations, and, ultimately, the reestablishment of justice.


Tee Shirts on Magazine Street: Defend New Orleans

T-shirts on Magazine Street: Defend New Orleans

So, yesterday, on our last day in New Orleans, we ventured to the Garden District, hunting tee shirts that said something different than the ones on Bourbon Street whose best attribute tends to be a sometimes clever use of expletives. (New Orleans may be one of the few places where women on St. Patrick’s Day have no shame wearing green tees that say “F**k me, I’m Irish”). Emblematic as that spirit may be of some people’s experience of Bourbon Street, we were looking for something a little different and a lot more wearable.

We entered a husband-and-wife-run store on Magazine Street that sells hand-screened tees. It’s in an old, former watering hole, and the long, oaken bar that operated right on through Prohibition serves as the sales counter. Maryanne and Chris had found the shop earlier in the week with the help of Chris’ buddy from college who lives in the Garden District. The husband hand-screens all the tees, from the baby sizes to the adults. Among the tee designs were a simple fleur-de-lis, cartoon red beans and rice dancing together, and a “girls gone wild” tee, where little red hurricanes, Katrina and Rita were sitting down at a table together drinking cocktails. However, two tee designs stood out for their dead-on frankness:

“Make Levees, Not War.”

“Let’s mess with Texas.”

I can’t say I disagree with either sentiment.

Across the street, Josie found a shirt that certainly summarizes our best wish for the city by encouraging the reader to “Defend New Orleans.”

Defend New Orleans.

Yes, please. It’s a national treasure. It’s a paradoxical city of great culture and degradation, of sincere community and isolating fragmentation, of hospitality and racism, of redemption and sin. But really, how does anyone begin to defend New Orleans?

The stories on the morning news had some ideas. First up was a story about concern that the rise in graffiti warns of an influx of gang members. Latino gang members, the broadcast underscores, implying that there should be a crackdown on any new or old Hispanics in the area. “They’re marking off territory,” says one law enforcement official, interviewed by channel six. In an attempt to be balanced, News 6 shows a sheriff from another parish who suggests that the guys graffitiing are probably just wannabees and that the real indication of gang activity is an increase in crime. Ah, a voice of reason. While graffiti is a problem and could be a harbinger of bad things to come, keep in mind that virtually every house and building in New Orleans has had or more likely still has hurricane and FEMA “graffiti” all over the front in bright orange or red or black. There are still notes about what pets were found inside, whether or not they were taken to a shelter, given water, etc. And there are notes about more gruesome things, about how many bodies were found inside. Please for help were spray painted, too So, maybe, as the sheriff suggests, the time for concern is when things actually start happening, not merely when spray cans are lifted.

Next in the news line up is the immigration bust of the migrant workers (predominantly Hispanic, of course) that hang out at Lee Circle, and that Laureve and Chris have been working with this week. It’s somewhat difficult to understand the logic behind the bust. I guess it’s a no-brainer for ICE, the immigration service’s enforcement wing. There has been a great influx of Latin and South American labor since the hurricane. While many are legal, some are not. But why ICE should pick a time when labor is in shortage because of a disaster to strictly enforce is a bit puzzling. Perhaps ICE is concerned with the protection of the migrant workers rights, and believes that by detaining and deporting them, they will discourage employers from hiring people without immigration status. Or perhaps they’ve been convinced by the law enforcement folks who think there’s about to be an epidemic of gang violence, and that the same workers putting in 16 hour days to send some cash back home so junior can go to school are graffiti artists in their spare time.

The thing is, there are numerous other sorts of labor violations going on. On my flight back to NY via Detriot, I sat next to an all American, blue-eyed, blond 25-year old plumber with a Mexican last name who had been laid off in Detroit, was collecting unemployment and was getting paid under the table by a well-established pluming company in NO so that he could continue to collect in Michigan. The plumber was on his way back to Detroit for a court appearance on felonious assault charges. The fact is skilled, hard-working labor is needed. Details about their past work history aren’t so important. Every building sustained some kind of damage. Some are salvageable, some not. But everything needs work, and needs workers. If the powers that be can look the other way and refuse to release people who shouldn’t be in jail and keep them inside on the state and national government’s tab, if contractors don’t care about their employees being paid under the table, why should ICE crack down now? Why not have Congress sponsor a temporary bill to set up a limited guest worker project for those currently on the ground in the hurricane zone to help rebuild the areas destroyed by the hurricane? Instead the 40 or so workers without status netted in this bust will be transported to Tennessee for processing and hopefully at least hearings before they are deported and forbidden to return for several years or perhaps permanently. They won’t be rebuilding. Maybe they shouldn’t have in the first place. But they were helping to rebuild the city.

Finally, the morning news reported that gun sales in the city of New Orleans had increased markedly. This was not so surprising, as on the way to the airport the day before, Kesav had seen a big billboard that was advertising the biggest gun show ever, going on this weekend. So, perhaps there were those in the city who felt it could best be defended with guns. No doubt judges have heard similar reasoning when defendants stand before them, trying to explain their illegal possession charges.

Defend New Orleans.

Can New Orleans be defended with guns? By tossing out the migrant workers who came to help rebuild? By promising an increase in gang violence that presumably would allow for even greater police discretion?

Can the city be defended with levees? Absolutely, if they are strong enough. With competent and non-corrupt national, state and local leadership? I bet most New Orleans residents would settle for some increased level of competence and leave it at that.
But can the city be defended by what is left of a previously inadequate criminal justice and public defense system, now in abject crisis? Can it be defended by the rule of law, as conceived by the framers?

It MUST be, if we believe that the United States is a democratic nation under the rule of law. To allow one state’s system of justice to erode to such a degree of disfunction weakens the framework of the union itself.

There are engaged, concerned, dynamic defense attorneys, district attorneys, and judges who are fighting to defend the rule of law in New Orleans, but they face near-overwhelming odds. They need help. Lots of help. And one way to help is to be outraged and let everyone you know what is going on in New Orleans.

The state courts are a mess, barely functional and working in shifts in the federal court house. The federal courthouse, which, by the way, seems and is eerily empty, is housing the parts of criminal court in a rotating schedule where each part gets to function about once or twice a week for half a day. The New Orleans Sheriff holds the only database complied on who is in the Orleans Parish Jail and where the inmates were sent during the hurricane (eventually), it flatly refuses to share the electronic format with the defense bar. There was class action by 94 female inmates who were in the parish jail on misdemeanor charges, sent to the maximum security Angola prison. Eight of the women were pregnant and there is no gynecologist at Angola (the idea that there would be is laughable, in fact). Thankfully, they won their case and have received process. But few of the mentally ill inmates, perhaps as much as 2/3 of the incarcerated population, who have been spread out over the state's prison system, have been receiving treatment. It must be equally delightful to share a cell with an unmedicated paranoid schizophrenic, as for the ill inmate to be sick and not get help. The same goes for inmates sentenced to non-functioning drug treatment programs. They’re sitting there, instead of receiving treatment, and can’t complete their sentence until they’ve gone through the treatment program. In the courthouse, the evidence room was 2/3 under water and was next to the coroner’s office. In the court’s temporary digs, defendants are often not brought for appearances. Judges repeatedly question the sheriff’s office, practically begging for them to FIND the inmate to bring them to court. Service of process through the mail can take months.

It’s unbelievable. Not because there was a disaster that wiped out the infrastructure of a city and that city is struggling to recover, but because there was a such a minimal plan for a city that lives in the face of oblivion. It’s unbelievable because it’s seven months after the hurricane and there’s no functioning state court house. Defendants are lost in the system. The sheriff’s office seems more concerned about holding on to its power than in promoting justice. As do wardens who receive judicial release orders for prisoners and choose not to implement them until there’s a full bus to leave the jail or prison. It’s shocking because this is America. And the version of America currently extant in New Orleans jives neither with what I’m told to believe is America nor with what I believe it should be.

Federal courts won’t step in until the state courts have been given a chance to fix the problem (though I suspect that the period of leeway the federal courts might give is beginning to run short). Congress won’t move until there’s such a national uproar that representatives are confident they are sustained by constiutent support to act definitively.

So, let’s raise a ruckus. Elections are coming. Let’s demand justice for all, including the victims of Katrina and Rita. Let’s write our representatives. Let’s learn more. Let’s learn the lessons that Katrina has to teach in preparing the bar and the justice system for disasters and providing for the continuation of the rule of law in the most trying of circumstances.

Defend New Orleans. Defend the Constitution. Defend that which we take for granted. It can all be blown away by swirling, excessive hot air.


We're in the NY Daily News!

The March 19, 2006, NY Daily News did a piece on our efforts in the Gulf, entitled "Legal Aid in Big Easy."

Miraculously, Mary Anne Mendenhall is not mentioned at all!







Welcome back, how was your vacation?

A couple of hours ago, I returned to Brooklyn. On the way to New Orleans International Airport, we were driving through Kenner, a region where our group had done extensive outreach to migrant workers. I could not help looking over the edge of the highway and spot locations that would be perfect for further outreach. And then it hit me--I was leaving. Just 20 minutes ago I realized that I would have to start revising my brief, and preparing for oral arguments. And then, the guilt set in. Did I do enough? No. Could I possibly do enough? NO! Why am I back in New York, warm in my apartment thinking about an 8 page paper while New Orleans, one of the greatest cities in the world, is in RUINS! People are DYING in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA because they are inhaling asbestos while trying to rebuild a devasted city. Others, are rotting in jail for months with no representation, and without being convicted in the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA. Kesav is right. I want to scream.

I want to grab every media producer in the nation by the shoulders and scream and cry in their face--show everyone what's happening, don't tell me about the latest shopping trends, and stop making light small talk on the air while we are facing possibly (I think undisputably) the largest national crisis since the Great Depression. I want to yell at our government so many things...How can we promote "democracy" abroad when we deny people fundamental human rights in our own nation?

FEMA, why are you denying a 57 year old man a trailer after he spent 3 days clearing space per your specifications, while, simultaneously, 20 plus trailers were destroyed by negligently leaving them in a muddy field, stacked onto each other until they sank into the ground?

Why, why, why should someone have to pay electric bills for two months when they were EVACUATED from New Orleans and the apartment's electric box is hanging from the side of the building while she is trying desperately to support 3 children, 1 baby, her mother, buy a new apartment, and save for next hurricane season????

I'm sorry...as I said in an earlier post, salvation is taking the form of effective community activism....I just don't like the transition I've made from being involved (even if I was just a miniscule part of the movement), to being a distant observer in New York City. Originally, we went down to New Orleans during our vacation. But, in reality, I've been on vacation since August. I am terrified about what might happen this summer during hurricane system, and I hope that our nation will learn from its mistakes and relearn how to represent the values that it pays lip-service to.


Now that I'm back, I've had sometime to upload my photos to my computer. I think that following merit special attention...

Here's a shot of a spot in the Upper 9th Ward, which was very harshly hit by Katrina.


And this is just over the canal in near the French Market.


The follwing, are shots of the Lower 9th Ward, immediately beneath the breach of the first Levee....which broke in August.
August...



This house was lifted off its foundations, potentially from blocks away, before it was smashed into another.


I think this pretty much visually sums up my previous post...


Asking for help means you're strong, it means you came back to your city and you want to survive. I spent this week working on the Second Wind project, soliciting small business owners throughout every corner of New Orleans that was still standing. We were asking them to sign onto this initiative, to support each other, so that they can get the grant money the federal government has promised NO and promised them. And they deserve it - because they're fierce, and they've come back to a city to try and reclaim their lives. They've come back when a lot of other people who own businesses next to theirs have not. They've stuck around when their SBA loans were denied. When their insurance companies only threw them a portion of what they were entitled to. And when business was lagging - by 80%.

I've felt a conflict about working on this project while other BLS students were advocating against the constitutional violations inflicted on people who were sitting in jail for the past 6 months. I've asked myself whether I feel like I didn't work hard enough, because I spent most of the week talking to the business owners, and not reading cases. But yesterday our portion of the solicitation was over, and we had an extra hour to walk around the french quarter...we walked into a small clothing store with an Australian theme to it. The owners asked us what we were doing down here (because they were friendly) and we mentioned that we had been volunteering with some small businesses. The two owners got excited and asked if we were talking about Second Wind. When we said yes, they spent 30 minutes telling us how they were threatened with eviction notices before they were even allowed back into the city, how their savings were gone and they were just hanging on. But this project made sense to them, and they needed people to help organize the community so that they could fight together, for themselves, to revive New Orleans.

I wasn't reading cases all week, but I was charmed and awed by this city, and I believe in them.


Blogs don't Scream

Back in Brooklyn now and my pet turtle is fine. It seemed almost a fancy that I could spend my spring break working on relief work and, within a few hours lift off leaving behind unfinished work. I read all the posts below mine and one thing is clear from every entry; the people who wrote them want to scream.

My fledgling legal mind may not be able to frame the issues we encountered in a scholarly context worthy of mention in law reviews or periodicals. But I have news for the legal community: the pen is not mightier than the sword all of the time. WAKE UP! Josie posted an example and it's worth reiterating. A judge orders the release of a prisoner wrongfully held past his deserved sentence and we all would hope that the strike of the gavel, the flick of his pen would send an officer of the law running with key in-hand. Not so. Instead we hear that he is in custody weeks longer so that buses may be amply filled by released inmates to maximize efficiency.

Where is the legal community in this country? Where are the marches on Washington, the sit-ins and strikes? We are all prisoners of this system as long as abuses like this go unchecked and overlooked. Wake up Juris Doctors. If you don't see the problem, it's because you're behind prison walls. Comfortable?


Home Sweet Home

Wow. I just walked in the door of my apartment after a wonderful harrowing week of learning, frustration and hope. After a five hour flight and the inevitable hour and a half taxi ride home, I can't help but think about all the people I spoke to this week who want nothing more than to go home. One of my last call outs today was a woman who's FEMA claim was denied for insufficient damage. She was told by the FEMA representative that she should go back to her apartment in NO. She told me that she would like nothing more than to go home but that she doesn't feel like she has a home to go to. She's terrified to go back to LA, six months later she still has recurring nightmares about watching the flood waters rise never sure if she will make it off the roof or not. Perhaps her most striking observation was this, "I want to go home, I really do but how can I go home? Its almost hurriciane season again and nothing has changed. If a storm hits this season, there is nothing in my experience that convinces me I won't be stranded on my rooftop clinging to life again. I will go home when something has changed. You can tell FEMA that, I'll go home when something changes." Such a simple observation but so very true.


I'm confused!

Today was the last day of our involvement in Project Triage, unless we figure out a way to contribute in the months to come. (All the participants feel: We finally know how to do this! Don’t stop now!)

This afternoon, I came across the file of a 52-year-old man who has been incarcerated for over a year for marijuana possession. It might make a difference to you to know that this was his first-ever arrest, as far as I could tell from his docket printout. After entering a not-guilty plea, he sat in jail for 6 months or so awaiting trial. The judge slated a competency hearing (believe it or not, in Louisiana, they still call these “lunacy hearings”) to take place in September, 2005, to determine whether he was mentally competent enough to stand trial. The hurricane struck, and there is no record of him beyond that. Which means he got shuffled off to another prison, god knows where, and his file (like so many others’ files) had just been kicking around til someone found it. So, even though today we “found” his file, it might not be as simple as a phone call – of the hundreds of cases our team of 50 has slogged through this week, his file is one of many “flagged” for review.

Another quickie: I came across a guy today who had been arrested for possession of crack. At his first court appearance, he said he was not guilty. And then the judge ordered him to pay fines and fees to the court and the indigents’ defense board. If you missed that, this means my spreadsheet entries looked like this:

COURT DATE SCHEDULED FOR:
First appearance
WHAT OCCURRED:
Pled not guilty
Sentenced

Needless to say our aptly designed database had not been designed to accommodate entries like “Pled not guilty; sentenced” on one court date.

Kesav, Laureve, Courtney, Annette, Tina, Jeb, Dan, Anna, and Christine all left today. That leaves me, Chris, Josie, and Susan to stir up some St. Patty's day trouble...


Internal Salvation

With this post, my time at the Hope House, participating as a member of the Workers Rights Project, will come to a close (at least, for now). First, I would like to apologize for being silent up until this point, forcing my courageous colleague, Laureve, to write all the inspiring comments about our rovings (Please be aware that she would post at 2 in the morning after working from 5am until 10pm. Her dedication to posting is paled in comparison to her passion towards our project.) And now, I will try as best I can to impart a fraction of the experience gained throughout this week....

Originally, I started writing a dismal post containing such dramatic metaphors as, "drowning in the flood of social injustice left in the wake of Katrina." However, after an extended conversation with one of the leaders of our project, the all powerful/knowing Colette, and upon further reflection of the interviews of this week, I realized the error of my ways. Throughout our interviews, an almost palpable determination pervaded the thoughts and words of the community of New Orleans. Instead of wallowing in a vision of despair, let us now bask in the hope filled future of New Orleans.

Much of the dismal forecast grew from the hitherto inept and ineffectual governmental solutions that have thus far dominated the road to recovery. So far, the government has pursued an entirely reactive policy, attempting to fix all the problems from afar without full understanding, and through amorphous, inefficient, and partially corrupt organizations (illustrated grotesquely by the needless chain of subcontractors and vast bureaucracy of FEMA). Katrina herself clearly demonstrates the failure of reactions. Instead of proactively using the warning from the floods of Hurricane Betsy and the forecasts of engineers that the levees could potentially breach, the government chose instead to wait and hope for the best. However, while the government's policies currently wield more power, community based movements gain strength and with them, the future of New Orleans gains hope.

In the near future, the People's Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition will be holding a conference aimed at creating concrete programs that strengthen the connections between residents and their communities, and, subsequently, between communities and reconstruction. This will develop a plan for revitalization that goes beyond the current government supported policy of selling off people's homes and creating a new Las Vegas. "Paranoid ravings," some of you might be thinking. However, throughout this week, we have interviewed workers, residents, and both honest and greedy contractors. One sub-contractor told me that state and city contractors that have hired him, "want to turn the 9th Ward into Disney Land," while he yearned for a return of the cities soul via the displaced population that can trace its roots back for generations.

Throughout our project, I found that workers from all over the country wanted, above all else, to rebuild what was lost. In contrast, contractors from out of state generally saw the devastation of Katrina as an opportunity for new development. One powerful out of state contractor company, which described migrant worker encampments as a "negative loss" for the city, expressed a vision of the 9th ward being replaced by a golf course. These contractors are the ones that are funded by the government. Rarely, if ever, did I find a worker violation stemming from a local contractor. Instead, out of state contracting companies fueled by government funds (either directly or via sub-contract) stifle recovery by betraying honest workers. Local contractors, in contrast, have returned for the singular purpose of rebuilding the community that they grew up in, and largely fund themselves (many of the honest contractors were formerly workers, but have turned independent using their own savings). Despite these failures, New Orleans will rise from the destruction because of internal strength.

New Orleans is like no city in the world, and I've been a lot of places. While I've been to many remarkable and unique places, I have never experienced a city that has an actual soul. Through the Workers Rights Project, my team (El Equipo de Roving, consisting of Laureve, Paula, myself, occasionally Colette, and formerly Marty) traveled throughout the city. We went from the devastated lower 9th Ward, to the virtually unscathed regions near the French Quarter. Consistently in each location, we found people who had experienced unimaginable horror and hardship, but whose will and determination, fueled by generations of history, push them to fight for the life of their city. As a result of the storm, the heart of New Orleans was scattered throughout the Gulf Region and United States in the form of its displaced citizens, the vast majority of which were born and raised in New Orleans, as were their ancestors. Only by the return of the New Orleans traditional community will this great city be reborn in its full form. While Katrina cracked the veneer of an inherently flawed system whose effects were to deprive the foundation of society of social rights, salvation lies from within that very same core. Instead of reacting to these breaches of social justice as they develop, revitalization effectively flows from strengthening the internal structure itself.


Ninth Ward and the Zoo

BLS Spring Break for the Gulf Coast

During lunch, we drove to the Ninth Ward to take a look at the most devastated part of New Orleans. The land sits below sea level, and prior to the hurricane, served as government low-income housing. The pictures cannot compare with seeing the damage. Entire houses were devastated and unrecognizable. After six months, no significant progress was made on the debris and garbage. Even the few brick houses that were intact were fulled, with rubble and uninhabitable to the former occupants.

After viewing the damage, we observed the fate of several defendants in court. The room was a zoo, cell phones going off, many people coming and going, the microphone functioning as well as Professor Schneider's microphone during Civ Pro. One lawyer forgot some important documents in his basement! The adversial process was in full swing…the charge was a sex offense against a teenager. The prosecutor, unhappy with the court's decision, demanded that the defendant be remanded, and became very huffy like a smoke stack ready to blow. In contrast, the defense attorney was more calm and collected despite the long delay for the next status hearing.
Another defense attorney was appealing charges against him for his numerous failures to appear in court. Apparently, the contempt notice from Alaska arrived sooner than the other contempt notice from New Orleans filed three months ago that he only received yesterday.

I glanced over at the defendants -- all in the orange prison suits. Of the ten, one was a black woman, one was a white man, and the rest were young, black males. Even under the best circumstances, they will never lead a normal life. Employers want to know about felony charges of prospective employees, and no financial aid will ever be given if they choose to return to school. It's almost as if their lives are over and they have no say in the matter.


Last day, last chance

Today is the last day of our spring break adventure, and I'm so upset to see this experience come to an end. I've had the hardest time doing these entries because the volume of information I want to get to people so they can try to understand the situation here is enormous and overwhelming.

Let's have a story, shall we?

Meet Mr D. D was arrested for a paraphernalia charge, found guilty and sentenced to probation and fines. He missed his court date on 8/9 to pay his fines (just over $400) and his probation was revoked, meaning he would have to serve his 5 month jail sentence.

The reason Mr. D didn't make it to court was he was in jail, having been arrested for simple burglary on 7/26, a charge the D.A. refused on 8/23. So now, Mr. D is in jail, and can't get out because he's violated his probation for missing a court date, a court date he missed because he was in jail.

Mad yet? Just wait, my story gets better.

Hurricane Katrina hits. Orleans Parish prisoners are scattered across the state. Mr. D gets sent far from New Orleans and sits in jail.

February. Prof. Metzger and the Tulane Law Clinic find Mr. D, who has now served 7 mos. of a 5 mo. sentence. When I say they found him, I mean literally, his papers were merely at the top of a stack of papers. He wasn't red-flagged, he wasn't scheduled for a hearing, his docket sheet was just the first one Prof. Metzger picked up that day. Once they figure out what happened to Mr. D, they go to court and tell the judge what the situation is. The judge doesn't release Mr. D; he sets a date for a week later to determine if Mr. D should be released. 7 months, plus one week.

The law clinic finally gets the judge to let Mr. D out, and a release order is issued on 3/2. Fast forward yet another week, when Prof. Metzger is at the jail where Mr. had been held to interview other prisoners. Who does she run across? Mr. D. Why hadn't he been released? The powers that be were holding the release orders until they had enough for a full bus, because they don't want to waste money.

The most heartbreaking part of this story is the conversations Prof. Metzger had with Mr. D. He thought he was still in jail on the simple burglary charge. When she asked where he was going to go when he got out, Mr. D said, "My people are in the 9th."

"No, Mr. D, they're not," she said. How do you explain to someone that the community he knew no longer existed, that they'd been scattered to the four corners of the country? How do you explain to him that there is little left, and you don't know what he has to go back to?

I don't know what will happen to these prisoners whose info we're working on when and if they get out, and I'm afraid to ask. Meg, one of our outstanding, superstar supervising attorneys, whose passion and outrage have kept us motivated all week, she told us stories about how when they were first releasing people, they would drop them in the post-Katrina lower 9th in their orange DOC jumpsuits. All their identification had been lost in the flooding, so they were given their booking sheet as an ID. What money they may have had was given to them in the form of a check.

I need for the work we've done this week to be useful, I need for it to work, I need for it to help. I need it to justify the tears of frustration I keep crying for people I don't know. I need for this to be the best thing I've ever done, both for myself and New Orleans.


What are YOU going to do about it?

Our time in New Orleans is rapidly coming to an end. The Workers' Rights Project spent another day in the field documenting the experiences of workers in this city and the surrounding parishes. Once again we were in tent camps and grocery stores, apartment complexes and hotels.

This evening after a shared meal with our fellow BLS students in the French Quarter, several of us were pulled into a conversation with several local attorneys and other BLS students at a neighborhood bar. One of the attorneys, I believe he's been referred to as "the Crocodile Dundee of Indigent Defense" in previous postings, challenged me. After hearing what we had been up to and what we had discovered about the abhorrent living conditions of a large group of workers in the City Park he said, "So, what are YOU going to do about it?" While I was challenged and inspired by him, my sense of helplessness, anger, sadness, and frustration also came rising to the top.

If this blog has not given you a sense of things already, please understand that things are bad here. New Orleans needs help, competent not corrupt help. Another local in the crowd, who helped diffuse my rising emotions, was happy that I had gotten a taste of what New Orleans is going through and begged me to spread the word. I'm still figuring out what I'm going to do about it. It will be a process of trial and error but every one of us who has witnessed this situation has a serious obligation to use our skills and privilege to do more. I hope you reading out there in cyberspace will help us spread the word.


Moving forward in Baby steps

Another day of phone calls. There are some stories of small victories. A job that is waiting for someone back in New Orleans when they can get back there. An evacuee who received a large sum from FEMA to replace damaged property. Someone who was able to move back to New Orleans, living now in a trailer provided by FEMA on the property where her home once stood. She told me that it was hard to lose so much, but it was still good to be home and she would try to rebuild. Small victories that seem too large given the inadequacies we've come to expect.

For the amount of time I spent looking up numbers and calling people you would think I'd have spoken to more than 4 people. But each call takes so long when you do get someone on the other end. The questionaire only covers so much. It doesn't ask about what people really want to say. I ask "Did you get your rental assistance?" This seemingly yes or no question elicits long answers. What they want me to ask is "How are you? How can I make it better? How can I erase the past 7 months?" But that isn't in the script so you ad lib a bit. And you have a hard time cutting someone off when you know they need to speak and be heard. So the callouts take a long time. For all the time I've spent on the phone with someone I don't know if we'll actually be able to speed up their receipt of assistance or influence the granting of an appeal. But it feels worth it when we end the conversation and they thank me for calling and tell me how nice it is to have someone talk to them and take down their concerns. Keeping in contact with someone in crisis and reminding them that they are not forgotten is sometimes the difference between a bad day and an okay day. Knowing that I can make a handful of people feel okay makes my trip feel worthwhile.


What next?

We have a meeting tonight at 8:30 to discuss the future of Student Hurricane Network. Some of the current leaders will be graduating while others will try and assume the normal responsibilities of a typical law student in hopes of graduating on time.

To keep this thing going some of us will have to take the ball(s) and run with it, take the the bull by the horns if you will. There's a lot of potential for this thing to be the progressive movement of our generation if the energy is harnessed now.

An aside: I really hope all that data is going to be useful for Capital Defense Dundee. On average 50 students are inputting about 125 cases per day. That may not seem like much but making sense of the Louisiana criminal justice system is an exercise comparable to reasoning with an unmedicated schizo. Team Triage is doin' solid work and I'm proud to be a part of it. In my unbiased opinion Brooklyn students in particular are probably some of the most dedicated and fast-learning group of Triage members I know. There's another group of students coming in next week to pick up where we left off. We've engineered quite an efficient system they'll be able to use. Between these two weeks, at least a thousand prisoners will be inputted and I'm sure a good number of them will be eligible for release once their cases are analyzed. If only they could be guaranteed rehabilitative programs upon their release...


Katrina Fatigue

A good portion of last night's dinner discussion was dedicated to answering questions about my day, which turned in to quite the policy discussion. I am staying with friends of mine here in Austin who knew a bit but not much more than I did about the ongoing Katrina problems in their city. As I was answering questions about who is still here, how long they are expected to remain in transit and where they will go from here I kept thinking about a phrase that Heather, the supervising attorney at TRLA used to describe the general population's attitude toward the continuing relief effort, "Katrina Fatigue." She described to us the common feeling of inertia and helplessness that both evacuees and host cities are experiencing six months after the disaster. There is lingering media coverage but lets face it, calling FEMA or unemployment or even George Bush's office and being put on hold for an hour and a half before the call is either dropped or yet another operator tells you he can't help you, isn't nearly as titilating a news story as houses falling down, flood waters rising and people waiting for helicopters on rooftops; as a result not too many people know about the ongoing relief effort ( or the continuing need for it), the horror stories or the occassional success ( I spoke to a woman yesterday who said, "Thank you so much you guys are doing such a great thing but I'm all set - I actually got my money from FEMA" Score! : ) ) and often the public wonders, "well it's been six months shouldn't these people be helping themselves by now?" The answer to that is complicated to say the least. In spite of the diversity of income level, education and need of everyone that I have spoken to in the past three days one thing remains a common thread - no one wants to be at the mercy of the government to pay their rent or to have to rely on the kindness of strangers for food and transportation. Unfortunately when you have such systemic chaos it forces people to remain helpless longer. It is mind boggling that as of December there were still an estimated 84,000 applications yet to even be processed by FEMA, not including the appeals people filed for wrongful denial. Applications that were supposed to be processed within 20 days are still sitting dormant close to 6 months later. Several clients are grappling with the reality that although their NO leases were wrongfully terminated so that their landlords could make more money at the higher rates, and they face eviction from their public housing in their host cities with no where to go and little to no response from FEMA. Many clients have had their previous jobs in NO offered back to them but they have no way to get down there and nowhere to live when they get there. In addition, unfortunately, lifes other problems do not cease for these people just because they have been the victims of disaster. As clients open up I have heard story after story about sick children, aging parents, difficulty in relationships, divorces and even deaths of close family members. As I listen to these heartwrenching stories hour after hour of each day that we volunteer and begin to feel overwhelmed and helpless myself, I have to stop and realize that if I am this "fatigued" after only a week it's unimaginable that these evacuees still have such an incredibly strong will to fight for what they are entitled to and in a lot of cases to help others do the same.

I don't think I will ever view the word "fatigue" in the same light again...


Photographic v. Short-term memory

Note to self: Remember to bring camera out next time I leave the house. I never remember to bring a camera. I can either chalk it up to my dwindling short-term memory or, if viewed in a more favorable light, to the fact that I have a photographic memory. Yes, I choose the latter because I rarely forget memorable images.

Since I didn't take pics, I'll have to upload the momentous instances of the past few days with words:

1) A foul-mouthed Australian capital defense attorney that trained us on Monday: I liked to refer to him as the "Crocodile Dundee" of indigent defense and constitutional criminal law. "This place [Louisiana] is absolutely f**kin' crazy" referring to the fact that Louisiana seems to ignore the constitutional holding in Riverside v. McLaughlin, 500 U.S. 44 (1991), which set out that the state must decide one way or the other to bring charges against a defendant within 48 hours of the arrest in accordance with the 6th amendment or else the accused must be released. In Louisiana, this rule is apparently ignored from what I can tell and Capital Defense Dundee isn't too happy about it. I can't help but agree with him.

2) Screenshots of Microsoft Excel & Access: Who knew that my knee-jerk proclivity (a result of being a South Asian) to pursue a career in computer science and finance would one day land me in a federal courthouse coordinating a database project that has the ambitious goal of freeing thousands of prisoners who have been denied due process. Hypothesis: the criminal justice system in this country is suffering because states are equipping their law enforcement personnel with technology that yields more arrests but leaving the courts with anachronistic methods of adjudicating cases. Result, overcrowded jails and prisons, overwhelmed judges and careless defense attorneys= Waste of my tax dollars (..and yours). WAY-TO-SUCK.

3) Chief Judge Ginger Berrigan: You all know this building [courthouse] closes at six?
Suffolk law student: do you know where the recycling is?
Judge: I can take it for you.
Student: Are you Judge Berrigan?
Chief Judge Berrigan is from New York. She moved down to New Orleans in 1971 to pursue a career in Civil Rights litigation. We need more Ginger in this country becuase she can't do it alone.

4) Hurricanes: A large large vessel of "hurricane" juice at Pat O's and a group of young college boys standing over their hapless friend. He just sipped with too much umph and now he's slouched over the wrought iron table while every passer-by takes note of an all-too familiar scene and snickers. I used to push my limits just like that young man, but come on it was only 11:00pm! Maybe he needed some vitamin water and a couple of tunes from his i-pod to wake him up- kids these days...


The Hurricane Diaspora

I just wrote a long blog entry that got deleted. I tried to pack light so I'm borrowing a computer and am not familiar with Apple iBook commands. So my words got lost in the system somewhere. Somewhat apropos given that I was talking about the hurricane evacuees who get relocated, separated, traumatized and then often lost in a system that amounts to a sea of forms and policies and confusion. My long blog entry is lost in the sea of computer land.

Today we got to work, reaching out to evacuees spread across Texas who are still seeking FEMA assistance they have been promised publicly but often denied in seemingly arbitrary ways. Or their landlords are taking advantage of them.

- My sister and brother and I each got sent to different states. She applied for rental assistance first so FEMA said I was ineligible because my address in New Orleans is the same as hers.

- My daughter and I had to leave our apartment in New Orleans. It was uninhabitable, as was the whole city. I never got my security deposit back from the landlord. Then the landlord moved out all my belongings and dumped them so she could rent the apartment at three times what I had paid.

So many stories, so many obstacles. Spread out across the country. Bureaucracy can create solutions or it can take a simple solution and blur it, lengthen it, add in lots of conditional clauses and formalities that befuddle even the most educated mind. Imagine navigating a system of phone operators, government forms, while trying to find a job, keep your family safe and sheltered, grieve for a life you were plucked from by a helicopter and brought to a random and often very far "Disaster Recovery Center" so that you can begin to rebuild your life.

These people are so spread out. Much has been said about rebuilding the land, the infrastructure, the levies and the city. But nothing will be rebuilt to the way it was. Not the land, the infrastructure, the levies or the city. And certainly not the lives. At least, in some ways, I hope not. I hope that these are all rebuilt in new ways. Built to be stronger, more resilient, smarter and built to move forward into improved systems and lives that continue to pay tribute to their past while learning from the mistakes and the inadequacies.

Of course, I'm probably being too hopeful, too optimistic. It's so easy to say these things without realizing how quickly, in the click of a mouse or the rush of a tide, it can all be wiped away, leaving us to scatter once more.


How not to run a state

I think I'm getting an interesting perspective on post-Katrina relief compared to what my colleagues are reporting from New Orleans. While they are seeing things on the ground, I'm looking at things from the perspective of those who were evacuated and those who would seek to help them--from the outside looking in, if you will.

Today I met with a Dallas-based attorney who has handled more than her share of legal issues for Katrina & Rita evacuees here in the Dallas area. Some of her observations suggested to me a staggering degree of incompetence on the part of LA state officials--not just during or after Katrina, but in the years and decades before.

Immediately after Katrina, the most elementary problem many aid workers encountered when making first contact with the evacuees is that they did not have identification. Not to say they just didn't bring it with them when they evacuated--they had never had ID in Louisiana. "You had a job, right?" "Sure." "Then how did you cash your check?" "Oh, they knew me down at the bank." Needless to say, this complicated their problems even more when applying for any kind of government aid. A broad swath of these evacuees had been living only partially "in the system."

A similar trend appeared in the school systems. Many students had never had to show vaccination records when enrolled in school in LA, and so their parents had no idea if their kids had been vaccinated. "They're probably OK," school officials would say. But when these students were evacuated and placed in schools in other states, this explanation was completely insufficient.

The schools hosting these evacuee children quickly found that in many cases, they were not performing at their claimed grade level, and sometimes 2 or even 3 years behind. Their parents naturally protested vigorously when told that their kid might have to be placed in a lower grade than what they studed as in LA.

This Dallas attorney told me of a very interesting tidbit not generally known. One jurisdiction (which I won't name) that hosted these evacuee children did an excellent job of processing these children before placing them in a new school. Upon arrival of the children, this school district adminstered vaccinations to all of the kids and subjected them to two days of standardized testing to see where they ranked compated to the other students in the district. The evacuees were then placed in the appropriate grade. Most of the time, not even the teachers knew that these students had been brought down a grade, and those that did know had been told to keep it quiet. The students' parents were told "unless your kid tells, no one will find out." So, this district was able to place these kids in an appropriate grade and avoid the embarrassment that might otherwise be involved in downgrading a student in the tender years of his or her life. Unfortunately, other jurisdictions did not have this degree of foresight and organization, and so the children had an even more difficult time adjusting to their new classes.

That's all for now, I've got a lot more...


The roving team of the Workers' Rights Project spent the last two days roaming the city and talking to workers. The days are filled with moments when out hearts race with excitement and moments when they are heavy with sadness and frustration.

Workers face three major hurdles in this city. First, they frequently receive unfair wages and too often never see the money they are promised. We're talking whole weeks of work, sometimes two, and no money. One group of workers from South Carolina have been working for a couple of "turkeynecks, who eat too much corn and chew bubble gum real fast" on and off since November and have not seen a dime. These are skilled workers, doing brickwork, roofing, drywall, and more, that have not been paid a dime. They are powerless. Immigrant laborers, mainly from Mexico and Honduras, are threatened that they'll be turned over to ICE (Immigration Customs & Enforcement, one of the several subagencies of the former INS). Workers rely on word of mouth to determine which employers are reliable but unfortunately that information usually comes with their own experience.

The second hurdle is housing. Some workers live in hotels funded by FEMA. As a FEMA official I just bumped into said, "Today is D-Day for many people." They were evicted. With no home to go home to, most of their families displaced in other states, and rents skyrocketing to New York-like rental prices, these workers end up squatting in many of the tent cities around the city and surrounding parishes. In one of these tent settlements in a main park in the city, workers are being charged exorbitant sums of money to pitch a tent. There is no running water or electricity. Port-a-potties are available for free, but showers cost $5 each. But, there's no stability here either because these workers, too, are being threatened with eviction at the end of the month. Perhaps they'll end up squatting in one of the many devastated and abandoned neighborhoods where the frames of homes still stand and workers huddle in the night. In the last two days, we've spoken to many of these workers in shabby hotels, tent camps in parks, bakeries where they pick up hot donuts and share information, and gas stations where they wait for contractors to come by.

The third hurdle is safety. Many of the workers working in clean-up do not have the safety equipment necessary to prevent them from getting burned by toxic chemicals and inhaling dangerous fumes. Some employers require employees to purchase safety equipment and deduct the $30 cost from their day's pay. Other workers just go without. I've seen the red, inflamed skin of a Honduran worker that did not look good. He had been in Kansas working in painting prior to arriving in New Orleans. Kansas, he said, was great and very pretty. New Orleans is awful. The pay is lousy and the work is dangerous. He had lost daily wages twice in the three weeks he had been here.

Tomorrow we head to one of the surrounding parishes to continue listening to stories that are starting to sound eerily similar.


I love me some 3-page docket sheets

Three-page docket sheets are so great! Really! Because, see, if you look at a 7-page docket sheet and think to yourself, I took Criminal Law, I can do this, you are wrong. (You meaning me, not you.) Today was Day 3 of Project Triage, and we're moving from 90% designing a database and 10% creating a database to, oh, 30% designing a database and 70% creating a database.

I used to work for a place that prosecuted prosecutors for violating the US Constitution (malicious prosecution claims, illegal removal of children from their families' homes based on unwarranted allegations of child neglect, leaving children in foster home placements where they know children are being abused, etc.). But how soon I had forgotten what it's like to read a case record where, at every fifth entry, we look up at each other, frustrated, yelling things like: "There have been thirty-six court appearances, all but four of which were continued because the defendant's counsel did not show up," and "Um, this guy died in prison in 2003, but it says he was arrested in 2004?"

Last night, I meant to write a posting about the fun parts of being down here. It is, after all, spring break. And the most special aspect of this peculiar city is that its residents all know so much of it is screwy, but they still love it. The music scene is great, the food is unspeakably decadent (I have eaten my weight in jambalaya), and the attorneys supervising us (from the recently barred Meg, who is infinitely patient with us, to the attorney some of the students are calling "the Crocodile Dundee of civil rights") are so DARN cool.

The highlight of today was a suprise greeting by federal District Judge Jay Zainey, every inch of whose courtroom we used today. The courtroom is without carpet due to water damage (surprisingly, not Katrina-related!) but it suits us just fine. Judge Zainey was incredibly warm, and told us stories of his days as a criminal defense attorney in Louisiana, well before Katrina. It's not every day law students get impromptu afternoons with district judges...


Miscarriages of Pudding

I am in love with Mother's bread pudding. Across the street from the courthouse, Mother's has been the location that more than one session of overstuffing during our trip. I don't know what's in bread pudding and frankly I don't care. When I've been pouring over docket sheets, listening to the supervising attorneys tell us story after story of real-life miscarriages of justice, bread pudding sooths all my angst. It makes me a better person.

I think if there were a Mother's across the street from every courthouse, I would have gone to law school much sooner.


New Orleans

Arriving in on Monday morning, I was anxious to see the city. I had never traveled to New Orleans, and have only seen the devastating pictures in the neighborhood.
Many houses are deserted or undergoing construction. As I was getting dropped by, many houses were sprayed painted in front after the houses were checked for bodies after the hurricane saying things like, "dog not found" and the date that the houses were checked.

I do not ask about Katrina, but am interested in what people have to say about how it affected them. (I remember how I didn't want to talk about 9/11 after a while.) I think about what my family would do if we had to desert our home in Long Island. Even if our house was worthless, can you put a price tag on the countless memories, your community, etc.? Even if those whose houses that were destroyed are reconstructed, not everyone will move back. I went to the Supreme Court courthouse and knew I was in the wrong place when 2 men in body suits with masks were about to enter. So the courts are shuffled around for now.


Doing penance for my po boy

I am so tired. Like, tired tired. The kind of tired where I feel like I may never sleep again. I-stayed-up-all-night-to-finish-my-brief tired.

Today was a day full of real substantive work with Project Triage. We worked through dockets, asked about a trillion questions, and learned a lot. About what, I'm still not quite sure. But my brain is currently full and I'm sure in the light of morning and at the bottom of a nice big cup of coffee it will make a lot of sense.

More than anything else, I'm really having a great time working with the students from BLS. We all care deeply about the work we're doing down here, and it shows in the questions we ask and the work we're able to finish. But we also all have a pretty good sense of humor, which came in real handy at about 3:30 p.m. when post-lunch derilum set in. Some of these dockets are just comedy waiting to happen, like the one that classified a Southeast Asian man as "W" for white, or the man who died in 1995, and was then arrested again in 2001. At midnight, it doesn't seem quite as funny, but trust me, it was hilarious.

The daily long walk to the federal courthouse is my penance for my po boy. I've given up nutrition for lent.


bureaucracy inaction

While Amy and I have been enjoying the great weather and sights in Austin, we've been feeling a bit frustrated with our role. Yesterday we had a two hour orientation at TRLA (Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid) in which we learned about the needs of the 4000 evacuees living in Austin and their struggles with receiving the FEMA assistance to which they are entitled. Heather, the attorney we are working with is an evacuee herself and we heard her story. It was striking to hear about how she packed up her car thinking she'd be gone for a long weekend, only to find that her apartment was hit with 8 feet of water from the levee break. She said that the reality of the situation struck her after her 14 hour drive to Austin, days later as she stood on line to fill out paperwork for Red Cross Disaster Relief Aid.

The five of us student volunteers (3 from Columbia and the 2 of us BLS'ers) are meant to be calling some 450 evacuees and finding out what assistance they have received from FEMA, what they've been denied, and what they might be able to appeal. As Amy noted yesterday, it seems that many FEMA employees are not even aware of their own agency's policies and are misguidedly denying claims for assistance. However, that the contact list of evacuees was not ready for us yesterday, nor was the questionairre. Heather dismissed us early and told us to check in with her this morning. They were not ready this morning and we were to come in at 1pm today to begin our work. At 11am she called and said that she was called away from the office and we wouldn't be able to get started till tomorrow morning. And so it goes.

I think I can speak for Amy in that we both feel disappointed that we have gotten such a late start. In some ways it seems that surely we must be able to do something. Surely they knew we were coming this week. Why the hold up? We only have three days left in which to fulfill the purpose of our trip. Yet what strikes me most about this situation is how it is, in a way, representative it is of the hurricane response in general. Unexpected delays. Good intentions met with confusion and perhaps poor planning. It also strikes me how frustrating this must be for Heather, the TRLA attorney. In the midst of her own personal struggle to resettle herself and her daughter, she was able to find a job helping folks in her own situation. That must be a gratifying, though heartwrenching job. And yet life's obstacles appear in this Murphy's law kind of way, constantly halt the process. Here she is with five people willing to get things done. And her plans keep getting changed and delayed and delayed.

Questions come to mind such as, why aren't there others on the staff helping her get these projects off the ground? Moreover, the big question remains, will we be able, in the three days we have left, to reach out to evacuees and give them some reassurance, an ear to listen to, the notion that they haven't been forgotten. Or will we just add to the countless voices telling them what we think they want to hear and not making much of a difference at all other than to put notches our "good deed for the day lists". I'd like to think the former. I'd like to think that we can be helpful to some, if only even a handful of people. I guess I would also like to think that I am able to gain some knowledge and bring it to the world to remind them that Katrina did not have borders that ended on the Louisiana, Mississippi state lines. Its ripple effects can be felt all over. The Austin job market, public housing, public assistance and legal resources are being stretched even further. The same is true all over the country.

This is not a problem that has gone away just because CNN doesn't cover it 24/7 any longer. The benefit concerts are over, the telethons too. But the country's attitude towards its neediest citizens was exposed for what it is. I can hope that the exposure remains fresh in our minds and we all work in whatever way we can to keep the awareness alive and the help coming. I can hope and I can work. And I hope tomorrow I can work.


Problems with the system & our role

According to Mr. Richard Bourke, Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the country, detaining about 1 out of 100 people. In this state, no lawyer is supposed to handle more than 200 felony-murder cases, but the sad reality is that public defenders handle a thousand or more cases leaving these inmates without counsel for months. As we reviewed case histories, it was not uncommon to see a "capias" or warrant issued for inmates' "rearrest", meaning that because they have no counsel to advise them when to appear, they miss their appearance in court. Although the professional code of responsibility makes no distinction between the counsel and advice that a lawyer should give to poor versus wealthy clients, it is painfully evident that these detainees are missing out.

In the Constitution, a person is supposed to appear before a judge within 48 hours, but Louisiana is overridding that restriction by making it 72 hours instead.

The court currently does not manage its own database; it relies on what information the sheriff's office has. What the lawyers are having us work on is synchronizing the information from the sheriff's office. After the hurriance, more than half the inmates escaped, so the attorneys want to know who is being locked up and on what charges are they being held. Because the court does not have a complete and accurate listing, it cannot do anything about those being held for misdemeanors beyond their statutorily defined period.
We are finding out the status of the prisoners. Sometimes it can be rather confusing to figure out when the defendant and/or their attorney appeared. As I was reviewing the profiles, it was alarming to see that many of the defendants are younger than me and have already served months or years in prison. It is highly unlikely that they will have normal lives if and when they are let out.
A Tulane professor told us of how one defendant was due to be released, but a week later was not let out because the prison did not have a busload full of people to be released. Apparently, one person's freedom is not worth the gas...


Voices in the Drone

Sunday night Jones Walker, New Orleans' largest law firm, hosted a gracious reception for the 23 lawschools participating in the Student Huriicane Network's relief efforts in New Orleans.

The event featured several speakers including local lawyers and a panel of students from Tulane Law School. The Tulane students gave a vivid account of their experiences directly before, during and after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Their subjective experiences reflected the fear, confusion, and denial lost in the buzz of political rhetoric and media coverage of Katrina, and they really brought home the fact that until now, my own knowledge of this tragedy and personal delegation of moral responsibility for its consequences have been based solely on coverage furnished by these political mechanisms. These many voices speaking of their own pain and adversity created a narrative deep and complex enough to countervail the monolithic drone of a numbing mainstream media coverage, where individuality has been lost in the plight of a vast yet failed exodus from the tragedy and tribulation caused by natural disaster and governmental indifference to human life.

Tracie Washington, a local civil rights attorney concerned with due process issues, spoke of the importance of the individual voice and the future of the State of Louisiana. She spoke of two important initiatives that are now largely in the hands of pro bono attorneys and students volunteering their efforts to service these causes: the voter's rights initiative and the prisoners' right to counsel program.

The voter's rights initiative is an effort to maintain the right to vote of those Lousiana residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. As Ms. Washington pointed out, this cause is critical to the future of the state of Lousiana, as these displaced citizens would lose their right to vote in the state if they had to relocate because their homes were destroyed in the storm. Allowing these people to lose their political voice could further tilt the balance of power in a state already troubled by gross social, political, and economic inequities.

The prisoners' right to counsel project is an effort to provide legal counsel to people who have been detained in custody since the hurricane 6 months ago without the opportunity to seek legal counsel and in many, many cases, have not even been charged with a formal indictment. The gross disregard for the constitutional rights of ordinary citizens should have the people of this country on alert of the decline of civil rights not only in the state of Louisiana, but in the nation at large, which until now, has been the standard bearer of democracy as a system of individual freedoms.

By participating in the right to counsel project over the past 2 days, my eyes have already been opened to the truly egregious dimensions of our government's failures (on both the local and federal levels) to observe the procedures of the legal process under the ideals enunciated in the US Constitution. As US citizens, we have the right to due process, counsel, and a speedy trial, not to mention equality under the law. The thousands of prisoners currently sitting in jail with no access to an attorney or even a proper legal charge are not being afforded these fundamental freedoms.

Ms. Washington spoke of Katrina as an indicator of the next wave of the civil rights movement. Though much is lost forever in destruction, the dimensions of this tragedy can, at best, illuminate the now undeniable truth that there is still much to be done to ensure the recognition and deliverance of equality in our social and political systems.


Dynamite

*One quick blog note: we've changed the archives so you can read posts by day. To see Monday's entries, click on 03/13/06.

Like throwing a stick of dynamite into a can of gasoline – that’s what Hurricane Katrina did to the New Orleans criminal justice system.

Today we met (on paper, that is) A.A., a black male who served 7 months of a 5 month sentence. Lost in the system (and I use that term "system" very loosely), he was found by a student volunteer and his case was brought before the court with the help of the Tulane Law Clinic. Only after very extreme efforts by these groups and little or no cooperation from the courts and jails is this man out.

The Orleans criminal system was in crisis before the storm hit. Now, the situation is critical. The criminal courts don't even have a permanent home, holding sessions in the Federal Courts building instead. The already-slim and now drastically-trimmed Public Defender's office is incapable of handling their case load. People have been in jail without being charged, without trial, without counsel.

At times, the work we're being asked to do seems impossible, insurmountable, like sticking your finger in a dam break. But other times, when you hear local attorneys thank us over and over again, when they so passionatly speak about Project Triage and how much it's needed by the local legal community, it's easy to see how any help at all is just plain enormous.


Forty-three Brooklyn Law School students will spend their spring break volunteering in and around the Gulf Coast as part of the Student Hurricane Network. These are their stories.

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