Anarchists Providing Medical Aid in New Orleans

In a time of crisis, a medical clinic has sprung to life in a storm-damaged New Orleans neighborhood, with an unlikely crew giving aid. Anarchists with medical training, calling themselves the Common Ground Collective, have set up shop in the beleaguered neighborhood of Algiers, providing locals with badly needed medical assistance.

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NOAH ADAMS, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Noah Adams.

In a few minutes, water flows over a levee in New Orleans and back into the previously flooded 9th Ward.

But first, in another New Orleans neighborhood, beneath the eastern side of the Crescent City Bridge, is the poor, predominantly black quarter of Algiers. After Katrina struck, nearly a week passed before food, water or medical supplies made it to this part of town. And when aid did finally arrive, it didn't come from local, state or federal government, but rather from a group calling itself The Common Ground Collective. NPR's Jason DeRose has a report.

JASON DeROSE reporting:

The best way to understand Common Ground is this.

Ms. JAMIE LOCHNER (Anarchist Activist): Yeah, the anarchists came down to set up free medical treatment in a mosque at the behest of an ex-Black Panther.

DeROSE: That's Jamie Lochner from Washington, DC. She's one of the self-described anarchist activists. She was horrified by what she saw on television in the days following Hurricane Katrina's devastation, so she packed some friends and some supplies into a van and hit the road.

Ms. LOCHNER: We drove down here over Labor Day weekend and got here expecting that there would be a grand government presence and that they would have had food, water and medical supplies, and we were going to be a lot too late. And, in fact, we brought the first medical team in. We were it for several days.

DeROSE: The Common Ground Clinic prior to the storm was a mosque, the Masjib Bilal, with several dozen regular attendees. Now a line of patients sitting on folding metal chairs stretches around the corner. One of those patients is 82-year-old World War II veteran William Berry(ph). He likes to go by Yogi(ph).

Mr. WILLIAM "YOGI" BERRY (Common Ground Clinic Patient): I got some--quite a few nice people around me. And one of them was pretty nice.

DeROSE: Yogi comes to the clinic to get his blood pressure and blood sugar levels checked. Before Katrina, he got his medical care at the Veterans Hospital, but...

Mr. BERRY: That's on the other side of the river and there wasn't no way to get over there. All that was filled up. The Veteran Hospital is full now.

DeROSE: Several times a week, Yogi takes his turn in line at Common Ground, and sometimes he just stops by to say hi and thanks for the help.

Montreal resident Scott Weinstein is a registered nurse who joined Common Ground after the hurricane. He's appalled at both the long-term medical and financial neglect of the Algiers neighborhood.

Mr. SCOTT WEINSTEIN (Registered Nurse): Yeah, yesterday, this homeless, you know, woman came in. I mean, she was relatively disheveled and very articulate, had glaucoma. When I asked her when she last took her glaucoma medicine, you know, she counted on her fingers. She said, `Yeah, five years ago.' That just really kills me because she can go blind.

DeROSE: Weinstein says the politics of Common Ground are just as important as the medical care being given.

Mr. WEINSTEIN: People from the community asked us to be here, and the goal for this clinic is to transition from a first-aid emergency response to a functional community-controlled primary care clinic. In other words, this is for the community in the long run and not just we're a bunch of do-gooders. You know, here's your Band-Aid. Here's your aspirin. You know, best of luck.

(Soundbite of helicopter)

Mr. DOUG MONAHAN(ph) (Common Ground Clinic Volunteer): Thanks for the help. I really appreciate it. (Laughs)

DeROSE: All day long, military helicopters fly overhead. Doug Monahan drove all the way from Seattle to help out at Common Ground. He's not a trained medic, but he can cook, so he makes the meals for the clinic's several dozen volunteers. He's frustrated by the military presence because he doesn't see them feeding the hungry or caring for the sick.

Mr. MONAHAN: This was put together with almost no money. The money that's coming in here is donations and money out of our pockets, and it's a lot of money to us as individuals. But when you compare the amount of money that we've spent here to establish an ongoing, functioning medical clinic to the tens of billions of dollars that are flying around in these helicopters, that are spent on these guns and these Humvees, it's outrageous, you know? If we can do this with pocket money and a certain amount of goodwill, where's this 10 billion, 20 billion, billions, billions of money--I can't imagine--why does our pittance go so far and their fortune go so short?

DeROSE: Monahan says Common Ground has provided medical care for more than a thousand people in Algiers since it opened right after Labor Day, and it does so with monetary donations totaling just $4,500. Jason DeRose, NPR News, New Orleans.

ADAMS: Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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