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Scott Crow: Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective

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This piece is born out a misconception (presumptions?) about the Common Ground Collective and it’s overarching philosophies and organizing in New Orleans. This is an excerpt of a larger piece I am working about the workwe have done there, are doing now and where we might head in the future.


By scott crow


This piece is born out a misconception (presumptions?) about the Common Ground Collective and it’s overarching philosophies and organizing in New Orleans. This is an excerpt of a larger piece I am working about the workwe have done there, are doing now and where we might head in the future.

These are my thoughts and opinions of the work I helped lay down and think about daily--they do not necessarily reflect Common Ground Collective as ‘official’ statements. This is a rough draft, so apologies for some of the disjointedness to it.

One critique that we at Common Ground Collective have had from some volunteers within ‘anarchist’/’anti-authoritarian’ communities is that we are ‘authoritarian’ or ‘hierarchical.’

Privilege and Assumptions

I would propose that ALL volunteers that come to Common Ground Collective and NOLA (short for New Orleans) in general; check themselves before they come down. Why are you coming to New Orleans? We must remember that we ALL bring our ideas, privilege as well as ASSUMPTIONS about the way things SHOULD be. A number of people, when they show up bring some sense of 'entitlement' around a few issues : that they should be in power, or in decision making roles simply because they are anarchist and propose to know better. This view in many ways is unrealistic and unhealthy to them, to us as an organization and to the people we serve in the communities. The picture in NOLA is large, complex and Common Ground Collective is one piece in that whole puzzle. Even though our organization has grown large we have many autonomous projects going on simultaneously within a larger framework of many organizations (like the Peoples Hurricane Relief Fund Coalition) working on similar as well as separate goals. This is a real life situation, not a theoretical abstract with many varied actors and participants from all political ideologies and disciplines. Mass mobilization organizing, ‘free states’, temporary autonomous zones and regional gatherings were but brief trial runs for what is going on in NOLA right now. If you have concerns or questions ASK, don’t assume you know the ins and outs of the political climate in this region. There are longstanding political feuds, historical oppression, ongoing state repression and plain differences of opinion within the context of rebuilding NOLA.

Leadership within CGC

There are leadership positions within Common Ground Collective(CGC) that are necessary and which we work to be as transparent about as possible. People have been put into positions of responsibility through commitment and dedication to the ongoing work. Many of our projects constantly evolve from new input and the fact that we maintain flexibility in what we do.

A misconception about CGC for example is: that when someone shows up for a few days (which is a righteous thing to do) we are going to automatically let them start deciding what to do with our programs, finances or structures. This has happened often, especially from people that have no track record with us, and are not known to us or to anyone in NOLA. Again I hope they would ask “Why have I come to NOLA?”

But once people establish commitment, a work record and some ACCOUNTABILITY to CGC and the residents then they are welcomed openly to more decision making processes and responsibility. People have been put into positions of responsibility through their commitment and dedication to the ongoing work, not because of cronyism or political maneuvering. Many of our projects and leadership constantly evolve from new input and the fact that we maintain flexibility in what we do. Malik has often said: “it’s what you do, not what you say you will do that matters here..”

Organizing Structures

In brief, the way Common Ground Collective strives to organize is: once a project is started it is autonomous under the umbrella of CGC. The people who ‘bottom line it’ (leadership) can organize their teams and decision making processes the way they need to. They are accountable to their project, CGC and to the people they serve (this is discussed in volunteer orientation on the ground). Some call them ‘affinity groups’ some call them ‘work groups/teams’, that is up to them to decide. Some projects have multiple coordinators and some have just one. Coordinators can and have been removed for a myriad of reasons. They must be accountable on many levels.

That said we don’t have a centralized body that micro manages every detail either. The central collective body works on long term goals, strategies, internal organizing processes and finances with each project maintaining a great amount of autonomy. Is it bureaucratic? Not even close, but it is getting more tightly organized. We are setting up guidelines and processes for the way we function so that we can continue to do so. We don’t set up arbitrary rules that exist for themselves. We set up blueprints to make everything move forward as democratically as possible.

The word ‘collective’ should not imply that everyone who shows up automatically is part of it. Our collective is in transition and growing. We are using that term in it’s broadest sense at this point. The people who are our core organizers (about 40 people +/-) are more or less the amorphous ‘collective’. This is a piece that internally we are working on and developing. We are also working on the transparency around what ‘collective’ means in our work.

The clinics are the one exception; they have more hierarchical elements to them at this point due to their intense scrutiny by the state in just keeping the doors open. The clinics must work with bureaucratic institutions like Center for Disease Control and Health & Human Services (whether they want to or not) to maintain the quality of free services we offers opposed to many of our other programs which are out of sight from state control. See their site (http://cghc.org/ ) for more info on this. Still with that, the clinics have many open processes in keeping with our principles and beliefs.


One VERY critical component in working with low income or ANY traditionally marginalized communities (devastated or not) is consistency in the work that we do. If we start programs and drop them then we are not doing our jobs. We, with privilege and relative power in society must recognize this. Historically ‘white middle class’ or ‘folx with privilege’ and many good intentions have aligned themselves in good faith to work in communities such as these, only to co-opt the work, abandon the issues when it wasn’t a ‘hot’ anymore or take over the work being done for their own gains. These concerns are some of the ‘baggage’ that we ALL bring to the table in working in NOLA.

Many well intentioned folx have come through CGC with great ideas, propose programs, start them, then have left us holding the bag. When that volunteer leaves: we as a collective entity are held to it by the communities we serve . Good intentions do not rebuild what 400 years of abandonment and neglect have done.

So we at CGC strive to overcome this by a strong self critique in all the work we potentially engage in which means that every well intentioned person with a ‘great idea’ does not get to automatically start making decisions or have input. We also ask of our volunteers that they set their preconceived ideas aside and be open to a different experience. But what sometimes happens is that those with privilege and entitlement assume they know better what to do than those who have lived their whole lives there, or have been working there for months through all the conflict, repression, neglect and hard work. So I would ask of these people: Did you come for ‘activist points’? To push your ideology? Or to do the arduous hard work of building power with and for people in NOLA without personal glory?

We at CGC walk the tenuous tightrope of ‘equilibrio” (from the Modragon Cooperatives in Spain) between horizontal and more centralized organizing, personal experience in balance with the goals and needs of the communities we serve.

As one of our core organizers Kerul Dyer succinctly put it “Common Ground is a largely white activist organization, and most of the coordinators come from an anti-authoritarian political culture. Malik Rahim and some of the core leadership in NOLA, however, come from a radical black political culture with fundamentally different experiences and approaches. The organization incorporates many decentralized characteristics, but at base we are acting in solidarity with local black leadership, and Malik makes many of the final overall long term decisions.”

This is where much of our ‘solidarity’ comes from. Long term and difficult commitments in complex political/socio-economic landscapes within NOLA. We are blending decision making processes and coordinator structures as we go.

Many times I have challenged my beliefs about the way it ‘should be’ and the practicalities of ‘what is’ on the ground while still keeping my principles and the working principles of the organization.

Conclusions ?

Anarchism is not rigid, it is flexible and fluid so cast aside your thoughts about the way it ‘should’ be and help make it what it ‘could be’.

CGC doesn’t have the answers; actually in many ways we have more questions as we go. Like the Zapatistas (who have informed some of the basic underlying group philosophy) we ‘Lead by asking’ as much as possible. It doesn’t mean that we have it figured out or that we know the answers. What it means is that we are struggling along to make a better world for all of us. Our slice of putting principles into action is through our work in NOLA.

Another critique we have heard about CGC volunteers being only ‘jocks’, ‘christians’ etc ;we have cast a wide open net to anyone with honorable intentions to come and do hard work. We don’t need just radical subcultures to change society we need people from all walks of life. What if ‘radical’ people had conversations with these folx and introduced them to alternative perspectives? What if we shifted the thinking in amerikkkan political culture through this shared experience rather than looking down on them? Kwame Ture once said “White people need to organize in their own communites..” What if this was an opportunity?

One of the most beautiful scenes in the early days was when a truck from Islamic Relief showed up with supplies from the Mormons and Catholic charities; which was all unloaded by people from the neighborhood, anarchist, communist and socialist working together in solidarity for a common good. Sectarian ideologies were set aside for the common good.

This doesn’t make CGC ‘feel good’ charity, we have radical analysis of our work but we do mix service programs with our challenges to the oppressive systems. The Black Panther Party used to have “survival programs pending revolution’ We are mixing those concepts with modern anarchist interpretation of ‘dual power’ models (‘resisting while building counter institutions’). People need service and even our most benign programs still get heat from many sectors of ‘the state’. Homeland Security has been no friend to volunteers or organizers within CGC. We give people HOPE for a better future in which communities have control over what happens in their lives. This fundamentally flies in the face of what many sectors of the corporate-state want. We know who we are politically and where we fit into the complicated structures both historically and presently. There are many reasons to stand up to white militia, defend houses from being bulldozed as well as cleaning up a neighborhood, sharing kind words or any of the less visible things that support people putting their lives back together.

We invite AND encourage those that have issues with the structures, programs or concepts within Common Ground to take direct action and start their own projects. This is not flippant, there is SO much work that needs to be done and there are autonomous groups needed to fulfill this, otherwise it is left to developers, the state and corporations to decides the fate of historically marginalized people in the Gulf Coast region. .

We are standing on the edge of potential…so how is it going to look.?

From the Gulf Coast Basin
scott crow
co-founder Common Ground Collective

For further reading please these pieces on privilege and assumptions
Solidarity not Charity: Racism in Katrina Relief Work
by Molly McClure

From the Ground Up: Race and the Left Response to Katrina
by Walidah Imarisha

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Scott Crow: Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective | 8 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Scott Crow: Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, March 14 2006 @ 11:21 AM CST
As a brief volunteer at the CGC I found it a little more authoritarian then I would have liked. However, I found to have enough autonomy while down there to make the CGC one of the best projects I have ever been involved in. There are a few prominent Anarcho peeps that find their roll often is to keep a check on too much authoritarian stuff, and they are working behind the scene to facilitate these issues.
Moreover, this is the most exciting and largest self organizing
Scott Crow: Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, March 14 2006 @ 01:11 PM CST
if people have been showing up and automatically expected to be a part of the decision-making process, then that's a shame. if someone came to an action and assumed s/he could be a part of your affinity group's decision-making, what would you say? seems pretty cut and dry to me.
Scott Crow: Anarchy and the Common Ground Collective
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, March 16 2006 @ 10:57 AM CST
As a former volunteer (2 weeks in January) I have to say that this article plays down the extent to which Common Ground's leadership seemed willing to manipulate short-term volunteers for political purposes. Volunteers whose only expectation was to gut houses and do other hands-on work found themselves coerced into more complex and overtly political actions without much explanation. More than once, volunteers were informed of the possible legal consequences of their actions only after it was too late to turn back.

I would like to believe that all this happened by mistake (as some organizers claimed). But rather than being encouraged, criticism was met with accusations of not caring about the people of New Orleans or not being committed to fighting racist oppression. It seemed to me like Common Ground's leaders only admitted to being such when it was convenient; when things went wrong or volunteers had complaints, it was suddenly hard to find anyone in a position of responsibility.

From what I've heard (from people who have worked at CG since January), issues of hierarchy have not improved, and the top tiers of the leadership seem more disconnected than ever. The black radical community may have its own traditions of organizing, but some of them--the charismatic leader model in particular--should be left in the past, where they belong.
Not just an issue with anarchism
Authored by: Anonymous on Friday, March 17 2006 @ 04:31 PM CST
First, so you know where I'm coming from: I spent a couple of weeks with Common Ground during January, but have been in contact with volunteers who have stayed onboard since then.

I think that Scott Crow is right to say that volunteers, including anarchists, need to arrive in New Orleans ready to learn. Showing up ready to lecture about theoretical or unrealistic anarchist principles is obnoxious and unhelpful. It also makes sense that short term volunteers (like me) would not have significant input long term Common Ground strategy.

However, volunteers are too often looked at simply as resources to be allocated to whatever project Common Ground leadership thinks is appropriate. Most volunteers came to New Orleans with the expectation of doing house-gutting, distro, or similar work. Someone else has already mentioned the fact that volunteers were used in political demonstrations- simply told that rather than gutting the church that they had signed up to work on, they would be taking a trip into the center of town to protest. What this tells me, as a volunteer, is that how I want to contribute to the work of rebuilding New Orleans is not a factor in the decisions of some of the organizers. People being used without regard to their individuality- their opinions and wishes- should disturb anyone, not just anarchists.

The disconnect does not exist only between volunteers and long term organizers, but between the core organizers and the top leadership. My understanding of the current situation at Common Ground is that core organizers have brought very significant logistical concerns to the top leadership, including Malik. These concerns include the inability of Common Ground to absorb more volunteers- their simply aren't enough resources. This has led, in some cases, to unsafe living conditions and to incredibly overworked organizers. The leadership seems more focused on the way that Common Ground will look to the media than on its continuing sucessful operation.

These criticisms are not specifically anarchist ones (though I am an anarchist)- Common Ground cannot simply discount their failures as an organization as overly unrealistic concerns of out of town anarchist malcontents.
Not just an issue with anarchism
Authored by: Anonymous on Wednesday, March 29 2006 @ 10:01 PM CST
but are we not forgetting that volunteers are not forced to do anything...as a volunteer, i was overwhelmed by the vast amounts of things i could do each day. and in morning meetings, the politics of each assignment was addressed clearly. the volunteers are not black slates who can't figure out when something might get them in legal trouble or not. if you don't want to protest, go gut a house!
in the end...
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, March 23 2006 @ 08:03 AM CST
In the long run, a strong anti-authoritarian perspective on the inner and outer workings of Common Ground and other projects in NOLA (which is really necessary) is going to be the most helpful in dealing with all the nasty power & privilege issues that keep creeping up. And if both the leadership and the rank-n-file of said group(s) don't take heed to those perspectives, then they'll end up as just another hierarchical activist bureaucracy.
power & privilege issues in day-to-day work
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, March 30 2006 @ 01:17 AM CST
One volunteer in NOLA I was talking to who was working on stuff like gutting houses, she told me about an guy who kept flirting with her, over and over, till it got to the point of being downright harassment, with the types of sexist comments he'd make and his persistence in trying to get her to hook up with him.

Some people treat shit like this as random isolated incidents (rather than a pattern of behavior that is reinforced by the society we live in), and so it needs only to be handled in the moment and only by the person getting harassed. Any attempt take time, step back, and to bring things like this to the attention of friends or the wider community seems to be looked down upon because somehow it would interfere with the work that needs to be done. People are basically forced to choose between "shut up and do your work" or "if you don't like it here, leave".

And so, in the end, a lot of "work" may get done, but in terms of people's humanity, very little gets done.
rumours & sexual harassment
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, March 30 2006 @ 04:03 PM CST
we at CGC take sexual assault and sexual harassment VERY seriously. we have spoken to people, removed people, and yes used political violence on those who were dangerous to us and the communities we serve.

before i go one about sexual assualt/harassment i want to briefly address RUMOURS, INNEUNDO and CONJECTURE. these are big problems in NOLA (as well as many communities). this is not to diminsh real accussations, but to put 'i heard from a friend , who heard from someone else...' into perspective. talking about rumors, posting about rumors and spreading rumours is dangerous to all of us. i hope that we as responsible people will question our motives (or lack of) in spreading hearsay, gossip or not trying to find more accurate details. this is in regards to anything not just serious accussations.

this does NOT mean that it has never happened at CGC. we have an open door policy for volunteers, so yes there have been isolated incidents of harassment when alerted to it we dealt with it. that doens't make us perfect, but we are willing
to identify and work towards real solutions around it.

that said. here our Common Ground Collectives 'Guidelines
of Respect" and 'Sexual Harassment policies' that are on our site, in our handbook and gone over at volunteer orientation.

"Sexual Harassment Prevention":

Common Ground believes that all people have a right to be free of any form of harassment and oppression, and in particular, sexual harassment. No volunteer is to threaten or insinuate, either explicitly or implicitly, that another volunteer or community members