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As I watched the coverage of Hurricane Katrina, my stomach churned. The storm was devastating, but the unveiling of racism towards Black people was disgusting. I kept repeating the same question over and over - how could this be happening?
I hated the sense of helplessness that came over me, and I knew if I sat at home boiling in anger I would end up lashing out and doing something that I would later regret. Hurricane Katrina is the largest natural disaster to hit U.S. soil, but because it hit Black communities the "country" could care less. Instead of having a response similar to the one after the 9.11 terrorist attacks, it took up to a week before any proper relief reached New Orleans.
After walking around angry at anything that resembled white America I decided to do something. Mainstream media has never done a good job of covering communities of color, so my first reaction was to grab my camera and document what was really happening.
I knew that if I kept myself distant from what was happening, it too would fade into history and become a murky memory. I couldn't let that happen, so I decided to go with the people who would give me the most access, the American Red Cross.
My Grandmother tried to warn me before I signed up with the Red Cross, that their treatment of Black people had not changed from when she was a nurse in the 50s. It is hard to understand how I could have been in such a state of denial about the Red Cross, yet so aware of the fact that the racist mentality of the past is still alive and present today.
My good friend Fay and I enrolled in the training program in order to make it down to the Gulf States. Not to our surprise, many of the volunteers going through the training and being deployed were white. The people of color were urged to work on the phones or help set up shelter around the Bay Area.
I arrived in Austin Texas with butterflies in my stomach, sweaty palms, and a lump in my throat. It had taken a month of training and bull-shitting from the Red Cross to get here and I almost didn't make it. Yes, after doing all my paper work, buying all the supplies, and putting in 13-hours of training I was told to turn around and go home at the ticket gate.
Hot tears of anger rolled down my cheeks as I argued with Florence, the deployment officer of the San Francisco chapter. The end result of our phone call resulted in her telling me that I might not ever be deployed and that I brought the situation on myself. Instead of turning around and giving up, I booked a flight on Untied airlines to Austin, Texas, thanks to my mom's job. The Red Cross said they were going to deploy me on the 26th of September, but when it came down it once again they jerked me around.
On the first day Fay and I were sent to the headquarters to be assigned an affected area for our first mission. Since we are both photographers they put us in the PR group being sent to the Ford Base in Beaumont. I really did not want to be apart of the PR group, but I had to stick with Fay. Right off the bat, we were the only ones who were not issued phones or promised Go Kits - kits that include equipment for in the field reporting and communications. That was just the beginning of the internal racism we encountered while volunteering with the Red Cross.
We were made to depend on others for transportation, watched and followed while we were doing or jobs, verbally attacked in the field by other volunteers, and made to feel unsafe. People tried to tell me that it had nothing to do with race. But when there are less than five Black people on a site of over 100 volunteers and we are the only ones encountering problems, what else can it be?
Michael Seimers, a volunteer photographer from Denver, took it upon himself to interrogate the two of us. When we first introduced ourselves to him and told him about our idea to make a photography book that we could sell to raise money for the Red Cross, he flipped.
He accused us of using the Red Cross funds to further our own agenda, then he demanded we give him our personal deployment numbers so that he could report us to the National headquarters in DC. I sat down with his onsite supervisor, told him who I was and that I represented my school publication and planed on donating images to the Bay Area chapter.
He was pleased with that and told us to go eat lunch and get plenty of water so that we would have strength while out in the field. After Fay and I finished out lunch and grabbed a few extra bottles of water, we headed out to meet up with our groups. Seimers and his partner Shannon, another PR reporter from the first group, started yelling at us: "If you think we are going to be waiting on the two of you then you're wrong. We will leave you behind!" Then they went on to complain about the two of us not answering our phones, but since we were not issued work phones our personal reception was bad. It seemed like they were out to sabotage us.
That day while out on the field, Seimers continued to harass me by yelling orders at me while I was trying to talk to hurricane Rita survivors. He even went so far as to get in front of my camera while I was shooting photographs, demanding that I stop shooting and talk to him. It took every ounce of restraint I had not to push him out of my face.
I looked at my team leader for help, but she looked away and continued writing down caption information for him. Finally, I looked him dead in the eye and put on my sternest "I'll kick your ass: voice I could, "Back off," I said. "We can talk about this when we return to the base!" As I walked away, he yelled: "Don't you walk away from me!" From that day on Fay and I realized that we were the only ones that had each other's backs.
I have never felt like a NIGGER before. There have been times when racist remarks where made, and institutionalized racism is something all people of color deal with. But being stripped of my rights, my voice, and treated like an evacuee was infuriating.
I was about to leave the whole experience bitter and completely distrusting of white people until I met the Johnson family in a Wal-Mart parking lot. They were sitting in the bed of a white truck laughing and eating sandwiches. I walked past them while heading car, but I couldn't get their faces out of my head. That family did more for me than I could have ever done with all my good attentions of going down south for them.
When I interviewed the eldest daughter, I had to fight back the tears when she talked about what it felt like to be separated from her brother during the evacuation. The things that family saw and went through are more than I could even imagine, yet they are still able to smile and be grateful for each day they have together.
Before I left I asked her one last question: "What would it take to get your lives back to the way it was before?" She smiled at me and replied, "Prayer, lots and lots of prayer." Their story and strength made me realize that we always have and always will survive the ignorance of our oppressors.
When I returned from doing Hurricane Rita/ Katrina relief in Texas, I was completely distressed. The images of houses torn apart and the stories of displaced families were intense, but the true trauma came from behind the scenes of the Red Cross organization. The Red Cross gave me a rude awakening to the real world as a Black woman, but the strength of the people I encountered reminded me that we are survivors.
Sara Henderson, 23, is a student at the San Francisco State University and a writer/photographer for YO!