Friday, December 16, 2005

N.O. peace for Perry's mourners

published in the Portland Phoenix

New Orleans police broke up a memorial service for Portland activist Meg Perry Sunday, by handcuffing and searching Katrina-relief volunteers who were singing songs and reminiscing about the life of the 26-year-old social-justice advocate. Perry, an organizer from Portland’s People's Free Space, was killed, on Saturday, when that group’s familiar green, bio-diesel Frida Bus crashed on a Louisiana highway,

A local memorial service will be held December 17 at 2 pm at the Brunswick United Methodist Church, 320 Church Road. Perry's parents, Robin and Rosalie Perry, then plan "to return to New Orleans and pick up where Megan left off," doing work to "help the displaced, the indigent, to do whatever we can to help people in need," her father said Tuesday.

Perry was in New Orleans with 12 volunteers she had recruited to go to the Gulf Coast, in November, to help with hurricane-relief efforts (see "Frida Deals with Katrina," by Sara Donnelly, November 4) She was thrown from the bus when it rolled on its side on I-10 near the Superdome in an accident whose cause remains under investigation. Eight other people on the bus were taken to the hospital with minor injuries, according to Officer Jonette Williams of the New Orleans Police Department.

After a memorial service attended by hundreds Sunday in a community garden that Perry had helped clear, till, and plant in New Orleans's Eighth Ward, a few close friends stayed behind to sing songs and tell stories about Perry. "They weren't bothering anyone," said Sakura Koné, an organizer of the New Orleans–based relief group Common Ground Collective, for which Perry was volunteering.

A passing police officer noticed the group, Koné said, and called for backup. Some were handcuffed, "others were forced to spread-eagle on the various police vehicles," and the group was being treated "as if they were a threat to the community," Koné said.

Captain Juan Quentin, the commander of the New Orleans police public information office, said he had heard nothing of the memorial service or anything afterward, and suggested that if it had happened, someone should have called the police to complain.

Officer Williams said she did not know of any such event, and Robin Perry, who said he stayed through the memorial service and "later on," also said he had not heard of the incident.

Several People's Free Space activists confirmed that there was an encounter with the police after the memorial service, but declined to give specifics, saying they were conferring with their lawyers.

Nate Brimmer, one of the Maine volunteers in New Orleans, said the group would likely be taking the train back from New Orleans, and declined to comment on whether the volunteers had gotten their bags from the bus, which is in police custody.

The Common Ground Collective planted a fig tree in Perry's memory during the ceremony and has renamed its community-garden creation effort the Meg Perry Community Garden Project. Volunteers also planted nasturtiums, an edible flower, and artichokes, Perry's favorite vegetable, Brimmer said.

The Maine volunteers will return in time for Perry's memorial service Saturday, and most expect to return to the Gulf Coast to continue volunteering.

"We need literally thousands of volunteers," Brimmer said. In some homes that were flooded, there are "three inches of fuzzy mold from the ceiling to the floor" in homes that did not have flood insurance.

The ruin of the Gulf Coast has provided an opportunity to rebuild society in a more just structure, Brimmer said. Perry saw all of society's problems as linked, and at their root "too much competition, not enough co-operation, not enough love, not enough community," he said.

In Portland, a group of about two-dozen People's Free Space members gathered Sunday night for a hastily-called press conference, before which most of the group — many clad in ripped jeans and knit caps or dreadlocks — checked their appearances in a mirror as TV crews got cameras set up.

"They’ll know she’s a badass," said Alexander Aman as he looked at a photo of Perry taken November 13, the day she and 12 others left Maine for the Gulf Coast region.

A statement read by Kate Boverman mourned Perry’s death, saying "she filled her days working for justice" and was "always ready with a warm smile or to lend a hand."

People who want to volunteer with the Common Ground Collective can call 504.218.6613.