Dirty Hands: Sean Penn's Trip to NOLA

Words & Images by: Forrest Reda

Sean Penn at Coachella 2008
When fate calls out your name, the best thing to do is follow wherever it takes you. When my buddy called me out of the blue on a Wednesday afternoon with tickets to see John Doe, Michael Franti, Lucinda Williams and Zach De La Rocha (Rage Against The Machine) perform songs by Bob Dylan at an intimate show that was sold out, I knew the universe was taking me on a ride, but at the time I didn't know how far I was going to go.

While Franti was decent and John Doe and Lucinda Williams were great, the Dylan tribute show was memorable for De La Rocha's performance. He stepped out of a deleted scene from I'm Not There to deliver a version of "Just A Pawn In Their Game" that felt like going back in time to a young, angry Dylan dressed in the plain-clothes of a workingman spitting out the song. De La Rocha rocked back and forth, strumming his guitar and lighting up the room. It was inspiring and set in motion the events of the next two weeks.

My head filled with visions of the road that Dylan traveled, of trains and busses and the mysterious continent we have raped with dams and mines, pollution and development. I yearned for a simpler time and for the adventure of the open road, and I also wanted to BE the change.

I was heading to Coachella to review the festival for JamBase (read the review here). An old girlfriend from college (who I will call Aim because her mantra is "Aim for Peace") came with me and we camped the first two nights before joining some L.A. friends in a McMansion in La Quinta for Sunday. As our weekend wound down, we relaxed in a swimming pool before making our way to the festival for the late afternoon acts. As the stage was dressed for My Morning Jacket, Dylan's music again filled my ears, but it was coming out of the PA. This turned the wait into another daydream as I listened to the lyrics, mouthed the words and smiled at the beautiful synchronicity.

Then a strange thing happened. Instead of My Morning Jacket, Sean Penn took the stage. I checked the schedule and sure enough, Penn had a 15-minute set I had overlooked. We shrugged our shoulders and waited for either a political message or some kind of Sweet and Lowdown performance, or maybe a surprise appearance by his pal Eddie Vedder. Instead, Penn waxed philosophically about the plight of the country.

The Dirty Hands Bus
"What this is about is volunteerism," Penn said. "My generation, and the generation that came before, fucked you because we left you with a numbed sense of what you can do to help, and now we are the old-timers who are fucking useless. What it comes down to is the better, smarter, more technologically and funnier generation of the youth today. Revolution is a young man's job, and you can be the revolutionaries."

Penn told us that he had bio-diesel busses waiting at the festival to drive anyone who wanted to come with him to New Orleans and that we'd be volunteering and meeting various groups and listening to speakers on the way. He promised to feed us and pay for our camping and told us that we would work hard but have fun.

"Volunteerism is the ultimate party and on that note I'm going to say something I have not said in 28 years, 'Hey buds, let's party!'"

I turned to Aim and shrugged my shoulders, "Why not?" She replied, "Let's go!" Just like that our decision was made. We had accepted the ultimate dare, and we were going to New Orleans with Sean Penn!

During the My Morning Jacket set the thought of going to New Orleans got better and better. Roger Waters set was also politically themed, complete with a story of him hitchhiking in Lebanon as a youth and being taken in by a poor family who gave him all they had. I enjoy my little existence in Los Angeles, where I work as a background actor and manage Latch Key Kid and Slackstring and tour manage a pop band, but I needed a change of perspective and I didn't have anything crucial on the calendar for the next few weeks. Even though my bank account was chronically low, I felt like I needed to help New Orleans. I went to Jazz Fest 2001-2003 but haven't been back since the hurricane.

Sean Penn in front of Dirty Hands Bus
We signed up for the Dirty Hands Caravan after Roger Waters' set and even though the woman who took our applications was doubtful we'd show up the next day, there was no doubt in our minds we would. We skipped over to Justice to dance and retired for the night to rest for the big adventure.

Monday morning we drove to the meeting spot and saw a group of people huddled underneath tents, shielding themselves from the sun. It was mixture of people - some hippies, some college kids, some internationals and a couple adults. I wound up knowing one other person, Alex Rose, and was excited to meet everyone else that was there. Sometimes when you get a group of activists together, the over-exuberance of the group to "out-do" one another in good deeds, especially in front of a celebrity like Sean Penn, can make the whole thing an exercise in self-righteousness, but there was a wild card feeling to the group that made me think the TRIP with this crowd would be part of the fun.

We were introduced to Doug Goodman, a wiry professional tour manager who wore a shirt adorned with the slogan, "I don't care about your band," and had prepared for the monumental task of taking care of 135 young adults by taking care of rock stars for 20 years. He would prove to be a force of nature.

We also met Cleve Jones, who organized the AIDS Memorial Quilt Project and helped Penn organize this adventure. He is a kind, motivated and intelligent man who took great care of us.

There was a support staff from Penn's agency, CAA, along for the ride, and a film crew documenting the experience, but the 120 volunteers were going to be the focus. No one was on the trip to be on camera – our motivation was going to New Orleans with Sean Penn to help out those in need.

Three busses were parked, one was wrapped in white for us to paint. We painted the bus with slogans and pictures that initially looked like gibberish but became home, sweet, beautiful home: the now-legendary Bus 1.

The Dirty Hands Caravan
Penn arrived, wearing jeans and aviators, looking like a general ready to lead this ragtag regiment of rookie volunteers and activists into battle. He addressed the group, thanking us for coming back and telling us how much it meant to him that we were there.

"I have a little money in my pocket, but I've never been able to do any good with it," Penn said. "I've failed at supporting candidates. I've failed at supporting causes with my celebrity. The only positive change that I've ever been able to affect is by getting my own hands dirty in New Orleans and helping out people that lost everything to the hurricane."

We assumed that he would be traveling in an SUV, but he surprised us by hopping onboard after helping pass out the first of our boxed lunches, with options for vegans, vegetarians and carnivores. Those who didn't bring sleeping bags or tents were given gear to borrow by Goldenvoice, the promoters of Coachella, and we were assured our cars would be safe at the Polo Fields while we were gone.

The excitement within the group overcame any weariness from the festival. Aim and I decided we would ride the bus that we painted and we hopped on Bus 1, finding a seat to share in the back. We roared out of the Coachella Valley with high hopes and quickly made friends with our neighbors on the bus. There were a few groups of people traveling together, but for the most part, we were complete strangers.

AIDS March - Tucson, AZ
The close quarters on the busses served as a great icebreaker as we shared music, alcohol, books and conversation. One preconception I had of the trip was that we would be with serious activists, but the reality was that we were on a cross-country bus trip with a bunch of kids who had partied for three days at Coachella and weren't about to stop now. Those who wanted to rest eventually migrated to Bus 2, while the party didn't stop on Busses 1 and 3. I was working on my review of Coachella for JamBase, but only had a few hours of battery life each day, so I worked while I could, and emailed on my Treo to keep up with my responsibilities in L.A.

The first day we drove into Tucson, Arizona, and camped underneath the stars. It was the rockiest campground of the trip, but seeing Sean Penn pitch a tent next to ours while the bus drivers were driven to a nearby hotel let us know that his heart was in this journey.

The next morning Penn had to leave because he had obligations on a movie in Texas, but he promised to rejoin us before we got to New Orleans. In Tucson, we met with the Southern Arizona Aids Foundation and participated in a march to raise AIDS awareness near the University of Arizona. We made our own signs after listening to a string of lectures about the challenges that people with the disease still face, especially now that public awareness of the disease has waned. It felt good to be off the bus and marching with 130 other volunteers. We ate lunch in a park after the march and picked up a few more volunteers who hopped on board with us.

We drove into Las Cruces, New Mexico arriving at night to a beautiful campground populated with rabbits. That evening we had the first of our extremely inspiring campfire speakers. Cindy Sheehan rose to national attention by camping near George Bush's ranch after her son was killed in Iraq. She wanted to ask Bush what cause her son Casey died fighting for. Bush never felt the need to tell her why to her face. Sheehan is like my mom or yours. She is still hurt deeply by the loss of her son, but is soldiering on, with a burning desire to end the war. Her words struck a chord, and she told us to be proud of what we were doing and not to give up in the face of adversity or cave into attacks by the status quo. Sheehan put a human face on the 4,102 (as of June, 22, 2008) mothers who have lost their sons and daughters in Iraq. She is running for US Senate this fall in California, and I hope she wins.

Cleve Jones - The Dirty Hands
After Sheehan left us, the campfire continued to burn and people brought out their guitars and serenaded the stars. There were no rules against buying beer for the bus and campground, and the kids on this trip made fast friends with each other. The music went late as I tried to sleep, but I couldn't get angry with anyone on the trip for taking advantage of the chance to have some fun. With Penn gone for the time being, there was a feeling of anything goes, but Doug Goodman (the tour manager) cracked the whip each morning to get people back on the road.

On the bus we watched a documentary about the tsunami that devastated Sri Lanka that the film crew documenting our trip had made. The film was called The Third Wave and showed how circumstances work themselves out when you drop everything and put yourself in a position to help people, but also how hard it is to come into a different culture and divvy out money and resources to a local population that has just experienced disaster on an epic level and is still wary of outside interference. It made us appreciate the filmmakers, Alison Thompson and Oscar Gubernati, documenting our trip even more for their bravery and faith that the world will take care of you if you take care of the world.

The next destination was Austin, Texas, and we would get very close that night before stopping to camp at Lake Travis. Since we got there very late at night, we didn't get to appreciate the beauty of the lake until the next morning, but we were treated to a lecture from one of the country's premier historians, Douglas Brinkley. The author of The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Brinkley educated us on the plight of New Orleans. He spoke to us in a way that all of us could understand while giving details and praising us for our commitment to restoring the mythical city. After he was done speaking, we were entertained at the campfire by Jerry Hannan, whose song "Society," which he'd performed with Eddie Vedder for the movie Into the Wild, was a huge success. Hannan played long into the night for a campfire of appreciative listeners.

Cleanup in Austin, Texas
I knew the name Douglas Brinkley from the letter collections of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, and I sought out Brinkley at the campfire to talk about the good doctor, as HST had confided in him, leaving him executor of his literary estate. It was inspiring to talk to Brinkley and get tidbits about the upcoming Rum Diary film, several unpublished books that Thompson wrote that will eventually see the light of day and the next installment of HST's letters that will be released in 2009. Brinkley is a man who oozes intelligence without coming off as a stuffy professor type. Hunter's legacy is in fine hands.

We had to wake up early to get to a park cleanup in the Barton Springs greenbelt, but we had time for quick dip in Lake Travis. I had heard Austin was beautiful, but I wasn't expecting it to be so green. At the greenbelt, we split up into groups. Aim and I decided to go with the group picking up trash on a trail and in some caves that Austin's vagrants use as shelter and places to sleep. Our guide on the trail was a great source of knowledge about the greenbelt and each person in our group filled up a large bag of refuse, separated by glass, cans and trash. Picking up trash as a team is an effective way to beautify the trail while enjoying the hike. The limestone caves were impressive as was the quarry-like creek bed in the middle of the trail. After our hike, our group dipped our feet in Barton Springs, which provides Austin with fresh water and we jumped in the creek that runs out of the spring with some colorfully tattooed Austin locals.

Immigrant Rights March - Austin, Texas
Then it was back on the bus to participate in a rally and march in downtown Austin for the rights of immigrant workers. It was May 1st (May Day), and while we didn't realize it at the time, rallies were taking place all over the country. Corporations, within the beef-packing industry and others, take advantage of immigrants, both legal and illegal, by paying them less, without benefits, for dangerous jobs. The book Fast Food Nation is a great place to learn about this shameful practice and I felt proud to take part in the rally. Cleve gave us some background on why we were there and gave us the option to not participate, but our solidarity from drinking with one another and riding the bus for three days had made us all friends already and we were ready to march, even after our busy morning. A crowd of 500 people gathered at City Hall gave us a rapturous applause when the 150 (mostly white) young people marched up, holding hands and chanting, "Si Se Puede (yes we can)." A band played some traditional songs in Spanish and some actors depicted a tragic border crossing before we set out on the march, singing songs to vent our frustrations. There was a moment of confusion as the CAA people tried to stop us from marching with the crowd, because we were behind schedule and participating in the march would make us miss our speaker for the evening, but we were already there and there was no way that we were going to leave our new friends without marching with them. So, as a collective, The Dirty Hands Caravan marched with the immigrants and their supporters through downtown Austin, across both bridges. The CAA people eventually gave up and marched with us. Cleve would apologize for the confusion later, and tell us how proud he was of our actions. It was my first political rally and I've never felt more alive. Aim said I was earning my title of honorary Mexican, and watching her whoop and whistle made me happy. She is of Mexican descent but this was the furthest south she had ever been.

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