Dirty Hands: Sean Penn’s Trip to NOLA

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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.

Sean Penn – Dirty Hands Camp

It was time to get back on the bus so we left Austin and headed off into the night to camp near Houston. We camped in another gorgeous setting, surrounded by trees on green grass. Along the trip, most of the campgrounds had warm showers and power for charging phones, cameras and laptops – it was a daily mission to charge electronics for the next day. Even though we were averaging about four hours of sleep each night, we had plenty of energy each day. One of the best things about the trip was rediscovering the joy of camping. It’s much cheaper than staying in hotels and America has a wonderful park system that is overlooked by many travelers.

The next morning we drove into Houston and visited a community called Manchester that is surrounded by oil refineries. It reminded me of San Pedro in Los Angeles, a place that used to be beautiful but has been savaged by the oil industry. There were refineries across the street from playgrounds. We were told that children in the community are 54 percent more likely to be diagnosed with leukemia and heart problems due to air pollution, yet the corporations deny they are doing any harm. We spent time cleaning up the streets by removing garbage from oil stained ditches, and then we helped organize a bone marrow drive with Pat Pedraja, the 13-year-old founder of Driving For Donors, who is living with leukemia. He was on the trip with us to write about it for an organization called Do Something and was a constant source of inspiration.

Pat Pedraja with The Dirty Hands Crew

There was a local TV crew present and the PR man from one of the refineries was alerted to our presence and brought us over a cooler full of soda and water that we refused to drink, as we had our own water on the bus. Refusing the cold water was another measure of solidarity that was quickly binding us together. Some of the workers drove around and gawked at us picking up their trash, but one city worker arrived and gave us some gloves to protect our hands. We struck up a conversation with a gentleman who stored molasses, and while we didn’t agree with all of his points, we listened and he listened to ours as well.

He told us that his company had bio-diesel processing plants in Idaho that processed potatoes rejected for use as food, but that they weren’t turning a profit yet. I asked him, “Wouldn’t you turn a profit if the government forced companies to use bio-diesel?” He agreed but pointed out that the US can’t manufacture enough bio-diesel to satisfy our energy needs. Then, Aim asked about growing hemp as a bio-fuel. He told us, “Sure, hemp is a better plant for use as a bio-fuel and we could grow more of it, but you can’t just convert a refinery that is designed to process potatoes into a plant that can process hemp. You need different machines, and we aren’t going to tear down a potato processing plant that we’ve already built to build a new one to process hemp.” He was nice about the discussion, and it illustrated that corporations will only get serious about bio-diesel when it’s a proven cash cow.

We were almost to New Orleans, and we had already experienced so much, growing as individuals and learning about the challenges that face our communities. We stopped in Baton Rouge to pick up Penn at the airport. His flight was delayed and he told Cleve to leave without him; he didn’t want us waiting around at the airport for him, but really, the airport was a welcome break from the bus, with lots of power outlets to charge our gear. So, we ordered pizza for the group and waited. Cleve told Penn that we left, so he was shocked when he came down the escalator to our surprise-serenade with a song we had learned:

We are the dirty hands
We travel across the land in a caravan
We are the dirty hands
People don’t know why
But they’ll understand

He was humbled. He made a beeline for the exit to puff down two cigarettes in rapid succession and thanked us for being there. It was a cool moment on an extraordinary trip.

New Orleans, LA – The Dirty Hands Caravan

The performer Everlast was with Penn, just another person who had heard about the trip and wanted to join us. We had picked up about ten people on our way across the country, and as we drove the last few hours into New Orleans, our apprehension at what we would see in the city grew.

We watched Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke to get a primer on the hurricane and its devastating effect on the city until we arrived at Noah’s Ark Missionary Baptist Church that night. Pastor Willie Walker met Penn when he had courageously entered the city using his own resources to try and do what he could, using a boat to pluck people off of rooftops.

Since the hurricane, Pastor Walker’s church had been featured on the show Extreme Home Makeover and had been given a $1.7 million dollar remodel. It was beautiful, shaped like an octagon, with bamboo floors. We camped out in the backyard of the church, located in a rundown part of town, illustrated by the fact that we had two policemen guarding us while we were there. We enjoyed a home cooked meal at the church and later that night, Everlast gave an intimate performance on acoustic guitar in the church. It was another special night – some people danced while others enjoyed the music from the floor. Eventually we went to sleep around 2:30 in the morning.

At 4:30 a.m. I was woken up by the sound of thunder, seemingly right above our tent. The sky looked angry in the pre-dawn gray. I was exhausted and thought we could ride out the storm in our tent, but there was shouting outside and we learned that we were being told to get inside the church. Rain was falling in buckets. I was soaked immediately, but it felt good to get washed off, and I’m from Washington State, so rain doesn’t bother me. We grabbed our valuables and joined everyone else inside.

The storm continued for several hours. People were scared and cranky, cooped up in a small place. We were being given a very small taste of what it must have been like to be at the Super Dome during the hurricane. Penn nervously paced on the porch – the storm was affecting our plans for the day. Just when the collective mood seemed to be darkest, one of the Danish kids played American Beauty through the PA in the church. Almost immediately, the vibe changed as barefoot children of the ’70s and ’80s danced on the bamboo floor to the mellow Grateful Dead masterpiece. A middle-aged mom who was on the trip kept shaking her head in amazement that 20-somethings could know every word. Heck, even I was impressed at the musical knowledge of the kids. There is nothing better than seeing a new generation turned on to the Dead.

Pastor Willie Walker at Noah’s Ark Church
With The Dirty Hands Crew

The rain stopped and it got warmer. Our presence, combined with the weather, had left an indelible stain on the church property, so a few members of the group stayed to clean the church for Sunday services the next day, and the rest of us took the busses to the 9th Ward.

Even after watching the DVDs and hearing about the destruction, nothing prepares you for the vastness of the carnage. At first it looks pretty. The roads crisscross like patchwork, with green grass everywhere. Then you realize there are concrete steps where there once were houses, stretching for miles along the rebuilt concrete levies. Each stoop is a gravestone for a home. A couple FEMA trailers dot the landscape, along with the odd damaged, listing house, like bodies not yet recovered from the battlefield.

There is an organization in New Orleans called Common Ground that is made up of young people from all over the country who have put their lives on hold to come to New Orleans to get the community up and running. They are headquartered in the Lower 9th Ward, and every day they work to tear down homes or build gardens or paint houses for the residents who were able to come back to their homes after the storm. Most people had nothing to come back to, but those who did need our help to rebuild the community. It’s a daunting task, and there are no signs of a concentrated government effort to rebuild. I did not see any bulldozers, just lots of buildings with X’s on them marked for teardown. The people we met from Common Ground told us a little bit about the failure of the levy in the Lower 9th Ward. Despite the severity of the storm, the levy would have survived had a barge not broken from its moorings and smashed into the wall keeping the water out. This caused a massive breach and ten feet of water to flood the entire area. The black water submerged houses miles from the levy breach, and the barge’s owner or insurance company were not held responsible for the damage the barge did to the levy and community because of legal loopholes.

Dirty Hands working in NOLA

After the hurricane, I read opinions in the news that the area should be abandoned, but it appears this is just setting up a land grab for developers to remake the area. This land belongs to the people that were there before the storm. The levies have been rebuilt, stronger and higher than before, and the residents should get their land and houses back. All they want is a return to normalcy. But, it wasn’t our mission to decide whether or not the 9th Ward should be rebuilt – we were there to help, so we did what we could.

One of our jobs was going to be tearing down these crumbling homes, but the rain had made this unsafe, so we split into teams. Some of us brought food to the massive tent city that has sprouted up. These people are homeless but they have jobs. Due to a lack of affordable housing, they are forced to camp underneath an overpass. Another group went to a church to help out and other members of the Dirty Hands rode around on bicycles with a Common Ground worker, helping anyone who looked like they needed a hand.

I joined a team that was going to a house to help a woman who came back after the storm and had recently lost her husband. Her husband had been confined to a wheelchair before the storm. He survived the hurricane, but succumbed to health problems earlier this year. We created a stone path, landscaped a garden, cleared some rotten wood and painted. We worked together as a team doing the light labor under the watchful eye of our host. She kept saying, “Bless you, bless you. Oh, thank you so much. You don’t know how much this means to me!” She was the only one on her street who had returned after the storm, and the street was eerily quiet, free from the sound of children or traffic. Each of us had moist eyes as we worked in silence. She brought us water and pointed to the faint stain on the outside of her house where the water had crested. We were at least two miles from the levy, and the water had reached nine-feet. The scope of the flood is more than most people can comprehend.

M.I.A. :: 05.03 :: New Orleans, LA

Our work completed for the day, we rode back to Noah’s Ark to enjoy some more food and share our experiences from the day. Since there were no showers at the church, we were shuttled over to Tulane University to clean up. Still, it was Saturday night in New Orleans and we were ready to enjoy the French Quarter. Specifically, our goal was to check out M.I.A., who happened to be playing that night. Even though the show was sold out, a group of us managed to get in and we got up close and personal. It was a wild show, much better than the overcrowded Coachella performance, and M.I.A. rocked the house.

Sunday morning we attended services at Noah’s Ark. It was the first time many of the kids on the trip had witnessed a Southern Baptist service and the energy and cadence of the worship and sermon were a cultural revelation. After the service we split into groups again. Aim and I opted to visit the New Orleans Jazz Festival and help pick up cans and bottles from the concert field. We got to hear sets from Santana, The Raconteurs, The Neville Brothers and The Radiators while we filled six huge bags with empty beer cans before it started to get dark.

We arrived back at Noah’s Ark and found out there had been a drive-by shooting one block from the church. It wasn’t directed at us, but the threat of random violence weighed heavily on our minds. New Orleans has experienced a rise in crime born out of frustration, poverty, anger and helplessness.

The next day we were scheduled to leave. Some of us were frustrated that we couldn’t do more – we had journeyed all this way and we were leaving already?

New Orleans, LA – The Dirty Hands Caravan

The trip has been so hastily planned that it wasn’t perfect, but the intentions were pure. Penn told us that his goal for the trip was simply to raise awareness, to try and jumpstart a movement. In this respect, he succeeded. It was up to the participants on the trip to remind other people to do things like pick up their cigarette butts or recycle their bottles. I refrained from preaching about the environmental damage that eating meat causes and just tried to stay positive and lead by example. Of course, there were people on the trip who weren’t focused, but the absolute angels we befriended more than made up for a few bad apples.

Oscar and Alison encouraged those without responsibilities to stay, and sure enough, about 20 kids stayed behind to continue the mission of The Dirty Hands Caravan. As much as I would have liked to stay, I had obligations back home.

In the past month, they have set up a non-profit organization, continued to help other churches rebuild, secured housing for volunteers to come back to New Orleans and work, and started a number of community outreach programs including after school mentoring for children so they have a safe place to learn.

The Dirty Hands Caravan was whatever you wanted it to be and there were enough bright rays on the trip to shine a light on the problems that any group of 150 people will encounter. The singular, simple goal of helping people each day was more rewarding than I can put into words. Any other problems in your life take a backseat when you are helping others. It was a social experiment wrapped in goodwill, and we were willing participants.

The trip back to L.A. gave us ample time to reflect on the trip and cement our new friendships. A month after the trip, dozens of the Dirty Hands got together in Hollywood to attend a screening of the Third Wave and get drinks. Reconnecting with our friends, getting updates on the work being done in New Orleans and making plans to go back and help further made me realize that the trip was a success. A spark has been lit within a bunch of us, and our work is just beginning. We are The Dirty Hands, and we welcome you to join the party.

The Dirty Hands

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