By now, the nearly 400 people who had been staying in the River Center shelter in Baton Rouge, Louisiana are gone, either in another facility or at a friend’s or relative’s home. Yesterday (September 15), they had to gather their belongings—or what they have left—and leave. The emergency housing had been open since August 14 after severe storms flooded nearly 400,000 Baton Rouge residents’ homes, but Red Cross is shutting it now that the River Center’s owners are ready to reopen the center’s original business as a music and arts venue.
Amid all the adjustment that comes with moving into a shelter, the displaced saw one friendly face consistently while they were there. A woman who was not an evacuee showed up to document conditions and to bring toys, food, coloring books, childcare and various other necessities which people requested.
Her name is Crystal Williams.
Williams is a born-and-raised product of Louisiana—Baton Rouge to be exact. The 28-year-old mother of two loves her neighborhood of Scotlandville, which sits in the city’s northern most region. It’s this love of place that drives her to care for, nurture and provide for it.
Williams’ activism started in 2014 when she began protesting the mass incarceration of Black people in the United States by handing out pamphlets detailing why she believes it should end. “My intention was to awake the consciousness of the masses,” she says. That same year, after she was arrested and found guilty for the misdemeanor crime of “possession of stolen property,” Williams had difficulty finding work. Instead, she used her culinary experience to open a catering business, Crystal12:25.
Her battle against the criminal justice system took a tragic turn on July 5, 2016, the day Baton Rouge police officer Blame Salamoni shot her friend Alton Sterling. “When I was scrolling down my Facebook feed, I realized that this person they’re saying was murdered, or killed, is Alton, so I immediately jumped out of bed,” Williams says.
Out of this, North Baton Rouge Matters (NBRM) was born. This grassroots organization is composed of five core group leaders and roughly 200 contacts who work to educate and assist the North Baton Rouge community on issues like food justice and police violence.
All of their work—which included a town hall meeting, a healing session through a vigil and a United Nations meeting on peaceful assembly where about 60 community members assembled by NBRM provided testimonies on police brutality—hit pause with the floods.
Williams organized a local rapid response. Three days after the storm hit, she headed to the River Center shelter to volunteer. The militarized, prison-like atmosphere of the shelter was striking to her. Armed police officers and military personnel were littered throughout the entrance. ”I walked into a situation where there were a group of Black individuals in a mass space that were being policed in a traumatic situation,” says Williams. “It was shocking for me that there [were so many] police.”
Upon offering to help, Williams was turned down. A spokesperson at the Department of Child and Health Services confirmed to Colorlines that the shelter was directing people interested in volunteering elsewhere because they were fully staffed. Wiliams’ reaction at hearing she could not be on-site? Concern.
“We needed to have Black faces in there,” she says. “We needed to have regular people, real people, who can have a different perspective to ensure that these people were having their right to whatever, making sure they were taken care of and they were safe and everything was OK in there. I just needed to know personally.”
The only way she could ultimately enter the shelter was to claim she was an evacuee herself. After she walked through metal detectors and had National Guard personnel search her bag, Williams was in.
She chose not to register her name because only those who must spend the night and require items (like clothes and food) do so in order to receive a wristband. But once she met the children, who begged her to stay after she talked to them and handed out gifts of journals and games, Williams caved in. She ended up spending three nights. Armed guards would make their rounds after dark weaving between beds. Everyone was to be tucked in by 10 p.m., the shelter’s curfew, and no one could leave before 6 a.m. the next morning.
It got too real, Williams says, so she returned home. “I saw my being there as a threat to the policing,” she says. “That was truly the reality that I faced.”
This was because Williams carried her phone with her everywhere she went to document life inside the shelter. This life included standing in a line every day so that Red Cross officials could hand out attire: one pair of underwear, one shirt and one pair of pants. Don’t ask for an extra blanket or underwear, Williams says, or a police officer might call you ”needy.”
For one month, she returned to record video, audio and shoot photos of the people who lived there, some of which can be found on the NBRM Facebook page. The wristband she received by registering allowed her to keep entering—but considering she visited nearly every day, Williams figured it was a matter of time before authorities caught wind of her activities.
They ultimately did—or at least she thinks so. Calling her by name, an officer pulled her aside and asked her to wait for someone else to come speak with her. Williams has no idea how the officer knew her name or recognized her. She had never interacted with him. Naturally, she refused to wait and demanded he let her go. Her wristband was taken as a result.
Williams initially wanted to keep track of what flood victims needed, but she quickly realized that the recordings with them were more valuable. People opened up to her. They revealed their deepest worries and fears. In one audio recording sent to Colorlines, a veteran only identified as Walter says, “They don’t want to treat you like a human being. They want to try to treat everybody like a number. Everybody’s not a number. They try to make it seem like we didn’t have anything before the flood—which is not true because a lot of us were making strides before the flood. We didn’t ask for the flood, but they try to make it seem like they doing us a favor.”
Another woman voiced her worries over the missing presence of local governmental leaders, especially the mayor, who hadn’t shown up to the shelter. “When we need our own leaders, they shun us,” the woman says. ”So what do you expect the rest of the world to do to us?”
All this work took a toll on the mother of two: Williams was dedicating about 25 hours a week to her catering business and anywhere from 40 to 60 to her activism, she says. She found assistance from her supportive mother who kept her 12- and 8-year-old when Williams was working.
During her time living at the shelter, Williams survived mostly off granola bars and food others brought from home. She had the provided meal only once. “I can describe it in no other way than as slop,” Williams says. She ate the beef stew to gain the full experience of an evacuee. It tasted no better than it looked, adds the chef who specializes in organic cuisine and holistic meal planning.
Williams wanted to use her culinary skill to help the homeless, but she lacked the resources. With about 400 mouths to feed at the River Center, Williams would need a large team. She and four others did cook jambalaya, baked beans and chicken for another shelter in Baker, Louisiana, but there were significantly less people staying there.
Now that the Baton Rouge River Center shelter is closed, Wiliams doesn’t plan to stop advocating for victims of the flooding. Rapid response time may be over, but there’s lots of work left to do. For now, NBRM is distributing a petition demanding that the Red Cross provide better food to flood victims. Once there’s time to pick up with where it was before the storm, NBRM needs to establish agendas and campaigns, as well as a formal membership process. Williams is proud of the unity and relationships the organization has built from the time she spent at the shelters, believing they will help NBRM move forward. She’s most proud of the weekly youth group she helped organize, though.
Every Saturday, Williams and her NBRM team gather upwards of 40 three- to 16-year-olds in what they call the ”Youth Leadership Recreation Group.” Together they share a meal and discuss identity through workshops, journaling or art.
Williams worries about those kids who don’t have a home anymore. Red Cross will send them to the Celtic Studios shelter east of the River Center, which she has visited and prefers because it lacks the policed presence of the River Center. “It’s like a community there,” she says. Its conditions may be better, but that shelter is still temporary, continuing this cycle of displacement which has left families traumatized.
Still, as Williams has taken note, these folks have also demonstrated an amazing amount of strength. “It’s mainly due to their unwavering faith,” she says. Williams doesn’t abide by any religion specifically, but she believes in the “power of manifestation.”She harnesses that power to bring relief to the families who just left the Baton Rouge River Center shelter.
With that power and her own faith, she moves forward—doing her part in rebuilding an uprising that the flood nearly washed away.