NEWS: New Orleans: The Struggle for Affordable Housing Met With Tasers
jancius at ohio.edu
Thu Jan 17 17:57:55 EST 2008
From: yippeehioh at yahoo.com
In New Orleans: The Struggle for Affordable Housing Met With Tasers,
Pepper Spray, and Arrests
by Bill Quigley
Special to the NNPA from the Louisiana Weekly
NEW ORLEANS (NNPA) - In a remarkable symbol of the injustices of
post-Katrina reconstruction, hundreds of people were locked out of a
public New Orleans City Council meeting addressing demolition of 4500
public housing apartments. Some were tasered, many pepper sprayed and
a dozen arrested.
Outside the chambers, iron gates were chained and padlocked even
before the scheduled start.
The scene looked like one of those countries on TV that is undergoing
a people's revolution - and the similarities were only beginning.
Dozens of uniformed police secured the gates and other entrances.
Only developers and those with special permission from council members
were allowed in - the rest were kept locked outside the gates. Despite
dozens of open seats in the council chambers, pleas to be allowed in
Chants of ''Housing is a human right!'' and ''Let us in!'' thundered
through the concrete breezeway.
Public housing residents came and spoke out despite an intense
campaign of intimidation. Residents were warned by phone that if they
publicly opposed the demolitions they would lose all housing
assistance. Residents opposed to the demolition had simple demands.
If the authorities insisted on spending hundreds of millions to tear
down hundreds of structurally sound buildings containing 4500 public
housing subsidized apartments, there should be a guarantee that every
resident could return to a similarly subsidized apartment.
Alternatively, the government should use the hundreds of millions to
repair the apartments so people could come home.
Neither alternative was acceptable to HUD. A plan of residents to
partner with the AFL-CIO Housing Trust to save their homes was also
ignored. Outside, SWAT team members and police in riot gear and on
horses began to arrive as rain started falling.
Those locked out included public housing residents, a professor from
Southern University, graduate students, the Episcopal Bishop of
Louisiana, ministers, lawyers, law students, homeless people who lived
in tents across the street from city hall, affordable housing allies
from across the country and dozens of others.
Inside the chambers, Revered Torin Sanders and others insisted that
the locked out be allowed to come and stand inside along the walls - a
common practice for over 30 years. No one could recall any City
Council locking people out of a public meeting.
The request to allow people to stand was denied. The Council then
demanded silence from those inside. Those who continued to demand that
the others be let in were pointed out by police, physically taken down
Ironically, some young men were tasered right in front of the
speaker's podium. This was a meeting the council had repeatedly tried
to avoid. It was only held after residents - 100 percent African-
American and nearly all mothers and grandmothers - got an emergency
court order stopping demolitions until the council acted. The U.S.
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced long ago
it was going to demolish 4500 public housing apartments despite the
Katrina crisis of affordable housing no matter what anyone said. HUD
had no plans to ask the council or anyone else for approval. The judge
said otherwise, so the meeting was scheduled.
Leaders of the U.S. Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, asked that
the decision be delayed 60 days so they could try to move forward on
Senate Bill 1668 which would resolve many of the demolition problems.
This request was backed by New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson,
Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Presidential candidates John Edwards
and Barack Obama.
Opponents cited the affordable housing crisis in New Orleans. Homeless
people camped across from City Hall and for blocks under the
interstate. The number of homeless people doubled since Katrina.
Thousands of residents in FEMA trailers across the Gulf Coast were
Solidarity demonstrations opposing demolition were held in Washington
DC, New York, Oakland, Minneapolis, Houston, North Carolina, Maine,
Philadelphia, Cleveland, New Jersey, and Boston.
Thousands of people across the country contacted city council members.
Dozens of community, housing and human rights groups petitioned the
Council not to demolish until there was an enforceable requirement of
one for one replacement of housing.
But hours before the meeting began, a majority of the council publicly
announced on the front page of the local paper that they were going to
approve demolition no matter what people said at the meeting.
The paper, the developers and others were delighted. Residents and
affordable housing allies were not.
Inside, the council started the meeting surrounded by armed police,
National Guard and undercover authorities from many law enforcement
Outside, the locked out could see the people who had been arrested on
the inside being dragged away to police wagons. A few of the
protestors then pulled open one of the gates.
The police started shooting arcs of pepper spray into the crowd. A
woman's scream pierced the chaos as police fired tasers into the
crowd. Medics wiped pepper spray from fallen people's eyes.
A young woman who was tasered in the back went into a seizure and was
taken to the hospital. Inside and out, a dozen people were arrested -
most for disturbing the peace.
They joined another dozen who had been arrested over the past week in
protest actions against the demolitions.
The City Council meeting continued.
Supporters of demolition were given careful, courteous attention and
softball questions by council members. Opponents less so.
Despite pleas from displaced residents, dozens of community
organizations and federal elected officials, the New Orleans City
Council voted unanimously to allow demolition to proceed. In their
approval the Council did promise to urge HUD to listen to residents
and to work for one for one replacement of affordable housing. Several
city council members read from typed statements about their reasons to
support demolition: the deplorable state of public housing; the lack
of available money for repair; the oral promises of all, the federal
government and developers, to do something better for the community.
After the meeting, residents vowed to continue their struggle for
affordable housing for everyone and to resist demolitions - putting
their bodies before bulldozers if necessary.
The struggle for affordable housing continues as does the campaign to
stop demolition until there is a real right to return and one for one
replacement of housing. Residents and local advocates applaud and
appreciate the support of allies from across the nation. Critics label
national supporters as ''outside agitators'' - exactly the same charge
leveled at civil rights activists historically. But people understand
that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
Public housing residents and local affordable housing advocates
welcome the humble participation of social justice advocates of
whatever age, of whatever race, from whatever place, who join and act
in true solidarity.
Residents vow to make sure that the promises made by the Council and
the Mayor are enforced.
For example, the Mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, announced that he
would not allow HUD to demolish two of the four housing developments
until HUD gave documentation of funded plans including one for one
replacement of the housing demolished and details of the developments
and their plans.
The Senate will continue to be lobbied to pass SB 1668 - which would
really guarantee one for one replacement of housing. It is currently
stalled in the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee
because of opposition by Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter.
Litigation is still pending in state and federal courts to enforce
Louisiana and U.S. laws that should protect residents from illegal
demolitions. Investigations into the legality of locking people out of
a public meeting, the legality of a law passed at such a meeting, the
indiscriminate use of tasers and pepper spray, are all ongoing.
Padlocked and chained gates will only amplify the voices of the locked
out calling for justice. Pepper spray and tasers illustrate the
problems but will not deter people from protesting for just causes.
Bulldozers may start up, but just people will resist and create a
reality where housing is a real human right.
Stephanie Mingo, a working grandmother who is one of the leaders of
the residents, promised to continue the resistance after the meeting:
''We did not come this far to turn back now. This fight is far from
over. We are not resting until everyone has the right to return home.''
Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor at Loyola
University New Orleans. Bill is part of the team of lawyers
representing displaced residents of public housing. He can be reached
at Quigley at loyno.edu
More information about the URBANTH-L