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. (See video at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMBWAXfGsc4)
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 were ignored.
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 and arrested. 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% 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 Senator 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 being evicted. More on the reasons to oppose demolition can be found here.
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 agencies.
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." Those wanting additional information should look to: http://www.justiceforneworleans.org or http://www.defendneworleanspublichousing.org
Bill 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. You can reach him at Quigley@loyno.edu