New Orleans residents fight to save public housing

By Larry Hales
On Dec. 20—just five days before the Christmas holiday—residents and supporters of New Orleans public housing were denied their right to speak regarding the demolition of 4,700 public housing units. The housing is to be replaced by “mixed income housing,” which really means upscale and expensive housing.

Pastor Torin Sanders protests at City Council<br>meeting in New Orleans.
Pastor Torin Sanders protests at City Council
meeting in New Orleans.
Photo: Johnnie Stevens

What ensued before and after the now majority white city council voted in favor of demolition was a riot of state forces—city council security, New Orleans SWAT and regular police—tasering and tear-gassing people demanding their right to housing. The city council vote threatens to create thousands more homeless in a city that already has 12,000 homeless people, many of them former residents of public housing.

Videos of the horrific shoving and dragging of an elderly woman with a cane, along with the pushing, tossing to the ground, tasering and tear-gassing of people has been seen by many. However, the process by which the attempt to takeover and redefine the “Big Easy” is even more insidious.

The winds and storm surges of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita blew and washed away the façade the U.S. likes to present of life in the states.

Vigil in front of City Hall in Raleigh, N.C.,<br>Dec. 21 in solidarity with housing struggle<br>in New Orleans.
Members of Black Workers For Justice, FIST and other
community organizations gather for a vigil in front of
City Hall in Raleigh, N.C., Dec. 21 in solidarity with
housing struggle in New Orleans.
WW photo: Fight Imperialism, Stand Together (FIST)

The design to retake inner city areas, where workers from oppressed nationalities and poor white workers have lived for generations, is taking place across the country. It has become known as gentrification, but to many in the oppressed community it is nothing less than ethnocide—the intentional destruction of a people’s culture.

This process not only includes the destruction of affordable housing, but also beefed up police forces that terrorize communities, rising cases of police brutality, “zero tolerance” ordinances that target people of color, declining schools, scant access to resources and public transportation—all to replace the inhabitants of the areas with affluent whites.

New Orleans, though, is shaping up to be a battleground and the rallying cry—not just for the Black masses, but for all those in the fight for self determination for oppressed nationalities and human rights.

Rotten redevelopment from day one

The aims of the local ruling elite were clear from the very beginning. James Reiss, the wealthy white head of the Regional Transportation Authority, stated in January 2006, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.” Reiss was made chairperson of the Bring New Orleans Back Commission. He reportedly brought in an Israeli security team to guard his home in the aftermath of Katrina.

Reiss stated further: “I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out.” His statements were in response to the demand of residents of the Lower 9th Ward that rebuilding efforts start immediately.

The Lower 9th Ward is one of the lowest lying points in the city and any flooding of New Orleans would mean that the Lower 9th Ward, with a 98 percent Black population before the storm, would take on water—and it did, from at least three sources.

The city stalled all rebuilding efforts for four months in the most devastated areas, at the urging of real estate developer Joseph Canizaro. The fate of the areas was then slated to be determined by how many people return to rebuild.

According to the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, the Lower 9th Ward had a 37 percent poverty rate. Twenty-seven percent of the people were elderly and 25 percent were children.

So, though 60 percent of the homes were occupied by the owners, many would not be able to return because of the burden of finding alternative housing, food and clothing. With no work and paltry federal assistance, the price of rebuilding would be nearly impossible.

The bulldozing of homes in the Lower 9th went as planned and most of the area is now overgrown with grass, but some residents have returned and are attempting to rebuild.

Attack on public education

Every facet of life in New Orleans has been made increasingly difficult by local, state and federal officials. The schools are no different.

Since Hurricane Katrina, $44.8 million in federal monies have gone to charter schools. The decision to have the state of Louisiana take over Orleans Parish School District was decided shortly after Katrina struck and while people were still waiting to be rescued.

Leigh Davis reports in a Counterpunch article: “Within days of Katrina, Gov. Kathleen Blanco (D) convened a special meeting of the state legislature to talk about a takeover of the Orleans Parish Public School District, a district with a half-billion dollar budget serving New Orleans. …

“A few months later, the state legislature passed legislation giving the state control of 107 of New Orleans’ 128 public schools, by placing them under the authority of the Recovery School District (RSD).” (Aug. 30, 2006)

Almost half of the children in New Orleans attend the charter schools and half attend schools under the authority of the RSD. The rest attend private schools, which opened months after Katrina.

Leigh also reports that 7,500 school personnel were placed on “disaster leave.” Many of them are still denied jobs and the right to collective bargaining.

Attorney Bill Quigley reports that hundreds of children returning for the fall 2007 semester were denied access to public schools. He quotes a teacher who said: “The public schools are totally fragmented. The struggles are still the same. Students still have difficult situations at home; some are still in trailers or living with too many people in one small home. Schools still lack books and materials, which I don’t understand.”

The fight is not over

Yet the battle for New Orleans has begun. Though the ruling local elite have been able to maneuver the election of a white majority into city council—a council that was dominated by Blacks, in a city that was 68 percent Black since 1976—the Black people of New Orleans are returning home and now make up a slight majority in population.

It is not that people are not paying attention, but that the daily struggle of life intervenes and is exacerbated by the particular circumstances of New Orleans.

The callousness of those in power and the brutality of state forces on Dec. 20 have awakened many around the country. If the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Housing Authority of New Orleans think they can demolish the 4,700 units that comprise Lafitte, St. Bernard, B.W. Cooper and CJ Peete, then they have another thing coming.

The demolitions are slated to begin in January, but activists have already called for protests and resistance to the destruction of the housing units.

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