Demolishing Disaster Capitalism
“If you try to bulldoze our homes, we’re going to fight.
There’s going to be a war in New Orleans.“
— Sharon Jasper, New Orleans low income housing resident
The Battle of City Hall
On Thursday, protesters and police were battling in the streets outside City Hall in New Orleans after more than 100 activists stormed through the gate. Meanwhile, inside the council chambers, City Council members were voting on whether or not to resume planned demolitions of low-income housing units, despite local and national resistance. Residents say the brick buildings are perfectly habitable, and accuse the city, the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), and Housing and Urban Development (HUD) of a program of class warfare and racially motivated gentrification.
Television station WDSU reported that the “scene outside New Orleans’ City Hall boiled on the brink of a riot Thursday as protesters stormed the gate and were met with police spraying Mace and firing Tasers.” The Associated Press reports: “One woman was sprayed with chemicals and dragged from the gates. She was taken away on a stretcher by emergency officials. Before that, the woman was seen pouring water from a bottle into her eyes and weeping. Another woman said she was stunned by officers, and still had what appeared to be a Taser wire hanging from her shirt. Some were arrested as officers tried to establish order and an ambulance arrived on the scene.”
NYC-based reporter Maria Piamascaro, who was inside the chambers taking pictures of a woman being beaten by police, reported that she was told to stop taking pictures, was threatened with arrest, and was removed from the chambers. “When I tried to get back in through another entrance,” Piamascaro reported, “the police told me I’d be sent out of the country if I didn’t leave. I’ve been in riots in New York and other places in the US, and I’ve never been treated like this.” Jamie “Bork” Loughner, an affordable housing and homeless advocate with Mayday NOLA and co-founder of the Common Ground Clinics, was tasered at the City Hall scuffle and removed from the scene by abulence.
On December 14th, a Louisiana State Court Order postponed all demolitions at C.J. Peete, Lafitte, and St. Bernard, pending City Council approval. The four complexes, if demolished, would eliminate more than 4,500 apartment units in the hurricane-ravaged city so desperately in need of affordable low-income housing. Human rights lawyer Bill Quigley explains the situation: “HUD is spending $762 million in taxpayer funds to tear down over 4600 public housing subsidized apartments and replace them with 744 similarly subsidized units – an 82% reduction. HUD plans to build an additional 1000 market rate and tax credit units – which will still result in a net loss of 2700 apartments to New Orleans – the remaining new apartments will cost an average of over $400,000 each! Affordable housing is at a critical point along the Gulf Coast. Over 50,000 families still living in tiny FEMA trailers are being systematically forced out. Over 90,000 homeowners in Louisiana are still waiting to receive federal recovery funds from the Road Home. In New Orleans, hundreds of the estimated 12,000 homeless have taken up residence in small tents across the street from City Hall and under the I-10.” Oread Daily reports that despite the protest at City Hall, City Council voted 7-0 in favor of the demolitions.
New Orleans: City Hall Protest – December 20, 2007- Video 1:
Protest at the New Orleans City Hall over government plans to
tear down needed homes to make way for yuppie developments.
The Battle of B.W. Cooper
The previous morning, on Wednesday, December 19th, anti-eviction/demolition activists in New Orleans chained themselves to bulldozers at the B.W. Cooper housing complex, in an attempt to stop demolitions that began this week over objections and resistance from residents. Though the city delayed demolitions at three other public housing complexes due to resistance, the destruction of B.W. Cooper was planned to resume after it had been stopped by a previous protest on December 12th.
Loughner, who was one of the activists who chained themselves to the bulldozers at B.W. Cooper, was quoted in a press release, saying “We are refusing to leave unless the City Council stops this illegal, unjust, and immoral plan to destroy vital housing. People here are prepared to resist what amounts to an assault on their communities.” Loughner and two other activists were arrested later in the day, and Loughner, charged with possession of a false explosive device, “terrorizing,” resisting arrest, and criminal trespass, is being held in the Orleans Parish Prison. According to Infoshop News, “Her other two associates, Elizabeth Cook and Joy Kohler, have also been ludicrously charged with a variety of felonies.”
A woman sings from a balcony inside the B.W. Cooper housing development after several protestors chained themselves to the public housing Wednesday morning to protest demolition plans. Staff Photo by Michael DeMocker (The Times-Picayune)
In a press release, activists declared Wednesday’s actions at B.W. Cooper a success: “A day of demolition for the B.W. Cooper housing complex here was stopped today by three local housing activists who chained themselves to the facilities as the bulldozers were getting ready to continue tearing down the 1,000-unit complex. After attempting to start work for an hour, bulldozer operators gave up for the day when the three activists – Jamie “Bork” Loughner, Elizabeth Cook, and Joy Kohler – refused to leave. The three were subsequently arrested and are still in police custody at this hour.” In a statement, Loughner and Cook said “We won’t be stopped in our fight to secure public housing for all citizens of New Orleans of any ethnicity. The government’s attempts to sweep us aside and suppress our voices will not be successful, and even from jail, we won’t be silenced.”
In an interview with Amy Goodman, Quigley told Democracy Now!, “There’s hundreds of millions of dollars at stake here for developers, who—you know, the business community wants to do it because it’s easy money, tear some good buildings down, put up many fewer little buildings. As one developer told me, you make a lot more money with one million-dollar house than you do with ten $100,000 houses. And so, this is a huge project. There’s four huge projects. There is clear indications of corruption. There’s clear indications of favoritism.” In December 19th’s issue of the New York Times, critic Nicolai Ouroussoff argued against the demolitions: “If the government gets its way, a rich architectural legacy will be supplanted by private, mixed-income developments with pitched roofs and wood-frame construction, an ersatz vision of small-town America. That this could happen in a city that still largely lies in ruins is both sad and grotesque. Blow after blow, in the name of progress. Cast as the city’s saviors, architects are being used to compound one of the greatest crimes in American urban planning.”
Four housing protestors, none of them former residents of New Orleans public housing, sit chained to the entrance of the Housing Authority of New Orleans building, now operated by HUD, in Gentilly on Friday. They were protesting the scheduled demolition of 4 flood-ravaged housing complexes that are to be rebuilt as more traditional mixed-income neighborhoods. MICHAEL DEMOCKER / THE TIMES-PICAYUNE
A Continuum of Actions
The December 19th & 20th actions at B.W. Cooper and City Hall were not the first direct actions or acts of civil disobedience against evictions, demolitions, and gentrification in New Orleans, and they will certainly not be the last. In recent weeks alone, activists have stormed the Federal Building, chained themselves to HUD buildings and blockaded HUD offices, marched on Mayor Ray Nagin’s home, and disrupted City Council proceedings. Human rights groups have called the demolitions of low-income housing projects in New Orleans ‘an act of racial cleansing’ and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) has urged HUD and the city of New Orleans to stop the ‘racially motivated’ demolitions of public housing.
Actions of solidarity have also taken place elsewhere in the country. One such action, on December 13th, involved SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) and the “Stop the Demolitions” solidarity coalition, who blockaded a street near HUD offices in Washington, D.C.
The resistance against the demolitions has gained the attention and support of a few politicians, including Congresswoman Maxine Waters. U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have sent a letter to President Bush demanding that he immediately stop the demolitions for 60 days to allow a congressional solution. The president, as of yet, has declined to respond.
Meanwhile, the FBI is busy crying domestic terrorism over anti-gentrification flyers that appeared in New Orleans:
“For Every Public Housing Unit Destroyed, A Condo Will
be Destroyed. If there will be no homes for us, no relief
from high rents, there will be no homes for the rich either!
Sincerely, The Angry and Powerless.”
The actions being taken by the people in New Orleans are refreshing, hopeful, and inspiring, and the actions of the government galvanizing, inexcusably infuriating, and downright criminal, but unfortunately, it seems that most Americans would rather forget about New Orleans. It seems as if we would like to ignore not only the victims, but the ongoing victimization occurring in that struggling city. The shock of the disaster seems to have created a sort of collective, national PTSD, that causes us to forget and ignore, and to pretend that is was an isolated event in the past that has been dealt with and thus no longer requires attention and assistance. Knowledge and information are therapeutic to this trauma, and action is a sign of recovery.
TAKE ACTION NOW! Sign the petition to stop the demolition and to support SB 1668. Also, the Ruckus Society has a list of other things you can do to take action. Finally, for more information on this check out New Orleans Indymedia, Defend New Orleans Public Housing, Justice for New Orleans and People’s Hurricane Relief Fund.
GNN contributor and blogger Nathan Coe is a guerrilla journalist and activist residing in the mountains of Southwest Colorado, where he is a senior in college working on his Major in Humanities. He can be contacted at free_world_alliance(at)yahoo.com or via his blog at ShiftShapers.gnn.tv.