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human & civil rights | katrina aftermath

The Importance of Civil Disobedience in Post-Katrina New Orleans

By Elizabeth Cook

Citizens of New Orleans are taking it upon themselves to enforce the right of return with everyday acts of civil disobedience. Public housing residents in particular are fighting back. HUD is attempting to shutter all of public housing in New Orleans, but residents have forced the reopening of Iberville Housing Development, and have attempted reoccupation of two other developments.
From the "looting" that occurred as people scavenged for food, water and medicines, in the days following Katrina, to the refusal of thousands to leave, despite a mandatory evacuation order by gun point, civil disobedience has taken its place as a survival tool in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Two incidents of civil disobedience in New Orleans that involved arrests went virtually unreported in the local and national media during the Katrina anniversary events. This is no accident, in my view.

On Monday, August 28, nine people were arrested, including Jay Arena of C3/Hands off Iberville, at the Lafitte Housing Development, after attempting, with Lafitte resident D.J. Christy, to reoccupy Christy's unit. I was present on that day, and witnessed the arrests.

One day later, several men entered the Six Flags compound in eastern New Orleans and attempted to take a FEMA trailer for a female resident of the lower 9th ward. Curtis Muhammed of the Survivor's Council, a senior citizen who walks with a cane and founder of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, was arrested in the incident.

The "Lafitte Nine" event received exactly two sentences at the end of the article in the Times Picayune that addressed the recent Yes Men Hoax at Lafitte Housing Development on the same day as the attempted reoccupation.

National media, to my awareness, has given virtually no coverage, though members of the national press were there.

The Six Flags incident received no notice in local traditional media, although it found its way onto www.JusticeforNew Orleans.org. The Lafitte incident was ignored by that same web site.

In contrast to the corporate owned media, alternative media is recognizing the importance of incidents of civil disobedience in New Orleans. The international Independent Media website picked up the Lafitte incident and put it on its front page.

The virtual, corporate-owned, media blackout is a sure sign that those in power feel intimidation. The ignoring of public housing in the local media, and now apparently acts of civil disobedience, is a sign the ruling class doesn't want the word to get out.

What word would that be?

Would it be this message: That the federal government is waging a war against the working class citizens of New Orleans by its refusal to reopen public housing and adequately fund the rebuilding of affordable housing, and vital infrastructure.

The word is also that people have been fighting back since before the floodwaters receded, in everyday acts of civil disobedience. These efforts, by the people, have continued as people exercise their right of return, despite incredibly difficult, government imposed hardship.

The war on the working class involves endlessly delaying funding for rebuilding, as in Louisiana citizens not yet receiving a penny of funds from the Road Home Program. It is a war in the form of FEMA dragging its feet when it comes to rebuilding our vital sewerage and water board infrastructure. It is a war on the working class when Charity Hospital is shut down and no adequate infrastructure created in its place to insure an above crisis level of available health care.

Road Home Recipients will now have to be finger-printed. All recipients of government contract funds for rebuilding, including the major CEOs of Fluor, Halliburton, Shaw Group and Bechtel, all of whom have received millions in clean-up and reconstruction "projects", and all state, local and federal officials who have hampered and delayed reconstruction, should be fingerprinted as well.

Desperation and determination can often work hand in hand, and those two traits are driving acts of civil disobedience in New Orleans.

Public housing residents have been in the forefront of the grass roots movement to enforce the right of return. They have staged numerous acts of civil disobedience since Katrina to reclaim their apartments.

Constructed as a result of the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1937, the Lafitte Housing Development was originally built for African Americans, and remained, until Katrina, a predominantly African American community.

The attempted reoccupation of a Lafitte unit was in defiance of a recently announced HUD partnership with the Catholic Church, MIT and Chase Bank, and several non-profit entities, among others, to "redevelop" Lafitte, which means the demolition of 865 units of affordable, public housing. I have seen several of the units myself, since Katrina, and besides a good hard scrubbing and painting, there is very little that needs to be done to the units. They are built out of masonry, and won't need the extensive gutting required by much of the private housing stock.

Hundreds of Iberville Housing Development residents have been staging everyday acts of civil disobedience by returning to their units. The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), under the auspices of HUD, since Katrina, has mounted an intense and intimidating public relations compaign, well-financed with your tax dollars, against the reopening of public housing.

Iberville residents have particularly been targeted with disinformation manufactured by HANO. The 900 unit complex itself was barely touched by flood waters on the interiors of the units. There was little reason not to reopen, but that didn't stop HANO from manufacturing reasons.

Notices were sent out by HANO to the handfull of Iberville residents who had returned in early spring, that the soil was contaminated and residents would have to move.

A long-time Iberville resident called in the media, and the support of other residents, and HANO retreated.

HANO soon regrouped and sent out notices that mold was a problem and residents, again, would have to move. Residents responded to this intimidation by simply not moving. Again, HANO retreated.

Residents have waged the most difficult civil disobedience by reoccupying their units. Many residents, because they returned "on their own", have not gained "official" recognition that they are indeed back. HANO invariably condemns these actions as "illegal", refusing to recognize the right of return, in a timely manner, for these residents.

Residents who are "illegally" back are subjected to everyday harassment. This harassment has included unexpected and adrupt visits from HANO managment, visits from and accompanying threats of eviction from HANO security, refusal by HANO to have services adequately restored, such as gas service for cooking and heating, and HANO refusing to provide appliances for those who have returned.

Undaunted by the harassment by HANO, residents are using plug-in hot plates, heating bathing water in pots, filling coolers with ice, many sharing refrigerators with neighbors. Some, who can afford it, are simply buying their own appliances.

C.J. Pete Housing Development in the Central City neighborhood of New Orleans, which did not flood, was home to 300 residents prior to Katrina. On September 12, a resident with supporters attempted to reoccupy her unit, with the intention of setting up a generator. HANO security was there however to block the attempt. A handful of residents had begun to clean their units with the intent of reoccupation. They would be doing so without public services: no electricity, no gas and no water, and no information as to when those services would be restored.

St. Bernard Housing Development residents and their supporters risked arrest on April 4 of this year when they broke through a police barricade to begin the clean-up of their units. The 1500 apartment units remain closed, however, due to HANO policies .

Several dozen B.W. Cooper Housing Development residents mounted a phone campaign in the months after Katrina, and were able to secure the reopening of at least 300 units.

Early on in this recovery process, when news started getting around about the Bring New Orleans Back Commission's (BNOB) recommendation that certain areas of the city be converted to green space, residents began lining up for permits to rebuild, and publicly thumbing their noses at the BNOB, corporate-heavy commission meetings.

When the BNOB recommended shutting down the permitting process, Mayor Ray Nagin balked, he was running for re-election, and shelved the BNOB Commission report.

The biggest fear of the "powers that be", in relation to New Orleans right now, is that enough members of the working class and working poor will return, and begin to organize and fight for the restoration of the city's infrastructure. More people home means more pressure on the federal government to rebuild the public infrastructure, and more pressure on local and state officials to pressure the federal government for the necessary funding.

The government knows there is less dissent with fewer people, particularly fewer working class people who might be inclined to tip the balance in favor of the rebuilding and full restoration of public services.

A policy to reinvent public housing in New Orleans fits right in with the agenda of fewer working poor, or working class in New Orleans. In the name of so-called, "mixed income" housing, the demolition of viable public housing is proposed, backing the time table up indefinitely for the right of return for our low-income citizens.

The neighborhood rebuilding process taking place now, has residents participating with the resources to return and rebuild already. These select few are planning the doggie parks, lush landscaping and Lincoln Beach revitalization, and pushing for "mixed income" neighborhoods to replace public housing. There is also a push to restructure zoning laws to restrict, for example, the rebuilding of dense apartment complexes in New Orleans East. These apartment complexes were a source of affordable housing for thousands.

A slightly watered down, New Orleans City Council gutting ordinance, passed recently, that simply extends the time of notification before the process begins to take your home from you, further damages the rights of private property owners in a capitalist system, and will prevent the return of affordable rental property, as landlords scavenge for the crumbs thrown at them by the corporate heavy Louisiana Recovery Authority (LRA).

New Orleans residents heavily relied on rental housing for affordable housing prior to Katrina. The LRA is planning the disbursement of funds that will rebuild just 18% of the rental stock in south Louisiana that was severely damaged. It is also making these funds available to new investors and non-profit entities, ensuring a competition driven process that places the homeowner at probably a purposeful disadvantage to organized entities already on the ground groping for funds.

Regarding public housing, in effect, the Federal Government, with the blessing of state and local officials, have confiscated 4000 affordable housing units for the working poor. HUD has couched its plans for public housing in language that expresses that what is to come will somehow be "better" for the residents.

It is difficult to ascertain how the demolition of their housing will serve residents' interests in a humane fashion.

HUD's policies in effect serve to rip apart the fabric of whole neighborhoods. Federal, state and local officials have often touted the redeveloped St. Thomas Housing Development, now known as River Gardens, as the model for the future of public housing. 1500 families were displaced as a result of the demolition of St. Thomas, and fewer than 100 of those families have been allowed to return to the "new" River Gardens.

For officials to "tout", cynically, such a project, as somehow "beneficial" to residents, displays a level of arrogance, or ignorance, as the case may be, to the real lives of the working poor.

Thousands have yet to receive the FEMA trailers they applied for, including many public housing residents.

Families living on top of each other, two, three families to a household is nothing new. There was a crisis in affordable housing in New Orleans before Katrina, its growth coinciding, incidentally, with the steady neglect, deterioration and boarding up of thousands of public housing units.

Remember the fire in Chicago? It was just 6 days ago that 6 children were killed in a fire in a building in Chicago, the tragedy befalling a family living by candlelight. It is long past time to connect the dots on incidents like that tragic fire, and one that claimed the lives of several members of an extended family in Harvey, Louisiana, several years back. They were crowded into one apartment whose services had not yet been turned on. Connect the dots to the national crisis in affordable housing.

Historically, the private sector has not met the acute demands for affordable housing for the working class and very poor, and the Fair Housing Act of 1937 was passed with at least a tacit acknowledgement of that belief. Yet stupidly, the federal government has refused to adequately maintain or increase the numbers of public housing units that are so needed.

Down from 14,000 units inhabitied in the late '80's, to a little over 5000 prior to Katrina in New Orleans, the government's war on its own resources for the people solidified in the Reagan administration. Public housing, under attack for decades now, has paralleled a growing, affordable housing crisis that ironically, the Fair Housing Act was supposed to address. Families having to double, triple up, like the tenements in the early 1900's, is a crime committed on the working class of this country.

In New Orleans, time is now measured as in days and months after Katrina.

t's one year plus now, and thousands of FEMA trailers are still being stored rather than used.

80% of the housing stock in Orleans parish was severely damaged, and not a penny of federal money for home owners has yet made its way to New Orleans citizens, one year later. 70% of its rental stock was severly damaged, yet plans for rebuilding will be vastly underfunded.

In the lower ninth ward, residents are still waiting for drinkable water to return to a huge swath of the neighborhood, as well as electric and gas services. FEMA trailers can't be hooked up unless there are services to hook them up to.

In Houston, in a recent town hall meeting, Houstonians openly called for Katrina evacuees to be sent back.

New Orleans housing activist Mike Howells said recently a new underclass is being created, with all of the attendant blame, scapegoating and stereotypes.

If your heart hasn't already broken enough from the pain and loss inflicted on our fellow citizens, picture their forced exile in another city, specifically Houston, and public airing of hostility directed towards their presence there.

Then swing back to the forced closing of public housing here, and the Fed refusal to adequately rebuild infrastructure. How apparently easily and quickly the federal government essentially creates an underclass of people who are being blocked from returning to their homes.

Citizens necessarily turn to acts of civil disobedience when faced with the trampling of human rights, when faced with survival issues.

Affordable housing and vital, public infrastructure is a survival issue.

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