Police crack down on New Orleans protest

January 11, 2008

Nicole Colson reports on a violent police assault on housing activists protesting in New Orleans.

NEW ORLEANS--Police and public officials here responded with outrageous violence last month to protesters fighting for their right to public housing.

Protesters had gathered December 20 outside a City Council meeting called to discuss the scheduled demolition of 4,500 public-housing units in the city's four biggest public housing projects. Hundreds of protesters had gathered to speak at the meeting but were denied entry.

After the City Council voted to demolish the buildings, many protesters tried to force their way into the meeting, pulling on the locked gates. Police responded with pepper spray and tasers. Mounted police and a SWAT team also closed in. At least two protesters required medical attention because of injuries sustained from the police.

Attorney and activist Bill Quigley, who was one of those arrested, described the scene: "Some were tasered, many pepper sprayed, and a dozen arrested. Outside the chambers, iron gates were chained and padlocked even before the scheduled start...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."

Activists say that many of the public-housing units slated for demolition are habitable, but that the city is getting rid of them in order to make way for new "mixed income" developments that will push poorer residents out of public housing and into "voucher programs"--potentially keeping many of the poorest refugees from Hurricane Katrina from ever returning.

Approximately 3,000 families, almost all Black, lived in the units prior to Hurricane Katrina--and many have been unable to return.

According to housing activists, the 4,534 apartments that are to be demolished at the B.W. Cooper, C. J. Peete, Lafitte and St. Bernard Developments are slated to be replaced by fewer than 800 low-income apartments, over a projected two- to four-year period--an 82 percent reduction of low-income housing in a city already in "crisis" in affordable rental housing units.

According to activists, homelessness in New Orleans has more than doubled to an estimated 12,000 since Katrina. Despite the attack by the city, activists are vowing to continue the fight. As Socialist Worker went to press, housing and homeless activists planned to hold a press conference featuring residents of the B.W. Cooper, St. Bernard and Lafitte housing developments.

Activists are also pressing for a Senate bill that would guarantee one-to-one replacement of demolished units with new ones. As Quigley wrote, "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."

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