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What’s Really Driving the Demolition of Public Housing in New Orleans?

On Thursday, December 20th 2007 the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to demolish more than 4500 units of public housing in the city. The vote was taken after the council locked out opposition from the meeting, even though the chambers were reportedly not filled to capacity. The Council and mayor had prepared for the day weeks in advance by assigning more than 120 police officers to 12-hour shifts, placing officers around the building and blocking all entrance points. According to spokespeople for the Coalition to Stop Demolition, the Council also made sure to pack the room with demolition supporters early in the morning to fill up more than half of the seats.

Outraged and desperate to defend their homes, the collective of public housing residents and their allies locked outside of City Hall’s gates broke through the fence twice, demanding entrance. Both times they were turned back with pepper spray and tazers by the NOPD. Inside the chamber pro-housing activists were tackled and dragged out after disrupting the meeting to demand the gates be opened and empty seats filled.

The Times-Picayune published video of the incident online at nola.com along with a congratulatory story about the vote entitled “Unanimous”:

Over the next 2 days more than 190 comments were made by readers of the Times-Picayune in response to the following question: “were police reckless?”

Most of these comments reveal the deep and vicious racism that lies beneath support for demolition of public housing. The majority of comments made about the protest at City Hall and public housing give several major justifications for housing demolition, along with unabashed support for a highly repressive police state to quell dissent (sorry Times-Pic, what was that about “unanimous”?). Much of the support for demolition rests on openly racist notions of public housing residents as “animals,” and “welfare queens” and visions of the “projects” as nothing more than environments that serve to “breed a particularly bad criminal element.” There is zero recognition that as tough as it was to live in a hypersegregated working class neighborhood, these were still communities, these were still affordable homes.

Many commentators call for using “attack dogs” and “water canons” on protesters without any apparent irony. They are, purposefully of not, evoking imagery of the mid-century Jim Crow police state attacking civil rights activists across the South, and later the use of highly militarized police force to crush the urban rebellions of the late 1960s.

“Posted by widewater on 12/20/07 at 3:07PM
A couple of police dogs behind the gate would of prevented all of that.

Posted by 70114 on 12/20/07 at 3:08PM
Bring out the fire hoses. Most of the protesters looked like they needed a bath anyway.

Posted by mineshaft on 12/20/07 at 3:09PM
well said Mocatova! funny! we all need a good laugh.... widewater is right too.....what about them dogs!?

Posted by RIVER500 on 12/20/07 at 3:44PM
Withabeard: I agree the police should be better prepared. Full riot gear, horses, and K-9s would have kept these losers 10 blocks away!

“12/20/07 at 2:54PM

Posted by outtahere64 on 12/21/07 at 12:08AM
I miss the water cannons (using tanks of cold water) and police dogs. I guess Tazers are ok but the rubber bullets and electrified fences were a real kick.”

It seems that many of the Picayune’s readers want to return to these good old days when the police could just beat down dissent in New Orleans and elsewhere, when attack dogs and water canons could be unleashed without a second thought, when the Bull Connors of the world reigned supreme. Pre-Katrina was too much a post-civil rights era for these New Orleanians who see the post-Katrina opportunities of re-establishing a pre-civil rights regime. One commentator even asks:

“Whatever happened to NOPD's tank? I haven't seen it since the earily 1980's. It was bought back during the Black Panther days in Desire Housing Project. Did it drown in Katrina?”
(Posted by kabel on 12/20/07 at 4:32PM)”

True enough, when the Black Panthers attempted to organize the Desire housing development in the 1970s the NOPD carried out a full-scale military siege of the Party’s headquarters (at one time an apartment in the development). Brutal police repression against public housing residents and their allies has a long history in this city. Radical political campaigns by the black working class have always been beat back with police and military forces.

Railing against “hippies,” two commentators indirectly recognize the scale of the police state’s grasp on public housing residents:

“Posted by govtwatchdog on 12/20/07 at 6:33PM
The ones trying to break the gate open should be put in central lockup for the weekend. They can then bond with their people from the projects.

Posted by diamondsea on 12/21/07 at 6:08PM
Ley them in - Let them In - Let them in ...to CENTRAL LOCKUP!!!
Hopefully the courts are adjouned until Wednesday Jan 3rd.
Then they'll have a cance to mee a lot of the former residents of the projects up close and personal.”

Of course neither “govtwatchdog” nor “diamondsea” seem to have any critical insights into why such a large proportion of New Orleans’ (and Louisiana’s) incarcerated are young black men. They and other commentators explain this in terms of criminal nature, personal irresponsibility, and law and order. They cannot understand how the very racism and hostile privatism they foster helps create the conditions of impoverishment and inequality that often leads a small percentage of ghetto residents to crime. Nor can they understand the most important factor, how a structurally racist police force and legal system work to lock up blacks at rates far disproportionate to whites in New Orleans and nationally. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the US, 835 per 100,000 residents. Blacks constitute 32% of Louisiana’s population, but 72% of its prison population.

Many commentators refer to public housing residents as ungrateful dependents instead of the hard working citizens that many of them are. These comments stem from a general anti-welfarist mentality that is highly racialized. Several commentators invoke a “culture of poverty argument” placing the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of the poor while also criminalizing and pathologizing poor people’s attempts to eek out a life of dignity under the given conditions.

“Posted by jas1 on 12/20/07 at 3:39PM
I guess when you live off of the system ALL your life and teach your children to live off of the system it's hard to change. They don't want to get a job and rely on themselves, that would be against what they learned ALL their lives. Why isn't the people that are for demolition there, BECAUSE WE WORK TO SUPPORT THE HANDOUTS!”

Posted by DrWiggles on 12/20/07 at 9:58PM

The Times-Picayune even fanned these reactionary flames several days before the council vote by running a photo of Sharon Jasper, a public housing resident in her new section 8 home. (http://blog.nola.com/updates/2007/12/housing_officials_claim_surplu.html). Jasper, a resident from St. Bernard development who has been leading the mobilization to reopen public housing was shown in a red gown and slippers in her living room with a big screen TV against the wall. Nearly 300 comments were made about the photo, most of them declaring fraud, ingratitude, calling Jasper “lazy,” a “welfare queen,” “leech,” and “animal.” Nowhere in the story was it mentioned that Jasper is elderly, disabled, and worked most of her adult life. She lives on a fixed income in a small subsidized unit after losing her apartment in St. Bernard. Her portrayal by the Times-Picayune, however, drew up condemnations and hate from a deep well of racism and hostility against government assistance, especially that which benefits black people.

Many of the comments following nola.com’s protest video referred to the activists as “outsiders” who have come to New Orleans and are only getting in the way of the real reconstruction efforts. In a literal throwback to white supremacist rhetoric during the Reconstruction era “nolahero” exclaims:

“12/20/07 at 8:07PM
That looked like a bunch of carpetbagger hippie losers.”

Although the word nigger remains unused by any commentators, one uses the word “wigger” to identify whites at the City Hall protest. It seems to serve as a sort of placeholder or indirect referent:

“Posted by oracle2005 on 12/20/07 at 5:56PM
It is the most appropriate use of the word WIGGER I have ever seen. They are useful fools.”

Another commentator asks, “who is behind this?,” implying that the struggle has no real roots in the work of public housing residents themselves. It is a question that just as easily could have been uttered by reactionaries during the McCarthy era, but it’s 2007. Others demand that the “hippies” go home, and again refer to black New Orleanians as “animals.”

“Posted by MrGunn on 12/20/07 at 3:51PM
Will we ever know who's behind all this?

Posted by TIGAZZFAN33 on 12/21/07 at 10:30AM
The majority of those protesters are professional protesters brought in from out of state. They are PAID protesters who will protest whatever you pat them to….

Posted by livingpo on 12/20/07 at 4:36PM
Go home hippies and take the animals with you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by delta13894 on 12/20/07 at 5:30PM
Ah I long for the good old days When these people could be driven to the parish line, dropped of, and told to go back to whatever rock the crawled out from under. I think it would be a great idea to round up the out of state protesters and lock them up for a few weeks, or at least until after the bowl games. Let's take out the trash.”

The most disturbing commentary appearing in response to the Times-Picayune’s coverage is that which is supportive of ethnic cleansing. It appears in both openly racist terms, but also in thinly veiled liberal terms. The black working class is alternately referred to as “apes,” “the criminal element,” or “vermin.” Lest we too quickly identify this kind of rabid racism with no-name commentators on nola.com, remember that even elected representatives in high office (Rep. Richard Baker for example) have praised the “cleaning up” of New Orleans’ public housing.

“Posted by mineshaft on 12/20/07 at 4:58PM
Hooray for the Rebirth of one of the greatest cities in the world!
The cleansing of the (New) New Orleans.....it has begun, let us all keep it going...doing whatever it takes to prevent it from slipping back into the control of the people who would destroy it for their own greed.

Posted by govtwatchdog on 12/20/07 at 6:44PM
I don't owe a damn thing to nobody. Tear them down and DON'T rebuild anything for them. Go out and work and earn and save and invest. New Orleans is turning white and some people don't like it. So MOVE.

Posted by deaconblue01 on 12/21/07 at 2:48PM
Were the animals pounding at the gate acting responsibly? I think not. NOPD is to be commended for handling the scum the way they did. Many of those poor excuses for humanity are the very vermin living in public housing. That's what people are protesting for? Get real. Thank you City Council for voting the way you did. If Katrina did one thing right, she washed out the biggest collection of slums and ghetto residents in existence. Keep the momentum going and maybe New Orleans has a chance of once again becoming the great city it used to be.”

One commentator even offers a decent political analysis to praise the ethnic cleansing he and others see occurring via the City Council vote:

“Posted by ward9son on 12/20/07 at 11:59PM
The election of Jackie Clarkson as the 4th vote for reforming public housing is the ONLY REASON this vote passed today.
For a set of minor conccesions, the three black members voted with the white majority to bring a chance for reform and quality to the failed, disgraceful status quo.
And this NEVER would have occurred had Willard Lewis been elected to Council at large, and her seat filled by yet another politically connected black racial coward from New Orleans East to take her place in District E. Instead, the plantation would have rolled along, and the black majority council would have stalled demolition until
Hillary Clinton won, and Mary Landrieyu helped move a new genration of unemplyed-forever dole takers into 9,000 rehabed HANO apartments to go along with the affordable units contained in every, and I mean every, apartment coming online in this city.
And then, the black politicos and the Dems would have their Choclate City as desired, bigger, and more hopeless, and more vote-producing than ever - the quality of the people the claim to help BE DAMNED !!!”

But for the final word, I will let one of the minority commentators on the Times-Picayunes coverage speak:

“Posted by SeaSalt2 on 12/20/07 at 8:56PM
Listen to you all, so near to the birth of Christ, ranting and raving against the poor, asserting that the only reason they can't afford better living conditions is because they're "financially irresponsible" or lazy. Shame on you all, it must be easy to sit back and tell people why they're poor and starving. Maybe if you worked all day for below minimum wage, maybe if you got suckered into drug dealing because you wanted to feed your family, maybe if your employer took all the jobs to Mexico or another country where he/she doesn't have to pay as much for labor. Maybe if the school system failed you, preventing you from getting a good education, or if you never even went because you had to work to help your parents eat. Maybe then you'd figure out that social mobility and the American Dream are about as real as Santa Claus, and maybe then you wouldn't be so smug or ravenous.
It's funny, you keep referring to the protesters as animals, but the way you talk about them, shrieking with glee when they're pepper-sprayed, right or wrong, makes you no better.
Sure, the protesters are privileged. If anyone from the projects could afford to stop working for a second I'm sure they would be there too. I'm sure if they all had computers they could come to this site and defend themselves to, and communicate their hardships. But they, unlike you, don't have that luxury. So keep kicking them while they're down, and keep mocking the people that are privileged who actually care about those who can't defend themselves, who don't have a voice in this society because it's parched by thirst and hunger. But remember, in your unsympathetic privilege:
The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.
Who would Jesus evict?
Whose home would Jesus destroy?
Blessings to you all, and to all the afflicted and evicted.”

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