Has HUD no Heart?

The US Department of Housing and Urban Development knows when it’s losing. Yesterday lawyers representing HUD filed a retaliatory suit against 10 residents and allied activists who have been waging a concerted nonviolent campaign to reopen public housing in the city of New Orleans. The suit seeks to bar residents from entering and cleaning their apartments. HUD’s counsel claims that these residents and activists are "acting in concert with their attorneys Tracie Washington and Bill Quigley" to illegally enter the St. Bernard public housing development, trespass, and do damage to property there.

The suit has been initiated by the Bush administration’s housing agency after more than a week of nonviolent direct actions aimed at reopening public housing in the crescent city. On February 15, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, residents of the St. Bernard public housing development gathered with other public housing tenants and allied activists at the survivor’s village, a makeshift camp and staging ground outside of the housing complex in the 7th Ward. In opposition to HUD’s desire to close off and demolish the St. Bernard and 3 other major public housing developments in the city – home to tens of thousands of New Orleanians still displaced more than a year after Katrina – residents and activists cut through the fence surrounding St. Bernard and entered with the intention to clean up and reoccupy the development. They did so.

Since that day a group of activists, calling themselves May Day NOLA have occupied apartments in St. Bernard. Residents of the complex have given them permission to sleep and work there as their guests. Under the Housing Authority’s rules, residents of the complex may allow a guest to reside in their apartment for up to 1-month. May Day NOLA’s members explain in an open letter that their actions are intended to reopen public housing and secure the right of return for public housing residents who are being displaced by greed and poor policy decisions, not a natural disaster. “We are hopeful that through negotiation this occupation will end quickly, so that we can go home, and that Public Housing residents may return to their city and to their homes,” reads the group’s statement, released shortly after they cut through the chain link fence enclosing the development. On Saturday, February 20th residents and others re-entered the St. Bernard and continued the cleanup. May Day NOLA helped by holding down the St. Bernard for the week.

The actions have energized community members and fueled the desire to come back home. Josh Cousin, aka The Book, a blogger from New Orleans – http://booknote.blogspot.com - who grew up in the St. Bernard explains the wider significance of retaking public housing in the city:

“Many of the Residents fighting for the St. Bernard were already in there own/rented homes now and don’t really need to return to the St. Bernard. All we really want is to see an active neighborhood again. One that we can visit and see people we know. We the people want our hood back because of just that.”

Although he doesn’t live in the St. Bernard anymore, Book has followed the actions closely and written about them because he understands their wider significance to the city; how the re-opening of public housing will have a ripple effect on all of New Orleans and help to revitalize whole surrounding neighborhoods. After MLK Day, Book wrote that, “it was like the old hood. That’s what I wanted to see. Happy people.”

Apparently HUD does not. The lawsuit, if successful will provide Housing Authority police with a court order to force out the occupants who have been holding down apartments in the St. Bernard and bar residents from entering to clean them out and prepare for their homecoming. Bill Quigley, a lawyer working with the residents in their homecoming struggle explains that, “HANO's suit seeks money damages and a temporary restraining order. No date has been set for the hearing. The judge said he will decide a date after he reads all papers filed in this matter - he ordered lawyers for the residents to file papers by Thursday afternoon.”

How this latest twist in the Right of Return Movement will turn out is anyone’s guess. Residents point to their legal, civil and human rights as justification for their confidence that HANO’s retaliatory lawsuit will be dismissed. As legal lease-holders of apartments largely undamaged by hurricane Katrina who are merely seeking to expedite their return by cleaning up the complex themselves, residents and their allies hold faith that the court and public opinion will find in their favor. “The residents who are cleaning their apartments have current leases and therefore have a legal right to enter their homes,” said Endesha Juakali of Survivor’s Village. HUD’s legal action at this point appears to be a rearguard effort to undercut the forward momentum of the Right of Return Movement. The federal department understands the power of direct action, and is therefore pulling out all stops to squelch it before its opportunity to demolish and redevelop is lost.


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Silent about the root causes of violence....

Yet another post-disaster social movement is afoot in New Orleans. It’s not out to fix levees and infrastructure by targeting the Army Corps or local politicians, nor is it aimed at securing federal funds for a more adequate recovery. This one is aimed instead at “criminals.”

Organizing under the banner of “Silence the Violence,” many New Orleanians have begun circulating emails and flyers proclaiming, "ENOUGH! Stop the Violence," urging their friends and neighbors to join them on a march to City Hall. They’re out to deliver a message. The protest will take off up Canal Street on Thursday the 11th. Organizers and citizen’s groups aligning themselves under this banner have already slammed the Mayor, Police Chief, and District Attorney saying that they have let the city slip into this wave of crime and have provided no leadership to address the problem.

I’m confused about the message and plan of this movement. In fact, I’m very concerned that this new civic campaign might be headed toward some sort of draconian solution that far from “silencing” the violence will indeed create more of it, both in the form of violence perpetrated by desperate individuals and thugs who have easily overwhelmed the city in a state of total disrepair, but also the violence perpetrated against black and poor people in the city by an increasingly militarized and trigger happy police force. And what about the structural violence, the severe poverty that through Katrina has morphed into chronic displacement, homelessness, absence of healthcare, dismantlement of welfare, environmental toxicity and other acute forms of vulnerability? I’m concerned that this movement is rushing ahead without giving pause to the bigger questions that need to be addressed if we are to truly silence the violence.

The burgeoning anti-crime movement really got off the ground after a spate of killings around New Years that has made 2007 a bloody year so far. Two killings in particular have struck a chord with the city’s people; the shooting of Dinerral Shavers, a drummer for the Hot 8 Brass Band, and the murder of Helen Hill, a film maker and food not bombs activist. After Hill’s death (during a robbery in which her husband was wounded protecting their child) people in the Marigny neighborhood began to meet and plan a response. That the reaction to this particular murder was so swift and drew in so many concerned citizens might have a lot to do with where the shooting took place and who died. Hill’s home was on the border of the Marigny neighborhood near the French Quarter and Bywater sections of the city. These are mostly white neighborhoods with concentrations of middle and upper-class residents – very much unlike the parts of the city that endure violent crime and killings on a daily basis, areas like Central City, or the 9th and 6th Wards.

Hill’s murder, along with Dinerral’s are tragic events and the city’s violence does need to be seriously addressed, but it’s unclear exactly how the current anti-crime movement proposes to do this. Violence in New Orleans is a real conundrum. On the one hand immediate practical solutions are necessary. On the other hand, these sorts of solutions do nothing to address the causes of the problem. 11 years ago a high profile multiple murder in the French Quarter created a similar groundswell that forced then Mayor Marc Morial’s administration to reverse its stand against increased funding for the police department. More money for cops didn’t exactly translate into safer streets though. Killings continued. Then as now, the victims remain mostly black, mostly working class and poor, mostly residents of the city’s highly segregated black neighborhoods. These communities didn’t see much if any improvement then. At the time securing more funds for the police did, however, achieve a goal that the city’s more affluent residents continually seek – protection of their neighborhoods and property from what they define as “criminal elements.” Another pro-police lobby in the city are the owners of bars, restaurants, and other tourist dependent establishments. Without the semblance that New Orleans is safe for visitors they fear that a steady flow of income to the recovering city will dry up as vacationers head elsewhere. When it’s just poor black folks dying in the bottom of the bowl there’s not crisis, but when the murders start happening closer to the river, closer to the Quarter, Uptown, and the Marigny, then perceptions change quick amongst those who have the political power to call for a crackdown. So the appetite to build up the police force is strong if the city’s middle classes and tourism industry feel threatened. But if it’s just black on black murder, if it’s just poor people dying then the response tends to be nil.

A group of black clergy has been protesting black on black murder for the last several months (by far and away the most severe problem however you measure it). Their recent hunger strike against violence was mostly ignored by the rest of the city. And what about police brutality against black and poor residents and against the homeless? This was an enormous problem before Katrina. It remains an issue. How does building up a police force that is already notorious for abusing its power solve the violence problem in New Orleans? Finally, what about the structural violence that is killing New Orleans? On my frequent visits to the city I am continually astounded by the obituary section of the Times-Picayune. The city is dying because the people are dying. The people are dying because the city is being killed. It’s being killed by neoliberal recovery and reconstruction policies that have dismantled Charity Hospital, that have privatized the schools, and that have left the majority of the city’s housing stock, rental hosing in particular, shattered and uninhabitable. It’s being killed by a lack of political will to devote adequate resources for recovery by the federal government. It’s being killed by the avaricious desires of real estate developers to profit off the land which used to be home to thousands. It’s being killed by HUD’s policies that have left tens of thousands homeless. Structural violence is the pain, suffering, and morbidity that results from political and economic inequality. When someone goes hungry because they’re too poor to eat, or when someone dies of a preventable disease for lack of healthcare; these are examples of structural violence. Because it makes people more vulnerable and desperate, structural violence breeds its more visible cousin, crime, murder.

Conservatives will certainly rail against this last point saying that murder and violence are issues of personal responsibility, but the truth is inescapable. There are larger sociological causes to violence than personal decisions and pathologies, and there are other forms of violence beyond just individual acts. Violence is socially produced through the conditions and situations we create. Violence flourishes when people are vulnerable and desperate. Right now there is no more vulnerable a city than New Orleans, and no more desperate a people than its citizenry. If the Stop the Violence movement is serious about itself then it’s going to have to do something completely different than marching to City Hall to pressure Nagin to pump more money into the police force. It’s constituents, many of whom have been living in the isle of denial (that comfortable sliver of land by the river geographically and demographically separate from the rest of the devastated city) are going to have to realize that without hospitals, schools, good jobs with high wages, decent housing now, and much more, the city is just going to spiral further down. Murders are just the tip of the iceberg. Beneath it is the brutality of life in post-Katrina New Orleans and the reality that death and pain are close companions to those who have been displaced and dispossessed in the aftermath of the great flood.


Should have called it hurricane Georgia.... Bush!

I'm not a fan of his, but Lil Wayne has possibly cut the best post-Katrina hip-hop track to date.

Since the levees blew out and flooded the city, New Orleans' prolific rap artists have been rhyming a lot about the storm, especially about the political causes and significance of disaster. From their imposed perches in Houston, Atlanta and elsewhere many of them have had time to ruminate on the catastrophe. The result is some of the most insightful analysis of its causes and consequences, along with calls to certain programs of recovery. My favorites to date include Dynira's "Spirit of New Orleans," and N.O. Blackboy's songs about his city, and anger at the "land grab.” Master P's 504 Boyz "Bounce Back" album also has some excellent post-Katrina themes, but the gangsterism that infects their politics is unfortunate.

Lil Wayne's track is simply brilliant. Although most of his music is similar to Juvenile's - it's very misogynist and violent and flaunts themes of drug dealing and murder - his Katrina track “Georgia Bush,” captures the crisis of the disaster better than most. And he does so in a way that very much transcends his musical gangsta character. Riffing off of Ludacris’ sampling of “Georgia” by Ray Charles, Wayne dedicates the song to the President of the United States of America. Ray Charles’ voice rings in the background throughout, “Georgia…. Georgia…” and Wayne plays off of it inserting “Bush,” with a perfect cadence, or else lets it hang to explain where many of his people have been forced into exile. Wayne rails against the various politicians who helped create the disaster and whose responses exacerbates the harm. He slams the NOPD who shot “niggas dead in the street” imploring, “I ain’t no thief/I’m just trying to eat.” He condemns the white supremacy that he sees embodied in Confederate flags and operating pervasively throughout the federal government. He asks, “why wasn’t the levees able to control this?” And he saves his final judgment for the “the one in the suit, thick white skin, and his eyes bright blue.”

“We from a town where everybody drownded,
Everybody die, but baby I’m still praying withcha’,
Everybody cryin’ but, ain’t nobody tried, but
Ain’t no doubt on my mind it was Georgia…

Juvenile's post-Katrina songs, by the way, are quite good also, but it's hard to buy his version of the "movement" to retake the city which involves using FEMA money to buy cocaine, to hustle one's way back in, to "take that pyrex," and "rock with it, roll with it." Ouch! Like the 504 Boyz call to action, the individualistic and violent tactics, the hustling, it seems to me that it’s all very much in line with the type of recovery that George Bush and company are promoting. It's a neoliberal program that doesn't give any incentive to collective action or democratic procedure. It’s opposed to the mutual aid that has been so critical, and it’s certainly not an explicit call to political organizing. Perhaps the reality of being a young working class black man in New Orleans is too oppressive to allow for collective action, especially in this time of savage disaster capitalism? Perhaps the conditions are so harsh and terrible for some that survival necessitates individualism and economic means that are predatory such as crack dealing? Perhaps not. Regardless, some young men have embraced the underground "hustle movement" to return and rebuild their lives over the open Right to Return Movement. It's what they know. It's real and possible whereas the politics of democratic collective action might still seem an impossible dream of those like me who've never been forced to stand on the corner in a white T-shirt selling coke to get by, as the 504 Boyz tell us.

Wayne's song departs from his usual themes of hustling and abusing women and lays out the political significance of the storm with incredible clarity. That a gangster rapper could rhyme so powerfully the a politics that at several points implies collective action solutions is a sign of hope that New Orleans’ most criminalized and oppressed young black men might be moving toward a shared will and consciousness that will make a broader political movement possible, one which wins concessions from the state and corporations and makes the "hustle movement" an obsolete thing. Unfortunately Wayne ends his song with yet another call to the hustle movement asking, if you “see us in the city, give us a pound” because, " if a nigga still moving then he holding it down." Contradictions are in everything. A sharp analysis, a scathing judgment, Wayne’s track could politicize and educate many youths in the city, buy maybe it’s best that they look elsewhere for advice about what to do now.

I've pasted the lyrics below. Buy the album, please support NOLA’s homegrown, fuck George Bush:

“This song right here is dedicated to the President of the United States of America. Y’all might know him as George Bush, but where I’m from? The lost city of New Orleans? We call him this…

[Ray Charles sample starts: “Georgia…”]

Bush! Let’s go…

Now… this song is dedicated to the one with the suit
thick white skin and his eyes bright blue
so-called beef with you know who
fuck it he just let ‘em kill all our troops
look it all the bullshit we been through
had a nigga sittin on top of them roofs
Hurricane Katrina we shoulda called it Hurricane Georgia…Bush!

Then they telling y’all lies on the news
the white people smiling like everything cool
but I know people that died in that pool
I know people that died in them schools
now only to survive what to do
got no trailer you got to move
now it’s on to Texas and to Georgia…

They tell you what they want to show you
what they want you to see
but they don’t let you know what’s really going on
make it look like a lotta stealing going on
boy them cops is killers in my home
niggas shot dead in the middle of the street
I ain’t no thief I’m just trying to eat
man, fuck the police and President Georgia…Bush!

So what happened to the levees?
Why wasn’t they steady?
Why wasn’t they able to control this?
I know some folks who live by the levee
they keep on telling me said they heard explosions
same shit happened back in Hurricane Betsy in 1965
I ain’t too young to know this
that was President Johnson
but this is President Georgia…Bush!

We from a town where everybody drowned
Everybody died but baby I’m still praying wit’ cha!
Everybody cried but ain’t nobody tried
there’s no doubt on my mind it was…Bush!

I was born in a boot at the bottom of the map
New Orleans baby
now the White House hating
trying to wash us away like we not on the map
wait have you heard the latest
they saying you gotta have paper if you tryin’ to come back
niggas thinking it’s a rap scene
we can’t hustle and they drop
we ain’t from Georgia…

It’s them dead bodies
the lost houses
the mayor says don’t worry bout it
and the children have been scorned
no one’s here to care bout them
fat shout to all the rappers that helped out
yeah we lucky they called on y’all
but fuck President…Bush!

When you see them Confederate flags
you know what it is
a white cracker muthafucka that probably voted for him
now he ain’t gonna drop no dollars
but he do drop bombs
R.I.P. to they that died in the storm
but fuck President…Bush!

See us in the city man
give us a pound
if a nigga still moving then he holding it down
I had two Jags but lost both them bitches
I’m from the N.O….the N.O….