Social control II

It's funny, sometimes the odd things rich people choose to impose on their own neighborhoods are the very same things forced on poor peoples neighborhoods. Certain forms of over-policing, for example.

In the Iberville public housing development, and therefore technically across all of New Orleans' public housing, it is illegal for anyone to loiter or even walk or drive through the development's property unless they either (1) live there and are on a lease or, (2) are on their way to a friend's apartment, and their friend must be a lease-holder, and must have explicitly invited them and take responsibility for them. If you don't fulfill these requirements then you are trespassing and can be arrested and taken to Orleans Parish Prison to rot for a little while.

Across town in Audubon Place, the posh gated community where some of the city's oldest and most venerable families live in palatial gothic and Greek-revival mansions, pretty much the same rules apply; if you don't live there or haven't been invited by someone who does, you are trespassing and will be whisked away to OPP.

The differences should be obvious though. In the case of the Iberville these strictures are imposed by the NOPD and Housing Authority. At Audubon Place it's the homeowners who hire private security and instruct the NOPD to carry out policing of space. At Iberville its about over-policing people's relationships and militarizing the environment against “crime.” At Audubon it's about protecting the wealth and status of those families who live within.

A while back I was stopped in the Iberville while waiting on a friend to come home. Today I was stopped again, this time while chatting with my buddy Sam Jackson on a sidewalk bordering the development. It's worth noting that Sam is a black man who lives across town in the BW Cooper public housing development. We were flying for Sam's organization, a housing rights group called May Day. Here's how it went:

Sam - So Darwin, I'll me you tomorrow and we'll come back over here again and flyer before the meeting? What time should I pick you up?

Darwin - Say 4pm or so. We'll walk through here again and do more outreach. I think we could pull a lot of residents over to the meeting if we approach them a couple hours before.

[NOPD cruiser rolls up. The cops wait for us to see them, but we ignore them and keep talking. The officer in the driver's seat calls out and points.]

Officer Smothers - You! Come here.

Sam - Me?

Officer Smothers - You! Get over here.

Sam - Who?

[After a few seconds we both walk over to his window.]

Officer Smothers - What are you doing back here?

Sam - I'm just handing some flyers out, we out here organizing Iberville residents and....

Officers Smothers - Do you live back here?

Sam - ...Uh, no, but see we're doing outreach and talking with the people who live back here. This is one of our fliers, see...? [Sam hands him an 8X10 sheet.]

Darwin - We're housing rights organizers. We are with May Day New Orleans and we're working with residents to improve....

Officer Smothers [looking at Sam] - Do you have permission form HANO to be back here.

Sam - Well we're just flyering and walking around talking to people.....

Officer Smothers - It's a yes or no question. Yes or no?

Sam - Well no sir, but....

Officer Smothers - You're trespassing. Get out of here. You're on HANO property and you cannot be here.

Darwin - Sir, if I could just explain - see....

Officers Smothers [looking at me] - Did you hear what I said? You are trespassing. Do you have permission from HANO to be here?

Darwin - Sir, if I could just explain, we have friends back here, we work with them. They know we're here....

Officer Smothers - Who!? Where!?

Darwin and Sam at the same time - [so and so] and [so and so] at [##] Conti Street and [##] Basin Street. The know we're here. The invited us....

Officer Smothers - Well you're not with them right now. You're trespassing. Leave now.

At this point Officers Smothers' patience was about up and I could tell if Sam and I pressed him further he'd just as soon take us to jail to prove a point, so after I asked him for his name and Sam asked if it'd be okay to walk to his truck on the other side of the development, we took off.

What strikes me about this situation is that the urban predators in government and the real estate industry who lobby so hard to tear down public housing often use the argument that the “projects” are “cut off” architecturally and in a planning sense from the rest of the city, and that this separation engenders crime and “lack of opportunity.” The plans that developers usually parade about when they want to demolish and build anew over public housing usually involve “reintegrating” the sites into the street grids. (This is big deal in the redesign of the demolished Lafitte just blocks away on Claiborne Ave.)

The police presence, however, belies the claim that public housing is cut off from the city in an architectural sense. The police actively patrol the projects as though it were a reverse kind of prison. They keep out anyone who isn't a resident, or at least they say they do, and they do it in the name of public safety and crime fighting. Furthermore, the architectural enclosures that do exist were installed by the police and Housing Authority in the name of crime fighting: tall metal fences that close in blocks of buildings, eliminating what people used to call the “cuts.”

What makes this whole situation very complicated is that if you talk with many residents it indeed turns out that most of the violent crime perpetrated in the development is the result of outsiders coming in. In the process of trying to keep a close eye on outsiders coming in the police tend to stop any white person in and around the projects, or any black face they don't recognize. Over the years the Housing Authority was able to institute draconian trespassing laws making it illegal for anyone to go into the development except under the circumstances outlined at the outset of this piece. How this is constitutional is beyond me.

The result is that the Iberville and similar places have been made into fishbowls by the police and HANO: people can look in and lament the problems, usually by blaming the residents themselves, but they're banned from going in and doing anything about it. Organizing is banned in a de facto sense because outsiders have been made illegal. Any organizing that occurs must be carried out by those who live in the development. The truth is that there's a lot going on inside the development, but anyone who studies social movements knows that outsiders are always an integral part of any community organizing drive, usually playing a supporting role and providing resources otherwise unavailable within.

In effect HANO and the NOPD have made organizing very difficult, if not illegal in Iberville. They've also produced a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the name of fighting “crime” they close off the whole development, criminalize anyone within who cannot account for themselves, and provide fodder for the real estate sharks, politicians, and ideologically driven planners who say that busting down the bricks and re-integrating things in an architectural sense is the solution.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I wonder if this has even been legally challenged?