/ 21 December 2007

Housing protests grip New Orleans

Protesters, unfazed by violent clashes with police hours earlier, on Friday vowed to continue their battle against a plan to demolish 218 public housing buildings in New Orleans, a bid that has further highlighted the growing tensions in a city struggling to recover two years after Hurricane Katrina.

On Thursday, police used chemical spray and stun guns on protesters who tried to force their way into a city-council meeting where the members voted unanimously to allow the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development to demolish 4 500 public housing units.

The confrontation was the most violent and tense of a string of protests that have brought attention to the plight of a growing number of homeless and the lack of inexpensive housing for people displaced by Katrina, which ravaged the city in 2005, displacing tens of thousands and reducing entire neighbourhoods to rubble.

The vote allows demolition crews to begin tearing down the buildings within weeks unless they are blocked in the courts. Lawyers fighting the demolition say they have not exhausted their legal options.

Endesha Juakali, a protest leader arrested on a charge of disturbing the peace, said the confrontation with the council was not the last breath from protesters.

”For everything they do, we have to make them pay a political consequence,” Juakali said. He vowed that when the bulldozers try to demolish the St Bernard complex, ”it’s going to be an all-out effort”.

The issue would have been controversial under any circumstances. But a recent shift in the composition of the city council that gave whites a narrow majority has added a racial overtone to the protests, particularly as those most likely affected by the demolitions would be blacks.

For weeks, protesters have been gearing up to battle with bulldozers and have discussed a variety of tactics, including lying in front of the machinery.

Jerry Brown, a spokesperson for the US Department of Housing and Urban Development, said demolition crews should be able to get to work soon, although some final details may need to be hammered out and presented to city officials before that can happen.

Developers chosen by the department to do the $700-million in redevelopment work said they were eager to get started and that the protracted fight over demolitions has stood in the way of building better communities.

”To begin moving forward, you need to do the demolition,” said James Kelly, president and CEO of Providence Community Housing, a group associated with the Catholic Church and chosen to redevelop the Lafitte housing complex.


Police said 15 people were arrested on charges ranging from battery to disorderly conduct. Four people were taken to hospitals — two of them women who had been stunned with Tasers — and five others were injured and treated on the scene, police said. All four in the hospital were stable, police said.

Protesters said they pushed against the iron gates that kept them out of the building because the Housing Authority of New Orleans had disproportionately allowed supporters of the demolition to pack the council’s chambers. Dozens tried to force their way in.

At the peak of the confusion, about 70 protesters were facing about a dozen mounted police and 40 more law-enforcement officers on foot.

One woman was sprayed by police and dragged from the gates; emergency workers took her away on a stretcher. Another woman said she was stunned by officers, and still had what appeared to be a Taser wire hanging from her shirt.

”Is this what democracy looks like?” Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who opposes demolition, said as he held a strand of Taser wire he said had been shot into another of the protesters.

Most of the units the housing department plans to demolish are vacant, and many suffered heavy damage in Katrina, but those who oppose their demolition say they should be improved instead.

Critics of the plan say it will drive poor people from neighbourhoods where they have lived for generations, but the department denies that and says the plan will create an equal amount of affordable housing as existed before Katrina hit.

The council promised to monitor the redevelopment and make sure the poor have places to come back to, but those assurances did little to assuage opponents.

”The vote was already a done deal,” the Reverend Marshall Truehill said. ”There were no concessions.” — Sapa-AP

Associated Press writers John Moreno Gonzales and Mike Kunzelman contributed to this report