Human Rights and the Realities of Returning to New Orleans
Buried amidst video montages of a still devastated Lower Ninth Ward and sound bytes from the pundits and politicians who have come to New Orleans for Hurricane Katrina’s one year anniversary, the biggest story will continue to be who is not in the city. Sadly our nation’s greatest tragedy continues for a displaced and dispossessed American community unprecedented in scale.
Katrina was more than just a failed levee system or a botched response to disaster. The storm displaced over a half million people, uprooting them from their homes and property. As they were being evacuated, these people trusted their government to help them eventually return home and to protect their rights. Now their geographically divided voices remain inaudible in the halls of government as their rights are gradually ignored.
Citizen groups in New Orleans like the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now insist that all the storm’s displaced survivors have a right to return to their neighborhoods, an idea backed up by internationally accepted human rights standards developed by the United Nations.
"After the storm, virtually every aspect of daily life became a struggle, particularly for displaced low- and moderate-income families," explains Stephen Bradberry, head organizer for ACORN New Orleans. "As we discover the city’s new future, it is only right that these folks are fully engaged in the rebuilding process and can come home to benefit from its outcomes."
Mayor Ray Nagin and even some federal officials have begun giving the right to return lip service without enacting meaningful legislation to allow the displaced to exercise this right.
More than half of New Orleans’ pre-Katrina population, predominately African Americans from working class communities like the Lower Ninth Ward, Gentilly, and Holy Cross, has not returned. These were the vibrant neighborhoods that gave birth to the food, music and culture of the city and their residents were the backbone of the city’s economy; small business owners, line chefs, hotel maids, and even the most revered musicians like Fats Domino.
More than 200,000 displaced former residents of New Orleans, spread across 46 different states, who have been denied their human right to return face numerous obstacles to be able to come home. They have no way of knowing the current state of their homes and neighborhoods-basic issues like whether the water and electricity are running, or whether their local schools are open. Their remains no centralized source for this information, neither government-run services nor private news sources. Most government decisions affecting their neighborhoods do not make it into the news broadcasts in their new communities. Without this necessary information it is nearly impossible for displaced people to make an informed decision to move back home.
Many displaced homeowners are still waiting on insurance claims to repair their homes. Just like the rest of the residents whose homes were mangled by Katrina, displaced homeowners have yet to receive a dime of federal assistance to rebuild from the federal government’s 7.5 billion dollar housing block grant to the state of Louisiana for home repairs. Displaced renters in New Orleans have seen rental prices soar in the city after much of its affordable housing stock was damaged and thousands of subsidized public housing units were closed by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Federal laws requiring the overwhelming majority of federal housing aid to beused to build housing for low and middle income families were circumvented in federal assistance programs in the Gulf Coast post-Katrina. Low income people remain unable to return home unless they will be able to find affordable housing or help repairing their homes.
Allowing displaced people to exercise the right to return requires two things that the federal government has fail to do; accurately delivering information about what is happening on the ground in their former neighborhoods to the displaced and administering a comprehensive plan to protect the property and civil rights of the displaced while they are away and to helps those who want to return to jump the potential hurdles along the road back to their communities.
Some, like Joseph Canizaro, a New Orleans developer close to both President Bush and Mayor Nagin, have tried to mask why the impoverished displaced may be excluded from the city’s future planning and denied their human rights by claiming that not returning is in the poor’s best interests. Canizaro claimed, "As a practical matter, these poor folks don’t have the resources to go back to our city, just like they didn’t have the resources to get out of our citySo we won’t get all those folks back. That’s just a fact."
The reality is that developers like Canizaro and many of those arguing for a smaller city may profit from such exclusion, knocking down working class neighborhoods, with Mayor Nagin’s help, to be replaced with luxury condos and developments that would price displaced families out of the housing market and assure the fact that these folks will not come back. The result would be a whiter, higher income city purged of its cultural roots, think Disneyland except on a river.
A Brown University study, financed by the U.S. government, in January claimed that if displaced residents were no longer able to return to damaged neighborhoods in New Orleans, the city could lose more than 80% of its black population.
The message is clear; policy decisions or indecisions will determine the future character of New Orleans. Inaction is a form of discrimination that will exclude working class displaced people from the city’s future.
While America is new to this magnitude of displacement, the fact remains that our government is very familiar with the internationally recognized "playbook" on how to protect the human rights of displaced people before, during and after a humanitarian disaster that forces people to leave their homes but remain within national borders.
The U.N.’s Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced People is endorsed and implemented using US tax dollars by US diplomats , in countries like post-tsunami Sri Lanka and post-war Iraq, as the way to uphold human rights commitments to our allies displaced citizens. It outlines how to treat displaced people with dignity defining their rights to information, housing, healthcare and food as well as their civil and property rights. The Principles declare that the federal government has a duty to create conditions that allow displaced people to voluntarily return home, giving people a right to return. Governments must allow displaced people to participate in decisions about how their communities are rebuilt and protect their property rights in their absence.
Katrina’s survivors have been denied many of the rights outlines in the Guiding Principles but the US sees no harm. Bush Administration officials recently told the UN Human Rights Committee that they do not believe Katrina’s displaced survivors, who the administration evasively labels "evacuees", deserve such protections. By some twisted logic, the U.S. government must believe they can ignore the human rights of American citizens by simply re-branding them.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency remains reluctant to help the displaced to get informed and involved in decisions about rebuilding the New Orleans by allowing local and state official to access address information about the current whereabouts of displaced citizens. The lists are necessary to give displaced people access to their rights so that they can work with current residents and local governments to make fair decisions on matters that will impact the future of their communities. Displaced people have had to rely on their neighbors who have moved back and community organization’s like ACORN and their Katrina Survivor’s Association.
Cut off from information, displaced citizens of New Orleans have also actively been denied their civil rights. The displaced had an insignificant electoral impact in recent elections once Louisiana officials refused to allow displaced voters to attend polling stations out-of-state. This resulted in a poll tax to vote, requiring displaced voters to fly or drive home if they did not file the necessary paperwork early enough for an absentee ballot, which in itself cost displaced voters to send the necessary paperwork. Some displaced voters in places like Texas were denied the right to vote for officials in New Orleans as voting laws on residency required registering in their new districts. The U.S. Justice Department deprived the displaced of equal access to voting rights by not taking action against such discrimination.
No longer representing the now disenfranchised displaced people, elected officials in New Orleans have felt free to launch an assault on their property rights. Displaced homeowners who have not been able to return to clean out and gut their homes can now have their property seized and bulldozed under a recent City Council Ordinance. The city may begin an opportunistic land grab from low income families who could not yet afford to return to gut their homes.
On the anniversary of this tragedy, displaced residents have again been left on their own by their government, denied the right to return to their city as, in the name of their widely televised suffering, billions of dollars are poured into its reconstruction. The human rights of displaced citizens deserve more than lip service and inaction. These American citizens endured losses many of us could not begin to imagine as their government ignored them, but now they deserve the peace of mind to be able to return and help rebuild their great American city. Exclusion and discrimination do not need to become facts. On this one year anniversary, elected officials in Washington and New Orleans should join to develop a plan to make the right to return a reality.
JEFFREY BUCHANAN is the Information Officer for the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights.