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Black Ties and Bulldozers in New Orleans

At last week’s annual Congressional Black Caucus conference, Louisiana Representative William Jefferson hosted a panel entitled “Recovery by Whom, for Whom?” Invited speaker Mayor Ray Nagin answered Jefferson’s question as he auctioneered off New Orleans to the audience, stating that the city is undergoing “the biggest economic development in history.”

The prices of homes and even hotels are a steal, and deep pockets are invited to swoop down and take advantage of the still-struggling New Orleans. Mayor Nagin represented the city as a “buffet,” and shamelessly summoned private business “to eat all they can eat.” He called on them to take advantage of the “schmorgesborg” that is New Orleans–there is enough for everybody.

Everybody except the scores of residents who remain displaced. The disadvantaged, who are predominately Black, low-wage workers, the disabled, the elderly, all of whom are poor. I have developed close relationships with some of these residents, which has made being an eyewitness to the impact of their abandonment by our government particularly painful.

Ms. Williams and Ms. Jennings recently invited themselves to my wedding (which does not yet exist), saying that they will rise to give testimony to my good work when prompted to “speak now or forever hold your peace.”

Ms. Lewis proudly shares with me updates of her granddaughter who started college this fall, and ends each conversation with “I love you.”

They are my clients, and my surrogate grandmothers. Over the past 15 months, I have watched the palpable deterioration of their physical and mental health. They often remind me that they do not have many years left.

Then there are the
younger, single, working mothers who are my role models. Ms. Mingo, who works two jobs, cares for four children and a grandchild, and feeds the homeless on the weekends because she considers it her obligation to take care of the less advantaged. She lived in the one of the public housing developments before the storm, and is a leader in the fight for residents’ right to return.

Juxtaposed against these and tens of thousands of other stories of struggle, Nagin’s speech and the federal government’s abandonment are nothing short of criminal.

A FEMA trailer was parked one block away from the CBC conference. Acquired by a grassroots Mississippi organization, Turkey Creek Community Initiatives, the trailer was making its debut in DC to help raise awareness that there is no official plan to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast–the government has thrown public housing, education, and health to the private market vultures. We parked the trailer earlier in the week on 17th and K streets, visible to the lunchtime traffic of lobbyist, lawyers, and others who work in that bustling area. We urged people to take a tour of the 32 x 10 foot trailer that is supposed to sleep six to eight: “Come see how people are living, two years after Katrina!” We reported on the toxic construction of the trailers that have left residents sick, and in some cases, dead: “Formaldehyde comes on the side!”

Was this public education, or have we–the eyewitnesses–gone mad? The week before the event, the federal judge presiding over the lawsuit we filed in June 2006 on behalf of displaced public housing residents suddenly threw out of his courtroom a case for the right of return. That was on Monday. By Friday, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development approved the demolition of over 5,000 homes. The judge’s decision left no buffer between residents’ homes and the bulldozers. Demolition is targeted to start in November.

The FEMA trailer was parked one block from the CBC conference because, despite sponsorships from Representatives Waters and Thompson, the trailer was excluded from the conference exhibition. Earlier in the week, our designated resident spokesperson was excluded from testifying at the Senate Banking Committee hearing on S. 1668, a bill that provides for the immediate opening of at least 3,000 units and one-for-one replacement for units demolished. The week before that, we were prohibited from pursuing in open court the right of thousands of families sinking deeper into poverty and despair from returning home anytime soon, or ever. For two years, over 3,800 families have been shut out of their public housing homes in New Orleans. And as Naomi Klein points out in her new book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, for at least 25 years the public sphere in New Orleans has been permitted to erode, the culmination of which the world watched
unfold after August 29, 2005.

Enough was enough. The CBC black tie dinner was the next night. The demolition of 5,000 homes is scheduled to start in a month. People, who paid one thousand dollars a ticket, would be adorned in silk, satin, and gems, and so our FEMA trailer needed to suit up and crash the party. Wearing a tuxedo topped with a six-foot-long bowtie, the trailer circled the Convention Center for over two hours while guests arrived at the dinner. The trailer asked one plaintive question: Where is my table? The reaction was priceless. At first people would smile and return our wave; then as they read the sign and heard our urge to not forget Katrina survivors, their face fell. It was a combination of guilt and scorn–I know, but how dare you try to ruin my evening.

Call it an existential gesture toward the void, and I would be hard-pressed to argue. But we cannot advance civil rights by merely serving as eyewitnesses. The government and the people who permit unjust governance have to be made accountable, up until the bitter end. Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This to have succeeded.” Success is also to know that even one politician has breathed harder because you have protested.

ANITA SINHA is a civil rights attorney with Advancement Project, a communications and legal action organization committed to racial justice. She can be reached at anitasinha11@gmail.com

 

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