Privatizing New Orleans

Jordan Flaherty
Date Published: 
January 28, 2006

“I can’t stand it anymore, being lifted up and then smacked down again, just when we were all trying so hard to experience hope,” a friend tells me.

She was one of several people I know who were bystanders to Saturday’s shootings in New Orleans.

Last weekend, revelers filled the streets for one of our city’s most vital cultural traditions, the second-line – a roving street celebration put on by New Orleans mutual aid institutions founded in the 19th century and known as Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs. This second-line was the biggest anyone I spoke to had seen, put on by 30 different Clubs. Many people came from out of town just for the day, and during the parade thousands were chanting, “we’re back, we’re back!”

The day of hope and celebration was shattered when, towards the end of the route, three people were shot in three separate incidents on Orleans Avenue between Claiborne and Broad, in the Treme, a Black neighborhood with a long history and culture of resistance.

Michelle Longino, one of the event's organizers, was quoted in the Times-Picayune as saying, "It just breaks my heart that some people on the outskirts could do such a horrible thing and have it be associated with the beautiful, glorious, peaceful thing we were putting together," adding that the event was organized to “testify to the importance of the social clubs and the importance of providing affordable housing and decent schools so people can return.”

The violent end to a hopeful day was devastating. It was horrifying to see a broad community effort shattered and to see a return of the violence that has marred our city.

On top of our personal sorrow, there is also a pressure all of us here in New Orleans feel, this awareness that we are being judged by the media and by politicians in Baton Rouge and Washington. The question constantly comes up, are we deserving of rebuilding? I feel certain no other US city would be facing this questioning, but we have to constantly prove ourselves as being “worthy.”

All of us were immediately aware that those who do not want the city rebuilt would use this incident as evidence against us, just as recent news reports have gloated over the “lack of crime” that has been brought by the mass displacement of our city’s population.

Last week, the mayor’s Bring Back New Orleans commission released its recommendations on rebuilding, which are filled with the expected double talk and half promises regarding what neighborhoods can be rebuilt, pegged to vague tests and benchmarks.

But most infuriating, featured in all the coverage of the report, is the estimate given by the commission, politicians, developers, and media that only half of the city’s population is expected to come back to New Orleans in the next several years. The so-called experts advise us to be “realistic,” and accept that the city has to have a “smaller footprint” because so many people will not be returning.

Where do the reduced population statistics come from? The truth is that the “experts” are manipulating the truth for their own ends. They are creating a situation where half the city is kept from returning; then saying that we need to reduce our expectations to this reality they have created.

This week, 90% of Tulane University students came back to resume classes in uptown New Orleans. The majority did not have long-term ties to the city, but they returned because Tulane and the city wanted them back, and worked to get them back. With housing and encouragement, the majority of New Orleans would be back today. This is a completely avoidable displacement, happening in slow motion before our eyes.

It is also paternalistic, with experts brought out, one after another, to tell us – especially poor and Black New Orleanians – what is best. You can’t come to this neighborhood yet, it’s not safe for you. You can’t rebuild, we don’t know if your neighborhood will be viable. You can’t move back to New Orleans – we think you’ll be better off somewhere else, where the welfare is better.

For the city’s poor, more hurdles are being put up. Some residents who have returned are blocking the installation of FEMA trailers in their neighborhoods. Hotels are planing evictions of New Orleanians in preparation for Mardi Gras tourists. The city plans to demolish some homes before people can even come back to see them.

It's perhaps a symbol of Republican dominance and Democratic cowardice that free-marketers have chosen this overwhelmingly Democratic city as a front line in their war on government institutions created for the poor. Charity Hospital is forced to remain closed. Public housing tenants are pressured to remove their belongings. The public schools remain mostly closed, while the school system becomes the landscape for social experimentation by right-wing school privatisers.

Within the first two weeks after New Orleans was flooded, the right wing think tank The Heritage Foundation released its plans to capitalize on the disaster. Near the top of the list was promotion of “school choice” and school vouchers. Pre-Katrina, New Orleans schools were among the most segregated in the nation, with some of the nations lowest spending going to public schools, which had a wide array of problems including collapsing infrastructure and so little money for elective courses that in some schools JROTC, the military recruiting program for high schools, was a mandatory class.

The proposed changes do nothing to address these issues, instead they exacerbate the problem, diverting funds from the poorest schools, and continuing a system with two tiers of schools, one for those with the privilege, and one for everyone else. As an added benefit for privatisers, the teachers union - previously the largest union in the city - faces virtual elimination under this scheme, as staff are laid off and new schools open with mandates to cut salaries and eliminate health insurance.

Charity Hospitals, Louisiana’s public health care system, were setup by Governor Huey Long in the 30’s. The system was a shining example of state-provided health care, and Louisiana remains the only US state with a network of hospitals dedicated to free care for the poor. Even in recent years, Charity boasted world-class care in some units – such as trauma care - and the huge New Orleans Charity Hospital, one of the two oldest hospitals in North America, served thousands of uninsured patients every week. People from New Orleans, born in the hospital, proudly refer to themselves as “Charity babies.”

Doctors at Charity claim the hospital is clean and safe and ready to re-open, but they have been prevented from doing so – instead, there are plans to demolish the massive structure.

Public housing residents face some of the biggest opposition to their return. As Baton Rouge Congressman Richard Baker gloated shortly after the hurricane hit, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did.”

I spoke with Elizabeth Cook, an activist with New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team (NO-HEAT) and C3/Hands Off Iberville, a local group that combines antiwar and global justice activism with local issues such as public housing. Cook has spoken with a wide range of tenants at B.W. Cooper Housing Complex, and has worked with tenants who are fighting hard for their right to return.

Aside from politicians and developers not wanting them to return, Cooper residents have also faced opposition from the management of their complex. A B.W. Cooper management representative told Cook – “(residents) gotta change their attitude before we let them back in.”

As I’ve reported previously, Cooper residents have also experienced widespread robbery, much of it pointing to a suspicious level of access. Cook, who has spoken with many residents who have been robbed, reports, “It seems extremely likely that someone with a key, someone with access is responsible…HANO was in charge, and they could’ve provided some kind of security. Any indication that it could’ve been employees, they needed to do something right away. Even now, this is still happening – we’re still getting reports, and HANO has done nothing.”

At the same time, Cook feels there is also reason for hope – some units have been re-opened in the Iberville projects, and more are scheduled for Lafitte and Cooper. “The pressure on HANO has been successful. Its something of a success that they are reopening (some of the units) at all.” Cook feels she’s seen direct results from publicity, phone calls and letters.

“They are feeling the public pressure – it’s affecting them,” she says. “At B.W. there was always a great deal of community involvement, and they are continuing to fight back,” joined by advocates and activists. “Word of mouth and the residents are pushing this movement, and we’re following them. We have to counter the propaganda that the majority of New Orleans doesn’t want them back.”