Revolution#113, December 23, 2007

Destroying Homes for the Holidays in New Orleans

On December 12, government authorities began the planned demolition of four public housing developments in New Orleans. Bulldozers began rolling in the BW Cooper development. But this outrageous and heartless destruction of housing has been met with protest and resistance.

In September 2005, people around the world watched in horror at how the U.S. government abandoned tens of thousands of Black people in the flood waters after Katrina, subjected them to the most inhumane conditions, then callously evacuated them. Now, two years later, on December 14, headlines and photographs about New Orleans hit the national and international news again: The U.S. government heartlessly RAZING low-income housing people AND people RESISTING, going up against the bulldozers, determined to stop this crime. This had a big impact—the eyes of the world turned toward New Orleans once again. And as we go to press, a state court has halted the demolitions at three of the four developments, saying that the city council never voted to authorize the demolitions.

The city council could vote right away to put all of the demolitions back on track. And the court decision leaves one development, BW Cooper, facing demolition because it was slated for demolition before Hurricane Katrina.

If the authorities get away with their plans, four of the five remaining major public housing developments in the city will be demolished. More than 4,600 units will be reduced to rubble and replaced by “mixed income housing” which will have less than 800 affordable units.

These demolitions will destroy the neighborhoods that thousands of people called home. Many of the people who used to live in the sections of Cooper that are being demolished have been forced to move in with relatives or friends. Others have been forced to live on the streets. Now their homes are being destroyed.

It’s also clear that most of the people who used to live in public housing will be unable to afford to live in the new developments built to replace those being demolished. New Orleans has already been through this with the destruction of the St. Thomas development before Katrina. Fifteen hundred affordable units were lost in that demolition and only 150 affordable units were built in the River Gardens development that replaced St. Thomas.

The destruction of public housing is happening in cities across the country, and it’s an outrage. But it’s even MORE outrageous that this is going down in New Orleans. It was criminal enough what this system did to people right after Hurricane Katrina. But the system’s criminal and massive abuse has continued up to the present day. Black communities like the 9th Ward remain especially neglected. Two hundred thousand people who used to live here remain exiled across the country since Katrina. One hundred fifty thousand of these people are Black. Destroying public housing will mean many people will never be able to return. On top of this, thousands of New Orleans residents living in FEMA emergency trailers here and in cities across the country will be evicted over the next six months. Where are they going to find housing? What about the large and growing homeless population in New Orleans? Officials say 12,000 people live on the streets in New Orleans, double the official count before Katrina. Many people say there are thousands more homeless here. These demolitions will only make that number grow.

Resistance Builds

These demolitions must be brought to a halt. They are part of a plan to rebuild a New Orleans that is smaller and whiter with much of its Black population driven out of the city. They are part of a nationwide drive to destroy public housing and part of the Bush regime’s program for Black people—poverty, prisons and punishment. New Orleans itself has become a national and international symbol—people point to what happened after Hurricane Katrina as a blatant and concentrated example of the living legacy of slavery and how the U.S. capitalist system continues to oppress Black people. And whether or not people fight back and resist these outrageous demolitions holds special significance to people around the world. This underscores the larger importance of and stakes in this struggle. And the rulers of the U.S. also know the national and international impact of what happens in New Orleans and must put this in their calculations over what to do.

The authorities are very determined to go ahead with these eveictions. Residents and former residents of public housing have been threatened with being kicked out of public housing forever or losing their housing vouchers if they speak out against the demolitions. Alphonso Jackson, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), warned city officials that HUD will revoke $137 million in federal assistance and that 900 former public housing residents living in different parts of the country will be stripped of their housing vouchers if the demolitions are halted.

Resistance has begun to grow. A hundred people packed into a city hall office to demand that the demolitions be halted on Monday, December 10. On December 12, 50 people formed a human wall to block a bulldozer from entering BW Cooper, the first development they began to take down. The bulldozer was moved in overnight. The next day people who had occupied one of the buildings unfurled a banner protesting the demolition as the bulldozer demolished another building. After a several hour stand off, the protesters were arrested by cops and charged with trespassing.

Earlier that day, more than 100 people marched to the New Orleans HUD office to demand a stop to the demolitions. And other protest actions were held at two other developments slated for demolition. This resistance has been mounted by public housing residents, dozens of volunteers who came to New Orleans to help stop the demolitions, and a growing array of supporters.

Many people in New Orleans have been electrified by this resistance. They see that the demolitions are bad for poor people and especially for Black people. Some say they feel this is aimed at driving Black people out of New Orleans. People remember how after Katrina, ten-term Congressman from Baton Rouge Richard Baker said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it. But God did.”

At the same time, many people have sharp questions. Some say the projects were breeding grounds for poverty and crime and that it’s better to get rid of them and build something new. Others raise that losing public housing’s low rent and utility bills would motivate people to get jobs and better themselves.

These views echo what the authorities say to justify getting rid of public housing, and they mistake cause for effect. Many public housing residents work, but at low paying, dead end jobs.  Many others can’t find work.  The capitalist system is responsible for this.  It sucked the jobs out of Black and other oppressed neighborhoods in New Orleans and across the country.  It offers millions of Black youth with futures of low paying dead-end jobs, if they can find any jobs.  It has criminalized many of these youth and warehouses hundreds of thousands of them in prisons. Getting rid of public housing isn’t going to ease this situation. In fact, it will only intensify it.

And beyond the immediate repercussions of the destruction of public housing in New Orleans, there is the larger impact and significance of whether or not there is resistance to such an assault on poor people in New Orleans.

All this underscores the need to fight these demolitions, not go along with them. And it underscores the need to build this fight as part of getting ready for revolution. The poverty and crime that people want to escape is caused by capitalism.  It’ll take nothing short of revolution to deal with this and the exploitation and oppression that capitalism enforces on the world.

Building public housing doesn’t fit into the plans to profitably rebuild New Orleans. And a basic absurdity of free market capitalism is on display with the destruction of public housing here. There are thousands of people in this city with no jobs who could be trained and put to work. There are thousands of people in this city living on the street who need homes. There are people from all over the country and world who could be mobilized to volunteer their skills and abilities to help rebuild this city. But this SYSTEM, where profit determines what is and isn’t done, STANDS IN THE WAY of bringing all these different factors together to provide decent housing.

A revolutionary society, one where power was in the hands of the people, could deal with the need for affordable housing completely different than this setup. People who needed work could be unleashed to build the housing so many needed. In the face of a natural disaster like Katrina, a revolutionary society wouldn’t leave people to die and then seize on it as an opportunity to drive the masses out of town and not allow them to come back like this system did. The enthusiasm and energy of the people could be tapped into and unleashed to rebuild, not suppressed and subjected to repression like what has happened right after and since Katrina. This won’t be easy, but it will be possible under socialism, where the masses of people are fully mobilized to struggle out, figure out and work together to transform society and emancipate the people.

The holiday demolition of public housing is an outrage on top of all the other outrages this system has already perpetrated on the people of New Orleans. People are fighting for the right to return to the city, to rebuild their homes and their lives—and there is a critical need for affordable housing in New Orleans. People need to fight to see to it that none of it is destroyed.

Whatever twists and turns this struggle goes through, a real fight to stop these demolitions is what’s needed and possible. It’s not a done deal—that the authorities can destroy these developments and the people can’t do anything about it. Already the power of the people’s resistance has caused them to back off temporarily. Now this resistance must get stronger, and it must draw support from all over the country. There are no “outsiders” in the fight for justice—New Orleans is everyone’s battle. And if that’s done, it will create new ground to advance the struggle to defend public housing in New Orleans and around the country. And it would raise people’s consciousness and help politically prepare them for revolution.

Revolution is calling on its readers to send messages of support to the people in New Orleans, which we will forward.  

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