Revolution #51, June 18, 2006

Katrina Survivors Fight to Return to their Homes—Let Them In!

We received the following correspondence from a reader in Houston:

April 4, 2006: “If I got to die, let me die in New Orleans!” shouted a defiant Gloria Irving, as she sped in her wheelchair, joining former residents and supporters who overwhelmed housing authority police and broke through the gate to the fenced-off St Bernard Housing Development in New Orleans. Armed with mops, buckets, and tyvex suits, and chanting, “Let the People In!”, about 100 people took matters into their own hands and declared their right to return to their apartments.

The St. Bernard—pre-Katrina home to about 3,000 residents, overwhelmingly Black—is New Orleans’ largest public housing complex. The residents, who desperately want to reoccupy their homes, have been continually stonewalled by HANO, Housing Authority of New Orleans, which is run by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development. As FEMA benefits are rapidly running out, and the prospects of homelessness are becoming all too real to thousands, public housing residents are being told that they cannot return for reasons of “safety.” Only about 900 families out of a former population of well over 14,000 families living in public housing have returned. About 90% of pre-Katrina public housing units, many of which were not even damaged by the storm, remain shuttered.

May 3, 2006: Public housing residents shake up a HANO board meeting, forcing Donald Babers, the one-man board of commissioners, to let them dominate the meeting with their demands. The New Orleans Times-Picayune quoted a tenant spokesperson, Cynthia Wiggins, telling Babers, “If they don’t let these people come home, there will be a demonstration in this city that they have never seen. We are not going to sleep at night until these women and children are allowed home. Our leases are still valid. Are you going to arrest women and children?”

June 3, 2006: Residents make good on their promises to fight. A coalition of residents, activists, and relief volunteers respond to a call by the United Front for Affordable Housing to establish a “Survivor’s Village” in front of the St. Bernard that “will stay open till the U.S. government guarantees affordable housing in New Orleans for all Katrina survivors, including public housing residents and Section 8 renters.”

On Friday, June 2, we joined with St Bernard residents living in exile in Houston, loaded up a van with revolutionary literature, and drove through the night to join this historic battle.

Celebration of Resistance

Despite threats and intimidation, this was a defiant, determined, joyful celebration of resistance. St. Bernard residents joined with other public housing residents, activists, and relief workers, including many youth volunteers from Common Ground Collecive (one of the first volunteer groups in New Orleans after Katrina to provide assistance to hard-hit residents). They rocked to lively home-grown jazz music, blaring from huge speakers across the street, as tents and screened-in shelters went up on palettes in the grassy median in the four-lane boulevard that runs along the complex. Supporters brought water, sodas, and food. Some residents embraced each other excitedly, having seen each other for the first time since the flood. It was kinda like a family reunion. But within all the merriment, there was a seriousness: “We’re not leaving til we get our homes back.”

Many women are in the front of this battle. They decried and ridiculed the fact that the authorities claim that the $300,000 fence separating the St. Bernard Development and its residents is to protect the apartments and their contents. After they had already been ransacked! It was no revelation to anyone that that fence was not to protect what’s inside, but to keep people out!

This was the beginning of a new stage in the battle to reclaim the homes of the Black and poor people of New Orleans, to prevent the city from being turned into a gentrified, white, Las Vegas-ized entertainment center. The New Orleans battle to defend public housing (as well as Section 8 assistance) has implications for inner-city communities hanging by a thread all over the country. And you get the sense that the residents know this and are all the more determined, knowing that their struggle goes way beyond New Orleans.

Mike Howells, one of the coalition organizers, told us, “This isn’t about begging. This is not a privilege. Housing is not a privilege. It’s a right. And also if you look at international law, the United Nations, in its Principle 26 of the Guiding Principles on Internally Displaced Persons mandates that the…authorities take affirmative action to help those in exile repopulate, return, after a natural disaster like the one we had… And obviously the government has done little to nothing around here and for public housing. So what we’re doing is, and this is the law we’re implementing, and hopefully in the process of putting pressure on the Bush administration, cuz this is really the main obstacle here. They’re all rotten, but right now HANO is in federal receivership. It’s the Bush administration that makes the decisions regarding public housing and Section 8 in New Orleans.” He went on to pose a stark contradiction: “Nobody has prevented anybody from moving into private homes. So why can’t people move back into public?”

Learning from Experience

The hell people went through nine months ago, trying to survive Katrina, is still a very fresh wound, and in many cases that still-deep pain has fueled both their anger and their persistence. People have learned from their experience, recent and life-long, and we’re very clear on what’s going on with public housing: their inability to get back to their homes is not about money, not about safety, not about lack of resources. It’s about ethnic cleansing. And it’s a continuation of the murderous treatment the Black and poor people received during Katrina at the hands of the state.

A former resident of B.W. Cooper Housing Development spoke bitterness about the continuing racism. His second-story apartment had not been flooded and was not damaged. But while he was prevented from going back there, it was looted three times. He described the actions of the military killing people during the flood there—how if you were gonna cross the Mississippi into Gretna you were taking your life into your hands cuz of all the racism. He told how a youth who was “looting” was carrying a handful of clothes. He said that rather than handcuffing this kid, the military just shot him point-blank. He saw it with his own eyes. And he was upset about the constant negative portrayals of the youth and Black people in general in the press. And he was telling me that the people in public housing are good, hard-working people; that only a few are into crime So we sat down and watched the part of the DVD of Bob Avakian’s talk Revolution: Why It’s Necessary, Why It’s Possible, What It’s All About—where Bob Avakian says: “I say no more. No more generations of our youth, here and around the world, whose life is over, whose fate has been sealed, who have been condemned to an early death, or a life of misery and brutality. Whom the system has destined for oppression and oblivion even before they are born!” He was very moved by this, hanging on every word, and felt that people all over need to hear this voice, and wanted to help get the video shown.

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