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New Orleans: America's Palestine

May 15, 2008

New Orleans: America's Palestine

Right of Return.jpg

Once the catastrophe hit it was a long time before people started to understand what was really going on. By then, the world had abandoned the already marginalized communities, leaving them to fend for themselves while being largely displaced and devoid of rights.

Walking through the still devastated neighbourhoods, the poverty is simply striking. Abandoned, barely standing homes are interspersed with a few renovated ones here and there. International and national volunteers converge to pour their efforts into single projects, but what they leave behind is perhaps even more telling than what they've originally found.

As they scrape together the resources to rebuild, others see an opportunity in the devastation. A large evacuation, such as that of the 9th Ward of whose 17,000 original residents 14,000 remain displaced, produces quite a business opening. Cheap real estate has become the market of choice for opportunists as every abandoned plot boasts a "for sale" sign.

Effectively, an ethic cleansing is underway as the predominantly black population of such neighbourhoods as New Orleans East and the 9th Ward has disappeared. In the former, it is actively and aggressively being replaced by suburban, predominantly white residents. In the latter, the destruction is still too significant for a strong gentrification to take place. In the city's centre, public housing projects have decreased by 80 per cent largely thanks to home demolitions.

Residents with previous offenses or those that have ever had an encounter with the police are being evicted. Residents without employment and those with substance abuse problems, whether current or past, are also being handed eviction slips. As soon as enough residents are out the building is demolished, and an empty plot is replaced with condominiums or a parking lot.

Meanwhile thousands live in temporary housing (issued by the Federal Emergency Management Agency). While the Agency's emergency funding expired on June 30, 2006, its issued trailers have produced more problems than solutions. A study commissioned by The Sierra Club identified that the trailers in which thousands live contain toxic levels of formaldehyde, arsenic, and such microorganisms as E. coli, Salmonella, and staphylococcus. Besides visible disease, being exposed to formaldehyde can lead to headaches, depression and impairment of memory according to the national Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Homelessness is worsening and the fight for the displaced people's "right of return" becomes more difficult as many are prevented from getting back to their homes by the Housing Authority of New Orleans or by a lack of federal funding access. This right of return depends first and foremost on the financial prospects of the resident. For example, one sign on what used to be a public housing project in New Orleans East reads, "if you lived here you'd be home by now," alluding to the fact that the area's former residents couldn't afford the new privatized housing. Many have lost documentation necessary for reclaiming their homes, while bureaucratic lineups make the suffering worse.

Resistance to the mass gentrification is met with nothing but police repression, as the December 2007 protests demonstrated. Opposing the demolition of undamaged public housing projects containing 4,500 living units, activists and residents were tasered, badly beaten and subjected to various chemical weapons.

But not everyone's been kicked to the curb. Various levels of government have been consistently signing multi-million dollar deals with subcontractors for demolitions, construction and other services. Appraisers, inspectors, and mediators are all paid under the blanket of the "reconstruction effort."

One such deal was signed with the Kennedy Associates and MetroplexCore corporations, who were paid millions for demolishing the 723-unit C.J. Peete public housing complex. Ties have been found between executives of the corporations and representatives on the Housing and Urban Development body responsible for the assignment. As reporter Edward T. Pound of The National Journal revealed, high-end executives of these corporations have been previously appointed by George W. Bush to the Boards of Directors of Texas universities and banks while he served as the state's governor.

As recently as April 2008, Shaw Environmental & Infrastructure Inc., a subcontractor of the Department of Defense, has been awarded a $695 million contract for "the design and construction for improvement of hurricane protection of the inner harbour navigation canal" in the city.

To keep this system rolling, New Orleans houses almost two thousand troops. Officers of the U.S. Coast Guard with M6/A1 rifles patrol every trip the public ferry takes between downtown New Orleans and the historic Algiers neighbourhood. Hummers with Army personnel are sprawled on most corners, as officers patrol the city in marked or unmarked vans.

Subcontractors such as Blackwater and Halliburton-KBR have also visited the streets of New Orleans. In a September 2005 article in The Nation, Jeremy Scahill wrote, "DynCorp, Intercon, American Security Group, Blackhawk, Wackenhut and an Israeli company called Instinctive Shooting International (ISI) are fanning out to guard private businesses and homes, as well as government projects and institutions."

As Millions of tourists continue to flood the city for its never ending partying and leave behind booming entertainment and waste management industries, politics has also come to town.

On April 21-22, Bush met with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Mexican President Felipe Calderon. Their annual summit with the CEOs of the North American Competitiveness Council chose New Orleans as the host city as it offered a blank slate for business opportunity.

Staying at The Double Tree hotel in the heart of downtown, the leaders utilized the Army Corps of Engineers to establish a strong perimeter around themselves. Speaking to one of the officers engaged in placing cement barricades around the hotel (each with the inscription "Think Safety"), I asked whether this was part of his service. "Defending the President of the United States?!" he said, "Absolutely!"

The barricades seem a bit excessive, as it has been long known that a mass convergence like last year in Montebello wasn't going to take place. Yet, what intelligence services collecting information on resistance to the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) didn't likely expect were Canadian activists.

After speaking to the local organizers, young members of over half a dozen Ontario organizations with whom I travelled to New Orleans decided to make things happen themselves.

Spending most of their free time talking to local residents in the tent city from the 9th Ward and from other neighbourhoods, they realized what was needed instead of a confrontational protest was a celebration of resistance in as safe a way as possible in order to welcome all who could join.

After discussing the details on the night of April 20, they decided upon an event called Fat Cat Tuesday. Over the next 48 hours they designed a pamphlet, printed it, and personally gave out 1800 copies of it to local residents. They collected garbage and made colourful musical instruments with decorations donated by various local groups. They consulted local activists and workers, and on the night of Tuesday, April 22 took to the streets of The French Quarter.

Leading a visible and musical snake march, they demonstrated resistance to the SPP while giving out information about it to bar owners, tourists, and delegates from the Summit, finishing at Jackson Square where Bush had delivered his three-week late speech on September 15, 2005.

Less than three years ago, while New Orleans still did not have electricity returned to most of its homes, the White House flew in generators to power the klieg lights of the Saint Louis Cathedral. Bush addressed the people of New Orleans, offering words of hope, "You need to know that our whole nation cares about you, and in the journey ahead you're not alone."

His infamous pledge, which to this day remains but a flickered light of hope most residents have long forgotten, continued with false promises:

"Throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes, to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives… the work of rescue is largely finished; the work of recovery is moving forward."

*Originally published on Rabble.ca, May 14th, 2008*

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