A Reporter’s Notebook
Series with keith harmon snow
George Bush Greeting Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans (FEMA)
New Orleans is facing a housing crisis of epic proportions, but this crisis did not suddenly spring full blown from the heads of politicians or think tanks. One would think it has, given the recent flurry of press releases from notables and politicians condemning the proposed demolition of the C.J. Peete, Lafitte, B.W. Cooper and St. Bernard public housing developments.
Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid sent a letter of protest to George Bush on December 14, hours before the demolition was set to begin. Presidential hopeful John Edwards, who was in New Orleans in mid-November, issued a statement on December 11, calling the housing crisis “the result of government policies that have failed the people of the Gulf since Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma.” Edwards went on to charge that the Bush administration was trying to “make a bad situation worse.”
Pelosi cited a 2007 UNITY study which estimates the number of homeless in New Orleans has doubled from January 2005 to 12,000. 50% of the 200,000 displaced who want to return are earning less than $20,000 per year. Meanwhile, Brookings Institution estimates there has been a 9,000 unit decrease in housing since Katrina.
Whether by luck, hard work of local activists like Kali Akuna of People’s Hurricane Relief, or election year political design, officials with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) agreed in the eleventh hour on Friday December 14 to partially halt the demolition. On Friday, a Louisiana State Court Order postponed all de-construction at C.J. Peete, Lafitte, and St. Bernard housing developments until the New Orleans City Council approves the decision. The New Orleans City Council announced it will take this matter up on Thursday December 20, 2007. Under the agreement, HANO will proceed with demolition work, approved in November 2003 by the City Council, at the B. W. Cooper (Calliope) housing development.
The issue of public housing, the poor, and a face-lift for New Orleans is at least as old as 2003, meaning the hurricanes and floods provided motive and opportunity for corporate interests to remake the Big Easy in their own image. This is not a conspiracy theory. A coalition of 200 human rights groups, including Amnesty International and the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, formed the U.S. Human Rights Network and prepared a “shadow report” in order to rebut a more positive report prepared by the US State Department and quietly submitted to the United Nations with no publicity or fanfare.
In no uncertain terms, the shadow report condemns the State Department Report as a “complete whitewash,” and charges that the Bush administration is contributing to “racial, religious and ethnic discrimination in the United States.”
Abuses include including voting rights, health care, housing, education, homelessness, police brutality and fairness in the criminal justice system.
Most outrageous is the charge, according to IPS (Inter Press Service) reports that the “official” US report "misrepresents and/or cherry picks data demonstrating ongoing racial disparities and discrimination" and "suffers from glaring gaps clearly aimed at covering up the most egregious examples of persistent racism and racial discrimination in the U.S. today."
Local Profiles in Courage
The most stunning observation for a writer upon arriving in Southern Louisiana is the lack of writers researching what may well become the biggest story of our time. We figured the place would be crawling with media, since the area looks like Katrina hit two months ago instead of two years ago. It was a shock to learn that being an outside journalist was a novelty. People wanted to meet you, to tell their stories, and went out of their way to do so. Local bars on the bayous had beers waiting as we walked in the door. Writers realize that everyone has a story and everyone likes to talk, but the narratives in New Orleans were epic and soon became emotionally and tactically overwhelming, even for reporters fresh from the complications and obfuscations of Africa.
That being said, local media, especially the Times-Picayune is doing a yeoman’s job covering post Katrina issues. What the national media pick up are the pronouncements by Pelosi and Edwards in the minutes before the bulldozers roll. The political media machine is a behemoth. It doesn’t take much courage for a politician to say what is obvious and popular at the moment.
However, what was extraordinary was the courage possessed by activists, artists, and entertainers that enabled them to tell the dark side of the story from the beginning and before the story became fodder for national media. Why courage? Because, unlike politicians who emote when the media cycle is “just so” and favorable, we had well-known people with a lot to lose in terms of “marketability” factors come forward to tell it like it is in New Orleans.
Many of you read popular Cajun Blues musician Tab Benoit’s eloquent plea for the wetlands and his brave statements in opposition to the agenda of Shell Oil in the Gulf of Mexico. Benoit was not afraid to take on the sponsors of IMAX’s Hurricane on the Bayou, and said that FEMA exercises were not about saving people, but about saving oil infrastructure.