New Orleans, LA December 16, 2007— A week after arriving in New Orleans to cover the events William Quigley described in his call to action that laid out the details of the severe housing crisis still affecting New Orleans 2-1/2 years after the city was struck by Hurricane Katrina, many irregularities remain surrounding Mayor Ray Nagin’s policies on the homeless, the displaced and the disenfranchised. Having stayed in a number of places that would probably scare most white people (we can say this because it scared us a little, being a couple middle class white boys) there is the sense of unfamiliarity and uneasiness at being out of one’s element, but it is larger and much more foreboding than that. We were struck by the eerie and palpably obscene juxtaposition of people in expensive suits coming and going at City Hall in downtown New Orleans, while literally across the street was a scene directly out of the Grapes of Wrath with people living in tents, under blankets, cardboard and in some cases, even less than that. We ourselves stayed with the homeless overnight, sleeping on cardboard, in the rain, in Duncan Square Plaza. It’s a little park directly across the street from the mayor’s office in city hall. What we saw and smelled and heard would disgust most people, especially those who live there. Almost unbelievably, many of these people hold full time jobs, have always held jobs and have never asked for a handout but, because of the severe housing shortage and skyrocketing rent, can no longer afford housing.
We watched them returning from work in clean white shirts and neat pants and clean shoes only to hole up inside their tent after dark.
We also stayed with a man who would frighten some people because, a) he is a black man, b) he lives in a small, landlord neglected first floor apartment in the hood and c) he is HIV positive. He isn’t just any black man, having run for mayor in 2006. He served as a corrections officer, he’s a veteran and he is an activist. But these are not what make him exceptional. It isn’t even that he was locked inside a cell in downtown New Orleans during Katrina. There were thousands of other inmates, many who were being held on trivial offenses and, while they were never charged, they were nevertheless left there to drown in the foul, poisonous sewage and chemically contaminated waters of Katrina by prison guards who left them locked inside flooding cells without so much as a parting insult before the guards headed for home and safety. Most of the inmates here are African Americans. So it is not his ethnicity that makes him stand out. What makes him exceptional is that he had absolutely no business being arrested in the first place.
We have seen exemplary models of courage and commitment by people who have endured the most furious hurricane in a lifetime, whose homes have been sacked by both nature and man. Their families have been scattered like so much straw in the wind, often with one way tickets to nowhere that is home. It would be easy to forgive them if they had given up. Easy to ask how much can people take? But we have witnessed a determination to take a stand against blatant and brazen racism, so often administered as in this instance with a smile and the promise of a mending heart and a helping hand. Everywhere we go we encounter local people who tell us that police violence, discrimination and brutality are rampant here.
We have heard allegations of corruption at every level of governance. We have heard that there is cronyism at its ugliest in the administering of no bid contracts to developers who have much to gain in acquiring the property that Mayor Nagin proposes to demolish. Yet here are people who are willing to stand against tractors. The few who risk everything for justice. Unless the media have tired of pretending to care about these people already once forgotten in the tragedy of Katrina, they will return to bear witness again to the injustice visited upon the downtrodden every day in this latest phase of a heart wrenching story. Having shared but a week with them here, it is hard to imagine the national press could turn away now.
Added: December 17, 2007