Friday, December 21, 2007
From Naomi Klein:
Readers of The Shock Doctrine know that one of the most shameless examples of disaster capitalism has been the attempt to exploit the disastrous flooding of New Orleans to close down that city's public housing projects, some of the only affordable units in the city. Most of the buildings sustained minimal flood damage, but they happen to occupy valuable land that make for perfect condo developments and hotels.
The final showdown over New Orleans public housing is playing out in dramatic fashion right now. The conflict is a classic example of the "triple shock" formula at the core of the doctrine.
- First came the shock of the original disaster: the flood and the traumatic evacuation.
- Next came the "economic shock therapy": using the window of opportunity opened up by the first shock to push through a rapid-fire attack on the city's public services and spaces, most notably it's homes, schools and hospitals.
-Now we see that as residents of New Orleans try to resist these attacks, they are being met with a third shock: the shock of the police baton and the Taser gun, used on the bodies of protestors outside New Orleans City Hall yesterday.
Democracy Now! has been covering this fight all week, with amazing reports from filmmakers Jacquie Soohen and Rick Rowley (Rick was arrested in the crackdown). Watch residents react to the bulldozing of their homes here.
And footage from yesterday's police crackdown and Tasering of protestors inside and outside city hall here.
That last segment contains a terrific interview with Kali Akuno, executive director of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. Akuno puts the demolitions in the big picture, telling Amy Goodman:
This is just one particular piece of this whole program. Public hospitals are also being shut down and set to be demolished and destroyed in New Orleans. And they've systematically dismantled the public education system and beginning demolition on many of the schools in New Orleans--that's on the agenda right now--and trying to totally turn that system over to a charter and a voucher system, to privatize and just really go forward with a major experiment, which was initially laid out by the Heritage Foundation and other neoconservative think tanks shortly after the storm. So this is just really the fulfillment of this program.
Akuno is referring to the Heritage Foundation's infamous post-Katrina meeting with the Republican Study Group in which participants laid out their plans to turn New Orleans into a Petri dish for every policy they can't ram through without a disaster. Read the minutes on my website:.
For more context, here are couple of related excerpts from The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism:
The news racing around the shelter [in Baton Rouge] that day was that Richard Baker, a prominent Republican Congressman from this city, had told a group of lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." Joseph Canizaro, one of New Orleans' wealthiest developers, had just expressed a similar sentiment: "I think we have a clean sheet to start again. And with that clean sheet we have some very big opportunities." All that week the Louisiana State Legislature in Baton Rouge had been crawling with corporate lobbyists helping to lock in those big opportunities: lower taxes, fewer regulations, cheaper workers and a "smaller, safer city"--which in practice meant plans to level the public housing projects and replace them with condos. Hearing all the talk of "fresh starts" and "clean sheets," you could almost forget the toxic stew of rubble, chemical outflows and human remains just a few miles down the highway.
Over at the shelter, Jamar Perry, a young resident of New Orleans, could think of nothing else. "I really don't see it as cleaning up the city. What I see is that a lot of people got killed uptown. People who shouldn't have died."
He was speaking quietly, but an older man in line in front of us in the food line overheard and whipped around. "What is wrong with these people in Baton Rouge? This isn't an opportunity. It's a goddamned tragedy. Are they blind?"
A mother with two kids chimed in. "No, they're not blind, they're evil. They see just fine."
At first I thought the Green Zone phenomenon was unique to the war in Iraq. Now, after years spent in other disaster zones, I realize that the Green Zone emerges everywhere that the disaster capitalism complex descends, with the same stark partitions between the included and the excluded, the protected and the damned.
It happened in New Orleans. After the flood, an already divided city turned into a battleground between gated green zones and raging red zones--the result not of water damage but of the "free-market solutions" embraced by the president. The Bush administration refused to allow emergency funds to pay public sector salaries, and the City of New Orleans, which lost its tax base, had to fire three thousand workers in the months after Katrina. Among them were sixteen of the city's planning staff--with shades of "de Baathification," laid off at the precise moment when New Orleans was in desperate need of planners. Instead, millions of public dollars went to outside consultants, many of whom were powerful real estate developers. And of course thousands of teachers were also fired, paving the way for the conversion of dozens of public schools into charter schools, just as Friedman had called for.
Almost two years after the storm, Charity Hospital was still closed. The court system was barely functioning, and the privatized electricity company, Entergy, had failed to get the whole city back online. After threatening to raise rates dramatically, the company managed to extract a controversial $200 million bailout from the federal government. The public transit system was gutted and lost almost half its workers. The vast majority of publicly owned housing projects stood boarded up and empty, with five thousand units slotted for demolition by the federal housing authority. Much as the tourism lobby in Asia had longed to be rid of the beachfront fishing villages, New Orleans' powerful tourism lobby had been eyeing the housing projects, several of them on prime land close to the French Quarter, the city's tourism magnet.
Endesha Juakali helped set up a protest camp outside one of the boarded-up projects, St. Bernard Public Housing, explaining that "they've had an agenda for St. Bernard a long time, but as long as people lived here, they couldn't do it. So they used the disaster as a way of cleansing the neighbourhood when the neighbourhood is weakest. ... This is a great location for bigger houses and condos. The only problem is you got all these poor black people sitting on it!"
Amid the schools, the homes, the hospitals, the transit system and the lack of clean water in many parts of town, New Orleans' public sphere was not being rebuilt, it was being erased, with the storm used as the excuse. At an earlier stage of capitalist "creative destruction," large swaths of the United States lost their manufacturing bases and degenerated into rust belts of shuttered factories and neglected neighbourhoods. Post-Katrina New Orleans may be providing the first Western-world image of a new kind of wasted urban landscape: the mould belt, destroyed by the deadly combination of weathered public infrastructure and extreme weather.
Since the publication of The Shock Doctrine, my research team has been putting dozens of original source documents online for readers to explore subjects in greater depth. The resource page on New Orleans has some real gems.
After protesters clashed violently with the police inside and outside the New Orleans City Council chambers on Thursday, the council voted unanimously to allow the federal government to demolish 4,500 apartments in the four biggest public housing projects in the city.
But the council also called on the Department of Housing and Urban Development to reopen some apartments in the closed projects immediately, and to rebuild all of the public-housing units that it bulldozes. The agency plans to replace barracks-style projects, known as “the bricks,” with mixed-income developments.
“We need affordable housing in this city,” said Shelley Stephenson Midura, who proposed the resolution adopted by the council. But, she continued, “public housing ought not to be the warehouse for the poor.”
Advocates for public housing residents contend that the agency’s plan will not provide enough housing for the 3,000 families who lived in the projects before Hurricane Katrina, almost all of whom were black. Many of them have not been able to return to the city, and some protesters say they are being deliberately excluded from New Orleans.
“The issue is and the question remains, who’s in the mix,” said Torin T. Sanders, pastor of the Sixth Baptist Church, referring to the plan for mixed-income housing. He and other speakers at the four-hour hearing that preceded the vote said that previous redevelopment efforts had shut out most public housing residents.
The city’s shortage of low-cost housing is only going to get worse in the coming months, as the federal government tries to move more than 30,000 people out of government-owned trailers, said Courtney Cowart, strategic director of disaster response for the Episcopal Diocese of Louisiana.
But representatives of the residents’ councils at three projects spoke earlier in the hearing, describing the poor conditions at the complexes before the storm and expressing their support for the new plans. “It’s about being able to walk into a house and say this is a house, not a project,” said Donna Johnigan, a resident at the B.W. Cooper Apartments, which the government began to demolish last week.
The future of public housing in the city has been a subject of passionate debate in this storm-scarred city, involving race, money, history, the right to return — and who gets to make the decisions.
That the three blacks and four whites on the council joined to support the demolitions seemed to echo a widely held feeling here, crossing racial lines, that the old housing projects were deeply dysfunctional, both for their residents and for the people who lived around them.
Mistrust of the government was voiced by many of the speakers who opposed the demolitions, while supporters said most of the protesters were outsiders who did not live in New Orleans, much less in the four housing projects.
Police officers on foot and horseback tried to keep protesters out of the council chambers once all the seats were filled. Demonstrators tried to push through some iron gates to get into the chambers when the police used what appeared to be pepper spray and stun guns; at least two demonstrators needed medical treatment.
There was also a brief fight inside the chambers and the police ejected some demonstrators. About 15 protesters were arrested, the police said, mostly on charges of disturbing the peace.
Adam Nossiter reported from New Orleans, and Leslie Eaton from Dallas.