[News] Battle for New Orleans, 6 Years After Katrina

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Mon Aug 29 20:38:57 EDT 2011


The Root

Published on The Root (<http://www.theroot.com>http://www.theroot.com)


Battle for New Orleans, 6 Years After Katrina

By: Jordan Flaherty
Posted: August 27, 2011 at 3:45 PM

Political power has shifted to whites, but blacks have not given up 
their struggle for a voice -- and justice.

As this weekend's storm has reminded us, hurricanes can be a threat 
to U.S. cities on the East Coast as well as the Gulf. But the vast 
changes that have taken place in New Orleans since Katrina have had 
little to do with weather, and everything to do with political struggles.

Six years after the federal levees failed and 80 percent of the city 
was flooded, New Orleans has <http://www.gnocdc.org/>lost 80,000 jobs 
and 110,000 residents. It is a whiter and wealthier city, with 
tourist areas well-maintained while communities like the Lower 9th 
Ward remain devastated. Beyond the statistics, it is still a 
much-contested city.

Politics continue to shape how the changes to New Orleans are viewed. 
For some, the city is a crime scene of corporate profiteering and the 
mass displacement of African Americans and the working poor; for 
others it's an example of bold public-sector reforms, taken in the 
aftermath of a natural disaster, that have led the way for other cities.

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans saw the rise of a new class of 
citizens. They self-identify as YURPs -- 
<http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,295060,00.html>young urban 
rebuilding professionals -- and they work in architecture, urban 
planning, education and related fields. While the city was still 
mostly empty, they spoke of a freedom to experiment, unfettered by 
the barriers of bureaucratic red tape and public comment. Working 
with local and national political and business leaders, they made 
rapid changes in the city's education system, public housing and 
nonprofit sector.

Along the way, the face of elected government changed in the city and 
state. Among the offices that switched from black to white were 
mayor, police chief, district attorney and representatives on the 
school board and City Council, both of which switched to white 
majorities for the first time in a generation. Louisiana also 
transformed from a state with several statewide elected Democrats to 
having only one: Sen. Mary Landrieu.

While black community leaders have said that the displacement after 
the storm has robbed African Americans of their civic representation, 
another narrative has also taken shape. Many in the media and 
business elite have said that a new political class -- which happens 
to be mostly white -- is reshaping the politics of the city into a 
postracial era.

"Our efforts are changing old ways of thinking," said Mayor Mitch 
Landrieu, shortly after he was elected in 2010. After accusing his 
critics of being stuck in the past, Landrieu -- who was the first 
mayor in modern memory elected with the support of a majority of both 
black and white voters -- added, "We're going to rediscipline 
ourselves in this city."

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The changes in the public sector have been widespread. Shortly after 
the storm, the entire staff of the public school system was fired. 
Their union, which had been the largest union in the city, ceased to 
be recognized. With many parents, students and teachers driven out of 
the city by Katrina and unable to have a say in the decision, the 
state took over the city's schools and began shifting them over to charters.

"The reorganization of the public schools has created a separate but 
unequal tiered system of schools that steers a minority of students, 
including virtually all of the city's white students, into a set of 
selective, higher-performing schools, and most of the city's students 
of color into a set of lower-performing schools," writes lawyer and 
activist Bill Quigley, in a report prepared with fellow Loyola law 
professor Davida Finger.

In many ways, the changes in the New Orleans school system, initiated 
almost six years ago, foreshadowed a battle that has played out more 
conspicuously this year in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey and other 
states, where teachers and their unions were assailed by both 
Republican governors and liberal reformers such as the filmmakers 
behind Waiting for Superman. Similarly, the battle of New Orleans' 
public housing -- which was torn down and replaced by new units built 
in public-private partnerships that house a small percentage of the 
former residents -- prefigured national battles over government's 
role in solving problems related to poverty.

The anger at the changes in New Orleans' black community is palpable. 
It comes out at City Council meetings, on local 
<http://www.wbok1230am.com/>black talk-radio station WBOK and in 
protests. "Since New Orleans was declared a blank slate, we are the 
social experimental lab of the world," says Endesha Juakali, a 
housing-rights activist. However, despite the changes, grassroots 
resistance continues. "For those of us that lived and are still 
living the disaster, moving on is not an option," adds Juakali.

Resistance to the dominant agenda has also led to reform of the 
city's criminal-justice system. But this reform is very different 
from the others, with leadership coming from African-American 
residents at the grass roots, including those most affected by both 
crime and policing.

In the aftermath of Katrina, media images famously depicted poor New 
Orleanians as criminal and dangerous. In fact, at one point it was 
announced that rescue efforts were put on hold because of the 
violence. In response, the second-in-charge of the New Orleans Police 
Department reportedly told officers to shoot looters, and the 
governor announced that she had given the National Guard orders to 
shoot to kill.

Over the following days, police shot and killed several civilians. A 
police sniper shot a young African American named Henry Glover, and 
other officers took his body and burned it behind a levee. A 
45-year-old grandfather, Danny Brumfield Sr., was shot in the back in 
front of his family outside the New Orleans convention center.

Two black families -- the Madisons and the Bartholomews -- 
<http://www.theroot.com/views/why-you-should-care-about-new-orleans-police-trial>walking 
across New Orleans' Danziger Bridge fell under a hail of gunfire from 
a group of officers. "We had more incidents of police misconduct than 
civilian misconduct," says former District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who 
pursued charges against the officers but had the charges thrown out 
by a judge. "All these stories of looting, it pales next to what the 
police did."

Jordan, who angered many in the political establishment when he 
brought charges against officers and was forced to resign soon after, 
was not the only one who failed to bring accountability for the 
post-Katrina violence. In fact, every check and balance in the city's 
criminal-justice system failed. For years, family members of the 
victims pressured the media, the U.S. Attorney's office and Eddie 
Jordan's replacement in the DA's office, Leon Cannizzaro. "The media 
didn't want to give me the time of day," says William Tanner, who saw 
officers take away Glover's body. "They called me a raving idiot."

Finally, after more than three years of protests, press conferences 
and lobbying, the Department of Justice launched aggressive 
investigations of the Glover, Brumfield and Danziger cases in early 
2009. In recent months, three officers were convicted in the Glover 
killing (although one conviction was overturned), two were convicted 
of beating a man to death just before the storm, and 10 officers 
either pleaded guilty or were convicted in the Danziger killing and 
cover-up. In the Danziger case, the jury found that officers had not 
only killed two civilians and wounded four, but also engaged in a 
wide-ranging conspiracy that involved planted evidence, invented 
witnesses and secret meetings.

The DOJ has at least seven more open investigations into New Orleans 
police killings and has indicated its plans for more formal oversight 
of the New Orleans Police Department, as well as the city jail. In 
this area, New Orleans is also leading the way: In a remarkable 
change from DOJ policy during the Bush administration, the department 
is also looking at oversight of police departments in Newark, Denver 
and Seattle.

In the national struggle against law-enforcement violence, there is 
much to be learned from the victims of New Orleans police violence, 
who led a remarkable struggle against a wall of official silence and 
now have begun to win justice. "This is an opening," explains New 
Orleans police accountability activist Malcolm Suber. "We have to 
push for a much more democratic system of policing in the city."

In the closing arguments of the Danziger trial, DOJ prosecutor Bobbi 
Bernstein fought back against the defense claim that the officers 
were heroes, saying that the family members of those killed deserved 
the title more. Noting that the official cover-up had "perverted" the 
system, she said, "The real heroes are the victims who stayed with an 
imperfect justice system that initially betrayed them." The jury 
apparently agreed with her, convicting the officers on all 25 counts.

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New Orleans and the author 
of the book <http://floodlines.org/>Floodlines: Community and 
Resistance From Katrina to the Jena Six.

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