Thursday, December 20, 2007

It was an awful situation

I got to City Hall around ten minutes before 10:00 AM, which was when the public hearing on the public housing demolition projects at City Council was scheduled to begin. I walked around the corner and saw a large group of public housing activists standing around a locked gate. Bill Quigley was locked out too. Maybe there were 100 people total, though it seemed to grow to 200 people or more before too long. People were pretty upset.

I was ticked too. I rearranged my whole schedule to have the day off so that I could make sure I was down at City Hall. People were saying all around me that HUD, HANO, and Council had stacked the room with all of their staff and employees and stuff to block spaces that would have gone to public housing residents and activists. Apparently, those people started filing in at 8:30 or 9:00 AM before anyone else even had a chance.

I kept asking around for an estimate of how many public housing people actually made it inside. Some people said in the twenties, some people said in the fifties, I can't really be sure.

It seemed Council had decided to exercise the fire code to prevent more people from entering the hearing beyond the 27o-something that could be seated in chairs. I heard Mr. Quigley saying how unusual it was for council to do so much to restrict access to a public meeting. There were apparently close to 500 people allowed in for a different meeting the week before. It felt like a pretty dirty trick to me. We were all stuck standing in the rain waiting to see if those inside could negotiate to get everyone allowed inside. "Everyone" included media, housing advocates, housing residents, bloggers, and gadflies.

It wasn't going to happen. People were very tense to begin with, being excluded from the Council meeting really made protesters upset. (As if the metaphor of being locked out of the process and locked out of the projects needed to be buoyed by actually being locked out of a public Council meeting) I believe the situation was made many times more volatile both inside and outside of the building because of Council's decision to refuse entry to such a large number of advocates and residents.

The protesters outside received updates from allies on the inside. At around 10:40, it was reported that Arnie Fielkow had begun the meeting and was ejecting all of those making noise or being disruptive.

Within five minutes, I saw a WDSU reporter with a nerdy haircut jumping up and down like an excited little child, I overheard him exclaiming about the fight breaking out inside the building. New Orleans Nation has a sweet post up about the goings on inside City Hall. By 10:55 there were NOPD reinforcements allowed through the gate and a few minutes later there was a stretcher brought in as well. Protesters were talking about the use of tasers on those being ejected from the building and the arrest of rapper Sess-45.

Not long after that, the T-P's Gwen Filosa said it was around 11:15, the protesters outside began becoming increasingly agitated, presumably as word spread about the rough treatment on the inside. Several protesters began violently shaking the gate and it appeared it would soon give way. One man breached the gate and was quickly apprehended. Officers swarmed on the gate area and one got up on the fence to spray mace. Here are three silent videos I have of that incident from my dinky digital camera in chronological succession:

After this first pepper spray incident, people backed off briefly. One man was hit pretty directly in the eyes but recovered in an amazing amount of time and reclaimed his place at the front of the crowd at chained gate.

This original breach of the gate prompted police officers to handcuff the gate together.

Within minutes the crowd was back at the gate, shaking it violently. Those handcuffs proved to be useless and snapped, the gate swinging open toward the crowd. One woman was being crushed by the open gate against the police barricades along the side of the driveway entrance. Activists and witnesses lifted her out of trouble. Concurrently, the police charged again, and attempted to pull the gate shut again. They utilized pepper spray and mace to push back protesters. It all happened very quickly. One woman was hit with both spray and the stun gun and began having what appeared to be a seizure. She hit the ground and started shaking violently. I, along with a group of several carried her out of harms way into the grass where she was helped. I have some video of these events as well that I will post as soon as YouTube begins accepting them. These are shorter and are of poor quality because I started running out of battery and because I dropped my shot to assist the injured. Otherwise, I'm sure there's extended video out there somewhere, maybe even with sound. My mom said she saw me on CNN (she said I looked handsome)

Those affected by the pepper spray were on their own for too long considering the large numbers of emergency personnel on site. There were many pedestrians around with some medical knowledge that took charge. Someone ran and out to buy milk (the best antidote, apparently). Otherwise, the ambulances parked within 50 yards of the incident were empty. I don't know what happened to the girl that had the seizure, I hope she's okay. She was turning blue, it was scary.

After all that, people were extremely upset, but realized I think there was no use in rattling the fence anymore. That pepper spray is powerful stuff. I got a little bit on my right arm from helping to carry that one person and I developed a pretty nasty irritation. I mean, I got it second degree and it still took me 20 minutes of scrubbing when I got home to clean my arm off. So it shouldn't be surprising that the protesters locked out of the meeting were largely incapacitated. They chanted and sung for over an hour after that but it started raining harder and harder. After a senior citizen and public housing resident fell ill and was taken to the hospital, leaders of those protesting outside decided to adjourn the mobilization.

It was really ugly. Very upsetting. The whole event made me sick to my stomach and not because of the pepper spray fumes, though that didn't help matters. It didn't have to happen the way that it did. City Council was extremely arrogant and undemocratic in the way they handled the proceedings today.

There are other tried and true means of diffusing a situation like the one City Council was confronted with this morning. If I were in charge, I would have let all of the advocates and residents come in, I would have let them chant and yell and scream and take turns with the microphone. I'd have allowed them to do that all morning. Then you have HUD and HANO and the developers do their side and then you vote. Given the experience at the demolition hearing last week, there was no real reason to assume things were going to get out of hand. Sure people are going to shout and be rowdy. They're going to boo things they hear and don't like. They're going to stomp their feet and speak out of turn.

Big deal. Let them. At the hearing last week (see the link), public housing advocates were well behaved, they allowed representatives of HANO and HUD and the Developers to prevent their case. Sure people interrupted to boo from time to time but the meeting went forward, the vote went forward. They voted with the developers and against "the mob" but nobody went out burning condominiums, nobody pushed down police officers, nobody was violent against any of the HUD or HANO officials, and representatives of the developers, or any members of the review board. The same thing probably would have happened. Protesters would have filed in, they would have been loud and obnoxious, council would have voted in favor of the developers and protesters would have been loud and obnoxious. Big deal. They would have left in peace. Maybe someone would have broken a window in frustration or something.

People want to feel like they're listened to. They want to yell and scream. They want to be given access to the democratic process. They want to feel like their voice matters. That is why so many people showed up this morning to attend this meeting. They all already knew they had little chance of stopping council from approving the demolitions. Don't we all know that?

But when they were cut off completely from the process, barred from entering a public meeting by their own elected officials, literally locked out..... that's what really pissed people off - in a let's break down this fence and let ourselves in kind of way.

People weren't even chanting "stop the demolitions" at that point, they were chanting "let us in!" Here's a video from of the fence breach. You can see my red shirt in the background at the end of the video, helping to carry away that one woman.

It made me mad too. I thought everyone that wanted to do so should have been allowed to witness that meeting, witness Council's vote and Council's decision. Would that have been so hard on everybody? Really?

Instead, what everyone is witnessing, all around America, all around the world, is another scene of New Orleans being out of control. That's hard on all of us. Really.


alli said...

do you know that girl's name? it looked like a friend of mine, but the video on the news didn't show her face clearly.

and thank you for being there. everyone should have been able to go to that meeting.

E said...

i was asking around but she'd already been taken to the hospital. someone said her name was ann or annie or something like that... it was very scary for a few moments

alli said...

fuck, that's what i thought. thanks.

Ellen said...

Holy crap - I'm glad no one had access to any bricks. I am impressed with your level of committment to the social issues at hand - but, please, be safe ! Don't know if you are coming up but hope to see you on Sunday. Hannah and I will be thinking of you even if you don't make it. Happy Hannukah, Merry Christmas, Happy Kwanzaa - have a great holiday regardless of what damn holidays you celebrate. Let's all celebrate everything! Festivus for the Rest of us!

Leigh C. said...

Unfortunately, when I heard on the news last night that City Hall was planning to have extra security on tap, complete with access to SWAT teams, if need be, I figured something like this would be happening. This was, sadly, disgustingly, quite a setup.

Everybody should have been allowed to holler. It was handled well at the crime march, and at the HCDRC meeting. I wonder where the folks were who suggested moving last week's HCDRC meeting to Civil District court to accomodate everybody? This gathering could certainly have used that kind of thoughtfulness, not access to tasers, pepper spray, and SWAT teams.

I'm glad you're okay. I'm sorry you were in the middle of all that crap.

Nightprowlkitty said...

Thank you so much for this well written and informative eye-witness account.

Well said.

John said...

Leave it up to the "protesters" to screw it all up and add themselves to the list of bufoons from new orleans. Apparently you all learned to protest from watching TV and reading the anarchists cookbook and never learned how to protest effectivly. Going to city hall and picking a fight with the NOPD, calling Stacy Head a racist, has only destroyed your movement and made you all look like a bunch of hippie thugs looking for some youtube footage to post. How bout finding a more productive way to protest rather than destroying city property and wasting my tax dollars in NOPD overtime to ensure you don't burn the place down?

Thanks for the bad press.


Schroeder said...

"bufoons from new orleans"

Don't be so sure they were all from New Orleans, John. Those who were, the ones I recognize, I've never engaged in the life of New Orleans the way most people are, including the poor who live in the projects.

"quite a setup"

Leigh, by whom? I'd say it was a setup by agitators intent on disrupting the proceedings, which required a law enforcement presence. This is an issue which requires education, not bullhorns.

Carmen said...

Schroeder, the very allusion to extra security measures, SWAT teams, and the like without a right lock for the gate is a setup, don't you think?

asoom said...

I'll have to read the rest of the post later, but kudos to you for making the effort and the time to go down there and stand up for what you believe in!