Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Public Housing: Sensationalism by Power Structures Rules as Direct Action Tactics Fall Flat

As consistent readers are well aware, I've been writing a lot recently about the now impending demolition of the four largest New Orleans public housing projects.

Since City Council unanimously approved the demolition plans last Thursday, I've kept on thinking about how this whole process unfolded.

I've got a bad taste in my mouth. Let me try to rinse and spit.

Way back on December 5th, I wrote a post called "ENTIRELY UNRELATED HOUSING NEWS" in which I called on progressive New Orleanians to be supportive of advocate efforts to halt the demolition process. My argument was that given the high rent crisis, the homelessness epidemic, and the impending eviction of thousands of FEMA trailers in May, the city needed to reevaluate the demolition plans given that redevelopment blueprints promised a net decrease in the number of public units. I encouraged people to get involved and put up numerous links to defendneworleanspublichousing.org, the website of the Coalition to Stop Demolition, a network of housing advocates and residents.

On December 11th, the day after the HCDRC (the rubber stamp demolition committee) hearing on the public housing units, I wrote another post, called "Mobilization Tactics Thwarted By Crazy." In it, I was extremely frustrated. It seemed that so much media/blog attention that should have been paid to the hearing and to the issues being raised by opponents to the demolition plans was instead going toward something else entirely. Instead, people got caught up in a mainstream media-driven hysteria. I'm talking of course, of the "threat" posed by a poster around City Hall that pledged to destroy condos in retaliation for any public housing demolitions. I outlined how politicians, talk radio, and the two mainstream daily papers seized upon the "threat" to drive a wedge between everyday New Orleanians and housing advocates by making the advocates seem like a primary danger while the legitimate questions they raise about the nature of HANO's plans were brushed aside. The poster became the story of the day not just because the T-P, talk radio, and City Business went wild with it, but also because so many New Orleanians and so many bloggers went for the bait.

It was at this point that it became clear that the direct action protest tactics of the Coalition to Stop Demolition were becoming counterproductive in the face of the public outcry encouraged by the authorities. The next day, December 12th, I wrote another post about the back and forth on public housing. In it, I discussed the unnecessarily diametric nature within the rhetoric being used by issue partisans. I even apologized for the part my own passion played in creating improper perceptions regarding the position of those that oppose the demolition plans. I tried to debunk this sense among many pro-demolition pieces I came across that those in the opposition were trying to restore the projects as they were before Katrina. Within that post, I brainstormed some alternative proposals to prove that some kind of affordable housing game plan with vision could forge compromise on this issue.

The stop the demolition movement seems to be much more about forcing government to somehow address the housing crisis BEFORE going ahead with demolition plans, given that many argue these projects could be viable short-term emergency housing options. There is no reason there can't be compromise on this issue. Why not increase aid vouchers to give people a better chance of finding market apartments? Why not quickly remodel one or two of the project complexes and while taking down the others? Why not force developers and HANO to have a redevelopment contract in place before beginning demolition so that we can guarantee that these land tracts will not sit empty (like Magnolia)? Why not begin a program in which salvageable homes slated for demolition are distributed to working families so that our city is not dismantled into empty lots? I mean have you read what Karen Gadbois has been saying?

Yet the perception that demolition opponents wanted to restore the projects to their pre-Katrina form continued to perpetuate as if it were a fact.

Something else happened too. The demonization of the public housing advocates themselves by everyone from progressive bloggers to reactionary right-wingers further served to undercut debate on whether or not these demolition and redevelopment plans ultimately serve the interests of New Orleans residents. Stacey Head's historically loaded "outside agitator" label proved to have a powerful adhesive. (It was ironic how angrily people insisted that this was not a racial issue while still using that exact language, but I'll let that go for now)

Of course, this had a lot to do with the tremendous short-comings of the coalition and its leadership. Their inability to adjust their tactics to respond to media coverage, political backlash, and the public speaks volumes about their larger inability to mount resistance to the demolition plans.

As a result, many bloggers began to question the direct action advocates more than HUD, HANO, and the private developers. After a Sunday T-P devoted several pages and a full headline to HUD and HANO's position on the matter, Oyster hit advocates hard:

Either call HANO/HUD on its claim about the 300+ available units, and/or divert some protest energy towards immediately filling them up! Either you catch HANO/HUD in a(nother) lie, or you help 300 families who are suffering from this crisis, and demonstrate the urgency of the situation. You just got thumped by a front page Sunday morning feature titled: "FAR FROM FULL: Lost in the debate about the demolition of N.O. housing developments is one fact: There are hundreds of units available right now". What's the response to that? "They're lying"? "We don't believe those numbers"?... That's not going to get it done.

And certainly Oyster was correct to take the advocates to task. Why were they chaining themselves to the HANO HQ, as I asked, instead of helping displaced residents to occupy the "ready" units that HANO claimed to have available?

These questionable anti-demolition tactics were a tremendous distraction that became exasperated on December 19th by what was perhaps the most sensational distraction story in this whole series of events. Oyster's post on 64inchtelevisiongate has drawn a whopping 64 comments. Other message boards that lack the traditional skepticism of Right Hand Thief regulars were awash in disturbing commentary decrying all public housing residents, let alone the activists.

Thus, on December 20th, when advocates and residents were locked out of City Council and then pepper sprayed and tasered by police, many were unsympathetic. (Certainly less sympathetic than the national mainstream media as I'm sure you'll find, as I have, if you do a quick survey of their stories and photographs)

It was the housing activists themselves that were decried again and again. The quiet regarding the council's pro-demolition decision of council was deafening.

Even usually thoughtful New Orleans bloggers seemed to be more inclined to attack activists as anarchists, hippies, hipsters, outside agitators, etc. instead of the actual demolition plans.
(Y'all know who you are)

For Instance:

New Orleans is becoming more for the wanna-be protesters than for the natives or locals. At this rate in another few years it will be down to the murderers and the white boys from Portland with their blond deadlocks.....


The most frustrating part is that in the sea of protesters I'm seeing, I'd be willing to bet about 90% of them do not presently, and have never, lived in a project. The blind do-gooder mentality can do much more harm than good when misdirected.

(You know, as opposed to this outside agitator... or the equally compelling argument that nobody is allowed to oppose the war because 99% have never been to Iraq)

This type of "criticism" of the protesters is a stark contrast to that offered at YRHT here, though I wish he'd been able to post this four or five days sooner. In that piece, Oyster uncovers a chronology of inconsistent "available unit" numbers offered by various pro-demolition agencies and questions why the Coalition didn't fight back harder against the HUD allegations.

Why didn't activists press hard on this dubious, evolving HUD number upon which the T-P based so much of its reporting and editorial opinion? Wasn't this a politically exploitable "soft spot"? If the T-P was forced to retract its false subheading about the "fact" that "hundreds" of units were available "right now", and if HUD was shown to be lying about the 154 unit number-- a distinct possibility in my view-- wouldn't the activists be in a very strong position to demand a second opinion on, say, HUD's rehab vs. redevelop cost numbers? Couldn't any HUD number be credibly disputed at that point? What if the activists presented 154 displaced families who were willing to fill up the available units, and what if HUD was unable to come up with the 154 units that they claimed? How would that look? How would the T-P look? Wouldn't that be a political winner?

Well right on, Oyster, I just wish you posted this a few days sooner. Notice how he avoids calling them anarchists and hippies.

My mouth still tastes awful. I can feel bits and pieces of this all stuck in my teeth. Girls don't want to kiss me. I just can't get it out. I still don't think people really get what housing advocates were trying to accomplish. I don't think people understand why the rush to demolish public housing projects has been both suspicious and short-sighted.

More personally, what upsets me the most is trying to think about why the New Orleans "progressive" community whiffed so bad on this issue. So many stayed on the fence. So many failed to see past the sensational nature of the T-P's biased coverage. So many that chose to express outrage at the "outside agitators," the use of the "race card," the "threats" of violence were, at the same time, irresponsibly silent when it came to:

1. The homelessness epidemic

2. The rental property shortage and accompanying rent increase.

3. The ethical questions surrounding HUD chief Alphonso Jackson

4. The ethical questions surrounding HUD chief's no-bid contracts in New Orleans

5. The upcoming eviction of several thousand people from FEMA trailers.

6. Unclear "pledges" for the number of affordable housing units available in redevelopment projects.

7. Questions over displaced residents' ultimate right of return have gone unanswered

8. That these plans were in place before the storm speaks to suspicions that they do not address post-Katrina housing needs and realities

9. Karen Gadbois' exposure of the city's demolition of private homes without owner consent and the HCDRC non-plan to add as many vacant lots to this city as possible

10. The Magnolia projects at C.J. Peete were knocked down ten years ago and the property still sits empty.

11. And so on

13. And so forth

15. I could go all day

77. It's Christmas. I'm glad I live in a house.


Greta Perry said...

I refuse to take your bait. Nice try.

Question, when is someone who moves their family to the area post-Katrina, buys a house, pays taxes and spends most of her free time doing things to support Louisiana soldiers and their families, not considered an outsider in your perfect world?

You may want to call me an "outsider and agitator," however, I would like to think I am contributing very well to my new permanent home. Thank you very much!The area needs people like me and as long as you keep insulting us, you are only shooting yourself in the foot.

E said...

Well that's the bait I guess. Do you mean your new permanent home in lovely Mandeville? And isn't it true that Mandeville is outside of New Orleans?


But that's largely irrelevant.

The reality is I set no bait...

I wasn't born here either.

I was being ironic.

I applied the phrase to you as I was highlighting sensational application of the term "outside agitator" by some New Orleans progressives.

Your link comes in because you're a self-avowed right-winger. And right-wingers have a long history of sensational application of the word "outside agitator."

And your recent blog post on the housing debate, the one that I linked to, is an excellent exemplar of my larger point about how sensational news items can obscure one's ability to rationally evaluate a social issue.

Greta Perry said...

Hmmmm....never been called a right winger before or an outsider or even better - an agitator. St Tammany is a part of the greater New Orleans area honey! Deal with it.

Thanks for rolling out your welcome mat for me and embracing me while I am holed up in my mansion in Mandeville - because we are all filthy rich up here right??? Bwahahaha!

Greta Perry said...

And one last thing and I won't even look back at this blog again...you are picking a fight with someone who won't fight and be nasty. Maybe you best focus your negative energy and blogging style on someone else. When you feel you can be nice - we'll talk, until then I have to go tell the maid to polish the silver.
Also, even if hubby and I were wealthy enough to not have to work, if you needed something, people like us would be the first ones to help you out.

I can only hope you find happiness in your life.

Waving good-bye to you across the Lake!

YatPundit said...

More personally, what upsets me the most is trying to think about why the New Orleans "progressive" community whiffed so bad on this issue. So many stayed on the fence. So many failed to see past the sensational nature of the T-P's biased coverage. So many that chose to express outrage at the "outside agitators," the use of the "race card," the "threats" of violence were, at the same time, irresponsibly silent when it came to:

So many stayed on the fence because nobody has the right answer. Look at DeBerry's op-ed in Da Paper last week. Fighting to save the projects turns the whole concept on its head. Nobody is talking about Landrieu's bill and Vitter's opposition. The focus is on the buildings, not a solution.

The "outside agitator" frustration is primarily because there are just so many problems with the city post-storm that many folks from left to center to right have a problem with some folks blowing into town, waving their fists, raising a glass or two at Pat O's once the cameras are off, and then moving on to the next kabuki stage.

Maybe the bad guys won this battle. The war isn't over yet. Let's dust ourselves off and do what has to be done next.

Karen said...

I agree with the Yat, we need to dust ourselves off and reexamine the promises made.

Like so many issues here in New Orleans it whipped by us with the idea that there were people paying attention.And I think the Council was of the same mind. We have been told over and over that this is a Federal Issue and not local, I think when it became local that was when the shit really hit the fan.

I feel the chilly wind coming over from the lakeside, what is up with Greta???

YatPundit said...

I think we're going to see more Republicans insert themselves into the NOLA blogosphere as the LA-01 race begins to warm up. They hear a lot about blogs, so now some of the volunteers and such are checking us out. When they see us talking about the Eebil Coloreds, they can't help themselves...

Nightprowlkitty said...

Great post, e. I think you illustrated exactly what happened over this debate and how easily folks were distracted by traditional media doing its usual bad job in order to sell a lot of papers/advertising.

This is important, because it is going to happen again and again. The story isn't over, and the hooks have already been put in place -- to divide the city of New Orleans, the middle-class against the poor.

The fact that the public housing situation is not being addressed with transparency by HUD/HANO and the fact that middle class homes are being demolished under questionable circumstances (leading to lawsuits) ought to give everyone a clue that this isn't just about poor folks.

Someone stands to make a lot of money here -- and I doubt it's the good citizens of New Orleans.

These distractions are not going to stop. If anything, they're going to get worse, because the traditional media isn't interested in finding out the truth when it comes to what kinds of contracts are being made, who is getting what money, etc., and instead will throw out stories that sell papers and divide folks.

E said...

Yat, the reason i think nobody was talking solutions was because of the urgent need to halt the hasty demolitions so that a real solution could be examined... The idea that there wasn't room for a little bit more vision and creativity in our public housing outlook was something I tried to refute.

And I agree that one thing we should have worked harder on is Vitter's obvious sandbagging of the Landrieu bill.

But this idea that this was an okay battle to sit out of... that we could let this one slide to focus on the larger war... I partially only partially agree.

I do think we need to dust ourselves off and try again...

But I question whether or not New Orleans has the luxury of having its progressives cherry-pick "winning" issues. I like to think that NOLA progressives are capable of more unity, more organization, a louder voice, a better discussion - on every issue. ("Nagin blows" can only take us so far)

Because as nightprowlkitty says, "These distractions are not going to stop. If anything, they're going to get worse, because the traditional media isn't interested in finding out the truth when it comes to what kinds of contracts are being made, who is getting what money, etc., and instead will throw out stories that sell papers and divide folks."

I think that the reluctance of the NOLA blogosphere was partially responsible for allowing the coalition's radical stance to be the only opposition frame to get any play.

E said...

Guys am I a mean blogger?
Somebody tell Ms. Greta Perry I'm not a mean blogger, I just think that someone that gets invited on talk radio to discuss the housing crisis should be a little bit more informed on the issue than you have demonstrated yourself to be.

I called you a right-winger because you use that term to describe yourself on your website. "right wing, right minded." I didn't mean it to be derogatory. You'll know when I call a conservative something derogatory.

Leigh C. said...

"I think that the reluctance of the NOLA blogosphere was partially responsible for allowing the coalition's radical stance to be the only opposition frame to get any play."

BSJD of Moldy City expressed his frustration at this as well concerning the smoking gun of the garbage contracts. There is only so much the folks in the NOLA blogosphere can do. For most of us, this is not our only occupation. A great number of us got into this in order to express our feelings about what happened on 8-29 and after. Asking everybody to suddenly shift their gears en masse and add some weight to an argument such as the one surrounding a real debate on housing, caring for, and helping elevate the poor, the sick, the poorly educated and the homeless is akin to herding cats. The actions of the anti-demo protestors were more REactions than thoughtful, developed rebuttals and forces to be reckoned with in reconsidering how we treat the poor and underprivileged - and that, paradoxically, is what repels many folks from standing with them in the first place.

What needs to be developed in more bloggers is the idea that we, too, are not just a REaction bunch, a mess of commentators after the fact. We, too, have the capability to take the pulse of what the possibilities are and help shape the education of others in this regard. It doesn't necessarily entail Pulitzer-quality writing, either: just get a "read this" link into your own blog of some thought provoking stuff such as that coming from Mominem, Oyster, Karen G., DB, or NPK, to name a few.

We will all pick ourselves up again and move on to the next thing, which is coming up fast in the form of the private homes demo suit, and we will take those lessons with us. In the meantimne, the best we can do is what you're doing, E. keeping your thoughts - and some thoughtful discussion - alive.

nolajack said...


Here's my question to you and the advocates and protesters: if you had succeeded in stopping demolitions, then what would you have done? If the dog chasing the car catches it, what does it do then?

We know what some of the consequences of halting or delaying demolition would have been according to Alphonso Jackson's letter which among other things, threatened to cut off housing voucher aid to residents of Lafitte if the city stopped demolition there. We also know that according to Wayne Woods from the Louisiana Housing Finance Authority who testified at the Council meeting that any delay on demolition would potentially threaten the redevelopments' tax credit financing, which would have destroyed those deals. And we know that HUD has said that rehab is not on the table.

So, if demolitions had been halted, we know that several hundred families would have lost their housing assistance and we know that the current developments would not be reopened anytime soon and that the redevelopment deals all could have been undone. So who really gets screwed the most in that likely scenario? Would it really have been wise of the Council to accept that consequence?

Greta Perry said...

Olive branch y'all.

First off, I have had the pleasure of talking on many local talk shows this year. Mostly, to talk about Soldiers' Angels - my passion. Andre Trevigne, Eric Asher, Garland and Jim Brown have given me a platform to promote Soldiersangelsla.org and have been so kind to me.

As far as politics, I run HooahWife.com where we are all over the map politically and we work quite well. I have been running that site for over 3 years now . We don't tolerate nastiness or personal attacks of any kind - no matter what you think about an issue.

One of my dearest friends in the world, Silke, is a contributor. Politically, we agree on nothing and we can still get together for a weekend and be great friends. That is what it is all about - cordial conversations.

I just started contributing for Louisiana Conservative (I don't agree with anyone on there 100%)I saw it as an opportunity but time will only tell if I will stay there at all.

Indian Chris of right wing right minded has also been a long time Hooah Wife.com and is my photoshop/graphic guy. He is a great American- period.

Now that you know where I am coming from, I hope we can all be blog friends. BTW - I am the editor for blognetnews.com for LA & NOLA - make sure your info is correct.

Agree to disagree is one of the best freedoms our great country allows.

This is my first Christmas in my forever home in Mandeville - so 10 years from now, when we are all still blogging, combatting the MSM - I hope you can remember the olive branch I reached across the lake for you my friends South of the Lake!

Gotta run - the kids are monopolizing the Wii again! Merry Christmas, Hannukah, Festivus whatever!

Ray said...

When we secede and become an island nation, I'm in charge of blowing all the bridges. And I intend to do a better job of it than that guy at Nijmegen in 1944.

E said...


I suppose those are legitimate questions.

My understanding has been that Alphonso Jackson's oft-threatened voucher aid cut off was all bluster. I was under the impression that those could be reapplied for.

The LFHA guy claims that the tax credit financing was at risk due to delay and that the redevelopment deals were at risk of destruction... That threat really only pressed Council to get the demolitions done to appease the developers. The citizens of New Orleans shouldn't much care about private developers losing their tax credits for a redevelopment project that isn't much of a plan in the first place.

And as for HUD saying rehab isn't on the table... they're position on rehabilitation options has long been clear - they didn't look at any rehabilitation options.

The redevelopment plans, as they stand, already eliminate the possibility of people being able to move back in until 2010...

But your questions overall represent an interesting point.

I don't know what the next step would be if the demolitions were to be halted. I don't know where it would all lead. I might try to encourage the city to establish some sort of 15 year public housing master plan... maybe work with housing residents, neighborhood activists, housing experts to establish... we're demolishing private homes, businesses, schools, hospitals, left and right. there's little rhyme or reason to it. don't you think it's worth looking into?

I do know that sitting in idle and allowing Council to approve the demolitions because it's easier than looking for something that actually serves this city...

I think Council has screwed this city more by approving these bogus plans than they would have had they taken a stand against Alphonso Jackson - a man who might have less credibility than NOLA council.

E said...

Ray, sounds like my eighth grade plan to liberate the cities of new york and philadelphia by sawing off new jersey and floating it 200 miles off the carolina coast.