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The Militarization of New Orleans: Jeremy Scahill Reports from Louisiana

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We go to Louisiana to speak with Democracy Now! correspondent Jeremy Scahill who has been in New Orleans this past week. He has been looking into how the city has changed to a militarized zone and what that means for the residents who left. [includes rush transcript]

Well the Central Business District and the historic French Quarter were neighborhoods in New Orleans that saw relatively little damage. This weekend the city will start re-opening those areas and a few others for businesses and residents to return. However, many are concerned about what will happen to the city’s poor, black residents whose neighborhoods were mostly destroyed.

Democracy Now correspondent Jeremy Scahill has been in Louisiana this past week. He has been looking into how the city has changed to a militarized zone and what that means for the residents who left.

  • Jeremy Scahill, Democracy Now! producer and correspondent.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: He joins us on the phone from Baton Rouge. Welcome, Jeremy.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Good to be with you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what you have been seeing, who you’ve been talking to this week?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I mean, in the days that have passed, the week or so since you were here this past weekend, we have seen a real increase in the militarization of the city. It’s turned into a much greater state of lockdown. You have more military checkpoints set up. You have less of a civilian presence in large parts of the city and much more of a military presence. I mean in fact, I still have only seen one FEMA vehicle, the entire time I have been here. That wasn’t even staffed. It was just a FEMA vehicle parked on a median near the Hyatt hotel where the main headquarters is of the so-called Operational Emergency Command of the military and various branches of the government coordinating their so-called disaster response. But there are soldiers all over the city. What’s incredible is that you see them doing almost nothing. They’re either just standing around or sitting around. There’s very little work being done by the military. You do see units like the 82nd airborne patrolling the streets. It looks like the aftermath of a massacre or war zone where you have soldiers patrolling around. You also see a tremendous increase in the number of private security contractors who have arrived on the scene.

It’s interesting, we talked earlier this week about the Blackwater mercenaries and I talked about my hour-long conversation with them when they had first arrived here, and I reported that they were saying they were on contract with the Department of Homeland Security. This, of course, was denied by the federal government. Well, now they have been forced to admit, the federal government, that Blackwater is on federal contract with FEMA to protect — so-called protect, its rebuilding or reconstruction efforts in Louisiana. This is just one of the firms that is getting now federal money. I think that these firms view the current situation in Louisiana as the biggest pot of federal money to put their hands into since the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. I also, two days ago, had the chance to meet one of the wealthiest of citizens of New Orleans, F. Patrick Quinn III. He is the single greatest owner of private rooms in New Orleans. He owns the largest hotel chain in the state of Louisiana, to cater to hotels. He is currently — he told me that his hotels are being looked at by FEMA to house the workers for the long haul of the so-called reconstruction. I was talking to him, as his head of security and after he pulled off in his S.U.V., about 30 Mexican workers came out of his hotel, and one of his security guards said that they had been brought in from Texas, and in fact another news report, about Patrick Quinn, said that he had brought in workers from Texas as well. So, we have the reality of these shelters full of people wanting work and then you see Mexican workers being brought in from Texas, and when they’re done, doing this dirty work, they will be put on the back of trucks, piled into trucks and they go to wherever it is that they were staying.

This man, Patrick Quinn is bidding for these contracts where FEMA potentially could come in and rent out hundreds and hundreds of rooms in his hotel and other businesses are struggling to simply stay alive or scramble to get federal money to rebuild, he is standing to gain a tremendous amount of money from these lucrative federal contracts. It must be noted that he is a major contributor to the Republican party. In fact, his wife was just elected in the special election to the state Senate. Her name is Julie Quinn. And Amy, he has brought in security from a company called B.A.T.S. in Alabama: Bodyguard And Tactical Services. And I was talking to his head of security, I told him I was from New York, he said, I’ve been to New York during the daily news strike, referring to the strike the at the New York Daily News. Democracy Now! co-host, Juan Gonzalez, is a Daily News columnist was one of the leaders of the strike. I told him that Juan Gonzalez was a colleague of mine and he told me that he spiked Juan Gonzalez’s car. He said he had put sugar in the gas tank of Juan Gonzalez’s car. The man’s name is Michael Montgomery, and he is the head of security for B.A.T.S. Security in Alabama, bragging about spiking the car of Juan Gonzalez and other strike leaders in the New York Daily News strike. He is heading up security for the Decatur Hotel chain, owned by Patrick Quinn, a major businessman in New Orleans, his wife a Republican state senator. This is just one example of cronyism that we see on the ground where the wealthy Republican contributors are being considered now for these tremendous federal contracts.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Jeremy Scahill, he is the Democracy Now! Correspondent on the ground now in New Orleans, Baton Rouge. You also spent time at the jail, which is the converted Greyhound Train Station, is that right? Run by the head of the Angola prison, the largest prison in this country.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. One of the things that happened, and it was something we’re going to be looking at very closely on democracy now!, continue to in the coming weeks, that is what happened to the prisoners who were inside the Orleans parish prison as well as other facilities as prisoners now start to get released. They’re going to be telling their stories, and one of the makeshift places that they took people was the —- they converted the Greyhound and Amtrak terminals into prisons where they brought people, and so they’re using the concrete areas where the buses would pull in to house prisoners and they shipped them off to various parts of the country. In that downtown area, it’s really sort of desolate and abandoned, and now they call it “Camp Greyhound” where they’re running a prison. This is the major question that still looms in the air here, and that is—- what is going to happen to all of these people who were arrested the night before the hurricane struck, for instance, on minor violations who should have been processed in a matter of hours and then released, and they have been shipped all over the country, all over the state. Now you have lawyers scrambling to try to track down where people are, and make sure that they can get out.

One of the great concerns right now in New Orleans is businessmen talking openly of wanting to see New Orleans change, to change it completely in a demographic sense, geographically, politically, racially. You have this overt rhetoric. Well, as residents of New Orleans come back in and they try to go back to the apartments they were rent stabilized, the houses they were renting, they face a city that has repressive laws that do not protect tenants. You have an overt agenda to change the racial makeup of the city, the economic makeup of the city, and you have these very wealthy people hiring private mercenary types to guard their property and their interests. Then you also have the National Guard and the Army inside of the city now, and so the potential for conflict with residents coming back in is very great. A lot of people are very concerned now with this Marshal Law still in effect with the military curfew in effect, that that is going to remain as people come back and live here. It’s one thing to have Martial law when you have a depopulated city. It’s another thing to have it when you have people who want to go about the business of rebuilding their lives, particularly when they are being told by very wealthy, powerful people backed up by men with guns that they are not welcome in the city that they have lived in their whole life. We have a potential, I think, for serious, overt conflict, hot conflict here in New Orleans as people start coming back in.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jeremy, we all went over to Southern University, a black college in Baton Rouge where some of the evacuees had gathered to talk about how they can be a part of the planning for the reconstruction. Very difficult, because the most disempowered people have been sent off to areas all over the country, from Utah to Cape Cod, often not knowing when they were getting on a bus or perhaps a plane, where they were actually going to land. While they were sent off there, do they have the money even to return, let alone be a part of how this city will be rebuilt?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. I was just watching CNN and they were interviewing a guy they’re called the pied piper of hurricane Katrina, a guy from Ohio, who has come to the Houston Astrodome to recruit 100 people who are — who had left New Orleans to try to bring them to settle in Ohio. I mean, what they’re really trying to do is to settle the poor and the African-American populations of New Orleans elsewhere. And to make New Orleans a nice, white city, for white, rich businessmen. There’s no other way to put it. That’s exactly what we’re seeing right now. They want to take areas for instance like the ninth ward and turn them into big — you know, Wal-Mart type neighborhoods. In fact, we heard mayor Nagin talk yesterday about how one of the first things they want to do is set up a gigantic Wal-Mart so people returning can have a place to shop in New Orleans. This hurricane is the greatest thing to happen to Wal-Mart since the superstore. And this is a very serious racist series of actions that we’re seeing here right now. This is has everything to do with class and everything to do with race, and it’s very, very frightening. And yes, we attended a conference where grassroots activists are talking about a plan for rebuilding New Orleans, but it’s on right now, and they’re not a part of it. The people that are a part of it are old-time Louisiana white Republican families working in conjunction with their friend, mayor Ray Nagin, and there’s no other way to put it. They love Ray Nagin. He’s pro-business. He’s their guy.

Look at the comments of James Rice, a local businessman, who is one of the leaders of the private Audubon Place, the gated community. The only privately owned in the city of New Orleans. He told The Wall Street Journal, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way, demographically, geographically and politically. I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we have been living is not going to happen again or we’re out.” James Rice has brought in Israeli para-militaries to guard his facility. It’s Israeli company that brags about having former members of the Shin Beit, the GSS, the Israeli Defense Forces. He has brought them in. I was talking to them in front of his property. Some of them participated in the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, and these are guys now who are patrolling outside on St. Charles avenue in front of Audubon Place and will potentially come into conflict with residents of New Orleans. What on earth are Israeli paramilitaries doing on the streets of New Orleans? These are the questions that people need to ask right now, defending a man like James Rice who was called for the poor to not be allowed back into New Orleans.

AMY GOODMAN: And Jeremy, as people are — some people slowly making their way back, reports of the spraying of the city with pesticide that’s never been used on urban populations and they’re mixing it with blue dye so that the pilots can see where they have sprayed, I think its called something like NALID, have you seen planes dispersing this pesticide?

JEREMY SCAHILL: I remember the other night you called me and you alerted me to this, and just today I had seen what I thought were some sort of spy drones because really, what we have seen here is sort of — some people are calling it “New Oraq” instead of New Orleans, because of all of the various forces, the Halliburtons, the KBR’s, the Blackwaters that are here now, the connections to Iraq are so incredible. The same looters who have raided the federal funds in Iraq, U.S. funds in Iraq, are looting federal funds here in New Orleans. Yes, I saw the drones flying overhead. I’m concerned, very concerned of the toxic waste that they’re now dumping on the city in addition to the horribly unsafe waters that flow through the city and continue to flow through the city.

AMY GOODMAN: Jeremy Scahill, thank you for being with us. Jeremy, speaking to us from Baton Rouge, Louisiana. This is democracy now!

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