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“Poor People, Disabled People, People of Color Are Not Welcomed Back to New Orleans”–Activists Paint Grim Picture of Struggling City

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We speak with two activists about the current state of New Orleans: Bill Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University and Director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola and Tracie Washington, the director of the NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Center. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined by two guests in the studios here at the PBS TV station WLAE. Bill Quigley is a law professor at Loyola University and the director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola. We’re also joined by Tracie Washington, the director of the NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Center. And we welcome you both to Democracy Now! It’s very good to have you with us. Well, you have been listening to some of what the residents and the evacuees, your neighbors, your friends, your family have been saying since Katrina hit. Tracie Washington, you have been dealing with housing a great deal. Can you talk about the situation?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, it’s almost tragic that we have continued this mantra in the city, “We want everyone home. We want everyone home.” We definitely want everyone home, but they’ve got to come back to the city and have a place to live. We need sustainable, affordable housing. This city had a disproportionate share of renters. We didn’t have the same proportion of individuals who owned homes in New Orleans. About 60% to 62% of individuals actually rented. Many of those individuals lived in public housing, yet federal and state officials have not sped up the process to open public housing as they should have, and as you heard from one of the guests that was interviewed, rent in this city has gone up astronomically. You can’t bring people home unless there is a place for them to live, or folks will do what many of them are doing now, either squatting in public housing or sleeping on the floors of relatives’ homes. They want to be back. We’re proud people in this city, but we have to have housing. Housing is the catalyst for everything.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the lawsuits that you’ve brought?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, with Bill Quigley, who is sitting to my left, we started with the bulldozing lawsuit. The city, I believe it was in mid-December or early December, decided that it was going to take property in the Lower Ninth Ward and throughout the city, without giving residents notice and the right to be heard concerning whether their property would be bulldozed, because the city had made the decision that the property was uninhabitable and should be torn down. Along with the Advancement Project and Bill Quigley and Loyola University, we filed suit against the city, ultimately taken to federal court, to force the city to provide notice to property owners, homeowners, that their property is slated to being demolished. And that was a huge victory.

The city must now do that, and it has to post those properties on the website. It has to send letters to property owners to their last known addresses, and it has to provide property owners with the opportunity to have a hearing of some sort or at least find some way to redress and say to the city, “No, my property is not in a condition that would force it to be demolished.” And so, that’s where we are with that. At this point I think the city has — it’s slow in its process. We have done everything we can, but the city is very slow, and I don’t think the 5,000 properties that were slated to be demolished initially, that we’ll ever get to that number.

AMY GOODMAN: People are stopping bulldozers by putting their bodies on the line?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Sure, they were, at least initially, and now, because the bulldozing, in fact, is taking such a long time, I think the city at this point may have noticed, you know, 300 properties, 300 or 400 properties. The process for the city is very long, and frankly, the city doesn’t have the money to do it. Some properties need to be bulldozed, those properties that went into the middle of the street. What folks wanted, however, was the opportunity to get home, get anything out of the property that they could salvage before the trucks came in with the Army Corps of Engineers and swept everything away, and we provided individuals with that right and that opportunity. Some other properties, folks, if they can get their insurance money in in time can actually do things to rebuild those properties, and we want them to have that opportunity, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: How can someone who perhaps has been evacuated to Houston, Atlanta, New York, how could they go home, get their things, and go back if they don’t have the financial resources?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: And that is really the catch-22 and the question that many people face. What happens often is relatives go into the properties. You know, they find a way, Amy, and it just is very difficult to provide that redress for folks through the courts. But what we can do is at least give them time.

AMY GOODMAN: And this issue of insurance? I mean, hearing one of the residents say he ended up with an insurance check of $5?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: It’s crazy. I mean, I don’t know of any person, including myself, that’s not experiencing that problem either with the insurance company or with their mortgage companies, which in many cases are keeping the checks. The civil cases that will come out of Katrina will keep our courts busy for the next ten years. Insurance companies have taken advantage of property owners, homeowners, in such obscene ways here that, you know, what I’m concerned about most is that attorneys like myself may become rich, and many of the property owners may not see this money for a long time, and we need legislation. We need the Louisiana legislature to do something to provide quick redress to these property owners and to send a message to the insurance companies. Just as Mississippi filed suit against many of the insurance companies, maybe Louisiana should consider doing the same thing.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, talking about the courts, what has happened to the justice system in Louisiana?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, we don’t have a justice system in Louisiana. We have a badly damaged court system. In the criminal area, we haven’t had a jury trial since August. We have 6,000 people in jail awaiting trial. We have four trial public defenders. We have the clerk’s office. The criminal clerk has lost most of the evidence in these cases. We have lost a big hunk of the police department and lost victims and witnesses and the like.

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, what do you mean you haven’t had a jury trial since the hurricane?

BILL QUIGLEY: Exactly that. We have not had a criminal jury trial in New Orleans since August, and so the system has completely stopped, and there is little prospect that most of the people who are in jail are ever going to have a trial, but yet there is a real reluctance on the part of the judges to let people out on bond, to let people go until and unless there can be an opportunity for a trial.

AMY GOODMAN: Have all people who are in jail right now been charged?

BILL QUIGLEY: They have been charged, yes. They have been arraigned. And in some cases the fear right now is that people will plead guilty in a hurry, because they’re afraid of just having to wait for a trial. At the time the hurricane hit, all of our prisoners got evacuated, and thousands of them literally got lost in the system, so people didn’t know who they were, where they were and the like. Some people spent weeks, some even months, in jail longer than they should have spent, longer than if they had been convicted of the crime for which they were charged, and so the criminal justice system has completely melted down. It’s a nonfunctioning system right now. The courthouse is closed. The evidence room is closed. The clerk’s office is closed. We’ve lost a big hunk of our police department. It’s just not working.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the courthouse, the evidence room, where are they now?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, they’re still there, but you have to wear hazmat suits in order to even go down there to try to figure out what parts you can reclaim and which parts you can’t, so that the criminal — you can’t call it a criminal justice system. You can call it a criminal court system, but it is not working whatsoever.

AMY GOODMAN: So what’s being done about it?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, there are a number of lawyers who are working very, very hard to try to get these people out on bond. And yet the judges are, in my estimation and in the estimation of most people, are not doing their job of releasing people, because they’re afraid to be soft on crime. They’re afraid to be worried about the changing electorate that we have in New Orleans right now. Part of the voting issue is it’s not clear whether we have a majority white city, a majority black city. It’s not clear whether people mostly are concerned about crime or mostly concerned about victims of crime, and so everything is up in the air. People are afraid.

AMY GOODMAN: What about public defenders?

BILL QUIGLEY: Public defenders, as I say, we have four public defenders for 6,000 people. That public defender system has gone bankrupt. It is in the process of getting some money through the legislature, but they have not yet figured a way to re-create the public defender system. The criminal law system in New Orleans right now has gone backwards 50 years. It’s like before you had a right to a lawyer, before you had a right to a trial, before you had a right to a speedy trial, anything like that, sort of like the old system where things just didn’t work, and you just stayed in jail as long as the prosecutor felt like you should.

AMY GOODMAN: And the jails that people are being kept in, Bill Quigley? I mean, I remember right after the hurricane, trying to find out what happened to the prisoners in the prisons that had filled with water. What do we know that this time?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, there’s still a lot we don’t know. Lawyers have tried — the American Civil Liberties Union Prison Project has tried to get in there to inspect the place before it was fixed up. Some of the prisoners are back, some are in North Louisiana, some are in other states, because they don’t have yet the capacity of people here. I get letters every day from women prisoners who are in North Louisiana. The first step they did with women prisoners was they put a couple hundred women prisoners in the all-male Angola State Penitentiary. That’s 5,000 men who are serving life sentences. That’s where they put them. Others they just put on football fields for days at a time, throwing food over the fence to people.

AMY GOODMAN: Angola, the prison named for the country in Africa where Africans were brought and enslaved in this country, and now this massive plantation prison. Is it one of the largest in the country?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. Yes, it is. Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: And how many people were brought there after the hurricane? The women, hundreds?

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes, hundreds of women were brought there, and it took a federal judge to order that they be removed from that area, because it’s a very, very dangerous place for women, and most of these women were pre-trial detainees. They weren’t even convicted of anything. They were just arrested for, you know, simple things, drugs, prostitution, whatever, you know, not huge crimes by any stretch of the imagination.

AMY GOODMAN: So you could have been put in jail for running a red light before the hurricane, and then you get caught in the system.

BILL QUIGLEY: That’s right. There were people who were in jail for being drunk in public, ended up in jail for weeks and weeks all over the place. Other people serving a weekend for not paying their child support. Weeks and weeks and weeks. Some of the people ended up in water to their chest for days without food, without an ability to get out, that were left behind. Others who were actually gotten out were left out in the elements for days and days, while people tried to figure out who they were, because the computer system had gone down and no one knew even who the individual prisoners were. They had to fingerprint — at that point there were 8,000 people in jail — fingerprint each one of these prisoners to try to figure out and re-create their identity.

AMY GOODMAN: So what do you do in these cases where there’s no more evidence, when it’s washed away?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, what they have to do, actually, if you don’t have any evidence, you don’t have police anymore, you don’t have victims and all that, you don’t have a trial, and these people are going to have to be released. The Constitution is very clear. They are innocent until proven guilty. The Constitution is not working in New Orleans at this point. It wasn’t working really that well before Katrina, I mean, I have to be clear about that, but it’s not working at all right now.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Bill Quigley, a professor at Loyola University, and Tracie Washington, who, among other things, has brought a number of lawsuits on behalf of people here in New Orleans who have lost their homes, people fighting to prevent their homes from being demolished.


AMY GOODMAN: The mayoral race is coming up on April 22. And on Saturday when we first came into the city, we went over to the Trinity Episcopal Church, where we witnessed a mayoral accountability session. Seven mayoral candidates were there, and they were being challenged by evacuees and residents of the Jeremiah Group, a coalition of religious groups, and the IAF, the Industrial Areas Foundation, a network of Katrina survivors and evacuees. Here they were talking about — these were the residents — talking about housing.

BETTY DiMARCO: My name is Betty DiMarco. I am with CURE, Community United to Reform Education, a member of Jeremiah. We need schools open now. Not tomorrow. Today. The schools that are open in our community now are not accessible to all families who have returned. They have closed enrollment, the majority of them, and that is a problem. There are a few schools open in uptown New Orleans. There are a few schools open in Algiers. Those families who have returned in the Treme and Central City area do not have schools to attend.

Number two, for those of you who are not aware, we have three school systems in our city at this time. We have the Orleans public school system, we have a charter school system, and we have the state of Louisiana recovery school system. We understand that the mayor has no legal connection to education in this city. However, those of us in Jeremiah believe that the mayor of the city of New Orleans has a moral obligation to make sure that schools are open and every child is educated. We need a mayor in this city who can take a leadership role in establishing one 21st century school system with open enrollment, due process, and accountability. Thank you.

WILLIAM GILES: Good afternoon. My name is William Giles. I’m an educator of 30-plus years. I have witnessed children walking up and down the streets of New Orleans during school time. Some I know, some I don’t know. But this, I do know: There are at least 400 students on someone’s waiting list. I have spent my lifetime making sure students are in school. The law and Jeremiah says, they must be in school. But there are no schools to go to. There are at least 10 to 20 schools that can be open within three weeks that have only minor damage. We need, we want our schools open now! Our students are here. Teachers are here. Administrators are here. The schools are here. We need our schools open now!

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans residents and evacuees pleading with, urging, demanding, very angry on Saturday at a mayoral accountability forum in the lead-up to the mayoral race, not clear how many people will be voting in that mayoral race on April 22, particularly those outside of Louisiana. And we’ll talk about that in a minute. Our guests are Bill Quigley. He is a law professor at Loyola University. He’s the director of the Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center at Loyola. We’re also joined by Tracie Washington, director of NAACP Gulf Coast Advocacy Center here in New Orleans. Tracie Washington, this issue of schools.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Yes, you know, education is a civil right. And one of the most tragic things to come out of this storm is the fact that when people return, their children have no guaranteed right to attend school in Orleans Parish in New Orleans. When I evacuated to Texas, I had to go through two cities. I didn’t have a record for my son. I didn’t have his Social Security card. But in Beaumont, in Austin, all I did was walk into a school and say, 'Hey, he is a seventh grader.' And they said, 'Thank you. You can leave now. We've got this.’ He can go to school without anything. I didn’t need a record.

I come back to New Orleans, and but for the fact that his prior school was opened, he would not have a place to attend school. There were children walking up and down the streets from January until now waiting to get into schools. So, I sued the state and I sued the Orleans Parish schools. And because we have a three-tiered system here with Orleans Parish running certain schools, certain schools being run in sort of a quasi-public-private partnership through charter schools, and then finally the state taking over some schools, I said, all of you have a responsibility to educate these children. It’s tragic, and the biggest part of the tragedy is those people and those families most affected by the storms, those kids that you saw in the storm waters, are the kids who are being denied an education now when they return. We don’t have white children who are out of school. We have black children out of school. Those are the children we need to educate. We need to educate everybody. But we really need to focus in a system where the education was horrible in the first place. We need to redouble our efforts to ensure these children are educated.

AMY GOODMAN: What have the suits brought you?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Each and every time we bring suit, and we go, you know — because kids are placed on waiting lists, suddenly the state announces it’s going to open a couple more schools. I brought a suit in February, and a day after I filed the lawsuit, three schools opened. The union brought suit, and a week after they brought suit three schools were opened. But it’s the state’s position that there has to be a critical mass of kids out of school first, and I asked the state superintendent, what is the story here, where we need to make sure that we have enough students to open schools? What that means is we’ve got to wait until there are about a hundred kids out of school, and then we’ll open a school. That’s crazy.

AMY GOODMAN: I was just going around yesterday with Malik Rahim of Common Ground, and he brought me to the Martin Luther King School, where they said they couldn’t open it. And they had brought — they had thousands of college students come for spring break from hundreds of colleges and universities from around the country, and they set hundreds of them to work in the school. The city said they couldn’t clean it up. They cleaned it up. He said they threatened to arrest them. And we went by the school. It is immaculate. They cleaned it clean. It’s also a library. But they’re not opening it.

TRACIE WASHINGTON: It’s, like I said, a tragedy. We have schools in the city — I live across the street from a school that is in basically perfect condition, but no one has secured the building. So, you know, vagrants can get in there. They’ve got beautiful, brand new computer equipment, photocopy machines and everything. So I suggested to the state, look if you’re not going to open this school, there are no kids really in my neighborhood, take everything from that school, take it to Martin Luther King, where everything was torn up, where you need computers and desks and everything. And they looked as though they were deer stuck in the headlight. 'Wow, what an idea! What a concept!'

That school served — Martin Luther King — an almost all black neighborhood, and it was a school that had built itself out of the, quote, “recovery system” in the state. Every year the scores increased for that school. And they were doing a phenomenally good job. And the people in that neighborhood not only demanded that the school be opened, but took action in their own hands and said, we’re going to clean it out themselves. And they brought in Common Ground, they brought in many other organizations and said, “Help us.” And they cleaned the school. The state, our school board president went in and said, “We want you all arrested.” The police captain called me, and they said, “What are we supposed to do?” I said, “You really want to arrest people for this?” And they backed off for as long they could. Ultimately a compromise was reached. But it again speaks to schools being the center of a community. You have to open the schools.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to talk about the issue of living wage. That was also raised at the mayoral accountability session.

REV. JESSE PATE: From the mouths of the so-called working poor, it is an oxymoron and sounds as ridiculous as cold heat, dry rain, army intelligence, and lately, police protection. If you ask the so-called working poor, they’ll tell you that they work 30, 40, sometimes 60 hours a week. They work for private businesses. They work for the great city itself. And sometimes they work for themselves. Yet they still cannot afford to own their own home. Even with governmental assistance, they fail to qualify. There are three families living under one roof. Two of them will go to work every day.

The working poor, I don’t know what the current and the would-be mayors of the city think that that means. But for them, the working poor means working for nothing. It means modern day slavery. What we need, as the working poor, is fair compensation for an honest day’s work. We need to be able to pay our bills in the same month and have enough to enjoy the rich culture of our city. Not only are we organized and advocate for the needs of the working poor, we are here now and will be here after the election is over to see that they get it.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, these are the voices of those at the mayor accountability session. Seven mayoral candidates were there at the Trinity Episcopal Church in New Orleans. Hundreds of people were there and many more watching as to who will vote. Well, that is another issue in this campaign. I want to talk about it for a minute. But Bill Quigley of Loyola University, you wrote a book on the living wage. What about this issue? This was something that the candidates were mainly not going to commit themselves to if they were talking about something like $12 an hour right now. But they said, sure, a long-term goal, why not?

BILL QUIGLEY: New Orleans is built on low-wage labor, the tourist industry. The way the city was before Katrina is built on the backs of the working poor. And we were able to pass a $1 raise in the minimum wage. ACORN and a number of church and community groups got together to do that. The courts threw that out. The city council was very reluctant in supporting it, the state legislator is against it. The idea that people should be paid enough money to be able to survive is something that is just not a doable thing politically in New Orleans, despite the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of people that can benefit from that.

AMY GOODMAN: By the way, today in New Orleans there is an immigrants rights march, as well, and a lot of people concerned about immigrants who come here to work, and corporations deport them before they pay them.

BILL QUIGLEY: Absolutely, absolutely. There is also this tremendous division that’s going on by our elected officials trying to pit the immigrant workers and the local workers, both of whom have been abused by lack of living wages, lack of decent working conditions. People talking about one group is stealing another group’s jobs. There are so many jobs for so many people.

The truth is that New Orleans does not want the people to return. The people who were left behind, and people saw at the time of the hurricane hitting when I was trapped in a hospital, I didn’t see it, but, you know, all the people who were left behind, the elderly, the children, the disabled, the black, the poor, the like, those are the same people that are being left behind today in the rebuilding of New Orleans, and plenty of people are happy that they are being left behind.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, we talked to you at the end of August. You were trapped in a hospital with your wife who is a nurse, and many hundreds of patients. I want to go to just a few seconds of what you had to say on that day.

BILL QUIGLEY: Who’s left behind in New Orleans right now, you’re talking about tens of thousands of people who are left behind, and those are the sickest, the oldest, poorest, the youngest, the people with disabilities and the like, and the plan was that everybody should leave. Well, you can’t leave if you’re in a hospital. You can’t leave if you’re a nurse. You can’t leave if you are a patient. You can’t leave if you’re in a nursing home. You can’t leave if you don’t have a car. All of these things. They didn’t have — there was no plan for that. And so, we’re talking about somewhere in the neighborhood, I think, of 100,000 people probably in the metropolitan New Orleans area that are still here.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, that was you at Memorial Hospital Tenet. Now today they’re saying that they’re not reopening the biggest charity hospital.

BILL QUIGLEY: That’s right. We don’t have public health. We don’t have public housing. We don’t have the public schools, as Tracie pointed out. They have laid off the public teachers. They have laid off most of the public employees. Rents have doubled. We are really, really in a situation that poor people, disabled people, people of color are not welcome back.

AMY GOODMAN: Tracie Washington, mayoral race, April 22. You have been bringing suit, wanting people, especially evacuees outside of the state, to have access. Where does that stand now?

TRACIE WASHINGTON: Well, Bill and I served as local council for ACORN in a lawsuit that they brought to try to get out-of-state satellite voting to the evacuees, most of whom are African Americans. And at this point the judge has not allowed us to do that. The state has not put in — passed bills or laws for us to do this. And we are still fighting. We are still pushing now. We have on the table, unfortunately, a situation where most of the new polling places are not disability accessible.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to leave it there. Tracie Washington, Bill Quigley, thanks for joining us.

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