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As Police Arrest Public Housing Activists in New Orleans, Federal Officials Try to Silence Leading Attorney for Low-Income Residents

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New Orleans police raided the Saint Bernard housing project this morning where activists had been occupying a building to prevent government plans to demolish it. Meanwhile, the Housing Authority of New Orleans has sent a letter to one of the lead lawyers for the residents, Bill Quigley, asking him to stop speaking to the media and to remove statements he made that appear in several online videos. [includes rush transcript]

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

AMY GOODMAN: New Orleans police raided the Saint Bernard housing project this morning where activists had been occupying a building to prevent government plans to demolish it. Two people were arrested. Last summer, federal housing officials announced plans to demolish four large public housing developments even though tens of thousands of low-income New Orleans residents remain displaced. The move sparked one of the most intense struggles in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Before the program, we received a call from one of the two people arrested this morning. “Bork” Loughner spoke with us from the Orleans Parish Prison. She described what happened.

JAMIEBORKLOUGHNER: Last night at 2:30 in the morning, MayDay NOLA, which had been in the middle of a 17-day occupation of the New Day Community Center, with permission of the leaseholders, had been raided by SWAT team members at gunpoint. It was quite scary.

We were there because we believed in the fact that people who lived in these public homes — St. Bernard Project and C.J. Peete and the others — deserve to come back. There’s thousands of families that have been displaced, almost 5,000 units that are scheduled for demolishment, and we believe firmly that they shouldn’t be demolished, that people should be allowed to return home to New Orleans to their communities. We believe that these are internally displaced people here in the United States and that everything should be done to get them home.

The public housing development is in good shape. It was solid concrete walls. Even though it was flooded, it was architecturally sound, according to MIT architects. And there’s no reason for HANO to decide to hassle people who are just trying to reopen public housing in and even have them arrested, when they should be concentrating on getting housing back for families that need it.

AMY GOODMAN: Jamie “Bork” Loughner, speaking from the Orleans Parish Prison. She was arrested this morning.

Well, the battle over the future of public housing in New Orleans recently took an unexpected turn. A few days ago, the Housing Authority of New Orleans sent a letter to one of the lead lawyers for the residents, asking him to stop speaking to the media and to remove statements he made that appeared on several online videos. The letter accused attorney Bill Quigley of making “prejudicial extrajudicial statements to the press and others.” The New Orleans Housing Authority also threatened to haul Quigley in front of the state’s Bar Association’s disciplinary board if he doesn’t agree to stop discussing the case.

Bill Quigley joins us now from New Orleans, a law professor at Loyola University. We invited the New Orleans Housing Authority on the program; they didn’t respond to our request. Bill Quigley, what is happening in New Orleans?

BILL QUIGLEY: Well, thank you for helping explain what’s going on in New Orleans, but we are really engaged in a fight for the soul and spirit of our community. The public housing struggle is part of the overall struggle in the city to see that there is room in the new New Orleans for renters, for working-class people, for the elderly and for the disabled. We have significant racial overtones to who is being excluded from the city and very significant economic overtones in terms of who is been excluded from the city.

And the public housing struggle is about 4,500 affordable apartments that the federal government, HUD, is trying to demolish to make way for many fewer apartments that would be pitched to a different audience altogether. The people in charge in the federal government, in cooperation with some private developers in the areas, have actually seen Katrina as an opportunity to get rid of the lowest-income people in the community and to, in a sense, start over without the participation of people who used to live here, who could go back into their apartments on very short notice, and that the raid this morning and the charges that have been filed against residents who went back in to clean their own homes, the threats against myself and Tracie Washington, the civil rights lawyers who are working with the residents, just shows that this is really a pitched battle for who gets to come back to New Orleans and who is going to participate in the rebuilding.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Bill Quigley at PBS station WLAE in New Orleans. You’ve got a piece that’s on CounterPunch right now online: “Why Is HUD Using Tens of Millions in Katrina Money to Bulldoze 4,534 Public Housing Apartments in New Orleans When It Costs Less to Repair and Open Them Up?” Well, what is the city saying? Do you have the support of, for example, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin?

BILL QUIGLEY: No. We really don’t. The residents have the support of very few elected officials. Most elected officials are remaining silent. They’re not coming out in favor of the demolition, but they’re also not opposing it. There’s a real transition going on in New Orleans over and a struggle over who’s going to be in charge. Is it going to be the white business community who is going to be politically and in every other way in charge of the community, or is it going to be the majority of the city who — or its citizens pre-Katrina, where the city was over two-thirds African American and over half renters and mostly working-class people? The white power structure, assisted in many cases by black professional workers, are in the process of trying to claim the city and claim a new vision for the city that does not include the people who used to live here.

And the tragedy is that they are using the money that Congress gave to the victims of Katrina, and they are what I call like a Robin Hood in reverse. They are stealing the money that should be coming to the low-income community, and instead converting that money and using it for property owners and the developers and the like. And in case of public housing, they’re using Katrina tax credits, they’re using Katrina rebuilding money in excess of $100 million and additional money to destroy houses that are structurally sound and are actually in better physical shape than almost any of the residential buildings in the city of New Orleans. So they are using money to help Katrina — that was designated to help Katrina victims, to destroy affordable housing, put money into the pockets of developers and then put up some other housing that they’re not going to let low-income people back into.

AMY GOODMAN: So where are these people, if they’re not allowed back home?

BILL QUIGLEY: Some are in the suburbs or around New Orleans in a Section 8 house or that, but most of the people are actually still very far away from New Orleans in Houston, in San Antonio, in Memphis, in Birmingham, Atlanta, and really do not have the ability to come back unless there is affordable housing available. Our rents in the city of New Orleans have gone up 70 percent in the city, 80 percent in the suburbs, because we still have tens of thousands of properties that are destroyed and demolished.

And the city is undergoing an overall privatization. They are privatizing the public education system. They are privatizing public housing. They are privatizing public healthcare, and they are privatizing the public employee’s work force. So the public housing is really the most visible symbol of the attack on the poor, the attack on African Americans, attack on the elderly, the disabled, renters and people who the powers that be in Washington, in Baton Rouge and in New Orleans would just as soon never come back.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you going to do about this demand that you be quiet, that you remove the video from the website that includes your comments? AP did a story on this, quoting Michael Gerhardt, a constitutional law scholar at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, saying, “To bypass the judge is unusual, and to make the threats is even more unusual.”

BILL QUIGLEY: Yeah, I have been involved in a lot of controversial exchanges and struggles with governmental agencies in the past, but this is really — to have the federal government and the local government say, “Stop talking to the press,” insist that interviews on documentaries be taken down and the like is just — it’s very troubling. I have told them I’m not going to do it. I said no lawyer looks forward to anybody’s attempt to yank their license, or a gag order from the court, but I said we’re not going to do it. This is a fight that the residents and the residents’ advocates, civil rights lawyers, are involved in that goes on in Congress, goes on in the state Legislature, city council and every place. It’s not like some private divorce case, where you want both sides to be quiet and just handle it in court. This is an issue of public policy. It’s an issue of the direction of our country. It’s an issue of economic justice, and it’s actually, as the person who spoke to you from jail said, it is a matter of international concern. These are internally displaced people that the United Nations Human Rights Council has said have been mistreated on the basis of race an their economic status. So we’re not going to be quiet. The residents are not going to stop fighting.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, just 30 seconds, then we have to move on. But 16 protesters were given prison terms this week. This is on an entirely different issue. But you’re the connection between them, an attorney for the School of the Americas protesters given prison terms ranging from one to six months during the annual demonstration. They were charged with trespassing.

BILL QUIGLEY: Yes. People, ages 17 to 70, went to federal court in Georgia earlier this week, and I was with them, gave beautiful testimony about their connections and solidarity with the people of Latin America who have been abused, killed, massacred by graduates of the School of the Americas, now called WHINSEC, that’s on the grounds of Fort Benning. So that’s part of an ongoing struggle, where over 200 people have spent 92 years in prison standing up in solidarity with our sisters and brothers in Latin American. So people should take a look at the website, and they can find some more about it.

AMY GOODMAN: Bill Quigley, thanks so much for joining us, law professor at Loyola University in New Orleans. And a shout out to our friends at the PBS station WLAE, where he is.

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