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After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans Community Groups Are Winning Progressive Victories

Activists in post-Katrina New Orleans have worked hard to clean up some of the more troubling aspects of their beloved city.
 
 
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The best and worst sides of humanity are magnified in a time of crisis. For New Orleans, August 29, 2005 marked the beginning of this brand of paradox, and it has yet to reach its end.

The federal government that failed to act in time hasn’t fulfilled its promise of reconstruction, leaving more than 800,000 displaced citizens of this iconic American city to rely on the charity of Hollywood stars in order to rebuild their damaged homes. Equally appalling are the stories of police misconduct that brought indictments against individual officers and an intensive Department of Justice investigation of the New Orleans Police Department as a whole. Although accusations of corruption, discriminatory policing and excessive force did not begin six years ago, it is possible that the continued spotlight on New Orleans’ criminal justice system will help bring its wrongdoings to an end.

This month has seen the preliminary mending of atrocious acts of law enforcement injustice, such as the deaths of two civilians at the hands of police officers on the Danziger Bridge and the subsequent five-year coverup. Meanwhile, a 158-page DOJ report released in March has activists feeling hopeful about the troubled agencies’ capacity for change. In a place where 1 in 26 adults are currently under correctional control, the rigor of passionate individuals who believe they have the power to make their city safer and more just is beginning to turn things around. The national attention their city receives reinvigorates their faith that they will eventually restore New Orleans as a place of splendor.

LGBT Youth Are Experts on Their Own Experience

While investigating the conditions of youth prisons as the project director of the Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana (JJPL), Wesley Ware was told by a number of LGBT young people about being prejudicially treated in local detention centers and by the courts and police in their hometowns. Although Ware’s focus at JJPL was to influence juvenile justice reform throughout Louisiana on behalf of all incarcerated youth, he also recognized there were LGBT youth in New Orleans with a strong desire to organize. So, when the DOJ was investigating the NOPD, he and a handful of young LGBT people attended open hearings to share their dubious experiences with the police.

“We are really glad that one of the top concerns the DOJ named in its report is discriminatory policing,” said Ware. “They made it clear that the problem is institutional and made deliberate efforts to get community involvement in their research. That gave a lot of people faith in the DOJ again after they were slow to act on other problems in the Orleans Parish Prison, like poor conditions and the 13 deaths in OPP since 2009.” In order for some of the most egregious incidents of police brutality during and after Katrina to have happened, there had to have been a systematic process of discrimination in place. The DOJ report’s findings make that explicit by pointing out a number of longstanding institutional deficiencies.

After receiving a Soros Justice Fellowship, Ware expanded the work at JJLP to start a LGBT youth organizing and drop-in center called BreakOUT! The organization’s mission is to build the power of young people impacted by the criminal justice system, many of them formerly detained, by providing personal support and space to plan youth-led policy reform campaigns. The center recently raised over $4,500 on its own and is in the middle of a book drive to benefit LGBTQ youth in detention. (Incidentally, the policy for LGBT books at youth detention centers is part of a mandate instituted by Ware’s work at JJLP.)

BreakOUT! members are conducting participatory action research on transgender women, who are often targeted by the police for suspicion of prostitution. “One of the youth is leading the effort to gather surveys of trans women of color between the ages of 16 and 23 to document their day-to-day interactions with the NOPD,” said Ware. “We’re still in the preliminary stages of the project, but the overwhelming majority of respondents report being frequently stopped by the police and given no reason for why they were stopped.”

“NOPD frequently approach these women and ask them for sex. One of our youth leaders was at a gay bar when an undercover vice squad cop approached her,” Ware said. When this type of incident occurs, Ware explained, the LGBT youth recognize they are under surveillance and that the police assume they are sex workers because they are transgender. BreakOUT! wants the NOPD to understand that, although some young people have been forced into prostitution after being kicked out of their homes, transgender doesn’t equal sex worker.

“In a strange way, Katrina paved the way for criminal justice and police reforms to happen and gave us the opportunity to broaden the scope of what people think LGBT rights are about,” Ware said. “The criminalization of LGBT youth is a LGBT rights issue, but a lot of people don’t think about it like that.” He believes reframing the issues that are a part of the LGBT movement is an integral part of BreakOUT!’s work, because the national leaders of tomorrow cannot exist if we continue to allow them to be locked up today.

Coalition Victory to End Discrimination Against Sex Workers

A small victory for sex workers occurred on August 15, when House Bill 141 went into effect. The law overturns a prior ruling that those convicted of “crimes against nature," a felony, are required to register as sex offenders. Although the law was conceived to protect children from pedophiles, the police have used it to demonize and shame sex workers. Nearly 40 percent of the registrants on the New Orleans sex offender registry are people who were convicted of crimes against nature; disproportionately affected are poor cisgender and transgender women of color.

The Louisiana Justice Institute called the bill a “major victory,” but acknowledged the struggle is far from over, since there are nearly 500 people on the registry for whom the ruling is not retroactive. "We will continue to fight for justice for all those still living under the penalties of the past,” said Deon Haywood, executive director of Women With a Vision. The Center for Constitutional Rights, the legal and educational organization that initiated the federal Doe v. Jindal lawsuit on behalf of those convicted, continues to present arguments to U.S. District Judge Martin Feldman to make the case that $37,000 -- the annual cost of an analyst to review all the cases -- shouldn’t stand in the way of justice being done.

Day Laborers Resist Excessive Incarceration

In the aftermath of the storm, documented and undocumented workers alike established day laborer street corners to help with reconstruction. From pulling corpses out of houses to disposing of toxic waste with their bare hands, workers -- many with no roots in New Orleans -- put their own lives in danger so the devastated city could reemerge. With little oversight or accountability, corporate exploitation and police intimidation flourished. The day laborers faced wage theft, immigration threats and excessive police detainment. At the same time, African Americans were being pushed out of the work of reconstruction, and animosity toward immigrants was on the rise. It was in this climate that the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice (NOWRJ) was established in 2005 “to build movement for dignity and rights in the post-Katrina landscape.”

As the lead organizer for NOWRJ’s Congress of Day Laborers, Jacinta Gonzalez Goodman advocates alongside hardworking individuals and communities that are the subject of America’s immigration debate and, at times, the object of unfair detention. The group is presently at the center of a federal lawsuit, Cacho et al. v. Gusman, which charges Orleans Parish Sheriff Marlin Gusman with holding people who are suspected of being undocumented immigrants for an excessive amount of time. “An individual suspected of being a non-citizen can only be held for up to 48 additional hours after their case has been settled to be investigated by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE),” explained Gonzalez Goodman. “After that time is over, Sheriff Gusman has no legal authority to keep a person in jail. However, he chooses to spend city taxpayers’ money on unnecessary and unconstitutional detentions.”

Reconstruction workers Antonio Ocampo and Mario Cacho were held for 91 and 164 days, respectively, after their minor charges were resolved. Despite making formal requests and filing grievances to be released, Gusman refused to discharge them. The two men were kept out of work and away from their families for months. NOWRJ’s position is that this type of indefinite detainment violates one’s Constitutional rights to liberty and due process. “Keeping someone away from their young child is not helping to create secure communities,” said Gonzalez Goodman.

Although NOWRJ’s efforts helped Ocampo and Cacho gain their freedom, civil rights leader Delmy Palencia has not been so fortunate.

 
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