New Orleans Public Housing Defenders Face Terror Charges
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A trial is about to open in New Orleans of housing activists Jamie "Bork" Laughner and Joy Kohler, who face charges of criminal trespass and possession of a "fake explosive device" following civil disobedience arrests at public housing projects slated for demolition. Laughner was also charged under a Louisiana anti-terrorism law passed as the state's answer to the federal PATRIOT Act.
Laughner and Kohler are among three people arrested Dec. 19, 2007, as bulldozers moved in on the 1,500-unit BW Cooper housing project, one of four in the city designated for destruction in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They were initially charged with "terrorism," carrying a 20-year sentence. City prosecutors are now pursuing less ambitious false explosive and trespass charges, carrying five years and six months, respectively.
The "false explosive device" is what Laughner calls a "lock-down device," and police commonly call a "sleeping dragon" -- metal pipes that can be chained together with a protester's arms inside. At no point did she attempt to portray it as an explosive device. Laughner says the charges are ironic given that she is "sworn to nonviolent direct action, trying to save people's homes."
Soon after that arrest, Laughner would face more serious charges, as she immediately returned to the frontlines. "If we could delay the bulldozers even for a few hours, they'd send the crews home and that would be one day of no buildings being torn down," she says. "We were trying to build momentum of people stopping the bulldozers every day."
On Good Friday, March 21, Laughner was among three New Orleans residents who entered the vacant Lafitte housing development in a bid to save it from being razed. The three activists -- Laughner, Thomas McManus, and Ezekiel Compton -- slipped below a barbed wire fence, scaled a metal grating and reached the balcony of an empty apartment, where they dropped a banner. When the three were arrested an hour later, they were charged with trespassing, resisting an officer, and "unlawful entry of a critical structure." This last charge came under an anti-terrorist "critical infrastructure" law enacted by the Louisiana legislature in the wake of the PATRIOT Act.
Laughner again points out the irony. "The housing couldn't have been very critical if they were trying to destroy it." Those charges have also since been dropped to trespassing -- and in any case, prosecutors are pursuing the December charges first. The office of New Orleans prosecutor Keza Landrum-Johnson confirmed that Laughner and Kohler face trespass and false explosive charges but would not comment on whether any other charges had been or would be filed.
The City Council voted in December to demolish New Orleans' "Big Four" public housing developments, which had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina, but which activists insist were still salvageable. Soon thereafter, Mayor Ray Nagin signed three of the four demolition permits. Bulldozers and wrecking cranes moved in at the BW Cooper, CJ Peete and St. Bernard complexes.
Nagin held off from approving Lafitte's demolition permit, pending authorization of redevelopment plans from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). He finally signed the demolition permit March 24, allowing the destruction of all but 196 units at the 1,000-unit Lafitte project, which are being preserved temporarily for returning residents.
Housing activists in groups like Laughner's May Day NOLA as well as historic preservations petitioned for Lafitte's survival, calling it an integral part of the culturally rich 6th Ward -- and noting that the new housing to be developed under the HUD plan will provide far fewer homes for low-income residents.
HUD openly threatened to cut off funds for redevelopment if New Orleans didn't vote to go along with the demolition policy. HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson wrote Mayor Nagin pledging to withhold $137 million in funds slated for "affordable housing" if the projects were not razed. The HUD plan drawn up with the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) -- a body under HUD's direct control, following mismanagement claims -- called for demolition of 4,500 public housing units. They are ostensibly to be replaced -- but with 5,108 "affordable and mixed-income rental homes," which activists charge will not be "affordable" to the displaced residents.
At the end of March, just after bulldozers moved on Lafitte, Secretary Jackson announced his resignation. Although he made no mention of it, he was facing charges of political favoritism and a criminal investigation related to the situation in New Orleans. The FBI is examining ties between Jackson and a friend who was paid $392,000 by HUD as a construction manager in New Orleans. The friend got the job after Jackson asked a staff member to pass along his name to HANO.
There were initially signs that New Orleans would not go along with the HUD plan. On Nov. 1, the City Council passed a resolution to support a congressional bill calling for one-for-one replacement of public housing units. Opponents of the housing demolition filed a suit contending the Council's consent was required by the city charter before demolition could proceed.
But on Nov. 17, new elections brought about a white-majority City Council in New Orleans for the first time in over two decades. The 52,614 votes cast were sharply down from 113,000 in the May 2006 mayoral election. In the 2006 race, many of those displaced by Katrina voted absentee or drove into New Orleans to vote. But these displaced residents, still dispersed across the country, were this time effectively denied the franchise.
At a Dec. 6 hearing, police blocked the door of the Council chambers to keep former housing project residents out as they pressed against police lines and chanted "Stop the demolitions!" On Dec. 13, protesters again gathered outside City Hall, chanting the same demand. That same day, two -- including Laughner -- were also arrested attempting to block demolition at BW Cooper.
The next day, HANO agreed to postpone demolition of three of the housing projects pending a vote of the Council. (BW Cooper was excluded, as the Council had already approved its demolition.)
Following the new elections, however, the struggle for a Council vote on the demolition policy proved for naught. One Dec. 20, the new City Council capitulated, voting 7-0 to approve demolition of the 4,500 public housing units. Police used chemical spray and stun guns on dozens of protesters who had been barred from the Council chamber after the seating capacity of 300 was reached. There were several arrests.
This was the day after Laughner's second arrest at BW Cooper. Released from jail on her own recognizance -- despite being charged with "terrorism" -- she was among those who protested that afternoon outside City Hall. "I got out at 4:00 in the morning, and tried to get into City Hall for the vote," she says. "I was pepper sprayed and tasered."
Laughner says such tactics were all too effective. "A lot of people backed down at that point," she says. "They felt like if people were going to be facing terrorism charges, and the police were tasering people and torturing people, they had to back down."
She says that at the Dec. 19 arrest, she was verbally threatened by the police as they worked to free her from the lockdown device -- told to leave town if she knows what's good for her.
But Laughner is still in New Orleans, and hasn't given up her fight for one-to-one replacement of pubic housing. "45,000 people have dropped off the map," she says. "The city doesn't know where they are. People evicted because of a storm should be able to come back to their own homes and their own community. Instead, a political decision is being made under the excuse of a natural disaster."
Laughner insists that failure to halt the destruction of the projects doesn't mean the issue has gone away. "It would have been nice to save the buildings. But what we've always been about is that every citizen of New Orleans displaced by that storm has the right to come back. And if they're not allowed to come back they've essentially become refugees in their own country, and that's not right. Its not what our country should be about."