“They wanted them poor niggers out of there and they ain’t had no intention to allow it to be reopened to no poor niggers, you know? And that’s just the bottom line.”
It wasn’t a pretty statement. But I wasn’t looking for pretty. I’d taken my investigative team to New Orleans to meet with Malik Rahim. Pretty isn’t Malik’s concern.
We needed an answer to a weird, puzzling and horrific discovery. Among the miles and miles of devastated houses, rubble still there today in New Orleans, we found dry, beautiful homes. But their residents were told by guys dressed like Ninjas wearing “Blackwater” badges: “Try to go into your home and we’ll arrest you.”
These aren’t just any homes. They are the public housing projects of the city; the Lafitte Houses and others. But unlike the cinder block monsters in the Bronx, these public units are beautiful townhouses, with wrought-iron porches and gardens right next to the tony French Quarter.
Raised up on high ground, with floors and walls of concrete, they were some of the only houses left salvageable after the Katrina flood.
Yet, two years later, there’s still bars on the windows, the doors are welded shut and the residents banned from returning. On the first anniversary of the flood, we were filming this odd scene when I saw a woman on the sidewalk, sobbing. Night was falling. What was wrong?
“They just messing all over us. Putting me out our own house. We come to go back to our own home and when we get there they got the police there putting us out. Oh, no, this is not right. I’m coming here from Texas seeing if I can get my house back. But they said they ain’t letting nobody in. But where we gonna go at?”
Idiot me, I asked, “Where are you going to go tonight?”
“That’s what I want to know, Mister. Where I’m going to go – me and my kids?”
With the help of Patricia Thomas, a Lafitte resident, we broke into an apartment. The place was gorgeous. The cereal boxes still dry. This was Patricia’s home. But we decided to get out before we got busted.
I wasn’t naïve. I had a good idea what this scam was all about: 89,000 poor and working class families stuck in Homeland Security’s trailer park gulag while their good homes were guarded against their return by mercenaries. Two decades ago, I worked for the Housing Authority of New Orleans. Even then, the plan was to evict poor folk out of this very valuable real estate. But it took the cover of a hurricane to do it.
Malik’s organization, Common Ground, wouldn’t wait for permission from the federal and local commissars to help folks return. They organized takeovers of public housing by the residents. And, in the face of threats and official displeasure, restored 350 apartments in a destroyed private development on the high ground across the Mississippi in the ward called, “Algiers.” The tenants rebuilt their own homes with their own sweat and their own scraps of cash based on a promise of the landlords to sell Common Ground the property in return for restoring it.
Why, I asked Malik, was there this strange lock-out from public housing?
Malik shook his dreds. “They didn’t want to open it up. They wanted them closed. They wanted them poor niggers out of there.”
For Malik, the emphasis is on “poor.” The racial politics of the Deep South is as ugly as it is in Philadelphia, Pa. But the New Orleans city establishment has no problem with Black folk per se. After all, Mayor Ray Nagin’s parents are African-American.
It’s the Black survivors without the cash that are a problem. So where New Orleans once stood, Mayor Nagin, in connivance with a Bush regime more than happy to keep a quarter million poor folk (i.e. Democrats) out of this swing state, is creating a new city: a tourist town with a French Quarter, loose-spending drunks, hot-sheets hotels and a few Black people to perform the modern version of minstrel shows.
Malik explained, “It’s two cities. You know? There’s the city for the white and the rich. And there’s another city for the poor and Blacks. You know, the city that’s for the white and rich has recovered. They had a Jazz Fest. They had a Mardi Gras. They’re going to have the Saints playing for those who have recovered. But for those who haven’t recovered, there’s nothing.”
So where are they now? The sobbing woman and her kids are gone: back to Texas, or wherever. But they will not be allowed back into Lafitte. Ever.
And Patricia Thomas? The middle-aged woman, worked sweeping up the vomit and beer each morning at a French Quarter karioke joint. Not much pay, no health insurance, of course. She died since we filmed her – in a city bereft of health care. New Orleans has closed all its public hospitals but for one “charity” make-shift emergency ward in an abandoned department store.
And the one bright star, Malik’s housing project? The tenants’ work was done this past December. By Christmastime, they received their eviction notices – and all were carried out of their rebuilt homes by marshals right after the New Year, including a paraplegic resident who’d lived in the Algiers building for decades.
Hurricane recovery is class war by other means. And in this war of the powerful against the powerless, Mr. Bush can rightly land his fighter plane in Louisiana and declare that, unlike the war in Iraq, it is, indeed, “Mission Accomplished.”