Southern Cone

Argentina: two generals get life

On Aug. 28 a federal criminal court in the northwestern Argentine province of Tucumán sentenced former generals Antonio Domingo Bussi and Luciano Benjamin Menendez to life in prison for the kidnapping, torture and disappearance of ex-senator Guillermo Vargas Aignasse in… Read moreArgentina: two generals get life

Issue #149, September 2008

Electronic Journal & Daily Report BIG OIL AND THE BIG EASY Catastrophe and Counterinsurgency in New Orleans by Frank Morales, The Shadow NEW ORLEANS PUBLIC HOUSING DEFENDERS FACE TERROR CHARGES by Bill Weinberg, AlterNet THE PERMANENT PEOPLE’S TRIBUNAL ON COLOMBIA… Read moreIssue #149, September 2008


by Jane Guskin, The Huffington Post

On August 6, 34-year-old immigration detainee Hiu Lui Ng died in Rhode Island, in severe pain from a fractured spine and terminal cancer which went undiagnosed and untreated over the year he spent in federal lockups. Valery Joseph, another immigration detainee, died of an apparent seizure at the Glades County Detention Center in Florida on June 20, just two weeks shy of his 24th birthday. Ng had been living in the US for half his life, since he was 17; Joseph had spent two thirds of his life here, having arrived at age 8. The two men joined a list of at least 80 people who have died in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since January 1, 2004.

Since May of this year, investigative stories in the New York Times, Washington Post and CBS News have exposed a pattern of serious medical neglect in the immigration detention system which appears to have been a factor in many of these deaths. (ICE denies the charges, unsurprisingly.)

By focusing on these compelling stories of human suffering, the mainstream media coverage has brought needed attention to the issue of mass incarceration in our immigration system.

Many concerned citizens are now demanding reform, saying that even people facing deportation have a right to basic medical care and humane treatment while detained. Others are less sympathetic, arguing that we shouldn’t spend taxpayer dollars on health care for immigrants.

The obvious question isn’t being asked: why are people detained at all? Why should we spend more than $1.2 billion a year to keep immigrants in prison? What purpose does immigration detention serve?

Officially, immigration detention is not supposed to be used as punishment; the immigration agency can only detain immigrants in order to more easily deport them, so that they don’t “abscond” and evade removal. In reality, the federal government uses immigration detention to punish people for fighting their deportation cases, to pressure them to give up and return to their country of nationality, and to discourage other people from coming to the US to seek asylum.

But these aren’t legally or morally acceptable justifications for detention.

Does it even matter whether people “abscond”? Is it really a problem if immigrants who are supposed to be deported end up staying here with their families—living, working, shopping and paying taxes? When we add up the cost in dollars, and in human lives, is it worth it to ensure that immigrants really leave the US?

On the other side of the globe, Australia has confronted the same question and has decided that the answer is no. On July 29, the Australian government announced it will stop routinely detaining asylum seekers while their immigration cases are pending; under the new policy, only adults who are considered a security risk may be detained—and even then, only as a last resort, and for the briefest possible time.

Back in the US, we seem to be heading in the opposite direction. In 1994, there were an average of 6,785 people in immigration detention on any given day; in 2008, that number is around 32,000 and growing. That’s an increase of more than 470% in less than 15 years.

Do you feel safer, knowing that 32,000 people are behind bars today for the sole reason that they were not born in this country and have been deemed “removable”? Are you satisfied to spend over $1.2 billion a year of your tax dollars keeping immigrants locked up while the prison industry’s profits soar?

Why can’t we just abolish immigration detention, the way debtor’s prison was abolished in the 1800s?

The solution is not “alternatives to detention” like the electronic monitoring devices some immigrants are forced to wear on their ankles. As the Catholic Legal Immigration Network points out, such devices are “overly restrictive in nature and constitute other forms of detention, rather than meaningful alternatives to detention.”

The alternative to detention is simple: no detention.

The government could end detention today by releasing the people who are fighting their cases, and letting everyone else—those who aren’t trying to stay here—choose voluntary departure with a six-month period to make arrangements and leave on their own. (The incentive? Voluntary departure means they could later apply to return here legally.)

How much tragedy would be avoided this way? How much money would be saved?

Debtor’s prison was considered normal once. So was slavery. But normal doesn’t mean right. When slavery was normal (and legal), some reformers advocated for slaves to be treated decently, and not beaten, whipped or otherwise abused. And other people, denounced as radicals at the time, believed slavery was an abomination and organized to stop it.

In the end slavery was abolished, and so was debtor’s prison. Immigration detention can also be stopped, if the voices of opposition become loud enough that Congress is forced to act.

Too many people have suffered for too long under our immigration detention system. How many deaths will it take before we end this abuse?


Jane Guskin is co-author of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers, published by Monthly Review Press in July 2007. Guskin also edits Immigration News Briefs, a weekly newsletter covering immigration issues. She lives in New York City.

This story first appeared Aug. 27 on The Huffington Post.

From our Daily Report:

Rhode Island: detainee dies in ICE custody
WW4 Report, Aug. 18, 2008

23-year-old dies in ICE detention
WW4 Report, July 14, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Sept. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



by Marc Becker, Upside Down World

In a lengthy meeting on July 29, Ecuador’s highland Indigenous organization Ecuarunari decided to support in a tepid and tentative manner President Rafael Correa’s project of rewriting the country’s constitution.

Ecuarunari (the Confederation of the Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador) as well as the national organization CONAIE (the Confederation of Indigenous Nationalities of Ecuador) have long advocated the drafting of a new constitution that would embody their demands to declare Ecuador a pluri-national country.

Indigenous leaders, however, have come to resent President Correa for taking over one of their principle demands. They have also complained that the president has taken over political spaces that social movements had previously occupied.

Correa was a political outsider who took power in January 2007 without support from existing political parties. He convoked a constitutional assembly, and then formed his own political party called Alianza PaĂ­s (Country Alliance) to run candidates for the assembly. Alianza PaĂ­s won an overwhelming majority of seats in the assembly, giving Correa complete control over the drafting of the new constitution. The assembly had been given until July 25 to complete its task. The text now faces a national vote on September 28.

Rather than rooting his base in a long history of social movement organizing, Correa announced that his government would be a citizen’s revolution. Unstated was that he would not be held accountable to the corporatist nature of social movement demands. Those who won elections had the right to rule, rather than those who could mobilize large street protests that have repeatedly pulled down governments over the past decade.

Many of those who allied with Correa were from the academic and non-governmental organization (NGO) worlds. Social movements were largely excluded from the centers of power, and Correa has not included any Indigenous peoples in his government. Already, social movements were mounting growing criticisms of the (negative) influences of NGOs and the depoliticization of social struggles. Correa’s government has only deepened these tensions.

While Correa is broadly seen as part of the pink tide sweeping across South America, his positions have often placed him at odds with others on the left. Correa comes out of a Catholic Socialist tradition, which means that his positions on topics such as abortion are not the same as those of leftist feminists. Environmentalists oppose his state-centered development projects, which has led to significant tensions over mining and petroleum concerns. His agrarian policies also minimized support for small farmers.

Some Indigenous leaders complained that rather than moving forward, the new constitution would turn the clock back to before the current constitution that was promulgated in 1998. In the end, however, Ecuarunari and others on the Indigenous Left view the new constitution as a mixed bag. In some aspects, it is a step forward, whereas in others it is a jump backward.

Indigenous organizations have long led struggles against neoliberalism, and the new constitution promises an end to what Correa has termed the long dark night of the Washington Consensus. Strengthening the state sector, however, does not necessarily favor Indigenous communities. Correa’s supporters argue that a stronger executive is necessary to bring political stability to Ecuador. Critics, however, point out that this strategy may play directly into the hands of conservative, who will be strongly competing for power in the next elections. Correa may unwittingly be laying the ground for a new round of authoritarian governments with disastrous results for popular movements.

Since 1990, Indigenous organizations have demanded that the first article of the constitution be revised to recognize the plurinational nature of Ecuador. For the first time, this constitution includes this text.

Another struggle was whether Kichwa and other Indigenous languages would be granted official status. At first the assembly, under Correa’s control, Kichwa was not included in the document. At the last minute, the constitution was revised to state:

“Spanish is the official language of Ecuador; Spanish, Kichwa and Shuar are official languages for inter-cultural relationships. Other ancestral languages are for official use for Indigenous peoples in the areas they inhabit and on the terms that the law stipulates. The State will respect and will stimulate their conservation and use.”

Even though the text recognized the importance of Indigenous languages, activists criticized the document for stopping short of granting them official status equal to Spanish. By all appearances, this last-minute change was either a concession or a sap to Indigenous organizations in order to gain their support. It is easy, of course, to make minor cultural concessions rather than fundamentally changing the political landscape that would create more inclusive social and economic systems.

It is this mixed bag that places Indigenous organizations in such a difficult position. The most vocal and steadfast opposition to the new constitution comes from the conservative oligarchy. The most reactionary elements of the Catholic Church have also called for a vote against the document, largely because of its ambiguous stances on abortion laws and same-sex marriages. If popular movements oppose the constitution because it does not have everything they requested, they play directly into the hands of their traditional enemies. If they support it, they strengthen the hand of a political force that does not embody their interests.

Facing this conundrum, Ecuarunari decided to take what they could get rather than losing everything on a more principled stance. Ecuarunari’s leader Humberto Cholango is calling for massive support for the referendum on Sept. 28. But this decision is by no means a blank check. Supporting the constitution, Cholango declared, is not the same as supporting a political party or an individual. Rather, he cast the gains of the constitution as the result of long struggles of diverse social movements.

Competing Indigenous organizations FENOCIN (the National Confederation of Peasant, Indigenous, and Black Organizations) and FEINE (the Council of Evangelical Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Ecuador) have also announced their support for the new constitution. CONAIE will hold a national assembly next week in order to decide its position.

If the constitution is approved, Ecuador will hold new presidential and congressional elections in January 2009.


This story first appeared July 31 on Upside Down World.


Ecuarunari resolutions on the constitutional process

See also:

The New Voice of Ecuador’s Indigenous Movement
by Marc Becker, Upside Down World
WW4 Report, February 2008

From our Daily Report:

Ecuador: indigenous movement condemns Correa
WW4 Report, May 17, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Sept. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



Resolutions of the Extraordinary Assembly of the Confederation of the Peoples of the Kichwa Nationality of Ecuador (Ecuarunari)

In the city of Quito, on July 29, 2008, 500 delegates of the Pasto, Otavalo, Karanki, Natabuela, Kayambi, Kitu Kara, Panzaleo, Salasaca, Chibuleo, Kisapincha, Tomabela, Puruhá, Waranka, Kañari, Saraguro, Palta and Afro-descendant peoples gathered in an extraordinary assembly. After a process of analysis and debate on the content of the project of the new Political Constitution and the situation of Indigenous peoples and nationalities, and the national reality, considering:

That the project of Ecuador’s new Political Constitution has been the fruit of the struggles of Indigenous peoples and social sectors with the purpose of making possible a Plurinational State and an inter-cultural society in order to overcome neoliberalism, racism, and mechanisms of political, economic, social and cultural exclusion.

That the resistance to the neoliberal pattern has not been forged only in Ecuador but also in Venezuela, Bolivia, Cuba and other countries that allow us to globalize our struggles with local actions to end poverty and to establish social equality.

That the on-going fight for the defense of natural resources, sovereignty for the good life of all Ecuadorians, water, paramos, land, territory, bilingual inter-cultural education, language, health, given that large transnational hydroelectric and mining companies come intruding into Indigenous communities.

Agreements and Resolutions

In light of the new Constitution

1) the vote for YES, as a vindication of the struggle and resistance of Indigenous peoples and exploited social sectors, marginalized and excluded, to recover sovereignty and the homeland.

2) to summon a Great Front between the Indigenous movement and social sectors in the face of the referendum and to promote a vote IN FAVOR of the new Constitution, for the effective and real construction of a Plurinational State, truly anti-neoliberal and liberatory.

3) to promote processes of socialization in the new Political Constitution approved by the Constituent Assembly, by means of a campaign highlighting its advances and political and juridical limitations, with organizations in workshops, assemblies, forums and mobilizations for the information, promotion of the new Constitution.

4) to know the contents of the articles of the project of Ecuador’s new Political Constitution as delivered to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal.

In the face of the Government of Rafael Correa

5) to reject and to condemn President Rafael Correa for his infantile and fictional declarations against the Indigenous movement that only play into the hands of the right and generates racism and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.

6) to reject the offense of President Rafael Correa against the historical and heroic figure of general Rumiñahui.

7) to request the tabling of the project of the Mining Law and the immediate application of the Mining Mandate approved by the Constituent Assembly, and to oppose the extractive policies of the National Government and transnational companies.

8) to demand from the National Government an effective answer to the increase in food prices resulting from transnational agriculture businesses.

9) rejection of the traditional oligarchical right and the Bishops of the Catholic Church for trying to confuse and manipulate the conscience of the Ecuadorian people.

In the Organizational, Social and International

10) to promote the use and handling of Kichwa, Shuar and other Indigenous languages both written and spoken in educational centers, public entities, and other community spaces as mechanisms for the implementation of Plurinationalism.

11) we denounce the conglomerate company Cotopaxi that, with the authorization of the Political Intendency and Governor of Cotopaxi, is moving against communities and Indigenous families in the province.

12) we demand that State organisms apply the Constitutional Tribunal resolution concerning the problems facing the Mayorship of Yacuambi.

13) solidarity with Betty Acaro against landowner persecution in the province of Loja.

14) support for the struggle of the people in Bolivia led by president Evo Morales, and to stay vigilant in the face of any boycott or aggregation of the referendum on August 10.

For the Government Council

Humberto Cholango
President of Ecuarunari



Verdict Charges Corporations With License to Kill

by Dawn Paley, Upside Down World

July 23 marked the end of a two-and-a-half year process carried out by the Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal (TPP) in Bogotá, Colombia. A panel of international judges, including a Supreme Court justice from Italy, a handful of university professors, a Nobel laureate, and authorities from the Guambiano and Mapuche indigenous nations presided over the final session of the TPP.

The Leon de Greiff auditorium at Colombia’s National University was packed to the rafters for the occasion, with participants and supporters of the process spilling out into the Plaza del ChĂ©, the well-known gathering place in the centre of the campus.

Before beginning the session, TPP general secretary Gianni Tognoni invoked the memory of Eduardo Umaña Mendoza, a Colombian member of the TPP jury who was assassinated during a previous session of the Tribunal in Colombia.

The final verdict, read to the large crowd, summarized much of Colombia’s recent history, condemning the Colombian government, 43 multinational corporations, and the US government for their role in the violence that has long dominated the lives of Colombians. The audience was made up of people from a broad spectrum of social movements and organizations from around the country, and listened rapt during the reading of the sentence.

A brief interlude during the sentencing by a group of students from the group “Estudiantes Junto Al Pueblo,” during which at least two dozen youth in black ski masks entered the auditorium and addressed the crowd, added an interesting energy to the proceedings. The judges withdrew while spokespeople for the student movement voiced the concerns of the student movement, including the assassination of their leaders, the corporatization of the university and the persecution of activists within the universities.

The students withdrew after one of their members played a tune on a traditional wooden flute, drawing loud applause from the crowd.

History of the Permanent People’s Tribunal

The Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal, inspired by the Russell Tribunals on Vietnam, issued its first verdict in 1979, about the situation in Western Sahara (today occupied by Morocco). Since then, the TPP has continued to carry out exhaustive studies and issue verdicts in accordance with international law on subjects ranging from the Armenian genocide to the rights of asylum seekers in Europe, from Chernobyl to Latin American dictatorships.

The Tribunal’s verdicts adhere to international law and are carried out by high-level judges. As for the ramifications of their rulings, Adolfo Perez Esquivel, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1980 and a judge in the tribunal, gave the example of the US intervention in Nicaragua—a case studied by the TPP in 1984, which “influenced the International Criminal Court ruling in favor of Nicaragua in 1986.”

During the information-gathering process leading up to the July 23 verdict, members of the TPP travelled around Colombia, listening to testimony and studying evidence from people whose lives have been affected by multinational corporations. All of this evidence was tied together in order to produce the final document.

The recently concluded TPP in Colombia was looking specifically at the role of multinational corporations in Colombia. According to Esquivel, the TPP is necessary because “the world’s power is concentrated in large corporations, which operate with total impunity…” and “many countries consider themselves to be outside of the reaches of international law.”

The People’s Verdict
The 41-page sentence explains in detail the ways that multinational corporations are connected to violations of peoples’ right to life and physical integrity and other human rights violations. A smattering of the 43 corporations included in the verdict:

• Occidental Petroleum was named as a particular beneficiary of the activities of the Colombian army in the regions of their operations.

• Cemex and other cement companies were named for violating people’s constitutional right to a clean environment.

• Monsanto and Dyncorp were charged with taking away peoples’ right to health by manufacturing and using glyphosate, a toxic chemical used in aerial crop spraying, supposedly for coca eradication, as part of Plan Colombia.

• Coal mining giants Anglo Gold American, Glencore and BHP Billiton, as well as Unión Fenosa and fruit companies including Chiquita Brands were connected to flagrant abuses against union members.

Investing in Conflict
According to the sentence, between 1978 and 1985, annual foreign direct investment in Colombia increased from $65 million to $650 million. During this period, “a model of brutal and merciless hegemony and accumulation was imposed, based in narco-paramilitary violence, state terrorism, and without democratic control.”

Foreign investment in Colombia continued to increase throughout the 1990s, reaching nearly $7 billion in 1997. This decade is characterized by the massive sell-off of state-controlled companies, bringing in over $12 billion to government coffers, as well as generating up to $2.8 billion yearly—according to a World Bank estimate—for corrupt government officials.

The fire sale of state resources and lands to foreign investors, according to the verdict, was carried out “in a framework of terror…complemented by paramilitary and state security forces, perpetrating a true genocide that has claimed the lives of approximately 4,000 trade unionists over a 20-year period, the forced displacement of more than four million people, and caused more than five million Colombians to flee the country.”

In the past ten years, foreign investment in Colombia has continued to grow, reaching $3.768 billion in 2000, and over $10 billion in 2005. This period of economic investment was ushered in by the changing role of the state, which was reformulated to “serve the interests of multinational corporations, granting huge opportunities to investors and taking away the rights of workers, eliminating many political rights as well.”

This period also saw the implementation of Plan Colombia, which “has permitted an increase in the interference of political and military control by the United States, which has also benefited private military companies…”

Colombia: Laboratory for the World
In the first Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal ruling in Colombia, the judges condemned the Colombian state as the principal protagonist of crimes against humanity, bringing to light a situation where institutional and para-institutional armed groups “attempt to destroy any person or social, trade or political organization that confronts the unjust socio-economic and political structures.”

This summer’s ruling, coming 17 years after the first, states that the political conditions in Colombia remain the same, if not more unjust then they were before. According to the ruling, “Colombia seems to be, in one sense, like a true institutional political laboratory where the interests of national and international economic actors are fully defended though the state’s abandonment of its functions and its constitutional duty to protect the dignity and life of the population, to which instead the state applies the Colombian version of the doctrine of national security.”

The verdict condemns the Colombian state for a host of violations of human rights including “direct and indirect participation, through action and omission, in committing genocidal practices,” war crimes and crimes against humanity, including “assassination; extermination; deportation or forced relocation; being jailed or other grave privations of physical freedom in violation of the norms of international law, torture, rape, persecution of a grouping of people with a distinct political and ethnic identity in connection with other crimes mentioned, and the forced disappearance of people.”

The 43 multinational corporations named were charged, “in some cases due to a direct and active participation, in others due to a role as instigators or accomplices; but in all cases, at the least, as economic beneficiaries of the existence of the armed conflict in Colombia and the rights violations that have been produced in this framework.”

The charges against the private sector weigh in on “grave and massive violations” of the rights of workers, fraud to their shareholders for promoting policies of corporate social responsibility which are flagrantly ignored in Colombia, for damages to the environment, for their participation as “authors, accomplices or instigators” in genocidal practices including massacres—practices which are particularly obvious “in the process of extinction of 28 indigenous communities, in the liquidation of the Colombian union movement and in the extermination of the political group UniĂłn PatriĂłtica.”

Finally, the verdict mentions the responsibility of host states of multinational corporations and highlights in particular the role that the US government has had in Colombia.

Hard not to be involved
Present at the TPP ruling in Bogotá was a delegation of Canadian trade union leaders. In an interview with Upside Down World after the verdict was read, Paul Moist, president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, noted that “Canadian companies are probably involved” in some of the violations outlined by the judges, and voiced his concern about the proposed Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia, which he said “is all about enabling the corporate agenda.”

The only Canadian corporation named among the 43 companies examined by the tribunal is Vancouver’s B2Gold, which didn’t return repeated calls for an interview. B2Gold is one of a host of Canadian junior mining companies active in Colombia.

“We are not surprised by the verdict,” stated Denis Lemelin, president of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers, on his way out of the auditorium after having spent a week touring Colombia and visiting with union members, Afro-Colombians, indigenous people and displaced communities.

What North Americans need to understand about Colombia, according to Lemelin, is “the other side of the story. People need to know what impunity means, and be able to link displacement to the corporate invasion.” He added, “we oppose the Free Trade Agreement between Canada and Colombia… We need fair trade principles based in social justice.”


Dawn Paley is an independent journalist based in Vancouver.

This story first appeared Aug. 7 on Upside Down World.


Tribunal verdict from Corporación Colectivo de Abogados, Bogotá, July 24

From our Daily Report:

New Orleans public housing defenders charged under terror law
WW4 Report, March 27, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Sept. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution



by Bill Weinberg, AlterNet

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 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 the 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.”

Laughner would soon be facing 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 trespass—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 in the storm but which activists insist were still salvageable. Mayor Ray Nagin soon thereafter 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 US 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 was 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 blinked, agreeing 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 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.”


This story first appeared July 30 on AlterNet.

See also:

Catastrophe and Counterinsurgency in New Orleans
by Frank Morales, The Shadow
World War 4 Report, September 2008

From our Daily Report:

New Orleans public housing defenders charged under terror law
WW4 Report, March 27, 2008


Reprinted by World War 4 Report, Sept. 1, 2008
Reprinting permissible with attribution