Has Change Come to Post-Katrina New Orleans? Bush, Obama, and the First 100 Days


As people in the U.S. and around the world evaluate President Barack Obama’s first one-hundred days, many — that is, those who truly wanted a break from the racist, militarist, anti-working class policies of the Bush regime — are coming to the conclusion that the ‘change’ his campaign promised seems to have turned into ‘more of the same’.  An examination of his substantive policies — from the continued military occupation of Iraq and expanded wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the trillions more to bail out Wall Street while a promised health care plan is put on the back burner, to an unwillingness to prosecute criminals, from George Bush on down, who carried out torture — underscores the extent of continuity, rather than change, embodied by the administration of the United States’ first African American president.

Yet, you might ask, does Obama’s track record of continuing Bush’s policies extend to even the still devastated New Orleans?  What is happening in New Orleans is a particularly significant measure of the new president since the city became so emblematic of everything that was wrong with the U.S. under Bush.  In fact, even Bush’s own aides, such as Scott McClellan, have acknowledged that Bush’s response to Katrina was a key turning point in the administration’s descent.  Thus, evaluating what change the Obama administration has introduced to New Orleans — or lack thereof — provides an important window into the political character of the new regime in Washington.  The record shows, as I will elaborate below, the gap between the rhetoric of change and the continuity in practice is perhaps most glaring in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Obama, Public Housing, and the Racist Disaster Capitalism Agenda

The central thrust of the Bush administration’s post-Katrina ‘reconstruction’ plan — shared, to a great degree by state and local officials, Democrat and Republican, black and white, alike — has been to use the disaster as an opportunity to privatize and eliminate such vital public services as education, housing, and health care.  The dismantling of the public sector is central to what many call ‘disaster capitalism’ where corporations, and their public servants, use the disruption and disorientation produced by a disaster among the working class to grab and pillage public resources, award sweetheart contracts, and to lift labor, environmental, or any other constraints on profit making.

The Obama administration has not deviated fundamentally from this agenda, with their stance toward public housing being a prime example.  To understand the level of continuity, we need to briefly review Bush’s post-Katrina policy toward public housing in New Orleans.  At the time of the storm, New Orleans had about 7,000 public housing apartments, down by about half following the Clinton administration’s so-called HOPE VI program that led to the elimination of wide swaths of the system, while rebuilding only a fraction of affordable units under the new ‘mixed income’ replacements.  The sturdy, brick, three story apartment buildings that make up most of traditional public housing in New Orleans provided poor people, besides housing, a key source of hurricane protection.  Yet, despite this role in still hurricane-vulnerable New Orleans, and despite coming through the storm in much better shape than most of the private housing stock, the federally controlled local housing authority — HANO — closed down four housing developments, the St Bernard, Lafitte, BW Cooper and CJ Peete, immediately after the storm.  The Bush regime followed this — despite an intense two-year anti-racist, poor people fight-back, which included scores of protests, building occupations, and the police tasering, macing, beating and arrest of people for having the temerity to speak out at the December 20, 2007 New Orleans City Council hearing — with the demolition of some 5,000 apartments in the Spring of 2008.

Demolition was a clear violation of international law, which requires the government to facilitate the return of the displaced — not demolish their homes.  Of course, it is not a surprise that the Bush regime, which flouted international law and public opinion to carry out the war against Iraq, would break international treaties when dealing with its own citizens, especially poor African American families in New Orleans.  Yet, despite a change in discourse, the new Obama administration stands in violation of international law as well, by continuing the demolition of public housing and thus preventing the return of poor, displaced, predominately black, people to the city.  Of course, considering the makeup of the Obama administration, this stance should not come as a surprise either.  Obama, as a State Senator and during his presidential campaign, defended ‘public-private partnerships,’ i.e. providing public subsidies to private developers, as an alternative to public housing.  Indeed some of his top advisors and supporters, such as Valerie Jarrett, the CEO of The Habitat Company, one of Chicago’s largest real estate redevelopment firms, has made millions managing government-funded private replacements for public housing, such as the squalid Parc Grove apartments in Chicago.  Jarrett self-servingly defended her role, arguing, “Government is just not as good at owning and managing as the private sector because the incentives are not there” (see the Boston Globe exposé by Binyamin Applebaum, June 27, 2008).

Policing the Movement:Obama and His Non-Profit Partners

Thus, unsurprisingly Obama, like Bush before him, has been pushing forward with more demolitions and replacement with ‘public-private partnerships’ that enrich private developers.  His new Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Shaun Donovan, is well prepared for that role having been a HUD under secretary for the Clinton administration in the 1990s, overseeing the demolition of tens of thousands of public housing apartments and displacement of poor families from highly valued inner city real estate, such as at New Orleans St. Thomas development.  Most recently he worked as billionaire New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s Housing czar, overseeing the continued underfunding and undermining — the demolition by neglect strategy — of the country’s historically best public housing system, while providing generous subsidies to developers to create an insufficient number of ‘affordable’ housing units, out of reach for many poor New Yorkers.  Donovan’s other key credential, from Obama’s perspective, is that he is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, a major incubator of neoliberal government housing policy.  This outfit specializes in churning out ‘scholars’ who can effectively legitimate the starving of the public sector and the providing of generous subsidies to developers as an exercise in ‘good government’ and implementing ‘best practices.’

Thus, it is no surprise that when Donovan visited the city in early March he only met with ‘responsible’ non-profit leaders who agree with this neoliberal framework for (inadequately) addressing affordable housing needs in post-Katrina New Orleans and the US.  On March 5th, he sat down to chat with a collection of non-profit leaders who would not raise uncomfortable issues, like public housing, and who refused, in order to protect the secretary from any embarrassing protests, to divulge any information to grassroots organizations about when and where they would meet with Donovan.  These vetted non-governmental ‘civil society’ leaders included Janey Bavishi of the ‘Equity and Inclusion’ campaign funded by the state of Louisiana (the same state that refused to give one dime to renters as part of the so-called Road Home program); Kalima Rose of Policy Link, another non-profit think tank and advocacy group that refused to support the defense of public housing; and a host of other non-profits from New Orleans and the Gulf.  In their meeting with Donovan, as explained in the Equity and Inclusion March 19th web newsletter, they did not raise one word of protest against the Obama administration’s plan to demolish more public housing in New Orleans, though they did raise some important equity issues, including the state of Mississippi receiving federal government waivers that allowed them to redirect federal money intended for low- and moderate-income people to rebuild ports for the shipping industry.  Thus, this meeting exemplified the crucial role of the non-profitters in suppressing any fundamental challenges to the pro-corporate neoliberal model by shaping their demands to fit within the policy framework that Obama and his neoliberal appointees, such as Donovan, find acceptable.  Therefore, given the effective policing role the non-profits play, it is not a surprise that Obama, more so than even under Bush, is working to promote the non-profit sector.  They act, particularly in post-Katrina New Orleans, as key adjuncts, partners, to the disaster capitalist agenda.

Obama/Donovan Shut Door onGrassroots Activists Clamoring to Be Heard

Donovan’s — and by extension Obama’s — treatment of public housing tenant leaders Sharon Jasper, Sam Jackson, Stephanie Mingo, Katrina survivor and holdout Mike Howells, and other members of the public housing movement during his March visit most dramatically reveals the Obama administration’s continuity with Bush when dealing with New Orleans.  During the last visit of Bush’s notoriously corrupt HUD secretary — Alphonso Jackson — to the city in the Spring of 2007, the public housing movement was relegated to screaming at the secretary and local public officials from across a police barricade.  The protestors denounced HUD’s plans to demolish 5,000 viable public housing apartments while the Bush appointee stood with Mayor Nagin and other local officials at a ribbon cutting ceremony for the reopening of a handful of apartments at a new mixed-income community in the 9th ward.  Shockingly, activists found themselves in the same position, literally, during Donovan’s visit.  On March 5th, at the same ‘mixed-income community,’ Donovan surrounded himself with some of the same local officials whom Jackson had gathered, along with some new faces, including UNITY for the homeless director Martha Kegel.  This nonprofit official earned her place at the gathering by playing an indispensable role for Mayor Nagin evicting the homeless — whose number has doubled from their pre-Katrina level — from various ‘unsightly,’ highly visible, locations in the center of the city.

On the other side of the police barricades, the public housing movement, just as they had during Alphonso Jackson’s visit, raised the uncomfortable issues that the non-profit ‘advocates’ would not.  These included the demand that the Obama administration support Senate Bill 1668 that guarantees one-for-one replacement of all the public housing apartments demolished since Katrina as PUBLIC housing apartments, that is ones in which residents pay 30% of their income for rent and utilities.  Second, they demanded that the remaining 100 apartments at the Lafitte development, in which residents moved into only a short six months before, not be demolished and the residents be allowed to stay in their homes.  Third, they wanted the federal stimulus money allocated for the local housing authority to be used to include the repair of the Iberville development, the only fully intact traditional public housing development, which sits outside the French Quarter.  This money is badly needed to repair and reopen over 200 empty apartments at the 800 plus complex, units that are desperately needed by the thousands of families who are on the public housing waiting list, which has not accepted new applicants since Katrina (for an excellent critique of the non-profit sector’s solutions to housing, and a plan that places the reconstruction of the public sector at the center of any solution, see “Comments on the Draft  ‘Policy Recommendations to Support Gulf Coast Housing Recovery’: A New Orleans Perspective,” put out by May Day New Orleans, available at New Orleans Indymedia).

Iberville and the Obama/Donovan Demolition-by-Neglect Strategy

The public housing movement quickly received a response from Donovan/Obama to their demands: keep the bulldozers moving!  At the end of March, a notoriously repressive housing authority manager, Lois Watson, swept through the Lafitte development, threatening the traumatized Katrina survivors with arrest if they did not immediately vacate the premises (Times Picayune, March 29, 2009).  By April 1st all residents had moved out, and by late April authorities placed a metal fence around the development to prepare for demolition of this historic, architectural gem, built by Creole artisans from the Treme neighborhood in the early 1940s, whose demise New York Times architecture critic Nicolai Ouroussoff denounced as “a human and architectural tragedy of vast proportions.”  Yet, Obama was not finished with this ‘change you can believe in’ for New Orleans.  Diane Johnson, the federally imposed one-person board of New Orleans housing authority, announced at an April 8th hearing that the Iberville and the remaining apartments at the BW Cooper developments, the only remaining traditional developments, would not get one dime of the $34 million federal stimulus money awarded to HANO.  Bush imposed Johnson as the new one-person board chair in May 2008; upon taking office, she chillingly pronounced: “I understand demolition . . . just watch and see Diane Johnson.”   Johnson — with the full support of Obama, who has kept on this Bush appointee, as he is done in so many other areas — has kept her demolition promises.  The failure to provide any money for Iberville is a thinly veiled attempt to carry out demolition by neglect and thus pave the way for ‘redevelopment’ that will allow the ethnic and class cleansing of the community and the seizing of this long sought-after property by real estate interests.

Obama Expands the Neo-Apartheid, ‘Public-Private’ Charter School System

The appointment of Arne Duncan, the former ‘CEO’ of the Chicago school district and a major proponent of privatized charter schools, made clear where Obama stands on ‘education reform.’  Proposals made by May Day New Orleans, C3/Hands Off Iberville, and other grassroots organizations, to use public funds to create well-funded, democratically-run, broadly accessible, and useful public works, public schools, and other public goods, are not even entertained.  Instead, through a top-down strategy, as with housing, Duncan and other neoliberal education reformers — including Obama himself, as he made clear in his speech to the Business Roundtable — promote pouring public monies into for-profit and non-profit companies to administer, and profit from, the delivery of education services.

Thus, Duncan’s approach by no means represents a divergence from what has happened to public education in post-Katrina New Orleans, but rather deepens the processes initiated by his predecessor.  After the storm the State of Louisiana, under Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco, and with the full support of the majority African American New Orleans delegation in the State House and Senate, tore up the teachers union contract, fired all the teachers and support staff from cafeteria to janitors, and had the state, through the Recovery School District, take over almost all the schools.  Of those that have reopened (only half of the over 120 pre-storm schools were reopened), most are now charter schools, run by an array of non- and for-profit companies, overseen by a byzantine complex of unaccountable, self-appointed boards, and advised by elite, corporate-linked think tanks, such as the Cowen Institute.   Bush Education secretary Margaret Spelling stepped in and helped make this transformation a truly bipartisan effort by providing $40 million, all of which was earmarked for charters, shortly after Katrina.

Yet, despite, or rather because of, this scenario, Education Secretary Duncan, during his March 20th swing through New Orleans, extolled the “phenomenal innovation going on” and praised “the set of adults that are pushing a very strong reform agenda,” in a city that has witnessed the fastest and widest privatization of the public school system in the country.  Duncan also made no bones about his opposition to democratically controlled local school boards and that “reform” requires authoritarian “leadership from the top” (Times Picayune, March 21, 2009).  He was right on the mark.  His touting of authoritarianism betrays a tacit recognition of the unpopularity of these neoliberal educational reforms.  The New Orleans case, in which the local elected school board was stripped of its control by the state executive, and Governor Blanco’s lifting of the rule (while most New Orleanians were still in exile) that gave parents and teachers at targeted schools the right to vote on whether they want their schools to become charters, underscores the undemocratic nature of the whole agenda which requires an authoritarian state to impose it.

This lifting of local control allowed maybe the most blatant racist takeover of all: the chartering of the formerly all-black, low-income Fortier high school, located next to Tulane University, by the elite, ‘magnet,’ selective-admission Robert Lusher school, appropriately named after a post-civil war era segregationist.  Fortier, taken over through collaboration with Tulane University, denies the entry to the former students, while guaranteeing admission, in a typical phony ‘anti-racist’ neoliberal multicultural form, to students of full-time employees of the historically black universities of Dillard and Xavier as well as Tulane and Loyola Universities.  This school, which before Katrina regularly went without even toilet paper, now operates in a renovated facility, with plenty of amenities, and a ‘progressive’ multicultural student body, which excludes, in a neo-apartheid manner, the former low income black students, many of whom remain in the post-Katrina diaspora.

New Orleans Public Hospital Remains Closed

Obama’s failure to change course and tackle the pressing health care needs in post-Katrina New Orleans is especially ominous, given that addressing health care was a major component of his campaign.  After Katrina, Governor Blanco intervened, ordering out the Oklahoma National Guard, German engineers, and hospital staff who were cleaning out the main public hospital — Charity — which in fact incurred little damage.  The Democratic Governor then declared Charity Hospital, which provided critically needed care for the poor and uninsured, beyond repair and announced it would be permanently closed.  Since then, New Orleans has had no major public health care facility to deal with those without health insurance and lost its major source of psychiatric care, in a city where psychiatric illnesses have skyrocketed due to the varied problems people face in a post-disaster environment, problems further acerbated by the government’s failure to reopen public services.

Here again, New Orleanians find no relief from the Obama administration.  The State of Louisiana’s plan, which the new Republican Governor Bobby Jindal (groomed to become an Obama challenger) supports, will turn Charity into a much smaller teaching hospital, as part of a new medical complex to be built in conjunction with the local Veterans Hospital.  Although it is a state-level initiative, the federal government, through control of Medicaid dollars, the critical role of the Veterans Hospital in the plan, and the moral power of the new president, has a variety of methods at their disposal to get the state to change it.  Nonetheless, the Obama administration has not exercised this power but has, instead, continued the same federal government support begun by Bush.

Obama, Non-Profits, and Need for Building a Political Alternative

An honest evaluation of Barack Obama’s administration, one that looks at substance over symbolism, reveals, both at home and abroad, a striking continuity with his predecessor.  Although one can find differences in the style and discourse of the two leaders, the underlying program of the new administration continues to be the same old one of militarism and anti-working class attacks, the one that is in effect a deeply racist one.  He has put a new face on a still brutally racist, capitalist system.  This continuity is particularly revealing in New Orleans where public services have been or on their way to being privatized or eliminated, and where, primarily due to this disaster capitalist agenda, almost half the population — disproportionately female, black, and poor — have been unable to return home.  The New Orleans public housing movement, the campaign to reopen Charity Hospital, and other struggles, along with the nationally reviving immigrant rights and anti-war movements represent the kernels of a real political alternative — not the mirage of Obamania.  But, as the New Orleans case reveals, for these movements to make gains, they will have to effectively expose and overcome an array of non-profit apologists for the new progressive face of the system, many of whom are lining up to join the ‘public-private partnership’ network that Obama, a particularly intelligent and foresighted representative of the ruling class, sees as an effective buffer in the face of the deepening capitalist crisis.

Jay Arena is a member of C3/Hands Off Iberville.  For more information on supporting the New Orleans public housing struggle, contact the author at 504-520-9521.