SWAT Team Arrests MayDay NOLA Occupiers and Public Housing Resident Council Representative
by Common Ground Media
Saturday, Feb. 03, 2007 at 12:58 PM
Two housing activists arrested at St Bernard Housing Development
Members of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) SWAT team, presumably under the direction of the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), raided members of MayDay NOLA, a housing rights organization who had been occupying a community center in the St. Bernard Public Housing Development. The group had been occupying the building for over two weeks in protest of the planned demolition of St. Bernard and three other public housing complexes in New Orleans, and with the intention of reopening the community center to residents.
The day before the raid, Allen Harris, a Public Housing Resident Council Representative from CJ Peete Public Housing Development, was arrested while watching the same SWAT team train for the raid. The SWAT team was reportedly kicking in doors to residents’ apartments at CJ Peete. Residents who were concerned for the safety of their belongings contacted Harris and asked him to find out what was going on. When he arrived on the scene the police immediately confronted him and arrested him. CJ Peete is also part of HANO’s highly contested demolition plan.
-Police Raid MayDay NOLA
At approximately 2:15am on the morning of Wednesday February 1, a heavily armed SWAT team stormed the New Day Community Center in the St Bernard Public Housing Development, arrested two housing activists at gunpoint, and subsequently spent hours dismantling and destroying parts of the building. The two members of MayDay NOLA, Jamie “Bork” Loughner and Curtis Rumrill, were occupying and restoring the community center as guests of the lease holder, and at the request of public housing residents who have been locked out of their homes since shortly after Katrina.
“What HANO and HUD have done to the people is unfair,” says Sharon Sears Jasper, a St. Bernard resident. “They are trying to make it seems like we are the criminals when they are the criminals. They charge [Mayday NOLA] with destroying property, but then they go and destroy a community center after arresting the people inside. No matter what HANO does, we're gonna stop these demolitions. If there needs to be more arrests, there will be. Get your SWAT team, get your National Guard, get your army, because we have our own army and we’re ready to fight.”
Many saw the occupation, which began on January 15, and lasted over two weeks, and the planned reopening of the community center as concrete steps toward a reoccupation of the St Bernard Public Housing Development by its displaced residents. The community center would have provided assistance to families moving back into St Bernard, including temporary housing for residents who had traveled from outside of New Orleans to clean and rehabilitate their homes. It also would have provided free access to cleaning supplies, a tool lending library, and an open space for regular community meetings.
Police kicked in windows, tore out doors using heavy machinery and forcibly entered the building that the occupiers were in. After the arrests they used that same machinery for hours to destroy more doors and windows and other parts of the building. The two activists were arrested in the early morning and released on their recognizance later that afternoon. Both were charged with staying in place, and property destruction. Loughner was also charged with resisting an officer. Neither has been given a date to return to court.
The arrests came as a shock to observers as legal avenues for resolving the dispute had not been exhausted, and as HANO never once, in the over two weeks that MayDay NOLA was in the community center, asked them to leave or even attempted to contact them. HANO had applied for a temporary restraining order and had posted notices threatening to cut off housing aid to or break the leases of residents that entered the development without permission. However, HANO ordered the police raid before the judge in the case had an opportunity to rule on the matter.
“The raid was a conscious act by the police department and HANO to act before the Judge's ruling,” says Malcolm Suber of the People's Hurricane Relief Fund. On Wednesday, shortly after the arrests, District Court Judge Ivan Lemelle denied the temporary restraining order, which specifically named MayDay NOLA. “This demonstrates the contemptuous nature of HANO to act against the people's rights, will, and the rule of law. They anticipated that they were going to lose.”
“The terrorizing that they did to us is just indicative of what they’re trying to do the residents. They’re trying to scare them off with injunctions, with legal threats –they’re trying to say ‘we’re not going to let you fight for your own homes.”commented Curtis Rumrill of MayDay NOLA.
-Public Housing Resident Council Representative Arrested for Watching Police
One day prior to the arrests at St. Bernard, a resident of CJ Peete Public Housing Complex was arrested while he watched what was presumably the same SWAT team that arrested the protesters, training for the arrests. Allen “Lenny” Harris, a CJ Peete Resident Council Representative, and a displaced resident of CJ Peete, received phone calls from concerned neighbors and former CJ Peete residents alerting him to the fact that there were police officers in the complex kicking in doors. The residents who called him were worried because many of their belongings were still in their apartments, behind a barbed wire fence that HANO had erected. They were afraid that the police kicking in their doors would make their possessions more vulnerable, and asked Harris, as a representative, to find out what was happening.
“By the time I got there, there were seven or eight cop cars in the courtyard, and a few more in the street,” says Harris. One of the cars drove up to him and the officers inside asked him what he was looking at. When he answered, they accused him of trespassing. “I said, I’m a representative, I’m not trespassing,” says Harris.
Harris was arrested and charged with Public Drunkenness. Reportedly the arresting officer said to his partner, in reference to charging Mr. Harris: “Just write anything you want.”
The police who were kicking in doors at CJ Peete said that they were there doing it at the request of HANO. HANO denied this. However, Harris believes that the police were telling the truth. “It’s kind of funny when the SWAT team that knocked that door down is the same SWAT team that got those other people out of the St. Bernard the next day.”
Rumrill, of MayDay NOLA says, “While I was being arrested at St. Bernard, I overheard some of the officers talking about the fact that they had been practicing kicking doors in at another public housing project the previous day. It only makes sense that these were the same officers, and that HANO, who requested that we were arrested, also gave permission to those officers to use CJ Peete as their own personal playground.”
HUD/HANO Against a Wall
Many view the severe use of force that HANO employed in the arrests as a response to the overwhelming and growing public outrage over the proposed demolition of public housing. Despite immense support for the re-opening of public housing, HANO and HUD have consistently ignored public opinion and advocated for its demolition. At a November 29, 2006 court-mandated ‘resident consultation meeting,’ HANO received a resounding and unquestionable "NO!" to their plans from public housing residents. Angry residents accused HANO of "ethnic cleansing," and told them "being poor is not a crime."
HUD’s own cost analysis reveals that their plan to demolish and rebuild will waste taxpayers’ money. A recent motion for summary judgment filed in a current suit to reopen the development (available at: http://justiceforneworleans.org) cites HUD documents that show the demolition and redevelopment of public housing “will end up costing over $175 million more than extensively modernizing the developments, and upwards of $450 million more than simply repairing them would cost.” Detractors of HANO/HUD’s plans question the logic of spending flagrant sums of money when every public service in New Orleans is desperate for funds.
The motion also argues that the demolitions have racial implications. “Prior to Katrina over 5,100 African-American families lived in New Orleans’ public housing. Nearly 14 months later, only approximately 1,000 have been allowed to return. HANO’s actions clearly have disproportionately harmed African-Americans and have lead to the overall decline in the city’s African American population since Katrina.”
HANO and HUD plan to demolish over 5000 units of affordable public housing—housing that is desperately needed for families that wish to move back to New Orleans. In a market where rents have increased between 70 and 300 percent since Katrina, inflated rents and the lack of subsidized housing has been a major factor in preventing evacuees from returning to their homes. Finding private landlords that accept housing vouchers is extremely difficult, and finding affordable housing without subsidization is nearly impossible for public housing recipients. In this climate many see the reopening of public housing as a critical issue in ensuring the right to return for New Orleanians displaced by Katrina.