Battle for New Orleans, 6 Years After Katrina

Political power has shifted to whites, but blacks have not given up their struggle for a voice -- and justice.

The changes in the public sector have been widespread. Shortly after the storm, the entire staff of the public school system was fired. Their union, which had been the largest union in the city, ceased to be recognized. With many parents, students and teachers driven out of the city by Katrina and unable to have a say in the decision, the state took over the city’s schools and began shifting them over to charters.

“The reorganization of the public schools has created a separate but unequal tiered system of schools that steers a minority of students, including virtually all of the city’s white students, into a set of selective, higher-performing schools, and most of the city’s students of color into a set of lower-performing schools,” writes lawyer and activist Bill Quigley, in a report prepared with fellow Loyola law professor Davida Finger.

In many ways, the changes in the New Orleans school system, initiated almost six years ago, foreshadowed a battle that has played out more conspicuously this year in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey and other states, where teachers and their unions were assailed by both Republican governors and liberal reformers such as the filmmakers behind Waiting for Superman. Similarly, the battle of New Orleans’ public housing — which was torn down and replaced by new units built in public-private partnerships that house a small percentage of the former residents — prefigured national battles over government’s role in solving problems related to poverty.

The anger at the changes in New Orleans’ black community is palpable. It comes out at City Council meetings, on local black talk-radio station WBOK and in protests. “Since New Orleans was declared a blank slate, we are the social experimental lab of the world,” says Endesha Juakali, a housing-rights activist. However, despite the changes, grassroots resistance continues. “For those of us that lived and are still living the disaster, moving on is not an option,” adds Juakali.

Resistance to the dominant agenda has also led to reform of the city’s criminal-justice system. But this reform is very different from the others, with leadership coming from African-American residents at the grass roots, including those most affected by both crime and policing.

In the aftermath of Katrina, media images famously depicted poor New Orleanians as criminal and dangerous. In fact, at one point it was announced that rescue efforts were put on hold because of the violence. In response, the second-in-charge of the New Orleans Police Department reportedly told officers to shoot looters, and the governor announced that she had given the National Guard orders to shoot to kill.

Over the following days, police shot and killed several civilians. A police sniper shot a young African American named Henry Glover, and other officers took his body and burned it behind a levee. A 45-year-old grandfather, Danny Brumfield Sr., was shot in the back in front of his family outside the New Orleans convention center.

Two black families — the Madisons and the Bartholomews — walking across New Orleans’ Danziger Bridge fell under a hail of gunfire from a group of officers. “We had more incidents of police misconduct than civilian misconduct,” says former District Attorney Eddie Jordan, who pursued charges against the officers but had the charges thrown out by a judge. “All these stories of looting, it pales next to what the police did.”

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