Police, protesters in New Orleans clash over public housing demolition
Police in New Orleans used chemical spray and stun guns Thursday as dozens of protesters tried to force their way into a packed city council chamber during a debate on the planned demolition of some 4,500 public housing units.
One woman was sprayed with chemicals and dragged from the gates.
She was taken away on a stretcher by emergency officials. Before that, the woman was seen pouring water from a bottle into her eyes and weeping.
Another woman said she was stunned by officers, and still had what appeared to be a Taser wire hanging from her shirt.
"I was just standing, trying to get into my city council meeting," said the woman, Kim Ellis, who was taken away in an ambulance.
"Is this what democracy looks like?" said Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who opposes the demolition, as he held a strand of Taser wire he said had been shot into another of the protesters.
Quigley said he would explore legal action over the incident, which he believed violated public meetings laws.
Protesters said they pushed against the iron gates that kept them out of the building because the Housing Authority of New Orleans had disproportionately allowed supporters of the demolition to pack the chambers.
After roughly 30 minutes of on-again-off-again struggle to get into the meeting, protesters fell back, continuously chanting with bullhorns. An afternoon storm thinned the protesters, some of whom had been waiting since 7 a.m. to enter.
At the peak of the confusion, some 70 protesters were facing about a dozen mounted police and 40 more law enforcement officers on foot. One sheriff's deputy wept on the City Hall side of the gate and was comforted by his comrades.
Details on arrests were not immediately available.
The meeting itself was mostly peaceful, although an early fight in the chambers between protesters and police caused a brief interruption.
Vote was unanimous to tear down housing
Later Thursday, New Orleans City Council voted unanimously in favour of tearing down 4,500 public housing units.The vote will permit the federal government to begin demolishing four public housing developments.
The demolition debate has at times exposed class and race divisions in the city. Most public housing residents are black, as were many of the protesters, while the majority of city council is white. However, support for demolition among those who spoke at the meeting crossed racial lines.
"It's about being able to walk into a house and say this is a house, not a project," said Donna Johnigan, a black public housing resident who supports redevelopment and who has clashed with residents from other housing complexes. "What we're going to demand is better housing, better schools."
But Walter Gallas, the director of the New Orleans Field Office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said the apartment buildings should be prized because they are sturdy and well-built.
"I'd like to add a new term to the local dialogue in post-Katrina New Orleans: Planning by demolition," said Gallas, who is white.
The city council votewas a critical moment in a protracted fight between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and residents, activists and preservationists.
HUD wants to demolish the buildings, most of them damaged by Hurricane Katrina, so developers can take advantage of tax credits and build new mixed-income neighbourhoods.