Tuesday, June 23, 2009


By Shaena J. Johnson

LJI Organizer

In a blatant attempt to increase marginalization and victimization of low-income and less fortunate Hurricane Katrina and Rita victims in Mississippi, elected officials, along with the Biloxi Office of Community Development proposed an ordinance that would further displace these victims from their homes. The proposed Ordinance to amend Section 23-11-17(b) of the Code of Ordinances of the City of Biloxi, MS, provided (1) FEMA trailers do not meet building code specifications – making them susceptible to destruction by hurricane force winds; and (2) there has been “ample time” for individuals displaced Hurricane Katrina to make arrangements for securing permanent housing. City of Biloxi officials thus demanded residents with FEMA trailers apply for a Temporary Use Permit (30 days), which would still require that they vacate their homes within 30 days.

What the Office of Community Development and other Biloxi elected officials failed to fully comprehend was that fact not all Biloxi residents have recovered fully from the disasters. Residents like Chuck Rodgers (see below) live in front of their houses to protect their property and rebuilding supplies, and to rekindle some sense of normality after the destruction of their way of life.

Jerry Creel, Director of the Office of Community Development, was in strong support of the ordinance, stating that the trailers “could become projectiles in hurricane-like situations.” He also asserted that the residents in the trailers are doing nothing to recover, and that nobody was being kicked out of their homes. Although Creel does make a valid point about the lack of safety that the FEMA trailers provide, his statements are specious. While it is true that trailers could become projectiles, the same is true for patio furniture, trees, automobiles, and even humans.

Trinh Le, Community Empowerment Coordinator of the Hope Community Development Agency, is the social justice activist and community leader of the movement that opposed this weak ordinance. She coordinated many civil and human rights advocates, including Louisiana Justice Institute (LJI), to speak out against the issue, raising awareness of the injustices against our constituents. Further, Le coordinated a press conference before the Biloxi City Council meeting to vote on the ordinance, inviting members of each organization to the June 16th meeting, and asking them to speak to the city council in opposition of the proposed ordinance.

Le’s endeavors were a success. After the press conference, LJI, along with other organizations spoke on behalf of the residents in FEMA trailers, asking the council to disregard the ordinance. There were so many supporters of the FEMA trailer residents, that there was only standing room left in the council chambers. The council voted 7-0 on the ordinance, amending it so that residents would have 6 months, instead of 30 days to find permanent housing. The council also stated that all families in FEMA trailers must have a Case Management Worker and sign up with the Office of Community Development (that venue should be changed because of the stated condescending view of these residents by the director).

While the Gulf Coast advocates were successful with this effort, it is also apparent there were unfair obstacles placed in the way of poor and often elderly residents in restoring their lives with dignity and respect. In this case, government officials played “fast and loose” with calendar scheduling to try and thwart the efforts of advocates working to support these residents. The Biloxi council placed the ordinance on the meeting agenda at the last minute, after weeks of rescheduling, and then moved the item last for hearing, notwithstanding the fact it was objectively the most important measure on the calendar. But justice was not delayed by obfuscation. Advocates stayed the course, for the entire meeting.

We have learned many lessons from the situation in Biloxi. People need to realize that no one entity can possible give anyone a timeline for full recovery from a disaster. We cannot tell a family that their home will be taken away from them, unless we have a plausible solution or alternative. Revolving deadlines and eviction notices do nothing but hurt the families involved. Instead of “barking out orders,” organizations and companies must provide solutions and alternatives, before notifying a family of eviction or relocation.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Geneva Crenshaw's Musings In Full Effect

Leon, Leon, Leon. What will we do with Leon?

My frustration with New Orleans District Attorney Leon Cannizzaro led me to write this letter to Professor Derrick Bell, renowned legal scholar and professor at New York University School of Law. Is the Racial Preference Licensing Act the answer for NOLA? Food for thought...

Professor Bell:

We’ve never met, but I have been a fan of yours for many years. After Hurricane Katrina and deciding to return to New Orleans – with the not-so-gentle nudging of Bill Quigley – I began a full time civil rights practice. I was reminded this weekend of your writings in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, and thought I’d share with you a bit of 2009 New Orleans.

Last year, on the evening of February 5, 2008, several off duty employees of the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority (RTA) were assaulted and beaten by off-duty New Orleans police officers assigned to the Special Operations Division of the New Orleans Police Department. Before the assault began, the victims, who are all African American, were subjected to racial slurs and epithets. Just after the RTA employees decided to leave the Beach Corner Bar and Grill, the police officers then beat and kicked the RTA employees. On duty New Orleans police officers arrived on the scene to investigate; because the off duty officers responsible for the assault were actively interfering with the investigation, the investigating officers had to remove the victims from the scene of the crime and take them to the Third District station to interview them. Police officers searched the vehicles of the victims without probable cause and after claiming to find a firearm, charged one of the victims with carrying a concealed weapon, charges that were later dismissed. The current Orleans Parish District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, has confirmed the allegedly concealed firearm was ‘planted’ by one of the off-duty police officers. At least three of the victims required medical attention. Among the witnesses to the violent assault were Capt. Jeff Winn, who at the time was the commander of the Special Operations Division of the New Orleans Police Department, and the supervisor of the police officers responsible for the assault. Also present at the time of the racially motivated assault was Laura Cannizzaro, an Assistant Orleans Parish District Attorney, and the daughter of the current Orleans Parish District Attorney, Leon Cannizzaro, and Ms. Cannizzaro’s boyfriend, also a NOPD Officer. Neither the New Orleans Police Department nor the Orleans Parish District Attorney charged any of the officers responsible for the assault with any crime. The Public Integrity Division of the New Orleans Police Department conducted a separate investigation which more than fourteen months after the incident resulted in the termination of one of the officers responsible for the assault, Joey Lapene. Just two months ago, D.A. Cannizzaro hired Joey Lapene to serve as one of his Lead Investigators, to canvass New Orleans’ cold case files, interview witnesses (in this 65% African-American populated city), and ride along with the police at crime scenes.

My father and I were discussing this incident yesterday, and I indicated to him that on today, LJI would write to Attorney General Eric Holder and request his office to intervene and investigate. The current U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Louisiana, in his six year tenure, has not yet ‘found’ a civil rights violation in his 10 parish jurisdiction, and he has refused to investigate this incident.

My dad (age 71) just chuckled. He said to me, at least in the 50s you knew where you could go. “For the sake of my grandson, maybe these devils could just start posting signs,” he said. “Blacks Not Welcomed.”

Fifty years later, and what was old is new again. Racial Preference Licensing Act, indeed!

I sent the letter to Mr. Holder, but I’m wondering whether a 10% tax (adjusted for inflation from Ms. Crenshaw’s suggested 3%) might just be better.