Justice in New Orleans?: The Real Crimes of Former Mayor Ray Nagin and the Entire Ruling Class

by Jay Arena

Ray Nagin, who first ran for mayor as the candidate of business, cops and whites, was only convicted of “the least of his crimes.” The corporate-run, bipartisan gang that pillaged New Orleans ranged from President Obama to Governor Jindal to Melissa Harris Perry, and every high-living lowlife in between.


Justice in New Orleans?: The Real Crimes of Former Mayor Ray Nagin and the Entire Ruling Class


by Jay Arena

Real justice would require a people’s tribunal drawn from the victims of capitalism in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans that would prosecute not simply small fry like Nagin, but ALL the criminals involved in the looting.”

On February 12 a federal court convicted former New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin on 20 of 21 counts of bribery and fraud that carries a maximum sentence of over 200 years. Following the announcement the predictably shallow, hypocritical commentary quickly commenced. The first to weigh-in was the recently reelected Mayor, Mitch Landrieu, the son of former mayor Moon Landrieu who was a paid agent of the city’s most powerful developer, Joe Canizaro, before, after and some say during his time as mayor.

“My first thought is it’s a terribly sad day for the city of New Orleans”, Landrieu sighed, but then reassured his audience that “the city of New Orleans has been in different hands the past four years…and we're making great progress, and we like the new way.” Nagin’s predecessor, National Urban League “CEO” Marc Morial, who himself faced an investigation by the US attorney’s office, lamented that the conviction damaged “New Orleans in an immeasurable…way” but, like Landrieu, saw the positive since the harm was not “irreparable.”

Likewise, Jason Berry, whose blog “American Zombie” played a central role in exposing the corruption, emphasized how the “prosecution and conviction are important for our city” since it would move New Orleans beyond the corruption that supposedly holds it back. In contrast, the story-line nationally was that of another “corrupt Louisiana politician,” with the Washington Post lamenting that Nagin simply ended up “absorbing the corrupt ethos” of New Orleans and Louisiana that “he had promised to fight.”

Nagin was convicted on the least of his crimes.”

What all the superficial commentary missed is that Nagin was convicted on the least of his crimes. Yes, “Ray Reagan,” as the former Cox Cable executive was known, should be jailed for his kickback schemes, especially his arrangement with Home Depot to squash a living wage and neighborhood employment requirement in exchange for contracts for his family’s counter-top business. Likewise New Jersey Governor Chris Christie should be prosecuted for his gangster-style tactics on behalf of developers, which is but one example among many that underscores corruption is by no means exclusive to the Pelican State or Big Easy. But the real crimes – the police murders and assaults of Katrina survivors, the systematic looting of the city’s public sector in the aftermath of Katrina, the flagrant violations of international law, the permanent expulsion of over 100,000 low income New Orleanians – should have been the ones that placed Nagin in the dock. These are the crimes that neither Nagin’s fellow Democrats, nor Republicans, neither the liberal Soros nor rightist Koch wings of the capitalist class, that neither the corporate media nor subservient intellectuals could comment on. Why? Because they were all co-conspirators, along with now disgraced Nagin, in these crimes.

The Looting of New Orleans: Schools, Hospitals, and Housing

Let us briefly review what New York Time columnist David Brooks called Katrina’s “silver lining”: the opportunity to sack and pillage the city’s public schools, public hospitals, and public housing. In November of 2005, a little over two months after Katrina struck, Democratic Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered, with most of the city evacuated, a state take-over of almost the entire New Orleans public school system. With this new power, and full cooperation from the local school board, she proceeded to summarily abrogate the collective bargaining agreement of the largest union in the state and fire the 7,000-plus, mainly Black and female, teacher and support-staff. With assistance from the Bush administration’s Department of Education, the few schools reopened were as privatized, non-union charter schools, whose numbers would expand in the coming years.

The Scott Cowen-Melissa Harris-Perry Duo

Through the Nagin-appointed Bring New Orleans Back Commission, Tulane University President Scott Cowen helped push privatization further, including the commandeering of the Fortier public high school located near Tulane’s uptown campus. Fortier, which before Katrina served mainly low-income Black students, and often lacked basic amenities, now became a well-funded, newly renovated charter school that caters to children of Tulane professors and staff and those of other private universities in the city.

“But Scott Cowen couldn’t be all that bad”, some might object. Didn’t he also hire critical, “public intellectual” and MSNBC news host Melissa Harris Perry and award her a research center, the “Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race and Politics in the South” at Tulane to address critical issues around equity and identity? Yes, he did, and Ms. Harris-Perry has repaid this kindness by never once using her “Gender, Race and Politics in the South” research center or national TV show to discuss Cowen’s role in throwing thousands of southern black women into the streets. At the same time she has used her weekend broadcasts, which also must have pleased her boss in New Orleans and her unofficial one in the White House, to slam the selfish Chicago teachers unions, who in 2012 went out on strike to oppose the charterization of public schools and gentrification, but who, in Professor Perry’s eyes, did not have any regard for the poor children.

Killing Us Softly

Also on the hit list was the city’s large public hospital, Charity. Governor Kathleen Blanco ordered the main source of health care for the city and region’s low ­paid workforce closed three weeks after the storm. Blanco and her top hospital administrator, Donald Smithburg, shuttered the impressive art deco 2,000­plus­bed hospital built by the Public Works Administration in the 1930s, despite facing little damage and while the Oklahoma National Guard, foreign volunteers, and the hospital’s staff were preparing to reopen it. The closing of the Charity probably led to even more deaths than those wrought by Katrina’s floodwaters and the murderous response of the New Orleans and other police forces that treated survivors, particularly poor and Black survivors, as criminals.

International Outlaws: Public Housing Demolition in Katrina’s Aftermath

The post-Katrina looting of public housing was maybe the most brazen. “We finally cleaned up public housing. We couldn’t, but God could,” crowed Baton Rouge Republican Congressman Richard Baker in the days after Katrina. But the demonization of public housing residents was not limited to white Republicans. The Black Democratic city councilman Oliver Thomas—who would later go to prison for his own small change kickback scheme—denigrated public housing residents as unworthy burdens that the city could not accommodate. “We don’t need soap opera watchers right now,” bellowed Thomas at a city council meeting a few days after a rally of public housing residents and supporters protesting the closure of four badly needed and little damaged public housing developments, encompassing some 5,000 apartments.

Black Democratic city councilman Oliver Thomas denigrated public housing residents as unworthy burdens that the city could not accommodate.”

The decision to close the developments was made by the head of the Bush administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, Alphonso Jackson (who was also involved in his own shady deals, but never charged). While a federal decision, the local Black political establishment, from Nagin on down, had no qualms. Indeed, they and their allied developers like Pres Kabacoff and Ray Manning embraced the proposal. The support for shuttering the homes of thousands of low-income working class Black families – in clear violation of international law that was condemned by a UN Human Rights body – should come as no surprise considering that Nagin’s predecessor, Marc Morial, had a similar record overseeing the demolition of half the city’s public housing stock in collaboration with the Clinton administration and its cynically dubbed “Hope VI” program.

Intellectuals Reporting for Duty

Leading American sociologists were also important allies in the gentrification of New Orleans and other major urban centers by mainly Democratic mayors and their developer and other FIRE (finance, real estate, insurance) industry allies. The most influential among these was Professor William Julius Wilson, whose work on “deconcentrating poverty” helped legitimate HOPE VI and other efforts to destroy public housing, and displace low income – especially Black low-income – communities as a progressive anti-poverty, anti-racist initiative. Indeed, at a 1999 White House ceremony Bill Clinton lauded “William Julius Wilson whose work has deeply influenced what I have tried to do as President,” as he awarded the Harvard University sociologist the National Medal of Science.

In the aftermath of Katrina, MIT sociologist Xavier Briggs, a Rockefeller and World Bank advisor, and former top official in Clinton’s public housing demolishing HUD department, issued a “Moving to Opportunity in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina,” letter cosigned by Wilson and fellow Harvard sociologist Christopher Jencks. The letter, which was signed onto by scores of social scientists, including professional Obama apologist and “public intellectual” Peter Dreier, invoked the findings of a “growing body of research” to support efforts by government officials to use the storm as a way to break up “concentrations of poverty” and “move people to opportunity.” These statements helped provide the academic gloss for the Bush and Nagin administration’s efforts to permanently close the city’s public housing and prevent low-income residents from returning to the city. The city council’s most rabid opponent of public housing, Stacey Head, specifically cited the academically-vetted arguments of “mixed-income housing and deconcentrating poverty” in her April 2007 letter to a congressional committee debating whether public housing should be reopened.

Class and ethnic cleansing had to be carried out, the good professor told us, for the city to survive.”

Other academics resorted to cruder rationalizations to justify destroying public housing and drive the poor permanently from New Orleans. A prime example is that of Tulane University sociologist Carl Bankston, who warned that New Orleans had been declining for decades because it “has been losing its middle class” while retaining only “a small number of very well-to-do households and a large number of households living in highly concentrated poverty.” Thus, Bankston counseled, guaranteeing “the right to return of all New Orleans residents” by reopening public housing would simply “return New Orleans to a trend of demographic and socioeconomic decline” (Times Picayune, March 16, 2006). Class and ethnic cleansing had to be carried out, the good professor told us, for the city to survive. Bankston represented the ugliest and, to be fair, most honest intellectual face of the racist “there is no alternative” revanchist agenda.

The Velvet Glove and Iron Fist

The soothing words of sociologists, the collaboration of non-profit hustlers, the Times Picayune’s racist, anti-poor people smearing of public housing activist Sharon Jasper, and HUD contractors chaining shut public housing apartments were not enough to get everybody onboard with, or at least resigned to, the “deconcentrating poverty” agenda. Indeed, the most dynamic post-Katrina social movement was the struggle to defend and reopen public housing. When consensual mechanisms were not enough to contain opposition to the “silver lining” agenda, repression was stepped up. The clearest example of this was the December 20, 2007 city council hearing when the city’s political leaders were forced to vote on whether to approve demolition. When opponents of demolition tried to have their voices heard at the hearing, the notoriously brutal New Orleans Police Department were unleashed – with the green light given by-then city council president Arnie Fielkow and now CEO of the NBA’s retired players association. A barrage of NOPD beatings, tasering, tear gassing, and arrests inside and outside the city’s legislative chambers then ensued. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cMBWAXfGsc4).

Obama and Landrieu: The Crime Spree Continues

Barack Obama, who used the “mishandling” of Katrina as a club to attack his Republican opponent in 2008, has simply extended the criminal looting agenda carried out by his predecessor. This should come as no surprise, especially with regard to public housing. He had always made his neoliberal proclivities perfectly clear, explaining that “public–private partnerships to create affordable housing” are preferable to public housing. “Developers,” Obama held, “think in market terms and operate under the rules of the marketplace,” unlike public service providers, who do not face the same pressure to adequately serve their “consumer.” But his progressive backers, such as Tom Hayden, Bill Fletcher, Barbara Ehrenreich, and Peter Dreier, preferred to engage in political myth making. Obama, we were told in 2008, would be a “transformative president” ready to lead a detour away from the three decade long neoliberal capitalist agenda with the help of a mass movement he supposedly needed and wanted. The then-newly elected president, argued Nation magazine labor writer John Nichols, had the same message for his Left-Liberal supporters and their program as did Franklin Delano Roosevelt: “I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.” Well, John, tell that to the Occupy movement—including in New Orleans –who faced repression directed from the White House down to mostly Democratic Party-run city halls that drove out encampments across the country.

Obama has been able to get away with assassinating Iberville with much less opposition than his Republican predecessor encountered.”

Obama actually did have a “transformative” agenda for New Orleans, but not the type his progressive and “Gramscian” backers, like Carl Davidson, had predicted. Obama’s young, bright, neoliberal HUD director, Shaun Donovan, named private-contractor David Gilmore – a member of the 1989 federal commission that hatched HOPE VI – to head up HANO, the city’s federally controlled housing authority. Gilmore, following orders from Washington, quickly moved to sell off the city’s Iberville public housing development – the one public housing community Bush could not get his hands on because of contentious protests. But, as has happened in so many other areas, Obama has been able to get away with assassinating Iberville with much less opposition than his Republican predecessor encountered.

In 2010 Gilmore unsurprisingly snared a HUD Choice Neighborhood grant for Iberville – the Obama 2.0 version of HOPE VI that, par for the course, is even more “holistic” than its predecessor in pushing gentrification and charter schools in the surrounding area. Despite claims of “one-for-one” replacement, the number of on-site public housing units at Iberville – which is by no means “isolated” but located next to the French Quarter – will undergo a drastic reduction. The contract to “redevelop” was awarded to Pres Kabacoff, the same real estate shark that before Katrina razed 1500 apartments at the former St Thomas development and rebuilt only a handful of onsite replacements, while reneging on the promised 100, 3 and 4 bedroom off-site units (the crime of St Thomas is detailed in my book, Driven From New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization). Mayor Landrieu, who Obama backed in his recent reelection campaign, has always been a fervent backer of destroying Iberville and his administration has “partnered” with Gilmore on the redevelopment scheme.

Arnie Duncan declared, ‘The best thing that ever happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.’”

The Obama administration has also provided strong support for the mass chartering of public schools in New Orleans begun by their Republican predecessor. As Obama’s education secretary, Arnie Duncan, declared in a January 2010 interview with talk show host Roland Martin, “The best thing that ever happened to the education system in New Orleans was Hurricane Katrina.” While later apologizing for his “dumb” remark, Duncan’s sympathies were clear: the New Orleans model, including the authoritarian measures employed to implant it, was a huge success that should be emulated. Under Obama’s watch New Orleans has maintained its distinction as the city with highest percentage of charter schools of any city in the country, while becoming model for the fast track role back of public schools from Philadelphia to Detroit.

While claiming to expand access to health care, Obama in fact assisted his supposed arch ideological enemy, Louisiana Republican Governor Bobby Jindal, in finishing-off Charity Hospital. Obama’s HUD delivered on loan guarantees that Jindal badly needed to complete a 1500 acre bio-district research center, part of which would replace Charity with a much smaller hospital designed for “research and teaching” rather than serving the health needs of the poor. The construction of this complex wiped out a large chunk of the city’s Mid-City neighborhood and was bitterly opposed by residents, many of whom had rebuilt their homes after Katrina only to see them demolished by the state’s bulldozers.

Help From Holder?

The one concession to New Orleans by the Obama administration came in the form of some controls on the NOPD and a few prosecutions of their most notorious post-Katrina murders. But even here we see backtracking. Mayor Landrieu, who Obama endorsed in his recent reelection campaign, is now trying to get out of a “consent decree” between the NOPD and Eric Holder’s Justice Department that has placed some oversight and controls over this notoriously brutal outfit. The convictions in the Danzinger Bridge and Henry Glover cases involving the police murder of Katrina survivors in the days after Katrina have been overturned in federal courts. The local US attorney has either refused to retry these exonerated murderers, or carried out inept prosecutions when they did retry them, as with the murderer of Henry Glover, former NOPD cop David Warren. (http://www.nola.com/crime/index.ssf/2013/12/jury_acquits_david_warren_ex-c.html). Jordan Flaherty’s recent article provides some useful coverage of these criminal injustice developments in New Orleans but, as those deeply embedded in the Democratic Party-allied nonprofit-industrial complex are wont to do, he dresses up this timid intervention by Eric Holder’s Justice Department as some bold action taken in response to activists concerns. (http://truth-out.org/news/item/21806-federal-prosecutions-fail-to-bring-justice-in-new-orleans).

Real Criminals and Real Justice

Not many are shedding tears over hypocritical Ray Nagin going to jail. The former millionaire Cox Cable executive came to power, it must be remembered, in 2002 as a “reform,” “anti-corruption” candidate backed by business and with scant support from the city’s black working class. Who, you might ask, were the first targets of his anti-corruption campaign? Developers who pay-off public officials? Cops that have murdered and terrorized the local populace? No, working class taxi drivers who were paraded in chains before television cameras were enemy #1 in eyes of Nagin and his ruling class backers. (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/07/23/us/many-arrested-in-crackdown-on-corru...).

Nonetheless, as odious as Nagin is, people who want real justice cannot claim victory with his conviction. Real justice would require a people’s tribunal drawn from the victims of capitalism in pre- and post-Katrina New Orleans that would prosecute not simply small fry like Nagin, but ALL the criminals involved in the looting. They would all be put in put in the dock. Furthermore, these tribunals need to be held around the country, because the crimes – from police brutality to the pillaging of public resources – perpetrated against New Orleans’ working class are the same assaults faced by working class communities across the US. Indeed, just as the ruling class used Katrina as their “silver living” to carry out massive looting and class and ethnic cleansing, we see this same dynamic going on in Detroit, Harrisburg, Pa., Sacramento and other cities under the pretext of financial and fiscal tsunamis.

They would all be put in put in the dock.”

Justice also demands not simply prosecuting the real criminals, but also putting the working class in power of the reconstructions that New Orleans and cities across the country need. This is the demand New Orleans’s public housing movement has long advocated: Jobs for All, Free Public Services for All, through a mass, democratically-controlled, direct-government employment public works program, open for all, including immigrants and the formerly incarcerated. This, the movement argued, can be financed by taxing the wealth and income of the richest 1%, and dismantling the US military machine, including its worldwide archipelago of over 800 military bases. This demand is not pie in the sky, but a real political alternative, working class fight back program that was endorsed on October 19, 2013 in Newark , NJ at the People's Conference on Jobs, Peace Equality and Justice by the assembled labor and community activists from New York, New Jersey and beyond. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WGXo8pe2MGU). This movement, which can only be achieved by breaking with the twin parties of capitalism and forging a movement of millions to fight for what we want, points the way toward achieving real justice in New Orleans and across the USA.

Jay Arena, PhD, is an assistant professor of sociology, anthropology and social work at the College of Staten Island, CUNY. He is author of Driven from New Orleans: How Nonprofits Betray Public Housing and Promote Privatization, “Whose City Is It?: Public Housing, Public Sociology, and the Struggle for Social Justice in New Orleans Before and After Katrina,” and “Race and Hegemony: The Neoliberal Transformation of the Black Urban Regime and Working Class Resistance.”