In a remarkable symbol of the injustices of post-Katrina reconstruction, hundreds of people were locked out of a public New Orleans City Council meeting addressing demolition of 4500 public housing apartments.
The scene looked like one of those countries on TV that is undergoing a people's revolution. Dozens of uniformed police secured the gates and other entrances. Only developers and those with special permission were allowed in - the rest were kept locked outside the gates.
Chants of "Housing is a human right!" and "Let us in!" thundered through the concrete breezeway.
Public housing residents came to speak out despite an intense campaign of intimidation. Residents were warned by phone that if they publicly opposed the demolitions they would lose all housing assistance.
The residents had simple demands. If the authorities insisted on spending hundreds of millions to tear down 4500 structurally sound subsidized apartments, there should be a guarantee that every resident could return to a similarly subsidized apartment. Alternatively, the government could repair the apartments so people could come home. Neither alternative was acceptable to HUD.
Outside, SWAT team members and police in riot gear and on horses began to arrive. Among those locked out were many residents, a professor from Southern University, the Episcopal Bishop of Louisiana, ministers, lawyers, homeless people, and others.
Inside the chambers, Reverend Torin Sanders asked that people be allowed to enter and stand along the walls - a common practice for 30 years. No one could recall any City Council locking people out of a public meeting.
The request to allow people to stand was denied. The Council then demanded silence from those inside. Those who continued to demand that the others be let in were arrested. Some young men were tasered right in front of the speaker's podium.
This was a meeting the council had repeatedly tried to avoid. It was only held after residents - 100 percent African- American and nearly all mothers or grandmothers - got an emergency court order.
Leaders of the U.S. Congress, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid, asked that the decision be delayed 60 days so they could try to move forward on Senate Bill 1668 which would resolve many of the demolition problems. This request was backed by New Orleans Congressman William Jefferson, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Presidential candidates John Edwards and Barack Obama.
Outside, the protesters could see people arrested inside being dragged to police wagons. When a few protestors pulled open one of the gates police started shooting arcs of pepper spray and firing tasers into the crowd. A young woman who was tasered in the back went into a seizure.
A dozen people were arrested - most for disturbing the peace.
Despite pleas from displaced residents, community organizations and federal elected officials, the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to allow demolition to proceed.
Stephanie Mingo, a working grandmother who is one of the leaders of the residents, said: "We did not come this far to turn back now. This fight is far from over. We are not resting until everyone has the right to return home."
Bill Quigley is a law professor and part of the team of lawyers representing displaced residents of public housing. He can be reached at [email protected]