Police, housing protesters scuffle in New Orleans as council prepares demolition vote - WMC Action News 5 - Memphis, Tennessee

Police, housing protesters scuffle in New Orleans as council prepares demolition vote

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - Police used chemical spray and stun guns Thursday as dozens of protesters seeking to halt the demolition of 4,500 public housing units tried to force their way through an iron gate at City Hall.

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.       Arrests were made as officers tried to establish order.

Inside, a scuffle also occurred in the City Council chambers as the meeting opened. Several protesters were forced out, including a woman who was carried, and a recess was called. The room was calm once the meeting resumed.

Protesters had planned to disrupt the City Council meeting, where members were expected to approve demolishing dozens of buildings - a move that would open racial and class divisions.

The council chambers seat less than 300. Once capacity was reached, people who were not permitted into chambers marched and chanted. Eventually violence broke out.

The City Council vote is 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 neighborhoods.       The council's approval of the demolition is required under the city's charter.

HUD says the redevelopment, in the works before Katrina hit, will mark an end to the city's failed public housing experiment that lumped the poor into crime-ridden complexes and marooned them outside the life of the rest of the city.

But critics say the plan will shrink the stock of cheap housing at a time when housing is scarce and drive poor blacks out of the city. They also say the buildings are, contrary to popular opinion, mostly handsome brick structures that will outlast anything HUD builds in their place.

A news release from the Coalition to Stop the Demolition, one of several groups organizing protesters, characterized the pending action as a "rubber stamp" at a "sham meeting."

"It is beyond callous, and can only be seen as malicious discrimination. It is an unabashed attempt to eliminate the black population of New Orleans," said Kali Akuno, an organizer with the group.

A recent shake-up on the seven-member City Council turned it into a majority white chamber for the first time since the 1980s, a shift that will certainly make the vote even more racially charged.

Three of the council's white members were quick to say they supported the tear-down plan, while the council's three black members were hesitant about expressing their intentions.

One black member, Cynthia Hedge Morrell, issued a statement late Wednesday in favor of demolitions. The fourth white member, Council President Arnie Fielkow, has been careful to tread the middle ground, but a spokeswoman said Thursday he supports demolition.

"It's not racist and it's truly not a done deal behind the scenes," said Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, a newly elected councilmember-at-large, about the council's pending vote.

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press.  All Rights Reserved.)

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