Tavis Smiley with Kali Akuno

Kali AkunoInterview originally aired December 10, 2007 on The Tavis Smiley show.

A longtime community organizer, Kali Akuno is executive director of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Coalition and director of the Stop the Demolition Coalition. He is calling for action opposing HUD’s plans to tear down four major public housing developments in New Orleans. Akuno previously worked with the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and founded and directed the Oakland, CA-based School of Social Justice and Community Development.

Hear the entire interview by clicking on the play button below:


For full transcript, click the “read more” button bellow, or visit the The Tavis Smiley show website.

Tavis: Earlier today in New Orleans, demonstrators gathered to protest a decision by the Bush administration that would tear down nearly 5,000 public housing units in and around the city. This decision deals another blow by the efforts of many residents to return home and to rebuild their lives. Shortly after this morning’s rally I spoke by telephone with the coordinator of the Stop the Demolition Coalition, Kali Akuno.

Tell me what happened today in New Orleans, why you were involved, and what the connection is to today being International Human Rights Day?

Kali Akuno: Today the Coalition to Stop the Demolitions in New Orleans made an appearance at the housing conservation district review committee of the city council to press for a no vote on the demolition of three of our public housing developments here in New Orleans – the C.J. Peete, the Cooper, and the Lafitte project.
Today we got a small victory in that the committee decided to give a no vote on Lafitte, but they’re still planning to go ahead on the demolition of Peete and Cooper. So that’s where we stand today.

Tavis: Tell me why the city wants to tear down these public housing units.

Akuno: The claim is that they want to do some new development, but the reality is that the Lafitte, the St. Bernard, and the Cooper, which are all viable structures which they basically laid fallow for two years, they could have been opened immediately. They received hardly any damage from Hurricane Katrina in terms of flood damage or any structural damage.

HUD, Alphonso Jackson, the Bush government, have been trying to privatize these structures for years, and they just used Katrina to try and do that as the residents were removed. So we’re trying to stand in between that decision, between this program for privatization, and make sure that our people can come home.

Tavis: So the Bush’s efforts to privatize notwithstanding, did I hear you suggest to me that these buildings were barely damaged and could have been used over the last couple of years to allow persons to return back to the city to have a place to live?

Akuno: That’s absolutely correct. Particularly the Lafitte and the St. Bernard, they could be opened up tomorrow and house our growing homeless population here in New Orleans, or to returning residents, or to serve as transitional structures. These are the buildings which have been used for years as storm shelters, and were used in that regard during Hurricane Katrina.

Tavis: All right, so it’s no secret that the Bush administration and others, for that matter, have been pressing this issue of privatization of certain government properties. I get that – agree or disagree is another issue, but I get what they’re attempting to do. What I don’t get is what they’re going to replace these things with, and how this impacts the right of people to return to New Orleans.

Akuno: Well, this is one of the things we’ve been arguing for, Tavis. They don’t have any clear plans of what they’re going to replace these structures with. Right now, they’re just – the main argument we heard from them this morning is that if they didn’t go ahead with the demolition that they were going to lose these tax credits and federal tax credits.

Tavis: So finally, HUD secretary Alphonso Jackson got in trouble the other day – this ain’t the first time, pardon my English, that he’s said some things that are kind of hard to explain. But he said the other day that only the best people should return to these projects. Only the best people; and that leaves open us to all sorts of interpretations about what he meant.

But I suspect at the heart of that is trying to get to who ought to live in public housing units, whether or not these things can be rebuilt in such a way or repopulated in such a way where the unsavory elements in the community aren’t allowed to come back in. I say all that to ask what you took by his statement that only the best people should return to these projects whenever they’re rebuilt and whatever way they’re going to be rebuilt?

Akuno: That’s just a further argument for excluding those who’ve been displaced. It’s just a further discriminatory tone of what we’ve been getting for two years. What little substantive relief or hope has been offered, and that was just a continuation of all the discriminatory remarks we’ve been hearing from the Bush regime and most of the different public officials on down regarding our right to return and making sure our people get back home with equity and justice.

Tavis: Kali Akuno, head of the Stop the Demolition Coalition. A big march earlier today in New Orleans trying to stop the tearing down of public housing units in the city, pressing the right of those who are displaced to return to the city. A small victory, as Kali said earlier, city council deciding to not immediately tear down one or two of those projects, but the others still on the board to be torn down. Kali, thanks for your work. Glad to have you on the program.

Akuno: Thank you.