Non-Profit Gate-Keepers and the Visit of U.N. Human Rights Investigator


On May 30, and 31, 2008 Doudou Diène, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance, made a visit to post-Katrina New Orleans. Mr. Diène’s local stop was part of a national tour to investigate racism and its concrete manifestations in the form of housing, the criminal justice system, violations of worker rights, and education, among other areas. Attorney Monique Harden, co-director of New Orleans-based Advocates for Environmental Human Rights, coordinated the local tour. In a June 3rd email sent out to non-profit leaders, Harden requested additional information to be included in the local report that will be sent to Mr. Diène. While not addressed to C3/Hands Off Iberville, this article is a response to Ms. Harden’s call.

 

We at C3/Hands Off Iberville, a New Orleans-based grass roots organization that has worked since before Hurricane Katrina to defend public housing and other public services, have two chief concerns regarding Mr. Diène’s visit that should be included in any report: First, we are deeply concerned about the exclusionary manner employed by Advocates for Environmental Human Rights co-director Monique Harden and her fellow NGO collaborators to organize Mr. Diène’s public engagements. Second, we are disappointed over their failure to address–despite repeated requests–key issues around public housing, including the case of African American female public housing tenant Kim Turner, the larger defense campaign of New Orleans’ Iberville public housing development, and political repression of the movement.  I elaborate on these two issues below and call on the appropriate authorities to rectify them.

 

 

NGO ‘Cherry Picking’:

 The Exclusion of Grass Roots Organizations and Public Housing Residents

 

As explained by the ACLU’s Laleh Ispahani–whose organization was a key coordinator of Diène’s national tour–the Special Rapporteur was to meet with governmental authorities as well as ‘civil society’ groups and leaders fighting racism in various terrains during his May 18th to June 6th U.S. tour (http://www.aclu.org/intlhumanrights/racialjustice/sronracism.html#podcast). The problem appears that, at least in New Orleans, ‘civil society’ became synonymous with professional non-profits (also known as NGOs—non-governmental organizations). Those considered ‘legitimate’ enough to even be informed about Mr. Diène visit to the city–let alone testify before the Special Rapporteur–were groups and individuals that move within the professional, non-profit circles. That is, those informed about and involved in Diène’s visit tended to be affiliated with organizations that are 501 (c ) 3 organizations, recognized by the U.S. state, with formalized boards, paid staff, and job titles, and with significant funding from major foundations, such as George Soros’ Open Society Institute and the Ford foundation. Other groups and individuals who have been working heroically in various terrains against racism for years, but who do not operate within the professional NGO circles, were given the cold shoulder.

 

A good example of the NGO exclusionary behavior during the preparations for, and visit of, Diène, is the treatment meted out to C3/Hands Off Iberville. This multi-racial group–made up of volunteer grass roots activists, including public housing and non-public housing residents, and almost all Katrina survivors–has been organizing to defend public housing since well before Katrina. C3 activists, who combined have decades of grass roots activism behind them in various struggles, have been in the forefront of the public housing struggle. Furthermore, Public Housing has been recognized nationally and internationally as a key racial-justice battleground in post-Katrina New Orleans, and thus this issue–and ALL the organization involved in this battle–should have been a critical part of Diène’s visit. C3 members have made great sacrifices–including arrest and the facing of serious charges–and are very knowledgeable about the racism involved in destroying public housing and efforts to stop this crime.

 

Despite the central role that C3/Hands Off Iberville activists have had–and continue to play–in the public housing movement, its members were not contacted about, or invited to, the May 30th and 31st public events with Mr. Diène. No phone calls were made. No emails were released on local housing, or social justice, list serves. Furthermore, no significant outreach was made to public housing residents, an effort that C3/Hands Off Iberville could have assisted with since they have one of the closest and broadest links with residents of any group in the city. In fact Sharon Jasper, a grass roots public housing leader (that is, not on the management friendly tenant councils) only found out about Diène’s visit after one of the national organizers informed her. Underscoring how malicious and conscious attempts to exclude C3/Hands Off Iberville were, one public housing resident informed this writer that the local NGO leaders organizing Diène’s visit stated that they did not want C3/Hands Off Iberville to participate and were working to exclude them. Finally, while an individual public housing resident was invited to introduce Mr. Diène at the Saturday key-note event, held at the Sheraton Hotel, she was someone employed by–on the payroll of–the non-profit network. The selection of the vetted public housing representative further confirmed the anti-democratic, non-profit modus operandi of only including those within their orbit, and excluding those not under their control, and enthralled to their politics. The critique of New Black Panther activist Krytsal Muhammed–whose attendance was one of the few exceptions to the standard non-profit etiquette–that the non-profit organizers ‘cherry picked’ the attendees and speakers, graphically captured the strategy at work.

 

NGO Suppression of the Continuing Public Housing Struggle

 

The central goal of Mr. Diène’s visit to New Orleans was to gain information on racism, particularly as regards to housing. NGOs involved in Diène’s visit, such as Advocates for Environmental Human Right, Safe Streets (the local affiliate of the national anti-gentrification group, Right to the City), Amnesty International, Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond, Critical Resistance, Louisiana Justice Institute, and the Workers Center for Racial Justice, did work briefly in the public housing defense efforts during December-January 2007-08. Yet, these groups have moved on, while C3/Hands Off Iberville has continued its work. In particular, C3/Hands Off Iberville is organizing against the renewed efforts to destroy New Orleans’ Iberville public housing development. The group recently obtained documents exposing the meetings of hotel owner Michael Valentino, Downtown Development District head Kurt Weigle, Architect Ray Manning (involved in destroying the former St. Thomas development), and Iberville tenant council president Kim Paul to privatize and radically downsize Iberville. These efforts have been meet with no objections from city councilman James Carter, who has been briefed on the ‘redevelopment’ plans.

 

As part of the efforts to defend Iberville C3 has worked with Ms. Kim Turner, a black, disabled, female public housing tenant facing an unfair eviction from Iberville. Under the draconian ‘one strike’ policy, she is being evicted for something a guest allegedly did. In April and May 2008 C3/Hands Off Iberville sent out email alerts–and made phone calls–to a host of human rights NGOs, requesting that they take action to oppose the local Housing Authority’s (HANO) eviction of Ms. Turner (see enclosed letter below).

 

Most of the NGOs–including the key leaders of Diene’s visit–did nothing for Ms Turner. Furthermore, Ms Turners’ case, and the larger issue of Iberville’s destruction, although being a key expression of racism, were not raised during Mr. Diene’s visit. Ms. Turner, who could have testified about her case, wasn’t invited to meet with Mr Diene. This exclusion took place even after Ms Harden, the key organizer of Diene’s visit, was contacted repeatedly about Ms Turner’s case. In a related issue, the repression that has been unleashed against public housing activists, including two women facing felony charges for non-violently resisting the racist demolition of peoples homes–activists Farah ‘Joy’ Koehler and Jamie ‘Bork’ Loughner–were not raised. It goes without saying that these front line soldiers were not invited to testify at any of the hearings.  

 

NGOs and Accountability

 

In sum, the exclusionary efforts carried out by the NGOs against C3/Hands Off Iberville, public housing residents, and others not ‘in the loop’, as well as the suppression of key issues around public housing, undermined the legitimacy of Mr. Diène’s visit. The Special Rapporteur’s mission, which was, as Director of the ACLU Human Rights Program Jamil Dakwar explained, ‘to shed light on the pervasive and systemic problem of racism and discrimination in the United States’, was undermined by the shenanigans of the New Orleans-based NGO executives. The NGOs honchos, by constructing a local collection of ‘civil society’ human rights groups that conveniently excluded groups that did not fit their organizational style and reformist politics, undermined the stated mission of Diène’s visit to New Orleans. Excluding non-NGO, grass roots organizations in New Orleans should be, at minimum, condemned, and, ideally, rectified by those that organized Diène’s visit.

 

More broadly this case raises serious questions about the NGOs and the obstacles they and their key operatives present for building any real anti-racist, anti-imperialist, anti-capitalist, fight back in the U.S. We encourage more writing and analyses by other left activists around the country regarding their concrete experiences, relationships, and conflicts in various organizing struggles with the growing NGO ‘progressive’ sector. These analyses, which our brothers and sisters in Latin America have developed in much more depth, are critical for effectively traversing the organizing obstacles created by the NGOs and advancing our struggles.  This article is written as part of that collective effort.   

 

 

 

 



Letter on Kim Turner Case sent to NGOS

 

 

Rosanna Cruz, Safe Streets and Right to the City in New Orleans

Valerie Tang, Right to the City

Robert Horten and Mayba Liebenthal, Critical Resistance

Paul Troyano and Ben Gordon, Pax Christi/New Orleans

Bill Quigley, Human Rights Attorney

Anita Sinha, Advancement Project

Tracie Washington, Louisiana Justice Institute

Mandisa Moore and Shana Griffin, INCITE

Sakura Kone, Common Ground

Monique Harden and Nathalie Walker, Advocates for Environmental Human Rights

Tiffany Gardner, NESRI

Jamie Bork Loughner, May Day New Orleans

Amnesty International, Monika Gerhardt

 

Dear Supporters of New Orleans Public housing,

 

Supporters of Iberville Public Housing resident Kim Turner are arranging a meeting with Karen Cato-Turner, the new executive director of the Housing Authority of New Orleans.  As I have explained in previous emails to you, and for some of you through direct conversation, Ms Turner is facing an unfair eviction for something a guest, not she, allegedly committed (see attached flier).

 

The defense of Ms Turner is part of a broader struggle to oppose the privatization schemes now being hatched by developers and city hall. Indeed, HANO is stepping up eviction before they move to ‘redevelopment’.

 

To defend Ms Turner and her family, we–C3/Hands Off Iberville and supporters of Kim Turner–are humbly requesting the following from you and your organizations. We are contacting you because of the support you have shown for public housing.

 

  1. On behalf of your organization, contact HANO executive director Karen Cato-Turner, in writing, and request/demand that the eviction against Kim Turner be stopped. Please email me ([email protected]) the letter.  This show of support, from organizations like yours, will strengthen our case when we meet with Cato-Turner.

Housing Authority of New Orleans

HANO executive administrator, Karen Cato-Turner

670-3300, x 3267 (Ms. Cheryl McMahon is secretary)

Email: [email protected]

 

 

  1. Add your name and organization to the petition calling for HANO to not evict Ms Turner (is enclosed as attachment).

 

If you any other questions, I can be contacted at 504-520-9521

 Jay Arena, C3/Hands off Iberville

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