NEW ORLEANS – Police used chemical spray and stun devices as dozens of protesters seeking to halt the demolition of public housing in New Orleans tried to force their way through an iron gate at City Hall.
Some people were arrested as officers tried to establish order and an ambulance arrived on the scene. It was unclear whether there were injuries or the ambulance was a precautionary measure.
The council chambers seat fewer than 300. Once capacity was reached, people who were not permitted into chambers marched and chanted outside and eventually violence broke out.
The clash happened at an iron gate that separates the council chambers from City Hall grounds. On the grounds, more than 50 had been chanting, calling for the council to reject plans by the Department of Housing and Urban development to demolish the housing projects.
Then, protesters tried to storm the gate with a few able to squeeze through a narrow opening before police began using the spray and stun devices.
A woman identified by bystanders as Jamie Bork Laughner, was sprayed and dragged away from the gates.
She was taken away on a stretcher by emergency officials on the scene. Before that, she was seen pouring water from a bottle into her eyes and weeping.
"I was just standing, trying to get into my City Council meeting," said Kim Ellis, a woman who said she was stunned by officers and still had what appeared to be a Taser wire hanging on her shirt.
A knot of protesters also was inside among spectators as the meeting opened and a scuffle inside the chambers led to a recess after several protesters were forced out, including one woman who was bodily carried out. But the scene inside, where the crowd also included supporters of demolition, was orderly once the meeting resumed, in stark contrast to the bedlam outside, where police on horseback sat just inside the iron gate.
City Council ultimately voted unanimously Thursday in favor of demolishing some 4,500 public housing units. The Council's approval of the demolition is required under the City Charter.
The vote was 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.
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.
By Wednesday, opponents of demolition appeared resigned to a council vote that would go against their wishes, and were accusing council members of discriminating against blacks.
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 Thursday said 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.
Besides opening fissures between whites and blacks, the clash has divided along political party lines.
Many Democrats, including presidential hopefuls Barack Obama and John Edwards, have said they would like the Bush administration to stop the demolitions. Louisiana's Democratic senator, Mary Landrieu, has also supported overhauling the redevelopment plan.
By contrast, Republicans have come out in favor of demolition. On Wednesday, Sen. David Vitter and three Republican congressman wrote a letter to a Senate committee considering the redevelopment plan, saying it needs to be left alone because overhauling it would delay and even derail redevelopment.
"Public housing in New Orleans has for many decades served almost no other purpose than to warehouse the city's poor and disenfranchised," the letter said. "That generations of our fellow citizens were allowed to live in government-operated and sanctioned slums is offensive and intolerable."