"Whenever there are in any country uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right."
--Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785.
Since Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Levee failure that destroyed half our city, more and more people have been squatting in New Orleans. While we hope that every New Orleanian can come home some day, this development is great news. Squatting inherently challenges the private property obsession in capitalist America. It proclaims, through action, that land belongs to those who use it. And in a city where half the land is unused, where half-empty neighborhoods are desperate to get more people living there again, squatting is hard to argue against.
With the recent destruction of much of the public housing in the city, and the dramatically increased rents in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there are few alternatives for those who can't afford the rent. Squatting has the potential to do for ourselves what the government has decided not to, and to create communities of resistance that set an example for the world we want to see.
In New Orleans, the dynamics of race and localism are always in play, including amongst those who squat. Consciousness about who used to live in an abandoned building being squatted (many abandoned, flooded homes belonged to black homeowners who could not afford to re-build), who owns the property, what relationship neighbors have to the previous owners (many neighbors continue to watch over flooded homes for those who have not been able to return yet), and the racial composition of a neighborhood are all factors that must be seriously considered.
One way to avoid some of these hurdles, and also to contribute to the pressure the city feels to change its property laws, is to try and find city-owned buildings to squat. There are hundreds of them listed online.
The police, arch supporters of white power in New Orleans, may be quick to harass young black men once they see white people moving into a neighborhood, in the belief they are "cleaning it up" and "making it safe." Part of the responsibility of squatting is making sure you are not contributing to gentrification or colonization. That means talking to your neighbors, organizing to resist rent increases as a community, organizing to stop speculators from flipping houses, and organizing to tell the cops that they don't make the neighborhood safer.
Making a poor neighborhood with many abandoned buildings a nicer place to live often means it attracts people with more money, who can push out the former residents. We must be conscious of this, and fight for the rights of poor people and squatters to live in nice neighborhoods without eventually being displaced. This can be accomplished in many ways, but it begins with recognizing that it is something that must inevitably be confronted, and organizing now for when that time comes.
Here are a few resources to begin learning about anarchist squatting movements, as well as links to helpful websites for local squatters:
De Stad Was van Ons (movie about Dutch squatters movement)
Cracking The Movement
Subversion Of Politics
Anti-Gentrification Reader by Skot!
Take Back The Land
Termite & Vine Guide to Local Squatting/Acquisition of a home
City of NO property records
New Orleans Foreclosures
New Orleans Blight Blog