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'The Rachel Maddow Show' for Thursday, August 26th, 2010

Guests: James Perry, Tracie Washington, Billy Sothern, Garland Robinette


RACHEL MADDOW, HOST:  Good evening, Keith.  For the first time ever, you have broken too far to the right.


MADDOW:  Thank you.

Well, thanks to you at home for staying with us for the next hour.


We are live tonight from Algiers Point, a neighborhood in New Orleans that‘s just across the Mississippi River, the wide, wide river, from the French Quarter and downtown New Orleans.  One of the things that is nice about this neighborhood is the great view that it gives you of the city‘s downtown.

But I‘ve always thought that Algiers itself and Algiers Point were pretty beautiful in their own right.  Running a house in this neighborhood, if they‘re on average for the city, right now, it‘d cost you about 40 percent more than it would have before Hurricane Katrina and the catastrophic flooding that followed the storm when the levees broke.

This neighborhood, though Algiers—Algiers Point did not flood.  They had wind damage.  They went through a hurricane, after all.  But the water didn‘t rise here.  And yet this is still an American neighborhood that is surviving Katrina in some ways, still surviving.

We are here for a couple of days to see what surviving Katrina still looks like here in this great place here in New Orleans.


MADDOW:  The original name for where I‘m standing right now was the Calliope Housing Projects.  It looks like Calliope, but if you‘re in New Orleans, it sounds like Calliope.  And then became the B.W. Cooper Public Housing Project and that‘s where I‘m standing right now.

It should be noted that it‘s really not the B.W. Cooper Housing Project anymore.  It‘s not anything anymore.  B.W. Cooper, along with three other huge housing projects in New Orleans, a couple of years ago got torn down, leveled.  Not necessarily because they were storm damaged.  A lot of them really weren‘t.  A lot of them were very solid construction and didn‘t have much damage at all.

But the city voted in 2007, the city council voted in 2007 to tear them down.  And in 2008, down they came.


MADDOW:  The New Orleans city council voted to demolish the public housing in ‘07.  In ‘08, the demolition happened.  More than 3,000 apartments, many of them totally undamaged by the storm and the flooding.  Many of them occupied.  They were torn down.

Now, it‘s not like the projects were Shangri-la.  They were dangerous.  And I talked with folks today who had lived in the projects before the storm and who thought that the best thing to do was to tear them down.

But it was housing.  It was housing for poor people.  For people who couldn‘t otherwise afford to live in this city.

The idea was to use the storm as a pretext to not just tear down those big bad housing projects but to replace them with mixed-use housing.  So, woefully poor people wouldn‘t be concentrated in big giant blocks.

Some of that replacement building is complete.  Some—well, see for yourself.  That‘s B.W. Cooper.


MADDOW:  Here‘s a site where the rebuilding is well under way.  This is—or used to be—the St. Bernard Public Housing Project.  And from where I‘m standing right here, you can actually get a pretty good shot of the before and the after.  Even though some of the before is still now.

This is what the housing units here essentially used to look like.  This is some of the original structure.  Across the street actually, if you just pan over with me, you can this is some of the new development.  You can see how different it is.  This is intended to be mixed income housing.  It‘s not intended to be all subsidized income dependent public housing.

So, they tore down 963 public housing units here.  The new development, at least so far is about 465.  So, significantly fewer.

But in terms of what‘s still available here, in terms of really public heavily subsidized housing like this all used to be, it‘s only about 150 units.


MADDOW:  See, the math on this doesn‘t work.  If you take housing that‘s set aside just for poor people—even if you hate that housing—if you take away the all poor people housing and replace it one for one with new units that are mixed, some totally market rate, some with little subsidies, some with full subsidies, if you replace even bad public housing with equal numbers, let along smaller numbers, of mixed use housing, then at the end of the day, ultimately, you have just dramatically reduced the amount of housing in this city that poor people can afford to live in.

Maybe the housing that they do get will be nicer.  But there just aren‘t going to be as many poor people around anymore.

About 70 percent of all the occupied housing in the city sustains some kind of damage when the levees broke in 2005.  A majority of that was rental housing.  Quite a lot of it has been rebuilt.  But there‘s a waiting list of 28,000 families for affordable housing in New Orleans right now.

It‘s not that every apartment, every house in New Orleans is occupied now.  They‘re not.  There is a vacancy rate.  It‘s not that there is a housing shortage per se.  It is a shortage of housing that poor people can afford to live in.

And so, you have a city that has regained 80 percent of its pre-storm population.  But it is not the same population.  African-Americans and the poor are underrepresented among the people who have been able to come back.

And for people, who have come back, things are tough.  In Orleans Parish and St. Bernard Parish, only 60 percent or 70 percent of the schools from before the storm have reopened.

Crime is bad.  It was bad before.  It‘s bad now.

The 23 hospitals that were here in Orleans Parish are now 12 hospitals instead.

If you want mental health services because, I don‘t know, say you survived an apocalypse and had to flee for your life, the biggest mental health unit in the city of New Orleans since the one in the hospital is closed, biggest mental health unit in the city is now in the prison.

Being back here again, it is a beautiful city.  Algiers Point is beautiful.  Rebuilding is beautiful.  Strength under adversity is beautiful.  When the Saints won the Super Bowl and people said, New Orleans is back, none of us were kidding.

But five years after the floods, even in the parts of the city that stayed dry, what‘s going on here is that we are still in this part of America, we Americans here, are still surviving this.

Joining us now is James Perry, who heads up the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.  Fair disclosure: he‘s also the partner of MSNBC contributor, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, that we would have wanted to talk to him regardless tonight.  He also this year ran for mayor of this great city.

Mr. Perry, thanks very much for being here.


MADDOW:  The way I characterize the difficulty of moving back here.  First of all, did I get anything wrong?  Second of all, how much harder is it to be poor in this city than it was before?

PERRY:  Now, you got it absolutely right.  It‘s—the truth is of people who are here are here because they absolutely want to be here, because it‘s difficult to be here frankly.  What we‘ve seen a net decrease in affordable housing in the city.

And so, for anyone who makes median income or below, it‘s a real struggle to find anything affordable.  Now, there‘s lots of construction happening, but it‘s simply not construction of affordable housing.

MADDOW:  Well, is that—was that by design?  I mean, when you look at—if you look at the debate about tearing down public housing projects, I understand that was a spirited conversation.  And I think there were, you know, patriotic and honest arguments on both side of that, certainly, because so many of those projects were troubled.

But then you look at the plans to rebuild and to have so many fewer units available for the people who qualified income-wise for those projects, why?

PERRY:  Rachel, it was by design.  You remember that the Bush administration was in charge at that time.  And the Bush administration philosophy on subsidizing public housing was that the cost to government was too high.  And so, they were looking for a goal that would allow you them to reduce the actual amount that taxpayers had to pay to subsidize housing.

And so, the idea was that by lessening the number of units in the city, they could achieve that goal.  So, they put great pressure on the city council here in the city of New Orleans to force them to go along with this plan that really didn‘t serve our low-income citizens well.

MADDOW:  So, how do you fight back?  I mean, I have to say, I‘m not a

I‘ve never thought of myself as somebody who really understood the nitty-gritty of housing policy.  But coming back here, everybody that I talked to when you‘re talking about pre-Katrina New Orleans versus post-Katrina New Orleans, it seems that‘s just the spine that runs right down the middle of it.


How do you fight it?

PERRY:  So, here‘s the thing.  I love my president.  I think that President Obama does a great job.  But he‘s done a great job with the new programs here.

But the president has been reticent to fix the failures of the Bush administration.  And so, there are a few categories in housing where we need President Obama‘s HUD to come in and actually change what President Bush did here.

MADDOW:  Change the whole orientation to the issue for the country?

PERRY:  Absolutely.  Absolutely.  And it can work, because the president has a very different view on public and subsidized housing from President Bush.  And so, it can happen.  But they have to be willing to be aggressive and to change the way that things have been done here.

MADDOW:  When people think about making it affordable for people to live in cities, what we think about is the old school housing projects, the old school thinking about that sort of thing.  What‘s the way to make New Orleans a place where everybody who lived here before can come back that doesn‘t go back to the troubled housing projects that we saw?

PERRY:  Sure.  Well, there are some basic premises that have to exist when you build new housing.  And so, the first one is that there has to be one-for-one replacement, not of the total number of units, but of total affordable units.

MADDOW:  Yes, affordable units.  Right.

PERRY:  Right?  So, it means that you have to build more units than existed before in order to achieve that goal and still have mixed in being.  But you have to have that principle.

The second is that you have to use something called—this whole process where instead of moving everybody else at one time, you do it in phases.  It‘s phase redevelopment, so that you make sure that people don‘t end up homeless or lost in the process.

You know, we have doubled the number of homeless people in the city of New Orleans that we had before Hurricane Katrina.  In 2005, 6,000 homeless.  Now, there are 12,000 homeless people in this city.  And it‘s because they didn‘t use the right process.

MADDOW:  To see the number—the amount of services in the city declined, I talked with a woman today who lived in Lafitte Projects, and which had been torn and they are being rebuilt.  And she‘s hoping to be able to move back there.

But meanwhile, she‘s got a voucher and she‘s got paying rent in a neighborhood that she says is incredibly dangerous.  Her neighbor‘s house was shot at.  There‘s been murders on her blocks.

She was trying to get into one of the other redevelopment projects.  And, of course, all the affordable units are full.  She was invited to apply to join the waiting list.

PERRY:  Yes.

MADDOW:  One of the things that struck though, she said she was making about $15,000 before the storm.  She‘s now making about $8,000.  Meanwhile, though, she‘s had to buy a car and bus service is gone in New Orleans.

PERRY:  Yes.

MADDOW:  Being poor—it‘s not just harder to be here and pay rent, all of the things that people who aren‘t rich enough to take care of everything for themselves have to rely on, those are gone, too.  Hospitals, bus service, all that stuff.

PERRY:  Yes.  It‘s—you know, again, the people are extremely resilient, right?  And so, they‘re here because they‘re fighting to be here.  And so, folks aren‘t asking for a handout from government, but just a help up, right?  And that‘s all that folks are saying.

And the Section 8 Voucher Program is a program that, frankly, has not worked here simply because it hasn‘t made it possible for people to move into neighborhoods that provide opportunity.  And part of the reason is that there are so few neighborhoods with opportunity post-Katrina.

MADDOW:  I don‘t know what the word is to describe somebody who is a patriot to a city, “booster” isn‘t right.  Yes, patriot means country, but whatever that word is, you‘re that, James Perry.

PERRY:  Thank you very much.

MADDOW:  Thank you so much.

PERRY:  Thank you for having.

MADDOW:  We appreciate it.

PERRY:  Absolutely.

MADDOW:  James Perry is the executive director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center.

All right.  Coming up next: a man on a really fast, really loud ATV attempts to chase me off of a golf course.  But I had a secret weapon with me that made me immune from his threats.  It really happened.  That‘s next.


MADDOW:  Tracie Washington is a native New Orleanian, head of the Louisiana Justice Institute, one of the highest-profile, most connected activists in the city.  When I met with her here today in New Orleans, the conversation turned perhaps inevitably to the topic of dirty hippies.


TRACIE WASHINGTON, LOUISIANA JUSTICE INSTITUTE:  There‘s been this cross-pollinization of people.  People—I was a trial lawyer five years ago.  I didn‘t work with, you know, the grass eaters and, you know, people who eat tofu.  You know, I didn‘t know who though—


MADDOW:  You had a hippie-free life, is that what you‘re trying to tell me?

WASHINGTON:  I had a hippie-free life.

MADDOW:  It was a good time, a hippie-free time.

WASHINGTON:  Oh, look at the dirty people.  Now they‘re all in my office.

MADDOW:  And you love them?

WASHINGTON:  And I love them to death.


MADDOW:  More ahead.  We are live in New Orleans.  We‘ll be right back.


MADDOW:  So, I want to show you where we are right now.  We have a map I think we can put up.  We are in Algiers—specifically, we‘re Algiers Point, right across a bend in the river from the French Quarter.

And when you think of New Orleans, you really think of the Mississippi River running right through the center.  But it is easy to forget until you‘re here that yes, this is water world.  There is water everywhere, including the river.

But it‘s really Lake Pontchartrain that looms over the city like an inland sea.  The neighborhood of Pontchartrain Park is right on the lake.  It‘s historic because under Jim Crow, under segregation, that was one of the first planned suburban communities intended for the black middle class.  Pontchartrain Park was hit hard by the flooding after Katrina.

I met Tracie Washington there today.


MADDOW:  So, we‘re here with Tracie Washington.  Tracie Washington is the co-founder and the president of the Louisiana Justice Institute.  She‘s a native New Orleanian, an attorney.  She‘s a hell of an activist.

And when I was with Air America in 2005 when the storm first hit, Tracie—I have no idea how, but you were one of the people that I found to tell me what was going on in the city.  And we talked really early on, didn‘t we?

WASHINGTON:  Yes.  You were one of the first interviews that I did right after—at the one-year anniversary.  We were talking, I think, a lot about housing.

MADDOW:  Yes, that‘s right.

Now, when we were talking about getting together with you on this trip, and we‘re going to be down here for the five-year anniversary, you said specifically that you wanted to meet here in Pontchartrain Park.  What did you want me to—what did you want us to see about this neighborhood?

WASHINGTON:  Well, I guess the thing about this neighborhood that sort of epitomizes this recovery that we‘re in is that the recovery is spotty.  Pontchartrain Park was built.  It was one of our first developed communities really in the country.  And it was developed for middle class black folks.

And when you‘re driving in off of Gentilly, you‘d see some changes. 

You see some houses that have been rebuilt.


WASHINGTON:  But as you can see when we get farther back into the community, the grass is cut, but we‘ve still got abandoned houses.

And, Rachel, here‘s the thing that is troublesome.  These were—these were not just owner-occupied.  Most of these folks owned their house outright.  They just didn‘t get enough money to come back and rebuild.

MADDOW:  Pontchartrain Park is—it was designed as a suburb, as a segregated suburban.  Sort of been a home for the black middle class and black elites in New Orleans.


MADDOW:  We‘re really close to Lake Pontchartrain.  It‘s right over there essentially.  And this—this—this is a golf course?

WASHINGTON:  This is a city-owned golf course, as we encounter today. 

And we‘ll see some of our wonderful workers on buggies coming by.  This is



MADDOW:  They tried to chase us away very aggressively before we started filming.  It was very exciting.  The one person you most want to be standing next to in New Orleans when a guy on an ATV tries to chase you away from a public spot (INAUDIBLE).

So, Tracie Washington, this is Coghill Elementary School?

WASHINGTON:  Coghill Elementary School, yes.  We‘re still in the same neighborhood.  We‘re sort of on the border between Pontchartrain Park and Gentilly.  This is the neighborhood that had three elementary schools working before Katrina.  We‘re back to one.  Park View is demolished.  Morial Elementary is not up yet.

But we‘ve got a school, you know?

MADDOW:  It‘s a lot of modular construction.


WASHINGTON:  It is a temporary school.  It is slated to be rebuilt with a building at some point.  It‘s a little disappointing that, you know, we‘ve got what looks almost like a permanent structure right at this point, building after building.  It‘s not the real thing, but it‘s someplace for people to put their kids.

Unfortunately, we don‘t have—we‘ve got more kids in this area, or want to be in this area, than we have space at a school like this.

MADDOW:  So, that‘s one of the things that‘s restricting people‘s ability to come back, neighborhood by neighborhood.  It‘s just the physical capacity of the schools?

WASHINGTON:  And you would find that most of the kids in this area, if they‘re not walking from here, they‘re in other neighborhoods where they don‘t have schools, and so, we bus and we move around.  And—but they‘re in schools.


WASHINGTON:  But you want the bright spot, we‘ve got some kids in school.  Four years ago, I sued because we didn‘t have schools open.  I literally had to sue the state and say, open some schools.


WASHINGTON:  So, now, we‘ve got some schools open.  And that‘s a plus.

MADDOW:  But it‘s not enough.

WASHINGTON:  Oh, it‘s far from enough.

MADDOW:  You sued to get schools open.  In 2006, you sued to stop the city demolishing public housing complexes.  2008, you sued to try to get charity hospital reopened.


MADDOW:  I‘ve read with interest your personally physically stopping bulldozers from knocking down people‘s houses slated to be demolished.


MADDOW:  But, I mean, it‘s—for you, it‘s a long, slow simmer.  I mean, you have been an aggressive activist, not only since the storm but from before.  But tell them, what‘s your—what‘s your overall strategy?  What are you and LJI, what Tracie Washington is trying to do to make this stuff work?

WASHINGTON:  It‘s basic.  We have some basic fundamental social structures in this country that evaporated after Hurricane Katrina—transportation, roads, health care, housing, education.

And with when we got back, there was this master plan to rebuild it slowly and allow only certain people to return.  And I just—I couldn‘t live here and not say, hell no.  And so, bit by bit, fight by fight, we‘ve said, you‘re going to it open schools.  That downed (ph) Charity Hospital, that beautiful Art Deco Building, we want it reopened and we will continue to fight and make some noise and make you uncomfortable until you do something to give us back health care.

We want buses to run in all of our neighborhoods and we will continue to fight for that.

And affordable housing—well, you know, we lost that battle.  The public housing units are down.  Our projects are down.  The most sturdy buildings.  The fight now is to make sure folks still out there (INAUDIBLE) get home.  That fight continues.

MADDOW:  So, when you say the plan for rebuilding New Orleans was designed so that not even would be able to come back.  What you mean is that the things that are public amenities, things like bus service and affordable housing guarantees and schools and hospitals and all of these things, particularly a hospital like Charity that serves the uninsured mostly—


MADDOW:  Those things haven‘t come back, which precludes people who need resources like that to rely on from coming back?

WASHINGTON:  Look, exactly.  We‘re a poor city.  We‘re still a poor city.

We‘re a service-run city.  People come here.  They come to our hotels. 

They drink and they eat.  And we have people making $10 an hour doing it.  That was fine prior to Katrina because they could get to work on the bus and they could live in public housing off $10 an hour and go to charity when they were sick.

Well, now, you don‘t have that.  And I say to those people I represent, the marginalized and poor folk, what are you going to do with them?


WASHINGTON:  You know, you can‘t privatize everything.  You can‘t import enough people from, you know, Mexico and Central America to come and do this work.  And doggone it, the people who lived here deserve not to make $10 an hour.  They deserve to make a living wage and they deserve to have these social structures restored.  That‘s something only our government can do.

And doggone it, I don‘t want to hear from anyone else.  I don‘t want to hear from no Tea Party people or anybody else—oh, that‘s not a government function.  We can privatize it.

Oh, really?  No.  You can‘t privatize it.  And when all of y‘all lose your jobs, like it‘s happening all over the country, first place you want to go, public hospital.  Well, what happens if it‘s gone, Rachel?  You know, what happens when public education is gone?

So, I‘m passionate about it because so many people are affected by it.  And if I‘m not dealing with the people who are affected by it now, I know other folks will be affected by this.  And we need this assistance.

MADDOW:  I feel like you are—you are—you are trying to sort of let people know, yes, celebrate five years on.  Come back, spend money, eat, drink, do what you need to do, we need you here, but don‘t tell the story of—don‘t tell the noble suffering story about us.  It‘s not noble suffering.  Don‘t romanticize what people have been through you, don‘t justify people going you through more.

But you think that—you think stuff can get—you think stuff can get better?

WASHINGTON:  Look, absolutely.  You know, five years ago, I weighed 110 pounds more than I do right now.  And people used to say, oh, you‘re being sexy.  Well, you know, tell me the truth.  I think I‘m healthy.


WASHINGTON:  So I say, you know, tell us the truth.  Tell the truth about the city of New Orleans and let us work to get healthy.  And we can get healthy.

Bit by bit, pound by pound, we will get this done.  But don‘t lie about what we have right now.  Don‘t say we have perfect health care because we don‘t.


WASHINGTON:  Don‘t say we‘ve got great schools.  We still have a lot of stupid children running around—not because they want to be but because we‘re not educating them well.  We still have poor transportation.  But if we face it, then we work a little bit at a time, one bite at the apple at a time.

Rachel, I couldn‘t be more confident or I‘d have to leave.

MADDOW:  Yes.  Tracie, thank you so much.

WASHINGTON:  Thank you.  Wear that shirt well, baby.

MADDOW:  Don‘t ‘sperse me, bro.

WASHINGTON:  Don‘t ‘sperse me, bro.

MADDOW:  I will wear my (INAUDIBLE) with pride.

Thank you.  I know you‘ve got a ton going on right now.  I really appreciate it.

WASHINGTON:  Oh, well, you have to go to the golf course again.

MADDOW:  Go by the golf course, go get meet our friend in the buggy again?


MADDOW:  You can learn more about the Louisiana Justice Institute, Tracie Washington‘s organization, at our Web site today,

The most intense thing we did today here in New Orleans was searching out and finding the exact spot where a really, really scary photograph was taken in the worst days of the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  I will tell you why I sought that out.  And I think scared myself in the process when we come back.

We are live in the Algiers Point neighborhood of New Orleans.  We‘ll be right back.



MADDOW:  Where I am right now is Religious Street.  Attention all poets, a lot of streets are like that in New Orleans.  And as you can see, where I‘m standing right the now is sort of a vacant lot.  I don‘t actually know if this was also vacant in 2005.

But the reason this is an important spot is because of a photograph that was taken here on September 1st, 2005, a photograph that was taken that the police wish had not been taken.  And the dogged efforts of a newspaper editor here in New Orleans who for five years would not allow what he saw here and what was photographed here to be forgotten.


MADDOW:  Take a look at this picture.  If we can, can we drop the graphics so you can see it full size?  This picture was taken on September 1st, 2005, three days into Katrina.  There are about 10 policemen visible in the photo, the Crescent City Connection Bridge visible in the background.  And in the lower right-hand quadrant, a man who appears to be dead on the ground.  He is contorted.  His shirt appears bloody.  His arm is cantilevered behind him very awkwardly. 

The scene was reported at that time in “The Times-Picayune Newspaper” as follows, quote, “Near the former St. Thomas housing development, a squadron of police, some in tactical gear, were clustered in an intersection.  A Regional Transit Authority bus was nearby, and a man who appeared to be dead from a gunshot wound lay on the ground.”

“The Times-Picayune” editor who wrote that stumbled on to that scene with a freelance photographer named Marko Georgiev.  Marko Georgiev took the picture I just showed you as well as this second one from a slightly different angle and from which you can guess what‘s about to happen next. 

The police are coming after the photographer who they now realize has been taking pictures of them.  The editor and the photographer say they were both assaulted by police soon after that picture was taken.  They say the police drew guns on them. 

The police took one of the photographer‘s cameras and ripped the memory card out of it and took that away.  He lost that day‘s work, except for these two images which, as luck would have it, were in a different camera that the police didn‘t notice. 

Another photographer on the scene who key witnesses say shot more photos and shot what happened to that man seen lying apparently dead there on the ground - another photographer from the “Toronto Star” also says he was assaulted by police, who then did succeed in stealing all of his memory cards, so those images that he took are lost. 

But the newspaper editor from “The Times-Picayune,” Gordon Russell, says he never forgot what he saw that day.  As years went on and we started to learn more about multiple police shootings of civilians in the aftermath of Katrina, that man lying there on Religious St., surrounded by 10 police officers, never turned up in any reports. 

There was no official record of the incident.  Could that man yet be another lost-to-the-chaos shot civilian with no real record of his death and no justice?  Nearly five years on, the editor wrote about it again.  The paper published Georgiev‘s photos. 

He talked to the one police officer who he knows was there at the scene who would talk to him about it.  He pieced together all of the information he could about police action in that area on that day. 

He realized that in that haunting photo, there was a red lump here the tire of the vehicle on the right.  That was actually another crumpled man, what seemed to be another body.  The editor didn‘t let it go.  He kept investigating. 

There were no records of bodies collected that seemed to match these circumstances.  There was no arrest record for any suspects there.  There was, in fact, no police record of any kind of what happened.  There were just those two pictures and a nagging memory and a refusal to forget the incident. 

And it turns out that the men in the photo were not dead.  They were apparently beaten to a bloody pulp by police officers that day.  One of them, the men in the red shirt, Robert Williams, says all his teeth were knocked out that day and he still has none to show for it.  But he survived, as did the man in the white shirt, who was reported in “The Times-Picayune” as appearing to be dead.  His name is Earnest Bell.  He survived. 

What it seems like happened is that the men were detained on suspicion of shooting at police.  But the men did not have any weapons.  Police certainly did not arrest them.  And after beating the hell out of them, they left them on the street after trying to make sure no photographs of the scene survived. 

Katrina was chaos.  Policing after Katrina was hell on earth.  But the record of something horribly wrong happening to these two Americans cannot be expunged and wouldn‘t be forgotten. 

The Justice Department is now investigating the incident five years on.  Like all of Katrina, it‘s part of the unfinished business of documenting what happened, showing it, not letting it be forgotten and trying to make it right.  We‘ll be right back.


MADDOW:  As Americans, we have a constitutional right to have a lawyer help us out even if we can‘t afford it, if we are arrested.  In Louisiana, the law says you should get counsel within 72 hours. 

But they don‘t really fund the public defender program.  Before Katrina, about three-quarters of the Public Defender‘s Office budget came from people paying traffic tickets and other fines.  Since there weren‘t a lot of traffic tickets getting paid or a lot of any other kinds of civil or criminal fees or fines getting paid after the storm, that money went away. 

Public Defender‘s Office laid off nearly 80 percent of its staff.  By barely a year after the storm, 11 public defenders were reportedly sharing 3,000 cases here. 

Joining us is Billy Sothern, an anti-death penalty lawyer, New Orleans resident and author of the book, “Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City,” also my pal.  Hi, Billy, good to see you. 


MADDOW:  Thank you for coming up here.  So does that sound right to you, the way I explained the public defender situation?  Is that roughly the case? 

SOTHERN:  Yes.  Indigent defense, like many things in Louisiana, was - we were doing it the worst.  We probably had a worst system than almost any other place in the country.  And actually, that‘s one of the bright points, is that post-Katrina, you know, we look around and we look for reasons for optimism. 

And the Orleans Parish Public Defender‘s Office is one of them.  It‘s been transformed.  Great young lawyers are coming in and working these cases and realizing people‘s Sixth Amendment rights.  So that‘s one bright spot here. 

MADDOW:  In terms of your own work in representing prisoners, people who have already been convicted, who were challenging their cases or people who are facing very serious - very serious charges, what happened to people who were already in the criminal justice system during Katrina? 

SOTHERN:  It was a nightmare.  People were left to die.  And there‘s - at this point, we have scores of stories of people who were left in the Orleans Parish prison in rising water, in cells they need to break out of so they didn‘t drown in them. 

And then they were transported willy-nilly, if they did manage to get out, on buses across the country where they were kept in tents and - where they were essentially held without any prospect of release for months on end because no one really bothered to figure out who they were, except for a small group of lawyers who began to work hard to try to identify people. 

But on top of the nightmare that all of us lived in - post-Katrina, these people were - had it far, far worse.  And I think it‘s important to remember that in our prison here, our jail, the vast, vast majority of people are in for very, very minor things like traffic tickets, trespassing on golf courses, that kind of thing. 

So you know, if you end up getting pulled over by the cops, there‘s a good chance you‘re going to get arrested, even if it‘s for something trivial.  So the people we were talking about - we‘re not talking about hardened criminals.  We‘re talking about majority of folks, just regular old people who had the misfortune of getting stopped by the police that day. 

MADDOW:  Well, there‘s been a lot of national attention, particularly recently about Danziger Bridge shooting and some other things.  We‘ve talked about one of those post-Katrina incidents in the previous segment in terms of what happened on Religious St. 

There‘s national attention now to the fact that the New Orleans Police Department has serious problems.  But as a resident here, can you say how the problems in the New Orleans Police Department affect what daily life is like here? 

SOTHERN:  Well, I think - I think also it‘s important to note that this post-Katrina real crisis with the police where numerous civilians were murdered, it appears, is not, again, a Katrina problem.  It‘s a New Orleans problem that was magnified and exposed by Hurricane Katrina. 

But there‘s a real public confidence crisis with the New Orleans Police.  We have a situation where people are concerned about reporting crimes to begin with.  But then because we have police officers who are frequently hostile to the community to which they serve, it only makes people more reluctant to report crimes. 

You know, so there‘s a real relationship in my mind between the staggering crime rate here and the real collapse of public confidence in the Police Department, a collapse that seems entirely warranted. 

MADDOW:  But it is a problem being taken seriously?

SOTHERN:  It‘s being taken seriously in part because of the dogged efforts of independent journalists coming in here, people like A.C.  Thompson at “The Nation” exposing post-Katrina murders which were - which police conspired to cover up.  It‘s - so the feds have responded to that. 

And that‘s a terrific thing.  But it‘s disconcerting to me that there are no Serpicos in this story.  There‘s no situation where the District Attorney‘s Office decided, “We‘re going to go in and we‘re going to clean up our own city.” 

It really required people coming in from outside to do this.  And while that‘s welcome, I think it‘s also, to some extent, some cause for concern. 

MADDOW:  Are you hopeful?  I mean, one of the things that you keep

bringing the conversation back to, which I think sounds like a sign of hope

and I might be wrong - is the people trying to make it better whether it was lawyers doggedly going after these people who are lost inside the criminal justice system in horrible circumstances, whether it is crusading journalists who are not letting issues go even when everybody else wants to forgets them, the activists who have fought to make stuff work in a very broken system. 

Does that work?  The fact that has happened overall make you hopeful about staying here and living here? 

SOTHERN:  Yes, definitely.  You know, in addition to those people, anyone who gutted their house, anyone who helped someone else gut their house, anyone who keeps on calling the phone to try to get the street light fixed, you know, at this point, five years out, I think all these people are fighting for American democracy whether you‘re, you know, trying to get your kid into a good school or joining the PTA or what. 

But the main thing that I see here in New Orleans is that all of these problems, whether it‘s the crime problem, the housing problem, the schooling problem, this is the razor‘s edge of problems that exist everywhere in America. 

And to the extent that they remain unresolved in New Orleans, I think that there‘s very little hope that they‘re going to be resolved elsewhere.  So while New Orleans does represent this magnification of these problems, you know, most places don‘t have 60 murders per 100,000 residents.  New York, for instance, has six. 

MADDOW:  Yes. 

SOTHERN:  But to the extent that New Orleans does, and they were unable to reform those issues, they were unable to make progress on those points, my feeling is that Americans should be concerned, not just for New Orleans.  But if we‘re unable to do this here, then it‘s going to come to a neighborhood near them. 

MADDOW:  That‘s right.  Remember New Orleans, part of America? 


MADDOW:  Now complicated (UNINTELLIGIBLE). 

SOTHERN:  It‘s a good part of America. 

MADDOW:  Exactly right.  Billy Sothern, thank you so much.  It‘s good to see you. 

SOTHERN:  It‘s a pleasure to be here. 

MADDOW:  “Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City” is Billy Sothern‘s book.  A lot of incredible things happened that allowed the City of New Orleans to survive the floods after Hurricane Katrina. 

Organic homegrown things that you probably couldn‘t have organized, let alone predicted, before the storm.  One example, the spontaneous conversion of one of the biggest commercial radio stations in town into a round-the-clock community center, like an audio beacon for a drowning city.  The story of WWL and the man who took the mike, coming up live from New Orleans.  


MADDOW:  We are live from Algiers Point in New Orleans.  “Don‘t ‘sperse me, Bro.”  We‘ll be right back. 


MADDOW:  While the rest of the country watched the catastrophe that was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina unfold on television, except for a certain an American president, who had to have a DVD of the footage made for him, the people directly experiencing the disaster didn‘t necessarily have access to TV to seen their own disaster, with the electricity situation at all.  Internet access and sometimes even phone access were precious commodities. 

Enter radio, the old school airwaves, in some cases, the only means of communication that evacuees had to find information about their homes, about their loved ones, about emergency services, anything about and for the people stuck in the deluge after the storm. 

One station in particular, WWL-AM stayed on the air throughout the disaster, teaming up with a rival, Clear Channel Station, in order to keep taking phone calls, to keep reporting from the field and to keep relaying whatever information they have to as many people as possible. 

Here‘s a little bit of what those early broadcasts sounded like from the days after the levees broke. 


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We‘ve been here.  They have about 70 people. 

They have children.  They‘ve got diabetics and people with heart problems.  The roof - we are in a disaster.  The roof is off the building.  We cannot climb to the roof.  We have no food.  We have no water.  And nobody - we‘ve seen helicopters passing us.  We don‘t have nothing. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How much water is in the street below? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  We can‘t even get to the highway? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Can you see it there? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No.  We‘ve got water coming from the back of the canal. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Have you had any luck getting through to 911? 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No.  We can‘t get through to nobody. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Nurses are bagging patients in the dark.  The roof blew off.  The generator ran out.  And supplies are getting low. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Are you there at the hospital? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Yes.  I‘m up on the roof now trying to help people. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  The roof blew off? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  On the sixth floor, yes.  Water is back there.  (UNINTELLIGIBLE) is backing up.  It seems like we‘re forgotten about out here.  We‘re the only hospital out here. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How many patients do you have in there? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  We‘ve got over 600 people, the patients and family members. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  How are they handling it? 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Oh, aggravated.  Just want to know if somebody knows we‘re still here.  We‘ve got patients (UNINTELLIGIBLE).  Just want to know if anybody is going to come out and get us out of here.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  I have my four grandkids, my daughter and my husband, and we don‘t have any food or water.  And no one is standing around. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Well, you need to get to -

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  No one is standing around.  We can‘t get out. 

We don‘t have a car. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  You need to get to Worthy(ph) Junior High. 

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE:  How are we going to do that?  The policemen is no help around here.  They tell us we just have to stay inside.  I called 911.  I don‘t know how many times, and they tell us they can‘t do nothing for us.  I tried to call Red Cross.  I tried to call FEMA.  I don‘t get no answer from them. 

UNIDENTIFIED MALE:  Like all of you, I barely got out of New Orleans.  We were in a high rise that was just destroyed.  Windows out.  No water for a long time.  Very little food.  Operating from closets and hallways and fearing the building would fall and then barely getting out ahead of the flood waters and almost having to fight our way on to the expressway.

So I spent the last two days trying to locate my family and finally did, and then made it back to the job.  So we‘re here for you for the duration.  Anything we can do, I‘m going to give you numbers to call and everything else. 


MADDOW:  The broadcaster you just heard there on WWL Radio five years ago is the legendary New Orleans broadcaster, Garland Robinette who joins us now.  Garland, it‘s a real pleasure to meet you. 

GARLAND ROBINETTE, NEW ORLEANS BROADCASTER:  I‘ve never been called legendary.  Thank you so much. 

MADDOW:  It‘s a way of calling you young and spry. 

ROBINETTE:  I like that. 

MADDOW:  Your station, for a while, was the only one able to broadcast during the disaster.  Did you know at the time how important a lifeline you were? 

ROBINETTE:  No.  In fact, until the water came, on that day, we said, “OK, the storm missed us,” right before the water came.  And we began saying, “Slidell, come in.  Slidell, come in,” and nobody.  And that‘s when it hit.  We didn‘t know what was wrong, but we knew something was wrong. 

MADDOW:  I know that the studio, broadcast studio, was very badly hit as well.  How hard was it physically in engineering terms to get the broadcasts on the air? 

ROBINETTE:  The engineers I think were the true heroes of it.  I don‘t know how they did it.  They rigged up satellites in some form or fashion because we were, I think, six floors up and I mean, we were totally destroyed. 

I thought we were going to be pulled out of the window during the storm while we were broadcasting.  And all the windows - it was like a jet induction tunnel.  Everything blew out.  It was interesting. 

MADDOW:  What was the decision-making process like to go to essentially an all community access format, to drop anything you might have otherwise done to go full-time into call and - information and calls - information and calls? 

ROBINETTE:  I think it started out just as a civic - we are the

emergency radio station -

MADDOW:  Yes. 

ROBINETTE:  So we had to do that.  But when we hit the point where somebody would call in while driving in the car and crying, “I can‘t find my wife.”  And then the wife would call from Arkansas, say I heard it, then it was children and that went on for weeks. 

That was, I think, the part where we said, “All right, we‘re it. 

We‘ve got to stay with it.”

MADDOW:  One of my greatest weaknesses as a broadcaster - it feels even weird like saying that I‘m in the same job as you because you‘re very good at your job.  But one of my greatest weaknesses is I‘m teary, that I get emotional talking about stuff.  How did you hold it together? 

ROBINETTE:  I didn‘t.  Anybody who knows me, through the people I‘ve been in the background.  I got very angry.  I got unprofessional.  I even cried in a Spike Lee movie and Mayor Nagin and I got infamous worldwide by me crying on the radio.  So my John Wayne moments weren‘t very good. 

MADDOW:  But that John Wayne moment between you and Mayor Nagin, we played that on my radio station at the time, and then had to go to commercials for five minutes because me and half the people I was hosting fell apart listening to it. 

ROBINETTE:  We all did, too. 

MADDOW:  There‘s an emotional endurance that you have to have to be able to come back and do it day after day, to stay long hours on the air to be hearing that and just say, “This is my responsibility now.”

ROBINETTE:  It sounds melodramatic but I had an edge on everybody else.  I spent 13 months in Vietnam, kind of a real bad situation.  And being able to relate to that and this, it didn‘t seem that bad but I think my anger got so much that it overcame me.  I got a little unprofessional. 

MADDOW:  Well, I don‘t think there‘s a standard for professionalism under circumstances like you‘re in.  You have said in the past, “We‘re not really part of the United States.  We‘re kind of like a rich Haiti.”  What do you mean by that? 

ROBINETTE:  I called us the “untied state of America,” kind of dyslexic cut away from America.  I‘ve never seen anything like it.  I mean, when you watch Brian Williams‘ show that he ran last week, from day one, helicopter after helicopter after helicopter, Superdome has two heliports.


ROBINETTE:  Convention Center has an open lot.  I spent months in a place in Vietnam where you could barely walk and they could land a helicopter.  And five days, president of the United States or nobody else could fly in water or food to people that were dying? 

And now BP with the oil spill - that took them a while to get going.  And we‘ve still got people worried about how they‘re going to survive on the coast.  It‘s kind of like we‘re not part of the United States. 

MADDOW:  You are.  We just need to all take it more seriously. 

ROBINETTE:  Well, I like you.  Thank you so much.  Appreciate the invitation. 

MADDOW:  Thank you so much.  It‘s a real honor to have you here. 

ROBINETTE:  Thanks for what you guys are doing. 

MADDOW:  Absolutely.  We‘re just hosting the bugs at this point.  Coming up on “COUNTDOWN,” Dan Savage joins Keith to discuss what it means for the Republican Party now that its former chairman, Ken Mehlman, has announced that he is gay.

Before that, we have more from Algiers Point, Louisiana, coming up.  Please stay with us. 


MADDOW:  On this anniversary, there will be a lot of reporting over the next few days about the city‘s recovery from the flooding that followed Hurricane Katrina.  Call it recovery or call it survival, it‘s not over. 

And this isn‘t just New Orleans.  This is America.  And if we do not feel like we are all in this together, we‘d better have a damn good excuse for that.  “COUNTDOWN WITH KEITH OLBERMANN” starts right now.  Good night. 



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