More than 100 protesters were gathered in front of the Orleans Parish Civil District Court on Thursday, blocking the Loyola Avenue and breezeway entrances, chanting phrases of resistance like, “The people united will never be defeated!” and awaiting the signal — a shout of “Hands up!” that means someone, possibly a lawyer or landlord is trying to enter the courts.
Protesters, some linked together by a heavy chain wrapped around their waists, raised their arms, bunched together and shouted “Court’s closed!” as they blocked multiple people who attempted to enter the courts.
The action, organized by the New Orleans Renter’s Rights Assembly, was intended to prevent evictions during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There’s no stay at home order if you don’t have a home,” protester and organizer Jayde St-Claire said.
A nurse at University Medical Center who asked to be anonymous due to concerns over how her statements might affect public relations for the hospital, explained why housing security is integral to stopping the spread of the coronavirus.
“When people are evicted, often they go to live with extended family and friends and it just increases the exposure for most people,” she said.
In the early months of the pandemic when New Orleans hospitals were overwhelmed with patients infected with the coronavirus, the nurse said she often found that multiple family members living in close quarters contracted the virus.
“We already had a housing crisis here and people were living eight to 10 to a house,” she said. “I saw father and daughter, I saw husband and wife [admitted together] and frequently, I’d speak to the family. They would want updates and you’d hear that the entire family got COVID-19.”
While protesters were able to disrupt eviction hearings at the Civil District Court, they also interrupted other proceedings, resulting in a number of arguments between them and people who just wanted to do what they came to the courthouse to do.
One man, a lawyer who asked that he not be named, described himself as a “lifelong protester” and said he supported protests, but felt this one in his pockets.
“I believe that people have the right to assemble and all of the great stuff that the first amendment guarantees, but it interferes with my ability to help others,” he said. “I had to hire a babysitter and I had to pay for parking across the street. This protest has now cost me 70 bucks.”
Protesters, who eventually blocked all entrances to the courthouse and City Hall, did make exceptions for tenants fighting evictions and for one woman who said she was there to get her child out of jail.
No one was arrested at the four-hour long action, but a physical altercation did break out near the Poydras Street entrance to City Hall between an Orleans Parish Sheriff’s deputy and protesters. Cell phone video given to New Orleans Public Radio shows an Orleans Parish Sheriff’s deputy shoving members of a crowd attempting to block a motorist from driving her SUV into a parking lot. Seconds later, the same officer is seen grabbing protester Syra Timm by the arms and dragging her after she stood directly in front of the vehicle. “I’m being assaulted,” Timm can be heard saying. The driver eventually retreated. Timm, a transgender woman, said that after the incident an officer heckled her, saying, “I like your tight pants.”
Just after 1 p.m. the courts and City Hall locked their entryway doors and protesters left their posts.
Frank Southall, a lead organizer with the Renter’s Rights Assembly addressed the crowd of protesters.
“Y’all stopped evictions today and I think that deserves a round of applause,” he said, and urged those inconvenienced by the day’s protest to “talk to the mayor about it, talk to the governor about it, talk to the judges who refuse to close eviction court.”
Jayde St.-Claire, who was stationed in front of City Hall’s main entrance called the action a “small victory.”
“Things got kind of aggressive, but overall I think it was a win because they locked the doors.”