NEW ORLEANS - Despite occasionally violent protests outside, the City Council voted yesterday in favor of demolishing about 4,500 public housing units, a milestone in New Orleans' effort to balance its heritage and its hurricane rebuilding efforts.
The unanimous vote to let the federal government tear down four public housing developments - a critical moment in a protracted fight between the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and residents, activists and preservationists - followed hours of debate and periodic clashes in the street.
Police used chemical spray and stun guns as dozens of protesters tried to force their way into the packed council chamber. One woman was sprayed and dragged from the gates. Emergency workers took her away on a stretcher.
Another woman said she was stunned by officers, and she still had what appeared to be a Taser wire hanging from her shirt.
"I was just standing, trying to get into my City Council meeting," said the dazed woman, Kim Ellis, who was taken away in an ambulance.
"Is this what democracy looks like?" Bill Quigley, a Loyola University law professor who opposes demolition, said as he held a strand of Taser wire that he said had been shot into another of the protesters.
Quigley said he believed that the crackdown violated public-meeting laws.
Protesters said they pushed against the iron gates that kept them out of the building because the Housing Authority of New Orleans had disproportionately allowed supporters of the demolition to pack the chambers.
After roughly 30 minutes of struggle to get into the meeting, protesters fell back, chanting with bullhorns. An afternoon storm thinned the crowd of demonstrators, some of whom had been waiting since 7 a.m. to enter, and the crowd disappeared altogether shortly after the afternoon vote.
At the peak of the confusion, about 70 protesters were facing about a dozen mounted police and 40 more law-enforcement officers on foot.
Details on arrests were not immediately available.
Some public-housing residents repeated during the daylong debate that they welcomed the plan to replace the decades-old structures with mixed-income housing. Other residents and their advocates said they feared that the plan would result in the loss of badly needing housing for low-income black residents.
The vote crossed racial lines, with the three black council members joining four whites.
HUD says that about 3,000 families that once lived in New Orleans public housing remain scattered across the country, and social workers say the number of homeless people in the area has doubled to about 12,000.
Mayor Ray Nagin said the resolution approved by the council included language to ensure that public-housing residents have a voice in the redevelopment plans.
Opponents were not immediately available for comment on the decision.
Yesterday's vote was required before demolition work could begin, but several legal challenges to the plan have not been resolved.