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Protesters, workers clash in 9th Ward

Class-action lawsuit aims to stop demolition of damaged homes

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New Orleans (Louisiana)

NEW ORLEANS, Louisiana (CNN) -- Angry residents and protesters in New Orleans' devastated Lower 9th Ward clashed with workers who were using bulldozers to clear debris from a sidewalk Thursday.

The residents, some of whom are part of a class-action lawsuit against the city's plan to demolish at least 120 homes in the neighborhood, said the city was violating an injunction to halt any demolition until the suit is heard in court.

The neighborhood was one of the areas of New Orleans hardest hit by Hurricane Katrina. Levees around the city crumbled August 29, and floodwater went to the rooftops in some places.

City officials said the workers were clearing rubble from a public sidewalk, saying they have an obligation to do so to make sure it's accessible. But about 30 protesters and residents said that the debris was actually what remains of someone's home.

Police came in to calm tempers, and the workers withdrew under police protection.

Tracie Washington, one of the attorneys involved in the lawsuit, said later the city had agreed to stop all clearing operations in the neighborhood for the day.

The protesters had come straight from a news conference about the lawsuit against the city, after a resident telephoned a lawyer involved in the case to say that she saw bulldozers in the neighborhood.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit won a temporary injunction in late December to halt the demolition of any homes until their case comes to court.

That will happen at 10 a.m. (11 a.m. ET) Friday before U.S. District Court Judge Martin Feldman.

The plaintiffs argue that the city has failed to follow due process, to locate the property owners, inform them that their homes are slated to be demolished and get their permission.

The city's chief technology officer, Greg Meffert, told CNN on Wednesday that about 5,800 homes across the city are "red-tagged," meaning they suffered significant structural damage.

Of those, as many as 2,500 are deemed dangerous because they may collapse and damage neighboring structures or injure people, Meffert said, and 120 homes -- or what's left of them -- need to be knocked down immediately because they're either in roadways, on sidewalks or on other property.

Those 120 homes are all in the 9th Ward, which has a predominantly black population.

Meffert told CNN on Tuesday there is a delicate balancing act between public safety and property owners' rights.

Houses that have "come off the slab and gone into a right of way or into a street" are "really all we're talking about with these 120," he said.

"We have to balance that property owner's notification of -- again, they know it's already demolished -- but to balance that with the fact that this thing is in the street or it's about to hurt somebody," he said.

Some property owners argue that they've been allowed only to look at their homes since the city reopened the 9th Ward December 1 and that there hasn't been adequate time to look for possessions or make big decisions.

Shana Griffin, a community activist, called the city's plans "unfair, illegal and immoral."

"These decisions are being made in our name but without our input," she said at the news conference. "We need to make sure our rights are not further eroded by those who seek to profit from our loss."

State Rep. Charmaine Marchand, who is a resident of the Lower 9th Ward, said it's not right to take someone's property without giving them notification.

"When did we decide that we could usurp the constitutional right to own property?" she asked. "This is not going to be stood for. We are going to fight this battle until the end."

Monique Cook, who grew up in the neighborhood, called the plan to tear down homes a "conspiracy."

"I will not stand to have any homes demolished," she vowed.

Thousands of residents fled the city in the aftermath of Katrina and sought refuge in cities across the country, some after being stranded for days by the floodwater.

Many others died in the wake of the storm. At last count, some 1,100 bodies have been recovered in New Orleans.

CNN's Steve Brusk contributed to this report.

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