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Mission Implausible

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So it's come to that, has it," said a man who was until that moment claiming to be Rene Oswin, assistant deputy secretary of Housing and Urban Development. A television news reporter had informed him that neither his name nor his title were known to anyone at the real HUD. But the imposter, actually named Andy Bichlbaum, had just addressed a gathering of roughly 1,000 contractors plus Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco at the Pontchartrain Center in Kenner.

Earlier that day, a press release circulated among local media bearing the startling announcement that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development planned to reverse its current policy regarding public housing in New Orleans and throw open housing project doors to let still-evacuated residents return home. It quoted HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson as saying, "Our charter, here at HUD, is to provide affordable housing for those who need it most ... I am ashamed to say we have clearly failed to do this."

Up until the last minute, Jackson was on the schedule to speak at the Gulf Coast Reconstruction and Hurricane Preparedness Summit, a daylong event organized by a company called Equity International. A last-minute change of plans replaced him with Oswin, who spoke effusively of HUD's missteps and its determination to make a 180-degree change on its housing policy, which had been to leave almost all subsidized housing, even that which was undamaged, shuttered for most of the year, with plans to demolish four of the largest projects.

"Everything is going to change about the way we work, and the change is going to start right here in New Orleans," Oswin said at the conference. To any of the several thousand former public-housing residents still living away from New Orleans, it might have sounded like a fairy godmother was waving a magic wand. Except, of course, that Oswin was in no way associated with HUD; the entire HUD presence at that conference was fabricated.

Bichlbaum/Oswin is a member of the Yes Men, a group that protests what they see as egregiously poor behavior on the part of government or corporate entities by a practice they call "identity correction." They simply impersonate those in power via press releases, dummy Web sites and public appearances, as at the Pontchartrain Center, and say the words that, in their view, the organizations they "represent" should be saying. For example, at an event Aug. 30 at the Zeitgeist Multi-disciplinary Arts Center, Bichlbaum and fellow Yes Man Mike Bonanno showed an older clip of Bichlbaum being interviewed by the BBC as a representative of Dow Chemical. He apologized profusely for a deadly gas leak from a Union Carbide plant in 1984 that killed more than 20,000 people in Bhopal, India. Speaking for Dow, Bichlbaum pledged to liquidate Union Carbide, which Dow had acquired, and use the funds to compensate the victims.

Bichlbaum and Bonanno say they arrived at this kind of magical public thinking after realizing their initial tack drew little reaction. Previously, they gained access to industry meetings and conferences and announced increasingly absurd and horrific plans. At Zeitgeist, they showed footage of a conference presentation in which they posed as representatives of the World Trade Organization (WTO). At a conference in Helsinki, Bichlbaum took a revisionist view on slavery as a viable labor model, saying it would work better if the slaves weren't transported from their home nations where food and housing was cheaper anyway. By way of a revolutionary new skin-tight, shiny gold suit, outfitted corporate managers would receive information about conditions at the remote workplaces through electric impulses delivered through the buttocks and transmit instructions through an oversized joystick and video screen phallically protruding from the front of the get-up. In spite of a rude accompanying video and the silliness of the suit, the attendees offered them polite applause and no objections.

"We'd come up with these increasingly preposterous proposals, and nobody would notice," Bichlbaum says, adding that they tried to seem "as brutal and repulsive as possible" while masquerading as WTO reps.

In New Orleans, says Bonanno, their prank was intended to provide a potentially empowering image. "We wanted to create this moment where people could imagine another reality that was much more humane -- more human, really, by showing that a solution is actually simple and straightforward and would be easy for those in power to implement, should they choose to."

The hoax was revealed almost instantly, but reporters and even contractors from the conference followed Bichlbaum and Oswin out to the Lafitte projects for a celebration the two had -- on HUD letterhead -- handed out invitations for. One public housing resident caught in the news footage said, "I'm not angry they pulled this joke; I'm angry it's not for real."

Housing advocates attended the event at Zeitgeist as well. Soleil Rodrigue is a representative for the Survivors Village, the tent city of former residents and protestors that has been set up outside the locked-down St. Bernard project since early June. She says the Yes Men's brand of activism is helping further her cause in New Orleans. "It's already affected some things," she says. "There's been a massive amount of coverage and a massive resurgence of interest because of their prank and the way they were able to get information out. And what we need right now is awareness."

Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and fake HUD - official "Rene Oswin" (far right) prepare to speak at the Gulf - Coast rebuilding summit at the Pontchartrain Center on - Aug. 28. - THE YES MEN
  • the Yes Men
  • Gov. Kathleen Blanco, Mayor Ray Nagin and fake HUD official "Rene Oswin" (far right) prepare to speak at the Gulf Coast rebuilding summit at the Pontchartrain Center on Aug. 28.

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