More hidden history. The tollgates on the Information Highway work to shield Americans from thoughtcrime, bad knowledge. Information that might make us question the established order, the way things are.
Rather than the mainstream weekly magazines, I recommend reading TomDispatch — Tom Engelhardt’s website. It is far more informative than the newsweekly rags, and free.
This is an important story, and IMO should be read in full.
The first major story on this was “Post-Katrina, White Vigilantes Shot African-Americans With Impunity“, A. C. Thompson, The Nation, 5 January 2009 — co-published with ProPublica.
Here is The Nation’s video linked to the story. In it one white resident of Algiers Point boasts, “’It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.” Not strong supporting evidence to The Nation’s story, but still a remarkable video.
The Nation has posted a media advisory from the Superintendent of the New Orleans Police Department, saying “he is currently looking into the allegations.” Note that this does not now show on the NOPD website.
From “The Grinning Skull“, Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch, 21 December 2008 — “The Homicides You Didn’t Hear About in Hurricane Katrina.”
On one of my visits to New Orleans after Katrina, I met with Rahim, a solid older man with long dreadlocks who told me in his rumbling voice of the bodies he’d seen in the streets of Algiers and gave me a copy of the documentary Welcome to New Orleans. It showed one of the corpses rotting, in plain sight, under a sheet of corrugated sheet metal. It also showed white vigilantes whooping it up and talking openly about what they had done. At a barbeque shortly after Katrina struck, a stocky white guy with receding white hair and a Key West t-shirt chortles, “I never thought eleven months ago I’d be walking down the streets of New Orleans with two .38s and a shotgun over my shoulder. It was great. It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it.”
A tough woman with short hair and chubby arms adds, “That’s not a pheasant and we’re not in South Dakota. What’s wrong with this picture?”
The man responds happily, “Seemed like it at the time.”
A second white-haired guy explains, “You had to do what you had to do, if you had to shoot somebody, you had to shoot. It’s that simple.”
A third says simply, “We shot ‘em.”
I vowed to Rahim then that I would get the murders investigated. After all, it wasn’t just rumors; it was a survivor telling his story on national television and apparent murderers telling theirs in a documentary. Despite the solid evidence, no one was following up — not the Pulitzer-winning journalists I contacted through friends, nor the filmmaker who captured Herrington, nor the national radio host Rahim spoke to of mass murder, nor the coroners who had some very interesting corpses on their hands, nor the New Orleans police who talked to Herrington in the hospital and whom he approached afterward, no one until the Nation provided A.C. the resources to do it right.
The worst crimes in disasters are usually committed by institutional authorities and those aligned with them. They fear an unpoliced public and believe private property so sacred a right that they’re willing to kill to defend it, or in this case, just on the off-chance that a passerby might fancy their television set. This is the conclusion of the sociologists who have been studying disasters for decades, many of whom I’ve spoken with in the past few years. And this is the pattern of disasters, like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, in which the public behaved well but the military — which essentially became a hostile occupying army — terrorized the public in the name of preventing looting, shot many innocents, and may have killed scores overall. (In some outrageous incidents, New Orleans police evidently gunned down unarmed African-Americans themselves in the wake of Katrina.)
Looting is a term that should be abolished. In major disasters, when the monetary economy evaporates and needs are desperate, taking water, or food, or diapers, or medicine from shuttered stores — which is what much of the so-called looting consisted of — is largely legitimate requisitioning. The rest is theft, and in the days after Katrina there was also some theft — by the New Orleans police, for example, who cleaned out a Cadillac dealership and helped themselves to goods in a WalMart, as well as by stranded citizens who figured they’d been abandoned or imprisoned in the ruined city and that all rules were gone.
Looting is an incendiary, inexact word, suggesting mayhem far beyond the acquisition of commodities. One Algiers Point vigilante claimed to fear that they would come for his elderly mother, but most of the flooded-out evacuees were looking for food, water, information about family members, and a way out of the wreckage. Another vigilante told A.C. that they could tell the three black men they blasted with a shotgun were looters because they were carrying sports apparel with them. That the victims might be evacuating with their own clothing did not occur to these homicidal fabulists, nor did they seem to think that shooting men who might possibly have taken something of modest value from elsewhere was an overreaction.
The vigilantes of Algiers Point seem to have killed, by their own admissions — or boasts — several African-American men. A.C. was able to get first-hand accounts of eleven shootings, and my initial sources had told me they heard admissions of about seven killings. One militia member shot a black man dead at close range as he attempted to break into a corner store, another member told A.C., the only time one of the shootings seems tied in any way to a potential property crime. The police and coroner produced almost no record of what went on there and then.
The vigilantes of Algiers Point were classic white-flight people. They had spent decades regarding the central city with terror and resentment, and so saw Katrina not as a tragedy that happened to the neighbors, but as a moment when the dangers confined to the other side of the river were swarming across it. Because the riot was already in their heads, they became the crazed murderers they claimed to fear — though fear may not have been the driving motive for all of them.
A.C. was told that they turned themselves into an informal militia after one of their number was brutally carjacked by a black man, but another source told me that her relatives were gleeful about the chance to fight a race war against African-Americans and encouraged to do so by law enforcement. Like Rahim, she calls what went on “hunting” and spoke of a photograph she was sent of a vigilante posing like a big-game hunter next to a black murder victim. Which suggests the catastrophe of Katrina was just cover for getting away with a Klan-style killing spree.
… These were the people who broke down in the aftermath of Katrina, who reverted to savagery, not the crowds stranded in the Superdome, or the Convention Center, or on the elevated freeways, or in schools and other inadequate refuges from the flooding that overtook New Orleans. It’s important to keep in mind, despite the false stories the media spread in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, and this grim, true story three years later, that the response to Katrina was mostly about altruism, courage, and generosity. That was the case whether you are considering people like Herrington, who stayed behind to take care of others, or the “Cajun Navy” of white guys with boats, who headed into the city immediately after the storm to rescue the stranded, or the many who took in evacuees or otherwise tried to help, or what, by now, must be hundreds of thousands of volunteers who arrived in the months and years after the storm to cook and build and organize to bring New Orleans back.
It’s also important to keep in mind that, while the small minority who became a freelance militia murdered casually, the catastrophic loss of life in Louisiana — about 1,500 people, disproportionately elderly — was largely due to decisions made by another small minority: elected and appointed government authorities, from Mayor Ray Nagin, who hesitated to call a mandatory evacuation and never provided the resources for the most destitute and frail to evacuate, to FEMA director Michael Brown, who posed and dithered while tens of thousands suffered, to New Orleans’s police chief and Louisiana’s governor, both of whom chose to regard a drowned and overheated city as a law-enforcement crisis rather than a humanitarian relief challenge.
In many, many cases, supplies and rescuers were kept out of the city, hospitals were prevented from evacuating the dying, and the ability of civil society to do what the government would not — save the stranded, succor the sick — was hindered at every turn. But this story we know. Now, it’s time to know the other half, the grinning skull, the version that turns everything we were told in the first days upside-down and inside out, the story of murders in plain sight almost no one wanted to see. Look at them. Now, may some measure of justice be done.
Tom Engelhardt adds a concluding note:
Rebecca Solnit’s book about disaster and civil society, A Paradise Built in Hell, will be out in time for Katrina’s fourth anniversary. It includes a much more extensive report on the crimes of Katrina, as well as the achievements of civil society in that disaster and others. To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview in which Solnit discusses how the importance of the story of the New Orleans killings dawned on her, click here.
People with information on murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina are encouraged to write to Thompson and Solnit at firstname.lastname@example.org. Anonymity will be protected.
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