Sunday, August 29, 2010

anything darker than a paper bag

Here is a long quote from an excellent article by Rebecca Solnit in
this week's The Nation about what actually happened in New Orleans on
August 29, 2005 and the days that followed:

When the Media Went Mad

The story of Hurricane Katrina as originally constructed served
authoritarianism, racism and a generally grim view of human nature. It
was first told hysterically, as though New Orleans had been hit by a
torrent of poor black people or had become, as Maureen Dowd of the New
York Times put it then, "a snake pit of anarchy, death, looting,
raping, marauding thugs." An overwrought Huffington Post columnist
even spread rumors of cannibalism, while many major media outlets
repeated rumors of snipers firing on helicopters. These rumors were
never substantiated, but they interfered with the rescue operations

The gist of these stories was that in the absence of authority, people
went berserk; the implied solution was the reimposition of
authority—armed, ruthless and intense. Heavily armed Blackwater
mercenaries were dispatched to New Orleans, where, as Jeremy Scahill
reported in this magazine, they shot at citizens with little fear of
repercussion. While the focus was on young men of color as the peril,
police and white vigilantes went on a murder spree that was glossed
over at the time.

The AP reported on September 1, 2005, "Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500
police officers to leave their search-and-rescue mission Wednesday
night and return to the streets of the beleaguered city to stop
looting that has turned increasingly hostile." Only two days after the
catastrophe struck, while thousands were still stuck on roofs, in
attics, on overpasses, on second and third stories and in isolated
buildings on high ground in flooded neighborhoods, the mayor chose
protecting property over human life. There was no commerce, no
electricity, no way to buy badly needed supplies. Though unnecessary
things were taken, much of what got called looting was the stranded
foraging for survival by the only means available.

The mainstream media fractured under the pressure of reporting such a
huge and complex story. Journalists on the ground often wrote empathic
and accurate stories and broke out of their "objective" roles to
advocate for the desperate and rail against systemic failures.
Meanwhile, further away, credulous television, online and print
reporters spread lurid rumors about baby rapists and mass murders and
treated minor and sometimes justified thefts as the end of
civilization. They used words like "marauding" and "looting" as
matches, struck over and over until they got a conflagration of
opinion going.

They, along with government officials at all levels, created the
overheated atmosphere of fear and hostility that turned the task of
rescuing stranded people into an attempt to control a captive
population. New Orleans became a prison city; the trapped citizens
became prisoners without rights. Those in the Superdome, for example,
were prevented from leaving the stinking, scorching zone as people
dropped from heat and dehydration. The literal prisoners, adult and
juvenile, in the New Orleans jails were abandoned to thirst, hunger
and rising floodwaters. Hospitals packed with the dying were not
allowed to evacuate; citizens were not allowed to walk out of New
Orleans on the bridge to Gretna because the sheriff on the other side
was there with cronies and guns, keeping them out.

The stories of social breakdown were quietly retracted in September
and October 2005, but the damage had been done. A great many found new
confirmation of the old stereotypes that in times of crisis
people—particularly poor and nonwhite people—revert to a Hobbesian war
of each against each.

The Crimes That Counted

If you believe what happened after Hurricane Katrina was all about the
masses running amok, then the proper response is pretty much the
vigilante one: arm yourself, treat your neighbor as your enemy, shoot
first, ask questions later. But the evidence suggests that the people
running amok were the ones who were supposed to protect the public.
They were the sheriff on that bridge to Gretna, the corrupt and
overwrought policemen who shot unarmed civilians and Louisiana
Governor Kathleen Blanco, who said, "I have one message for these
hoodlums: these troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more
than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will."

Real people got caught in the crossfire. Take Donnell Herrington, a
33-year-old former Brink's truck driver who stayed behind to help his
grandparents and who later rescued many others by boat from their
flooded housing project. Herrington was walking to the evacuation site
in Algiers Point when a white vigilante with a shotgun attempted to
murder him. Herrington was shot in the neck, hit so hard the blast
lifted him off the ground, and then shot again in the back as he tried
to escape. His friend and cousin, who were walking with him, were also
injured by the buckshot and then chased down by racists who terrorized
them. An African-American couple in the neighborhood drove Herrington
to the nearest hospital, where a surgeon stitched him up. According to
that surgeon, Herrington nearly bled to death from pellets to his

His assailants were part of an organized militia that presumed any and
all black men were looters and decided that they were justified in
administering the ad hoc death penalty for suspected or potential
petty theft. No one reported on these vigilante crimes in the first
round of coverage.

The Past Is Equipment for the Future

The July 15 federal indictment of Roland Bourgeois Jr. is stamped
FELONY, and the charges at the top of the page are "conspiracy, civil
rights violations, obstruction of justice, false statements and
firearms violations." What that means is that this white man allegedly
tried to murder Herrington and his companions because they were black,
because they were walking through his neighborhood and because in the
aftermath of Hurricane Katrina there weren't a lot of rules, and those
who should've been enforcing them had gone mad.

"It was the plan and purpose of the conspiracy that defendant Roland
J. Bourgeois Jr. and others known and unknown to the grand jury would
use force and threats of force to keep African-Americans from using
the public streets of Algiers Point in the aftermath of Hurricane
Katrina," says the indictment. Bourgeois and other vigilantes were
situated between the Coast Guard evacuation point and the rest of the
city, picking off people who were just trying to get out. "Anything
coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot," the
indictment charges Bourgeois with saying. He is the first, but may not
be the last, of the suburban vigilantes to be indicted this summer.

These indictments are part of a package, along with two sets of
indictments of police by Eric Holder's Justice Department, that came
down just in time; the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is
also the statute of limitations for some of these charges.

The catastrophe's fifth anniversary is becoming an opportunity for a
major re-examination of the colossal disaster uncovered by journalist
A.C. Thompson's award-winning reporting, with a new Spike Lee
documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, and a
Frontline documentary, both set to air in late August. I never thought
I'd see the day. Early in 2007, when I started looking into what
happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it pretty quickly
became clear to me that though the city had swarmed with journalists,
none of them wanted to touch the crimes Bourgeois and his cronies had

The evidence these journalists overlooked was everywhere. In September
2005, Malik Rahim, the ex–Black Panther who co-founded Common Ground
Relief and who lives in the Algiers neighborhood, told Amy Goodman of
Democracy Now! on camera about vigilante murders of black men. He
showed her the body of a dead black man lying under a sheet of
corrugated metal, bloated and decaying in the heat. Herrington
testified about his near-murder in Lee's documentary When the Levees
Broke, broadcast in 2006 on the first anniversary of the storm. At the
end of the segment, he takes off his shirt so that the buckshot wounds
welting his torso are visible, as is the long scar on his neck.

Some of the evidence I came across wasn't so obvious, but it wasn't
hard to find either. I heard from staff at the Common Ground Health
Clinic that vigilantes and their associates who came in for care
confessed or boasted of crimes. Rahim gave me a DVD of a little-seen
documentary in which some of the Algiers Point militia boasted of
shooting black men. A few others told me stories that corroborated
that the vigilantes had kept a body count. I acquired this evidence
without really trying, while pursuing other stories entirely, which
made me wonder what was up with the hundreds of reporters who'd come
to New Orleans.

On March 1, 2007, I wrote to the best investigative journalist I knew,
my friend A.C. Thompson, "Hey, I'm sitting on a kind of wild story,
and I'd love to talk to you about it." He'd never been to New Orleans,
and it wasn't until The Nation and The Nation Institute's
Investigative Fund took an interest that A.C. got dispatched to the
city. More than three years and dozens of trips to New Orleans later,
A.C. has turned the city and the story of Katrina upside down. Without
his work, a lot of people would've gotten away with murder and
attempted murder.

A.C. uncovered a story no one in the media had touched—the police
killing of Henry Glover, first reported on in these pages in December
2008 ["Body of Evidence," January 5, 2009]. He also joined forces with
Times-Picayune reporter Laura Maggi, who reopened the Danziger Bridge
case, in which police shot several unarmed African-Americans after the
storm, including a middle-aged mother who had her forearm blown off, a
mentally disabled man who was shot in the back and killed, and a
teenage boy, also killed (several others were wounded).

Justice Department officials have charged eleven policemen for the
Danziger Bridge case and five for the Glover case, and most recently
sent warning letters to two more for the post-Katrina case in which
Danny Brumfield was shot in the back and killed. In total they've
opened up six civil rights cases for New Orleans police crimes
post-Katrina, and a federal probe of the department is under way. With
any luck, it's the foundation of the real story of what went down
after the storm, as well as reform of what A.C. tells me is the most
corrupt and incompetent police department in the country.

Truth Emergencies

Truth may be the first casualty of war; it's certainly the most
important equipment to have on hand in a disaster. There's the
practical truth about what's going on: Is the city on fire? Is there
an evacuation effort on the other side of town? And then there's the
larger truth: What goes on in disasters? Who falls apart and who
behaves well? Whom should you trust? Most ordinary people behave
remarkably well when their city is ripped apart by disaster. They did
in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake; in New Orleans during
Hurricane Betsy in 1965; in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake; in
New York City in the aftermath of 9/11; and in most disasters in most
times and places.

Those in power, on the other hand, often run amok. They did in San
Francisco in 1906, when an obsessive fear that private property would
be misappropriated led to the mayor's shoot-to-kill proclamation; a
massive military and national guard on the streets; and the death of
dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians. Much like New Orleans
ninety-nine years later, those who claimed to be protecting society
were themselves the ones who were terrorizing and shooting. Earlier
this year, Haitians were subjected to a similar rampage of what the
disaster sociologists Lee Clarke and Caron Chess call "elite panic."
For example, 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot to death in late
January in Port-au-Prince for taking some small paintings from a shop
in ruins, one of many casualties of the institutional obsession with
protecting property instead of rescuing the trapped, the suffering and
the needy.

Surviving the new era, in which climate change is already causing
more, and more intense, disasters, means being prepared—with the
truth. The truth is that in a disaster, ordinary people behave well
overall; your chances of surviving a major disaster depend in part on
the health and strength of your society going into it. Even so,
countless individuals under corrupt governments, in New Orleans, in
Mexico City, in Port-au-Prince, often rise to the occasion with deeply
altruistic, creative and brave responses. These are the norm. The
savagery of elite panic is the exception, but one that costs lives.

End of extended quote. The full article can be read here: