The Homicides You Didn't Hear About in Hurricane Katrina
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His friend and cousin were chased down, threatened with pistols, called "nigger," but finally allowed to go, traumatized by their own brush with men who made it clear they'd be happy to kill them.
"Like Pheasant Season in South Dakota"
In 1892, Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man, was arrested in New Orleans for riding a streetcar then reserved for whites only. A precursor of Rosa Parks, he pursued a landmark lawsuit that went all the way to a racist Supreme Court, which issued the infamous "separate but equal" doctrine that stood until the civil rights battles of the postwar era.
That same year Charles Allan Gilbert drew a picture of a beautiful woman sitting in darkness at her dressing table, her head with mounded hair and its reflection arranged so that if you look at the celebrated drawing another way you see a grinning skull whose teeth are the rows of bottles of perfume and powder. For a year or more -- Katrina was one of the biggest news stories of the past century -- journalists swarmed like ants over New Orleans. The national and international news media, left, right, and center, big and small, print and radio, television and film, saw the beautiful woman and saw as well bogeymen in the shadows of their own lurid imaginations. And they declined to see the big white skull laughing at them.
That death grin can, however, be caught on the faces of the tipsy white people who confess on camera to murdering their neighbors. Separate but equal may have been abolished in the courts, but these people were gunning down African-American men just for walking in the streets in the aftermath of the storm -- segregation by bullet -- gunning them down on the grounds that no black man had the right to be there and any of them was a menace.
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.