The Homicides You Didn't Hear About in Hurricane Katrina
Continued from previous page
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.