The Homicides You Didn't Hear About in Hurricane Katrina
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What do you do when you notice that there seems to have been a killing spree? While the national and international media were working themselves and much of the public into a frenzy about imaginary hordes of murderers, rapists, snipers, marauders, and general rampagers among the stranded crowds of mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a group of white men went on a shooting spree across the river.
Their criminal acts were no secret but they never became part of the official story. The media demonized the city's black population for crimes that turned out not to have happened, and the retractions were, as always, too little too late. At one point FEMA sent a refrigerated 18-wheeler to pick up what a colonel in the National Guard expected to be 200 bodies in New Orleans's Superdome, only to find six, including four who died naturally and a suicide. Meanwhile, the media never paid attention to the real rampage that took place openly across the river, even though there were corpses lying in unflooded streets and testimony everywhere you looked -- or I looked, anyway.
The widely reported violent crimes in the Superdome turned out to be little more than hysterical rumor, but they painted African-Americans as out-of-control savages at a critical moment. The result was to shift institutional responses from disaster relief to law enforcement, a decision that resulted in further deaths among the thirsty, hot, stranded multitude. Governor Kathleen Blanco announced, "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." So would the white vigilantes, and though their exact body count remains unknown, at least 11 black men were apparently shot, some fatally.
The parish of Orleans includes both the city of New Orleans on one side of the Mississippi and a community on the other side called Algiers that can be reached via a bridge called the Crescent City Connection. That bridge comes down in another town called Gretna, and the sheriff of Gretna and a lot of his henchmen turned many of the stranded in New Orleans back at gunpoint from that bridge, trapping them in the squalor of a destroyed city, another heinous crime that was largely overlooked. On the Gretna/Algiers side of the river, the levees held and nothing flooded. Next door to Gretna, Algiers is a mostly black community, but one corner of it down by the river, Algiers Point, is a white enclave, a neighborhood of pretty little, well-kept-up wooden houses -- and of killers.
What do you do when you notice that there seems to have been a killing spree? By my second visit to New Orleans almost a year and a half after the hurricane that devastated the place, I had more than enough information to know that something very wrong had happened in Algiers Point. In a report on New Orleans for TomDispatch in March of 2007, I wrote:
"During my trips to the still half-ruined city, some inhabitants have told me that they, in turn, were told by white vigilantes of widespread murders of black men in the chaos of the storm and flood. These accounts suggest that, someday, an intrepid investigative journalist may stand on its head the media hysteria of the time (later quietly recanted) about African-American violence and menace in flooded New Orleans."
I found that journalist in my friend A.C. Thompson who, backed by the Nation magazine, launched an investigation just concluded this week, 21 months after I first approached him. His courageous and meticulous investigation tracked down victims and persecutors, clarified what happened on those days of mayhem in Algiers Point, sued to gain access to, and sifted through, the coroner's records that mentioned some bulllet-riddled bodies, and dug up some previously unreported police crimes. His stunning report in the Nation, "Katrina's Hidden Race War," suggests that there's still more there to find.