Crime and Corruption in New Orleans
People from New Orleans were not surprised to see last week's horrifying video of police beating an innocent 64-year-old man in the French Quarter. The only surprise is the increased attention the incident received -- though many news reports took pains to mention the "high levels of stress" New Orleans police are under.
Despite the attempts to explain away the officer's behavior, said incident fits into a well-defined pattern of police conduct in New Orleans. In the last year, seven young black men have been killed by New Orleans police, and none of the officers involved have been punished.
This year has seen mounting evidence of a police department out of control. Less than a week before Hurricane Katrina, on Wednesday, Aug. 24, Keith Griffin, a New Orleans police officer, was booked with aggravated rape and kidnapping. According to a Times-Picayune report, Griffin is accused of pulling over a bicyclist under the guise of a police stop in the early morning hours of July 11. The two-year veteran officer allegedly detained the woman, drove her to a remote spot along the Industrial Canal near Deslonde Street, then sexually assaulted her.
This is hardly an isolated incident. Another recent Times-Picayune article reported that in April, seven-year veteran officer Corey Johnson was booked with aggravated rape for allegedly forcing a woman to perform oral sex, after he identified himself as an officer in order to enter the woman's Treme home.
Another article states that "eight officers were arrested during a six-month stretch last year on charges that ranged from shoplifting to theft to conspiracy to rob a bank ... In April 2004, 16-year veteran James Adams was booked with aggravated kidnapping, extortion and malfeasance after he was accused of threatening to arrest a woman unless she agreed to have sex with him."
Police misconduct in this notoriously corrupt city goes back decades, and occasionally it explodes in scandal. In a September 2000 report, the Progressive Policy Institute discovered that a 1994 crackdown on police corruption led to 200 officers' dismissals -- plus, upwards of 60 criminal charges (including two murder convictions) among police officers. Investigators discovered that for six months in 1994, as many as 29 New Orleans police officers protected a cocaine supply warehouse containing 286 pounds of the drug. The FBI indicted 10 officers who had been paid nearly $100,000 by undercover agents. The investigation ended abruptly, after one officer successfully orchestrated the execution of a witness.
According to one community activist I recently spoke with, who is familiar with those investigations, "That crackdown just scratched the surface. They didn't even really begin to address the problems in the New Orleans police."
According to a 1998 report from Human Rights Watch, former officer Len Davis -- reportedly known in the Desire housing project as "Robocop" -- ordered the Oct. 13, 1994 murder of Kim Groves after he learned she had filed a brutality complaint against him. Federal agents had Davis under surveillance for alleged drug-dealing, and recorded Davis ordering the killing, apparently without realizing what they had heard until it was too late.
Davis mumbled to himself about the "30" he would be taking care of (the police code for homicide) and, in communicating with the killer, described Groves' standing on the street and demanded he "get that whore!"
Afterward, he confirmed the slaying by saying "N.A.T." -- police jargon for "necessary action taken." Community activists reported a chilling effect on potential witnesses and victims considering coming forward after Groves' murder.
The white-flight suburbs around New Orleans are, in many ways, worse. During the 1980s, Jefferson Parish Sheriff Harry Lee famously ordered special scrutiny for any black people traveling in white sections of the parish. "It's obvious," Lee said, "that two young blacks driving a rinky-dink car in a predominantly white neighborhood ... They'll be stopped."
The New Orleans Gambit newsweekly reported that 1994, "after two black men died in the Jefferson Parish Correctional Center within one week, Lee faced protests from the black community and responded by withdrawing his officers from a predominantly black neighborhood. 'To hell with them,' he'd said. 'I haven't heard one word of support from one black person.'"
The Gambit also reported in April of this year that in Jefferson Parish, officers were found to be using as target practice what critics referred to as "a blatantly racist caricature" of a black male. Sheriff Lee laughed when presented with the charges. "I'm looking at this thing that people say is offensive," he says. "I've looked at it, I don't find it offensive, and I have no interest in correcting it."
These accusations of "target practice" gained force a few weeks later with the May 31 killing of 16-year-old Antoine Colbert, who was behind the wheel of a stolen pickup truck with two other teens. One hundred-ten shots were fired into the truck, killing Colbert and injuring his passengers. In response to criticism from black ministers over the incident, Lee responded "They can kiss my ass."
As has been widely reported, the town of Gretna, across the Mississippi from New Orleans and part of Jefferson Parish, stationed officers on the bridge leading out of New Orleans blocking the main escape route for the tens of thousands suffering in the Superdome, Convention Center, and throughout the city.
As the L.A. Times reported on September 16, a little over a week after this mostly white suburb became a symbol of callousness for using armed officers to seal one of the last escape routes from New Orleans, trapping thousands of mostly black evacuees in the flooded city, the Gretna City Council passed a resolution supporting the police chief's move. "This wasn't just one man's decision," Mayor Ronnie C. Harris said Thursday. "The whole community backs it."
Arguably, the actions of the Gretna police were one of the biggest dangers to public safety to arise from this tragedy, perhaps second only to the criminally-neglected levees. Anyone that wants to focus on relief for the victims needs to focus on what exactly people from New Orleans are victims of: racism, corruption, deindustrialization, disinvestment, and neglect. That is why agencies and organizations such as Red Cross, FEMA, Scientologists, their hundreds of well-meaning volunteers are not really providing relief -- they aren't addressing the nature of the problem.
We call hurricanes and earthquakes "natural disasters," but the contours of these disasters are manmade. As recent earthquake and hurricane-related mass deaths in South Asia and Central America demonstrate, who lives and who dies is intricately related to issues of poverty and access. Whether the homes are built in safe areas, the soundness of the structures, the length of time it takes for relief to arrive, all of these are intricately tied to poverty. And yet the media generally ignores these issues, and repeats the message that nature doesn't discriminate. Because of this message, relief is misdirected, and when those receiving the relief aren't sufficiently grateful, the givers become resentful.
An article in last Sunday's New York Times reports on a community of displaced New Orleans residents in rural Oklahoma, where local residents are "glad to see them go." With each passing day, the Times reported, they could feel the sympathy draining away. The problem is the perception that this is a problem that could be fixed by a place to stay in another state, some hand-me-down clothes and a few meals. For many of us from New Orleans, what hurts the most is the loss of our community, and charity doesn't help to heal those wounds at all. Mayaba Benu, a community activist currently in the city, told me "I miss everyone. There's a lot of reporters here, a lot of contractors and FEMA folks, but not many people from New Orleans."
While thousands of out-of-state contractors line up for work, including hundreds of trash hauling trucks from around the U.S. lined up near City Park, the people of New Orleans are still being excluded from opportunities to take part in the reconstruction of their city. In fact, it seems to many that out-of-state workers are more welcomed than the New Orleans diaspora.
Jenka Soderberg, an Indymedia reporter and volunteer at the Common Ground Collective, reports from her experience at a New Orleans FEMA compound, "I went to the FEMA base camp for the city of New Orleans. It made me feel sick to my stomach. We walked around this absolutely surreal scene of hundreds of enormous air-conditioned tents, each one with the potential of housing 250 people -- whole city blocks of trailers with hot showers, huge banks of laundry machines, portajohns lined up 50 at a time, a big recreation tent, air-conditioned with a big-screen tv -- all of it for contractors and FEMA workers, none of it for the people of New Orleans."
Soderberg comments, "Thousands of New Orleans citizens could live there while they rebuilt and cleaned their homes in the city. But instead, due to the arrogance of a government bureaucracy that insists they are separate from the 'evacuees' ... these people are left homeless, like [a] poor man I talked to earlier, living under a tarp with his mother buried under the mud of their house. Why can't he live in their tents? It makes me so sad and mad to see so much desperate need, and then just blocks away, this huge abundance of resources not being used."
And with poor people out of the city, developers and corporations are grabbing what they can -- but there are no shoot-to-kill orders on these well-dressed looters. NPR and other media have portrayed developer Pres Kabacoff as a liberal visionary out to create a Paris on the Mississippi. The truth is that Kabacoff represents the worst of New Orleans' local disaster profiteers. It is Kabacoff who, in 2001, famously demolished affordable housing in the St.Thomas projects in New Orleans' Lower Garden District, and replaced it with luxury condos and a WalMart.
The people of New Orleans need a voice in this reconstruction. But what would community-controlled reconstruction look like? Organizers are starting to grapple with these issues.
Dan Etheridge works with the Center for Bioenvironmental Research at Tulane and Xavier Universities. He is currently organizing to create collaborations and build partnerships between community organizations and planning professionals -- not because it's benevolent, but because we will have a better city if the community has a say in its reconstruction.
He has organized an upcoming conference at Tulane University (tentatively slated for November), to bring together planners, architects, structural mitigation experts, geographers and other experts, along with grassroots community leaders from New Orleans, people such as Mardi Gras Indian representatives, ACORN, building unions, artists, teachers, public housing resident councils and Peoples Hurricane Fund representatives.
In a recent press conference outside Orleans Parish prison, Critical Resistance New Orleans organizer Tamika Middleton said Katrina's aftermath reflects the way we as a nation increasingly deal with social ills: police and imprison primarily poor, black communities for crimes that are reflections of poverty and desperation. Locking people up in this crisis is cruel mismanagement of city resources, and it counters the outpouring of the world's support for all survivors of Hurricane Katrina.