The hidden race war after Katrina

when_the_levees_brokeRebecca Solnit describes her discovery of the Katrina shootings in a recent Mother Jones article and audio interview. She points out that the hidden race war was never really hidden, but it was conveniently ignored, even today, despite Spike Lee’s award-winning documentary and excellent investigative reports, such as as A. C. Thompson’s in The Nation. I suspect the story would still surprise many people and challenge their image of the Katrina aftermath. It should also cause all of us to become more critical of media reports and our own reactions to those:

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.

In his excellent report, A. C. Thompson presents a frightening and dismaying picture of the response in Algiers Point:

Facing an influx of refugees, the residents of Algiers Point could have pulled together food, water and medical supplies for the flood victims. Instead, a group of white residents, convinced that crime would arrive with the human exodus, sought to seal off the area, blocking the roads in and out of the neighborhood by dragging lumber and downed trees into the streets. They stockpiled handguns, assault rifles, shotguns and at least one Uzi and began patrolling the streets in pickup trucks and SUVs. The newly formed militia, a loose band of about fifteen to thirty residents, most of them men, all of them white, was looking for thieves, outlaws or, as one member put it, anyone who simply “didn’t belong.”

References

Lee, Spike (2006). When the levees broke: A requiem in four acts. [TV mini-series].

Solnit, Rebecca (2008, December 22). The grinning skull: The homicides you didn’t hear about in Hurricane Katrina. Mother Jones. Audio interview

Solnit, Rebecca (in press). A paradise built in Hell.

Thompson, A. C. (2008, December 17). Katrina’s hidden race war. The Nation.

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