A storm in New Orleans

Looking back at Katrina

An excerpt from the new edition of Our Enemies in Blue: Police and Power in America (AK Press, 2015)

Ten years ago, on August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina, a storm of incredible force and apocalyptic effect, reached the Louisiana coast. No single episode of recent years has symbolized the continued legacy of racism in American society, and the role of the police within it, so well—or so terribly.

As the storm approached, the city was placed under a mandatory evacuation order, but an order was all there was: no organized transport or other meaningful assistance was forthcoming. Those who were too poor, too old, too sick, or too disorganized to arrange their own exit were abandoned in a city that essentially shut itself down, lacking commerce and basic government services, and then, too, lacking clean water and electricity. The levees protecting New Orleans failed—the result of years of infrastructure neglect in the name of fiscal conservatism1—and so the city flooded. Eighty percent of New Orleans was underwater.2 At least 1,580 people died as a result of Katrina, 70 percent of them senior citizens.3

The truth of this situation was bad enough—people trapped in attics, homes destroyed, bodies floating in the street—but the fearful imaginings of a racist culture were far worse. Rumors spread, echoed and amplified by an overeager media, describing violence on a massive scale—senseless, vicious, and random. Tales circulated about piles of corpses at the Superdome, widespread sexual assault, children with their throats slit, snipers firing at rescue workers, hospitals being looted, gangs running amok. Many of these stories were little more than grotesque stereotypes of Black criminality—rapists, looters, and gangsters—dropped into a terrifying new setting, a ruin of a city, a swamp overtaking civilization. Police and other officials both heard and propagated these stories. Mayor Ray Nagin appeared on Oprah, speaking in ominous tones about “hundreds of gang members” in the Superdome, “hooligans killing people, raping people,” while Police Chief Eddie Compass broke down in tears, describing “little babies getting raped.”4

In the end, nearly all the horror stories were shown to be, at the very least, perverse exaggerations. Most were simply false. Between the Air Force, Coast Guard, and Homeland Security, no one could authenticate reports of helicopters taking sniper fire.5 And the death toll at the Superdome was six out of approximately 20,000 taking shelter there—one drug overdose, one suicide, and four from natural causes. No children had their throats cut.6

Racist fables of Black savagery in an ungoverned city had direct and deadly consequences. Two days into the disaster, on August 31, Mayor Nagin ordered police to cease rescue operations and concentrate on ending looting—in effect, announcing that private property was a higher priority than human life.7 Presumably he was unaware that some officers had been conscientiously facilitating the looting of survival goods like food, water, and clothing, or that others had opportunistically stolen jewelry and electronics, as well as the entire inventory of a local Cadillac dealership (almost 200 cars). Some of the vehicles were used to flee the city—by precisely the people under orders not to evacuate. Following Katrina, 228 officers were investigated for deserting during the emergency and ninety-one others resigned. One cop, Officer Lawrence Celestine, told his commander that the behavior of his peers pushed him past the point of despair; he killed himself moments later. The NOPD public information officer, Paul Accardo, committed suicide as well.8

The Sheriff’s department performed no better. As the city jail, the Orleans Parish Prison (OPP), began to flood, guards simply fled and left their 8,500 charges locked in their cells, with water quickly rising. “They left us to die there,” one prisoner recalled. Those inmates who got out—as most, by working together, did—were met at the gate by guards who beat and maced them, then held them on a highway overpass without food, water, or shelter for days. In the end, prisoners were scattered to other jails around the state, usually without paperwork. People arrested for very minor offenses—the cops had orders to “clear the streets” before the storm—spent months in jail, far from home, sometimes literally lost in the system. Most of the prisoners at OPP were not even convicts but were being held for trial; they were, therefore, “presumed innocent” by law. Nevertheless, under the declaration of emergency, Governor Kathleen Blanco suspended the right to a speedy trial. The average stay for an inmate arrested during the Katrina period, before trial, was more than a year (385 days); one man was held 1,289 days.9

Those outside the jail’s walls were hardly more free. At an evacuation camp on Interstate 10, thousands of people, 95 percent of them Black, were held for days behind metal barricades, surrounded by the National Guard, with no shelter from the sun.10 Outside the camps, people were similarly trapped. Those who tried walking across the bridge to the suburb of Gretna, which was not flooded, found their way barred by a Sheriff’s posse, firing guns over their heads.11 Larry Bradshaw, a white paramedic who attempted to negotiate one group’s passage, reported that the cops told him, “This is not New Orleans. . . . We’re not going to have any Superdomes here.” Bradshaw comments, “To me, that was code . . . for ‘We’re not having Black people coming into our neighborhood.’”12 Even a reporter for right-leaning Fox News was outraged by the blockade. Shepard Smith railed: “They won’t let them walk out. . . . [A]nyone who walks out of that city now is turned around. You are not allowed to go to Gretna, Louisiana, from New Orleans, Louisiana. Over there, there’s hope. Over there, there’s electricity. Over there, there is food and water. But you cannot go from here to there. The government will not allow you to do it.”13

Worse still, investigative journalist A. C. Thompson has documented ten police shootings in the days after the storm.14 The most notorious was the incident on the Danziger Bridge, when plainclothes cops attacked a crowd without warning, killing two and wounding four. The barrage of gunfire blew one woman’s arm off, killed a teenage boy, and struck a developmentally disabled man in the back. Police then proceeded to kick him to death.15

The cops weren’t the only trigger-happy yahoos patrolling the disaster area. Governor Blanco mobilized 40,000 National Guard troops, and announced: “They have M16s, and they’re locked and loaded. . . . These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”16 At the same time, mercenaries from a dozen companies were busy (as their operatives put it) “securing neighborhoods” and “confronting criminals.”17 As a couple of the hired guns told Jeremy Scahill, “We’re on contract with the Department of Homeland Security. . . . We can make arrests and use lethal force if we deem it necessary.” Indeed, Bodyguard and Tactical Security’s Michael Montgomery recounted a gunfight with some “black gangbangers” who were injured in the exchange: “[A]ll I heard was moaning and screaming, and the shooting stopped.” A moment later the army arrived. “I told them what happened,” Montgomery recalls, “and they didn’t even care. They just left.”18

More troubling still was the sudden reemergence of organized vigilantism. Most were middle-class, middle-aged, white men, and their activity took an expressly racist form. Patrolling in pickup trucks and staffing roadblocks, they stopped and turned back Black people trying to cross through the Algiers Point neighborhood, harassed and intimidated Blacks who lived nearby, and sometimes, it seems, just shot people without warning. One patroller confessed to a journalist that his group had shot three Black men in one day, tagging them as looters because they were carrying tote bags. “People think it’s a myth,” he said. “But we killed people.”19 Another told a neighbor they shot anyone “darker than a brown paper bag.”20 A third boasted to a documentary filmmaker, “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.”21

Malik Rahim, a former Black Panther and a founder of one of the most successful grassroots relief efforts, Common Ground, estimates that eighteen young Black men were murdered in the Algiers neighborhood in the days following the storm. “It was either the police or by vigilantes that was allowed to run amok,” he says.22 It was sometimes hard to tell them apart. One of the militia’s victims, a Black man named Henry Glover, went to the police station seeking help after being shot. Witnesses saw a cop drive away with him. Days later, his car was found, torched and abandoned with Glover’s burned corpse inside.23

Rahim recalls another incident: He was confronting a group of the patrollers when a New Orleans police officer pulled up. “These guys are acting like vigilantes,” Rahim told him, but the cop only said that they had the right to defend their neighborhood. “We all have a right?” Rahim asked. “They have a right,” the cop said, pointedly.24

This sort of official complicity with racist terrorism fits a historical pattern. During the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, vigilante actions and policing were often indistinguishable. The Klan—which saw itself as a force for order, especially against Black criminality25—took up nightriding, at times in regular patrols. Its members stopped Black people on the roads, searched their homes, seized weapons and valuables, interrogated them about their voting plans, and often brutalized them.26 In less routine actions, white mobs sometimes attacked individual Black people, Black political assemblies, and white Republicans. 

For example, in July 1866 the New Orleans police led a military-style attack against a majority-Black convention of Union loyalists, breaking up the meeting and then leading white posses around the city, beating any Black people they encountered and shooting at those who fled. At least thirty-eight people were killed, and many times that number wounded.27 That afternoon, bodies were piled into baggage cars. Many of the wounded were loaded in with the dead, and witnesses later swore to seeing police systematically shooting those who stirred.28

The tradition of active collaboration between the forces of law and racist terror continued throughout the twentieth century. During the 1920s, Klansmen were enlisted to aid the authorities in their fight against the evils of alcohol and Communism. In 1930, John G. Murphy, a member of the Alabama Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, testified before a House Special Committee that the Klan helped the Birmingham police and the FBI keep track of Communists by following Communist Party organizers, identifying people at their meetings, and so on.29 In other places, whole Klaverns were deputized for Prohibition raids, and many cops signed up in the “Invisible Empire.”30 During the 1930s, about a hundred Michigan cops—including the chief of police in Pontiac—joined either the Klan or its successor organization, the Black Legion. The Black Legion, in addition to attacking racial minorities, embarked on a deliberate campaign targeting the Left; they beat and sometimes murdered suspected radicals, bombed their offices, and burned their homes.31 A generation later, police likewise played a native role in some of the most famous and appalling Klan violence against the civil rights movement, including the Mother’s Day attack against Freedom Riders in Birmingham and the murder of three volunteers during the Mississippi Freedom Summer.32

The connections here reach all the way back to a common ancestor. Slave patrols were militia-based organizations, under which all white men were required to take a turn searching for runaways, enforcing pass laws, and breaking up unauthorized meetings.33 As the institution adapted itself to urbanization in cities like Charleston and (in 1806) New Orleans, it took on the characteristics of a modern police force.34 At the same time, the organizations gave ordinary whites the experience of patrolling in groups and using violence to control the Black population, skills many of the same people later applied to similar ends in the Klan.35

Katrina showed, in a most dramatic fashion, how present that history still is. It shocked the nation to see vulnerable people—old people, poor people, and by and large, Black people—abandoned, stranded, left to die. It was hard to understand that the government could be so incompetent, or so indifferent. But, however severe the storm, the social disaster accompanying it was just a moment in a much larger, much longer disaster that continues to unfold. The wind, the rain, and the floods were exceptional and temporary; the inequality and injustice, however, are with us still. What the storm revealed—the racism and the brutality—were there are along. What it washed away were our illusions.

  1.  Katrina vanden Heuvel, “History Lessons,” in Unnatural Disaster: The Nation on Hurricane Katrina, ed. Betsy Reed (New York: Nation Books, 2006), 166.
  2.  Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (New York: Viking, 2009), 235.
  3.  Billy Sothern, Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2005), 313.
  4.  Quoted in Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 236.
  5.  Kathleen A. Bergin, “Witness: The Racialized Gender Implications of Katrina,” in Seeking Higher Ground: The Hurricane Katrina Crisis, Race, and Public Policy Reader, eds. Manning Marable and Kristen Clarke (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 177.
  6.  Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 244.
  7.  Ibid., 236.
  8.  Jed Horne, Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City (New York: Random House, 2006), 85 and 121.
  9.  Jordan Flaherty, Floodlines: Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2010), 139–42; Sothern, Down in New Orleans, 74–80. Figures are from Flaherty, Floodlines, 142. “They left us” and “clear the streets” quotes are from Sothern, Down in New Orleans, 74.
  10.  Flaherty, Floodlines, 40.
  11.  Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 260.
  12.  Quoted in Sothern, Down in New Orleans, 62.
  13.  Quoted in Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 260–1.
  14.  Flaherty, Floodlines, 172.
  15.  Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 248; and Flaherty, Floodlines, 173.
  16.  Quoted in Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 237.
  17.  Jeremy Scahill, “Blackwater Down,” in Unnatural Disaster: The Nation on Hurricane Katrina, 75. 
  18.  Quoted in Scahill, “Blackwater Down,” 74–6.
  19.  Quoted in Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 253.
  20.  Quoted in Flaherty, Floodlines, 171.
  21.  Quoted in Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 252.
  22.  Quoted in ibid.
  23.  Solnit, Paradise Built in Hell, 258.
  24.  Quoted in Horne, Breach of Faith, 219.
  25.  Allen W. Trelease, White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 17.
  26.  Ibid., 122.
  27.  Dennis C. Rousey, Policing the Southern City: New Orleans, 1805–1889 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996), 117–18 and 45.
  28.  Melinda Meek Hennessey, “To Live and Die in Dixie: Reconstruction Race Riots in the South” (PhD diss., Kent State University, 1978, University Microfilms International), 46.
  29.  Frank Donner, Protectors of Privilege: Red Squads and Police Repression in Urban America (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990), 307.
  30.  Michael Novick, White Lies, White Power: The Fight Against White Supremacy and Reactionary Violence (Monroe, ME: Common Courage Press, 1995), 61.
  31.  Seymour Martin Lipset, “Why Cops Hate Liberals—and Vice Versa,” in The Police Rebellion: A Quest for Blue Power, ed. William J. Bopp (Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher, 1971), 25; and Donner, Protectors of Privilege, 56.
  32.  Donner, Protectors of Privilege, 309–10; and Seth Cagin and Philip Dray, We Are Not Afraid: The Story of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney and the Civil Rights Campaign for Mississippi (New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1988), en passim.
  33.  For details on the slave patrol system, see Sally Hadden’s authoritative study: Sally E. Hadden, Slave Patrols: Law and Violence in Virginia and the Carolinas (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  34.  Rousey, Policing the Southern City, 3 and 18–19.
  35.  Hadden, Slave Patrols, 219.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

Top story