Reconstructing the Story of the Storm: Hurricane Katrina at Five
The Past Is Equipment for the Future
The July 15 federal indictment of Roland Bourgeois Jr. is stamped Felony, and the charges at the top of the page are "conspiracy, civil rights violations, obstruction of justice, false statements and firearms violations." What that means is that this white man allegedly tried to murder Herrington and his companions because they were black, because they were walking through his neighborhood and because in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina there weren't a lot of rules, and those who should've been enforcing them had gone mad.
"It was the plan and purpose of the conspiracy that defendant Roland J. Bourgeois Jr. and others known and unknown to the grand jury would use force and threats of force to keep African-Americans from using the public streets of Algiers Point in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," says the indictment. Bourgeois and other vigilantes were situated between the Coast Guard evacuation point and the rest of the city, picking off people who were just trying to get out. "Anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot," the indictment charges Bourgeois with saying. He is the first, but may not be the last, of the suburban vigilantes to be indicted this summer.
These indictments are part of a package, along with two sets of indictments of police by Eric Holder's Justice Department, that came down just in time; the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina is also the statute of limitations for some of these charges.
The catastrophe's fifth anniversary is becoming an opportunity for a major re-examination of the colossal disaster uncovered by journalist A.C. Thompson's award-winning reporting, with a new Spike Lee documentary, If God Is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise, and a Frontline documentary, both set to air in late August. I never thought I'd see the day. Early in 2007, when I started looking into what happened in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, it pretty quickly became clear to me that though the city had swarmed with journalists, none of them wanted to touch the crimes Bourgeois and his cronies had committed.
The evidence these journalists overlooked was everywhere. In September 2005, Malik Rahim, the ex–Black Panther who co-founded Common Ground Relief and who lives in the Algiers neighborhood, told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! on camera about vigilante murders of black men. He showed her the body of a dead black man lying under a sheet of corrugated metal, bloated and decaying in the heat. Herrington testified about his near-murder in Lee's documentary When the Levees Broke, broadcast in 2006 on the first anniversary of the storm. At the end of the segment, he takes off his shirt so that the buckshot wounds welting his torso are visible, as is the long scar on his neck.
Some of the evidence I came across wasn't so obvious, but it wasn't hard to find either. I heard from staff at the Common Ground Health Clinic that vigilantes and their associates who came in for care confessed or boasted of crimes. Rahim gave me a DVD of a little-seen documentary in which some of the Algiers Point militia boasted of shooting black men. A few others told me stories that corroborated that the vigilantes had kept a body count. I acquired this evidence without really trying, while pursuing other stories entirely, which made me wonder what was up with the hundreds of reporters who'd come to New Orleans.
On March 1, 2007, I wrote to the best investigative journalist I knew, my friend A.C. Thompson, "Hey, I'm sitting on a kind of wild story, and I'd love to talk to you about it." He'd never been to New Orleans, and it wasn't until The Nation and The Nation Institute's Investigative Fund took an interest that A.C. got dispatched to the city. More than three years and dozens of trips to New Orleans later, A.C. has turned the city and the story of Katrina upside down. Without his work, a lot of people would've gotten away with murder and attempted murder.
A.C. uncovered a story no one in the media had touched—the police killing of Henry Glover, first reported on in these pages in December 2008 ["Body of Evidence," January 5, 2009]. He also joined forces with Times-Picayune reporter Laura Maggi, who reopened the Danziger Bridge case, in which police shot several unarmed African-Americans after the storm, including a middle-aged mother who had her forearm blown off, a mentally disabled man who was shot in the back and killed, and a teenage boy, also killed (several others were wounded).
Justice Department officials have charged eleven policemen for the Danziger Bridge case and five for the Glover case, and most recently sent warning letters to two more for the post-Katrina case in which Danny Brumfield was shot in the back and killed. In total they've opened up six civil rights cases for New Orleans police crimes post-Katrina, and a federal probe of the department is under way. With any luck, it's the foundation of the real story of what went down after the storm, as well as reform of what A.C. tells me is the most corrupt and incompetent police department in the country.
Truth may be the first casualty of war; it's certainly the most important equipment to have on hand in a disaster. There's the practical truth about what's going on: Is the city on fire? Is there an evacuation effort on the other side of town? And then there's the larger truth: What goes on in disasters? Who falls apart and who behaves well? Whom should you trust? Most ordinary people behave remarkably well when their city is ripped apart by disaster. They did in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake; in New Orleans during Hurricane Betsy in 1965; in Mexico City after the 1985 earthquake; in New York City in the aftermath of 9/11; and in most disasters in most times and places.
Those in power, on the other hand, often run amok. They did in San Francisco in 1906, when an obsessive fear that private property would be misappropriated led to the mayor's shoot-to-kill proclamation; a massive military and national guard on the streets; and the death of dozens, perhaps hundreds, of civilians. Much like New Orleans ninety-nine years later, those who claimed to be protecting society were themselves the ones who were terrorizing and shooting. Earlier this year, Haitians were subjected to a similar rampage of what the disaster sociologists Lee Clarke and Caron Chess call "elite panic." For example, 15-year-old Fabienne Cherisma was shot to death in late January in Port-au-Prince for taking some small paintings from a shop in ruins, one of many casualties of the institutional obsession with protecting property instead of rescuing the trapped, the suffering and the needy.
Surviving the new era, in which climate change is already causing more, and more intense, disasters, means being prepared—with the truth. The truth is that in a disaster, ordinary people behave well overall; your chances of surviving a major disaster depend in part on the health and strength of your society going into it. Even so, countless individuals under corrupt governments, in New Orleans, in Mexico City, in Port-au-Prince, often rise to the occasion with deeply altruistic, creative and brave responses. These are the norm. The savagery of elite panic is the exception, but one that costs lives.