Katrina's Hidden Race War
You can trace the origins of the Algiers Point militia to the misfortune of Vinnie Pervel. A 52-year-old building contractor and real estate entrepreneur with a graying buzz cut and mustache, Pervel says he lost his Ford van in a carjacking the day after Katrina made landfall, when an African-American man attacked him with a hammer. "The kid whacked me," recalls Pervel, who is white. "Hit me on the side of the head." Vowing to prevent further robberies, Pervel and his neighbors began amassing an arsenal. "For a day and a half we were running around getting guns," he says. "We got about forty."
Things quickly got ugly. Pervel remembers aiming a shotgun at a random African-American man walking by his home--even though he knew the man had no connection to the theft of his vehicle. "I don't want you passing by my house!" Pervel says he shouted out.
Pervel tells me he feared goons would kill his mother, who is in her 70s. "We thought we would be dead," he says. "We thought we were doomed." And so Pervel and his comrades set about fortifying the area. One resident gave me video footage of the leafy barricades the men constructed to keep away outsiders. Others told me they created a low-tech alarm system, tying aluminum cans and glass bottles together and stringing them across the roads at ankle height. The bottles and cans would rattle noisily if somebody bumped into them, alerting the militia.
Pervel and his armed neighbors point to the very real chaos that was engulfing the city and claim they had no other choice than to act as they did. They paint themselves as righteous defenders of property, a paramilitary formation protecting their neighborhood from opportunistic thieves. "I'm not a racist," Pervel insists. "I'm a classist. I want to live around people who want the same things as me."
Nathan Roper, another vigilante, says he was unhappy that outsiders were disturbing his corner of New Orleans and that he was annoyed by the National Guard's decision to use the Algiers Point ferry landing as an evacuation zone. "I'm telling you, it was forty, fifty people at a time getting off these boats," says Roper, who is in his 50s and works for ServiceMaster, a house-cleaning company. The storm victims were "hoodlums from the Lower Ninth Ward and that part of the city," he says. "I'm not a prejudiced individual, but you just know the outlaws who are up to no good. You can see it in their eyes."
The militia, according to Roper, was armed with "handguns, rifles [and] shotguns"; he personally carried "a .38 in my waistband" and a "little Uzi." "There was a few people who got shot around here," Roper, a slim man with a weathered face, tells me. "I know of at least three people who got shot. I know one was dead 'cause he was on the side of the road."