Katrina's Hidden Race War
While the militia patrolled the streets of Algiers Point, the New Orleans Police Department, which had done little to brace for the storm, was crippled. "There was no leadership, no equipment, no nothing," recalls one high-ranking police official. "We did no more to prepare for a hurricane than we would have for a thunderstorm." Without functioning radios or dispatch systems, officers had no way of knowing what was happening a block away, let alone on the other side of the city. NOPD higher-ups had no way to give direction to unit commanders and other subordinates. As the chain of command disintegrated, the force dissolved into a collection of isolated, quasi-autonomous bands.
Around Algiers Point people say they rarely saw cops during the week after Katrina tore through Louisiana, and in this law enforcement vacuum the militia's unique brand of justice flourished. Most disturbing, one of the vigilantes, Roper, claims on videotape recorded just weeks after the storm that the shootings took place with the knowledge and consent of the police. When we talk he makes the same assertion: "The police said, If they're breaking in your property do what you gotta do and leave them [the bodies] on the side of the road."
As we drive through Algiers Point in a battered white van, Roper tells me he witnessed a fatal shooting. Roper says he was talking on his cellphone to his son in Lafayette one evening when he spied an African-American man trying to get into Daigle's Grocery, a corner market on the eastern edge of the neighborhood, which was shuttered because of the hurricane. Another militia member shot the man from a few feet away, killing him. "He was done," Roper recalls.
During our conversations, Roper never acknowledges firing his weapon, but in 2005 a Danish documentary crew videotaped him talking about his activities. In this footage Roper says, when pressed, that he did indeed shoot somebody.
Fellow militia member Wayne Janak, 60, a carpenter and contractor, is more forthcoming with me. "Three people got shot in just one day!" he tells me, laughing. We're sitting in his home, a boxy beige-and-pink structure on a corner about five blocks from Daigle's Grocery. "Three of them got hit right here in this intersection with a riot gun," he says, motioning toward the streets outside his home. Janak tells me he assumed the shooting victims, who were African-American, were looters because they were carrying sneakers and baseball caps with them. He guessed that the property had been stolen from a nearby shopping mall. According to Janak, a neighbor "unloaded a riot gun"--a shotgun--"on them. We chased them down."
Janak, who was carrying a pistol, says he grabbed one of the suspected looters and considered killing him, but decided to be merciful. "I rolled him over in the grass and saw that he'd been hit in the back with the riot gun," he tells me. "I thought that was good enough. I said, 'Go back to your neighborhood so people will know Algiers Point is not a place you go for a vacation. We're not doing tours right now.'"
He's equally blunt in Welcome to New Orleans, an hourlong documentary produced by the Danish video team, who captured Janak, beer in hand, gloating about hunting humans. Surrounded by a crowd of sunburned white Algiers Point locals at a barbeque held not long after the hurricane, he smiles and tells the camera, "It was great! It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it." A native of Chicago, Janak also boasts of becoming a true Southerner, saying, "I am no longer a Yankee. I earned my wings." A white woman standing next to him adds, "He understands the N-word now." In this neighborhood, she continues, "we take care of our own."
Janak, who says he'd been armed with two .38s and a shotgun, brags about keeping the bloody shirt worn by a shooting victim as a trophy. When "looters" showed up in the neighborhood, "they left full of buckshot," he brags, adding, "You know what? Algiers Point is not a pussy community."
Within that community the gunmen enjoyed wide support. In an outtake from the documentary, a group of white Algiers Point residents gathers to celebrate the arrival of military troops sent to police the area. Addressing the crowd, one local praises the vigilantes for holding the neighborhood together until the Army Humvees trundled into town, noting that some of the militia figures are present at the party. "You all know who you are," the man says. "And I'm proud of every one of you all." Cheering and applause erupts from the assembled locals.
Some of the gunmen prowling Algiers Point were out to wage a race war, says one woman whose uncle and two cousins joined the cause. A former New Orleanian, this source spoke to me anonymously because she fears her relatives could be prosecuted for their crimes. "My uncle was very excited that it was a free-for-all--white against black--that he could participate in," says the woman. "For him, the opportunity to hunt black people was a joy."
"They didn't want any of the 'ghetto niggers' coming over" from the east side of the river, she says, adding that her relatives viewed African-Americans who wandered into Algiers Point as "fair game." One of her cousins, a young man in his 20s, sent an e-mail to her and several other family members describing his adventures with the militia. He had attached a photo in which he posed next to an African-American man who'd been fatally shot. The tone of the e-mail, she says, was "gleeful"--her cousin was happy that "they were shooting niggers."