Katrina's Hidden Race War
Malik Rahim is one of a handful of African-Americans who live in Algiers Point, and as far as he's concerned, "We are tolerated. We are not accepted." In the days after the storm struck, Rahim says, the vigilantes "would pass by and call us all kind of names, say how they were gonna burn down my house." They thought "all blacks was looting."
As he walked the near-deserted streets in that period, Rahim, 61, a former Black Panther with a mane of dreadlocks, came across several dead bodies of African-American men. Inspecting the bodies, he discovered what he took to be evidence of gunfire. "One guy had about his entire head shot off," says Rahim, who was spurred by the storm to launch Common Ground Relief, a grassroots aid organization. "It's pretty hard to think a person drowned when half their head's been blown off," he says. He thinks some of the gunmen saw Katrina as a "golden opportunity to rid the community of African-Americans."
Sitting at his kitchen table, while a noisy AC unit does its best to neutralize the stifling Louisiana heat, Rahim describes the dead and lists the locations where he found the bodies. He also shows me video footage taken days after the storm. On the tape, Rahim points to the grossly distended corpse of an African-American man lying on the ground.
Rahim introduces me to his neighbor, Reggie Bell, 39, the African-American man Pervel confronted at gunpoint as he walked by Pervel's house. At the time, Bell, a cook, lived just a few blocks down the street from Pervel. In Bell's recollection, Pervel, standing with another gun-toting man, demanded to know what Bell was doing in Algiers Point. "I live here," Bell replied. "I can show you mail."
That answer didn't appease the gunmen, he says. According to Bell, Pervel told him, "Well, we don't want you around here. You loot, we shoot."
Roughly twenty-four hours later, as Bell sat on his front porch grilling food, another batch of armed white men accosted him, intending to drive him from his home at gunpoint, he says. "Whatcha still doing around here?" they asked, according to Bell. "We don't want you around here. You gotta go."
Bell tells me he was gripped by fear, panicked that he was about to experience ethnic cleansing, Louisiana-style. The armed men eventually left, but Bell remained nervous over the coming days. "I believe it was skin color," he says, that prompted the militia to try to force him out. "That was some really wrong stuff." Bell's then-girlfriend, who was present during the second incident, confirms his story. (In a later interview, Pervel admits he confronted Bell with a shotgun but portrays the incident as a minor misunderstanding, saying he's since apologized to Bell.)
On my final visit to Algiers Point, I stand on Patterson Street, my notebook out, interviewing a pair of residents in the dimming evening light. An older white man, on his way home from a bar, strides up and asks what I'm doing. I reply with a vague explanation, saying I'm working on an article about the "untold stories of Hurricane Katrina."
Without a pause, he says, "Oh. You mean the shootings. Yeah, there were a bunch of shootings."
When I share with Donnell Herrington what the militia men and Algiers Point locals have told me over the course of my investigation, he grows silent. His eyes focus on a point far away. After a moment, he says quietly, "That's pretty disturbing to hear that--I'm not going to lie to you--to hear that these guys are cocky. They feel like they got away with it."