Katrina’s Untold Story

Katrina’s Untold Story

Hysteria over looters in the storm-ravaged city had grave unintended consequences. Justice must be done.


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More than three years later, Hurricane Katrina still stands as a symbol of our elected officials’ brutal indifference to the lives of poor African-Americans. No evacuation plan was in place for the thousands who lacked transportation; as the floodwaters rose, the elderly and the infirm, parents and children, were abandoned to drown or starve as the Department of Homeland Security slumbered. Adding insult to injury, stranded African-Americans, left on their own to scavenge desperately for food, water and dry clothes, were tarred as looters. It was not only the likes of Fox’s Sean Hannity going on about the “mayhem and looting and stealing”; the New York Times offered up purple prose about looters who “brazenly ripped open gates and ransacked stores for food, clothing, television sets, computers, jewelry and guns, often in full view of helpless law-enforcement officials.” Then-Governor Kathleen Blanco postured that her troops “know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary.” And Mayor Ray Nagin ordered 1,500 police to abandon search-and-rescue operations to target theft instead.

Our lead story in this issue, “Katrina’s Hidden Race War,” shows that this hysteria had grave unintended consequences. Reporter A.C. Thompson found that in the chaotic days after the storm, residents of one New Orleans community, claiming to combat “looters” and “outlaws,” established a system of racist vigilante justice–and police turned a blind eye. As one vigilante said, “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.”

Over the course of a year and a half, Thompson walked the streets of Algiers Point, a tidy, predominantly white community on New Orleans’s west bank, uncovering evidence of this violence. The accounts of the self-appointed protectors of the community and their victims converged around a stunning sequence of events. In the days after the storm, African-Americans traveling through Algiers Point on their way to a government evacuation area encountered armed patrols of white residents who menaced them at gunpoint, shouted racial epithets and ordered them to leave the neighborhood. Several were shot–the evidence collected here brings the tally to at least eleven–and some, according to the vigilantes themselves, were killed.

We believe that justice in this matter will never be served by the City of New Orleans. Thompson has been unable to ascertain that a single police investigation was opened into any of these shootings, despite efforts by some surviving victims, family members and witnesses to contact the police. His detailed queries to the New Orleans Police Department and District Attorney’s office were ignored over a period of several months. The Orleans Parish coroner’s office flouted local sunshine laws and refused to turn over key autopsy records until The Nation Institute’s Investigative Fund filed suit.

It’s not too late for accountability. Louisiana has gained a new governor since the storm, and we’ll soon have a new president. Community groups should call upon Governor Bobby Jindal to lead a multiagency task force to get to the bottom of these crimes. In Congress, Representative John Conyers and Senator Patrick Leahy ought to make use of their subpoena power to get then-Police Chief Eddie Compass and then-District Attorney Eddie Jordan to explain their inaction; police officers posted in Algiers Point after the storm and the vigilantes themselves should face subpoenas, too. And it would be a fitting gesture if Eric Holder, once confirmed as attorney general, swiftly directed the Justice Department to open an investigation. If we as a nation are ever truly to transcend race, tolerance for racist violence in our midst must come to an end.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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