Monday, December 29, 2008

Katrina's hidden race war

When it comes to Hurricane Katrina, the tidal wave of indifference continues to wash over poor New Orleans.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, much of the national news media were initially fed tales of the most base stereotypes - rumors of marauding black people, looting, raping and pillaging.

The rumors were later proved false, but not before the damage was done.

(I must stop and point out that, for the most part, reporters, once on the ground, quickly caught up and determined what was really happening. Many journalists, at great risk to their own lives, did a remarkable job of assessing the truth of the situation - and were able to see through the spin of the Bush Administration's deception and shameful attempts at disassociation. The staff members of The Times-Picayune will forever remain my heroes.)

But back to the point of this post, even as the news media was reporting rioting by black people, it was missing another story: That of vigilante whites declaring open season on any black people who crossed into their Algiers Point neighborhood - even if those black people happened to live there.

A new investigation by A.C. Thompson writing in The Nation magazine does a powerful job at documenting the killings that took place while the city was still underwater and people were desperately seeking escape. The Truthout web site includes video of interviews here.

The Nation series also documents the New Orleans police force's woeful failure to investigate those killings. From the article Katrina's Hidden Race War:
I contacted the police department repeatedly over many months, providing the NOPD with specific questions about each incident discussed in this story. The department, through spokesman Robert Young, declined to comment on whether officers had investigated any of these crimes and would not discuss any other issues raised by this article.

Sifting through more than 800 autopsy reports and reams of state health department data, I quickly identified five New Orleanians who had died under suspicious circumstances: one, severely burned, was found in a charred abandoned auto (see "Body of Evidence," page 19); three were shot; and another died of "blunt force trauma to the head." However, it's impossible to tell from the shoddy records whether any of these people died in or around Algiers Point, or even if their bodies were found there.

No one has been arrested in connection with these suspicious deaths. When it comes to the lack of action on the cases, one well-placed NOPD source told me there was plenty of blame to go around. "We had a totally dysfunctional DA's office," he said. "The court system wasn't much better. Everything was in disarray. A lot of stuff didn't get prosecuted. There were a lot of things that were getting squashed. The UCR [uniform crime reports] don't show anything."

As I read the accounts in The Nation, the story of chaotic times and justice denied began to sound familiar. Ten years ago, I was a reporter investigating York's 1969 riots, in which two people were murdered: A white rookie cop shot by a black mob; a black preacher's daughter shot by a white mob. For 30 years, no one had ever been arrested, even though an estimated 100 people witnessed each killing and police had long had a pretty good idea who was responsible. My fellow reporters and I heard many attempts at explanations for why no one was ever brought to justice.

The explanations essentially went like this - that, yes, bad things had happened, but in the name of unity and political expediency, we need to get on with our lives and move forward.

Bury the past.

Those who said such things certainly weren't those who lost loved ones to a vigilante mob. And as William Faulkner wrote, "The past is not dead. In fact, it's not even past."

Color of Change has launched a petition urging a legal investigation into the killings.

And Rep. John Conyers, the incoming Chair of the House Judiciary Committee, issued a public statement last week, expressing concern and vowing to looking into the matter.

According to a follow-up story in The Nation is calling for justice, Conyers said:
"I am deeply disturbed by the reported incidents in Algiers Point, Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina," said Conyers, a Michigan Democrat. Algiers Point residents, Conyers continued, "allegedly shot randomly at African Americans who had fled to the area escaping the effects of the storm. Several injuries and deaths were reported. I am particularly concerned about accounts that local police fueled, rather than extinguished, the violence."

Lauri in York

Editor's note: If this topic interests you, please check out national ACLU's 2007 report Broken Promises about racial injustice in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

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