Racially Motivated Katrina Vigilantes: Is Black Life Worth More than a Wine Cooler?

9 years ago

Journalist A.C. Thompson, writing for The Nation magazine, documented that white vigilantes shot black men at will during Hurricane Katrina in Algiers Point, part of the City of New Orleans, and no one has been investigated, much less prosecuted. Furthermore, associated video of white men boasting about their deeds indicates the men acted with police approval.

Thompson's article will appear in the January 5, 2009 edition of The Nation, and Thompson says he was surprised at how easy it was to find witnesses, victims, and perpetrators of Katrina vigilantism targeting black men. He's hoping readers will learn something from his article:

The new information should reframe our understanding of the catastrophe. Immediately after the storm, the media portrayed African-Americans as looters and thugs--Mayor Ray Nagin, for example, told Oprah Winfrey that "hundreds of gang members" were marauding through the Superdome. Now it's clear that some of the most serious crimes committed during that time were the work of gun-toting white males.

(Professor Lance) Hill, who runs Tulane's Southern Institute for Education and Research and closely follows the city's racial dynamics, isn't surprised the Algiers Point gunmen have eluded arrest. Because of the widespread notion that blacks engaged in looting and thuggery as the disaster unfolded, Hill believes, many white New Orleanians approved of the vigilante activity that occurred in places like Algiers Point. "By and large, I think the white mentality is that these people are exempt--that even if they committed these crimes, they're really exempt from any kind of legal repercussion," Hill tells me. "It's sad to say, but I think that if any of these cases went to trial, and none of them have, I can't see a white person being convicted of any kind of crime against an African-American during that period." ("Katrina's Hidden Race War," The Nation)

The young or naive reader may be shocked at Professor Hill's assessment. I'm not. I grew up in New Orleans, moved away after marriage and lived elsewhere in the South, the Midwest, and on the East Coast. Last year, I returned as a divorced woman with children. While I acknowledge Louisiana has made strides toward racial justice, I know that many of its non-black residents still believe that violence against African-Americans based on the assumption of guilt in criminal activity is acceptable.

We have a certain type of white "citizen" mindset here that would denounce lynching, but under certain circumstances declare that shoot-to-kill is the correct course of action if you think a black person stole something, hurt someone, or suspect he or she has the potential to commit a crime. In particular, people of this mindset would give another white person the benefit of the doubt that he acted justly if he shot a black person who was "out of place," meaning in a white neighborhood after sundown.

Police officers' right to shoot under such circumstances is unquestionable, which is why I'm very cautious about my son being out alone at night. However, if you're not a police officer, it's highly probable you'll get off for shooting or beating a black person if you know the magic words: "I thought he was a criminal."

Now, these types of shootings don't happen often compared to fifty years ago, which is why you don't read about them more. Nevertheless, the system remains in place to help a white person out should he/she have a shot-negro-under-duress situation. Hurricane Katrina, apparently, is one of those situations.

I've figured out that all kinds of unseemly behavior from white citizens is acceptable if they can claim it happened during Hurricane Katrina or as a result of Hurricane Katrina "refugees" scaring them, but police officers were the first to receive their get-out-of-jail free cards for violence against black people or threatening violence against black people during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath.

I remember when I was living in New Jersey and heard about an incident in Slidell, La., in which the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff vowed to stop any black man with dreadlocks walking the streets after dark and question him. His vow followed a horrendous, post-Katrina, drug-related multiple murder in which a witness gave the vague description that men with dreadlocks and something the sheriff called "chee wee" hair had committed the murders. He believed the men came into Slidell from New Orleans, specifically they were poor people from New Orleans housing projects, he figured.

While people across the nation and in New Orleans were appalled by the sheriff's rant in local television news footage saying he would stop black men with dreadlocks and run people from New Orleans away who didn't have jobs yet, many white St. Tammany Parish residents supported him. They contended that a shocking crime was enough reason to violate the rights of any black man with the same hairstyle as the alleged murderers to keep "law-abiding, white people" safe.

Months later I saw video from home again of another officer of the peace, the Sheriff of Jefferson Parish, who was then Harry Lee, spraying his "piss and vinegar," the standard vitriol he reserved for race matters and in which he took great pride. He was defending police who prevented New Orleans residents who tried to escape Hurricane Katrina flooding in New Orleans from crossing the Crescent City Connection to Gretna. I bristled listening to him.

After living away from New Orleans for more than 20 years, I was no longer accustomed to hearing a public official vigorously defend blatant racism. Of course, Harry Lee, never believed that he was a racist. He didn't see his explosions about protecting Jefferson Parish residents from New Orleans "thugs," who are assumed to be black, or his policies that called for blocking New Orleans residents from entering his parish after a certain time of night 20 years before Hurricane Katrina as racially inflammatory, he claimed. So, if anyone who didn't understand "our way of life" down here should view his words and deeds as racist, Harry Lee said, "So be it." He never backed down from his belief that black life, criminal or not, would never be as important as property owned by white people he was sworn to protect, and many white people down here and even some beyond loved him for it. Harry Lee was king.

Knowing what I know, when I read stories like Thompson's Nation article, "Katrina's Hidden Race War," I'm not shocked. Given my life experiences, seeing race relations unfold or implode first hand, I don't feel that The Nation piece, while enlightening to people beyond Louisiana and a valuable service to help educate the world, is news to me. This recognition, however, does not stop its sting. Neither does it numb me to the horror of Donnell Herrington's nightmare, his tale of being repeatedly shot by men calling him "nigger," and watching those men go uninvestigated by the police. Perhaps he can take solace that the men may soon be given a closer look, per New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren J. Riley's response to The Nation article.

Neither does my non-news feeling make my stomach turn less when I watch The Nation companion video in which a "Yankee" (or his female friend) says he now understands the "n" word after defending his Algiers Point neighborhood.

The article and video have at least one blogger at NOLA.com lamenting that New Orleans is "on full blast nationally. Again. And not in a good way." Big Red Cotton gives readers more detail on the video above, also.

The three vigilantes interviewed on camera are Vinnie Pervel, Wayne Janak, and Nathan Roper, all of whom live in Algiers Point. Janak is originally from Chicago and moved to Algiers Point before Katrina. There are many more gunmen who participated but did not speak on camera. The blog post's title has been changed to more accurately characterize the vigilantes involved who've admitted participating in the shootings. (Big Red Cotton at NOLA.com: "If It Moved, We Shot It!")

After reading Thompson's article and watching the video, I recalled an old Hurricane Katrina court case. In 2006, a Louisiana judge sentenced three people, whose ethnic backgrounds I do not know, to 15 years in prison for looting wine, beer, and liquor during Hurricane Katrina. The judge was able to do that due to a law that passed shortly before Katrina that established harsh penalties for theft committed during disasters. He said he wanted to "send a message" through his harsh sentencing.

I doubt he sent a message to the people inclined to loot, but when I consider the "justice" handed down in that judge's court and put it in the context of white vigilantes not even being investigated for shooting black men during Hurricane Katrina, I am able to estimate the value of a black life in New Orleans. I only need to look at how the state spent its money in the case of the liquor looters to see that a black life is worth less than a wine cooler.

Blogger Note: I said the story was not news to me, but I know it will shock some people who attempt to live peacefully with everyone. I hope that one day stories of racist acts will be considered genuinely big news to our children because racism has become foreign to them. So, thank you A.C. Thompson, for your outstanding investigative reporting, and thanks also to The Nation and to ProPublica for giving this story the attention and funding it deserves.

In the spirit of us looking forward to racial healing, I thank also the many people of all ethnic groups and faiths who have supported New Orleans and sent help to the city and the entire Gulf Coast region, never giving a thought to anything other than helping humans in need. The city is in recovery and still rebuilding. An overhaul for justice must be part of that process.

Nordette is a BlogHer.com CE whose personal blog is WSATA.

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