The Grinning Skull: The Homicides You Didn't Hear About in Hurricane Katrina
What do you do when you notice that there seems to have been a killing spree? While the national and international media were working themselves and much of the public into a frenzy about imaginary hordes of murderers, rapists, snipers, marauders, and general rampagers among the stranded crowds of mostly poor, mostly black people in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, a group of white men went on a shooting spree across the river.
Their criminal acts were no secret but they never became part of the official story. The media demonized the city's black population for crimes that turned out not to have happened, and the retractions were, as always, too little too late. At one point FEMA sent a refrigerated 18-wheeler to pick up what a colonel in the National Guard expected to be 200 bodies in New Orleans's Superdome, only to find six, including four who died naturally and a suicide. Meanwhile, the media never paid attention to the real rampage that took place openly across the river, even though there were corpses lying in unflooded streets and testimony everywhere you looked -- or I looked, anyway.
The widely reported violent crimes in the Superdome turned out to be little more than hysterical rumor, but they painted African-Americans as out-of-control savages at a critical moment. The result was to shift institutional responses from disaster relief to law enforcement, a decision that resulted in further deaths among the thirsty, hot, stranded multitude. Governor Kathleen Blanco announced, "I have one message for these hoodlums: These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will." So would the white vigilantes, and though their exact body count remains unknown, at least 11 black men were apparently shot, some fatally.
The parish of Orleans includes both the city of New Orleans on one side of the Mississippi and a community on the other side called Algiers that can be reached via a bridge called the Crescent City Connection. That bridge comes down in another town called Gretna, and the sheriff of Gretna and a lot of his henchmen turned many of the stranded in New Orleans back at gunpoint from that bridge, trapping them in the squalor of a destroyed city, another heinous crime that was largely overlooked. On the Gretna/Algiers side of the river, the levees held and nothing flooded. Next door to Gretna, Algiers is a mostly black community, but one corner of it down by the river, Algiers Point, is a white enclave, a neighborhood of pretty little, well-kept-up wooden houses -- and of killers.
What do you do when you notice that there seems to have been a killing spree? By my second visit to New Orleans almost a year and a half after the hurricane that devastated the place, I had more than enough information to know that something very wrong had happened in Algiers Point. In a report on New Orleans for TomDispatch in March of 2007, I wrote:
"During my trips to the still half-ruined city, some inhabitants have told me that they, in turn, were told by white vigilantes of widespread murders of black men in the chaos of the storm and flood. These accounts suggest that, someday, an intrepid investigative journalist may stand on its head the media hysteria of the time (later quietly recanted) about African-American violence and menace in flooded New Orleans."
I found that journalist in my friend A.C. Thompson who, backed by the Nation magazine, launched an investigation just concluded this week, 21 months after I first approached him. His courageous and meticulous investigation tracked down victims and persecutors, clarified what happened on those days of mayhem in Algiers Point, sued to gain access to, and sifted through, the coroner's records that mentioned some bulllet-riddled bodies, and dug up some previously unreported police crimes. His stunning report in the Nation, "Katrina's Hidden Race War," suggests that there's still more there to find.
A lot of the pieces of the Algiers Point killing spree were out in the open. Several weeks after Hurricane Katrina, community organizer and former Black Panther Malik Rahim had told Amy Goodman on her nationally syndicated program Democracy Now!, "During the aftermath, directly after the flooding, in New Orleans hunting season began on young African American men. In Algiers, I believe, approximately around 18 African American males were killed. No one really know[s] what's the overall count."
Rahim's count seems high, but the real toll remains unknown. The young medics who staffed the Common Ground Clinic, co-founded by Rahim, also knew that there had been a spate of killings: like everyone else who came in, the killers and their associates had felt the need to tell their stories, as well as get their tetanus shots or blood pressure meds. The medics, whom Rahim credits with defusing a potential race war in Algiers by reaching out to everyone equally, told me they'd heard murder confessions from the vigilantes and their cohorts (but respected their confidentiality by not passing along names or identifying information).
CNN and the Times Picayune, New Orleans's paper of record, both published a photograph of a member of the "self-appointed posse" in Algiers Point napping next to five shotguns, an AK-47 assault rifle, and a pistol, but they never got around to asking if the band of white guys had actually used the guns. As it happened, not only did they use the guns, but they confessed -- or boasted -- on videotape to their shootings and killings, tape that ended up in a little-seen documentary called "Welcome to New Orleans." I passed along what I knew to A.C., but a lot of it hadn't been a secret, just easily visible dots no one was connecting. None was more visible than the attempted murder of Donnell Herrington.
What It's Like to Be Murdered
One balmy September afternoon, under the shade of the broad-armed oaks of New Orleans's City Park, Donnell Herrington told us what it's like to be murdered -- for the men who attacked him shortly after Hurricane Katrina drowned his city intended to kill him and nearly succeeded. Donnell is a soft-spoken guy now in his early thirties and he worries the question of why they shot him, of what they thought they were doing. On what possible grounds could you blast away with a shotgun at a guy walking down a public street who hadn't even seen you, let alone threatened you?
He knows they consider themselves justified, and he wrestles with the question, but each time it comes up he finally concludes it was a hate crime. It was because he was black.
"I didn't approach these guys in any way possible for them to react the way they did. It wasn't a reaction at all it. It was just a hate crime, because a reaction is when somebody try to bring bodily harm on you and you react in self-defense. When the guy actually stepped out and pulled the trigger, I didn't see him, I didn't even know what happened to me. The only thing I can remember is feeling a lot of pressure hit my neck and it literally knocked me off my feet."
The close-up shotgun blast had punctured his jugular vein and he had only a little time to get help before he bled to death. He told his friend and cousin to run, found his way to his feet, only to be shot in the back yet again. He fell down again, got up again -- a former athlete, Herrington is many kinds of strong -- and stumbled away, one hand to the blood spurting from his neck.
Herrington had been desperate to get out of the ravaged city where, two days earlier, he'd seen his grandparents' neighborhood flood, rescued them and a lot of neighbors by boat, left them to be evacuated from the elevated Interstate, walked across the Crescent City Connection to his home in Algiers on the other side of the Mississippi, found its roof crushed by a huge bough, and decided there was nothing left to do but get out himself. On September 1st, day three of the catastrophe, he had set out with his teenage cousin and a friend for the ferry landing in Algiers Point. There, they had been told, you could actually be evacuated when so many people were stranded in the heat and chaos of a drowned city. Not long into that flight they ran into the white men with guns.
On the one-year anniversary of the catastrophe, millions of Americans watched Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts on HBO. Most of the film is made up of people talking straight into the camera about their Katrina, and one of the talkers is a sweet-voiced, brown-skinned guy: Herrington. He tells the camera:
"We walking down the street, which was in Algiers and I'm talking to my cousin. I had a bottle of water in my hand, and I'm talking to him, we're talking about different things and before you know it, I heard a boom, a blast. My body lifted up in the air, and I hit the ground, and, you know, my cousin was standing over me and he was howling and he hollering my name and asking if I was okay, and he was hysterical at this time, and looking at the blood on my shirt and my arms.
"And I looked up and saw a white guy with a white t-shirt in his hands coming toward me, so I managed to get up by the grace of God. I managed to get up, and they had some debris in the street, and so when I turned away from the guy he turned toward me with the shotgun, looked like he was trying to reload. So as I turned away from him I jumped over the debris and I heard another bang. Some of the buckshots hit me in the back, and I hit the ground again."
In the film, Herrington pulls up his shirt and shows his torso, peppered with lumps from the buckshot. And then he gestures at the long, twisting, raised scar wound around his neck like a centipede or a snake: "And this is the incision from the surgery from the buckshots that penetrated my neck and hit my jugular vein."
A victim of a horrific attempted murder told his story in a national television special and, though I'm sure lots of viewers wanted to do something, those who really could have done something did nothing. Lee's film cut away to then governor Kathleen Blanco vowing more law and order against the supposedly rampaging African-American menace of New Orleans.
Herrington is a kind man; one of the first things he said to us was, "I asked God to forgive those guys that done this thing to me. It was kind of hard to even bring myself to that but I know it's the right thing to do, but at the same time those guys have gotta answer for their actions."
He was a Brink's truck driver at the time of Katrina, a man with a clean record routinely in charge of hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash, and he attempted to evacuate Katrina with a pocketful of his own cash -- which only underscores how preposterous it was for his prospective murderers to see him as a thief. He nearly bled to death before a local couple drove him to the nearest medical center, where his throat was sewn up. More than three years later, it's clear that the trauma is still with him.
His friend and cousin were chased down, threatened with pistols, called "nigger," but finally allowed to go, traumatized by their own brush with men who made it clear they'd be happy to kill them.
"Like Pheasant Season in South Dakota"
In 1892, Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man, was arrested in New Orleans for riding a streetcar then reserved for whites only. A precursor of Rosa Parks, he pursued a landmark lawsuit that went all the way to a racist Supreme Court, which issued the infamous "separate but equal" doctrine that stood until the civil rights battles of the postwar era.
That same year Charles Allan Gilbert drew a picture of a beautiful woman sitting in darkness at her dressing table, her head with mounded hair and its reflection arranged so that if you look at the celebrated drawing another way you see a grinning skull whose teeth are the rows of bottles of perfume and powder. For a year or more -- Katrina was one of the biggest news stories of the past century -- journalists swarmed like ants over New Orleans. The national and international news media, left, right, and center, big and small, print and radio, television and film, saw the beautiful woman and saw as well bogeymen in the shadows of their own lurid imaginations. And they declined to see the big white skull laughing at them.
That death grin can, however, be caught on the faces of the tipsy white people who confess on camera to murdering their neighbors. Separate but equal may have been abolished in the courts, but these people were gunning down African-American men just for walking in the streets in the aftermath of the storm -- segregation by bullet -- gunning them down on the grounds that no black man had the right to be there and any of them was a menace.
On one of my visits to New Orleans after Katrina, I met with Rahim, a solid older man with long dreadlocks who told me in his rumbling voice of the bodies he'd seen in the streets of Algiers and gave me a copy of the documentary Welcome to New Orleans. It showed one of the corpses rotting, in plain sight, under a sheet of corrugated sheet metal. It also showed white vigilantes whooping it up and talking openly about what they had done. At a barbeque shortly after Katrina struck, a stocky white guy with receding white hair and a Key West t-shirt chortles, "I never thought eleven months ago I'd be walking down the streets of New Orleans with two .38s and a shotgun over my shoulder. It was great. It was like pheasant season in South Dakota. If it moved, you shot it."
A tough woman with short hair and chubby arms adds, "That's not a pheasant and we're not in South Dakota. What's wrong with this picture?"
The man responds happily, "Seemed like it at the time."
A second white-haired guy explains, "You had to do what you had to do, if you had to shoot somebody, you had to shoot. It's that simple."
A third says simply, "We shot ‘em."
I vowed to Rahim then that I would get the murders investigated. After all, it wasn't just rumors; it was a survivor telling his story on national television and apparent murderers telling theirs in a documentary. Despite the solid evidence, no one was following up -- not the Pulitzer-winning journalists I contacted through friends, nor the filmmaker who captured Herrington, nor the national radio host Rahim spoke to of mass murder, nor the coroners who had some very interesting corpses on their hands, nor the New Orleans police who talked to Herrington in the hospital and whom he approached afterward, no one until the Nation provided A.C. the resources to do it right.
The worst crimes in disasters are usually committed by institutional authorities and those aligned with them. They fear an unpoliced public and believe private property so sacred a right that they're willing to kill to defend it, or in this case, just on the off-chance that a passerby might fancy their television set. This is the conclusion of the sociologists who have been studying disasters for decades, many of whom I've spoken with in the past few years. And this is the pattern of disasters, like the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, in which the public behaved well but the military -- which essentially became a hostile occupying army -- terrorized the public in the name of preventing looting, shot many innocents, and may have killed scores overall. (In some outrageous incidents, New Orleans police evidently gunned down unarmed African-Americans themselves in the wake of Katrina.)
Looting is a term that should be abolished. In major disasters, when the monetary economy evaporates and needs are desperate, taking water, or food, or diapers, or medicine from shuttered stores -- which is what much of the so-called looting consisted of -- is largely legitimate requisitioning. The rest is theft, and in the days after Katrina there was also some theft -- by the New Orleans police, for example, who cleaned out a Cadillac dealership and helped themselves to goods in a WalMart, as well as by stranded citizens who figured they'd been abandoned or imprisoned in the ruined city and that all rules were gone.
Looting is an incendiary, inexact word, suggesting mayhem far beyond the acquisition of commodities. One Algiers Point vigilante claimed to fear that they would come for his elderly mother, but most of the flooded-out evacuees were looking for food, water, information about family members, and a way out of the wreckage. Another vigilante told A.C. that they could tell the three black men they blasted with a shotgun were looters because they were carrying sports apparel with them. That the victims might be evacuating with their own clothing did not occur to these homicidal fabulists, nor did they seem to think that shooting men who might possibly have taken something of modest value from elsewhere was an overreaction.
The vigilantes of Algiers Point seem to have killed, by their own admissions -- or boasts -- several African-American men. A.C. was able to get first-hand accounts of eleven shootings, and my initial sources had told me they heard admissions of about seven killings. One militia member shot a black man dead at close range as he attempted to break into a corner store, another member told A.C., the only time one of the shootings seems tied in any way to a potential property crime. The police and coroner produced almost no record of what went on there and then.
The vigilantes of Algiers Point were classic white-flight people. They had spent decades regarding the central city with terror and resentment, and so saw Katrina not as a tragedy that happened to the neighbors, but as a moment when the dangers confined to the other side of the river were swarming across it. Because the riot was already in their heads, they became the crazed murderers they claimed to fear -- though fear may not have been the driving motive for all of them.
A.C. was told that they turned themselves into an informal militia after one of their number was brutally carjacked by a black man, but another source told me that her relatives were gleeful about the chance to fight a race war against African-Americans and encouraged to do so by law enforcement. Like Rahim, she calls what went on "hunting" and spoke of a photograph she was sent of a vigilante posing like a big-game hunter next to a black murder victim. Which suggests the catastrophe of Katrina was just cover for getting away with a Klan-style killing spree.
"Look Away, Look Away, Look Away, Dixie Land"
Why couldn't anyone in the mainstream see the story of vigilantes on a rampage? Why didn't anyone want to see it?
Racism is the obvious answer, the racism that made the killings invisible to some and made others think they weren't an issue. The racism and corruption of the New Orleans law enforcement system is old news, and it's not surprising, though it is shameful, that stories like Herrington's didn't even trigger police reports, let alone investigations. But the whole world was watching New Orleans and, at one point or another, every major news outlet in the country had someone on the ground there. Maybe a deeper racism made these crimes unimaginable, even when enough evidence was there, even when the skull was laughing out loud. Certainly the murderers have, until now, lived with a strange sense of impunity that has made them cocky and candid about what went down in Algiers Point in the wake of the storm.
These were the people who broke down in the aftermath of Katrina, who reverted to savagery, not the crowds stranded in the Superdome, or the Convention Center, or on the elevated freeways, or in schools and other inadequate refuges from the flooding that overtook New Orleans. It's important to keep in mind, despite the false stories the media spread in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, and this grim, true story three years later, that the response to Katrina was mostly about altruism, courage, and generosity. That was the case whether you are considering people like Herrington, who stayed behind to take care of others, or the "Cajun Navy" of white guys with boats, who headed into the city immediately after the storm to rescue the stranded, or the many who took in evacuees or otherwise tried to help, or what, by now, must be hundreds of thousands of volunteers who arrived in the months and years after the storm to cook and build and organize to bring New Orleans back.
It's also important to keep in mind that, while the small minority who became a freelance militia murdered casually, the catastrophic loss of life in Louisiana -- about 1,500 people, disproportionately elderly -- was largely due to decisions made by another small minority: elected and appointed government authorities, from Mayor Ray Nagin, who hesitated to call a mandatory evacuation and never provided the resources for the most destitute and frail to evacuate, to FEMA director Michael Brown, who posed and dithered while tens of thousands suffered, to New Orleans's police chief and Louisiana's governor, both of whom chose to regard a drowned and overheated city as a law-enforcement crisis rather than a humanitarian relief challenge.
In many, many cases, supplies and rescuers were kept out of the city, hospitals were prevented from evacuating the dying, and the ability of civil society to do what the government would not -- save the stranded, succor the sick -- was hindered at every turn. But this story we know. Now, it's time to know the other half, the grinning skull, the version that turns everything we were told in the first days upside-down and inside out, the story of murders in plain sight almost no one wanted to see. Look at them. Now, may some measure of justice be done.
[People with information on murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina are encouraged to write to Thompson and Solnit at email@example.com. Anonymity will be protected.]
© 2008 Rebecca Solnit