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Did a Fear of Slave Revolts Drive American Independence? July 4, 2016

Posted by rogerhollander in Afro-American, Genocide, History, Racism, slavery, Uncategorized.
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Roger’s note: we hardly need the article I have posted below to remind us that in 1776 genocidal racism directed toward African slaves and First Nations peoples was alive and well.  What I do think we need to be reminded of is how today’s orgiastic, exceptionalist, triumphalist (a la Joseph Goebbels) “celebrations,” along with the Trump phenomenon, are clear signs that things have not changed that much in 240 years.

 

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Robert G. Parkinson, New York Times, July 4, 2016

Binghamton, N.Y. — FOR more than two centuries, we have been reading the Declaration of Independence wrong. Or rather, we’ve been celebrating the Declaration as people in the 19th and 20th centuries have told us we should, but not the Declaration as Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote it. To them, separation from Britain was as much, if not more, about racial fear and exclusion as it was about inalienable rights.

The Declaration’s beautiful preamble distracts us from the heart of the document, the 27 accusations against King George III over which its authors wrangled and debated, trying to get the wording just right. The very last one — the ultimate deal-breaker — was the most important for them, and it is for us: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” In the context of the 18th century, “domestic insurrections” refers to rebellious slaves. “Merciless Indian savages” doesn’t need much explanation.

In fact, Jefferson had originally included an extended attack on the king for forcing slavery upon unwitting colonists. Had it stood, it would have been the patriots’ most powerful critique of slavery. The Continental Congress cut out all references to slavery as “piratical warfare” and an “assemblage of horrors,” and left only the sentiment that King George was “now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us.” The Declaration could have been what we yearn for it to be, a statement of universal rights, but it wasn’t. What became the official version was one marked by division.

Upon hearing the news that the Congress had just declared American independence, a group of people gathered in the tiny village of Huntington, N.Y., to observe the occasion by creating an effigy of King George. But before torching the tyrant, the Long Islanders did something odd, at least to us. According to a report in a New York City newspaper, first they blackened his face, and then, alongside his wooden crown, they stuck his head “full of feathers” like “savages,” wrapped his body in the Union Jack, lined it with gunpowder and then set it ablaze.

The 27th and final grievance was at the Declaration’s heart (and on Long Islanders’ minds) because in the 15 months between the Battles of Lexington and Concord and independence, reports about the role African-Americans and Indians would play in the coming conflict was the most widely discussed news. And British officials all over North America did seek the aid of slaves and Indians to quell the rebellion.

A few months before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, the Continental Congress received a letter from an army commander that contained a shocking revelation: Two British officials, Guy Carleton and Guy Johnson, had gathered a number of Indians and begged them to “feast on a Bostonian and drink his blood.” Seizing this as proof that the British were utterly despicable, Congress ordered this letter printed in newspapers from Massachusetts to Virginia.

At the same time, patriot leaders had publicized so many notices attacking the November 1775 emancipation proclamation by the governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, that, by year’s end, a Philadelphia newspaper reported a striking encounter on that city’s streets. A white woman was appalled when an African-American man refused to make way for her on the sidewalk, to which he responded, “Stay, you damned white bitch, till Lord Dunmore and his black regiment come, and then we will see who is to take the wall.”

His expectation, that redemption day was imminent, shows how much those sponsored newspaper articles had soaked into everyday conversation. Adams, Franklin and Jefferson were essential in broadcasting these accounts as loudly as they could. They highlighted any efforts of British agents like Dunmore, Carleton and Johnson to involve African-Americans and Indians in defeating the Revolution.

Even though the black Philadelphian saw this as wonderful news, the founders intended those stories to stoke American outrage. It was a very rare week in 1775 and 1776 in which Americans would open their local paper without reading at least one article about British officials “whispering” to Indians or “tampering” with slave plantations.

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So when the crowd in Huntington blackened the effigy’s face and stuffed its head with feathers before setting it on fire, they were indeed celebrating an independent America, but one defined by racial fear and exclusion. Their burning of the king and his enslaved and native supporters together signified the opposite of what we think of as America. The effigy represented a collection of enemies who were all excluded from the republic born on July 4, 1776.

This idea — that some people belong as proper Americans and others do not — has marked American history ever since. We like to excuse the founders from this, to give them a pass. After all, there is that bit about everyone being “created equal” in this, the most important text of American history and identity. And George Washington’s army was the most racially integrated army the United States would field until Vietnam, much to Washington’s chagrin.

But you wouldn’t know that from reading the newspapers. All the African-Americans and Indians who supported the revolution — and lots did — were no match against the idea that they were all “merciless savages” and “domestic insurrectionists.” Like the people of Huntington, Americans since 1776 have operated time and time again on the assumption that blacks and Indians don’t belong in this republic. This notion comes from the very founders we revere this weekend. It haunts us still.

Robert G. Parkinson, an assistant professor of history at Binghamton University, is the author of “The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution.”

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The New Jim Crow December 10, 2010

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, Race, Racism.
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We’ve all heard the statistics, and most of us have simply become numb to hearing them. For many people, the over-incarceration of Black people is simply a fact of life. It shouldn’t be.

Thanks to legal scholar and professor Michelle Alexander1 we now have a new book that explains how we ended up with a criminal justice system that targets and endangers Black communities, as well as ideas on what we can do to free ourselves from that system’s clutches.

When we put the book — The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness — in the hands of 20 ColorOfChange members to review, the response was unanimous. In addition to giving the book glowing reviews, they all wanted the entire ColorOfChange community to know about it.

It’s why we’re now inviting you to get your own copy (and for your friends or family as well, in time for the holiday season), as well as participate in a conference call with Professor Alexander in the new year to discuss it.

You can get your copy here:

http://act.colorofchange.org/go/284?id=2420-698363&akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=4

Professor Alexander’s book outlines the evolution of drug laws and how their ongoing effects on Black America parallel the role that segregation played in the period following the Civil War and preceding the Civil Rights Movement.2 And it raises questions about what it will take to build a movement that can reform the broken drug laws that fuel high incarceration rates.

Criminal justice reform is key to our community — a third of Black men will spend part of their lives in prison,3 and Black children are more than six times more likely to have a parent incarcerated than White children.4 ColorOfChange members have demonstrated time and again that they want to change the status quo. More than 59,000 ColorOfChange members called on Congress to remove the sentencing disparity between crack and powder cocaine, and nearly 25,000 sent a statement to Senator James Webb of Virginia, thanking him for his attempts to overhaul our approach to incarceration.

We believe — and the ColorOfChange members who read and reviewed the book agreed — that the book will help us, as everyday people, stand with even more power to advocate for change. Ms. Alexander is herself a longtime member of ColorOfChange.org, and she’s agreed to speak with those of you who read the book, and answer any questions you have. We’ll contact you again early in the new year with more information about how to participate in that conference call, which is sure to be informative and powerful.

Here’s what ColorOfChange.org members are saying about The New Jim Crow:

“This book explains how this new Jim Crow came to be and how deeply ingrained it is now in the American psyche. Unless we really understand how this happened, we’ll never break this vicious cycle of African-American overincarceration… How many family members of prisoners lie about their relatives in the penal system in an effort to mitigate the stigma of criminality? This system penalizes entire families. [The book] was such an eye opener.”
— Irma, Washington, DC

“This book will give you a good understanding of the system, its historical roots, its origins in the War on Drugs, the complicity of the police and legal system leading to mass incarceration of people of color, and the tragic result of creating a permanent caste system based on color. It opened my eyes and stirred my soul.“
— Larry, Freeland, WA

“This isn’t a fight for the lawyers. This is a fight for regular people, the non-experts, the advocates, the sympathizers, the human beings who care and want to care more. Fertile ground for change is wherever we are, however we are, and accessible to those of us with less than sizable monetary wealth or a law degree.”
— Thuha, Fountain Valley, CA

 

For more on The New Jim Crow and to get your copy, click here:

http://act.colorofchange.org/go/284?id=2420-698363&akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=6

Thanks and Peace,

— James, Gabriel, William, Dani, Natasha and the rest of the ColorOfChange.org team
   December 9th, 2010

Help support our work. ColorOfChange.org is powered by YOU — your energy and dollars. We take no money from lobbyists or large corporations that don’t share our values, and our tiny staff ensures your contributions go a long way. You can contribute here:

https://secure.colorofchange.org/contribute/

References:

1. “The New Jim Crow,” article by Michelle Alexander in Mother Jones, 03-08-2010
http://act.colorofchange.org/go/279?akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=9

2. “Legal Scholar Michelle Alexander on ‘The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness’,” Democracy Now, 03-11-2010
http://act.colorofchange.org/go/283?akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=11

3. “Too Long Ignored,” The New York Times, 8-20-2010
http://act.colorofchange.org/go/598?akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=13

4. “Collateral Costs: Incarceration’s Effect on Economic Mobility,” Pew Charitable Trusts, 9-2010
http://act.colorofchange.org/go/603?akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=15

Additional resources:

“More than 1 in 100 U.S. adults are in prison,” New York Times, 2-29-2008
http://act.colorofchange.org/go/281?akid=1770.1018544.YBcv9Z&t=17

Barack Obama and Langston Hughes on “Grumblers” and “Merry Christmas” December 27, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Africa, Asia, Barack Obama, Cuba, Economic Crisis, Haiti, History, Iraq and Afghanistan, Race, War.
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Posted Wed, 12/23/2009 – 17:24 by Bruce A. Dixon

When US presidents offer us their holiday greeting messages, do we know what are they really saying?  How hard can it be to figure that out?  Langston Hughes died in 1967, but he knew what every US president, including Barack Obama is really saying, underneath and behind the mask.  

by BAR managing editor Bruce A. Dixon

In a recent interview with one of the few black reporters privileged to be part of the White House press corps, President Obama wasasked

April D. Ryan: Speaking of the African American community, this seems to be a shift in black leadership, as it relates to supporting you. You have the CBC that’s upset with you about targeting on the jobs front — African Americans, 15.6 percent unemployment rate, expected to go to 20 percent; mainstream America 10 percent. Then you have black actors who supported you — Danny Glover, who’s saying that you’ve not changed, your administration is the same as George W. Bush. What are your thoughts about the fact that black leadership is grumbling, and the fact that people are concerned with you being the first African American President, and they thought that there would be a little bit more compassion for black issues?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, April, I think you just engaged in a big generalization in terms of how you asked that question. If you want me to line up all the black actors, for example, who support me, and put them on one side of the room, and a couple who are grumbling on the other, I’m happy to have that.

I think if you look at the polling, in terms of the attitudes of the African American community, there’s overwhelming support for what we’ve tried to do. And, so, is there grumbling? Of course there’s grumbling,

Obama was referring to the relatively mild and tentative criticisms of the Congressional Black Caucus, along with other expressions of disappointment on the part of such activists as actor Danny Glover. The president can ignore, dismiss or disparage the divide between his policies and the opinions of the African American community which supported him. But it’s deep, it’s real, and it’s growing. It’s even historic.

Presidents have been issuing holiday greeting messages from their homes or cozy offices for a long time now, and Obama’s will be on line any minute now. Those interested can probably find it at JackandJillPolitics.com, at whitehouse.gov, and any number of other places. But the ironic 1930 Christmas message of Langston Hughes, the poet laureate of Black America sounds, with the most minor edits, like it could have come from the lips any US president of the past hundred years, including Barack Obama.

Sixty-nine years ago Langston Hughes began his holiday poem Merry Christmas with these lines

Merry Christmas China

From the gun-boats in the river

Ten inch shells for Christmas gifts

And peace on earth forever

At the moment, the U.S. was hip-deep in the Chinese civil war, bankrolling and advising a string of opium-soaked warlord armies against communists and agitators, and conducting naval operations in Chinese rivers and off its coasts. Today our first black president’s Pentagon, headed by the same team that ran George Bush’s Pentagon, sits atop some 800 overseas military bases in a hundred countries with more than 2 million uniformed personnel. Our president will spend more on this military machine than the all the rest of the planet combined, fighting and preparing to fight what the National Security Doctrine calls “multiple overlapping wars” to control resources in distant lands in the interest “free trade and free markets.”

Langston’s Christmas poem draws our attention to a part of the world much in today’s headlines.

Merry Christmas, India

To Gandhi in his cell

From righteous Christian England

Ring out bright Christmas bell

Under our first black president, Afghanistan and Pakistan are part of a vast law-free zone in which daily shellings and air raids go unreported and unremarked except by the families of victims. Assassinations and kidnappings to fill America’s world-wide network of secret prisons have replaced the open incarceration of real and suspected political foes. At least we knew Gandhi’s name, what he was charged with, where he was locked up, what his sentence was, whether he got a day in court and whether his keepers mistreated him. We can’t say that about hundreds or thousands of Obama’s prisoners.

Merry Christmas Africa

From Cairo to he Cape

Sing hallelujah, praise the Lord

For murder and for rape

Some things have changed very little indeed. The four part series “The Ravaging of Africa” to which a link appears in our left column, is a comprehensive indictment of US policy in Africa, which has caused the death of some 26 million Africans since the 1960s, including nearly ten million in Congo alone. America’s role as conscienceless predator was reaffirmed last week in Copenhagen, when the US categorically rejected the notion that it owed the rest of the world a debt for being the single major contributor to climate change over the last century and a half. Africans can drown or starve due to US -initiated climate change, but there will be no technology sharing, no reparations, nothing in the way of human solidarity between Africa and the West if the son of Africa in the White House has anything to say about it.

Langston Hughes draws our attention to the Caribbean, where the US has enforced its will at gunpoint for much of two centuries.

Ring Merry Christmas Haiti

And drown the voodoo drums

We’ll rob you to the Christmas hymns

Until the next Christ comes

Ring Merry Christmas Cuba

(Where Yankee domination

Keeps a nice fat president’s

in a little half-starved nation.)

In Cuba at least, Yankee domination is over. President Obama seems to resent this fact just as much as the last nine presidents, and continues to enforce a warlike economic blockade on Cuba.

And in Haiti, after more than a dozen US invasions and occupations, the US engineered the kidnapping of that country’s elected president, whom Obama will not even allow back in the Western hemisphere. In the name of international cooperation, the US pays for a multinational occupation force from Brazil and other countries to hunt down and kill members of Haiti’s Lavalas party, freeing US Marines for duty elsewhere.

Under the rules, Haiti is to be kept starving and terrorized, prevented by law from feeding or funding itself, owning its own infrastructure or employing its own people. Some things don’t change much.

The Christmas message of Langston Hughes doesn’t forget about domestic affairs either.

And to you down and outers

(“Due to economic laws”)

Oh, eat, drink, be merry

With a breadline Santa Claus–

Jobless levels are the highest they’ve been anywhere since the Great Depression, when Hughes penned his Christmas greeting. But now, just as in 1930, we have a president with an unshakable belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats,” a saying popularized by John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan. In this time of economic crisis, President Obama has transferred more wealth to Wall Street from the real economy than all his predecessors combined.

But hard-pressed homeowners and those with heavy debts due to unpayable medical bills remain underwater. Their bailout isn’t coming. The only ones, apart from Wall Street who’ll get anything under an Obama administration will be the military.

President Obama began this December with a belligerent address that used the cadets at West Point as human stage props. At mid-month he went to Copenhagen to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, and offer another bald-faced set of excuses for wars, kidnappings, secret prisons and the whole panoply of empire. He or his vice president may end it treating us to a Christmas or New Year’s message posing with the troops in occupied Iraq or Afghanistan. The more some things change, the more they stay the same.

We don’t know exactly what Obama will say in his holiday message. But Langston Hughes knew seventy years ago what he will mean.

While all the world hails Christmas

While all the church bells sway

While better still the Christian guns

Proclaim this joyous day

While holy steel that makes us strong

Spits forth a mighty yuletide song

SHOOT Merry Christmas everywhere

Let Merry Christmas GAS the air.

Presidents can always find sycophants, yes-men or yes-women eager to agree to whatever they say, often before they can even say it. All that comes with the job, along with Air Force One and that song they play every time he enters a crowded room. But the the truth is always true, no matter how hotly or how many the deniers, and most of Black America is not in denial on war, peace, mass incarceration or poverty.  The heroes, and the just plain honest will always be those who speak the truth to power.

Langston has been gone from us a long time now. We’ll never know what he might say to a son of Africa in the White House, married to a girl from the south side of Chicago. But nobody on either side of the grave speaks more directly to what our first black president has become than Langston Hughes did seven decades ago. Barack Obama is in power. He can ignore, disparage or dismiss the truth. But it’s still true.  And most of us know it.

We wish the president and first family, along with all our readers and friends around the world a joyous and fulfilling holiday.

Bruce A. Dixon is managing editor at Black Agenda Report, and based in Atlanta. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport. Langston Hughes is the poet laureate of Black America and can be reached at public libraries, and at independent and other bookstores everywhere.

The Grinning Skull: The Homicides You Didn’t Hear About in Hurricane Katrina December 23, 2008

Posted by rogerhollander in Criminal Justice, George W. Bush, Human Rights.
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katrina-shooting-victimDonnell Herrington was shot twice by vigilantes after Hurricane Katrina in Algiers Point, a mostly black community across the river from New Orleans. (Photo: Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun / The Nation)

www.truthout.org

21 December 2008

by: Rebecca Solnit, TomDispatch.com

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.

  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

 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.

    ——–

    Rebecca Solnit’s book about disaster and civil society, “A Paradise Built in Hell,” will be out in time for Katrina’s fourth anniversary. It includes a much more extensive report on the crimes of Katrina, as well as the achievements of civil society in that disaster and others. To listen to a TomDispatch audio interview in which Solnit discusses how the importance of the story of the New Orleans killings dawned on her, click here.

    [People with information on murders in New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina are encouraged to write to Thompson and Solnit at justiceinorleans@gmail.com. Anonymity will be protected.]